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PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS BY THE “HOLY LAND GURU” OF THE HOLY LAND IN 2013

by Dr. Robert Gordon Grant                                                                                                                                     

In February 2013 we returned home from visiting the Middle East for well over the 125th time in a 46 year period of time.

We spent time in Istanbul, Jordan and Israel. Accompanying me was a group of 43 American Christians varying in age from 17 to 84.

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Our journey had a serious purpose, a deeply spiritual one I might add, for which I had endeavored to prepare our group through a 6 month long series of seminars and intensive study.

I was personally committed to making this a transformational experience for them that would hopefully bring them into intimate touch with Jesus and the world in which He lived in a dynamic way.

I was glad to note that the personal testimonies offered by the group members when we returned home, indicate that we achieved that goal. You can read those comments elsewhere on this website.

My first journey to that storied part of  the world occurred in 1967, just 19 years after the tremulous  establishment of the modern State of Israel and only 6 weeks before the crucial  1967,  6 Day War, that saw the little Israeli State, though impossibly  outnumbered and being simultaneously attacked on all sides by numerically superior forces from Jordan, Egypt and Syria, win this test of survival and expand its borders in all directions.

The very survival of the Jewish state was at stake during that historic week, 46 years ago.

From being, in the spring of 1967, a tiny indefensible fragment of land that measured maybe 15 miles across at one point, Israel, emerged from that conflict with greatly expanded, defendable  borders and  with the Jordan River as its new boundary to the East, the Suez Canal to the South and the backside of the Golan Heights to the North East.

But that now greatly expanded set of borders established in 1967 also set in motion conflict and tensions that exist to this very day and which we were very aware of during our recent visit there.

That whole part of the world we call the Middle East has been transformed during the 46 years that have intervened between my first and my most recent journeys there and much of the area now would have been unrecognizable to me in 1967.

It must be noted that most of that vivid physical transformation has occurred on the Israeli side of the map.  Not so much on the Arab side.

But first Turkey: My impression of Istanbul in 1967 was less than positive. I remember it as somewhat primitive and Istanbul then as an unattractive city with little beauty. I especially remembered the squat type toilets that featured caste metal feet on which you were expected to squat in order to do your business into a hole in the ground.   And, of course, when shaking hands I remembered that you were to never offer your left hand as that was the one you used to complete your business.  Most of the men I remember seeing in 1967 wore the strange looking shapeless black trousers that featured their crotch universally drooping to the knee.

I was not impressed with Turkey in 1967.

I remember musing then that Turkey was a beautiful country …but

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Those many years ago I also visited other Turkish cities like the sea ports of  Kusadasi, and Mersin and  Dikili  which were then nothing more than primitive populated dirt paths often bordered by gold shops.

Then, the locals in Kusadasi  looked forward to the soon arrival of Club Med.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now they are modern and functioning cities of commerce.

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Not backward anymore, Istanbul is as modern as any Middle Eastern metropolis and is now filled with prosperous stylish people. It is a truly beautiful place to visit.

My wife remarked repeatedly on the many stunningly beautiful, fashionably dressed young girls in their high heel boots that seemed to be everywhere.

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One thing continues there, the competing  clash of cultures, with modern babes aplenty, and also many women wearing the hijab and covered all in black but for a slit for their eyes.

One group of about 40 pasty white middle aged men appeared suddenly in front of us  in the Istanbul International airport, hurrying along in  single file in bare feet and swathed only in white bath towels.  They were moving with dispatch but it was not clear where they were going. But they were indeed going there, wherever there was it seemed.

There I also observed the obviously  wealthy, spotlessly white robe clad, young Saudi sheik, with his presumably  beautiful but fully covered up wife in tow, disembarking from their Paris  flight, clutching shopping bags from exclusive shops like Hermes and Ives St Laurent.  She dutifully walked behind him

The international airport in Istanbul is a people watchers paradise.

