The Best-Kept Secret in Galilee

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I’m a wide-open spaces kind of girl. I love living ten minutes from the heart of our big city and I love all that it has to offer, but sometimes I need the restorative peace that I feel in a quiet, outdoor place where few other people tread.

Our time in the Holy Land was no different. After our 31-hour travel ordeal and two days running around Jerusalem at breakneck speed trying to see everything, we were tired and needing a breath of fresh air. What to do? Why, run away to Galilee, of course!

We revisited all my favorite spots and hit the Galilee highlights: Capernaum and the white synangogue, Tabgha, the Mount of Beatitudes, Tiberias. And best of all, we discovered a new place that we love, recommended to us by our dear friends who gave us lodging on our trip. Now that I’ve experienced how enchanting this place is, I can’t believe that 1) this place only has a stub of a wikipedia page, 2) most visitors to Galilee never even go there, and 3) I lived four months in the Holy Land without ever finding out about this gem.

So the word’s not out yet, but shhh! I’m about to tell you, if you can keep a secret. It’s the Greek Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles in Kfar Nahum, or Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

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I can’t even tell you how enamored I am with this place. I fall hard for churches, but this one swept me off my feet before I even knew what hit me. (If you go, please leave a small donation of at least a few shekels, because one wing of the church is undergoing costly renovations right now.)

The grounds were unrivaled in terms of how well-kempt and beautiful they were. Orchards of citrus trees, rows of stately cypress trees, and walks covered in grape arbors surrounded the church. The hedges and the stone walls around the grounds hung thick with honeysuckle and fuchsia bougainvillea flowers. From the moment we crossed the threshold of the gate, we were bewitched. We were greeted by the most sumptuous citrus aroma I have ever smelled. And by several strutting peacocks.

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I didn’t think it possible that the inside of the church could surpass the outside in loveliness, but it did. When we crossed the threshold of the church I audibly gasped because what I saw was so beautiful—resplendent ornamentation and chandeliers, and the most stunning iconography I have ever seen.

Don't you love this icon of the paralytic man being lowered into the house where Jesus will heal him? I do.

I’m so sorry that this shot is a little blurry! But don’t you love this icon of the paralytic man being lowered into the house where Jesus will heal him? I do.

The faithful being gathered into Abraham's bosom; note the name Abraham displayed in Greek.

The faithful being gathered into Abraham’s bosom; note the name Abraham displayed in Greek.

Remember after the Lord's crucifixion and resurrection when he gave Peter the injunction to feed his sheep? According to tradition, that occurred on the northwestern shore of the sea, not far from here, so this icon commemorates that event. Do you see the disciples pulling their catch into the boat? And see how Peter has jumped overboard and is swimming to the shore, where the Lord is waiting with the fire on which he will cook their breakfast?

Remember after the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection when he gave Peter the injunction to feed his sheep? According to tradition, that occurred on the northwestern shore of the sea, not far from here, so this icon commemorates that event. Do you see the disciples pulling their catch into the boat? And see how Peter has jumped overboard and is swimming to the shore, where the Lord is waiting with the fire on which he will cook their breakfast?

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All around the church’s domed ceiling appeared icons of the twelve apostles and portraits of the faces of the seventy apostles, as they are called in Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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The information posted in the church told us this about its history:

“On the shore of the Sea of Galilee there is a Greek Orthodox monastery with a beautiful church in honor of the 12 Apostles…It is here that our Lord Jesus Christ chose and called forth His Apostles, here He preached and performed miracles, such as the healing of the paralytic, the mother-in-law of the apostle Peter, the servant of the centurion and many others. Here in the times of Christ was the city of Capernaum.

“In the IV century AD many monasteries and churches were built in the places where our Lord lived, taught, and performed miracles. By the V century the Christian community of Capernaum had grown very big. However, in the first half of the VIII century the flourishing city of Capernaum was completely destroyed by an earthquake.

