Category Archives: Syria, Palestine and Israel 2011

Nazareth Village and the Jesus Trail

Middle East 10After our week at the kibbutz and at Oranim College, we made our way to the small city of Nazareth for the next stage of our adventure. We are staying in the middle of the old city in a nice hostel with nice people, but then again, when aren’t the people nice here? We spent two days volunteering at Nazareth Village, a small reconstructed village from the first century. When we first visited, we met shepherds, Joseph the carpenter, and Hannah the weaver, all of whom were dressed in handmade first century garments. When we went to volunteer, we found out that we got to dress up too, so we were sent to work on the village wearing a tunic and leather sandals. Most of us had the job of pulling weeds while others got to clean the synagogue area and help prepare the authentic first century meal for tourists. This experience showed us a hint of what the life of Jesus might have been like.

After our first two days volunteering at Nazareth Village, it was time to hike the Jesus Trail, a 40 mile trek from Nazareth to Capernaum. Our journey was split into 4 days, all of which would end with wonderful hospitality at our various accommodations that were all completely different. Our first day went through Zippori, a Roman city where Joseph may have worked as a tecton (master builder), Mash’had, which was Jonah’s supposed birthplace, and ended in Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle. The second day was quite easy as we followed the trail blazes through the countryside. We  stayed the night in Ilaniya at a goat farm. Since the day was fairly short, we had some time on the farm to hang out, relax, play games, and do handstands.

The next day was the toughest as it measured to about 15 miles, not counting the few times we got lost. The day consisted of seeing a Roman road, climbing the Horns of Hattim, and heading towards the cliffs of Arbel where we stayed in the luxurious Arbel Bed and Breakfast. The last day consisted of hiking to the top of cliffs and then, of course, hiking down. From the top of the cliffs, we could see where we had been for the past two days, and we could also see our destination, Capernaum, was in reach. Just before we arrived at Capernaum, we climbed halfway up the Mount of Beatitudes where Linford gave us some insight about the Sermon on the Mount and how it related to the land surrounding the Galilee.

Our journey ended very happily in Capernaum where we celebrated the baptism of Mariah Elliot, where she was immersed in the Sea of Galilee and renewed her commitment to God. This was special for all of us because this is where Jesus called his first disciples and that is where their journey began. As we drove back to Nazareth, we really felt a sense of accomplishment as it took us four days to reach our goal and only took about 45 minutes to drive all the way back. We got to experience the land as Jesus would have, which you do not get on a bus. Now that the Jesus Trail is completed and we are all still in one piece, we have two more days of volunteering in Nazareth Village before we head off to Greece early Wednesday morning. Our journey is quickly coming to a close, and while we are ready to reunite with family and friends, we are also sad to say good bye to the land we have called our home for the past three months.

-Andre Swartzentruber

Experiencing Israeli culture

Middle East 9Last week was packed with opportunities to learn more about Israeli culture with the Oranim program.  We stayed in Kibbutz Ramat HaShofem, one of the first kibbutzim set up in Israel.  The original kibbutz system was set up with a mix of socialist and zionist ideals, focused on communal living.  This kibbutz has lost many of these original ideals, but still provided a nice setting and guest house for our group to meet and discuss our new perspectives of Israeli culture.

A highlight for many of us was the several “mifgash” (or planned conversations) where we had opportunities to meet with Israelis near our age.  On the first evening, we had a chance to talk with four Israeli soldiers.  Military service is mandatory for all Israeli youth after high school, which is definitely a contrast to my pacifist upbringings.  By the end of our conversation, I was finally able to look past their uniform and gun to see these soldiers as people.

