Holy Land Blog

A group from the Diocese of Connor travelled to the Holy Land on Tuesday November 12 for an 11–day pilgrimage, led by the Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev John Mann.

The Dean's daily blogs from the Holy Land follow and in addition to the photographs included below, there is a full pilgrimage photo album. If you move your mouse onto a photograph, the caption will appear.


Day 1

Catching up with the headlines, while waiting for the flight to Tel Aviv"Bright and early the pilgrims gathered at George Best Airport for a flight to Heathrow and onward to Tel Aviv.  The anticipation was high and the Bishop arrived at 6.00 a.m. to see us off.  The first day is all about travelling and getting to know one another, particularly as the 20 members of the Diocesan group are joined by 10 of a group from First Presbyterian Church in Larne with their minister Colin McClure. We are gelling as a group already and looking forward to walking in the steps of Jesus over the next ten days. 

Sadly we are one person down, with Diocesan Reader Bob Fryer, who is unwell and unable to come, left at home.  I hope you are feeling a bit better today Bob!  Bob has been several times to the Holy land with me and is well known in the Newtownabbey parishes and elsewhere.  We shall miss him and I know just how much he will miss this trip.

Settling in to the Golden Walls Hotel in Palestinian East Jerusalem we prepare for the first full day tomorrow, looking out on the walls of the old city with Psalm 122 in our minds.  We read it as we approached the City.  'Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem'.  Yes, we shall, and for the many places in this world that we remember prayerfully each day.  Like everyone at home we remember the people affected by the catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines.  Day by day as we call to mind the things of 2,000 years ago, we will also relate them to the world today.

Tomorrow morning we shall be standing on the top of the Mount of Olives at 8.00 a.m.!  What a prospect - but that is for tomorrow - I will tell you more about it then."



Day 2

Andrew and Nuala Ker, two pilgrims, outside the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane."Just imagine: 25 degrees, bright sunshine, blue sky and a still day, a view over the old city of Jerusalem and excellent company of fellow pilgrims, and, you have the picture of the Connor group on top of the Mount of Olives at 8.30 a.m. this morning. We walked down the path that Jesus took on Palm Sunday towards the Kidron Valley and onward up to Jerusalem itself. On the way we remembered our Lord crying over the City. A beautiful church has been build there with a roof that looks like teardrops. Inside the ceiling seems to stream in tears.

As we reached the Garden of Gethsemane and Bill and Eleanor Boyce read the story of Jesus and the disciples; the one praying, the others sleeping; now the tears of agony of Jesus are like blood falling to the ground, but we were not even through the morning when we went to the site of the High Priest's house and climbed down into the pit of a prison cell beneath it. Just imagine the darkness in which Jesus spent the night of that Thursday before his trials and crucifixion the next day and read Psalm 88.

Pilgrimage leader Dean John Mann walks down into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives on a sunny Wednesday morning.A morning of hosannas and tears!

Lunch was at a beautiful convent a few miles from Jerusalem; we rested and ate and wiled away the time, until we returned to the coach for a final visit of the day: to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum and memorial. Once again the wordless challenge of image and imagination brought us to our knees in silent contemplation of the enormity of humanity's ability to inflict suffering. The memorial to the children is most moving of all, as gradually the one and a half million names are read out, one by one the memorial hall is in darkness as with candles and mirrors whatever way you look the lights float on for ever.

Tomorrow we are going to sing. We haven't yet, but I have a feeling that there is a great pilgrim choir in the making here. If you hear echoes of "How great thou art" in Larne or Belfast, Lisburn or Portstewart it is just us warming to the theme of praising God for all that we are experiencing here in the Holy Land!"


Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that are 2,000 years oldChatting in the garden of the Convent of Notre Dame de Sion after lunch provided by the nuns.












Below: The gate in the walls of Jerusalem known as the Gate Beautiful, now blocked up, seen from the Mount of Olives. This would have been the direct route into the city likely to have been used by Jesus on Palm Sunday.