“Archaeological excavations on the city’s site show that there was a large orthodox monastery here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the end of the XIX century the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem purchased a plot of land on the ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum and began to construct a monastery. In 1925…the Church of the Twelve Apostles was built. Services were held in the church until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. According to the U.N. convention and the new borders, the monastery turned out to be on no man’s land. Therefore, there was no more access to the monastery for local Christians or pilgrims and the monastery fell into decay. In 1969, two years after the Six Day War, the Israeli army returned the monastery to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. With the grace of God, despite the fact that it is fairly isolated, the monastery began to return to life.”

After partaking of the iconography within the church, we spent some time picnicking on the grounds, and walking along the shore.

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We picnicked in this lovely spot on the church grounds. See that gate? Behind it are steps that lead down into the water!

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I delighted in the beauty of this site, and reveled in the profound peace and stillness I felt there. The Church of the Twelve Apostles is unlike anywhere else in the Holy Land, and for me it will always be a sacred place.

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Making Hajj to Haram-Al-Sharif

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Haram Al-Sharif, or Haram Esh-Sharif, means “noble sanctuary” in Arabic. It couldn’t be more appropriately named; the disparity between the Temple Mount’s serene grandeur and the cacophonous crowded streets below couldn’t be more marked. When you ascend to the Temple Mount, you ascend to a world apart.

Home to the iconic Dome of the Rock, often referred to simply as “the Mosque,” this has always been one of my favorite places in the Holy City.

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A Muslim guide, a Jerusalem native, approached us and offered to show us around, and we took him up on his offer. His knowledge of the history of Haram-Al-Sharif, and Jerusalem in general, was impressive. He walked us around the entire Temple Mount, structure by structure, relating little-known facts about their significance and history, such as these:

  • The arches on the exterior of the Mosque total fifty-two, for fifty-two weeks in the year.
  • The exterior of the dome of the Mosque was previously lead, then bronze-aluminum alloy added in the 1960s; finally its current gleaming gold coating was furbished by King Hussein of Jordan in 1993.
  • During the second World War Mussolini sent the fine quality white carrara marble that was made into the columns  of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock’s companion on the Temple Mount, only a stone’s throw away).

Many more things we learned from our guide in the half hour he walked with us—including the architecture lesson he gave us, pointing out different minarets on the Jerusalem skyline and teaching us how to distinguish the ones built by the Ottomans from those of Mamluk make.

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But the most meaningful thing I learned from him had to do with the pillars of Islam, specifically that of Hajj, the mandate to make pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life. “When you go to Mecca, millions of other people are there,” he explained. “You feel very small, helpless, and insignificant, just like you will feel before Allah on the day of judgment, when you stand before him naked with your sins. So you go to make Hajj, and you truly feel how you will feel on judgment day, and you come back knowing what kind of person you want to be, how you want to change your life.”

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know how much I cherish the idea of  pilgrimage–going to a holy place or making a sacred journey to come into contact with the divine. I love how beautifully our Temple Mount guide articulated why one should make pilgrimage, and what can be gained from it—how you can be transformed by going to a place as holy and ancient as Haram-Al-Sharif and feeling how tiny and young you are on this earth.

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Chag Purim Sameach!

Happy Purim, everyone! Purim is one of my very favorite Jewish holidays for the following reasons:

1. It memorializes the beautiful queen Esther whose bravery saved her people, and it commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from death and their victory over the jealous Haman. Esther’s story has always been one of the most beloved to me.

2. Everybody gets dressed up in costumes for Purim!

Two boys in costume, one dressed as Ironman and the other as an army soldier, walk down a street of Mahane Yehuda, the Jewish Market. Every year Purim costumes become a little more Americanized.

Two boys in costume, one dressed as Ironman and the other as an army soldier, walk down a street of Mahane Yehuda, the Jewish Market. Every year Purim costumes become a little more Americanized. Mark took this photo.

The Book of Esther tells us that after the Jews were spared from death and their would-be exterminator Haman was slain, they instituted a holiday on the 13th and 14th days of the month of Adar (Purim is celebrated one day later, on the 14th and 15th, in walled cities such as Jerusalem). The first day of the holiday is observed as the fast of Esther to remember when Esther and all her people fasted before she dared come before the King Ahaseurus and make her request to him. The next day is the celebration of the Jews’ deliverance.

