Wednesday, January 03, 2007

November 30, 2005: Judea, Galilee & Sinai

Ok, thank you for your patience as I've tried to catch up & wrap up on the important sites & experiences in the Holy Land. This will be my last update, except for some "parting shots" & reminiscences of the Holy Land in a separate e-mail, and again I'll be brief. Things are well, I am enjoying myself in Cyprus currently, and we just celebrated the Feast of St. Andrew the First Called Apostle today on the New Calendar. So Happy Namesday & Many Years to all of the Andrew's that are reading this!!!


Hodzeva & the Monastery of St. George of Hodzeva: When we went we were unable to really enter the monastery to view and venerate, because they were in the middle of renovations. I was able to take a few nice shots of the Judean desert & a view of the monastery itself along the Wadi Kelt. (see photo) I hope to return to view & venerate when I return to the Holy Land. The monastery treasures the incorrupt relics of contemporary ascetic St. John Jacob from Romania, as well as, the cave of St. Elias where he was fed by the raven. This area is honey-combed with caves of ascetics from centuries of monastic toil in the Judean desert.

Jericho: Sitting above Jericho on a ridge is the Mount of Temptation where Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by Satan, overcoming the three greatest temptations: that of bodily pleasure, wealth & pride. A monastery resides at this spot now, being taken care of by one lone monk (similarly seen at St. George of Hodzeva, St. Gerasimos' Monastery, St. Theodosios' Monastery & Jacob's Well...which will all be covered in my parting shots e-mail). (see photo) The monastery was also founded upon the settlement of many hermits living in the surrounding cliffs in caves striving ascetically. Jericho is considered one of the oldest cities in the world & the lowest inhabited place on earth, a few 100 meters below sea level. The Dead Sea itself is considered to be the lowest point on earth, fyi.


Mount Tabor: The place of Christ's Transfiguration before the Apostles Peter, James & John, and the appearance of the prophets Moses & Elias with him. (see photo) The women's monastery that resides there today, sits atop a network of catacombs presumably used by the monastics of earlier centuries to flee from marauders, bandits & marching armies. It is very quiet & serene at the peak & is understandable why Our Lord chose this spot to take the chosen disciples. One can see all of the way to Nazareth from the peak. (see photo)

Nazareth: Besides being the traditional village that Jesus hailed from, it was also the location of Archangel Gabriel's Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. They have a church built over the spring where the divine appointment occurred. (see photo) This was a surprise on the trip for me as well, I had no idea that the spot was known much less maintained for pilgrims!

Cana: The locale of Christ's first manifested miracle, at a wedding as depicted in the Gospel of John! The church, dedicated to St. George, preserves two water jugs reputed to be from the original six that our Lord turned the water they contained into wine for the wedding feast. When we visited we were happy to learn that they had recently celebrated their 200 or 250 year anniversary of the founding of the church!

Sea of Galilee: We were treated to a boat ride, on something of similar build to what Christ might have sailed in while fishing or traveling this very large lake with His disciples. From the Sea of Galilee one can see the many locales & regions that Christ served the majority of His ministry in: Capernaum, Tiberias, Magdala, Tabha (place of the multiplication of the loaves & fish), Mount of Beatitudes, and land of the Gadarenes. (see photos) The place on the River Jordan where Christ was baptized by John is closed except for two times a year, Theophany & Bright Week. So during the rest of the year, pilgrims visit a new spot established for them at the mouth of the River Jordan on the Sea of Galilee. This is the spot we used to enter the Jordan as well.


St. Katherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai is an oasis in this rugged desert. To get there is a pilgrimage all by itself and worth spending time at to soak up all of the treasures of the monastery (icons, illuminated manuscripts, embroidery, etc.), as well as the holy sites of the Burning Bush; the peaks of Mt. Sinai (2nd tallest on the peninsula @ 7500 ft), Mt. Horeb & Mt. St. Catherine (the tallest @ 8650 ft, & so named because it's the peak which St. Catherine's relics were miraculously translated to); the cave of St. John Climacus; and surrounding cells, sketes & chapels. We were there maybe 24 hrs and only able to take in a handful of everything that the area has to offer. I'm including photos of the Burning Bush, St. Stephen of Mt. Sinai's incorrupt relics from their Bone Room (he used to sit at what's now known as St. Stephen's Gate on the ascent to Sinai's peak & hear the confessions of those heading to the top, b/c it was revered as very holy ground in the past...), a few shots of sunrise at the peak of Mt. Sinai, and a view of the monastery from the trail on our well as the Sinai taxi! I plan to return for a longer stay as well, once I return to the Holy Land.

November 29, 2005: Bethany, Katamon, Bethlehem & Lydda

Forgive my brevity, but considering the amount of photos & sites I want to pass your way, I'm going to limit my ramblings.

Bethany: Here we visited the first Tomb of Lazarus (see photo), where Christ raised him after being four days dead. This site is now controlled by a Muslim family and is rarely opened or visited, because it now resides behind the "apartheid wall". After the Crusader defeat & the eventual disrepair the original church fell into, the Muslims built a Mosque over the cave, preventing a church from ever be reconstructed.

Katamon: The Monastery of the Holy Cross is built over the site where the tree grew that was used for Christ's Cross. Legend has it that it was Lot's task, as a penance for having sinned with his daughters, to water the staffs of Abraham's heavenly visitors (which were made of cypress, pine & cedar wood...see photo of icon). The staffs eventually sprouted a sign of his forgiveness & grew together into one tree. This tree was said to have been cut down for use in the rebuilding of the Temple, but remained unused until it was used for Christ's Cross. I'll cover the Monastery of St. Symeon the God-Receiver in a separate e-mail.

Bethlehem: The Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto where Mary & Joseph lodged and our Saviour was born (see photo). To get to the cave below the altar, you take a set of stairs just to the right of the altar. It was very moving to visit this holy place, not only because of its religious importance, but because it was also the place of siege several years ago during the Nativity season when the Israelis threatened to blow up the church. The interior of the basilica maintains intact ancient mosaics on both the walls & protected under a raised floor (see photo). Other memorable experiences would include being swamped by the locals either begging for alms or swamping you to sell you their wares because they don't get as many pilgrims or tourists anymore due to the wall & check points, because Bethlehem is in a Palestinian sector. The economies of Bethlehem & surrounding villages are being destroyed by this apartheid wall, which have traditionally thrived on tourism. Next to the Church of the Nativity sits the Cave of the Holy Innocents, discovered to house catacombs, graves, a Holy Table, and the multitude of relics (see photo) from the massacring of the children by Herod's armies trying to kill the Christ child. It was very moving to see this place, because the story of the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents (commemorated Dec. 29) has always pierced my heart, trying to imagine what the families must have gone through due to Herod's hatred & paranoia.

Lydda: The tomb of St. George resides here, with an Orthodox church built over it to commemorate & protect it. This was a special treat & surprise for me on the pilgrimage, because of my ignorance, I had no idea that his tomb lay in the Holy Land! The carving of his image on the tomb was superb & moving, so I included a photo of a close up (see both photos). His tomb is also known to be a site of a multitude of healings! We all made sure to be annointed with the holy oil from the lampada hanging over his tomb.

Besides this, in this e-mail, I'm including a few things I left out when covering Jerusalem or the Holy Sepulchre. Just outside of the Holy Sepulchre, sharing an entrance from the same courtyard, resides the Palestinian Christian churches of St. James & the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The church was built on the spot in the garden of Christ's tomb where Mary Magdalene met Jesus after His resurrection before He had gone to the Father, saying, "Don't touch me." (see photo). They also have the very icon of the Theotokos that St. Mary of Egypt faced when she couldn't enter the Church of the Resurrection on the Feast of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (see photo). Lastly, I'm including a rarity, a photo of the Resurrection (actually known as the "Descent into Hell") in Hebrew! The only one we saw our entire time in the Holy Land, and actually at the ruins of the Crusader Church in Emmaus.