Day 3

Church of St Anne"This was a day of 9,000 steps through the old City of Jerusalem (that's when we lost count - well, more or less!) on the flat and up and down, and a two hour queue to get on the Temple Mount - and then we didn't make it. Under such circumstances you may think that the pilgrims are a little jaded tonight, but these things we brushed off with ease in the sunshine of another beautiful day of very special experiences.

Let me take you first to the Church of St Anne - an ancient church beside the pool of Bethesda - here we enjoyed the amazing acoustics, as we sang out hearts out, and joined pilgrims from all over the world in praising God in song. It is nearly as good as St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast! Then we walked the Via Dolorosa; reading and praying we made our way through the busy market, climbing up the narrow streets to Calvary.

The centre of the activity of the day was this tracing of the Passion story, absorbing the distractions and noise and the rest of the sensual and emotional experience, from the smells of the spices on the stalls to the feel of the uneven, ancient flagstones under our feet. Some people respect the pilgrims' paths, but many more treat our attempt to follow the steps of Christ to the Cross in a completely disinterested way. I suppose they have seen it all before. But for us it is special.

Garden Tomb We finished the afternoon at the Garden Tomb, where the sun was setting in the moments when we entered the tomb and recited the words that have been inscribed above the entrance: "He is not here, he is risen!" That for many pilgrims was the theme of the day which we talked about in our evening gathering.

A wonderful day, beyond doubt amongst the most important days of any pilgrimage, but chiefly it is the sharing of the experiences together in the group that make it what it is; the singing, the praying, the laughter and the meals - which are fabulous!

Tomorrow it's the Dead Sea, Masada, Qumran and Jericho. It will be hot - probably about thirty degrees. What a happy band of pilgrims we are!"

The Wailing WallThe Wailing Wall











The Dean in the Church of St Anne, Jerusalem12th Century Church of St Anne by the Pool of Bethsheba











The Dean reads from St Luke's Gospel on the Via DolorosaStop for freshly squeezed fruit and pomegranate juice















Day 4

"I haven't said much about the food yet, which is a bit of an omission, for it is really good. During the pilgrimage the hotels provide a large variety of food at buffet-style meals and lunches out are generally very good too. So, sustained by a hearty breakfast we travelled today to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea.

Exploring Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were foundThe ancient route from Jerusalem to Jericho as mentioned by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan starts by climbing the Mount of Olives and going on via Bethany. Now Jerusalem is cut off from Bethany by the high concrete security wall, so no longer can the ancient path be walked. We are on a modern dual carriageway going down and down through the dry and dusty hills of the Judean Desert to the southern end of the Jordan Valley. Here we find Jericho, Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were written and found) and the Dead Sea, as well as King Herod's desert fortress of Masada. On the way we see the Behouin tents and the women out herding the sheep and goats. They live as they always have in tents of camel skins - though the odd plastic sheet and satellite dish intrudes. The men work as labourers in nearby towns and cities.

Approaching through orchards of date palms we arrived at Qumran first - I always like our group to be first, though I am not in the least bit competitive! More coaches arrive soon, but we are on our way to discover the secrets of those who loved the desert life and sought the purity and prayer of an ascetic existence. Maybe John the Baptist was one of this community before he went the short distance to the Jordan River to call people to repentance and baptism.

Byzantine Church built in the ruins of Masada , Herod the Great's cliff top fortressWe moved on to Masada, packed like sardines and rising in a cablecar, we walked on the barren hilltop with other groups; a large group of Americans in orange tee-shirts and blue baseball caps; colourful young Brazilians in matching scarves and some older French women oozing sophistication; yet here we all were in the warm sunshine considering the final onslaught of the Roman legions on the Jewish rebels in the 1st century AD.

Floating in the Dead Sea before lunch the pilgrims with a "you can take my picture, but not for the website!" approach to the unique experience of lying in water ten times as mineral rich as sea water, and seven times as dense. "At least there are no fish" someone cried!!

Just Jericho, the ancient city to see, as we read of the blind men healed at the gates, stopped at the sycamore tree and thought of Zachaeus, and overlooked the mountain of Christ's temptations. We bought locally grown bananas and figs, and drank pomegranate juice and lemonade from Jericho fruit, before heading back into the desert.

