In early December 1997 I had the opportunity to attend a Chaplain's tour to
Jerusalem. The fact that this tour was made possible is a credit to the hard work of
the MFO (Multi-National Force and Observers) chaplains and other persons in the command
structure. Apparently a previous tour group made arrangements to stay at a hostel in
Jerusalem. After the group arrived a few of them got drunk and then broke
curfew. When they returned, they defiled the hostel and city of Jerusalem made it
very clear that American soldiers were not welcome back - possibly ever. These
events soured our tour as a consequence.
Because we were not allowed to stay in the city of Jerusalem, we had to make
arrangements in Nazareth. The result of this was a long bus ride to and from
Jerusalem every day and limited time to see the city. Our chaplain did a great job
under the circumstances, but we never had time to linger. It felt like we were
running the entire week just to see it all. The tour was such a blur that I no
longer remember most of it. In fact, we never even toured Nazareth. All we did
was pitch camp there.
Our group rode a bus from South Camp to Nazareth. It was a very long ride.
We stopped at the Dead Sea long enough for everyone to test the water, but the water
was too cold for anyone to brave going in. The Sea water has a soapy feel to it due
to the high mineral concentration. The mud from the Dead Sea is supposed to have
cosmetic qualities and is sold throughout the area. While we were in this region the
chaplain pointed out caves in the area where some of the Dead Sea scrolls were found.
Another interesting part of the trip were the truck stops in Israel. Some of
these stops have zoos in addition to gas pumps. I am not sure what the connection is
between gasoline and wild animals, but here you could fill up and get a bite to eat while
watching a white tiger lay on a rock in a cage that was more than big enough for him to
turn around in. Of course these stops also offered camel rides for those who wanted
to have a photo to take home.
In Jerusalem we visited almost every cathedral as well as a few mosques.
The artwork inside these was even more beautiful than expected. We also visited a
handful of places where Jesus may have been crucified. Some of the sites seemed
likely. I suspect at least a few of the spots are contrived for political or
commercial reasons in spite of the improbability that theirs was the actual site. In
any case, if no one has figured this out yet, they probably never will be. The fact
that Jesus was crucified is significant. Where it happened probably does not matter
except to those who want a good location to sell souvenirs.
I was really unimpressed by the large number of stands all over the city that sell
cheap trinkets. Each merchant claimed their goods were authentic this or that, but
most of it was plastic made in Taiwan. I wanted to purchase a nice bible for my
mother in Jerusalem. The only ones I found were cheap and had leather or wood covers
poorly glued over the existing cover. I personally think this is disgraceful.
But it is their city and if that is how they want it to be, so be it. At one point a
shop owner came out of his store and started yelling at our group because we passed his
store without buying anything from him. I guess he took that personally.
chaplain was already stressed out and for a moment I thought he was going to pound the
daylights out of this guy. But he remained professional and we kept going.
However, if you are ever in Jerusalem and you see an angry and frustrated shop owner
wearing coke-bottle glasses and about 6'2" tall, be sure to purchase an authentic
"My dad visited Jerusalem and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Please
do not offend the Holy Lands like we did.
I caused my own share of problems, however. The chaplain found me to be
sticky thorn for a good part of the tour. While he was working hard to keep the
group moving together, I always lingered behind to get a photo after everyone moved
out. Eventually we came to an understanding; I got my photos and he stopped sending
people to track me down.
In spite of our setbacks, I am glad I went. There is so much to see and learn
about in this ancient city. I really regret that I do not remember more about what I
saw. So my advice is if you travel, do not try to see everything. Pick a spot
and learn as much as you can about it. I do not just want to be able to say I have been
there. I want to know what it is about as well.