One of my favorite speakers this week was Noha Khativ, an Arab Israeli who grew up as a minority in a Jewish community.  She helped set up an organization called Hand in Hand, which has created four bi-lingual schools for Arab and Israeli children within Israel.  The classes are taught in both Arabic and Hebrew, which allows the kids to communicate with one another and learn about the other students’ cultures and religious traditions.  Not only do the children have opportunities to make friends with one another, but their parents and families are given opportunities to interact as well.  These relationships help build understanding between Arabs and Israelis.  Hopefully these children will grow up questioning why they are told to hate and fear “the other” and rather build on the relationships they have made through Hand in Hand.

We also met with Tzvika and Ayelet Shahak, whose daughter Bat-Chen was killed in a suicide bombing attack on her 15th birthday in Tel Aviv.  Their strength in spreading Bat-Chen’s dream for peace gives me hope for the entire region.  Bat-Chen’s Diary has been published in six languages, and I was impressed with her messages for peace even at a young age.  Rather than just grieve and become bitter about their daughter’s death, Tzvika and Ayelet converse with other bereaved families, both Israeli and Palestinian, about ending violence.

Other topics of conversation from this week included:  the conflict between secular and religious Jews; the post-Holocaust Jewish mindset; and Arab identity as a minority within Israeli society.  Being here and discussing Israeli issues has helped me understand the Israeli mindset, however complicated it may be.

Students prepare for a delicious Shabbat dinner by ritually washing their hands as is customary in Jewish culture Our group also had plenty of opportunities to bond this week over endless cups of tea, random evening card games, a delicious Shabbat dinner in an Israeli home, group presentations on the Arab/Israeli conflict, and a fun-filled Talent Show/Game Night.  I am impressed with how much the group has matured and grown since the beginning of the semester, and I consistently gain new insights from them through conversation and discussion.  I’m looking forward to our upcoming week in Nazareth and hiking the Jesus Trail to the Sea of Galilee!

-James Souder


This has been such a powerful week for me. On Sunday Olivia, Steve, Andre, Ben and I returned from our week of free travel in Egypt. We found our way back to Old City, Jerusalem and to the Ecce Homo Convent. Thus began our week.

We spent our free time on Sunday evening exploring the Old City and getting ourselves reacquainted with the area. (A week seems like a long time to be away!) Monday began our program for the week. We started with Hebrew class. Woo! That was amazing! By the end of the few hours we learned how to introduce ourselves and say common phrases like “thank you” along with some of the alphabet. It was wonderful to go out that afternoon and be able to say some of these things to the people. It kind of felt like we were in Syria all over again practicing our Arabic. That afternoon some of us spent time shopping and getting to know some shopkeepers. We became really good friends with some of them and later in the week got invited to have dinner with their family by one of them. That was an experience! It was a true Muslim family dinner which I absolutely loved!

The rest of the week consisted of us hearing a lecture about the holocaust and Jewish tradition. The same day as the lecture we went in our own small groups to Yad Veshem, the holocaust museum. That was an incredibly moving experience for some and not so much for others as we learned when we debriefed about it that night. I thought it was moving personally. It was so hard to think about how something so horrible could actually happen. It seems like something that would be in the movies and not reality, but it was real and the stories were real in that museum. During the week we took a tour of the four quarters of the old city (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters). We stopped in each area and discussed them. I loved getting out and walking around even if the rain came down on us. We also heard from a Rabbi. That was such a fascinating lecture. He was such a peaceful person. I could feel it coming off of him. More Hebrew class followed near the end of the week. It actually made me want to learn more Hebrew when I get home.

Another really amazing thing that happened occurred when I was with Aly. We were walking back to Ecce Homo and stopped by the group of soldiers. We had really wanted to talk to one and now was our chance. We went up to one and had a good conversation with him. They had to leave to go to the Western wall, but invited us to walk with them. It was so cool! We had the chance to follow and observe what they do. Also near the end of the week we got to participate in a true Shabbat. It was fascinating! Before having a shabbat meal with the family of the man who lectured us and gave us a tour, we went to the western “wailing” wall. In this area there is generally praying at the wall and socializing and celebration in the other areas. There was dancing, singing, chanting and praying. To see everyone out and in such high spirits was wonderful. Some of us even went to the wall to pray. That was definitely another moving experience. I was praying at the western wall!!! Dinner was fantastic. There is a whole process of prayer and ritual to the meal that includes blessing of the wine and bread along with songs and prayers. Oh my goodness was that a blast! Those were the main things we did, but it is more of what I did on my own or in small groups that was moving.

