Monthly Archives: December 2013


It was April 1967 when I gathered at New York’s JFK International Airport with my 47 friends. This was to be my first journey abroad.If you have already  been to the Holy Land, you will be able to identify with my feelings on my first journey. I was flying before the plane left the gate in New York.I was actually going to the Holy Land!    Me!      Actually!    Seemed incredible.Our group was quite eclectic in its make up. There were young couples and a few kids but they were mostly older retired people. This is still the profile of most groups.   And most groups today are not as large as was mine. They usually number 12 to 15 and share the services of guides and drivers on a bus

To me the unique experience of being a minority in a majority Muslim world, was quite disturbing at first.

one of the largest mosques in the worold

one of the largest mosques in the world

 It was a rude awakening to learn that the world did not mirror my limited life experience in Southern California. I remember awakening in Beirut Lebanon the first morning to the Muslim call to prayer and finding that so wild  and pagan sounding.

One of our 1967 side trips was impossible this year as we went through the Bekka Valley to Damascus to visit the traditional Street called “Straight” and the largely fictional places that memorialized the story of Paul in the book of Acts.

I remember the huge monolith there, destined to be an obelisk but broken in the process of its removal from the quarry, jutting out of the quarry as a silent memory of when this area was dominated by Rome. So big you could actually drive a car on it.

Beirut was known then as the Switzerland of the Middle East as it was the place the wealthy of the Muslim world went to play and experience the vices they were denied back home in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.It was fortunate that we went there in 1967 because, not too many years later, war would break out between the Maronite Christians and the Syrian backed Muslim fundamentalists and later Hamas. Beirut became a war zone. Hamra Street, with all of its French designer shops, was right in the middle of that conflict and was destroyed in the process.

When we were there, all of the world’s top designers  had their beautiful stores on Hamra Street where they catered to the wealthy of the Arab world. Beirut was then a beautiful city and even had a Las Vegas style casino, Casino du liban, complete with elephants and water falls on stage that out did the Nevada scene by far

One of the marvelous buildings cared out of the rock in Petra

One of the marvelous buildings cared out of the rock in Petra

Going to Petra the first time was a thrilling experience even before I understood its fascinating probable connection with the Apostle Paul and with the development of our Christian theology. (See chapter 19 ).

The Rose red city of Petra

The Rose red city of Petra 

Up there, above our heads, was the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses.

Petra was on the track followed by the Jews during their 40 year trek through the wilderness.

It was also  from here that the mother of Herod the Great came .

The Idumaeans who built Petra were a gifted people with their city carved out of the red sandstone cliffs described now as one of the wonders of the world.

It took another 30+ years for Hollywood to discover this exotic site and feature it in the epic film, Indiana Jones and Last Crusade.

Not far from Amman, the famous mountain called Nebo towers over the Jordan Valley.It was from this vantage point that Moses viewed the promised land that he was forbidden to enter and it was near here that he was buried in a yet to be discovered tomb. Somewhere below where we stood on Nebo, Uriah the Hittite fell in battle so that David could claim his wife Bathsheba for his own. Down the distant mountain pass to the West, Naomi  and her 2 sons and their wives, traveled in search of food and it was back up that same pass, across the Jordan River  that the 2 now destitute widows returned to Bethlehem, as recorded in the Book of Ruth. As we stood on Mount Nebo we were able to let our eyes sweep the panorama below us as we looked to the left and saw the Dead Sea and the cliffs where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, Qumran, where we would later visit.

Sweeping to the North our gaze took us past ancient Jericho and the mountain of temptation where Jesus is said to have had his encounter with Satan, and, with the Jordan River snaking its path from the Sea of Galilee in the North to its terminus in the Dead Sea, it was all there  at our feet. Awesome!

Further to the North, if we could have seen that far, we would have seen the Sea of Galilee.

