Category Archives: Middle East 2019

Middle East: Field Studies with JUC

15 March, 2019

This past week was our second and final week at Jerusalem University College. After taking our first test Saturday morning and a free afternoon, we started off strong with field studies again Sunday morning. This past week was quite a bit different from our first week at Jerusalem University College as we spent much of our days and nights on the field.

With Kaitlyn, our instructor, we traversed the Mediterranean coast from Ashkelon to Cesarean Maritma, explored the hot dry southern area of the Negev, visited the Golan up by Syria, and sailed across the Sea of Galilee by way of Capernum. We learned in freezing wind, scorching heat, hail, and ate countless pita sandwiches. We also visited many tels  and ruins of historical significance such as Kirebet Qumran, Beer Sheeba, Ceasarea Philipi, Magdala,  Megiddo, and Dan (in fact there are over 35 places where I recorded notes). Now, thanks to Kaitlyn, we can all locate said places on a map, describe its soil type, draw the major routes which go through it, and name the Bible story which took place there.

Learning and reading Bible stories in their actual locations will forever change the way in which I read the text. It is still surreal to think of all the places we walked, and my understanding of the Bible has grown from standing in Caesarea where Paul was imprisoned, the ruins of Megiddo where Josiah dies, and Mt. Carmel where the Israelites worshiped Bael.  The most impactful story was seeing the types of rock which Moses hit in the wilderness of the Negev instead of speaking to it like he was supposed to.   This rock usually has water built up behind it, thus Moses striking it was not a reflection of Gods power, as it was when he struck the rock in the Sinai, but rather a portrayal of his own selfishness. Learning this information transformed how I understand this particular story.  Kaityln also continually encouraged us to examine our own faith and ask deep questions such as: what do we as people of faith do when the archeology and the text don’t line up?

While we spent much of the week taking in and processing vast amounts of information, we had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves and soak in this once in a lifetime experience we are having. Some highlights included swimming-rather floating in the Dead Sea, hiking Hippus at sunrise, and Isaac Alderfer beating the JUC record of running up Masada by one second with a time of 2:31. My own personal highlight was the hotel we stayed at which was right on the Sea of Galilee. Not only was the buffet scrumptious, but our bungalows were right on the water which served as a beautiful backdrop to our academic learning. The proximity to the sea was perfect for morning swimming as well as sunset swimming, and, of course, night swims.

Now, after taking our last test, our time at JUC has come to a close and we are all splitting off in groups for our free travel, for a much needed break before we transition to the next part of our program.

-Anisa Leonard


Middle East: Jerusalem

This week has found us transitioning to Jerusalem, our next port of call on this journey. Here, we’re staying and working with Jerusalem University College, where we’re focusing more on Biblical geography in and around the Promised Land, right here where we are.

Jerusalem itself is only a few miles from Beit Sahour, about a half hour drive in our bus, but the two cities are very different in some ways. One prominent difference being that water is much more easily accessible here for citizens of Israel and Jerusalem, as observed by the distinct lack of water tanks on the rooftops here. Aside from that, the whole atmosphere of the city is different in a way that’s hard to describe – little things like having lanes on the road and stoplights as well as crosswalks, more variety in architecture, the mood of the people around here, and much more.

Jerusalem University College is located just outside the southwestern corner of the Old City here, with easy access to the Zion Gate on the southern wall and the Jaffa gate on the western wall. We’ve had the opportunity to go explore the Old City both on our own and as part of the many field studies that we go out on every day as part of our academic program here. The Old City’s four quarters – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian – are all filled with various holy sites (like Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock atop it, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Cenacle where tradition says the Last Supper was held, to name a few) as well as a diverse myriad of people and shops throughout. There are few other places with this level of historical density, which certainly makes it a new adventure to explore every time we visit it.

Besides the Old City, our teacher Kaitlyn has also been busy both teaching us in the classroom about the Biblical landscapes around and outside of Jerusalem – regions such as Benjamin, Shephelah, Philistia, Judah, the Negev, and the Galilee, and their many geographical features. We’ve been inundated with information ranging from major roads, cities, the type of rocks and terrain; the empires and peoples, large and small, using the region as their playing boards over the ages; which Biblical stories have happened where, and how specific geographical contexts can explain far more aspects of those stories than we would have considered otherwise, and much more.

