This is the final post in a series about our trip to Israel and Jordan, where we’ve been focusing particularly on the history and biblical relevance to areas we visited. At the end of our trip, over the course of about two days, we immersed ourselves in Jerusalem’s Old City, visited the Temple Mount, and spent some time exploring the fortress of Masada, ancient oasis of En Gedi, and the Dead Sea.
If you missed the other posts in the series, here are the links. I’d definitely recommend starting with the maps and introduction post, which gives some helpful context to the geography, history, and politics of the region.
- Introduction: Geography, Culture, & Background (start here!)
- Northern Israel: the Galilee area, Tel-Megiddo, & Akko
- Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa, Be’er Sheva, and the Negev Desert
- Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan
After spending two days in the fascinating modern-day country of Jordan (historically Moab, Ammon, and Edom in the bible), our friends picked us up at the border in Eilat, and we drove toward Jerusalem.
Drive from Eilat to Jerusalem
We took a different route coming back from Eilat than we’d taken from Tel Aviv down there a few days earlier. Instead, we came up along the coast of the Dead Sea.
As we drove toward Jerusalem, we could see the Qumran Caves in the distance, with their distinctive striations, points, and cave holes. The caves are famous for being where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Specifically, thousands of fragments of the Old Testament scrolls dating back to between about the 1st-2nd century BCE through the first century AD.
You can visit some of the Qumran Caves but we didn’t have time for stops on this particular drive.
I won’t even attempt to thoroughly explain the West Bank, because I’m not remotely equipped to do so. It is an important thing to know about if you’re traveling in Israel, however. It encompasses a large swath of modern-day Israel that is hotly contested by Palestinian Arabs, who claim it should be theirs as part of a Palestinian nation state.
Towns such as Bethlehem (where Jesus Christ was born) and Jericho (thought to be the oldest city in the world) are here, as well as Hebron, where tradition says Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah are buried. As such, it’s a popular place to visit despite some of the complexities.
When you are driving through Israel, you will encounter various checkpoints. We didn’t have any issues getting through, but if you’re visiting certain areas it’s recommended to go with a day tour or you can use public transportation and then hire a Palestinian taxi driver to take you around. The Gaza Strip, however, is basically considered off-limits (to the point that the U.S. government explicitly says they will not help you if you’re dumb enough to go on your own).
Most of the time when we were within the West Bank, I didn’t even know it. However, as we approached Jerusalem and then from certain viewpoints in Jerusalem, you could see it a bit more clearly. There is a wall at certain points that delineates.
Jerusalem in the Bible
Because Jerusalem is obviously present throughout most of the bible, we’ll have to approach this section a little differently than in the previous articles, since we could list scriptures for days. Instead, we’ll cover the highlights of specific sites in Jerusalem in the bible or history.
One of the first things we did upon arriving in Jerusalem was visit the Israel Museum, because we arrived on their Independence Day and museum entrance was free. While I’m not a big museum person, this may be one of the best in the world (from a historical standpoint).
One of the things you can see there are fragments of the actual Dead Sea Scrolls (which were discovered in the Qumrum Caves above). These are housed in the Shrine of the Book, a beautiful white dome meant to look like the clay jars the scrolls were discovered in.
The museum also has a model of Jerusalem during the time of Herod’s temple (including when Jesus was alive). It’s huge—you can see a person down there, for scale—and it really gives you a sense of the grandeur of that temple, how it dominated the skyline ancient Jerusalem. If I had to guess, you wouldn’t really be able to go much of anywhere in the city without looking up and seeing the temple.
The Temple Mount
Probably the most fought-over small piece of real estate in the world, the Temple Mount today holds the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Two of those three buildings are Muslim, while the Western Wall is the remaining outwardly-accessible part of the Jewish temple that was destroyed in 70 AD.
This land has been significant to God’s people for millennia. It is the site King David’s purchased for a temple and where his son, King Solomon, eventually built it (II Chron. 3:1). It’s where the temple was rebuilt by Zerubabbel and Ezra in the 500s BCE after the Babylonians destroyed it, and then where Herod’s magnificent temple stood (built just before Christ’s birth). It is also believed to be Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.
The Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall or Kotel)
The Western Wall is the most holy site for modern Jews, standing where the temple used to. It was not actually part of the temple itself, but rather a retaining wall that surrounded it, which the Romans left when they destroyed the temple in 70 AD (presumably to rub salt in the wound).
Today most tourists can visit the Western Wall, though security is rigorous and the site can be shut down at a moment’s notice when there is an attack or other incident. There are also cool tunnels underneath that you can visit separately that have a lot of archaeological significance.