When the father of the modern nation of Turkey, Mustafa Ataturk formed this state from the ashes of the former Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, he envisioned a country that would be officially Muslim in religion, but tolerant of others. And until recently Turkey has remained true to that ideal.

But now as the infection called the “Arab Spring” continues to spread across the region there are hints that this time of accommodating other faiths may be coming to an end.   There is a growing Islamist influence in the country.

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Hagia Sophia, at one time the most important church in all of Christendom, was captured by the Muslims in 1453 and is preserved to this day as a Muslim museum.

Rumor has it that it is now being reconsidered to be converted into a functioning mosque. This won’t change much in the real world but it does indicate a change of heart and a hardening of the Islamic point of view there.

We entered this enormous, formerly Christian church, Hagia Sophia,(means holy wisdom)  built by the Emperor Justinian in the 500s AD shortly before the onslaught of Islam across the Mediterranean world.

Like St Peters in Rome, built some 1000 years later, it is awe inspiring and breathtaking in its enormity as it stands side by side with the huge competing Blue Mosque, built to compete for attention by the Muslims .

Change is afoot in Turkey and it yet remains to be seen as to what that change will be.

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One thing notable was the unexpected, greatly increased security we experienced in Turkey, complete with shoe removal at the airport.  They are clearly aware of new forces at work and seem determined to protect the integrity of the Turkish State. Their security regime is similar to what we would later experience when entering Israel and is not unlike the US system. We enjoyed our Turkish visit free from any tension or danger and would love to return for a longer visit.

037We travelled on to the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan where we spent 2 pleasant evenings and days. It took some getting used to having an unobtrusive yet armed guard travel with us on the bus during our stay in this Sunni Muslim country that is a friend of the United States.

King Abdullah has his challenges with the Islamists as well.

While there we visited the unbelievable ruins of ancient Petra built some 200 years before the time of Jesus by the Nabataeans to defend the nearby historic spice trade route.

Petra is one of those places that must be seen and cannot be adequately described.

It is an entire city carved out of red sandstone cliffs, secreted away in a hidden valley that is inaccessible except by way of a treacherous walk along a mile like, boulder strewn wadi between towering cliffs that then opens up into a spectacular valley that was so appealing to Hollywood that they selected it as the location for shooting the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In addition to being one of the great historical sites of the world, we went there on a serious purpose based upon the speculation that St Paul who wrote much of the New Testament part of the Bible is thought to have spent time there studying and preparing for his life work of establishing Christianity, the faith he had earlier striven to destroy, into the force that  2 centuries later swept across the world.  The entire Roman Empire including what is now Turkey became officially Christian during those early centuries.

The Bible record indicates (Galatians 1) that after his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul went into “Arabia” (Petra??) for a couple of years, and it was only after that respite, he officially began his ministry.

What would Paul have done for a couple of years in Petra?

Among other things he probably engaged in his trade of tent making. After all he needed to feed himself. But his time there must have a served a far greater purpose. While we were  in Petra, I mused, to myself and with my fellow travellers, about the remarkable transformation that had occurred inside this formerly fanatical young rabbi.

Here was a 30s something Paul, a graduate of the Harvard of his day in rabbinical studies, the school of the great rabbi Gamaliel.  He was a fully committed, Hebrew true believer. He knew the Jewish law and the temple traditions. He was committed to their preservation against any threat that might dilute their holy meaning. He was a member of the strictest sect of Judaism. Paul then met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and, as a result of that experience, was forced to  reassess everything that he had been taught and come to believe about Judaism and about the coming Messiah and theology and God’s plan for the world.

That internal transformation process probably took place over time during Paul’s sojourn in this historic location. He saw everything with new insight and his world was upended.

Paul became so convinced that he was God’s voice that he came to view his own writings found in the New Testament part of the Bible as on a par with those of the Old Testament prophets.

So you see why Petra was an important stop on our journey.

