"Thy statutes have been my songs
in the house of my pilgrimage." Psalm 119,54
Ideal duration: 10 days/9 nights
1st day : Be’er Sheva or Bersabea (well of the covenant or of the seven ewe lambs)
Today Be’er Sheva stands in a large plain in the middle of the Negev Desert and is the most important industrial and commercial centre in the area, with a university (Ben Gurion University) specialized in the Faculties of Agriculture.
It recalls the covenant of Abraham with Abimelech, king of Gerara, when the patriarch gave the king seven ewe lambs to buy the property rights to the well he had dug in the area (Gen 21,15-34).
Other Biblical episodes of fundamental importance took place near Be’er Sheva, including when Abraham drove out the slave Hajar and her son Ismail and how they wandered in the desert of Be’er Sheva (Gen 21,14-21), the meeting and marriage of Isaac and Rebecca and the birth of their sons Esau and Jacob (Gen 24,61 ff).
2nd day: Negev Desert (Mamshit, ‘Avedat, Mizpe Ramon)
A visit to the Negev Desert is concentrated mainly around three centres: Mamshit, ‘Avedat, Mizpe Ramon.
Mamshit, in Arabic Kurnub, is today an extensive area of Roman-Byzantine ruins, with traces of the Nabataeans and perhaps from even earlier periods. There is a Nabataean house and some characteristic tombs crowned with small pyramids ad a building from the Roman era, probably from the time of Hadrian. The Byzantine period was the most prosperous for the city, when the fortified Mamshit offered protection and a halting place for caravans on their way to ‘Aravà (valley south of the Dead Sea), Eilat and the Red Sea. The remains of two churches can also be admired from this period, one of which was built by monks and its three entrances, the apse, a mosaic floor with floral designs and the baptistery can still be seen. The other is almost intact and contains a large mosaic covering the whole floor and is the finest mosaic in the whole of the Negev as far as the richness of ornamentation and exquisite craftsmanship are concerned.
‘Avedat is in the centre of the Negev and contains the remains of three different historical periods: Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine. Relics of pottery, remains of the city and the acropolis have been found from the Nabataean period, dating back to the 2nd century BC. After the destruction in Roman times and the building of pagan temples, the area of the acropolis underwent great transformation in the Byzantine period, when the pagan buildings were transformed into churches, the ruins of which can still be seen.
On the road that crosses the Biblical desert of Zin, you can stop at Mizpe Ramon, climbing Mount Ramon, from where there is a marvellous view of the desert and you can admire the splendid geological formations where fossils of prehistoric animals and marine reptiles have been found. An open-air museum of abstract sculptures has also been created in this panorama.
3rd day: Masada, Ein Gedi, Dead Sea
The fortress of Masada lies on the western shore of the Dead Sea in a desert area and stands isolated on a rock that is completely separate from all the other surrounding rocks. Two paths, one to the east and the other to the west, lead to the fortress. Starting the climb one hour before dawn, you can enjoy, from the top of the ruins, the view of the rising sun. The fortress can easily be reached today by cable-car.
Masada is famous for the siege by the Romans of the last Zealots, who sought refuge in the fortress after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, organizing their daily lives there. In the northernmost point, the evocative ruins of the private residence of Herod can also be admired. The history of the fortress the buildings and the events that took place there have come down to us thanks to the descriptions by Flavius Josephus and the archaeological excavations on the site.
At the end of the visit, that will take up the first part of the day, you can continue on the road along the Dead Sea and stop for a short visit at the oasis of ‘Ein Gedi, before reaching the shores of the large salty lake. David’s spring is the most important spring in the oasis: falling from the rocks with a beautiful waterfall it forms a small lake and is surrounded by luxuriant vegetation. You can visit the grottos and the museum in the kibbutz, where there are the most important relics found in the area and which is becoming the main centre for archaeological research in the Dead Sea region.
There will certainly be enough time left, at the end of the day, to bathe in the very special waters of the Dead Sea. It is about 400 metres below sea level and the strong salinity of the water (up to 25%) prevents any form of life. The plateau of Moab rises to the east with, in the north, the Biblical Mount Nebo and, in the centre, the deep depression of the River Arnon which, with the Jordan, is one of the most important tributaries of the Dead Sea. Here, the rocks overhanging the waters create fantastic effects of the light, in particular in the evening.