When is the month of Adar, exactly? The Jewish calendar is lunar and lasts 354 days; in a normal non-leap year there are twelve months of 29 or 30 days. This means that Adar and Purim always fall in February or March. Because of the deliverance of the Jews from Haman, Adar is considered the happiest month of the Jewish calendar. Thus every leap year, when an extra month is added to the calendar, there is a second month of Adar.

While accepted as scripture by Jews and Christians alike, the Book of Esther does not actually mention God’s name—not even once. But his hand can be seen in the story of the deliverance of Esther and her people and so it is said that he is “disguised” in the story. For that reason, many Jews celebrate Purim by donning disguises; instead of the usual somber black apparel, you can walk down the streets of West Jerusalem and see young people wearing Halloween-like costumes (and showing more skin than I’ve ever seen in the Holy Land).

Purim tradition also includes attending synagogue to hear the reading of the scroll of Esther (the Megillah). Every time Haman’s name is read, everyone boos or shakes noisemakers to drown out the sound of Haman’s name. Another traditional Purim observance is drinking wine until you are so inebriated that can no longer distinguish between the phrases “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed is Haman” (yes, really!). After all, if it were not for the banquet and the wine that Esther prepared for Haman and the king, the Jews would not have been saved!

Mark and I loved spotting and snapping photos of everyone in their Purim costumes! Purim may well be the most lighthearted of all Jewish holidays. Chag sameach!

 

Israeli youth sport their none-too-conservative Purim costumes while a man and an Orthodox boy hurry past on a street in Mahane Yehuda.

Israeli youth sport their none-too-conservative Purim costumes while a man and an Orthodox boy hurry past on a street in Mahane Yehuda.

Back to the Holy Land!

Once upon a time when I was nineteen, I lived in Jerusalem for four months. (You can read all about it in my posts from January through April of 2008.)

Tomorrow I’m leaving on a jet plane to go back! With my husband!

Here’s how it all happened.

When I was twenty-one I decided to serve a mission, and I received my mission call to go to Córdoba, Argentina for a year and a half. My friend Jana said, “My friend Mark served in that mission too–you should meet him and he can tell you all about Argentina and answer your questions about the mission.”

The night Mark and I met, I asked him questions about Argentina and as we conversed it came up that I had lived in the Holy Land. “That’s amazing!” Mark said, “I’ve always wanted to do that! In fact, I’m planning a trip there this summer!” We hung out a few more times before I left, and exchanged stories about life in the Middle East and life in Argentina. I left on my mission, but we continued to correspond in letters and emails. “We’ll have to plan another Jerusalem-Argentina photo exchange when you get back,” read one of Mark’s first letters to me.

Over a year and a half, mine and Mark’s casual correspondence became a close friendship and then steadily and sneakily turned into something more. We had never so much as held hands before my mission, but we both sensed that in the future we would be walking the same path.

I knew that Mark’s planned trip to Israel was imminent, but then I received a letter telling me that he had decided to cancel it last minute “to save money for pharmacy school.” Later I would learn that he canceled his trip because he “just had a feeling” that we would get married and that he would need that money to help get us on our feet as we started our new life together.

Well, he was right! We did get married. (And he was right that we would need some extra cash, too! Weddings and house remodels are anything but cheap.) Our life together has always been full of adventures: frequent road trips to California to visit Mark’s family, camping and hiking in Zion National Park and Goblin Valley; a crazy motorcycle road trip to Moab. I guess I’m pretty spoiled; Mark’s such an intrepid spirit that he always has some little adventure up his sleeve.

But even so, I’ve always felt twinges of regret that Mark gave up his Jerusalem trip for me–for us. I’ve always yearned for the chance to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land together. So we started a Sky Miles credit card and put many of our house-remodel expenses on it. But between pharmacy school, expensive graduate tuition, and all the renovations on our little fixer-upper house, Jerusalem did not seem to be on the horizon any time soon. I resigned myself to the fact that we’d just have to go “someday when we’re done with pharmacy school.”

