Our last day in Israel. The previous 8 days had gone by so fast and it was hard to believe that it was nearly over. But we still had some exploring and sightseeing to do and we would be starting our day at the archeological site of Herodion, the palace fortress built between 23 and 15 BCE, and reputed to be the burial site of King Herod the Great.
Herodion is situated in the Judaean Desert, approximately 12 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and 7 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem. It took approximately 20 minutes to drive from our hotel in Bethlehem (the Saint Gabriel) to this historical site. Herodion is built at the top of a cone shaped man-made hill that is approximately 750 metres above sea level and therefore, the tallest peak in the Judaean Desert. We arrived at the base of Herodion just before 10:00am on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning. Our driver parked our bus in the vast lot part way up the hill. We disembarked and walked through the ticket entrance and a small visitors area, then proceeded along the trail that winds its way up to the top of the hill. The wind grew in intensity as we crested the peak and found ourselves looking down into the palace ruins that appeared to be built into a crater at the top of the hill.
It is said that Herod built his fortress on this man-made hill so he could see Jerusalem and the Holy Temple from his palace. The views from this summit were spectacular and totally unobstructed in every direction. A steep set of stone steps leads from the crest of the hill down into the palace. The ruins of several rooms are clearly evident in the centre of the palace as you descend the steps. Scattered around the ruins are cisterns and stone urns. Partial walls can still be seen dissecting the large open courtyard.
Along one edge of the palace is an entrance that descends into a labyrinth of tunnels that leads to an exit part way down the hill. We entered the tunnels and walked through them to the exit where we emerged into bright sunshine. The tunnels run parallel to the aquaduct system that was built by Herod and which empty into a cistern. We walked around the outside of the hill about 1/3 from the top and came upon another excavation which is purported to be the tomb of King Herod. We then continued our descent to the park entrance where we boarded our bus to head back towards Bethlehem.
Arriving in the Arab village of Beit-Sahur bordering Bethlehem on the southeast, we visited our next site, the Shepherds’ Fields, where it is suggested that the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds that were tending their flock. The site is marked by a Fransiscan chapel that was built in 1953 by Antonio Barluzzi and funded by Canadian benefactors. The chapel is built in the shape of a shepherd’s tent and topped by a starry dome. Next to the chapel is a large grotto that could have been used to house shepherds and their livestock in ancient times.
We left the Shepherds’ fields and continued into Bethlehem where we would visit our last site in Israel - the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity is built on an ancient grotto that is traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. This grotto is the site that is the oldest continuously used place of worship in the Christian world. The Church is undergoing major renovation and has in fact seen multiple reconstructions since the original basilica was built here in 330 AD.
The Church of the Nativity is one of the busiest sites in the Holy Land, especially during the Christmas holiday season. Even though we were past the holiday season (near the end of January) we still waited in line for nearly 90 minutes to pass through the Church to the entrance of the grotto beneath the altar. As we approached the entrance, we waited another 30 minutes as this was the time of day for the Armenian prayers and the entrance is closed during that time. We squeezed through the narrow entrance into the grotto and passed by the Bethlehem Star, a 14-point silver star on the marble floor of the grotto that marks the birthplace of Jesus. We then exited the grotto and entered another one that was used as a stable and the manger where the holy family purportedly spent their first night.
We walked from the Church of the Nativity a few hundred yards to a market square where we had a late lunch at a small restaurant tucked into the side of a building, and ate our last falafel in Israel.
After our brief but delicious lunch we boarded our bus and drove the short distance to our hotel. Since we had a late night flight back to Toronto, our tour company had arranged a late checkout for us. Kim and I had one final walk in the vicinity of our hotel before picking up our bags and getting ready for our trip back to Canada. After leaving the hotel, we drove back towards Jerusalem where we had one final group dinner at a local restaurant. The tour company had arranged for traditional dancers to perform for us as we finished our meal.
We then boarded our bus for the last time and drove to the Ben Guiron Airport in Tel Aviv where our trip to Israel had begun just 9 days before.
Israel had been on our bucket list of places to visit for a long time. It is recognized around the world as the Holy Land - home to the religions of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai. But it is more than that. It is a rich tapestry of ancient civilizations that include Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Turks, Crusaders and Egyptians. It is small, it is diverse and it is well worth visiting.
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