Palestine

Every day is Christmas in Bethlehem

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Bethlehem has been so crowded of late that it has been difficult to get groups into the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity. Yesterday we got in without a hitch. Yay!

The grotto has been the focus of Christian worship for almost two thousand years. Here, a humble stable-cave became a birthing place.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no space in the room above for them” (Luke 2:6-7).

The cave pictured above is swathed in tapestries and covers. The focal point at the far end is marked by lights and a star. It represents the place where Jesus was born. To the right is a niche associated with the manger.


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It’s time for you to experience Christmas in a new way. Will you consider joining us on a future trip to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other sites connected with the ministry of Jesus? 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.



Shawarma on the spit

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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).


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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.

The crypt of John the Baptist

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Mark the Evangelist describes how John the Baptist was beheaded by the order of Herod Antipas. The site where this happened seems to have been a mountain fortress in modern Jordan (μάχαιρα or Mukawir).*

When John’s disciples heard of this execution, they “came for his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:29). Several early Christian sources claim that John’s remains were eventually transferred to the site of Sebastiya, some 12 kilometers northwest of Nablus in the heart of Palestine.** John’s crypt is still there (preserved as part of a mosque), not far from the palace of ancient Israelite kings.

We visited Sebastiya and the keeper of the key was kind enough to open the reliquary. Inside was a shrine marking the place where John’s remains were placed.


*See the link to Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2 here.

**A helpful article by Carla Benelli may be found here. Benelli describes the sources for this tradition as well as some detail about the structure in Sebastiya.


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This intrepid crew has not only crawled into the crypt of John the Baptist, they have witnessed how history and tradition have played out across the landscape of Israel/Palestine.

If you are interested in experiencing the Land of the Bible in a different kind of way, consider joining one of our trips scheduled for 2020 or 2021! 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.

Summit view

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Seth stands on the acropolis of the mound of Samaria/Sebastiya. From this point, the central “spine” of the Heartland is appreciated. Elevations rise two to three thousand feet in the area. This ruin-mound is located about 12 kilometers northwest of Nablus, in the heart of Palestine.

King Omri built a palace here in the mi-9th century BC. It became the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Much later, Herod the great erected a temple on the summit and dedicated it to Caesar Augustus.

The view from here is quite fine!


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We are in the last week of our summer blitz of study-tours in the Heartland. It has been a good run.

If you or someone you know is interested in experiencing the Land of the Bible in a different kind of way, 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 by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com. We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.

Olives’ shoulder

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The summer sun has done its work. Jerusalem’s landscape is now brittle brown.

I left my room early in the morning to walk the hills east of the city. Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives are less like mountains and more like long ridges with a saddle between. Both are home to many olive trees, some at least a thousand years old.

For part of my walk I followed the Jerusalem Trail, a two-day loop that circles the city.


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I am between groups today, but look forward to meeting a new crew tomorrow. If you or someone you know is interested in experiencing Jerusalem personally, 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. We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.

A slice of Jerusalem history

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The Tower of David Museum is a splendid place to consider the deep history of Jerusalem. Exhibits, both permanent and temporary, help tell the story of this iconic city.

The “tower” from which this picture was taken, however, has nothing to do with David, but everything to do with Herod the Great and the Romans. Herod’s Jerusalem palace once stood on this spot, and, according to Josephus, he built three towers here. They were named after significant people in his life: Mariamne, Hippicus, and Phasael. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, they allowed these towers to remain as testimony to the former grandeur of the city (See Jewish War 7.1.1. at the link here). Many scholars believe the present structure is the remains of the Phasael Tower.

The Byzantines likely gave the site the name the “Tower of David” under the mistaken belief that this was the palace of Israel’s famous OT king.

Other periods of history are represented here. The present shape was basically achieved in AD 1310.


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The flavors of Jerusalem are compelling to the senses. If you are interested in experiencing them personally, 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. We are currently working on customized group reservations for 2022.

A walk of faith

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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.


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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.

Na’eeman!

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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.

A pretty lowdown sleeping arrangement

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Sleeping tonight in a hotel in Jericho, Palestine. The view out my window reveals a mosque, part of a waterpark, and the rising hills of the Wilderness of Judea.

Two men on horseback just rode by.

The prayer call is palpable.

All of Jericho is a pretty lowdown place, like a thousand feet below sea level lowdown.

Tomorrow we walk around the old city walls. Hope they’re still standing when we’re done.