4th day: Qumran, Jericho, Jerusalem
Although never directly named in the Bible, Qumran is of great Biblical interest for the important discoveries made there between 1947 and 1958. Important documents written of sheets of parchment or papyrus, called the Qumran Scrolls or the Dead Sea Scrolls, were found here in grottos along the rocky walls, together with domestic relics. Through these, it has been possible to learn the history and the everyday habits of the community that settled in Qurman between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. From the place and the system of live revealed by the “Rules of the community”, one of the scrolls found here, it is thought to be the sect of the Essenes, a group that separated from official Judaism and lived in a community regime with a strict discipline and dedicated to a scrupulous and literal observation of the Law.
Leaving the Dead Sea behind you, you can reach Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, which the Bible takes as a symbol of all the Canaanite peoples, the enemies of Israel (Joshua 24,11). After a brief stop at the large sycamore that recalls the episode when Jesus met Zacchaeus (Luke 19,1-10), you can visit the ruins of the ancient Jericho, excavated in the Tell es-Sultan, not far from the modern city and towards the mountain, and those of the evangelical or Roman Jericho, towards the aqueduct of Wadi el-Qelt, not yet fully uncovered by the archaeological excavations. Particularly impressive is the visit to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Quarantine, set in the rock, half-way up and which can be reached following the road for Tell es-Sultan by a practical cable-car, from which there is an unforgettable view, from the Jordan Valley to the Moab mountains. This monastery, built at the end of the 19th century, for the hermits of the desert, recalls the Messianic temptations, narrated in the Gospels (Matthew 4,1-11). Not far from here, you can visit the site of the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1,9-11). The site also commemorates the prophets Elisha and Elijah who miraculously crossed the Jordan and, on the other side of the river, Elijah was taken up to heaven on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2,11 ff).
If possible, you should stop and buy the delicious fruit from Jericho: grapefruit, dates, bananas and many other types.
On the road from Jericho to Jerusalem you can admire the places where the parable of the Good Samaritan narrated by Jesus took place (Luke 10,25-37).
In Jerusalem there is the “Casa Nova”, the house for pilgrims, where you can enjoy Franciscan hospitality.
5th day: Jerusalem (Ophel, City of David, Museum of Israel)
The Ophel is the hill south of the Temple on which the ancient Jebusite city stood, also called the Fortress of Zion and then the City of David. David conquered this area to found Jerusalem. Since the end of the 19th century, archaeologists have been excavating to bring the Jerusalem of the Bible to light. The City of David Archaeological Garden has now been built there, which follows the Kidron Valley and still has remains from the Jebusites, the time of David and the Hasmoneans. The system to supply the city with water was very interesting, conveying the water from the nearby source of Ghihon to a large well,(called Warren’s Shaft) or Ezekiah’s Tunnel.
In the time of Jesus, the whole area of the Ophel was within the walled part of the city. Today the ancient Ophel is in part covered by modest Arab homes. The road that goes down from Mount Zion and which continues towards the Kidron Valley passes in front of the Mograbi Gate, or Dung Gate, through which you enter into the Old City. On the left of the road there are the important excavations on the southern buttresses of the Temple (Ophel Archaeological Garden) and passes near the south-east corner of the Temple, called the Pinnacle. The Muslim cemetery lies along the eastern walls.
The Ophel Archaeological Garden can be visited going east and following the walls of the city on the outside. On the walls supporting the Esplanade, three orders of gates can be seen: the Double Gate, in part covered by Turkish buildings; the Triple Gate in the centre; the Simple Gate, near the Pinnacle. The Double and Triple Gates gave access to the Esplanade of the Temple from an outer road and a grandiose flight of steps. Between the flights, pools were dug out of the rock for the ritual ablutions. In front of the walls, below Solomon’s Stables, there are the remains of Byzantine houses and a hospice of the 5th century AD. Lastly, near the Pinnacle, the ruins of a tower dating back to the time of the kings can be seen.
The afternoon can be dedicated to visiting the Israel Museum, the largest cultural institution in Israel, including several building divided into 4 sections, plus the Department of Antiquities and Museums with its Library. The most characteristic part is the Sanctuary of the Book, which houses the scrolls discovered in Qumran, including the complete text of the prophet Isaiah, the letters of Bar Kokheba written during the second Jewish revolt, the scrolls discovered in Masada and other ancient parchments of immense historical interest. The other sections include the Art Garden which, lying on a hill, has sculptures of many contemporary Jewish artists; the very rich collection of objects of Jewish religious art and Middle Eastern art, with both ancient works and works by modern authors; the Archaeological Museum, which has pieces from life in Palestine starting from prehistory, then going on to the Canaanite, ancient Biblical, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Crusader periods to the Muslim-Mameluke period of the 14th century.