We stood in silence off the road absorbing the sounds of the wilderness: in the distance a trickle of water, somewhere the cry of a bird, far off, is it traffic or the whine of a minaret? No matter, the sun is going down, the sinking light casting shadows on the dusty hills, and another day ends in the land of the Bible."


Archdeacon Stephen Forde and party at QumranThe Dead Sea Scrolls were found in these caves in the mountains of the Judean Desert












Old Sycamore Tree in Jericho similar to the one that Zaccheus climbedSunset at the Mount of the Temptation in the Judean Desert near Jericho











Transport options for the return to Jerusalem for DinnerSunset at St George's Orthodox Monastry on the old Roman road from Jerusalem to Jericho












Day 5

The likely location of the "Upper Room" is close to the probable site of King David's Tomb

"Today started by the coach leaving with lots of happy pilgrims anticipating a new day; prayers and good-mornings said, but without two of the party; worse still we hadn't missed them; even worse, they were the Archdeacon and his wife - and they were on time! Never mind, all was resolved as they flagged us down, and at least yours truly redeemed himself a little by spotting them, before we were whisked away to the Upper Room. There, Denise Murray, parish reader from the Cathedral, read the long Acts 2 Pentecost account beautifully, and we all sang, "Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me".

Crossing to the Palestinian territory we entered Bethlehem and into a different world. First we spent some money at a Christian Co-operative where olive wood, mother of pearl and jewellry were all for sale.

Approaching Shepherds' Fields Church near BethlehemThis is just beside one of my favourite places: the field of the shepherds. We celebrated communion in the sunshine, sang "While shepherds watched" and O little town of Bethlehem" and viewed the beautiful church. It has no windows; light comes from high up in the cupola - from the heavens; from the sky; and so we are drawn to the dawning glory from above, the angelic choirs and the message of the angels.

A two hour wait was what it took to queue to enter the cave under the Church of the Nativity in the town Centre of Bethlehem later; before us were a happy African group, behind us were some very eager Russians, but we made it to the place of Jesus' birth for a few seconds, seeing the silver star marking the spot, and the place of the manger, but afterwards reading more sedately and quietly in the open air, of the coming of the wise men to pay homage, so many years before we, symbolically, did the same.

Eucharist in the hills at BethlehemWe lunched in a hospital canteen - which seems a peculiar thing to do, but by eating at this place we were supporting the poorly resourced, and frankly - compared to us - woefully inadequate, health provision in the Palestinian territories. The hospital, formerly a Leonard Cheshire Home, manages an amazing range of things from orthopedics to eye treatment, physiotherapy to abdominal surgery, trauma counselling to support for those with injuries of all kinds, but especially of the central nervous system. A hospital of just 88 beds. An amazing place!

What a rich and varied day in the land on contrasts, but we all arrived back together and in good heart. One more day in Jerusalem! It has all gone by so quickly.

But, tonight we have the 'Sultan's Feast' at the hotel. Off we go. I have been to this before and it's great fun, so long as one is not chosen to be the Sultan or a member of his entourage...."

Zion Gate into Old Jerusalem shows shelling marks from the 1967 WarShepherds' Fields Church











The Dean enjoys a little refreshment!Pilgrims preparing for communion at the shepherds' fields











Joan Rodgers reading the story of the wise men outside the Church of the NativityMichael and Barbara Callender reading at Ein Kerim












Day 6

"The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has several dawn services every Sunday: Roman Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox. To get there to experience even part of them means leaving the hotel no later than 5.30 a.m. Nine of us did just that this morning and so did a Polish group that is staying with us at the Golden Walls Hotel.

We arrived at 5.45 a.m. to find at least two hundred people there before us; eastern church priests in black from head to foot, women in long skirts and shawls, that they drape over their heads when approaching the holy sites within the church; the smells of incense, anointing oil and hundreds of candles mingle with the ancient stones, soot-darkened icons, lamps and lights, and many rich fabrics that are seemingly held together with the dust and grime of the ages.