JUC’s program also has a strong focus on field study, meaning while we do spend hours in the classroom, we spend far more outside of it. Our trekking is mainly via bus, with many stops to experience places for ourselves as well as listening to Kaitlyn discuss the various places and their historical and geographical significance. More than a few bad puns have been had by both sides, and we’ve plied her with countless questions as we explore the area to actually experience the Biblical land for ourselves. Some of the places we’ve been to include places around Jerusalem like the City of David (where we had a lengthy walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an underground water channel terminating in the Pool of Siloam, the place where Jesus healed a blind man in John 9), Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, and the Old City as mentioned previously. Outside Jerusalem, we’ve also touched Jericho, the baptismal site of Jesus, Gethsemane (where Jesus experienced agony and arrest the night before his crucifixion), Bet Shemesh, and Azekah among others that I’m probably forgetting. This coming week, we have more exploration in the Negev and the Galilee regions to look forward to.

With the move to Jerusalem and the JUC program, I find myself considering some of the other differences in our own situations – here, we haven’t really touched on current issues here in Israel much, or their relations with Palestinians, whereas back in Beit Sahour that was a focal point of our experience there. However, we’ll be touching on those subjects much more later once we move on from JUC, as well as learning Hebrew. The end of next week also brings with it the start of our week of independent travel, and we’ve been getting many of our final plans together for what to do then. With all the hopping between places, even our longer stays at any one given place like Beit Sahour or here at JUC still feel ephemeral, but the next adventure on this trip is always beckoning, pulling us to the next place.

-Graham Stauffer

Middle East: Bethlehem University, authors, the wall, Herodian

Feb 16, 2019

Hello friends! Since our last post we’ve enjoyed another week in beautiful Beit Sahour. Week 2 in Palestine has included more bonding with our host families, several trips to local sites, and  – you guessed it – many more falafel sandwiches.

We have continued to enjoy lectures from professors from the local Bethlehem University on various topics including Palestinian literature and history, women’s issues, and Christians in the area. My favorite part of our lectures so far has been reading poetry from prominent Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish, Jamal Assadi and others. Poetry has a way of conveying concepts and ideas in a way unlike any other. My reading list has nearly doubled from Dr. Shomali’s recommendations and I look forward to getting started on some new novels soon!

Alongside these lectures our Arabic courses add more valuable learning to our days. We’ve learned a lot of helpful phrases and vocabulary over the past two weeks that we’ve been excitedly using with shopkeepers and taxi drivers around town whenever we can. Rachael and I have had a great time practicing with our host mom Suha, who is an English teacher. She provides helpful corrections as we go and we in turn provide entertainment to the rest of the family with our wacky pronunciations and at times questionable sentence structure. They particularly enjoyed when Rachael asked me in Arabic “Is the coffee hot?” And I replied “No, I’m a student.”

Our first trip of the week was to the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem where we learned more about the separation wall, occupation, and water issues within the West Bank. We had an engaging conversation about the role of the United States within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presentation was very helpful in gaining understanding of different aspects of the situation as our group continues to engage and process all that we are hearing.

We also enjoyed a visit to the impressive archaeological site of Herodion. Situated on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem and the surrounding towns the summer palace and fortress built by King Herod, the ruler of Judea, later became his final resting place. The site is an architectural marvel that includes an amphitheater, palace, and a series of underground tunnels. The king’s tomb lies somewhere within the site but remains unfound due to erosion. The view from the top of the mountain had birds-eye views of the lush valley below including the glimmering gold Dome of the Rock and the dark green Mount of Olives.

Our final visit of the week was to the Talita Kumi School in the neighboring town of Beit Jala. The grounds serve as both a Lutheran school and an environmental center. The center does important research regarding birds who are native to the area and who migrate through Palestine through bird tagging and other environmental initiatives. The center welcomes students from surrounding towns and helps educate them about local wildlife and how to help preserve and protect the natural beauty of their home.

It’s hard to believe that we have just one more week in Beit Sahour. It has been such a valuable experience to live with, speak with, and learn from Palestinians from all walks of life. This has easily been my favorite part of the trip so far and I look forward to what this next and final week will bring!

-Erin Beidler

Middle East: Beit Sahour, host families, Arabic studies

  1. Feb. 2019

After three weeks of hotel-hopping (and bedouin camp-hopping), we’re glad to be somewhere we can really settle in: Beit Sahour. A Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Beit Sahour is south of Jerusalem and a short walk downhill from Bethlehem. Of its 15,000 people, 75% are Christians, and we’re all staying with Palestinian Christian host families for the three weeks we’re here.

