Friday 23 March 2018

'Blessed are the meek...' Bringing the Bible to life in the Holy Land

Old city of Jerusalem
Old city of Jerusalem
Church of the Sermon on the Mount
Old Jerusalem
Eleanor Goggin on the Via Delorosa
Sea of Galilee
Map of Israel

Eleanor Goggin

My knowledge of the Bible is confined to my school days, which is not today or yesterday and most of it had been forgotten, but on a recent trip to the Holy Land, it all came flooding back.

Those who know me would find it a tad incredible that I went on a pilgrimage, but I have to say I found it a very interesting and enlightening experience. We travelled with Turkish Airlines and Marian Pilgrimages via Istanbul to Tel Aviv and from there to Tiberias. And so it began.

Not only is Tiberias a great place to explore the area around the Sea of Galilee, but it's also the birthplace of rugby star Jamie Heaslip. We based ourselves at the very central Restal Hotel and our journey began.

Where better to start than the home of Jesus, the town of Nazareth. The Basilica of the Annunciation is a modern church built in 1969 over the ruins of a previous Byzantine one. The site where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary is housed in the crypt and the courtyard is adorned with mosaics donated by various countries including Ireland. The surrounding countryside was a surprise. Orange trees, mango trees, cornfields and olive trees abound. I had expected dry arid land but instead it's verdant and lush .

Church of the Sermon on the Mount

Church of the Sermon on the Mount

Tabha is another nearby town, where the Sermon on the Mount and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes took place. The Church of the Multiplication of the loaves and fishes was built in the 1980s over the original 5th century basilica and this is where the 5,000 were fed. We had lunch in the rather aptly named Peter's restaurant where we partook of some very tasty 'Peter's Fish', served with the head on and said to have been the fish that St Peter caught every day.

The Church of the Primacy of St Peter was our next port of call. This is where Jesus appeared to the apostles after his Resurrection. And then a stroll up the hill to the area where He delivered the Beatitudes. It was all coming back to me: "Blessed are the meek…"

Life on a bus with people you have never met before is a revelation in itself and not of the religious kind. The ones you think you are going to like are the ones you end up running away from every morning and the ones that you have murderous thoughts towards initially are the ones you end up hanging out with.

It's amazing how firm friendships are formed when people are thrown into a bus tour situation. Friendships for life. By day two, people were feeling comfortable enough to stand at the top of the bus and give various renditions. This may have been partly due to the fact that the four couples who were on the bus had chosen to renew their wedding vows on the trip and seemed to think thay they were back in the first flushes of youth. One of them gave us a rendition of 'We were not too young at all'.

Day two brought us to the site of the first miracle - Cana and the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast and then a trip on the Sea of Galilee. We moved slowly in our large wooden boat over the very tranquil waters and then all hell broke loose. Dancing, singing and much hilarity. Ranging in age from folk in their twenties to seventies, everyone joined in. I never thought I would see the day I'd be dancing on the Sea of Galilee.

Eleanor Goggin on the Via Delorosa

Eleanor Goggin on the Via Delorosa

The following morning we drove along the Jordan Valley to Jericho and the Dead Sea. We visited the Mount of Temptation where the Devil is said to have appeared in order to tempt Jesus out of his 40 day fast. The tax collector Zacchaeus, who went up the fig tree to see Jesus, lived here and Jesus used to lodge with him. Again the surrounding area was very fertile looking with Tamaris trees and sheep and cows grazing. Bedouins live here.

Then it was on to the Dead Sea on a clear and sunny day. A fabulous vista to behold. Many of my new-found friends went for a dip. Seemingly, it's virtually impossible to drown because of the extremely high salt content but I wasn't taking any chances and opted to watch. Buoyant they said. All very well for the devout believers, the hedonistic sinners like me might not have been so lucky.

It was on to Bethlehem and the Manger Square Hotel. Again a very central location and within a few paces of the Nativity Church. All the hotels provide a buffet in the evenings. Meze is the order of the day for starters and the selection is amazing. Pickled vegetables are a favourite. Carrots, cauliflower, beetroot all mixed with chillies, tabbouleh, stuffed vine leaves, falafel, houmous and roasted aubergine are just some of the healthy and filling options.

Pitta bread is served with everything. Mains vary from spicy chicken to lamb, fish dishes and chicken livers in a stew, Baklava- pastry filled with nuts and almonds and soaked in honey is nearly always a dessert option.