Standing there on Nebo we realized the fact that the land promised by God to Israel was located on both sides of the Jordan River. That became more significant later when the border dramatically moved in June of 1967, 6 short weeks after my visit there. We ventured onto the West Bank by crossing the King Hussein bridge over the Jordan River near where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

You  are beginning to see how close we are to the Bible events? They are everywhere.

Visiting Jericho we looked in vain for the fallen walls and then proceeded up the modern/old Jericho road and were reminded of the story of the good Samaritan. The ruins of an old Turkish fort are found at the mid point and are often mistakenly called the inn of the Good Samaritan.  I learned early on to try to distinguish between the fanciful and the real. A lot of what we were shown as fact just was not so. Our Jerusalem hotel was an Arab hotel called the St George and it was located quite near the Old City of Jerusalem. Next door to the hotel was the shop of Mr. Kando.

He was an interesting character and played an important role in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Small of stature and always wearing a dirty ankle length robe with a fez hat and always in need of a shave and shower, his main employment was as a shoe repair cobbler. He also dabbled in antiquities and that is how he at one time had the famous Dead Sea Scrolls in his possession. I bought some ancient lamps from him to bring home with me. The famous one eyed  Israeli general Moishe Dyan was a regular customer of Kando in later years.

While in Jordan/Jerusalem we had a fascinating time visiting so many sites of importance to the faith. 

A cave is located under the alter in the church in Bethehem where Jesus was born

A cave is located under the alter in the church in Bethlehem where Jesus was born

We went to the birthplace of the Savior in Bethlehem,  to Mount Moriah with its 4000 year old history at the heart of the Old Testament  sacrificial system and  its connection to one of the 2 possible sites for the crucifixion and resurrection. (See chapter 19.) We visited both traditional places identified as Calvary.

The authentic pools of Siloam and Bethesda central to 2 of Jesus’ miracles, and the 2800 year old tunnel of Hezekiah were on our itinerary.   

the retaining wall of the temple of Herid

the retaining wall of the temple of Herod

A wandering walk through the Old City is an experience unto itself.   And of course the “wailing wall” or western wall of the temple plateau built by Herod the Great at the time of Jesus, looms large in my memory of that first trip.

The high point emotionally for us then and now, was the communion service experienced at the Garden Tomb, one of the 2 locations thought to be where Jesus died and was raised from the dead.

The wine/grape juice is served there in a small carved olive wood cup that is then taken home as a treasure to remember an extraordinary experience and spiritual high.


communion service at the garden tomb

communion service at the garden tomb

During the intervening years since 1967 the borders between Israel and her Arab neighbors have changed in remarkable ways.

On the first trip, all of the West Bank of the Jordan River including the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jericho and the Dead Sea, were ruled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan under the Western oriented King Hussein. His son Abdullah now reigns in his place. Israel’s piece of the pie was tiny and indefensible

There were then and are still, 2 cities of Jerusalem.There is the “Old City” everyone recognizes. But there is also New Jerusalem built by generations of Zionist Jews who have immigrated from Europe over the past 150 years.

In April 1967, the border between Jordan and Israel, and Old and New Jerusalem,  was a “no mans land” strip of dirt that traced along  outside the walls of the Old City and continued to the North.  Across the valley to the West were Israeli snipers who tried to kill the Arab snipers who were shooting at them from behind the walls of the Old City.  Everyone was a target and fair game in this struggle, regardless of which side of “no mans’ land” you stood on. Keep your head down or else..

If you were foolish enough to become exposed to either side you could become dead quickly and so, when touring the Old City then, we were very careful to not stick our heads up anywhere along the Western side of the city.

One of the places where Jesus may have been buried

One of the places where Jesus may have been buried

In early 1967 while the Old City was still in the hands of Jordan, Jews were forbidden to visit what is now Israel’s most sacred location the so called wailing wall or Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Now there is a wide open plaza there that allows you to walk in great numbers right up to the wall. Then that entire area was covered by slummy little houses that crowded right up to the wall itself. I remember threading my way through this tumbledown mess and suddenly abruptly finding myself at the base of the wall looking up. The time of greatest celebration for Israel was when the Jews took the Old City and especially the area of the Western wall. Almost immediately they cleared away the slum dwellings and the result is the wide plaza over the now filled in Tyropean Valley of Jesus’ day.