Jamila and I got up early one morning to go to the Holy Sepulcher hoping we could get into the tomb of Jesus. We could not, but it was wonderful to get up early and try anyway. That didn’t stop me from trying again either. I am a Catholic and consider myself to be a born again Christian so being here means the world to me. We had a chance to do a few things. This included walking the Via Dolorosa (basically the Stations of the Cross) where tradition holds specific events happened as Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion. I walked the Via Dolorosa and it was so moving to me. Standing in these places such as the area where Jesus fell on his walk and reading the passage from the Bible changed everything for me. It took over an hour to walk this path and it was worth every second of it. Along those lines we also did what was called “Walking with Jesus in Jerusalem”. This was amazing to me! We went to three places: The Garden of Gethsemane, Peter of Gallicantu (where Peter denied Jesus three times) and the Garden tomb (the other assumed crucifixion and resurrection site). I felt God so much in all of those places and it was absolutely mind blowing to be standing in those places. My faith definitely soared higher than ever before. What an incredible opportunity I had to be there! In between doing the Via Dolorosa and the walk with Jesus I was able to meet with a priest in the convent who did confession with me for the first time in years. That was an amazing thing for me and something I wanted to do before I am rebaptized in the Sea of Galilee at the end of the Jesus trail. God just really came into my life last week.

One of the best things that happened with me occurred in the Holy Sepulcher. I had bought some anointing oil from a store on Saturday and was near the sepulcher so I figured I would run over there and try to get it blessed by a priest or someone there. I made it there and the next thing I knew I found myself in line waiting to go in the tomb of Jesus. I made it through the line and into the tomb in about an hour. It was unbelievable! I carried this little thing of oil through the tomb and back out in less than two seconds, but it was an amazing 2 seconds. After I left the tomb I found someone and asked if they would bless the oil and told them it was for my mother. The man took off and came back 5 minutes later telling me the priest would be down in a few minutes. About 5 minutes later a priest came down, took time to take me all the way to the chapel and blessed the oil. He even sat down to chat for a while. This is not a common thing for someone in the sepulcher to do so I knew God intervened in this. I felt so blessed to have this chance and when I return to the states I will have holy oil to bless my mom with. This week for me has been one week that I will never forget. To be in such a holy place and to experience the wonders of Jerusalem changed my life. I am blessed to have the opportunity to be here and I cannot wait to share further stories with others when I return. Until then.  Blessings and shalom!

-Mariah Elliot

Free Travel reports from Israel

Middle East 8While many of our group chose to plan ahead and have a relaxing time, James, Tim, and I decided to leave much of our trip open-ended. The first day we spent at Tim’s uncle’s house in a town near Tel Aviv. All the people in that family were characters, and we had a good time listening and learning about the life of an Israeli family. In particular, Tim’s uncle Jon had many insights about Israeli culture compared to American culture. We then took a combination of busses to get to Nazareth to pick up some camping gear and pick up some tips from Dave Landis, and then the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In three days we hiked from the southern tip to the northern tip. Contrary to what you might think, each day was full of varied experiences. However, there was always one constant. Pita. It was our main source of energy, and despite the quantities eaten none of us are sick of it.

Our adventures around the Sea included a hike up to the ancient Roman city of Susita/Hippos, which may have been the inspiration for “a city on a hill cannot be hid”, as well as finding our way through fields of reeds, crossing streams almost up to our waist, stumbling upon grapefruits so ripe they fell off the tree (which we of course saved from going rotten), and generally being amazed at the luscious fields of wildflowers that had sprung up thanks to the rain of the previous week.

