The answer to the first question is that the experience was more interesting, more inspiring, more exciting than we had ever expected--and we went with pretty high expectations. What was so wonderful? Let me see if I can explain.
We tell our children Bible stories: David and Goliath, the birth of Christ, Christ's healings and miracles. Later, as adults, we discuss those same events and draw deeper faith from them. But to a large degree, they continue to feel like stories: distant people and places in ancient days.
Standing on a fishing boat, looking out across the Sea of Galilee and gazing on the hills and towns where Jesus taught the people, everything seems different. These are real places. You watch the waves and imagine Jesus walking toward the boat and Peter venturing out to meet Him. You picture the fishermen who became disciples, toiling on a boat much like the one you're sailing in. And when you sing, "Master, the Tempest is Raging," you envision Christ rising up to rebuke the elements. Those stories seem to take on flesh, and the power of familiar Bible events sinks deeper into your emotions.
Becoming Part of a Bible Story
The most difficult part about a visit to Israel is that many sites are described as the "traditional" places where certain events might have taken place. That is to say, word of mouth has suggested, over the centuries, that a Bible event happened there. Sometimes, traced to the origins, the evidence doesn't hold up very well. In many cases, the approximate site is easily located, but no one knows the precise location. Often, too, churches or mosques or shrines have been constructed on the sites. These are well-meaning attempts to honor sacred places, but often the sense, even the spirit, of the original site seems lost.
But in the long run, it doesn't matter. The Garden of Gethsemane may have been a short distance away from the traditional site, but the Mount of Olives was always the Mount of Olives, and to sit in a garden by ancient, gnarled olive trees and think of what happened very near--if not exactly on that spot--is not only moving but life changing. You feel as though you can see the Lord falling on his face and crying out to his Father, as you've imagined it before, but this time you have a context: an actual place to envision. With that kind of engagement of all the senses, you feel a deeper connection to Christ's ascendant pain and ultimate sacrifice.
At the top of the Mount of Olives--or from the LDS Jerusalem Center on nearby Mount Scopus--the entire old city of Jerusalem lies before you: Kidron Valley, which divides the Mount of Olives from the Temple Mount; the walls that surround the Temple Mount; the sealed up Golden (or Beautiful) Gate, which Christ will enter; the House of Caiaphus, to the south, where Christ was held for the first of his trials; Golgotha, to the north, outside the temple walls. The whole story of Christ's crucifixion falls into place as you visualize, chronologically, the events of Christ's final night and morning. For the first time it strikes you how many arduous miles He walked during those final hours of His life, from the time of His arrest until His crucifixion.
Some may not like learning that there are at least two theories about the place of the crucifixion. Is the "traditional" Garden tomb really the tomb where Christ was laid? The evidence seems strong. But it isn't terribly important. What's profound is to see the old city, the wall, the probable "place of the skull," and know that as you walk the streets of Jerusalem, you really are walking where Jesus walked. And if the tomb is not the one where Christ lay, and from which He rose, it is one very like the one used for Christ's burial. When you walk inside and see the resting place carved in the rock, the idea of the resurrection takes on tangible form.
There are certain experiences in Israel that I will never forget, but my favorite is the moment our bus emerged from a long tunnel and everyone in our tour group--at the same moment--spotted the Dome of the Rock. We were suddenly looking at Jerusalem, the old city, and our tour guide had started music on the speaker system. We hadn't paid attention to the music until we broke from the tunnel, and with exact timing, a choir began to sing, "Jerusalem! Jerusalem!"
We all began to sing, joining the choir, and the good brother across the aisle from me, in a booming, rich bass, belted out the chorus. I wasn't prepared for how I would feel, and I'm not sure I can explain it now, but tears ran down my face as we sang. Tears ran down many faces. We had come to visit the holy city of Jerusalem, and in an instant, it lay before us. I had seen pictures and knew what to look for, but I hadn't known it would feel like home, feel like the gathering place it is.
