To Israel in the Pope's footsteps HOLIDAYS in the Holy Land combine the best features of a tour and a pilgrimage. For most people the Middle East is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. and to go without visiting the various places which Christians have known since childhood would be unthinkable for most Catholics.
A new version of the standard pilgrimage through Israel and Jordan is to follow the path of Pope Paul during his visit in January last year. Though this is only slightly different from the normal tour, it does provide an alternative.
The Michael Walsh company of Dublin, which is offering a July tour of 16 days for 130 gns., presents an example of what is available Pilgrims would leave Scotland by air for Beirut in the Lebanon, and after spending 24 hours there would fly to Jerusalem, Jordan.
The following morning there is a tour of the Mount of Olives. Bethany and Bethpage, and in the afternoon a visit to St. Anne's Pool of Bethsaida. The fourth and fifth days would include following the Way of the Cross and a visit to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The next day would be spent in Bethlehem Five more days in Jordan would allow pilgrims the opportunity of seeing Jericho, the River Jordan, the Old City of Jerusalem and Gethsemane, in addition to other tours. After crossing into Israel there would he a visit to the room of the Last Supper, New Jerusalem, and a day and a half in Nazareth and the Mount of the Transfiguration. Days in Caesarea and Haifa, followed by one at Cana and the Sea of Galilee, would complete the tour.
Pilgrims planning to do the trip in reverse are warned about the problems or trying to travel into Jordan from Israel. If there is an Israeli stamp on one's passport the Jordanians will probably refuse permission to enter the country. Some people take the precaution of carrying two passports, one of which can be stamped by the Israeli government. However it is best to check with one's travel agent, or save the difficulties by going first to Jordan and then to Israel.
Though Bethlehem and the old city of Jerusalem are in Jordan and will therefore be a "must" on the pilgrim's itinerary, it would be the height of folly to miss the Christian sites in Israel, many of which are more "natural" than on the other side of the border. Sometimes the very ornateness of the better-known sites, such as the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are off-putting and one remembers longer the calm of Galilee and the beauty of the Mount of Beatitudes.
Once through the famous Mandelbaum Gate, the contrast between Jordan and Israel is very striking. The pace is brisk— in the cities too brisk, perhaps, for the tourist seeking relief from his normal way of life— but it is also refreshing. The enthusiasm and determination with which the Israelis are building their country is astonishing.
Tel Aviv is a booming city; a bit lacking in the atmosphere which an old city possesses but clean, efficient and bustling. I don't know if the hotels are always full but on the occasions when I have dropped in, as it were. I found it difficult to find a room. But the hoteliers are helpful. If they cannot put you
up they will direct you to another establishment which may. And the tourist offices are among the most reliable I have ever come across.
Throughout the countryside, too, the signs of development are everywhere, And even in the most remote places—comparatively remote that is, since Israel is a small country— there are good, clean restaurants with a surprisingly large choice.
The Catholic tourist-cum-pilgrim will naturally visit while still in Israeli Jerusalem the Church of the Dormition where Mary felt asleep in the Lord and the reputed room of the Last Supper. Most people, I think, feel a little disappointed about the Last Supper room. It is difficult to put one's finger on the reason why: perhaps it is because we think in terms of the long table and the stools or forms, whereas there is nothing here at all but a high-ceilinged white-washed room with a trace of fresco in a corner.
On another level, the tourist should visit the Biblical Zoo, unique in the world. Here are all the animals mentioned in the Bible and a plaque on each cage bears a Biblical quotation relating to the animal concerned. If your tour is organised you will have no difficulty about travel inside Israel. if it is not, and you are conlined to public transport you may find that by far the best way of travelling is to hire a taxi. They are not all that expensive, especially if you can get four to six others to share with you. The taxis are very big!
An excellent idea is to take the taxi on a round tour—say for three or four days. This will certainly give you time to see the northern part of the country, though if you want to travel down to the Negev as far as Eilat, the Red Sea port which the Israelis have built out of the desert, you would better budget on another couple of days.
Travelling through the northern part of Israel is an unforgettable experience. First you must go due west from Jerusalem as Jordan territory bulges out far across the old direct route. In parts Israel is only ten miles from the Jordanian border to the sea and a big detour is necessary.
The most fascinating thing about Israel is its variety. Lush green plains, like those round Megiddo (Armageddon of the Bible), contrast with the barren, tortured hills and the earth's deepest valleys. No Christian will want to miss Nazareth and nearby Mount Tabor, the scene of the Transfiguration. Nazareth is a brisk market town, beautifully situated in a valley perched among the mountains. The new Basilica is almost completed and a magnificent building it is.
From Nazareth the road north leads to Lake Tiberias and the country of Galilee. This, for rne, is the most beautiful part of Israel. From the Horns of Hittin, where Saladin's armies defeated the Christian army in 1187 and captured the Holy Land. the road descends to Tiberias, the town on the edge of the Lake. The view round the lake and its fringe of mountains, mostly in Jordan, is very much the same as it must have been in Jesus' own day. Those sensitive to atmosphere will find it here. The ground breathes antiquity.
But Israel is not all holy places. It has all the advantages of a Mediterranean country as well. Indeed, few countries possess the same mixture of antiquity and modernity, efficiency and picturesqueness, beauty and homeliness.