Israel was so small and virtually indefensible then within the borders defined by the UN mandate and then subsequently  fought over in the 1948 war of Independence.

Israel’s  continued existence as a nation was not all  that certain in 1967

At one point Israel was only about 8 to 10 miles wide between the border with Jordan to the East and the Mediterranean Sea to the West. This narrow portion was in the area of Biblical Samaria.  The Arab world at large has never accepted the existence of the State of Israel and still does not do so. So Israel can never enjoy the luxury of letting its guard down.

In order to enter Israel in April 1967  it was necessary to cross over “no mans’ land”.The entry point to Israel from Jordan was through the remains of a home formerly owned by a Jewish family called Mandelbaum. Their ruined home was in fact the famous so called Mandelbaum Gate. When we crossed over into Israel, leaving our Jordanian bus and driver and guide behind , we personally hauled our baggage across the strip of dirt plaza where it was then  reloaded  onto the awaiting Eged  Israeli bus and  where we met our Jewish Israeli guide and, unexpectedly,  our Christian Arab driver.An  Arab driver for our Israeli bus in Israel?    We did not expect that.             How can this be?

At that time many of the sites of interest to Christians were in Jordan. But there was still much for us to see on the Israeli side including Nazareth, Cana and Megiddo and Caesarea and Capernaum. In traditional Cana I purchased a small bottle of wine (remember that famous wedding Jesus participated in?) that now, some 46 years later, resides yet unopened in my home office.

local wine in the city made famous by Jesus' first miracles

local wine in the city made famous by Jesus’ first miracles

A mystery. This corked and still sealed bottle has seen its fluid level drop about an inch over the past 46 years. How is that possible?     Bottom Line: It is my hope is that this summary from memory of my first journey to the lands of Bible will whet your appetite to share my experience

canawine holylandguru









Since this present US Administration took office it has been abundantly clear that Barack Obama is a prejudiced man .

And that prejudice runs counter to America’s historic commitment that has consistently viewed the State of Israel as a necessary and valued ally in the Middle East.

While understanding that countries do not have “friends”, they mainly have interests, a safe Israel has always been viewed as clearly among our US national interests.

Most American Presidents and Administrations have recognized that fact and have supported Israel, often standing alone in that endeavor in the UN.

But to many in the world, the very existence of the Jewish State is the cause of tension and war and to them, it would be a good thing if the state of Israel no longer existed.
Its demise would remove a constant irritant that has the Arabs so angry and aggressive.

Does Obama believe that?

holy land tour with the Holy Land Guru

Huge Herodion stones placed in the western wall built by Herod the Great at the time of Jesus.










President Obama’s presumed mind set in this matter is perhaps understandable.

Consider the following: Mr. Obama’s family roots are in the Muslim world and his personal emotional attachment is clearly to Islam, from his father’s influence and from his years living in the Muslim world and from soaking up that culture to the point that the sound of the Islamic call to prayer is, as he admitted, one of “the most beautiful sounds” in the world to him.

If you were to be able to peal back the layers of the onion so to speak, I suspect that this is what you find inside the American President.

That personal sentiment/ pre judging, has been on display since Obama took office beginning with his “apology tour” to the Muslim world, his cow towing to the Saudi leader, his dissing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on several occasions, and his strong reluctance to visit the Jewish State.










It took until 2012 for him, under political pressure from the largely Democrat American Jewish lobby, to actually go to Israel and see for himself the absurdity of a peace plan that requires strategic suicide on the part of Israel and an eventual guarantee, one day. of the refighting, of the 1967 war all over again.