We ended the week by finding a ride with a friendly Israeli to Yehudiya N.R. with its beautiful waterfalls, exploring Tiberias, and relaxing at the hostel in Nazareth. Free travel was such a great experience, and I am so glad that we had the chance to have the responsibility of our own food, water, shelter, and transportation depend solely on ourselves in an area where we couldn’t always depend on using English.

-Joe Hochstetler


Students relax in the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem Freedom. That’s what free travel is. This past week we all finally had absolutely complete freedom over our schedules and it was utter bliss. The group split into several smaller groups with some going to Turkey, some to Egypt, some hiking in Israel, Aly stayed with a somewhat local Jewish family, and Jamila, Joel and I went back to Palestine for a few

Going back over the wall was a very strange feeling. For me, it felt like coming home. Jamila and I stayed with my old host family, the Awwads, while Joel stayed with Samer (our tourguide). There were two boys from Sweden who were also staying with Samer and we ended up spending a lot of our week with them.

We went back to Hebron where we hung out at a demonstration. It was incredible to see Palestinian flags waving around as the people chanted for unity of Gaza and the West Bank. There is something completely beautiful about people peacefully protesting. Later, we sat with a shopkeeper, Mohammad, for a couple of hours while watching soldiers hold up Palestinians for no real reason. Mohammad told us about his 7 year old cousin who was found a week before in a well. Dead. Another innocent life was gone. He was afraid of the dark. His family doesn’t know why he was walking alone at night. I don’t know why anyone could kill a 7 year old.

Most of our time in Palestine was either completely relaxing or ridiculously fun with either our host family or our new Swedish friends. I was very sad to say goodbye on Thursday afternoon as we packed up and headed back over the wall. We spent the remainder of our time relaxing in Jerusalem with the Turkey people. It was so nice to walk around the city and not be pushed for time. On Saturday, our hostel had a Purim Party and some of us dressed up and had a lot of fun. Around midnight we went out with our Swedish friends to see what others were doing. We ended the night with a rather large dance party in the streets. Think of it as a huge Halloween party where everyone wants to have fun and celebrate the book of Esther.

Now the group is back together and we are continuing our study in Jerusalem. Some of us are glad to be back together while others long for the sunny beaches (it is currently raining here). Either way, we all had fantastic independent travels. We all got a bit wiser, or a least a bit more tan.

-Jamie Heiner

From Palestine to Israel

Middle East 6This past week we have been staying at Jerusalem University College (JUC) and begun studying Biblical geography, history, and archaeology. The transition from Palestine to Israel has been tough for me, but JUC is a wonderful place to be staying and I wish we could be here for more than two weeks. The JUC campus is beautiful and we have enjoyed meeting the students who are here for the semester. The purpose of our time here is to begin to understand the way the land of Israel influenced the Biblical story and the people who inhabited the land. In the first week we explored around Jerusalem, including the original City of David, Hezekiah’s tunnel, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Scopus. We also traveled to places like Shiloh, Beer-Sheva, Arad, Madaba, Qumran, En Gedi, Ashkelon, Azekah, and Beth-Shemesh… the list could go on. The volume of information we have been given is overwhelming.

The first day we arrived in Jerusalem was my birthday (as well as Jamila’s – it was awesome to get to celebrate our birthdays together!). That Sunday, I woke up in Beit Sahour and realized that about 2000 years ago Jesus was born within five miles of my house.

