Daily life

Shawarma on the spit


What does one do after visiting Jacob’s well in Nablus? Find shawarma sandwiches and kanafeh of course! It is always a feast (and a cultural experience).


If you are a foodie and finding genuine local flavor sounds interesting, consider joining us on a future trip to the lands of the Bible. Find a trip by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com. We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.

A walk of faith


Workmen make repairs to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The dome on the left marks the traditional location of Christ’s burial and resurrection. The dome on the right (with the golden cross) marks the traditional location of Christ’s crucifixion.

Seeing a human up there gives scale to the golden cross. I didn’t know it was that big

Climbing that scaffolding is in itself an act of faith.


If you are interested in capturing a bird’s eye view to the land of the Bible you should consider joining one of our trips scheduled for 2020 or 2021. These educational experiences operate as part of the ministry of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. Find a trip that works with your schedule by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com.


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Getting a haircut in Palestine is always a cultural experience. For starters, there is usually the wait on a crowded bench with those who are your closest friends (or soon will be). Much coffee is consumed (and in the old days, cigarettes too), before, during, and sometimes after a cut. Threading is always a thrill. Waxing happens on occasion and of course, there is always the straight razor to the throat. Good haircuts take time. I promise that your eyebrows, cheeks, and ears will never look better (even if they do tingle a little bit).

In my experience the better barbers also demonstrate a bit of showmanship: scissors are clicked and twirled, brushes are juggled, fingers are snapped to the music. There is rhythm to it all.

Finally (after a little powder and/or cologne) comes the customary salute as the towel is whipped from the neck. “Na’eeman,” the barber pronounces with pride. It’s a kind of blessing about always being so fresh.

“Allah yena’am ‘alek,” I respond freshly.

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Palestinian fellas take pride in their hair. They don’t have sloppy mops like us Americans.

If you are interested in getting a good haircut in the land of the Bible you might want to consider joining one of our trips scheduled for 2020 or 2021. There are open seats on our trips found at the link here.

We can point you to some barbershops where you can get a good haircut.

Wheelman extraordinaire

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The single most important relationship on a study-tour is the one between the guide and driver. That kind of chemistry doesn’t develop in a day. But when it does develop and works well, logistics are resolved and many other things fall into place.

I am fortunate to work again this year with my dear friend Robert Makhlouf. He is extraordinary driver, an Arab Christian, and a new father of a lovely baby girl. He not only knows the roads, he knows how to keep his customers happy. Working with Robert has been one of the high points of my summer. He wears that grin morning, noon, and evening!

We contract exclusively with the George Garabedian Company in Jerusalem. GGC is an Armenian Christian group that uses top-notch drivers and state of the art motor-coaches. Robert is pictured here sitting in a 2018 Volvo. It is new, expansive, comfortable, and our home away from home.

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If you are interested in experiencing the biblical Heartland for yourself, consider joining us next year. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. We are booking new groups for 2022. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities at the link here.

Passover Seder, 2019


The passover seder is one way to rehearse the great story of liberation. It is celebratory and sensory: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste are exercised. Through it all, memories of what God has done in the past are retold. These prompt contemplation about what God is doing now and what God will do in the future.

Thanks to all our friends from the faith community at Crossings Knoxville who participated last night. Thanks especially to Vicki who prepared and served a splendid table. The salad, lamb, veggies, potatoes, and brownies were just perfect.

"You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

The photos above were taken by Bible Land Explorer Chris Battle.

No strings attached

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Wheeling, dealing, and fooling around has been a part of life in Çorum, Turkey, for as long as anyone can remember.

Back in the days of Abraham (yes, that Abraham), the Assyrians established a trading colony here. It was part of a network of trading partners (Akkadian: kāru) centered in what is today the Turkish province of Çorum. The route was an economic lifeline between northern Anatolia and Upper Mesopotamia.

Money was not yet invented in those days; precious metals were the currency of choice. Gold was eight times more valuable than silver. Only one metal was more valuable than gold: amutum. This metal was forty times more valuable than silver! Scholars believe amutum may be iron. Keep in mind that this was, in the parlance of archaeologists, still the age of bronze.