There were lots of great moments--experiences you can have if you make the visit. I would suggest, however, that unless you're an expert on Bible history, or willing to put in a year or two of preparation, you should probably go with a tour. The Israeli guide we traveled with, Asher, was remarkably knowledgeable about the history of Israel, but also about the Old and New Testament. He even knew enough about the Book of Mormon to make accurate connections to ancient Bible events.
It's good to have an LDS guide as well, who can bring a familiar perspective to the history, someone who can help the group share the spirit in those stories. It's also comforting to travel with someone who knows the locations and best travel routes, who knows what time of day works best for different visits, and who can work out all the details of travel, lunches, and lodging. We stayed in only three hotels, and from those central locations, traveled easily to nearly forty sites. It would be almost impossible, on a first visit, to work out all those details, learn enough information, and coordinate the travel schedule.
Various tours visit most of the same sites. Some do add a few days in order to travel to Egypt, but within Israel, a tour of about a week, with a day on the front and end to fly, will take a person to all the most important sites, and a knowledgeable guide can make those places come to life in a fairly short visit. Having said that, if you like to sleep in and then take your time wandering through locations, that could be a reason to travel on your own. We found ourselves putting in long, full days, and while a great deal of walking is not necessary at many of the sties, others gave us all the exercise we wanted.
What to See
Most of the tours start out in Tel Aviv, where the main international airport in Israel is located. It's probably not important to stay in Tel Aviv very long, but you shouldn't miss ancient Jaffa (or Joppa), the port of entry for the Cedars of Lebanon. These timbers were shipped in for the building of Solomon's temple and again for Herod's later reconstruction. This was also the exit port for Jonah. In the old village, Peter healed Tabitha. He stayed with Simon, a tanner, and upon his rooftop beheld a vision of "unclean" animals. The Lord told Peter not to call unclean what was purified by God, and the vision signaled a beginning; the apostles would, from that point on, preach to "all the world." Jaffa, then, was a starting place of great significance, and symbolically a great starting place for a tour.
Tours usually head north after that, as we did, through the Jezreel Valley and on to Galilee. Other tours may go east to Jerusalem and then north to Galilee. It doesn't matter. Almost all the important sites are near those two places, and a hotel stay in each can put you close enough to the locations you'll want to visit. A traveler soon realizes that Israel is actually a very small country, and the grand history contained in the Bible occurred in an area that is a distance shorter than two hundred miles, north to south, and shorter than fifty miles, east to west.
We stayed in Tel Aviv only one night, saw Jaffa, and then departed the next morning to Caesarea, a fascinating Roman ruin. It's one of the cities that Herod the Great built. It was here that Paul appeared before King Agrippa and defended himself. You'll walk along the Mediterranean shore, see a well-preserved Roman amphitheater and the remains of a great fortress.
We traveled from there to Mount Carmel, where the Prophet Elijah contested with the Priests of Baal and called down fire from the heaven. In this case, the top of the mountain (western Americans would call it a hill) is the site of a monastery with a garden area nearby. It's a peaceful place where you can contemplate the dramatic events that occurred there.
At Megiddo, you visit another Roman ruin, but you also look out upon the Jezreel Valley, one of the greenest areas in Israel, and there you review a history of multiple wars fought where crops now grow. More importantly, you are looking at the "winding up" place, where the battle of Armageddon will begin.
We continued from Megiddo toward Galilee and stopped in Nazareth. It's an Arab city of considerable size now--not the small village you might expect. The old section is a neighborhood of the modern city, and there's not much there that signals the importance of the place to Christians. But within a commemorative church is a dwelling that is thought to be Mary's house--the place where she received the annunciation. Whether it's actually her house or not, it is the kind she would have lived in, and it's interesting to see what a different place a "house" was at the time. Near Nazareth is also Cana, the town where Jesus joined his mother at a wedding feast and performed his first miracle, changing water to wine.