The Dean of Belfast with the Dean of Jerusalem at St George'sHere and there pilgrims kneel on the bare stone; devotion such as we do not know; prayers murmured through silent lips; eyes raised intensely or cast to the floor in penitence. It is like another world and a privilege to share it even for an hour.

Later, and more in our comfort zone, the whole group attended holy communion at St George's Cathedral. Here we had well-known hymns, a sermon on living the present moment and photographs in the sunshine of the courtyard. Taking the Dean's message to heart we proceeded to live the day, share with those we are with, and in love with those at home and not think too much about tomorrow (for we leave Jerusalem then!).

Viewing the Model of Jerusalem at the time of ChristAfter lunch we were picked up by the coach and were taken to the Israel Museum, where we viewed the amazing model of Jerusalem in Jesus' day. It is fabulous. We also viewed a wonderful reproduction of the scroll of Isaiah as found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The original is 2,000 years old and - prior to its discovery - the oldest extant copy of Isaiah was from the 10th Century AD. It was a pretty dramatic find, was it not?

We will be packing tonight and saying our goodbyes in the morning to the lovely staff here at the Golden Walls. But we have Galilee to come. I feel the boat gently rocking on the Sea already, the sight of Capernaum and in my minds eye I have the view from the mountains. But, thinking again of the Dean's sermon, let's not leap on too soon, but thank God for the health and strength we have had in these Jerusalem days - and for all the wonderful people that we have met in the City that remains special to so many, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew."


Before Sunday Morning Eucharist in St George's Cathedral JerusalemAfter the Eucharist in St George's Cathedral













Day 7

The Dean in the garden of the Benedictine church at the site of Emmaus"The pilgrims were packed up and ready for an 8.00 a.m. departure from Jerusalem and from the really friendly staff at the Golden Walls Hotel. We left with prayers for peace and safety on the roads and on the way to Emmaus learnt not only that there are three possible sites for the village, but also there are several different pronunciations of the word used by the Church, all of which are wrong. The correct way of pronouncing the word in 'eyemwass' we were told by our Guide. Anyway Abu Ghosh, the site we went to, is a lovely place to worship; in a beautiful Crusader church with original frescos and an accoustic made for singing. "Father we adore you" we sang as a round in a church entirely empty but for the thirty of us. As the sound reverberated around we sat in silence, having listened to the Emmaus road story and considered the importance of the account for our record of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus.

St Paul left from this Roman harbour at Caesarea on his last journey to RomeBrother Raphael served us in the shop - he and his fellow monks are of the same order of French Benedictines as Prior Mark Ephrem and his community at the Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor. So we exchanged greetings and spent some money - we have a little left - and returned to the coach for the journey to Caeserea. This incredible site on the shores of the Mediterranean is important for all sorts of reasons (as we learnt in an extremely well made audio visual presentation) but for Christians it recalls us to the conversion of Cornelius - the story that we read in its entirety - and the imprisonment of Paul, later in the Acts of the Apostles.


Raymond King reading the account of Simon Peter and Cornelius in the Roman Theatre at CaesareaThe Roman theatre is where we read and sang, and, even with noisy school children on a trip out for the day - they were as full of life and fun as a school class anywhere in the world - the readers standing on the stage in the open air, we all heard quite clearly some distance away in the 'stalls'. Again we sang as the breeze gently caressed us from the sea and the sun was just warm enough for comfort in shirtsleeves and cotton skirts and trousers. Swallows and housemartins are on migration through the region and dozens of them wheeled through the sky above us - is it really November?

Turning north and driving through Haifa and under Mount Carmel in a new tunnel we arrived eventually in Acre, the last place that the Crusaders held before being driven from the Holy Land, finally, a century after Jerusalem had fallen. The extensive archeological remains are impressive, to say the least, but then that goes for all the Crusader buildings in the Holy Land. They built as if they intended to stay for ever - perhaps we do the same....