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If you are interested in experiencing Jericho and 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.

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.

Who's your papa?

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The double-headed eagle is a heraldic symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is an ancient motif, used perhaps for the first time by the Hittites in modern day Turkey. It reemerged in the Byzantine Empire and was widely used by the 11th and 12th centuries AD.

The meaning of the two heads with one body is debated. Some suggest it presents the unity of church and state, a principle that guided the Byzantines. Others suggest it represents the dominion of the empire in the East and in the West.

In countries where Orthodoxy has a powerful presence it continue to be used today.

I found this one perched on a rope-stand in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.


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Pilgrims await their turn (sortof) to enter the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Tradition suggests that this is place where Jesus was born.

If you are interested in experiencing Bethlehem and a host of other sites 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.

Rain sweeps by Mt Carmel

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Standing on the summit of Mt Carmel I watch the rain sweep through the region. It pushes in from the Mediterranean and moves east, washing the central hills.

I shiver in the wind.

It is the perfect moment to reflect upon the story told in 1 Kings 18. There, we read of the contest between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The story has many points of entry but one of significance is the question: who controls the rain? Is is Baʿal, Rider of the Clouds or YHWH Adonai, the Creator of all things?

Find a dry place and consider the story for yourself (find it here).

Don’t miss the big finish. It is initiated by a cloud the size of a man’s hand and spotted from Carmel’s furrowed brow.

“Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of YHWH came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:45-46).

It was the first mud run.

Photograph by Bible Land Explorer Seth Tinkler.


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St Jerome (AD 347-420) once called the Land of the Bible the “fifth gospel. “Read the fifth,” he wrote, “and the world of the four will open to you.”

If you’d like to “read the fifth,” be aware that there are openings for Israel/Palestine trips departing this summer. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities here.

Elisha's Spring (Jericho)

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Rising at the base of Tell es-Sultan (OT Jericho), Palestine, is a spring. It is a source of life in the moon-like landscape of the Lower Jordan Valley. Today, the water is used chiefly for agricultural purposes, but in antiquity it provided drinking water for those living in this parched oasis.

The great prophets Elijah and Elisha passed through here. In the case of the latter, a story is told that involves Jericho’s spring. It is found in 2 Kings 2:19-22 and it goes like this:

“The people of the city (of Jericho) said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.” 

“Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.

Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.”

It is another head-scratching example of Elisha’s wonder-working power.

The phrase “Elisha’s Spring” or “The Prophet’s Spring” is still used today to describe this copious flow. You can see the spring house if you look east from the top of the mound. It is a elongated building with a red tiled roof just across the road.


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Interested in crafting an adventure of your own in the Land of the Bible? We work with church pastors, administrators, and college professors to customize trips to meet specific educational/ministerial needs. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com to discuss possibilities or consider joining one of our planned excursions listed here.

Green Jericho

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I can’t remember ever seeing Tell es-Sultan so green. Winter rain has given new life to dry places, even down in the Lower Jordan Valley.

This image by Bible Land Explorer Seth Tinkler shows our group of Johnson University students ascending the trail to the top of the ruin-mound. From that spot, a great views were enjoyed to the Wilderness of Judea, the gnarled basin of the Great Rift, the distant rim of Transjordan, and the modern city of Jericho.

Jericho prides itself in being the the most low-down city on the planet. Ringing in at 850 feet below sea level, they may have a claim.


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An experience of this land is incomplete without a shawarma. The centerpiece of this Middle Eastern “taco” is thinly-cut meat stacked and roasted on a vertical spit.

If you’d like to join us on an adventure of your own in the Land of the Bible, recognize that there are openings for trips departing this summer. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or check our full list of opportunities here.

Resilient

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. . . is the first word that comes to mind when I think about the ministerial students in Johnson University’s residency program. We have had three days of drenching rain in the Heartland (it really poured in Nazareth!), but they have scampered over every rock and puddle and have not flinched.

Other words that describe this group? Excited, compassionate, faithful, dangerous . . .

Tomorrow’s forecast for the Church is bright and sunny.


Rain moves across the Sea of Galilee.

Rain moves across the Sea of Galilee.

The residency program of Johnson University leads to a Master of Strategic Ministry degree. It involves a collaborative relationship between Johnson University and local churches. This accredited program equips students for effective, strategic Christian leadership and includes a study-tour to Israel/Palestine.

To learn more about residencies, see the link here.