6th day: Jerusalem (Esplanade of the Temple, Jewish Quarter, Mount Zion)
First thing in the morning you will go to the Esplanade of the Temple, the area which originally formed the base of the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 AD and now the religious heart of Islam. Here (which is the whole sacred Muslim area or the area of the Temple), where Herod’s Temple stood in the time of Jesus, the two Mosques were built in the Muslim epoch by the caliph ‘Abd el-Malik (about 700 AD), namely the Mosque of Omar, or the “Dome of the Rock”, and the Mosque of Al Aqsa. Today they can be admired only from the outside.
The Mosque of Omar is the oldest Muslim monument in Palestine and combined Arab architecture with Persian and Byzantine art. The sacred rock which, according to Muslim tradition, the trumpets of the Last Judgement will play, emerges at the centre of the building. Under the rock, the cavern said to be the place where David, Solomon, Elijah and Muhammad prayed, can be visited. This place, already called Mount Moriah in the Jewish tradition (2 Chronicles 3,1), is recognized as the territory of Moriah mentioned in chapter 23 of Genesis about the sacrifice of Isaac.
You then continue towards the Jewish Quarter which stands behind the Kotel (Wailing Wall), part of the Western Wall which supported the area on which the Temple stood and which represents the spiritual and historical heart of Judaism. From here, on foot, you can reach Batei Mahaseh Square, the remains of the Nea Church (a Justinian basilica of the 5th – 6th centuries, shown on the Mosaic of Madaba as closing the Cardo), the four Sephardite synagogues, the Synagogue of Ramban, the Synagogue of the Perushim (after 1967 called Hurvà) and the Cardo, already a Roman road in the time of Aelia Capitolina (135-330 AD) which divided the city starting from the north (Damascus Gate) to the south, near the present-day Zion Gate.
The afternoon will begin with the visit to Mount Zion, which originally indicated the stronghold conquered by David who made it his capital and which then became particularly dear to Christianity as here there is the Cenacle, where Jesus celebrated Easter with his Apostles and instituted the Eucharist during the Last Supper (Mark 14,22-25), He appeared to the disciples after His resurrection (John 20,19-23) and where the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost (Acts 2,1-12). This is also where the life of the Church began and where the first council was held.
In the lower part of the complex there is a cenotaph, called the Tomb of David, the object of religious veneration by the Jews. The antechamber of the Tomb of David corresponds to the former chapel dedicated to the memory of the “washing of the feet” (John 13,4-17) and is currently adapted for use as a synagogue. After going through the old Franciscan cloister, you go towards the steps that lead to the Cenacle (upper room), a large room divided into two naves by majestic columns in Gothic style. After various vicissitudes, the Cenacle was restored by the Franciscans when they arrived in the Holy Land (1333) and who also built alongside a small convent which can still be seen today. Transformed into a mosque, the Cenacle today belongs to the Israelis who allow visits by pilgrims, although the “status quo” prevents any liturgical function from being performed there.
A short distance away from the building there is the Franciscan church called “ad Coenaculum”, which offers visitors the chance to celebrate Holy Mass.
Returning to the road of the Cenacle and turning right, you will reach the Basilica of the Dormition of Mary, built in the early 20th century and in the care of the German Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Beuron. The church commemorates the place where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary died, narrated in an ancient apocryphal text. In the crypt, there is a beautiful wood and ivory statue of Mary sleeping which recalls the episode.
Going down the slope of Mount Zion, you can visit the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, which evokes the evangelical episode of Peter’s denial after the arrest of Jesus (Mark 14,53-54.66-72). The church is believed to stand near the place where the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was taken immediately after arrest. In the crypt you can visit a complex of grottos where, traditionally, Jesus is believed to have been locked up on the night of his arrest, until being taken to Pilate the next morning. Outside the church it is important to stop ad admire and go down the long flight of steps from Roman times which went down towards the Kidron Valley and which Jesus also probably went down on the evening of Holy Thursday, after the Last Supper, when he went down with the apostles to the Garden of Gethsemane.
7th day: Jerusalem (Mount of Olives, Church of St. Anne, Via Dolorosa, Basilica of the Resurrection)
Separated from the city of Jerusalem by the Kidron Valley, the Mount of Olives runs parallel with the hill of the Temple and the Ophel. It is particularly important for Christians, as this is where fundamental episodes in the life of Jesus took place and he crossed it several times on his way between Jerusalem, Bethany and Jericho.