November 23, 2005: The Environs of Jerusalem

Now with a little downtime, I hope to catch up on a few updates about my pilgrimage in the Holy Land which would be a shame to passover! I write today, on the same day as the enthronement of the new Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus III. I have arrived in Cyprus & am staying with an close old friend, not Syria, due to last minute changes & considerations... but I do still hope to make it back to Syria before leaving the region.

There are many sites both in & just outside of the Old City that are Holy Sites & sites of interest as well that we visited. Very close to the Holy Sepulchre complex are what's known as the Russian Excavations or the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. This site is important because during the Russian's excavation efforts to build a church, they discovered part of the Herodian city wall still intact, proving archaeologically that the site of the Holy Sepulchre was indeed outside of the city at the time of Christ, not inside as the walls have continued to expand outward over the centuries. They have also discovered what's known as the Judgment Gate which Jesus passed through on His way to crucifixion. We also saw the sites of two healing miracles, the Pool of Siloam in the city of David just outside the current city walls, where the man born blind was healed (of which recent excavations have revealed one whole side of the actual pool, see photo), and Bethesda or the Sheep's Pool where our Saviour healed the paralytic (of which there are ongoing excavations of this entire complex, see photo). Also close by is Praetorium or Christ's place of imprisonment, as he awaited crucifixion (see photo). This was very moving to visit & explore the prison complex that has been excavated. I've had a copy of a Russian Icon depicting the imprisonment, of which the original is kept there, that has always been very see depicted our Lord & Saviour mocked with the crown of thorns & the red robe of royalty. One last place I visited in the Old City was the Monastery of St. Melania built over her cave. We met the elderly & very hospitable gate keeper, who hardly let us leave without trying to feed us something, but were blessed with visiting St. Melania's cave where she practiced her ascetism. They display the chains she wore hung on the wall (see photo).

Just outside of St. Stephen's gate, so named for the Proto-martyr, because it was here that he was stoned to death, and after you pass over/through the Kidron Valley, you come to Gethsemane after a 5-10 walk. The Crusader crypt church containing the Tomb of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) sits here (see photo). You must decend a very long flight of stairs, some 30-40m, passing the tombs of Joachim & Anna, as well as, Joseph the Betrothed on either side. It is here that the famous icon, Panagia of Jerusalem also resides (see photo). I tried to visit & prayer here often, since I know many who have Mary as their patron, and was blessed to be here for one Sunday Liturgy. Now as you begin to ascend the Mt. of Olives from Gethsemane, you pass right by the Russian Convent of St. Mary Magdalene standing out with its traditional Russian style church adorned with gold onion domes (see photo). I met some very wonderful nuns here who not only provided me with hospitality & spiritual edification, but also some direction for finding some of the smaller out of the way holy places for veneration around the city. It was also here that I met an American monk that I spent a majority of my remaining days in the Holy Land visiting many holy sites & receiving much logistical help & moral support from. The monastery is very scenic with wonderful gardens & the best views of the Old City, but also treasures the holy relics of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her faithful attendant the Nun Barbara (see photos). Also, one cannot help but be struck upon entering the church by the large mural scene above the iconostasis showing St. Mary Magdalene handing Tiberius Caesar the red egg while proclaiming "Christ is Risen" (see photo). I spent the last week & a half in the Holy Land between St. Savvas monastery, the Russian Convent of the Ascension (where I was able to stay), and this one. After all of the pilgrimaging & sight seeing, it was very nice to spend my remaining time with those living & offering themselves to the glory of God in His Holy City, to see what living in Jerusalem is like as an Orthodox Christian & struggling amidst "the situation" between the Israelis & Palestinians there. I was blessed to meet several living witnesses and spiritually prosper from the unselfish love that they shared. When I go back, for the Holy Light God-willing, I hope to chronicle some of the stories of the "living martyrs" to make available for the faithful at large. There example is inspiring and convicting!