We arrived in Tiberias at 5.30 p.m. It was dark, and we had had our first rain of the trip on the way; the traffic had been busy too and the coach was heavy with sleep, so we staggered to our rooms flopped down for a while, but judging by the look of happy pilgrims at dinner, revival is never far from us! Tomorrow it's Cana, Nazareth and the Mount of Transfiguration. Even for pilgrims used to multiple Biblical sites in a day that is a joyous prospect. We are so privileged to be here, and tomorrow should wake to the sight of the sun rising on the Sea of Galilee. Can it get any better?"


Site of the palace of Pontius Pilate at CaesareaCaesarea - St Paul left from here on his final journey to Rome











Denise shopping in the market at the Crusader port of AcreWalking to the Roman harbour at Caesarea from which St Paul departed on his last journey to Rome













Day 8

“At 6.25 a.m. the first sliver of the sun appeared above the Golan Heights and we had an uninterrupted view across the Sea of Galilee to witness it. It took four and a half minutes before the whole sun was sitting like a great burning ball on top of the hills. The light made a path across the lake to our hotel, sparrows chattered noisily as if greeting the dawn, a small flock of egrets beat an elegant flight across the water, the swallows were already feeding on the wing and one of the staff of the hotel hosed down the patio as if nothing miraculous was happening. Well, of course he was right, the sun rises everyday, and like our heartbeat it is only occasionally that we are conscious of it.

On the way to Cana, Samer, our guide told us his Cana joke. This is how it goes: Joseph was recovering after the wedding feast and was a bit out of sorts the next day having drunk too much wine. Mary, feeling sorry for him that morning said, “Joseph, let me get you some water.” to which Joseph replied, “Thank you my dear, that will help, but keep the boy away from it!” Alright, it was before 8.00 a.m. and we were in receptive mood, so he got a good laugh at that, and the clergy present have it down as their sermon illustration for when Jesus’ first miracle appears next time in the lectionary. Just say, you have heard it before!

Actually, Cana was a really good visit; though we arrived early, several groups were before us and we were given a small chapel in which to read and pray and sing – “Love Divine” it had to be and we sung it as lustily as possible, even though I pitched it a bit high (the harmony was most impressive and I trust our CD sales will be good for Christmas!). Wine tasting before 9.00 a.m. followed….

Water storage jar from the time of Christ at Cana of GalileeIn Nazareth we visited another very special and atmospheric church. It is Greek Orthodox and built at the site of Mary’s Well. The spring of Nazareth that gave the village its water still flows and this Church is built over its source. The water runs and is available for us to drink. To this spring Mary and the other women of Nazareth must have come two thousand years ago; from this water Jesus must have drunk as a child and young man. Samer painted a picture of the women gossiping at the well; exchanging news and speculating on the next thing to happen. Now in this place is a church, with icons and frescoes of such profusion, that an hour in the small shrine would hardly be enough to see them all properly. With the Orthodox pilgrims we lit candles and prayed, sitting in the silence of wonder and the peace of a holy place, whilst the chant of the priests gently lulled us in contemplating how eastern Christianity has a mystery and awe that can live with a degree of liturgical untidiness, in its ease of deeply moving worship.

Demonstrating the skills of a 1st century carpenter at Nazareth Village


The main Church in Nazareth was our next visit. It is huge and impressive and here we read and sang again before leaving for the ‘Nazareth Village’, which is a reproduction of Nazareth as it would have looked in Jesus’ time. It is well done, and they have managed to avoid the theme park danger that was always the possible outcome of such an attempt. We saw an olive press, and had its working explained, but all took pictures of the donkey hitched to the olive crushing mill, as we photographed the sheep and the goats too, in a pen below in the field. We were all given an oil lamp to treasure and remind us of Jesus, the light of the world.

All this and it was still only lunchtime.


Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor


In the afternoon we visited Mount Tabor, thought to be the site of the transfiguration of Jesus. We ascended the hill in taxis, as it is up a three-mile winding road that cannot be attempted by the coaches. Again we read and prayed and with the sun’s declining rays, we looked out on the fertile plains of this important farming area of Israel. As we drove back to Tiberias the sun was once again a ball of fire, the western sky lit from side to side in orange – from sunrise to sunset it has been a truly amazing day.”