That night we stayed in a hotel near Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We ate a good dinner in a nice hotel. The meal was served buffet style so we could sample lots of Israeli delicacies. Salads were served with every meal, including breakfast, and lots of good fruits were combined with fish and other meats. After dinner, some of us walked down to the shore. Arab families on vacation were fishing with pita bread inside a little net they cast with a fishing rod. Boys were catching fish, and though they spoke no English, they were glad to meet Americans, and we did lots of communicating with smiles and gestures.
The following day we visited Mount Tabor, the possible site of Christ's transfiguration. Some argue that Mount Hermon is the actual location, but President Kimball, in visiting Mount Tabor, said that he "felt sure" this was the place. We all felt the sense that we were visiting a sacred area where one of the holiest events of all history had occurred. We also visited En Herod Springs, where Gideon asked his followers to drink as he watched to see whether they lapped like dogs or only knelt and kept an eye out for danger. He then, according to the Lord's command, trimmed his forces to three hundred so the enemy would know that God fought with him.
Next we visited Bet She'an, a place I had never heard of until I prepared for the trip, but it's one of the most remarkable Roman ruins anywhere (and the place where Saul's head was displayed after his death). We walked down ancient streets, saw examples of exquisite rockwork, and sat in a three-thousand-year-old theater. Then, at the end of the day, we continued on around the Sea of Galilee, which we had watched out the bus window all day, and we visited the gentle river called Jordan. Jesus was probably baptized farther south, closer to Jericho, but it was still an emotional experience to envision Christ coming to this lowest of all rivers, which descends deeper below sea level as it flows toward the Dead Sea. We discussed John the Baptist greeting Him, then immersing Him, "to fulfill all righteousness."
Sabbath in Israel
The next morning was Saturday, and it has been the practice of Latter-day Saints in Israel to honor the Jewish Sabbath. We sailed across the Sea of Galilee that morning to Tabgha, where Christ fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. We then held a fast and testimony meeting on the Mount of Beatitudes, the most likely site for the Sermon on the Mount. We partook of the sacrament and testified to each other of our belief in Christ. I believe for most of us it was the most spiritual hour of the trip. It was easy to picture Christ preaching in these hills and following the paths from village to village, performing miracles, healing the sick, and preaching the gospel.
After, we traveled the very short distance to Capernaum, Christ's "second home," and the place where so many New Testament events took place, including the conversion of his fishermen disciples after his invitation, "Follow me." The town's ruins include a synagogue where Jesus preached, near the ruins of the home thought to be Peter's.
From Galilee we headed south, down along the Jordan, passing Jericho. Jericho is an Arab city, difficult to visit now, with little sign of its ancient heritage evident. Some stop to visit there, but most do not. We continued on to the Dead Sea and took the tram to the top of the ancient fortress of Masada. It was there that Jewish zealots held out against a Roman legion and then took their own lives rather than face destruction. Today it is the site where many Israeli fighting units swear their oath of allegiance and vow that "Masada shall never fall again."
That afternoon we swam in the Dead Sea, or rather, bobbed about, floating more easily than in the Great Salt Lake, and we visited the site where we could see the famous Qumron cave, where the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. That evening we reached Jerusalem.
The Old City of Jerusalem is filled with experiences. We started early the next morning by visiting the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. It is believed to be the only remnant of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and the place where the Jewish people mourned its destruction. We had to pass through a security gate, but once we did, we--or at least the men in our group--were able to walk to the wall, stand among those praying, see the prayer notes stuck into all the crevices. It is only a retaining wall, but it's one of the holiest places left on earth for Jews, and it was touching to see them bowing and praying, dressed in prayer shawls.
We visited, then, the Temple Mount and saw the Dome of the Rock--one of the best-known landmarks in Jerusalem and a site holy to both Jews and Muslims alike. The rock that lies beneath the gleaming dome is believed by Muslims to be the spot from which Muhammad ascended into heaven and received the Islamic prayers. In Judaism, it is the site where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed and the rock that rested inside the Holy of Holies of Solomon's temple where the Ark of the Covenant was placed.