This is all for now, and I hope to send you a couple more to finish covering the Holy Land before next week...because I still haven't told you about Sinai, the Judaean monasteries, nor Bethlehem!


November 19, 2005: Lebanon "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"

I can't believe it...I've been hearing that song since I was a kid, but I haven't ever had the opporutnity to enjoy them until I come to Lebanon! Well, I just wanted to let you all know that I made it through Jordan & to Lebanon without a hitch. With the day that I had I went nearby to the ancient Roman ruins of the city of Jaresh. I'd wanted to go to Petra, but it turned out that there wasn't enough maybe after my visit to St. Katherine's, b/c it's just across the Sinai peninsula, a ferry ride & then a short taxi/bus trip to this ancient wonder. Security was tighter everywhere in Amman after the bombing. I had a few good laughs with the airport security & army personnel who asked if I was going to hi-jack the plane with my walking stick...after checking with their superiors, they indeed wouldn't let me on with it anymore after the bombing (although my airline tix info declared I could take it onboard...that's why I tried), & forced the airline personnel to find my bag amongst the checked luggage so that I could strap it to it. By that point, everyone was laughing, because c'mon, do I look like a terrorist?!?!

Lebanon is beautiful! Not at all what I imagined! It's a cross between the limestone craginess of the Texas hill country and the dramatic sloping mountains right down to the Mediterranean Ocean like Northern California or Mt. Athos. In my short time here so far, I've been able to tour Beirut (with a visit to the site of the bombing of former PM just 9 mos. ago) and see where some of the fiercest fighting occurred during the war (which many of the buildings tell the story, with evidence of shrapnel damage & bullet holes), visit several beautiful monasteries in the mountains & meet some of the spiritual fathers & mothers of Lebanon with whom you feel grace in their presence. I have been shown the most wonderful hospitality by my dear brother in Christ, whom I connected with here & his family, and have been afforded the opportunity to experience a bit of what life is like here. As someone I met recently described Lebanon as the jewel of the Middle East, and from what I've seen so far, they are right! The people & their faith remind me of what I experienced in Romania, with only the language & topography being different. Forgive my lack of embellishment, but my time is short on the internet. In the next couple of days I'll head to Damascus & hopefully go as far as the sites of St. Isaac & Ephraim the Syrians & St. Simeon the Stylite while I'm in Syria (maybe about a week). I will definitely go to visit the monastery that the miracle occurred through that I sent the note out about, as well as the place of the baptism of Paul. After this, I'm currently thinking of heading back to Egypt to see Alexandria & venerate the relics of the Apostle Mark, Coptic Cairo, & the ancient monasteries of the Nile Valley, besides go back to St. Katherines for a longer stay & hopefully their feast day.
I'll also include a couple of parting shots of Lebannon that I'd wanted to include in the last e-mail but hadn't downloaded from my camera yet (view from St. John the Forerunner monastery & two photos from the interior of their main church, that of the Nativity & contemporary elders awaiting canonization!)...


November 13, 2005: Photos from the Mt. of Olives

A little more about the Convent of the Ascension at the Mount of Olives....

I've included some photos that I took from the top (6 stories) of their tower, both of the convent property which is sizeable considering how densely populated the area has become. I also included a shot of the Old City of Jerusalem. You should be able to make out the wall (which I used for my right & left border of the shot) running just below the Dome of the Rock. The rock dome in the foreground, surrounded by a circular high wall (half way down the photo b/w the Dome of the Rock & the bottom, just above the red roof of a neighboring building) is the former church of the Ascension (now a Mosque) where there's a stone marking the site of the Lord's Ascension with a footprint in the Rock (photo included, although it's hard to make out the shape of a foot in the appears as a depression in the rock).