I have been trying to understand the significance of this – that I celebrated my birthday in the land of Jesus’ birth. On that day I saw Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where Christ was born and where he died. I am starting to realize how importance the incarnation is to my faith; how important it is to me that I could have met God on the road to Jerusalem, that he walked in the Judean hills, that he might have known the burn of muscles from hiking through Wadi Qelt. Being in this land that for some reason is important in a real, eternal, mystical, crazy way to the story of humanity Students plant grape vines at Tent of Nations. and God and redemption and love and life – being here is making me love the incarnation. It makes me love that Jesus had a body that probably ached at the end of long days (maybe he helped clear fields of rocks like I did at Tent of Nations; maybe he helped his father plant some grape vines like I did that day). I love that Jesus lived in a place with thorns and that he didn’t shy away from pain. I love that I can envision my savior with the dark hair and expressive eyes of the people who live here; that when I pass an Arab man on the street I can think maybe Jesus looked like that. I have found a piece of a crazy, hard, strange religion that I love and this helps me understand the weird parts (like, for example, the story about the Benjaminites’ wife-snatching that we read at Shiloh).

It is so good to be able to read passages from the Bible in this land – especially after visiting Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. We read the story of Samuel at Shiloh, about David and Goliath at Azekah, and Christ before the crucifixion on the Mount of Olives. I think I can speak for our whole group when I say that whatever our faith looked like when we first drove into Jerusalem, we will leave changed.

A few other interesting things: we got to see the Stutzman’s boat SailingActs in Ashkelon, we were able to swim in the Dead Sea, we’ve been seeing military people everywhere, and our bus broke down one afternoon. One final thought: as we enter into the second half of our traveling and some of us are growing weary of continually packing our things up and moving out, I find it meaningful to think about how in the Bible, from Abraham to Paul, God seems to be especially present in the lives of those people who are consistently on the move.

-Emily Harnish

Aly Zimmerman and Jamila Witmer find themselves a bit dusty after exploring ancient tombs. I cannot describe what I felt. I can only describe what I saw. Jesus’ town, Capernaum, nestled along the shore of the lake. Big rocks he might have envisioned building with, water he might have splashed in. A rainbow appeared and birds flew past as I watched the waves creating spots of white water across the lake. A scene he might have enjoyed on a winter afternoon on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, remembering the rainbow’s promise. I walked through the ruins of the synagogue. Jesus was here! And then the courtyard, stone floor and open space, the deep carvings of lines in the ground where the children played games as their parents prayed. Jesus taught here. He spent time here. I looked over the village, the stone houses built together with common walls, like city rowhouses almost. Which one was his? My eyes rested on one close to a synagogue entryway. Maybe. Again I scanned the village, looking at the basalt stones in place upon each wall. How many of these did he touch? How many did he himself- the builder- put into place? Inside each house lived a family, a family he interacted with, visited, fixed things for. My Jesus lived here. This was his chosen home base.

This past week in our field studies at JUC, I saw Jesus in a completely new light. Learning the context and how some of the things we have come to take for granted might be imprecise translations has completely changed my idea of who Jesus was. His life seems so much more concrete and real now. So much more realistic. Easier to imitate, even. After learning so much about the context of the Bible, I now look forward to reading it again with new insight. The last two weeks were intense, but definitely worth it! And now we get to enjoy free travel.

–Jamila Witmer


Palestinian Ponderings

We have reached the end of our stay in Palestine, or the Occupied Territories, or the West Bank, or the Disputed Territories, or Occupied Palestine. Many names for the same small strip of land. I have spent the last week in Beit Sahour, a Christian village near Bethlehem. The group has scattered, for evenings at least, into separate host families; I stayed with the Qumsieh family. It is rather nice to be in a home rather than a hotel. The group still reconvenes for daily escapades. We have been working with the Alternative Tourism Group, and they planned a “nice” week for us.