Facelift

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Spent a few hours in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday. The restoration (which is not quite yet complete) is simply stunning. Those who can remember the dark dingy nave of yesteryear will be astounded to see the place today. The new roof is rustic but beautiful. You can see the open rafters of cedar that were hewn and hoisted into positioned in the 14th century. The 44 columns that support that roof were cut from local limestone and polished to a high degree. Now that they’ve been cleaned, you can distinguish them from their white marble crowns decorated in acanthus leaves. Note the scrollwork in the architrave that spans the gaps between the columns.

Keep in mind that this structure has been continually used as a place of Christian worship since the time of Constantine (mid 4th century). That makes it unique in all of Israel-Palestine.

The outline of the present structure was established by Justinian I in the mid-6th century.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was erected over a cave where Jesus was born.

It was the first place in Palestine to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.


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The Church of the Nativity is hopping right now as the tourist season is in full bloom.

We have openings right now for a trips scheduled to depart this summer. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.

News moves here

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News travels fast in Beit Sahour. I received a message yesterday asking if I had arrived in-country. Within an hour this young man was sitting outside my hotel with a car and an evening invite. I know his extended family well. They have been dear friends of ours for more than a decade.

On the way to his place we stopped at this circle. Michael wanted me to see the statuary in the center honoring the Christmas shepherds. He and his team of Palestinian Boy Scouts collected the funds to make the display possible.

Beit Sahour is a Christian village and home to the memory of the nativity shepherds. It is located just east and downslope from Bethlehem.

Michael told me that God chose the shepherds from Beit Sahour to be the heralds of Christ’s birth because news travels quickly here. He laughed and moved his fingers like a talking mouth: “We know how to gossip!”


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Today I meet a group of resident ministry students in the graduate program of Johnson University at the Tel Aviv airport. I am looking forward to spending the next two weeks with them visiting sites and regions of biblical relevance.

You too are welcome to join us on a future trip. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.


"If not for this site, you wouldn't be here."

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I utter these words every time we settle into this Roman theater. The phrase is awkward by itself. But if you put in context, it makes perfect sense.

The theater is located at a site known as Caesarea-by-the-Sea. It was a wind-swept rubble pile when archaeologists began restoration efforts in the 1950s. Today the place has been wonderfully restored and is visited by millions every year.

One can sit on the sandstone seats of the theater and gaze toward the Mediterranean. It is the perfect spot to imagine how astounding this city must have been in its prime. According to Josephus, this provincial capital was built by Herod the Great (“the baby-killer” of the Christmas story) in the decade between 22 and 12 BC. It has all the accruements of a first-century Italian transplant.

According to Luke the Evangelist it was here that a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius had a vision (see Acts 10). This revelation prompted “Pentecost II,” the spark that leaped over the fireline and out of the Jewish circle. Christianity moved with speed and force from “Caesar-city” into the non-Jewish world.

That’s why I say it. If not for Caesarea-by-the-sea and the events associated with this place, I doubt that Gentiles like you and me would be sitting here. But because it did, the world as we know it has been profoundly changed.


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Caesarea-by-the-sea is a highlight on nearly all of our study-tours in the Israel-Palestine. We stop at the theater, visit the promontory palace, walk the hippodrome, explore a Crusader fortress, and imagine the harbor at the center of it all.

You really should consider joining us this summer. We have spaces available on three different trips. Find the dates here and email me at markziese@gmail.com for details.

Cookie?

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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.


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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.

A little vista, a little vino

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Standing on the hillside village of Mashhad, you feel the sprawl of Kfar Kanna in the distance.

Kfar Cana had less than 1,000 residents at the end of the 19th century. Today that population has swelled to more than 20,000. A Christian core still exists. They are quick to point to a biblical memory.

Kfar Kanna is famously associated with the first of the recorded miracles of Jesus, the Wedding Miracle of Cana, or the exchange of water to wine (John 2:1-12). To this day, many tourists (and some Jesus Trail walkers) visit the Franciscan Wedding Church in the center of the village and purchase a bottle of wedding wine in one of the nearby stores.

Despite this lingering memory, most archaeologists prefer to locate the Cana of Jesus’s day at the more remote site of Khirbet Kanna. It is several miles from here (on the other side of the valley) and difficult to reach.

Bot Kfar Kanna and Khirbet Kanna rest to the north of Nazareth in the hills of Lower Galilee.


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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.