I've also included the photo of the spot where the first two findings of St. John the Baptist's head was. His head was buried here by Herod Antipas, seperate from his body in Sebaste by his disciples, because he feared that if they were buried together that John would/could rise from the dead. It was later discovered in the 4th century by a monk who lived in the area, and it was revealed to him in a vision to whom it belonged. He reburied it before his death, fearing that it would fall into Muslim hands, until another two monks uncovered it later after its location & identity were revealed to them in mutual dreams on three occasions.

Lastly, I included a photo of the original floor of the ancient main church. It was the site of the martyrdom of many nuns by the Persians in 614 (which occurred at most of the monasteries in the area that year during their invasion). The church was set fire to after the nuns were slaughtered, burning the blood into the floor. Reminders of this kind are remarkable in their own right, but to have them incorporated into the house of worship makes it all the more powerful to pray there recalling that others have literally spilt their blood for their love of Christ & the Faith!


November 12, 2005: I missed former Pres. Clinton by 10 minutes!

Well, I went to the Holy Sepulchre tonight to stay for the midnight Liturgy & was told that I'd just missed former President Clinton 10 minutes earlier. It wouldn't have been as momentous as running into Vladimir Putin at the beginning of my pilgrimage, but it still would've been something to see how he would've conducted himself there...

I don't have long to send a full update, just a brief one. I'm ok, things in Jerusalem weren't affected by the bombings in Amman a few days ago, but tensions have started to run high again b/c the Israeli police shot an unarmed Palestinian man in the back for apparently no reason a few days ago & Palestinians are starting to protest around the city & make public demonstrations. A young child was just shot recently as well while playing with a toy gun, & supposedly the police thought it was real...seems strange to think a child would have a real gun out in the open when it's illegal for Palestinians to own or carry any type of firearms...

I'm currently staying on the Mt. of Olives at the Russian Convent of the Ascension until I depart for Lebanon & Syria on Monday. I'll actually stay in Jordan for a day, drive down to the ancient city of Petra hewn out of the solid rock (one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world), and make it to Beirut on Wednesday. This convent sits atop the Mt. of Olives & boasts a tower with the best & highest views available in the area! (I'll have to include these photos in another e-mail). The community was actually founded by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission to support the vast number of pilgrims that were coming to the Holy Land before the Russian Revolution. During excavation for the building of a chapel they found the site of the 1st & 2nd finding of the head of St. John the Baptist. More about this monastery in my next e-mail as well, because the internet cafe is closing!

This week I went out to St. Savvas (Mar Sabbas) monastery for 3 days, over the feasts of St. Demetrios & St. Stephen of St. Savva Monastery respectively. It's one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the Christian world, and the oldest in the Judean desert for sure surviving for over 1500 years. They have about 15 fathers there currently, hailing from Greece, Cyprus, Romania & America to name a few. The monastery is on the steep slope of the Kidron Valley between Bethlehem & the Dead Sea. It was founded by St. Savva, but has also been home to many other important saints of the church: John of Damascus, John of Kolonia, Cosmas the Hymnographer, Stephen the Wonderworker, Michael Syngelus, Theophanes, Cyril of Scythopoulos & Theodore of Edessa. I was able to visit both of St. Savva's caves, John of Damascus' cave, & the miraculous spring of St. Savva. They also have a miraculous date palm which helps cure those couples unable to bear children. Under the guidance of their spiritual father, with prayers & fasting, the couple drink a tea made from the palm leaves. They gave me one leaf which I'm sending back to Fr. Dositheos in Texas for those in need (with the instructions from the monastery). It is the Liturgical typicon established by St. Savva that the church has come to inherit & practice. Also, their daily typicon is similar to that of Mt. Athos, awaking in the middle of the night for personal prayer & then corporate prayer in the church. They spend most of their time with upkeep of the monastery, providing hospitality to groups of pilgrims throughout the week, and tending to their lands. I enjoyed my stay their much, a beautiful & quiet retreat from the hustle & bustle of the city!