I use nice in a loose sense, because here in the West Bank, the fact of occupation and the forces of conflict simply cannot be ignored. On Monday, we went to Dheisha refugee camp outside Beit Sahour, and met with a man who had spent most his life within that small arena, wanting to return to his family’s land. Then we walked through the crowded streets to meet with the camps Imam, who spoke to us about Islam, and how he viewed the situation. On Tuesday, we met with the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (Arij) which supplied figures and proof of land confiscations and methods of demographic dominance. That same day we went to the town of Hebron, where settlers occupy the city center, and thereby throw the entire city into chaos. Walking through the souq, our heads were covered by a net put in place to keep settlers from tossing items down on the heads of Palestinians below. As we came out of the souq and headed to the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, we passed through three checkpoints and three additional security screenings. We ate lunch in Hebron with Hashim Al Aza, a man whose house is almost surrounded by settlements, is in a part of the city controlled by the Israeli Defense Force, and who is under constant attack. His house is attacked, his trees are chopped down, his children are attacked on the way to school and he and his wife have both been assaulted multiple times.

But despite the signs of brutality, the picture is not without hope. Hashim Al Aza is an advocate for non-violent resistance. The farm we visited on Thursday, Tent of Nations, might be the brightest beacon. The farm is situated on a hilltop; the only one in the area not controlled by settlers, and has been in the family since the Ottoman rule. The farm came under physical attack, but when that failed, the settlers switched to legal harassment. But yet they run a farm, and serve as a witness for peace. Every summer, they hold a children’s camp and teach them the way of peace. The rock by the entrance, painted in three different languages, says their message best: “We refuse to be enemies.” There is hope.

In addition to our emotion-bending trips, we also have been honored with lectures relating to Palestine. The topics have ranged from the history of modern Palestine to the Palestinian woman. They were given either at the Alternative Tourism Group’s study center, Bethlehem University, or Bethlehem Bible College. Regardless of subject or location, they were all informative and interesting.

This is not to say that our stay has been all work. We have visited most of the tourist sites: the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd’s Field. We also saw several craft workshops, several olive wood factories and one of the Hebron glass factories. ATG also treated us to a night of Palestinian music. Beyond that, there was getting to know our hosts, which was a pleasure. As a side note, my Arabic is about on par with my four year old host cousin. Next comes two weeks of study at Jerusalem University College.

– Joel Nofziger

Bedouin night and Petra

Middle East 5Although many of us were not quite ready to say goodbye to Damascus, we were all excited for what was to lie ahead in Jordan. We spent the first two days in the capital of Jordan, Amman, where we had time to explore the city and meet with the MCC representatives in Jordan. We got to hear many stories from them as they have been living in the area for a while and could give us another perspective to some of the conflict in the region. On Wednesday, we went to Petra which is probably one of the coolest places that I have ever been in. This ancient Nabatean city was completely carved out in the side of several mountains and was very well preserved. We spent all day exploring and hiking the trails in the city which led to some really beautiful lookouts of the surrounding area. In one of the churches that was carved out in the mountain, some of the group began singing someStudents admire the ancient Nabatean city of Petra. familiar hymns. This was a really powerful moment for not only the group singing, but also many other tourists that walked by and stopped to listen.

Just when we thought that we had reached the high point in the trip when we visited Petra, we traveled to Wadi-Rum to stay with the Bedouins for a night in the desert. When we got there, we unpacked our stuff and loaded up onto three jeeps that were going to take us out into the desert. We started out just driving on the road and then we picked up some speed and headed for the sand. You could tell that the Bedouin men that were driving the jeeps were having as much fun as we all were riding in the back. We were riding around for a while and had several stops so we could climb some of the rock formations and sand dunes. At one of the stops, one of the drivers motioned to Linford to hop into the driver’s seat and take it for a spin. I’m pretty sure that Linford thought we were racing and it was obvious that he was not going to settle for last! At our last stop on the jeep tour, we climbed up onto one of the rocks and watched the sunset. It was a great end to the jeep rides. We then got back to the camp and had a delicious dinner followed by some singing and dancing. Once again, Linford didn’t fail to provide the entertainment. In the morning, we ate breakfast and set out for our camel rides. I was a bit anxious about this as I heard that camels can be very unpredictable and not the most comfortable. We all had a lot of fun and found out that both of those rumors are correct.

