Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Oh come, all ye faithful!

A trip to the ancient sites in Jordan, Israel and Egypt can be a life-affirming experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The most remarkable experience for me was the time I spent at the Dead Sea,” said Mary Thomas of Kochi. “Because the Dead Sea has so much of salt content, you will not sink. So, you can lie on the water, like on a bed, and float for hours together. It was magical.” She said there were no fishes or any other living organism in the water. Incidentally, the Dead Sea, at 1,300 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface.

When businessman Peter K. Joseph saw the path taken by Jesus Christ to the Crucifixion at Cavalry, he was surprised to see that the road was not that steep and the hill was not that high. “Artists have always depicted it otherwise,” he said. “At Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, The Church of The Holy Sepulchre has been built and is really worth seeing.”

Mary Thomas and Peter Joseph are part of a growing number of tourists from Kochi who have gone to Jordan, Israel and Egypt to experience first-hand the origins of the three great religions of the world -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Nearly all of them went through travel agents who have packaged it as the ‘Holy Land’ trips.

One of the veteran agents is Joseph Antony, 46, the managing director of Galilee Travel and Cargo Agency at Panampilly Nagar. “In seven years, I have done 29 trips,” he said. “Usually, the group consists of Christians. But Muslims also come, because the third holiest shrine in Islam, after the mosques at Mecca and Medina, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. So, their primary interest is to offer prayers there.”

He said he took an average of 30 people on every trip. The cost per person was Rs 59,500, which included sightseeing, airfare, hotel accommodation (breakfast, lunch and dinner included), and the cost of visa and departure taxes.

The ten-day trip started at Amman, Jordan, with a visit to Mount Nebo. “This was where Moses saw the Promised Land,” said Peter Joseph. From there, there were stops at Jericho and Nazareth, Jesus’s boyhood town, where you can see the Church of the Annunciation. According to the Bible, it was at this spot that the archangel Gabriel appeared and told the Virgin Mary she would be bearing a son by the name of Jesus.

“At Tabgha, you can see the Church of the Beatitudes where Jesus gave the famous Sermon on the Mount,” said Antony. The next stop was Cana, where Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast. “The old wine cisterns have all been preserved,” he said.

Other journeys included a trip to the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, the holiest spot of the Jews, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. “You experienced a tremendous feeling at the Garden because it was here that Jesus Christ prayed the night before his crucifixion and where his disciple, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him to the Romans,” said Antony.

One of the last stops, before the group moved to Egypt, was at Mount Sinai. “This was the place where Moses saw the burning bush,” said contractor K.G. Thomas, 49. With a group of friends, he climbed the 2,285m peak. They started at 9 p.m. and reached the summit at 4 a.m. “The moonlight was very bright in those parts, so, we could see easily,” he says. “The hike was worth it, because the sunrise was a magnificent sight.”

Throughout the trip, a guide travelled with the group and explained the historical importance of every place. “The elderly were emotionally moved by the sight of the holy places,” said Antony. “Their faith was reaffirmed.” Peter Joseph said he had read about all these places and the incidents in the Bible from his school days. “But now, I received a physical confirmation,” he said.

For Mary Thomas, apart from the religious significance, what really amazed her was that the women in Israel had such strong personalities. “They work in all sorts of jobs, including the police and the military, and are as competent as the men,” she said. “As a woman, I cannot imagine having that sort of confidence and power here in Kerala.”

Did any of them feel apprehensive because of the unrest in Palestine and the spate of suicide bombings in Israel? “If there was a bomb blast in Mumbai, it did not mean that the city came to a standstill,” said Peter Joseph. “Life went on. So that was how it was in Israel.” Antony said that most of the problems occurred only on the Gaza strip. Contractor Thomas said, “We are used to bomb blasts in our country. So, I did not feel nervous.” However, they had to go through several body checks. “They do it fast and smoothly and without ruffling feathers,” said Thomas. “It is not like in India where, during a body check, the people are put to a lot of inconvenience.”

Asked whether they would like to go again, all of them said a forceful, “Yes, if finances permit.” Said Peter Joseph: “Next time, I would like to go alone. There are so many historical places to explore.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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