Old Jerusalem

Old Jerusalem

The Church of the Nativity is home to the birthplace of Jesus and Fr Charlie from Cork said Mass for us in St Jerome's Church, a tiny little cave within the Church. We sang Away in a Manger and Adeste Fideles to our hearts content. Again it all came flooding back and even though the voice is gone from the fags, I croaked along.

For me Jerusalem was the highlight. It's a busy multi-cultural city with so much history. The old city goes back more than 3,000 years and is divided into four different quarters, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. The old cobbled streets are packed with stalls, shops and cafés all vying rather enthusiastically for business, but it's a great place to sit with a coffee and some of their sweet bread and absorb the atmosphere.

The Mount of Olives, on the eastern side of the city gives amazing views. We visited the Church of the Pater Noster, where Jesus is said to have taught the Our Father and we recited the Our Father in Irish, English, Polish and our guide Muttasam said his in his native Arabic. Talking of guides, there is no way you could do this trip without being on a tour with one. It would be impossible to go from site to site without a bus and a guide. We visited the nearby Church of St Peter in Galicantu and the dungeon where Jesus was held the night before his death.

There are seven gates into the old city and a stroll from Zion gate takes in Mount Zion and the Church of the Dormition, the site where Mary is said to have gone to live after the death of Jesus. There's a sculpture of a sleeping Mary in the crypt. Mount Zion is also home to the Hall of the Last Supper.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is considered to be the most important in Biblical history. It's built around the site where Jesus was crucified and contains the Tomb of Christ. A piece of marble covers the spot which is enshrined in a rather ornate edifice.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

I witnessed many pilgrims emerging from the tomb with tears rolling down their faces. True devotion. Via Dolorosa is the route for the Stations of the Cross and again Fr Charlie led the way. We took turns at carrying the Cross and yes I carried it for the final stretch. Again to see the pilgrims so moved by the experience was amazing. I was actually quite moved myself. The final leg of our trip was a visit to the Wailing Wall, the Jewish Holy site. Men to the left and women to the right. Walk backwards as you leave. It's a fascinating place. Jews rock backwards and forwards at the wall, bemoaning the destruction of the Temple. The cracks in the wall are full of petitions inserted every second. Mine fell straight out. Surely a sign.

Our pilgrimage was over. And it had been enlightening and fun too. We had chats, games of poker and sing songs. I even did my Elvis impression which must have meant excess alcohol was consumed. Pity there wasn't someone to change the wine into water.

Take three

Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake, is drained by the Jordan River. It's an incredibly tranquil spot and it's an experience to stand on the shores and imagine Peter fishing there in the time of Jesus. They say if you pick seven shells from the shore your wishes will come true. I brought my seven shells home with me. A trip on the Sea in one of the many wooden boats is great fun. We gave a resounding version of the National Anthem on board.

Old Jerusalem

Old Jerusalem is a bustling city steeped in history. Surrounded by beautiful walls, with seven entrance gates, the cobbled streets are full of bazaar-like shops. An Arabic or Turkish coffee with some of the local bread in one of the many outdoor restaurants is a must. The Via Dolorosa, itself a series of old cobbled streets, is the way of the Stations of the Cross and to carry the Cross part of the way is a moving experience.


Meze, which is mainly vegetarian is hugely popular in the Holy Land. Pickled vegetables such as cauliflower, peppers and cauliflower with a hint of chillies are on nearly all menus. Stuffed courgettes, auburgines and vine leaves are also a tasty option. Tabbouleh (bulgar wheat with herbs, onions and tomato) and houmous, all served with hot pitta bread, make for a very healthy and filling starter or main course.

Map of Israel

Getting there

Eleanor Goggin travelled to the Holy Land with Marian Pilgrimages (, specialists in trips to Lourdes, Medjugorje, the shrines of Italy and the Holy Land. All pilgrimages include return flights with Turkish Airlines, taxes, transfers, hotels, half board and tours to the places of interest with an English speaking guide

Dates this year for the Holy Land pilgrimage include the following: Departures take place on March 29th for nine nights costing €1,395.00; May 4th for eight nights costing €1,295.00; Sept 17th and Sept 23rd for eight nights costing €1,324.00; October 15th and October 23rd for eight nights costing €1,324.

Sunday Independent

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