We saw the Pools of Bethesda and Antonio's Fort, where Pontius Pilate often stayed in Jerusalem, and where he held his "trial" of Christ. We followed the Via Dolorosa--the path Christ might have taken when carrying his cross. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the sites considered by some to be Christ's burial place, and after that, the traditional "upper room," where Christ shared His last supper with his apostles. It was a long, hard day--and for us, a very hot one--but throughout the day we knew that we were walking the streets where so many great Bible figures walked, and above all, visiting places where we knew Christ Himself had been.
Some people had told us that we wouldn't be able to visit Bethlehem, but that was not the case. It's an Arab city and extra security exists there, but that only required a change of buses and a switch to local guides. We were able to visit the shepherds' fields, and a typical sheepfold, and then to visit the Church of the Nativity--the church that celebrates Jesus' birth. Perhaps no site in Israel is so ornamented, and the simple idea of the nativity feels lost, but we learned interesting details about the likely conditions of the birth, many of which didn't match the typical portrayals we have come to associate with Christmas.
We returned to the fascinating Israel Museum, and then to the Shrine of the Book, a museum that displays fragments and facsimiles of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We spent the next day in Jerusalem again. We visited the House of Caiaphas, and saw the tomb where Christ was held part of His last night, and then we crossed to the Mount of Olives where we spent time contemplating the events that took place in the Garden of Gethsemane. As we often did along the way, we sang hymns; in this case, it was, "I Believe in Christ." At the BYU Jerusalem Center, we heard a beautiful organ concert and listened to a young man from our group who was challenged by cerebral palsy. He bore testimony of the resurrection and told us how much he looked forward to the day when our bodies would work "the way they're supposed to." It was another one of those moments no one in our tour will ever forget. Fittingly, we then visited the Garden Tomb and had time to share testimonies again.
Before heading for Tel Aviv and our return trip home, we had a free day to wander in the Old City, to shop, and for some of us, to walk the city walls. I haven't said anything about shopping until now, but we did plenty all along the way. Olivewood, of course, is the big item people buy--olivewood nativities are especially nice--but Israel is also a great place for purchasing diamonds, and, of course, there are plenty souvenirs of various kinds. Our favorite purchase was a tall olivewood statue of Mary and Joseph holding Jesus.
But Is It Dangerous?
Soon after we came home, war broke out in Israel (the July 2006 conflict with Hezbollah). Since then, things have calmed again. Troubles certainly come and go in Israel, and I don't blame people for wondering whether they ought to visit. I can only say that we felt safe every minute of every day. We didn't have a single experience that felt threatening. It may also be helpful to know that BYU resumed student programs on a limited basis at its Jerusalem center the 2006 fall semester.
In the Old City we walked among Orthodox Jews in black suits and Palestinians in their traditional dress. They seemed to live comfortably alongside one another. There are armed Israeli soldiers posted throughout the Old City, which can be shocking at first, but soon you come to accept them as part of the Jerusalem experience. My own thought is that danger exists in every city in the world, but if I had let the idea of danger in Israel keep me from going, I wouldn't have experienced what I did. Bombings in Jerusalem have stopped, and now that the open warfare seems ended, I would personally not fear to go back.
When I read the Bible now, I visualize individual sites and I see the lay of the land, the proximity of one place to another. For me, that makes a great difference. President Kimball once said that it's not necessary to visit the Holy Land to gain a testimony of Jesus, but anyone who can go, should. I would agree. The experience really does change a person's life.
Dean Hughes has published more than ninety books for readers of all ages, including the Children of the Promise series, Search and Destroy, Saboteur: A Novel of Love and War, and the Hearts of the Children series. He and his wife, Kathleen Hurst Hughes, have three children and live in Midway, Utah.