The men’s and women’s areas of the Western Wall are separated, but you can see through the fence to either side. People pray in front of the wall, stuff little pieces of papers with prayers into the cracks, and generally worship quietly.
After visiting the Western Wall, we walked the short distance over to the Dome of the Rock. This is where Muslims believe Muhammed ascended to heaven, and it is one of the most holy places in Islam as well (though doesn’t have the top spot).
The Gates of Jerusalem
There are eight gates set into the walls around Jerusalem’s Old City. The walls and gates were erected by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the early 16th century. There have been walls and gates here for many centuries prior to that, however, including in Byzantine times and dating back to King David’s rule. All but one of Suleiman’s gates are still in use today—and we’ll talk about that one exception in a minute.
This is the Jaffa Gate, which we entered and exited a couple times due to where we were staying.
The Lion’s Gate is pretty cool (and actually those are tigers, not lions), and played a key role in the 1967 Six Day War, when the Israeli army re-captured the Old City.
The Zion Gate, riddled by bullet holes, also played a big role in the modern country’s history, but in the 1948 Israeli War for Independence.
The Damascus Gate is probably the fanciest of the gates, very popular in photos.
And then we have the Gate of Mercy or Golden Gate (also called the Beautiful Gate in Acts 3:2 and 3:10). We’ll spend a little bit of time on this one, because it has quite a fascinating history.
This is the only one of the gates that pre-dates Suleiman, thought to be from around 627 AD, though the stones in the wall are from around 6th century BCE, around time of Nehemiah
This gate is located right at the Temple Mount and faces the Mount of Olives across Kidron Valley. The Jews believe Messiah will return to the Mount of Olives and enter through this gate to retake the Temple Mount (Ezek. 44:1-3); from Zechariah, they believe when the Messiah passes through the gate He’ll blow the ram’s horn and all the dead, laying at the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives (more on that in a sec), will rise up from their graves
Because of these beliefs, Suleiman sealed off the gate with stone 15 feet thick to prevent the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy of Jesus entering the city, and put a cemetery in front of it, believing a high priest can’t touch dead bodies without becoming ceremonially unclean. It was like his “gotcha” to the Jews. Bizarre and actually kind of petty and funny.
According to the New Testament, Jesus rode the donkey through the Golden Gate when He entered Jerusalem before His death. In this picture (taken from the Mount of Olives), you can see the sealed-up gates.
Mount of Olives
After visiting the Temple Mount, it is easy to catch a taxi (or walk, though it’s a hike) up to the Mount of Olives. This has one of the best views over Jerusalem and the Kidron Valley, and features prominently throughout the bible.
It’s mentioned only twice by name in the Old Testament. The first is in II Sam. 15:30 when King David is fleeing the city during Absalom’s coup. The second is well-known, by the prophet Zechariah:
And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley…Then you shall flee through my mountain valley” (Zech. 14:4-5)
Because of this Messianic prophecy, the Mount of Olives is hot post-death real estate. You can see all those rectangular stone boxes in the picture—the Old Jewish Cemetery covers the western and southern slopes of the Mount of Olives, because legend says that people buried here will be the first resurrected when the Messiah returns.
When Jesus was in Jerusalem, it seems He spent quite a bit of time around the Mount of Olives, and this is where His disciples came and asked Him for a sign of the end times (Matt. 24 a.k.a. the Olivet Prophecy) and also where He went to pray the night He instituted the new covenant Passover and was arrested (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26).
It’s where Jesus sat when He wept over Jerusalem’s ultimate fate (Luke 19:41-44), and from which He entered the city on a donkey colt and the people spread branches before Him (Luke 19:28-40). And it’s from here that the resurrected Christ was taken up into the clouds as His disciples looked on (Acts 1:9-12).
Tombs of the Prophets (supposedly)
There are a lot of “supposedly” sites in Jerusalem, as well as many other parts of the country. There is just no way of knowing in many cases where something happened or someone lived. But people want something tangible to hold onto, and obviously tourism is big business (and was even more so during pilgrimage-focused olden times), so these things tend to perpetuate.
This is one of those “supposedly” sites, where they say the tombs of the prophets Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah are. You’ll find it as you walk down the Mount of Olives toward the Old City. This is one of several things you can stop at along the way, if you have particular religious interests. We skipped several of them, including the Pater Noster church, Dominus Flevit, and the Church of the Ascension.
The Tomb of Three Prophets, is thought to contain the tombs of the 6th-5th century BCE biblical prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (as well as some of their followers). It’s not certain that their tombs actually are here and there isn’t much to see here, but it’s a cool (and short) walk through nonetheless.