The fun-loving friends pictured above demonstrated to me the value of a good laugh and an old mandolin without strings. I bought it. It proudly sits on a shelf in my dining room today.

Çorum is located in the highlands between Ankara and the Black Sea coast.

*See K. R. Veenhof, Aspects of Old Assyrian Trade and Its Terminology (Brill, 1972): 385.


A last minute trip of Bible Land Explorers is coming together. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee are in the mix. Dates are May 25 through June 4, 2019. Late fees have been waived for a short time, but you'll need to grab your seat now if you are going to get it. Inclusive price out of Washington Dulles is $3,963. Other departure cities are possible. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information.

Lecture hall learners


Sometimes I wonder how effective the big lecture hall lectures are.

I try to channel my inner undergraduate as I wax eloquently on narrative construction techniques, explore the interplay between history and language, and rise to the challenge of hearing God in the text. Sometimes the feedback suggests “I get it.” Those are moments of celebration! At other times I just get stony stares.

Oh well. We keep at it.

The stony stares pictured above are not coming from lecture hall learners but from third-century (AD) funerary busts recovered at the site of Beth Shean (Scythopolis). This Heartland site was the leading city of the Decapolis and a real treasure trove of Late Roman life in the Lower Jordan Valley.

In this case, we are learning from them.

Funerary busts were erected over tombs across the Greco-Roman world, but they are rare in this part of the world. Carved in soft limestone, they display a mix of traditions, east and west, local and imported. Hair styles, jewelry, and clothing suggest a measure of personalization. Names in Semitic and in Greek languages are engraved on some and give flavor to the cultural blend that marked life in ancient Scythopolis.

You can find this display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


If you are a museum-lover you really can’t miss the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It contains a treasury of cultural artifacts from thousands of years of history.

We’ll visit the IM several times during our 2019 travel season. If you would like to join us, there are seats available. Find the dates here that fit your schedule and shoot me email me at markziese@gmail.com. I’ll do my best to work you in.



If you try one, you’ll know why you need to buy the box.

Arab hospitality meets shrewd salesmanship in East Jerusalem. There’s a fine line between the two. Bartering, bantering, coffee, and more bartering can be a part of the shopping experience. Bring cash and know your exchange rate if you are going to play the game. Smile regularly.

Welcome to the Middle East.

Photograph by Bible Lands Explorer Mark Kitts.


Our next experience in the land of the Bible is slated for March 12-23, 2019. We’ll be doing a study-tour with Master’s-level students in Johnson University’s residency program. Student trips are always fast-paced, high-energy, and full of great conversation.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.

An archaeologist's rig (part 13)

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Of all the rides featured in this stunning series few have reached the pinnacle of the sublime.

That just changed.


If this doesn’t sweeten your Valentine’s Day, you are truly a cold being.

I came across this engineering marvel on the island of Mykonos, Greece, many years ago. If the creator is still alive, I’m sure it is still running. At least parts of it are. In something.

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While touring in Israel-Palestine, we use a slightly larger vehicle. Our standard coach seats 50, has lots of glass, air-conditioning, wifi, and often is labeled Mercedes. Wheelmen like “Johnny Magic” pictured here (center) are key to our safety and success. I couldn’t do what I do without these dear friends.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details.

Multiple choice quiz


This picture represents

(a) the consensus view of the NFL.

(b) a bad cruise.

(c) the attempt by Jon Weatherly and Mark Ziese to snag some rubbish from the Sea of Galilee.

The correct answer is c (although a was an excellent guess).

Rubbish snagging is a task requiring Ninja-like skills and should only be performed by trained experts. Do not attempt anything like this at home.

And some of you thought that college administrators were just pretty faces.

Photograph by Bible Land Explorer Mark Kitts. He really should apologize.


There’s no telling what we are going to get ourselves into in 2019. But if you want to join our exclusive group of Bible Land Explorers you’ll need to contact me at markziese@gmail.com.

