The old city of Jerusalem
To say that there is nothing in the world quite like it would be an understatement. Nowhere else can even hold a candle to the historical and spiritual significance of Jerusalem, whose name and power is embedded in the consciousness of billions. No visit to Israel can be complete without witnessing the portion of Jerusalem known as the Old City, one of the most diverse, complex, and holy contested places on Earth. Jerusalem holds key importance in the prayers and traditions of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each leaving its own mark on the architecture, demographics, and personal importance of the Old City. For an area so comparatively small in size, throughout its several millennia of history, the Old City has borne witness to countless conquests, the rise and fall of empires and religions, destruction, rebirth, triumph alongside disaster, preservation alongside evolution.
Our tour of the Old City is a blend of historical and modern, showcasing the grandeur of the past while not passing over the everyday lives of the people who reside within its walls today. We will visit the must-see sites such as the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but we will also discover the modern, small moments of humanity that represent the Old City in the present day, such as the small coffee shops only locals would know. At the beginning of the tour, we will visit either the Mount of Olives or the rooftops of the Old City itself for a stunning panoramic view that will give us a perspective of the space we are about to explore. The tour will include visits to all four quarters of the Old City: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian, each unique from the other in its content and feel. To best get a taste of what we’ll see, I invite you to watch this amazing video, filmed by my dear friend David Zacharie, who successfully captures the essence of the Old City and the interplay between its stones and its humans.
The Old City is but a fraction of what Jerusalem has become. While the entirety of Jerusalem was contained within the Old City’s walls until roughly a century and a half ago, since then, the city has expanded exponentially to cover a far larger area, very different in its feel than the Old City. Over 150 years of its modern history, Jerusalem has been developed and ruled over by a variety of different groups: the Ottoman Empire, the colonial British Mandate, the Palestinian elite, the Israeli government, and more. Each competing force desired to leave its own stamp on the appearance and atmosphere of modern Jerusalem. We will visit the Israel Museum, home to the shrine that protects the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as a treasure trove of archaeological, anthropological, and cultural art and relics. We will stroll down King David Street and other key sites in the modern city, but of course, no visit would be complete without the beautiful frenzy of spices, foods, and characters in the pulsating Mahane Yehuda Market.
Geopolitical Tour of Jerusalem
While Jerusalem is Israel’s spiritual center, it also remains an undeniable source of heavy political tension. Jerusalem is a Flintstone that serves as a microcosm of the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants of the land. Just about every cause of the conflict, as well as its effects, can be witnessed in this one place. On this tour, we will delve deeper into the role Jerusalem plays in the conflict and how it moves and informs it. We will try to understand the social, economic, and political issues that impact the lives of Jerusalem’s residents. This will include visiting the Security Wall in East Jerusalem, as well as several Palestinian neighborhoods and other key sites that will shed more light on the complexities of Jerusalem. We will also look out across the city from observation points that can help provide a tangible geographical context for the conflict. It is also possible to add in a discussion one-on-one with a political figure or local activist. I invite you to come gain a more thorough understanding of one of the longest unresolved conflicts in the world, by viewing it close-up and staring it in the face.
Ein Kerem- the birthplace of John the Baptist
It’s a mere 15-minute drive through the forested hills west of Jerusalem, but it feels like a world away. Just a breath away from the urban sprawl of the capital city lies the quiet spell of the peaceful village of Ein Kerem. Immediately upon arrival, the special atmosphere of Ein Kerem washes over you. Its lush greenery, the flamboyant bougainvillea spilling over the stone houses of its resident artists, its burbling springs, and historical churches and monasteries all combine to create a frail beauty. Ein Kerem is, in fact, one of Israel’s leading destinations for Christian pilgrims.
On this tour, we will wander around this gentle town, meandering between the natural springs. One in particular is known as Mary’s Well, where it is believed that the Virgin Mary sat and refreshed herself while on a visit to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The picturesque nature of Ein Kerem has made it a modern hub for artists, and we will peek into their galleries. Naturally, we will visit religiously significant sites in the village, including the Church of the Visitation and the shrine marking the birthplace of John the Baptist.
In the footsteps of Jesus in Jerusalem
This tour focuses on the significant sites of Christianity in and around Jerusalem: the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the churches that crown Mount Zion and ascend the slopes of the Mount of Olives.
Atop the Mount of Olives, we will visit the Church of the Ascension, traditionally marking the spot where Jesus ascended to heaven. We will also visit the Church of 'Pater Noster', where Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer, and the tear-shaped Church of Dominus Flevit, which commemorates the place where Jesus wept while foreseeing the impending destruction of Jerusalem. (“Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.” Matthew 24:3). From a vantage point at the top of the mountain, we can behold the heartstopping views of both ancient and modern Jerusalem, gazing across the ancient Jewish cemetery dug into its slopes. At the foot of the Mount of Olives, we will enter the Church of All Nations, which sits astride the carefully-tended Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus meditated and wandered the night before his arrest.