Then one day last fall I had a conversation with my mom and my brother that changed everything. We were having a circle of intentions, sharing with one another the goals and desires nearest and dearest to our hearts. Faith or prayer or intending or envisioning or goal-setting–call it what you will, but there is great power in having the courage to speak aloud your wildly impossible dream, the one that’s so dear to your heart but also so crazy that you haven’t even been brave enough to tell anyone about it. That’s what I did in that conversation with my mom and my brother. I expressed aloud my intention that Mark and I would go to Jerusalem together in 2014, and I felt a giddy-with-excitement feeling, happy butterflies in my stomach as I said the words. As quickly as the giddiness came it was seized upon by doubt–How could we possibly travel to Israel? We’re poor students living on student loans–how could we ever justify the expense? Even it we had the money, where would we fit it in between school and work?

But the damage was done. The wildly impossible dream had already been set into motion.

A few days later Mark came home and showed me the weekly Travelzoo.com email in his inbox. “Look! There’s a really good deal on flights to Tel Aviv!” It was an irresistibly good deal, the cheapest round-trip flights to Tel Aviv I’d ever seen (and believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of time online perusing those flights over the last six years).

It was an irresistible deal, but we still didn’t have any money for it. And then we remembered the Sky Miles card. Our jaws dropped when we checked the balance–it could pay for about half of our airfare! Unbelievable! Thank you, Home Depot purchases! But still there was the question of how we would pay for the rest of our trip–lodging, food, everything.

I contacted my childhood friend whose family was living in Tel Aviv for her dad’s job at the time. To my delight her family said yes, we could stay with them!

But even still we wondered if spending the money on this trip would be foolish when we still had two years of graduate tuition to pay and our mortgage every month. We wanted wise, and careful, and we wanted to be good stewards over what God had given us.  Is this really a good idea? we asked ourselves. We prayed about it a lot. We were willing to not go.

As if by magic an impressive bonus from Mark’s work (far bigger than any he’d previously received) arrived. More importantly, we felt a feeling of peace. Oh, and giddy little-kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement.

We bought our tickets.

It all came together in one week last fall. And now we’re leaving tomorrow for the spring break of our lifetimes.

Faith is not something passive; it is a creative force with which we invite good things into our life. “Knock, and ye shall receive,” the Savior taught. “Jesus Christ is the high priest of good things to come,” Elder Holland taught.

My mom reminded me that, when I had just gotten home from Jerusalem six years ago and was so homesick for the holy city I loved. “Mom, will I ever get to go back?” I asked.

“Kimberly, the Lord wants good things for you. Things that make you happy.”

We all know what it’s like, also, to pray for and want something so desperately and not receive it. Why do some prayers seem to go unanswered? I don’t know. I expect we’ll all have a list of questions like that when we get to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with the the Lord on the other side. But I don’t think he would ever want us to stop asking, to stop hoping and believing and expecting and inviting good things into our lives.

I dare you to speak aloud and invite something crazily impossibly good into your life. And then tell me about it when it comes true.

We’ll probably be out of internet range most of next week but check back soon and I’ll post some updates and as many great photos as possible! I’m so excited to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Mark!

Six years ago today, in Jordan

Six years ago I spent four months living in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem. To be more precise, in East Jerusalem, the part of the city that is backed by Palestine’s West Bank. During that time I got to travel all over Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan.

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Here is an excerpt from my journal entry six years ago, when I visited Jordan:

5 March 2008

“On our first day in Jordan we crossed the border and then went to Bethabara, also known as Bethany, where John the Baptist baptized the Savior. I touched the water and picked up a flower and put it in my scriptures in the Matthew account.

“(SIDE NOTE: It was interesting to see the Jordanian flag flying on this side of the Jordan River and the Israeli flag flying on the far side. The Jordan River forms the border between the two countries, just like the Jordan River formed the border of the nation of Israel in ancient times.)

“We went to the top of Mount Pisgah, the highest part of Mount Nebo. I’m so glad we got to go! Mount Nebo was something I’ve wanted to do my whole life…There was a huge rusty modern art sculpture of the brazen serpent on top. We read the scriptural account…Then we read—this is my favorite part—the account of how Moses ascended Mount Nebo before he died, and the Lord showed him all the land of the inheritance of his people—all of Canaan, all the way out to the sea—that Moses would never enter. When we were up there, I could understand why the Lord would bring him to the top of Mount Nebo. We were above everything, and we could see everything: the whole land of Canaan. Spread out at our feet, shining in colors of green farm fields and purple brown hills and gray water and blue horizon. I wonder how Moses felt as he looked down upon the land that had been promised to the children of Abraham and Israel for generations.”