To see a list of planned travel opportunities in 2019 and beyond, consult our schedule here.

Through the wood

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Approaching Sepphoris through the wood.

East-West ridges are dominant trends in Lower Galilee. These ridges are formed of soft chalky rocks, that at one point in time, were swathed in trees and topsoil. Today, much of that topsoil has been relocated in valley floors and apart from reforestation efforts (as shown), the trees are gone.

Environmental scientists tell us that the area of central Lower Galilee (as pictured here in the shaded trail between Nazareth and Sepphoris) is home to maquis forest.* Maquis is a technical term used to describe a distinctly Mediterranean biome where summers a long and dry and winters are short and wet. Indigenous trees include the carob, mastic, and a variety of evergreens, with oaks at elevation.

Photo by Bible Land Explorer Susan Ruth.

*See for example, Zvi Gal’s work on Lower Galilee during the Iron Age (ASOR, 1992).


You are not going to find many bananas between Sepphoris and Nazareth (gotta go down into the Jordan Valley for that kind of heat), but you might find an occasional Jesus Trail hiker.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details.

The prettiest ugly fish I’ve ever seen

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You never know what kind of surprise awaits you at the kosher tables of the Royal Plaza, Tiberias. This is the prettiest ugly fish I’ve ever seen. Frankenfish! I don’t know where he came from, but it wasn’t the Sea of Galilee.

The good news is when you walk the Jesus Trail with me in the wintertime, we’re not eating freeze dried food from a foil envelope. Nooope. The question at my table is whether the napkins will be paper or cloth.


Our most recent group of Bible Land Explorers just completed a walk along the Jesus Trail, a 65 km trek across Galilee. In addition to an overnight in Tiberias, we bivouacked in Netanya, Kibbutz Lavi, and Jerusalem.

For a full list of travel opportunities in the Lands of the Bible, 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for details.

Living history

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The painted ceilings in the Jacir Palace, Bethlehem, are splendid. They are relics of a moment in time.

The end of the 19th century was marked by stability in the Levant. The elite of Palestinian society responded in an open-minded way. They continued to build in traditional styles, but incorporated new—and flashy—elements drawn from northern Mediterranean lands. These included ceiling paintings.*

The entry to the palace and its adjoining rooms was adorned with landscapes, abstract designs, and this single portrait. I believe it to be Youssef Jacir, a prominent figure of Bethlehem (died 1888). He was a leader in the local Christian church, the town’s registrar, tax-collector, and historical orator.** He fathered five children; the eldest was responsible for building the Jacir Palace. Not surprisingly, the face of the patriarch was respectfully placed on the ceiling where he remains at watch to this day.

Aren’t the colors magnificent?

A European artist by the name of Marco was commissioned to do the work.

*An excellent source for information about such things is Sharif Sharif-Safadi’s Wall and Ceiling Paintings in Notable Palestinian Mansions in the Late Ottoman Period: 1856-1917. Riwaq, 2008.

**See the history of the Jacir Palace here (accessed 12/20/2018).


Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.

Juliet perch


“What light through yonder window breaks?”

A Juliet perch adorns the face of the Jacir Palace, Bethlehem.


Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.



The dream-home of Suleiman Jacir was built at the turn of the 20th century. This Bethlehem family is remembered for their generosity as well as their successful business in mother of pearl ornaments.

While a core of Christian artisans remains in Bethlehem, Palestine, it is difficult to imagine this commercial heyday. The downward spiral of the fortunes of Ottoman-era merchants accelerated in the period of the British Mandate. Less than two decades after this stone palace was built the family went bankrupt and was forced to sell the property.


Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.

A place to drink coffee


The Jacir Palace in Bethlehem is an exquisite example of Late Ottoman architecture. Little work is needed to imagine how this space was used at the beginning of the twentieth century. Local and foreign guests of the Jacir family could rest here from the heat of the middle eastern sun. The courtyard is still used today as a place of meeting, drinking coffee, and telling stories.

The surrounding riwaq, or arcade, crouches behind columns of alternating colored stone. The riwaq provides a transition between surrounding rooms and the open courtyard in the center of the palace. Colored stonework continues around a fountain, a stimulating centerpiece.