From the top of the hill you can go down towards the Holy City making several stops on the way: at the Edicìule of the Ascension, which stands where the apostles saw Jesus risen ascend to heaven (Acts 1,3-12); the Church of Pater Noster, where you can visit the Cloister with the majolica tones that shown the Lord’s Prayer in several languages and the grotto that recalls the place where the Lord’s Prayer was taught; at the spot for a panoramic view of Jerusalem, just above the Jewish cemetery; at the small Franciscan church of Dominus Flevit, with its Byzantine mosaics and remains of an ancient necropolis; at the Russian Orthodox church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene; at Gethsemane, with the Grotto of the Arrest and the Franciscan Basilica of the Agony, which stands next to the Olive Grove and where remains of the ancient rich Byzantine mosaic have been found and the rock of the agony of Jesus can be seen, in front of the great altar and lastly, at the Church of Mary’s Tomb, which has in its lower part the block of stone on which Mary’s body was laid after her death.
In the afternoon, you can visit the Church of St. Anne, one of the best preserved Crusader monuments, built on the place where an ancient tradition places the house of St. Joachim and St. Anne and therefore the birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the same complex there are also the ruins of the Probatic Pool, where the Gospel of St. John sets the first work of Jesus, the healing of the cripple, i.e. the first miracle as the work of the Father bearing witness to the Son (John 5,1-9).
From here you can follow the Via Dolorosa, taken by Jesus, after being sentenced to death, towards Calvary. You will come first of all to the complex of the Antonia Fortress, where several buildings stand today: the Franciscan Convent and Church of the Flagellation, with the adjoining Biblical school (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum); the Muslim school that marks the beginning of the Via Crucis with the condemnation by Pilate of Jesus (John 19,12-16); the Arch of Ecce Homo; the Convent of Our Lady of Zion , where the Litostroto (from the Greek: paving) can be seen, the place opposite the Praetorium where, according to tradition, Jesus was put on trial by Pilate, whipped and mocked by the soldiers (John 18,28 ff). You can then continue along the Via Crucis through the streets of the Old Coty, stopping at the various stations marked along the way, until you reach the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, where inside you can complete the itinerary of the Via Crucis with the last 5 stations.
The visit to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the central moments of the pilgrimage. The present Church, very rich in history and culture, deserves a detailed visit. Here only some brief indications are given.
As soon as you enter the vestibule of the basilica, a staircase on the right leads to Calvary, divided into two chapels, the first owned by the Latins (Chapel of the Crucifixion) with an altar dominated by a mosaic showing the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus and the other owned by the Greek Orthodox (the Chapel of Calvary), which has in the back the scene of Christ crucified and the altar of which rises directly above the rock of Calvary. Under the altar there is a silver disc, open in the centre, which indicates the point where the cross of Christ was fixed and, by putting your hand into the slot, you can touch the stone. This is the place where, during the Via Crucis, the death of Jesus is commemorated (Mark 15,33 ff). The two chapels, Latin and Greek Orthodox, are separated by a small altar dedicated to the Mother of Sorrows, Mary suffering at the foot of the cross.
Coming down from Calvary, you will meet the Stone of Unction, a reddish coloured stone set in the floor and decorated with candlesticks and lamps. It recalls the anointment of the body of Jesus with aromatic oils after His death, before being laid in the tomb (John 19,38).
You then go towards the anastasis, which still has the fundamental structure of the Constantinian period. At the centre of the Rotunda there is the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre, rebuilt by the Greeks in 1810 after the destruction of the previous one in a fire. Inside, the edicule is divided into two parts: the Chapel of the Angel, which is immediately in front of the opening of the tomb and where an original piece of the round stone that closed the tomb is kept and the sepulchral room, which you enter through a low entrance and that contains the original rock, now covered by a slab of marble, on which the body of Jesus was laid (John 19,41).
The itinerary in the Basilica can be completed by visiting the numerous minor chapels.
8th day: Jerusalem (Yad Vashem, Ein Karem)
The first part of this day will be devoted to a visit to the memorial and museum of Yad Vashem, dedicated to the victims of the Shoah. Yad Vashem means “a monument and a name”, according to the words of the prophet Isaiah “I will give them, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name” (Isaiah 56,5), and refers to the ceaseless work of research with which the institution is trying to return a face and a name to the over six million Jewish victims of the Shoah. Yad Vashem was built in 1953 and has recently been enlarged and modernized. You can visit the very rich museum, the many monuments and memorials in the open air, the large and moving Garden of the Righteous, where trees are planted remembering the Righteous amongst the Nations, all those who, during the Nazi-Fascist persecutions, helped Jews escape deportation and massacre. Particularly moving is the visit to the Memorial of dead Jewish children (more than one and a half million).
In the afternoon, you can continue to nearby Ein Karem, the village where, according to tradition, the priest Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth lived.