Fact: The Arab world has never accepted the existence of the State of Israel and is still committed to its extinction either through the so called “right of return” that would open her borders to her Arab neighbors and would result in the Jews becoming an instant minority in their own state, OR, by war, perhaps the largely preferred way.

Now Mr. Obama’s emotional attraction to the Arab side is playing out geo-politically in his commitment to a “Peace Process” designed to force/convince/entice/bribe Israel to return to the early 1967 borders that existed prior to the 6 Day War.
John Kerry, US Secretary of State, is there as I write pursuing that goal.

This American/European pressure on Israel to give up this hard won land has been on display since 1967 and, if implemented, would result in the eventual destruction of the Jewish State and a possible 2nd holocaust.
Consider that carefully.
Not so farfetched.

If you had been there with me on one of my Holy land tours you would understand why this plan will never be implemented.
Israel will never voluntarily give up the “West Bank” as it is known.
To do so, would be strategic suicide.

A brief lesson in geography and in history is in order.

holy land tours

1948 plan to divide Palestine and provide for a Jewish state












I took my first of now 125 holy land tours in 1967, 19 short years after the establishment of the State of Israel and only 6 short weeks prior to the outbreak of the important 6 Day War.

I remember vividly the Middle East as it was then.

The Jewish State came into existence in 1948 as the fulfillment of a plan to provide a safe place, a Jewish State, for survivors of the European holocaust.

In 1948, the area we now call Israel was a state-less area, still administered by Great Britain after the dissolution of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One.

Its national roots were laid earlier when a British politician named Lord Balfour created a formal plan called the Balfour Declaration that declared it was Great Britain’s intention to establish a Jewish state somewhere in the land they then administered that had formerly, prior to World War One, been part of the now long gone Ottoman Empire.

Jews had already lived in that part of the world for thousands of years and had come in large numbers during the previous 150 years to escape the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe.
As a result of a wave of Zionist inspired “aliyah” imigrations from Europe, their numbers there 9in this part of the former Ottoman Empire had steadily grown. (For more information see blogs at my website holylandguru,com).

The land allotted to Israel by the UN in 1948 was small and indefensible to the max.

The bulk of the partitioned land went to Jordan and so, Immediately upon the official declaration of the existence of the State of Israel by the UN, war broke out and its now citizens were forced to fight to the death against the numerically stronger Arab side as the “War of Independence” commenced.

Israel’s survival did not gain much hope internationally.

It then seemed inevitable that Israel would be destroyed by its Arab neighbors.

Much to surprise of the world, Israel prevailed, won the conflict, and pushed the borders back thus strengthening their position……. but not by much.

And that was the reality when I first visited both sides of that border on my first of now 125 Holy Land tours.

When I took this 1st holy land tour in 1967, Israel was only about 10 miles wide at one point and the entire West side of the Jordan River, including the Old City of Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan (See for a detailed account of that journey and my observations then)

In 1967, under the prodding of Egyptian strong man Gamal Abdul Nasser,the combined forces of the Arab side simultaneously attacked Israel from 3 sides, shortly after I returned from my first holy land tour.

Again the Jewish State was faced with annihilation and another holocaust.

The huge well trained and equipped Egyptian army with hundreds of tanks, flooded across the Suez Canal into the Sinai from the South, and the disciplined Jordanian army came from the East while the Syrian forces attacked from the North East .

Nothing short of a miracle and remarkable courage prevented a massacre and the end of the small State of Israel.

This lop sided conflict, resulted in a massive victory for the greatly outnumbered Jewish forces.

The decisive defeat by Israel of all of these Arab armies resulted in the borders of Israel being dramatically pushed South all the way to the Suez Canal and to the Jordan River to the East, and to the backside of the Golan Heights to the North East.

By mid June 1967 Israel finally had achieved clearly defined and defensible borders.

At the very same time, international pressure began to be exerted on Israel to give up the land the Arabs had lost during the 6
days of war, and to return to the former pre 1967 borders as though there had not even been a war.