Balconies to additional rooms are visible on the second floor.

For more on Bethlehem’s Jacir palace see here.


Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.

A fine centenarian


I’m usually not one to recommend hotels, but if you do happen to visit Bethlehem in the Christmas season, this is the place to hang your stocking cap. The stately manor at the core of the Jacir-Intercontinental Palace was built in 1910 by a well-to-do Arab Christian family. It is located near Rachel’s Tomb, although one is hard pressed to reach that place from here; Israel’s Great Barrier Wall often makes travel in and out of Bethlehem difficult.

The architecture of the structure is a blend of western and Oriental styles. A citadel-like entrance gives way to a lovely check-in area with a sitting room, a grand piano, and painted ceilings. Beyond this welcome area is an internal courtyard space of three stories.

Over the course of time the Jacir Palace has been a family home, the headquarters for the British army, a hospital, a school for boys, a school for girls, and now a hotel. For more than century it has been a familiar landmark in the community of Bethlehem.

I’ve stayed here only a few times but have always found the rooms, service, and food to be exquisite. I’m no cigar smoker, but if I was, the courtyard would certainly be the place to do it . . . while chatting about things that we gentlemen often chat about: riding, fencing, shooting, boxing, swimming, rowing and dancing.

Okay. You can laugh now.


We are gearing up for our next walk across Galilee. In January of 2019 we aim to do portions of the Jesus Trail with a small but intrepid group of travelers. I’ll keep you posted. If you are interested in joining another of our 2019 trips, have a look at what we have planned here. If you see something of interest, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com. We’ll do our best to accommodate you (although it may not be the Jacir Palace!).

The tree is up!

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The tree is up in Manger Square, Bethlehem!

Actually, its been up for a while. I captured this image a few days after Thanksgiving.

In case you think I’m kidding about the“Manger Square” part, know that it really exists. It is a plaza used for parking and for big events (read Christmas Eve!) in Bethlehem, Palestine. The Square is located directly in front of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus and the oldest continuously-used church in the world. Now do you get it? “Manger”-square, the Nativity? Ha!

Midnight mass in this plaza on Christmas Eve continues to be an iconic experience. It attracts thousands of worshippers to celebrate, remember, sing, and pray. The gathering is supervised by the Palestinian Authority although access to Bethlehem itself is controlled by the Israeli military.

Compare the Mosque of Omar (on the far right) to the picture I posted the other day (see here).

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Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal to the Lands of the Bible in 2019. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details. We make learning fun, eat good food, sleep in some respectable places, and send you home with memories for a lifetime!

What's the score?

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The concrete wall surrounding Bethlehem is a bitter testimony to one way in which the powerful control the powerless. A little graffiti painted on that concrete suggests another.


A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.

Ugly Italian beauties

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Italy’s Amalfi coast is famous for lemons. One cannot walk down the street in Sorrento without catching the whiff. Fragrant fruits—the size of softballs—are grown in citrus orchards and sold for juices, jams, liqueurs, soaps, dressings, garnishes, gelatos, or as treats by themselves. You can eat them right out of the skin!

The history of these ugly Italian beauties goes back at least to the Roman period. Lemons and lemon trees are pictured in paintings preserved on the walls of Pompeii. They were likely brought to the region from the Middle East. Some claim the Jews were responsible, as the citron (etrog, in Hebrew) had ceremonial use.*

Pliny the Elder, a local Roman historian who died in the eruption of Vesuvius, hints at one source, calling the lemon “a Median Apple” (Natural History 12.7, see text here.). Media is an area of modern Iran.

The limone femminello is the oldest variety. It has celebrity status on the Amalfi coast.

And you thought the only lemon to come out of Italy was the Fiat.

*"Four species” of plants are mentioned in Leviticus 23:40 and associated with the Feast of Booths (sukkot). Rabbinic Judaism connected one of these species with the etrog or citron.

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We have several travel experiences planned for 2019 (see list here). These are organized on behalf of educational institutions or church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.