Also of interest was the fact that the mother of King Herod the Great was a Nabataean and hailed from Petra, and Herod, when on the run from foreign invaders when he was the puppet ruler of Galilee, holed up  in Petra for a time after which he went to Rome and was reappointed the new King, this time,  of Judea and that is where his life intersected with that of Jesus. But that is later in our story.

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Again let me stress to any who are planning to travel to Jordan that we were safe and felt no danger during our days there. Continue with your plans.

From Jordan we crossed into Israel at the South end of the Sea of Galilee over the King Hussein Bridge.   My fellow travellers were quite surprised to see the actual size of the Jordan River below the bridge.

Clearly, all of us travel to the Bible Lands with our preconceptions and mental images that are often fostered by the hymns we have sung perhaps since childhood.

The Jordan River?? Our people discovered that it was Not the mighty Mississippi like river they had envisioned but was rather an unimpressive muddy creek. There it was as it flowed below our feet.  “Roll Jordan roll” go the words of the old Negro Spiritual. The Jordan is not so much they discovered.

Its flow, beginning with  the melting snows of Mount Hermon in the North, to its enlargement into what we call the Sea of Galilee  midway,  is controlled by a series of dams and much of the water is diverted for irrigation purposes rather than be allowed to trickle down to its ultimate destination, the Dead Sea and evaporation there, 1300+ ‘ below sea level.

As the “Holy Land Guru”, I well  remember 46 years earlier when I first crossed into Israel from the Kingdom of  Jordan but then it was at a very different point and place about 80 miles to the south.

Then the crossing between Israel and Jordan was just outside the North side of the Old City of Jerusalem where that historic city was then still a part of the Kingdom of Jordan, at least then, as it turned out, for another 6 weeks.

Jordanian snipers then occupied the Old City of Jerusalem and Jewish snipers occupied the land  across the valley to the West in Israeli territory, and both shot at anyone who would venture out into “no man’s land”, the  strip of land that then separated Jordan from Israel.

In 1967,  the border crossing point from Jordan to Israel passed through the former home of a Jewish family  named Mandelbaum. Then you left your Jordanian bus behind and, lugging your baggage, crossed over “no man’s land”, and then boarded your Israeli bus, but only after rigorous inspection and intense questioning.

Today the crossing is no less tense and demanding although we did not have to haul our luggage quite so far.

Israel is a safe place to visit because they take security very seriously. Not the farce that we call “Home land Security” here in the US. The questioning is probing and in depth and penetrating and you are confident that these young interrogators know what they are looking for.

When crossing from Jordan to Israel one is also instantly struck by radical contrasting change. And it is change that is everywhere to be seen.   It is indeed a study in contrasts

Jordan still suffers from the ill devised tax policy of the Ottoman Empire of 100 years ago that taxed people based upon the number of trees that they had on their land which of course resulted in the wholesale cutting down of all of the trees with resultant serious erosion and blight.

Israel also occupies the very same despoiled land that was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire but has, since day one, planted hundreds of millions of trees and launched a serious program of land reclamation that has transformed the Israeli side of the border into a garden while the Jordanian side remains  apparently largely as it was.

One cannot overstate this observation.

Israel is green and lush and fertile.

It must be remembered that this now lush fertile land was once junk land that nobody wanted and that the Zionist Jews, 100 years ago, purchased at fire sale prices from Arab absentee  landlords in Lebanon and Damascus who gladly sold to them and thought them fools for buying such unproductive land.

Our home in the Galilee area was a hotel in the ancient city of Tiberius, established by the Romans at the time of Jesus because of the natural hot water springs still found there.

The Romans did like their thermal baths, as witnessed by their frequency all across the Roman Empire.

To a student of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, the Galilee is a treasure trove whose richness can scarcely be scratched in the 3 days allotted to our visit there but we did our best with the time we had.

The locale is Jesus-rich.

To the North West is the city of Nazareth where Jesus spent most of His life growing into manhood. Sadly nothing much remains to be connected to Him there today.