So many faithful people, like Moses, never get to set foot in this Holy Land. How did I get so lucky to live there? To wake up to the call to prayer every morning and to spend my days walking that ancient sacred land…why was I thus blessed? I don’t know. But I will be thankful all the days of my life that I was.

Palm Sunday in Jerusalem

On Sunday we joined with thousands of Christian pilgrims in the Palm Sunday procession to Jerusalem.

The procession began at Bethphage, the church marking the spot where Christ mounted the donkey to begin his journey into Jerusalem. There were swarms of Palestinian boys selling palm branches; I bought one for three shekels and joined the rest of the worshipers at the top of the hill. The procession began.

There were people from every country and every walk of life imaginable. I detached myself from the BYU JC crowd to have a more authentic cultural experience. On Palm Sunday, it’s all about the journey.

Along the way, I talked to a woman from Holland who was here with her family. I met two girls my age who were studying conflict resolution at Hebrew University. I walked for a while with a retired couple from Missouri. I walked beside a Polish Catholic group, all dressing in matching uniforms displaying the Polish flag. There were Boy Scout groups from Jericho. There were a few young families there, the daddies carrying their toddlers on their shoulders. There were nuns who had donned baseball caps under their white habits so that their faces wouldn’t get sunburned.

I walked with the processional band, a marching band of sorts, except that it had guitars and hand drums and tambourines. The crowd walked in rhythm and we waved our palm branches in the air, doing our best not to hit anyone in the eye, since the crowd was so thick that we were all elbow to elbow. We sang “Ho-oh-sha-ah-na, ho-oh-sha-ah-na, hoshanna!” There were so many people that the procession reached from the top of the Mount of Olives all the way down into the Kidron Valley.

The singing and celebration continued all the way down into the city through Stephen’s Gate. The band led the crowd into the courtyard of St Anne’s Church; I didn’t know how it was possible to fit that many people into the court, but somehow we all made it.

The festivities didn’t stop at St Anne’s; the band continued to play and everyone danced, including the clergy! The nuns led a line dance, the monks joined in our dance circle, and we all rocked out. My favorite, though, was a Catholic tour group from Spain. Spanish people know how to dance, I tell you what!

After about an hour the merriment had died down, and then the bishop of St Anne’s stood and spoke. He must have translated his speech beforehand, because he read it in Spanish, then Russian, then Arabic, then Hebrew, and finally in English.

He said that we had all come to the Holy Land for different reasons, but we had all come on pilgrimage. He prayed that God would bless Jerusalem with peace. He said that even after we left Jerusalem, it would forever be a part of us. He said that the sacredness of the sites would enter into our souls. He said that it was our responsibility to carry the spirit of Jerusalem to the world. And when he spoke, I knew that his words were true.

So here is my message from Jerusalem, from Palm Sunday:

The Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants all weave together to form a testimony of Jesus Christ. That is because he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the god of the Old Testament. He did come to earth as our Savior.

He does not forget his promises to us. He is the Savior of the entire world: the Jews, the Americans, everyone. He overcame death and sin. He will gather his people again in the last days. Israel will be gathered, and Christ will be our king when he comes again. He will be king over all the earth.

Yad Vashem, the Yeshiva Shooting, and the Conflict

It occurs to me that my blog, up to this point, has been mostly a collection of of happy-go-lucky posts about field trips and vacations, with lots of photos of me standing in front of significant places and smiling at the camera.

Actually, though, living here in Jerusalem has been much more than sightseeing. It has been a learning experience, and a sobering experience as we live among people for whom violence and danger is a daily reality.