November 5, 2005: The Holy Sepulchre

The group I've been touring with throughout the holy sites & Holy Land left yesterday morning, and I am sad to see them go, because we bonded as a family of pilgrims by helping & supporting one another as we shared such awesome & wonderful holy experiences at the holy places, & getting to know one another as we shared laughs & our life's journey. To my fellow pilgrims reading this, thank you for being there to share in the experience of the Holy Land, it wouldn't have been the same without you!

Since they have left, I am trying to see some of the sites that we weren't able to even in our packed itinerary, because there is just so much to see here! I hope to feel well enough (I think I'm coming down with a head cold or sinus infection) to make it to Mar Sabbas at the beginning of next week to stay for several days. I'd wanted to make it to the Feast of James the Brother of our Lord this morning in the church of St. James next to the Holy Sepulchre, but I just didn't feel well enough...I'm trying to save my energy to go to the mid-night Liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre, where I've made arrangements with the Brotherhood of the Sepulchre to be allowed to stay in after they lock up at 7pm & just dwell in this holy place & pray until the start of services...I can't wait! So, this will be the subject of this update, the Holy Sepulchre, my experiences there & photos!

I left off telling you about the morning of my arrival...well after being let into the hotel & having breakfast, I felt I had enough strength & energy (although I hadn't slept in 24 hrs) to go & venerate the Holiest place in Christendom as my first act on my pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The Holy City was just starting to stir, with people going to work or school, starting to open shops, running errands, etc. The Old City within the walls is hard to image if you haven't been here, but the best way to describe it is as a labyrinth of old intersecting streets (wide enough for carts & horses at times but very few wide enough for cars) of which many look the same! The elevation changes dramatically at times, some of the streets seem closed in from above due to awnings, and it leaves one with the sense that the whole city is a bazaar, with it's unending variety of shops & teeming life. The current old city is a city built upon a city. When Jerusalem has been destroyed many times over the centuries, most of the time the city was rebuilt ontop of the rubble, so the earlier establishments descend several levels. This also explains the dramatic elevation changes as one walks through the city, depending upon the excavations done in certain areas. Also, almost all buildings have several floors, with apartments on top of shops, etc. It is a very unique city, and it makes sense why they call the people the living stones, because most have been living there for generations and truly know the city because it is tied to their experience.

Ok, so I finally find my way to the Sepulchre that Sunday morning & am happy to find that the Greeks are celebrating Orthros (morning prayers before the Divine Liturgy or the service of Holy Communion) in the Catholicon opposite the Tomb of our Saviour, while the Copts are celebrating their services in their small chapel attached to the back of the Tomb of our Saviour. It was strange to experience this, hearing two services at once almost competing against one another, but I'd heard about it many years before coming here. It is like this almost all day in the Holy Sepulchre due to the site being shared by the Orthodox, Latins, Armenians, & Copts. They have a schedule which determines when & how they share the site which they call the Status Quo. This is usually kept respectfully, but when it hasn't, it has ended in the shoving matches & use of force that we've heard stories about in grappling over the use of the shrine. I couldn't have imagined it until I'd seen the Holy Sepulchre complex myself. One thing that shocks most visitors is what close proximity everything actually is, not only in & around Jerusalem ( e.g. Gethsemane is just down the hillside from the Mount of Olives, which is just on the other side of the hill from Bethany...Bethlehem is only 15 minutes from Jerusalem before the Wall of Shame was built, etc.) but in the Holy Sepulchre itself. But it's because it is easy to skew distances while reading the Bible especially since we are coming from a different perspective of time/distance informed by mechanized travel, whereas the authors of the Bible usually walked and rode animals at best...So, the Holy Sepulchre complex contains the Garden Tomb of our Saviour, Golgotha where the Crucifixion took place, the Annointing Stone where His Holy Body was laid for annointing for burial, the pillar He was tied to for lashing by the soldiers, the place where He was nailed to the Cross, & the place fo the finding of the Cross by St. Helen. It's amazing that all of this is so close together. Archaeology has proven that this site was outside of the city walls during the time of Christ, although today it resides within the current city walls (this is what caused the confusion for the establishment of the Lutheran shrine of the Garden Tomb close to the Mount of Olives). That's something else of note, most of the Holy Sites for the Orthodox are shared with the Armenians, Copts or Latins, but not all, some groups, especially the Protestants & Latins had "founded" their own sites either when modern scholarship/reasoning & guesswork have been used or inadequate archaeology hasn't been able to accurately determine the exact ancient location (sorry to ruffle the feathers of non-Orthodox reading this, but many recent archaeological finds have proven the oral tradition of the unbroken line of people living in the region since the time of Christ & ancient [Orthodox] Christian accounts in writing to be correct). For example, there's a place advertised as the Prison of Christ, which is at current street level...impossible, considering that street level is several meters above the ruins of the ancient city of Christ's time. The Orthodox simply say, if they don't know the exact location, that they haven't found it yet & rejoice in what we have found patiently waiting for the other sites to be revealed if it be God's will & our blessing!