As we leave the Mount of Olives, we will cross the Kidron Valley, entering the centuries-old stone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City through the Lions Gate. Once inside, we will make our way to the Pool of Bethesda. Surrounded by Byzantine and Crusader ruins, this is the site where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, as noted in the Gospel of John. We will then join up with the Christian pilgrims from across the world who walk the Via Dolorosa', marking Jesus’ final path to the Golgotha.
The Judean Desert- including the Dead Sea and Masada
This rocky, arid area does not fit our typical assumptions of what a desert looks like. Dotting this desolate landscape are a variety of historical settlements rich with importance and intrigue, beckoning to uncover the secrets in their layers of sediment and stone. The hills of the Judean Desert echo with ancient stories, from David’s sojourn in the caves and cliffs of the Ein Gedi oasis as he hid from King Saul, to the Jewish ascetics of the Dead Sea Sect, contemporaries of Jesus who created a home on the shores of the Dead Sea and wrote the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Through the ages, the Byzantines, Persians, British, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have all left traces of their civilizations throughout the Judean Desert.
The tour will start with a visit to the epic Masada fortress. Jutting up dramatically out of the desert, this mountaintop was originally built up by King Herod as a fortified palace. At the beginning of the Jews’ great revolt against the Romans, the site was settled by a band of Jewish rebels known as the Zealots. Masada became their last stronghold in the country as their forces were beaten back by the Roman militia. In the year 73 CE, the Zealots, surrounded by the enemy, chose to commit mass suicide atop Masada rather than to fall into the hands of their Roman occupiers. Excellently preserved, Masada is one of the most outstanding archaeological sites in Israel and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides the grim tale it bears, it offers a glimpse into everyday life two thousand years ago, all surrounded by a breathtakingly haunting view of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert.
After touring Masada, we can descend to the beaches lining the shores of the Dead Sea. The lowest point on land anywhere on Earth, this unusual body of water straddles the border between Israel and Jordan. The mineral concentrations contained in its waters and mud are known to have various health benefits for the skin. Due to its extraordinarily high salt content, anyone wading in will instantly float -- just try to keep your legs down and you’ll see! Even Conan O'Brien found this out firsthand. You’ll find that drinking a beer or even reading a book is quite easy to do as you float along.
Coastal Plains- Caesarea, Acre and Haifa
Like the Mediterranean tides, Israel's coastal plain has played host to the ebb and flow of great civilizations. Situated along the arching stretch of coastline are a series of cities holding great significance, both for historic Israel and the modern-day state. The remains of the impressive hippodrome and theater, as well as the waves crashing over the remains of its sunken palace, only hint at the former glory of Caesarea, which served as the capital of the country for hundreds of years. Like a thumb, Haifa juts out from the coast, a city known for the beauty and symmetry of the Bahá'í Gardens, as well as its example as a beacon of religious pluralism. Further north still, Acre sprawls out by the shore, its bustling bazaar swirling with the smells of spices and fresh fish, built atop the former Crusader stronghold that centuries later would be the last barrier stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal of conquest.
Lower Galilee- Nazareth, Cana and more
This tour includes Cana of Galilee, one of the most traditionally essential sites in Christianity, which is noted as the place where Jesus miraculously turned water into wine. Not far away is the city of Nazareth, the town of the Annunciation and the town where Jesus spent his childhood. No longer the pastoral village of Biblical times, it’s a bustling city with a vibrant Arab culture and is quickly becoming a destination for foodies. Included on the tour is a stop at Tzipori, a Jewish-Roman city with an impressive mosaic floor that includes the famous face dubbed the ‘Mona Lisa of the North’. We will also visit Beit She’an, where you can stroll through and touch unbelievably well-preserved Greco-Roman ruins that were once one of the grandest cities in ancient Israel. The archaeological mound is looming over the ruins, meanwhile, is still being excavated, with findings dating vastly farther back all the way to the Neolithic era, over 8,000 years ago.
Upper Galilee and the Golan
Prepare yourself for a trip through a land of sun-drenched green fields, waterfalls, hilltops, and leafy forests in one of Israel’s most pastoral regions. Through a forest of oleander, oak, and blackberries we will arrive at the Banias Waterfall, whose turquoise waters are so gorgeous you won’t believe such an ecosystem could exist in the deserts of the Middle East. The historical sites surrounding Banias are traditionally held as the location of St. Peter recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. Perched on a mountaintop overlooking Banias is the Nimrod Fortress, dating back to the Medival era, boasting one of the most spectacular views of northern Israel.
The ancient city of Tzfat is one of the holy spiritual centers of Judaism, filled with winding cobblestone lanes, bright blue walls, medieval synagogues, and art galleries. In Tzfat, we will learn more about Kabbalah, the movement of Jewish mysticism that sprang up precisely here.
As we travel, we will discuss the geopolitical significance of northern Israel and the Golan Heights, its security challenges, and even glimpse into the demilitarized zone separating the Golan from Syria. We can also incorporate some real fun alongside the historical tours, such as bike-riding, excellent ice cream, and even splashing around in kayaks on the Jordan River itself.h as bike