Not far away is the traditional town of Cana where the New Testament notes the beginning of Jesus’ miracle ministry. It was a wedding there that prompted this first miracle when they ran out of wine.

Many Christian groups use this location as a teaching moment to not only read the story of  Jesus there but to challenge couples to rededicate their marriage vows there.

Judy and I joined the rest of our group in this very meaningful brief service of recommitment led by Greg Peters a local minister member of the group.

To the West, across from Nazareth and the broad Plain of Esdraelon (Valley of Megiddo),   stands the most famous tel in the world, tel Megiddo.

From before the time when Solomon housed his garrisons there 3000 years ago, it has guarded the strategic East West pass (the Via Maris trade route) through the mountains of   Carmel where the prophet Elijah fought his famous battle with the prophets of Baal.

The valley below its walls is the most blood soaked land in the world. Armies came there and died throughout history until as recently as World War One.

The Bible speaks of the battle of Armageddon as the last great battle to be fought in world history in this same locale.

114117It was to Capernaum on the Northern side of the Sea of Galilee that Jesus went after he was turned upon by the people of Nazareth who could not quite reconcile the young man who they had watched grow up along with his family, with the staggering claims He then made concerning Himself.

From the vantage point of a large wooden boat captained by a Messianic Jew, we departed Tiberius and quietly floated in the midst of the now tranquil 12 mile by 8 mile, fresh water lake called Lake Tiberius, or the Sea of Galilee.

We let our eyes sweep the horizon and in so doing, landed upon one Biblical site after another as events from the New Testament came to mind and we were told where they occurred .  Our Jewish, Christ follower Captain, sang Christian worship songs for us there in the midst of the Sea.   This unexpected experience  moved this group of believers, some to tears. He is a Messianic Jew, of which there are many in Israel, who has come to believe that Jesus is the long awaited Jewish Messiah.

In an appeal to our natural American patriotism, this cruise began with the hoisting, by the Captain, of the Stars and Stripes, and the singing of the US National Anthem. A nice touch appreciated by all with hands over heart enthusiasm.

From the midst of the Sea it was not that difficult for one to look to the North East under the Golan Heights, near shore of Gadara, where 2000 years ago,  a herd of wild pigs, seized by cast out demons, had fled into the sea,.

We could even imagine the distant outline of a small wooden fishing boat and then visualize the  figure of a man walking on the water towards it. Not difficult to imagine this at all while there.

133132Among the places we viewed from the vantage point of the boat, was Capernaum, which we then later visited directly and where we read the account of Jesus there as we sat in the ruins of a synagogue that is built over the foundations of the earlier synagogue that Jesus taught in 2000 years ago.  How cool was that?

When studying the New Testament it becomes apparent that Jesus’ move to Capernaum signaled the beginning of His miraculous ministry with many of the events of healing taking place there in Capernaum. It is as though a flood gate of miraculous experiences breaks out there.

One of the distractions that often bothers first time visitors to the Holy Land is the proliferation of churches everywhere and especially over places thought to be important Biblical sites.

On more serious consideration however, these churches in reality serve an important function. They serve to identify and preserve important sites.

176At some time in the past, pious believers sought out sites of importance in the Bible record and, in order to honor those events, they built places of worship, often over them, that end up preserving those precious sites so we can visit them today. So though they may be obtrusive at times they still serve an important purpose.

I had often heard of the famous Golan Heights captured by the Israelis in 1967 from the Syrians but had not ventured there.

I had been told that they were strategically important to the survival of Israel.

I believed that to be true but I had never really fully understood just how important that 1967 seizure of land was to the security of the Israeli nation.

This time before we left the Galilee we travelled up to the very top of the Golan Heights and were able to see the entire Sea of Galilee, laid out at our feet like a carpet with all of the cities that ring it well within Syrian gun range, and we existentially understood just how important that real estate is to Israel’s survival.

139But what impressed us even more was the transformation of this until recently junk land,  during the past 46 years. It clearly was not loved by Syria,

The Golan was not cultivated or valued by them except as a military asset.