As I approached the Holy Sepulchre, the walkway opens into a stone courtyard, rather large considering the confined space within the Old City. As I approached the main door (the same through with St. Mary of Egypt was mystically barred from entering), I saw the pillar from which the Holy Fire came the Pascha that the Orthodox were locked out of the Sepulchre in 1850 (a great miracle which showed the grace God grants only the Orthodox to receive the Holy Fire on Pascha or Easter, see photo...later in our trip we also visited the Patriarchal Complex which is almost a city on top of the Sepulchre Complex, where there's a chapel dedicated to Sts. Constantine & Helen, where it's been witnessed that the Holy Fire has also entered the small northern window into the Rotunda above the Tomb & lit the lamps there, & that this has occurred on other major holy days besides Pascha!). I was in awe, finally seeing what I've read about & heard about for years...the pillar still shows signs of the fire which come through in the photo. As I entered the complex, the first thing I encountered was a large stone on the floor with 8 lampadas hanging over it & large mosaic on the wall behind it depicting its story. It was the Annointing Stone that Christ's body was laid upon for preparation for burial after being taken down from the Cross! (see photo) I was moved to tears that I couldn't stop (not like emotional tears, but spiritual, those of compunction & true awe or speechlessness)! I had this experience as I came upon almost every Holy Place within the Sepulchre complex, tears, awe, speechlessness, realizing that I was treading upon Holy Ground unworthily, but still alive & beholding the sites where our Lord worked out the salvation of the human race! From the entryway & the Annointing Stone, Golgotha is immediately to the right & up a flight of stairs above everything with the Chapel of Adam & Eve where their tombs were found directly below it; the Orthodox Catholicon sits directly behind the mosaic & Annointing stone; while the Tomb sits further to the left & forward, across from the Catholicon; the place of the nailing is on the other side of the Catholicon from the entrance to the Sepulchre complex; and behind the Catholicon's altar the passageway is lined with chapels (one including the pillar that Christ was tied to) & a stairway leading down two flights to the place of the finding of the Cross. I know this is all very hard to would take either a floor plan or scale model to get a good picture of it or seeing it in person.