Garden of Gethsemane (supposedly)
As mentioned above, the New Testament says Jesus and His disciples went out to the Mount of Olives after the Passover supper and then came to a place called Gethsemane, where He prayed and asked the cup to pass from Him (Matt. 26:36-46). What is billed as the Garden of Gethsemane today was discovered by some Crusader Knights, and there are olive trees thought to be 1000-2000 years old (olive trees don’t have rights, so they can’t know for sure).
However, as the Romans reportedly cut down all the trees in their 70 AD sack of Jerusalem, it’s unlikely these were literally the trees that were there when He was alive, and no way to know for certain this was the Gethsemane spoken of in the bible.
Obviously there are myriad other biblical and historical things to see in Jerusalem—the city itself, in fact. But many of the churches and such fall into the “supposedly” camp and just weren’t of interest to us. We really loved just wandering the Old City streets and soaking in the culture and ambiance.
Masada is on a plateau that is 300 feet above surrounding terrain on the shortest side, 1,300 feet above the terrain on the other.
We were able to do a sunrise hike up Masada’s famous Snake Path (thankfully, not known for snakes but rather the way it winds up the hill), starting in the dark and reaching the top just as the sun broke over the horizon and hit the Dead Sea. Watching the sunrise over this ancient area just like people have for thousands of years was very powerful.
The fortress of Masada is a very meaningful site to the Jewish people. Ironically built by Herod the Great as a possible hideaway or safe house from potential native revolts, it became the hideout for almost 1,000 Jewish rebels (including families) during the First Jewish-Roman War in 73-74 AD. The rebels took refuge here and were holding off the Roman soldiers, who laid siege to the fortress.
The Romans built a new ramp up to the fortress (which still exists) using Jewish slave labor, and the rebels in Masada refused to attack and kill their fellow countrymen, even knowing that it was ultimately dooming themselves. Once the Romans finally completed the ramp and broke through the walls, they discovered that the Sicarii Jewish rebels had committed mass suicide rather than be taken prisoner.
Young soldiers of the Israeli army still end their basic training on the plateau and swear that “Masada shall never fall again.
Masada isn’t really mentioned in the bible outright, though I read an interesting article speculating that the “desert fortress” mentioned in I Chronicles 12 during the story of David and Saul was the hill of Masada, and that Psalm 18:2 was also referencing it. No way of knowing that, though.
After leaving Masada, we headed toward En-Gedi (or Ein Gedi). This name means literally “the spring (or fountain) of the kid (goat).” It can also be translated to eye of the goat, or of happiness. Ah, translation squishiness 🙂 Evidence exists that young ibex have always lived near the springs of En Gedi.
En Gedi in the Bible
En Gedi is mentioned several times in the bible, most frequently as a setting for some of King David’s escapades as well as a figurative point comparison of comparison for writers who wanted to indicate something lush and fertile.
- Allotted to the tribe of Judah, and was famous in the time of Solomon (Josh 15:62)
- Around 1000 BC, En Gedi served as one of the main places of refuge for David as he fled from Saul. David “dwelt in strongholds at En Gedi” (1 Sam 23:29, 24:1).
- During the reign of Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:2), the children of Ammon, Moab and Mt. Seir attempted to invade Judah by way of En-gedi, but were easily defeated as they came up from the gorges to occupy the advantageous field of battle chosen by Jehoshaphat.
- One time when David was fleeing from King Saul, the pursuers searched the “Crags of the Ibex” in the vicinity of En Gedi. In a cave near here, David cut off the corner of Saul’s robe (1 Sam 24).
- Solomon compared his lover to “a cluster of henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi,” an indication of the beauty and fertility of the site (Song 1:14)
- The writer of Ecclesiastes spoke of wisdom that was exalted “like a palm tree in En Gedi” (Eccl. 24:14).
- One day, the prophet Ezekiel predicted, fishermen would line the shores of the Dead Sea by En Gedi (Ezek. 47:10).
En Gedi was once a lush and verdant oasis. Obviously, it is not that today, but even just seeing some running water in the absolutely bleak Negev Desert was nice.
Bordered by modern-day Jordan on one side and Israel on the other, the Dead Sea is the lowest spot on earth—1,412 feet (400 meters) below sea level. The lake (not actually a sea) is also 26-35% salinity…almost 10x saltier than the ocean! I love how the salt and minerals kind of crust along the shoreline as the water evaporates.
It’s not known for sure, but a “salt sea” is mentioned several times in the bible, including in Numbers and Joshua (having to do with different tribes’ borders) and in Genesis 14 as the Valley of Siddim (having to do with Abraham and Lot). Right here is where Sodom and Goromorrah and the other cities of the plain are thought to have been (along the southeastern shore).
Do you have questions or thoughts on the locations we visited in this post? We’d love to hear from you, leave us a comment below!