Franciscan Church at Cana of GalileeShepherd with his sheep and goats at the Model Village of 1st century Nazareth












East end mosaic In the Church of the Transfiguration, Mount TaborChurch of the Annunciation built around a 1st century house in Nazareth














Day 9

“The pilgrims had a lie in this morning. The alarm call was seven o’clock and we didn’t leave for the day until eight-fifteen. We have heard that there is a little snow at home, but it is hard to take that in as it is like Summer here, a slight haze across the water of the Sea of Galilee, but otherwise sunshine, warmth and blue skies. The sunrise was perfect; the breakfast great and the company of fellow pilgrims as happy as can be.

Listening to the Beatitudes At the site of the Sermon on the MountToday we drove in the coach to the northern end of the Sea of Galilee and climbed the small hill to the Mount of Beatitudes. The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was given by Jesus in this place; and here a female Franciscan Community has established a most beautiful garden overlooking the lake. There are quiet spots for contemplation; not just formal seats, but rocks and walls set at the right height for a pause for thought or prayer; fountains and flowers, lawns and paths, with the words of the beatitudes in Latin here and there. The Church itself is of basalt, contrasting greatly with the Jerusalem honey-coloured stone that we have become used to over the past week. We read and prayed and walked and talked as well as dwelling in silence. As we left I met a lovely couple from St Ann’s Church in Texas who visited Ireland two years ago without coming north, but have promised to return and see our St Anne’s in Belfast. I hope that they do.

At Capernaum - hearing the account of Jesus healing the Centurion's servant

Returning to the shore of the Sea of Galilee we spent an hour at Capernaum. As with Emmaus two days ago, we were corrected for our English corruption of the name of the village: it is really (as on the road signs)Kafer Nahum.Anyway, we read the stories of the house of Simon’s mother-in law, the call of the disciples and the healing of the centurion’s slave, then some of us sat down in a spot alone by the water’s edge. The glint of the sun on water can be mesmerising, whilst the boats some distance from the shore seemed to slip by without apparent source of power and still pilgrims of all nations throng these Christian sites and try to imagine how it was…..

Probably being by the Sea of Galilee gives us the greatest chance to see things through the same eyes as the people of two thousand years ago; not the buildings of course, they are either modern or in ruins, but the natural environment; the lake and the rocks and the hills. We moved a little further, to celebrate communion; singing and reading, with a joy in the resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples at this spot, that filled us with renewed vigour and a sense of peace.

Cruise on the Sea of GalileeAfter lunch (of St Peter’s fish – found in the Sea of Galilee) we boarded a boat for our hotel from a jetty set amongst the reeds and scrub of a shallow stretch of shore. So perfect for wildlife it is not too surprising that we saw, in the space of a few minutes, all three species of kingfisher found in Israel – the Pied, the White-breasted and the Common Kingfisher (the only one seen in Ireland) and we climbed aboard the Jordan,our boat on the Sea that day.

It was calm as calm could be; the water so flat it looked as though you could walk its sunlit surface; the engine purred quietly, and the captain’s Yorkshire terrier ‘Louis’ kept us amused and the cameras clicking. We were entranced by the Sea of Galilee really; these other things were incidental to the experience. Then we stopped, far from the shore and in complete silence, as we read stories that we have known since childhood of the Lake that we were on and its storms and calms; of Jesus and his disciples, of fear and trust; of miraculous power and of awe. “Dear Lord and Father” is the only possible hymn for this place. We sung it and prayed; watched a demonstration of the art of fishing in Jesus’ day, and the engines started again, as we proceeded to our hotel. There we relaxed; some pilgrims swam in the hotel pool, others read and chatted and rested before the evening meal. We were all filled up with the experiences of the day, shared once more in the land that Jesus walked.”