About ten days ago, as you may have heard, there was a shooting at a yeshiva, or Hebrew school, across town in West Jerusalem. The killer, who was from a neighborhood near us in East Jerusalem, fired fifty or sixty shots; many people were injured, and eight teenage boys studying at the yeshiva were killed. The gunman was finally stopped when a man from a neighboring building came into the back entrance of the school and shot him down.

Our Hebrew teacher, Judy Goldman, was teary and somber when we saw her in class after the shooting. She told us, “I debated about whether or not I should come to teach class today. But then I remembered something that was said after Virginia Tech. One of the professors that was killed was himself a Holocaust survivor. This man was killed when he blocked a doorway with his life to protect his students. The son of this great man said after his father’s death, ‘In the face of a tragedy like this, you must go on. Otherwise, you let the terrorist win.’ That is why I came to teach class today.”

Mrs Goldman also told us that in Israel, when there is a crisis, people run toward the disaster so that they can help, rather than running away for safety. A few years ago when there was a car bomb, her husband, who is a rabbi, ran toward the explosion. He showed up at the scene and started pulling victims out of the rubble.

After the attacks, the Jerusalem Center was locked down completely; we weren’t allowed to go out for any reason for about four days. It was a really long four days, especially because before that we had been forbidden to go to the Old City or East Jerusalem because of the Gaza strikes (when there are Gaza strikes, we can only leave the JC if we get a taxi to take us directly to West Jeru; we can’t walk through East Jeru or past the Old City).

We took a trip to Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum, a few weeks ago. Some things you might find interesting:

Two-thirds of the SS officers who carried out the mass murder of the Jewish people were college-educated. Most had degrees in law, philosophy, economics, and history. One-third of all the SS officers held doctorates in their fields of study.

“The world was divided between places where they could not live and places where they could not go.” Chaim Weizmann said this of Jewish refugees in Europe in the 1930s.

Posted on a wall in Yad Vashem is this poem:

First they came for the socialists,
And I did not speak up, because I was not a socialist.
They came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak up, because I was not a trade unionist.
They came for the Jews,
And I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me.

As I was wasting time online, I came across this rather disturbing variation of that poem:

First they came for the fourth amendment,
And I did not speak out, because I didn’t deal drugs.
They came for the fifth amendment,
And I was silent because I owned no property involved in crimes.
They came for the sixth amendment,
And I did not protest, because I was innocent.
They came for the second amendment,
And I said nothing, because I didn’t own any guns.
And then they came for the first amendment,
And I could say nothing at all.
(Illinois State University College of Fine Arts)

Today we went to Bethlehem and spoke to some of the students at Bethlehem University. The West Bank is supposed to be the territory of the Palestinians, but it is not contiguous; it has been broken up by Israeli settlements. In order to get to their classes at Bethlehem U, the students told us, the 30-minute drive takes two hours because of all the checkpoints they have to go to. They are not allowed to move freely in their own home country; it is divided between places where they have to have permits and places where they have to pass through checkpoints.

These are just some of the things that have been on my mind lately; what do you guys think? Let me know!

If You’re Going Through Hell…


All of our imagery of hell (fire, brimstone, torture, etc.) comes from the Hinnom valley, just south of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times, wicked kings like Manasseh and Jehoram offered their children up as sacrifices to the Canaanite fire god Molech. Garbage and refuse was also burned there. The word “hell” is just an English transliteration of the Hebrew word “Sheol,” which is just another name for the Hinnom Valley (it is also referred to as Gehenna).


Inside an ancient burial cave–these are the niches for the bodies

We walked through the Kidron Valley on the way to Hell. Along the way, there were dozens of caves and ancient burial tombs–we weren’t supposed to explore them, but we did. (You only live in Jerusalem once, right? Anyway, the bodies were removed long ago, so it’s not like we were desecrating graves!)


Shimmying into a burial cave


The tomb of King David’s son Absalom, who rebelled against him and was killed by David’s vassal Joab


Sadly, there is no sign or marker that says “Welcome to Hell,” just a stroll through the Hinnom Valley. Kind of anticlimactic, actually. The scriptures say that the road that leads to hell is wide–who knew that it’s actually difficult to find Hell?


Me and my beautiful roommate Brie


A field of poppies in the Kidron Valley (look close–you can see the Dome in the background)