Austin and I are loving our stay with Reema and Philippe, our host grandparents. Reema has told us that we are her grandchildren now, and she treats us with wonderful hospitality, patient help with our Arabic, and delicious food every breakfast and supper—I ate so many stuffed grape leaves, stuffed tomatoes, and stuffed zucchini on Thursday that I felt like a stuffed vegetable myself. We’ve had fun hanging out with Reema and Philippe’s grandchildren, who live nearby, in the evenings. Elianna, 18, is fluent in English, and tells Austin and me great stories about her life in college and travels to other countries. Ayman, 15, is our business-minded host brother who invited us to play bilyardo (pool) with him and his friends a few nights ago… we didn’t stand a chance. And Jeries, 7, entertained/exhausted us with hours of hide-and-seek, tag, and the floor is lava on our second night here. He and Elianna are helping us learn our Arabic numbers and colors through UNO (or should I say, wāḥad?).

About half of our days are spent at our home base, a classroom in Beit Sahour near the Old City. On those days, we have a 3-hour Arabic lesson in the morning. We’re split up into two groups and focus on learning practical, spoken language that we can put to use right away on the street and in our host families. After the lesson, we’re on our own for lunch with a 15-shekel stipend from Linford and Janet. Here our strategies vary, with some spending most of their money on a 12-shekel shawarma sandwich, while others go with the standard 4-shekel falafel sandwich and supplement with an apple, pomegranate, or piece of freshly-baked pita bread.

In the afternoon, we gather again for a lecture and discussion. We began by hearing about Palestinian literature and the beginnings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from two professors from Bethlehem University. On Friday, we watched The Wanted 18, a funny but impactful movie about Beit Sahour during the first intifada in 1993. It tells the story of how the citizens of the town (including some people we’ve met or will meet) resisted the Israeli occupation by buying cows to start a dairy farm, and later hiding them when the Israelis tried to shut it down.

When we’re not in the classroom, we’re out on field trips throughout the West Bank. Our first day was a tour of Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, including the Biblical sites of the Shepherds’ Field and the Church of the Nativity, which was built on top of the cave where Jesus may have been born. In multiple places, we saw the border wall that separates the West Bank from Israel and Israeli settlements. In building the wall, Israel inadvertently created a massive canvas for Palestinians to express their opposition to it. We could have spent a whole day along the wall in Bethlehem just looking at the graffiti, which ranges from serious (stencils of children playing with barbed wire) to humorous (“MAKE HUMMUS NOT WALLS”) to cartoons that mock Donald Trump and his intentions to build a similar wall on the US-Mexico border. My favorite graffiti is back in Beit Sahour, a picture of a “flower thrower” by the mysterious British street artist Banksy.

Another of our day trips took us north of Jerusalem, and along the way, we admired the landscape after a few days of rain: beautiful green hills, vineyards, and olive trees, in contrast to the tan desert scenery we’d gotten used to in Egypt and Jordan. We stopped at Taybeh, a town where Jesus went after raising Lazarus from the dead, and which also has a famous brewery. In Jifna, we saw the headquarters from which the Romans operated for an assault on Jerusalem around 70 CE, giving us another glimpse into the empire which has left traces everywhere we’ve visited so far. For lunch, we wandered in the rain through downtown Ramallah, the current political and economic capital of the West Bank, and the struggle between shawarma and falafel continued. Some of us couldn’t resist and opted for a bit of both. We ended by visiting the new Yasser Arafat museum to learn more about the Palestinian leader who tried to make peace with Israel.

While we continue to enjoy the manageable and rewarding challenges of learning some Arabic and living with host families, our conversations with the locals and experiences on our day trips remind us of the much larger, much more sobering issues in the places that surround us. The divide between Israelis and Palestinians seems impossible to bridge—one of our Palestinian lecturers told us that there is “no hope at all in our present situation.” It can certainly feel hopeless to learn about a conflict that began more than 100 years ago and realize that it’s still going on today, with very little progress made.

But in the spirit of making hummus, not walls, let’s end with some of my friends’ favorite Arabic words and phrases they’ve learned recently:

Natalie: yalla — “let’s go,” because it brings back memories of being in Egypt with our guide Samer.

Collin: fi lmišmeš — “when hell freezes over,” or literally, “in the apricot,” because it’s funny.

Jessie: ilbēt bētek — “feel at home,” or literally, “the house is your house,” because it’s really sweet.

Elliott: haġar, wara’a, ʿm’as — “rock, paper, scissors,” because our Jordanian guide Mahmoud’s son taught it to me.

Anisa: waqt — “time,” because it sounds cool.

Luke: yōm saʿīd — “have a good/happy day,” because my host dad smiles whenever I say it to him.

Allison: tšarrafna — “nice to meet you,” because when I get the chance to say it, it means I’ve met someone new.