Franciscan Church on the Mount of the BeatitudesFranciscan Church on the Mount of the Beatitudes












Stephen Forde, Kate Irving, Maureen Wilson, Stephen and Jennifer Haslett wait for the rest of the group to arrive at the top of Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration.Celebration of the Eucharist by the Sea of Galilee












Paddling in the Mediterranean are: Joan Rogers, Kate Irvine, Christine Jones, Fiona Forde, Helen Mann and Carol McCulloughOn the Sea of Galilee, reflecting on our reading of the account of Jesus stilling the waves














Day 10

Church of Mensa Christi commemorating Christ's post-resurrection meal with his disciples at the Sea of GalileeI am sorry to rub it in, but a ninth consecutive day of warm sunshine, clear blue skies and light winds does make a difference to any pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I know, I know, we are about to be brought down to earth in more ways than one, but today once again we left the hotel travelling north to Caesarea Philippi.

Before leaving the lake we read the story of the feeding of the five thousand and contemplated the fish from the Sea of Galilee as well as the bread. Once more the water looked sublime and the glare from the sun upon it lit the whole scene. At this place there are the remains of an ancient harbour, the water level is much below that now, but a full three metres higher than when we were here two and a half years ago, following two wet winters.

Viewpoint looking towards Damascus from the Golan HeightsAround ten o’clock we started our journey onto the Golan Heights. This area is occupied Syrian land and is still full of minefields (well marked!) and Israeli military camps, and we climbed steadily from 700 feet below sea level at the lake to more than twice the height of Slieve Donard at the highest areas of this mountain range. We stopped at a viewing place overlooking Syria and partook of a local delicacy, apples grown in local orchards dipped in grape honey from local bees. When I say local, I mean from the Golan Heights. This is a fertile and well-watered area as there are many underground aquifers. There are fields of apple, and cherry orchards and vines grow well here too. In the Spring-time people drive up into the hills to see the acres of cherry blossom and at this time of the year, it is for the fresh apples and for the honey.

We saw young men and women with mine detectors clearing an area of hillside. The mines are Syrian, from before the six-day war of 1967 when Israel annexed the Golan Heights for its strategic importance. There is now a buffer zone patrolled by the UN. It is a quiet border now, but in the distance, not that far from where we were standing there were puffs of smoke, reminding us of the internal conflict in Syria and the fact that as we sat and drank coffee and bought souvenirs people were dying. A very sobering thought indeed.

On a lighter note, the coffee shop that we were at was called “Coffee Anan”, “coffee in the clouds” it means, but it is a deliberate play on the name of the former UN Secretary General. They are proud enough of it to have a brown road sign marking it and directing people to it. The coffee was good too!

At Caesarea Philippi, reading about Peter's affirmation of Christ as the MessiahOur pilgrimage has taken us into this beautiful hill region, with its scars of battle, from the Fortress of Nimrod – a massive Crusader castle marking the furthest they reached to the north-east (they never took Damascus) - to the twentieth century bunkers and shelled buildings of a much later conflict, because we wanted to visit the site of Caesarea Philippi. This city in the mountains is where Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God. I like to finish a pilgrimage at this point with the question posed by Jesus to his disciples, “And who do you say that I am?’ Before travelling in his steps, the pilgrims could recite the answer to that question without hesitation; now it is no different, but it comes with the knowledge that we have worshipped and prayed, read and sung our way around the land that witnessed the events that convince us of this fact.

Today the city of Caesarea Philippi is no more, but the fresh water spring that made this a place of settlement still gushes forth and from the clear streams the pilgrims gathered “Jordan water”, for this is one of the sources of the river and it is crystal clean at this place. Chris Orr, a parishioner of St Paul’s Lisburn, was just filling a bottle when he received a text message to say that his niece has just had a baby boy – that was really good timing! Congratulations!!

We gave thanks for our baptism; the unwearied shoppers made a few purchases at the nearby gift shop and we drove down towards our lunch stop at a nearby kibbutz. On the way we looked across a high wire fence into Lebanon, the other neighbour of Israel on its northern border. In the distance Mount Hermon, snow-capped for three months of the year, but clear at the moment, reared its bulk partly in Israel, partly in Syria, and we settled to soup and salad, salmon, beef and vegetables. Thus restored, we made an early return to Tiberias and our hotel.