189Again, true to form, the Israelis have transformed the Golan into an incredibly rich agricultural area that blooms like the rest of Israel before it.

It is breathtaking to see what has happened to this throwaway land that now yields rich crops. Are the Israelis likely to give it back to Syria?

Not a snowball’s chance, nor should they. Nor should they yield to pressure to do so from ignorant misguided political leaders from abroad.

Our journey from the Galilee took us down the West side of the Jordan River near the fence that marks the current border between Israel and Jordan. The Israeli side is regularly ploughed to reveal if anyone has illegally crossed over.

Footprints are watched for. It is patrolled regularly and remains peaceful.216

Years long tension has been greatly reduced of late so that we were now able to travel through the PLO controlled city of Jericho in our Israeli bus, quite an important development.

Jericho is the oldest city on earth with ruins going back well before the time of Joshua and the falling walls of the conquest by Israel 3400+ years ago.

Traveling up the modern 4 lane road from Jerusalem to Jericho reminiscent of the story of the “Good Samaritan”, we by passed Jerusalem for the time being and made our way to Bethlehem the scene of recent upset that resulted in the Israelis building a very high and ugly wall.

This wall worked as walls usually do when built (hint to the US Government) and the violence stopped but so did the important access to jobs in Israel that so many Arab families from Bethlehem and other towns have come to depend upon.

Many of the old shops that I knew like my long time friend Nicola Canavati’s famous Three Arches , are no longer there.

190 192Things are tough in Bethlehem and as always it is the little people who suffer the most.    Another old friend of 46 years ago, George Nissan has prospered in the meantime and greatly expanded his operation in Bethlehem with a huge buffet restaurant complex built where large groups can be fed reasonably and quickly.

I first met George when he was struggling to get started in 1967 and now he is a force to be reckoned with in Bethlehem, with many families dependent upon him for their livelihood.

He is a good man and I spent a pleasant evening meal with him and his large family in their  Bethlehem home.

 

 

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No visit to this part of the world would be complete without a visit to the Dead Sea where intrepid visitors put on their swim suits and experience what it is like to bathe in kerosene.

252Woe betide the lady who had the temerity to shave her legs or elsewhere before jumping in, as every wound will suddenly scream out loud. It is an experience to be had once and once only in my opinion.

Across the Dead Sea is the peaceful shoreline of the Kingdom of Jordan and the mountains from which we viewed this same area earlier in our journey.

244Along the edge of the Dead Sea we visited Qumran, the location of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the most important archeological find of the late 20th century.

On we went to reach the heights, by modern cable car, of the Herodian fortress of Masada  where some 950 Jewish survivors of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD, held out against all odds only to finally  commit suicide rather than become Roman slaves.

225This ancient fortress is a source of inspiration and dedication to young Israeli soldiers who climb it now, using the narrow snake path, and vow that “Masada will never fall again”

Finally, off we went to Jerusalem, a city of which I still had a vivid vestigial  memory from 46 years ago and also from even more recent journeys of 20 years ago.

I was unprepared for what I saw.

I could not believe the changes that had occurred there.

It was as though modern Jewish Jerusalem (the built up area  outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem) had exploded in every direction.

The Old City was largely the same except for radical changes to the entrance at the Jaffa Gate but the modern City had become massive and all encompassing.

256 259Wisely, architectural change, is prohibited within the walls of the Old City.

To the East across the Kedron Valley and elsewhere, the so called “settlements” that have been made much of, have proliferated and are now established neighborhoods on land claimed by the PLO and Arab nationalists.

The reality is that this cat is already out of that bag and it is not going to be forced back in again.

 

Any thought that Israel would willingly give up this land is a fool’s notion.

Forgive me for going political and mark it up to my impatience, but many American political leaders  don’t know what the H…. they are talking about when they insist that Israel give up the land captured in 1967.