So I proceeded to climb the stairs to Golgotha and was in awe to see below the altar table under the protection of plexiglass the rock of Golgotha. They have a small disc under the altar where you can venerate & reach through a whole in the middle to touch the place of our Lord's Crucifixion. (see photo, the disc & whole are just in front of the Nymphios icon washed out by my flash under the Holy Table...unfortunately this photo doesn't show the rest of Golgothat under the plexiglass well) From this high point in the complex one can see down into the Catholicon & towards the Annointing Stone. I walked down & entered into the Adam's Chapel which is directly below Golgothat & place of the Crucifixion. One can see how the solid rock split in the earthquake during at the ninth hour during the Crucifixion, and the saving blood of our Saviour would have dripped through this crack onto the bones of our ancestors Adam & Eve, as depicted in Orthodox icons. (see both photos) After finding this truly moving set of chapels, I continued to wander through the complex & found the small Chapel of the Crowning with Thorns which contains a pillar which is reputed to be that which Christ was bound to & scourged. From here I descended the two flights of stairs (past an Armenian chapel) into what used to be a cistern for collecting water (& is still rather humid) to the place where Helen heard the Holy Cross had been dumped & found it in her holy zeal. (see photo) There is a small Latin alter with a statue of St. Helen holding the Cross just to the left of the place where the True Cross was found marked with a flagstone in the floor surrounded by a rail. I finally proceeded to the Tomb of our Saviour with much compuction, solemnity & contemplation & was stopped in my tracks as I beheld it in the light of the morning sun & splendor of the Liturgy being celebrated just opposite of it. (see photo of entryway) When one enters the Tomb of the Resurrection, you first pass through the Angel's Chapel, which has a small remaining piece of the original stone which the Angel rolled away from the doorway of the tomb (see photo with small reliquary on pedestal containing the remains of the rock). Then you pass through another very small doorway into the tomb itself. The actual stone that our Lord was laid upon is encased in marble to protect it, over which a multitude of lampadas hang. One can open a small door behind an icon to reveal the old tomb interior itself as well (see photo). The inner chamber is very small allowing only 3-4 people to fit at a time, I couldn't even get a shot containing everything in perspective in a single photo! By this time I was so mesmerized by everything that I'd been seeing & experiencing that I was already overwhelmed & couldn't believe that I was actually here at the tomb! I went to the Liturgy after this & just sat praying & contemplating everything. I did well for awhile, but fatigue finally caught up with me & I started to fall asleep. So I decided to leave, saturated with my experience & resolved to return as soon as I had rested!

My feeble words can't begin to capture my own experiences, much less adequately describe the sites themselves. There is so much that I've missed, after looking over my ramblings that I recommend anyone moved to learn more to either ask questions about specific aspects or read better sources such as "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Land" by Holy Nativity Convent, (which is in fact an indispensible guide to the major Holy Site in & around Jerusalem for the Orthodox, including the specific hymns & Biblical passages for each site), or wait to hear my stories upon my's the type of thing easier spoken than written, with many hand gestures to explain & convey. Before the group left we had a special Holy Fire service of our own in the Catholicon, with bundles of 33 candles like on Pascha, to the chanting of Xristos Anesti, with the Holy Light provided from the Lampada in the inner tomb which is lit annually from the Holy Fire & kept burning without interruption all year until the next Pascha. (see photo) I will try to send out seperate updates about our subsequent days of pilgrimage, so you can get an idea of about how much one can see & accomplish in a day, if you're considering your own pilgrimage. I highly recommend it, no one should miss visiting the Holy Land at least once in one's lifetime. There's a reason this place is considered the center of the world, worth struggling for between the world's major religions, and considered Holy Land. An Elder put it this way to our group during a talk, that it is considered the Holy Land because it is drenched with the blood of martyrs, and that while Mount Athos produces Saints & Great Ascetics, the Holy Land produces martyrs. We were told that this same Elder picked up dirt & squeezed it while blood came out, showing how blood soaked & holy this place is. Please keep me in your prayers as I get over whatever this bug a week to 10 days I hope to be meeting a good friend in Lebanon to see the Holy Sites there & in Syria. After that, God willing, I think I'll return to St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai to make a longer stay, visit some of the fathers there & stay for the Feast of St. Catherine. From there, we'll see what doors God opens & which are closed, but I'm considering Cyprus.