Daniil: inšālla — “God willing,” because it often implies maybe, maybe not, I’m not in control.

Marianna: rummān — “pomegranate,” because I’ve indulged so much on this trip. Good memories.

Isaac Alderfer: šāy — “tea,” because it’s a part of every day and I need it to function.

Carly: ḥilu — “sweet,” because I’m eating too many kinder bars, the candy is awesome.

Silas: habībi — “friend, lover, or anything in between,” because it was my nickname in Elementary Arabic class.

Karissa: also habībi, because it’s fun to say and you hear it a lot here.

Nealon: hašīš — “grass,” because I like grass.

Rachael: šukran — “thank you,” because it’s the only word I can consistently remember when I try to speak Arabic on the streets.

Isaac Andreas: šwayy — “a little,” because I don’t always want lots.

Erin: mumtaz! — “awesome!” because we’ve seen so many awesome things, so I use it a lot.

-Ben Stutzman


Middle East: Jordan – desert hikes, refugees, and Biblical story

Greetings friends,

Since Graham left off at the Bedouin camp we have seen, heard, smelled and experienced many more new things.

After leaving the camp, we as a group rode on the bus to the small village of Dana where we were to begin our adventure on the Jordan trail.

The Jordan trail goes from Dana down into Petra, and we as a group were extremely fortunate to spend three days hiking on this trail.  The first day of hiking was mostly down hill into Feynon, where we spent the night at a beautiful vegetarian eco-lodge which had a pasta dish that changed my life. Day two of hiking was mostly flat and took us through little Petra and to the Seven Wonders Bedouin camp, where we stayed for the night. Our third day of hiking took us through some of Petra itself allowing us to see Petra’s monastery, gorgeous ravines and many, many goats. Continue reading

Middle East: On to Jordan

Since the end of the last blog post by my friend Silas, we’ve explored Egypt further. Since Anafora, we’ve spent a lot of time traveling out and about, flying from Cairo to Luxor and spending two days there with picturesque scenery along the Nile visible right from our hotel room windows and rooftop. Our guide, Samer, took us to explore several historical locations around Luxor – Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, the Valley of Kings, and the local bazaar, to name a few.

After flying back to Cairo, we also had the opportunity to travel (once again, led by Samer) down to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, some several hours’ bus drive where we crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai peninsula (and from Africa to Asia). Touring the museum there was a fascinating experience, as well – many Christian icons, fine artwork, and old books, all of which were several centuries old, a few well over a thousand years old, which highlights the deep and rich history of the monastery in addition to Christianity itself.

One of the highlights of this week (and the trip to date) was our climb up Mount Sinai on the 23rd; not quite just a walk in the park, with a trail about 2.5 miles long with 750 steps at the end to the peak. It covers a total elevation change of 2,200 feet (with the peak itself being roughly 2.2km, or 7,500 feet, above sea level), but the sunset view at the peak was well worth the hike, in addition to Linford going on at length with several excellent words on Exodus (our assigned Bible reading at the time) and our hiking experience.

The day after our climb up Mount Sinai was a much more relaxed day (in the morning at least) where we drove from St. Catherine to Taba, a small town on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Israel border, to cross through the very southern tip of Israel over to Aqaba on the Jordanian side, where we stayed the night. Clearing border security in Israel was a very time-consuming affair, but eventually we got across to Jordan, where we ended up waiting some more for our guides and bus. Continue reading

Middle East: Egypt

Has it really only been a week? That’s the question that comes to mind as I write these words in Anaphora, a compound about an hour’s drive from Cairo. It’s a beautifully serene place that offers us time and space to unwind and reflect.

Yes, only a week. Driving away from the farewell crowd at University Commons seems so long ago. After 20 hours of travel, half of which were spent in airports, we were greeted in the capital by our guide Samer (Sah-mair), who welcomed us with oranges, bananas, juice boxes, and flowers (for the ladies). Fortunately, it was nearly 9 PM Egypt time, so we were able to sleep soon after. Jet lag was hardly an issue.

Samer has since led us all over Cairo and Giza, holding his scepter topped with an ankh, the symbol for life, high in the air. In the morning, we saw the Great Pyramids, checking the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World off of our list. These tombs held the global record for tallest man-made structure for nearly four thousand years, and the engineering plus sheer manpower it would have taken to achieve the stacking of rocks – each weighing multiple tons – is pretty flabbergasting. Our group took in their epochal presence, as well as that of the Sphinx, and moved on to visit a papyrus art gallery, a carpet making school, and a handful of other ruins that are rich in history, yet often overshadowed by the Pyramids.


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