How could they know? Many of them, before making such preposterous demands, had never been to Israel, to Jerusalem, and viewed what is reality.   When they make their first trip there, suddenly reality strikes. President Obama had such an epiphany experience in 2013.

Anyone who thinks that by the stroke of a pen he can force a national people to commit voluntary suicide is either a fool or a rogue. Take your pick.

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Our time in Jerusalem took us to the Western Wall,( or Wailing Wall as it is called,)  with its huge Herodiun stones from 2000 years ago and its daily array of Jews of all stripes engaged in enthusiastic prayer some in full Hassidic  dress.

I met there and engaged in conversation with followers of the late charismatic Rabbi, Menachim Schneerson of Brooklyn. He recently died. Many of his devotees think of him as the Messiah and still hope for his second coming.   Across the US, centers called Chabob, have been established by his followers as a way to call secular Jews back to the practice of the faith.

One such center has recently opened in Palm Coast, my hometown.

I discovered that our esteemed guide Menachem had been a follower of Schneerson when, in his personal quest for religious authenticity.  I learned that his brother remains a devotee of the Rebbe, as he is affectionately called by his followers.

During Schneerson’s life his followers built an exact replica of his Brooklyn house in Jerusalem in anticipation of the day when he would actually move there as the revealed Jewish Messiah.

Now some of them long for what they hope will be his second coming, much as Christians look forward to the 2nd coming of Jesus..

275299Up on Temple Mount we went. This is where the famous golden covered Dome of the Rock Muslim building stands. No longer open to non Muslims it is considered to be the location of the Temple of Herod and the earlier Temple of Solomon and the place where the Old Testament sacrificial system was centered on Mount Moriah.

 

 

 

 

 

329Later that day we ended our journey with a communion service at the Garden Tomb that many believe to be the authentic place where Jesus was slain, laid to rest and raised from the dead. For Christians this is often the spiritual and emotional high point of such a journey, as we contemplated how “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’ to die for the sins of the world. This is the heart of the Christian message and was a fitting place to end to our journey of faith.

 

Another observation: We have found that the Arabs are wonderful loving and compassionate people. They are people who value hospitality and friendship. They work hard to provide for their families often at great odds. If you are considered to be a friend you are such for life. Unfortunately it seems to me that they are also the victims of their own leaders like the late Yasser Arafat who actually preferred  a continued state of tension with Israel over a genuine settlement of differences as he banked hundreds of millions of dolla rs in the Swiss bank accounts now enjoyed by his wealthy widow.

339Having  said that, it appears to me that there is a distinct cultural difference between the Arabs and the Israelis that is difficult to define but is clearly to be seen.

It is apparent in the conditions of their private properties and their care of and commitment to their land.

In Jordan gorgeous mansions can be seen next to lingering garbage dumps and nobody seems to care or make an attempt to pick the garbage up.

What happens outside the house seems not to matter. Why is a mystery to me.

Politics aside, one cannot avoid admiration for the transformation of former Ottoman junk land into the modern blossoming and fertile and exciting place we call Israel.

It seems that there is something about the character of the Jews who have settled there that is often missing from the character of their neighbor Arabs who populate the rest of the Middle East.

Both sides occupy land that was largely abandoned as worthless after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Why does some of that land blossom and bloom while the rest remains barren and depleted?

My wife asked our Israeli bus driver to explain why there was such a contrast between the 2 parts of the Middle East and his take was interesting. He said that the other side would rather spend their money trying destroy Israel rather than improve their own lot in the world.

I do not know the answer to that question but for now perhaps that is worth considering.

March 9, 2013

 

 

Author: Rev. Robert Gordon Grant PhD

Note Dr. Grant has been: a pastor, head of the California Graduate School of Theology,  President of the Washington DC based American Freedom Coalition, Chairman of the Coalition of Religious Freedom. He now lives in Palm Coast Florida with his wife Judy. Over the years he has personally witnessed the changes In the Middle East described in this article during his more than 125 visits there.

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