That pressure on Israel continues today and at an increasing rate under the Obama Administration.

The US has great influence in Israel because of the historic financial and military support we have given them over the years.
At the same time we have also poured billions into the Arab side.
Such is the insanity of American foreign policy.

Israel depends upon the support of the US for its existence and so when an American Administration tries to muscle policy that is detrimental to Israel’s survival they are placed in an impossible situation.

They must try to balance their need to defend themselves in the midst of a hostile Arab sea
alienating the only historic supporter they have had, the United States of America.

And so the diplomatic struggle between Israel and the US proceeds with Secretary of State John Kerry wielding both the carrot and the stick and with the Arab world looking on.

The players have all seen this movie before but not with an American President so clearly prejudiced to the Arab side..

One thing Israel understands is that it cannot trust the United States to serve Israel’s interests.
It must in the final analysis, look to its own survival, regardless of what inducements Kerry and Obama may push that serve their own interests.
Clearly there is a conflict of interests afoot here.









The author, Dr. Robert Grant has frequently been to the Middle East, taking American church groups there, about 125 times over the past 46 years and is a keen observer of the region.
He encourages American pastors to bring members of their congregations with them and to, in the process, be able to have this Bible inspiring journey, at no personal cost to them.
Please go to where you will find his many original articles written on all things holy land related. Also consider traveling with him in December 2014 or January 2015 when he will be going back to the Holy land again.

The Old City of Jerusalem as seen today

The Old City of Jerusalem as seen today



If you lived in Estonia that could very well be a choice you would make. Estonian families often go to a sauna on Christmas eve where the entire family strips off and soaks aux natural to welcome in Christmas day. If you lived in Norway you would probably find yourself hiding your brooms on Christmas eve lest the wicked witch who roams about on Christmas eve might find yours and proceed to ride it. If you lived in Caracas Venezuela you would probably get out your roller skates and make your way down roads temporarily deserted of cars to celebrate midnight mass..


In a moment I will tell you about yet other strange encumbrances that have attached themselves like barnacles to the bottom of a boat, to the simple story of the birth of the Savior. One of the highlights of our holy land tours is our visit to the Church of the Holy Nativity in the heart of Bethlehem. Local tradition pointed to this location when Helena the mother of the “Christian” emperor Constantine first came here in the 4th century AD and caused this church to be built. Under its present structure (been destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times) and under the alter is a cave where most agree that this is where Jesus was born.


Most people who have not traveled abroad are under the mis-impression that the way they celebrate events is the way everyone does so. That is clearly not so. Local culture and traditions often get all tangled up in the fabric of the historic event. We can see how that happened to our own celebration of Christmas as pagan symbols from Europe like mistletoe and Christmas trees and Easter bunnies and eggs all attached themselves to the celebration of important days in the life of Jesus.

Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine

Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine


In the Holy Land where we take holy land tours annually, Christmas in Bethlehem is a grand celebration that begins with a crowded manger square lined with restaurants and peddlers selling their goods, and a procession with Arabian horses followed by a single horseman riding a coal black horse and carrying a cross, followed by a host of dignitaries who proceed into the Church of the Holy Nativity where mass is celebrated.


But if you were to poke your head inside that church it would not much resemble your church at home. No seats. Huge rough textured chandeliers festooned year long with round colored Christmas glass globes. You would also notice that the local Christian Arab homes (of which there are fewer each year as the Muslims continue driving the Christian families out) have a cross painted on their doors and often a nativity scene outside. Local craftsmen carve such from local olive wood and many who travel with us on our holy land tours buy such to display at home. On our Holy Land tours we go into the church and are able to go below the alter where the cave is located that is reputed to be where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. So to their credit the Orthodox and Catholic denominations that predominate there make the important connection between the birth and the death/resurrection of Jesus.