Surrounded by a forest of pines and cedar trees, Ein Karem is today a pretty town of stone houses in Arab style, now part of Jerusalem which is very close. Many people like to come here, Israelis, tourists and pilgrims, to enjoy the rural atmosphere and see some sanctuaries. The Christians, for example, always visit the Church of the Visitation and the Church of St. John the Baptist. The first stands in memory of the visit by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth after the news that the latter was expecting a baby despite her advanced age. Here Mary pronounced the Magnificat (Luke 1, 46-56) which is present on the walls of the garden in 41 languages. Another important sanctuary is the one commemorating the birth of John the Baptist who baptized Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.
9th day: Bethlehem, Shepherds’ Field, Herodium
Bethlehem, in Hebrew Bet-Lehem (House of Bread) and in Arabic Beit Laham (House of Meat),is just a little to the south of Jerusalem, along the road that goes to Hebron, Be’er Sheva and the Negev Desert.
Your visit can begin from the Basilica of the Nativity, dedicated to the birth of Jesus (Luke 2,1-7) and which is owned today by the Latins, Greek Orthodox and Armenians. The Greeks own the Basilica, except the northern part of the transept which is the property of the Armenians. The Grotto of the Nativity is divided into two parts: the altar of the Nativity, owned by the Greeks, and the altar of the Manger (Grotto of the Magi) owned by the Latins. Next to the Basilica there is the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine, with its beautiful medieval cloister and the underground grottos dedicated to St. Joseph, the Holy Innocents and to St. Jerome.
A brief visit to the nearby Milk Grotto, today transformed into a Franciscan chapel and traditionally associated with the memory where the Holy Innocents were buried (Matthew 2, 16) completes the visit to the complex.
You can also stop in two other important places: the Shepherds’ field, near the Arab village of Beit Sahur, and the Heriodion (or Herodium) where the great and sumptuous palace of Herod the Great stood, just a few kilometres from Bethlehem. In the former you will find the sanctuary designed by Barluzzi, the shape of which recalls a tent like the ones used by shepherds in the time of Jesus. This is where Christian tradition places the evangelical scene of the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the local shepherds (Luke 2, 8-20). In the same area there are numerous archaeological remains of a 4th-5th Byzantine monastery and the characteristic grotto-homes of the Herodian period, which the Franciscans have turned into chapels.
The last stop of this day can be the palace-fortress of Herodion, the name which Herod himself gave it. The hill, which today only has the ruins of what must have been a splendid and majestic residence, has the shape of a volcano and offers a spectacular view. Herod built in between 24 and 15 BC and wanted to be buried there, although no trace of his tomb remains. At the foot of the hill there was a town, some ruins of which can be seen, with another large palace and what archaeologists suppose was a hippodrome.
In Bethlehem there is the “Casa Nova”, the house for pilgrims, where you can enjoy Franciscan hospitality.
10th day: Nazareth
You can devote at least half of this last day to Nazareth, the third most important city for all Christians. Nazareth is the largest town in Galilee and the largest Arab town in Israel. One of the aspects that most strikes the pilgrim who has always imagined this place as a quiet village where Jesus spent his childhood, is the contrast with the noisy daily bustle of today. This must not necessarily be a disappointment for the visitor because this first impression will give way to the more pleasant one of its lively and welcoming atmosphere. The city is also extremely well situated for those who want to visit the nearby Christians sites, from Mount Tabor to Lake Tiberias.
Restricting yourself to the city however, in our itinerary, the Basilica of the Annunciation must be the first place to visit.
Designed by the Milanese architect Giovanni Muzio and built between 1960 and 1969, the basilica stands majestically and dominates the panorama of the whole city. According to tradition, this is where the house of Mary was and it was here that the archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin to announce that she would have conceived the Son of the Almighty (Luke 1, 31-33).
In the church there is the famous Grotto of the Annunciation or the grotto-house of Mary. Here the first Christians had a sort of synagogue to meet and worship. Only a baptismal font, which can still be seen today, remains of this synagogue-church. It was then replaced by the Byzantine basilica (5th century), of which some mosaics have been found, but which no longer incorporated the grotto. In the 11th century, in the middle of the Crusades, Tancredi built a basilica in Romanesque style.
A few metres from here there is the church of St. Joseph, where Joseph’s house is believed to have been. Lastly, two other places of possible interest to the Christian pilgrim are: the Spring of the Virgin Mary, in the main street of the town which leads to Tiberias, and the church of St. Gabriel.
In Nazareth there is the “Casa Nova” house for pilgrims, where you can enjoy Franciscan hospitality.