When I vacation, I usually pack a bikini, sunscreen, dresses and sandals. On my recent trip to Israel, the contents of my bag were very different. Having grown up in a Baptist church in Texas and continuing my spiritual growth as an adult, I was more excited about this trip than a sun, sea and sand destination in the Caribbean. This trip was about exploring the Holy Land and Jerusalem’s most sacred sites.
My journey began in the Christian quarter at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the area where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. As soon as I entered, I saw a few people kneeling and praying over a slab of reddish stone with eight lamps hanging above. The site was the Stone of the Anointing, believed to be the place where the body of Jesus lay in preparation for burial after he was removed from the cross. Moving closer, I saw people rubbing personal items on the stone as they asked for blessings. Realizing this tradition was second nature to many visitors, I didn’t ask any questions; I joined them.
I walked to the middle of the church to the House of the Tomb, the area believed to be where Jesus was buried and arose from the dead three days later. After waiting 20 minutes to enter a small stone chamber to see the tomb of Jesus, I had approximately 15 seconds to view it, take pictures and reflect. The orthodox priest in charge of the tomb brusquely rushed my experience and left me with no time to ruminate on how incredible it was that I just witnessed the tomb of Jesus Christ.
Next, I saw the Chapel of the Crucifixion, a shrine dedicated to the place where Jesus was crucified. As I approached, I saw visitors kneeling under the altar and sticking their hands into an opening in the ground. They were touching the rock of calvary, believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified. I, too, stuck my hand inside and felt the smooth calvary limestone revered among Christian visitors.
I later traveled down Via Dolorosa (which means “the Way of Suffering”). This sandy limestone cobble street is where Jesus was lead in agony carrying the cross to his crucifixion. This circuitous route includes 14 stations of the cross where significant events took place, including where Jesus sees his mother, falls, was nailed to the cross, etc.
My next stop was in the Jewish quarter at the Western Wall, the most sacred and holy site in the Jewish world. This wall supported the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great in 20 B.C. It’s believed that God’s presence never departed from the wall, which is why Jews and other visitors voyage from all over the world for their prayers to be answered directly by God.
The wall is divided by a partition where the men pray on the left side and the women on the right. I followed the tradition of writing a prayer note to insert into a crack in the wall, but when I approached the wall and grasped the enormous size of the stones, I had trouble finding a place to insert it. When I finally found a spot, I shoved my note deep in a crevice by twisting and reinforcing it with my fingernails to ensure it would not to fall out. Though I didn’t speak to anyone, I immediately felt a bond with the Jewish women at the wall—as we happened to be there for the same purpose at the same time, in the presence of God.
My next stop in Jerusalem was the tomb of King David on Mount Zion, one of the holiest sites for Jews. Upon entering the room, located in an old church, I was instructed to stay on my side of the partition that separated the men from women. There were no women and nothing to see on the women’s side, so I peeked to see the men’s side. There were orthodox Jewish men praying, loudly reciting verses in Hebrew as they paid tribute to a casket-like structure covered in a blue velvet embroidered cloth protected by plastic. This, I presumed, was the tomb of King David. I was glad I peeked.
I finally went up to the Mount of Olives, which has breathtaking, iconic views of Jerusalem. According to the New Testament, it was here Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, prayed before the night of his crucifixion and ascended to Heaven. From the Mount of Olives, you can see the symbols of the three religions that paint Israel’s historic picture, including the Temple Mount, the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
As a place of significance among Christians, the Mount of Olives was the highlight of my time in Jerusalem. It was there I was able to reflect on my experience by understanding the immensity of various biblical stories and archeological sites where significant events took place. Partaking in this spiritual journey definitely made me more excited about history, the Bible and Israel.
Teri Johnson is the co-creator and host of Travelista TV, an online video channel and blog focused on culture, lifestyle and adventure around the world. Follow her on Twitter @TravelistaTV and @TravelistaTeri, and on Facebook.