So what other strange customs have been added to the Christmas story around the world? Here are a few, perhaps bizarre details. I am moved to ask the rhetorical question: What on earth do these have to do with the simple yet profound story of the incarnation? In Japan on Christmas eve you would probably celebrate by getting a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I kid you not.


In Greenland you would probably “enjoy” a delicacy that has been in the preparation since the past summer called kiviak. It is made by killing about 500 birds, sewing them up whole complete with entrails and beaks, in a seal skin, placing a heavy rock on top to squeeze out the air and allow it to ferment for 6 months. Said to smell like cheese.


In Catalonia Spain you would see statues called “caganers” of famous politicians and personalities shown defecating. Families hide these graphic statues in their nativity scenes and invite their guests to discover them. These cagners are thought to attract prosperity. Also they have what they call a “Christmas crapper” which is a piece of a tree trunk with 4 stick legs and with a face painted on it and a hole cut out into which the kids stuff candy over the days leading up to Christmas and then on Christmas day the small section of log is placed in the fireplace and the kids are instructed to beat it until it “poops candy” all the while singing Christmas carols. You can’t make this stuff up now can you.


In the Ukraine you would find the Christmas trees decorated with artificial spider webs remembering the local legend of a poor family who could not afford to decorate their tree and so the spiders did it for them and those webs later turned into gold and silver threads. In La Befana Italy, instead of awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus you would be waiting for the arrival of a witch who flies into town on a broom stick and gives out candy to the kids.


In Bangladesh you would see the villagers cutting down banana trees, tying them together in pairs and replanting them alongside the path they take from their home to church. The huge leaves are bent over to make an archway. Pieces of bamboo have holes drilled in them and candles inserted and provide light for the journey to church for the late night service Christmas eve.


In Turkey, an officially Muslim country which tolerates a degree of freedom of religion (unfortunately this appears to be diminishing under the current regime), the birth place of Saint Nicholas in Patara is celebrated in the nearby town of Demre with a 3 day festival in early December.
In Viet Nam a strongly Buddhist/Confucian country, the influence of the French occupation there is to be seen in the large number of Roman Catholics who, following midnight mass on Christmas eve go home to a huge meal of chicken soup, if you are poor, or of turkey with all of the trimmings if you are wealthy. And the kids do not hang up stockings but place their shoes outside in the hope of finding gifts there in the morning.


In Labrador the kids are given turnips saved from the previous summer harvest. A hole is drilled in the turnip and a lighted candle inserted.
In Iceland a central character in the celebration of Christmas is a scary cat like figure that eats children who have been lazy and not studied hard enough. If you have performed well in your studies you get new clothes to wear on Christmas. That is to protect you as the hungry cat is said to only eat people with old clothing on.


In parts of Mexico like Oaxaca you would find locals making and buying nativity scenes carved out of huge radishes and sold in local stores.
In Sweden you would probably share a bowl of rice pudding in which a peeled almond has been placed knowing that the one who finds the almond is assured of good fortune and of getting married in the following year.


If you were a Christian living in Iraq (yes a few still survive there) you would probably make a fire outside your house from thorns. Tradition says that the way your fire burns will determine your future prospects. If the thorns turn to ash then the future will be good for you and then everyone jumps over the ashes 3 times. Why 3?

holy land tours

Dr Robert Grant the Holy Land Guru


Such is the interesting variety to the human experience. One does wonder how the story of Christmas gets so interwoven with such often bizarre customs and practices.


Question: Should you be considering coming with us when we next return to the Holy Land in December 2014 (11 days to Israel, Jordan and Turkey) or in January 2015 for 10 marvelous days in Israel? Special arrangements are provided for pastors and Bible teachers to underwrite most if not all of their cost.


For 46 years now I have been going to the lands of the Bible (over 120 times) and in the process taking thousands of friends with me and I am committed to helping pastors to have this inspiring experience that will transform their preaching and teaching ministries. I can be reached at (386) 447 9473.