Pilgrims swam and walked, rested and partook of refreshment. Tomorrow is a very early start. The morning alarm call is at 3.00 a.m. – then breakfast for those who can face it – a two hour drive, and we are back to queuing with luggage, passports in hand, listening for announcements and everything else that is now covered euphemistically by ‘relax and shop’!


Reflecting on Christ's post-resurrection appearance to his disciples by the Sea of GalileeReflecting on Christ's post-resurrection appearance to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee












At Caesarea Philippi, renewal of baptismal vows with water from the River JordanAt Caesarea Philippi, renewal of baptismal vows with water from the River Jordan













Day 11

The Ron Beach Hotel was quiet at 3.15 a.m., so from the hotel balcony the Sea of Galilee was quiet too, just a gentle lapping; the lights across the lake, in nearby Jordan, twinkle in the darkness.

Meeting for breakfast of cheese or egg rolls, fruit (and cake!) and tea or coffee at 3.30 a.m., the pilgrims are surprisingly chatty and, on the whole, wide awake, but by the time we left at 4.00 a.m., the lights in the coach off, we subsided into silence for the journey to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv – a journey of a little over an hour and a half. Here we said goodbye to our driver Kamal, who managed, during the course of the week, to take a fifty-seater coach on manoeuvres I wouldn’t have attempted in my car. Particularly I remember him reversing the bus up a narrow entrance to a car park on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which was up hill, round a bend and began at a sharp angle to the main road. Kamal managed it first time, without rearranging the street furniture.

Bags on trolleys, or wheeled behind us, we went through El Al security smiling sweetly, and there parted from Samer our excellent guide. He has been so helpful during the past ten days, and we have learnt much from him. What I have really appreciated is his quiet devotion in places where we too have been visibly moved, but he has seen it all before, experienced these places many times, but still they mean something to him. This belies the argument, often used against reciting the same prayers over and over again, that they lose their impact and become routine. Actually, at St Anne’s where we have the daily offices and a Eucharist each day too, I find that my concentration is helped by the daily reciting of the same canticles and prayers, rather than the opposite.

We were then on a mission to use up our last few shekels on coffee and snacks at the departures area, before boarding for Heathrow. So pilgrims second-breakfasted on anything from fruit to ice-cream. Everything has continued to go smoothly, and the very friendly El Al cabin staff made our flight back easy, and as pleasant as these things can ever be.

At Heathrow we had a bit of queuing, but there was time for reminiscing too, making little mental plans to meet up again, and contacting family and friends. This has been an exceptionally happy group of pilgrims; two thirds C of I, one third Presbyterian; Colin McClure, Minister of Larne Presbyterian Church and Stephen Forde, Archdeacon of Dalriada, representing the Bishop of Connor, have contributed greatly to the overall pilgrimage - and we have been one group – most of the time I couldn’t tell you who was C of I and who was Presbyterian, without making the effort to think about it. Isn’t that how we should be as Christians together?

Aer Lingus brought us from Heathrow to Belfast, and though there were a couple of delayed bags, which is annoying, but not too bad this way, otherwise everything has gone really smoothly. We will be ready to debrief to anyone willing to listen, but be prepared to be enthused with the thought of going to the Holy Land yourself, if you have not been before. As we settle back home, it is with the sounds and smells of Jerusalem and the sights and peace of Galilee still in our minds, just waiting to be relived every time we sing that hymn or read that part of the Scriptures. The pilgrimage goes on, as our lives are lived out each day, in the faith we have celebrated hour by hour in the land of our Lord’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection. A small chapter has been written in the lives of 30 pilgrims over the past eleven days – one that will not be forgotten – praise God for the chance to share these happy and holy experiences with others.


The complete Pilgrim group together with guide Samer



Michael and Barbara Callander lead the way on the road from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem.





Left : Many thanks to Dr Michael Callender for providing almost all of the photographs on this blog!