The week we spent in Jordan was full of adventure and many memories. We were also very fortunate to have such an awesome tour guide in Jordan as he was very willing to answer any questions that we had (and also a lot of fun). We are back in Amman for the night before setting out to Palestine Sunday morning. We are all looking forward to what is to come with a week of home stays in Palestine.

-Steve Burkholder

The final week in Syria

Sa’lam Everyone!

Middle East 4Sadly we had to say goodbye to Syria this week. We had our last Arabic class Wednesday where we had our final exam which was just a short conversation with our teachers. I’m happy to say that we all passed the class and are now at level one. It’s sad to be leaving this place where I feel comfortable and semi- at home but I am excited for the next parts of our semester.

One very exciting thing that happened this week is that we all went to a Haman or public bath. The guys (including Linford) went Sunday with Ben the MCC rep and the girls (including Janet) went Tuesday with Amber, Ben’s wife. It was really fun and very relaxing. Okay, so this is what goes on, and it’s basically the same for men and women except the men’s hamam is bigger and the attendants aren’t as nice lol. We got the all inclusive package which included towels, shampoo, soap, the stream room, water area, a scrub, a massage, and then tea afterwards. First you sit in the sauna/stream room for awhile and then you go to the water area. There they turned the steam on also and there are basins with hot and cold faucets and basically you just pour hot and cold water or a mixture on yourself and sit in the steam for while to loosen up your dead skin. It was really relaxing and felt amazing. After that, whenever you were ready, you went and got scrubbed; this is the fun part, kinda. What happens is you lay on the floor and they go at you with a pad thing that feels like sandpaper and just scrub all the dead skin off. It hurt a little but wasn’t as bad as I expected and was well worth it. Once you’re scrubbed you wash yourself and hair and get all nice and clean. Then you go and have your massage which was basically like a full body rub for 5 min. Then you get towels and go sit on the benches in the sitting area and dry off while drinking tea. 🙂 While the girls were in the hamam there was a girl there who was getting married in 2 days. She had her mom and bridal party there with her. Usually brides will go to a hamam with their bridal party a few days before the wedding. They bring food in and will spend all day in there having a party. It turns into an all day spa day basically.

On Thursday the group traveled to Aleppo which was a 5 hr bus ride from Damascus. In Aleppo we went to the Citadel which is a castle from before 200 AD, basically really old. It was huge and had an awesome moat on the outside. You could see a lot of how it would have looked from how the ruins were arranged. We also went to several Mosques around the area. The next day we headed to Palmyra. Before we got to Palmyra we went to St.Simon Cathedral. St. Simon is a saint who sat on a column for 40 years teaching people about God, and the cathedral was built around his column after he left. It consists of 4 separate churches, and was very well kept. After that we went on to this huge Citadel called the Krak De Chealivers. This castle was just amazing, really well restored and in good shape. It was so huge and the outside wall was basically all intact. There was a wall that surrounded the castle and then the castle itself. The castle was surrounded by 13 towers. You could see the places where they dump hot oils down on enemies. It was great, better than the one in Aleppo. On Saturday we went to the Palmyra museum which had lots of artifacts recovered from the old city. Everything was very detailed and must have taken forever to make. Then we went to the temple of Bel which was huge, and also saw some tombs; tower tombs and underground tombs which are just as their name says in a tower or under the ground. After that we then toured the old city of Palmyra; it was really spread out and I was surprised by how much of the city remains or has been uncovered. You can see the main arch where caravans and camels traveled through which was lined by pillars many of which are still there.

As a way of reflecting on my time in Syria I created a list of some of the top experiences or things from this past month. So here they are in no particular order.

1. Food
2.The people
5.Berlitz language study
6.Shopping in the Souk
7.The Old City of Damascus
8.Kamal- our cook at St.Elias Monastery where we stayed
9.Traveling to old archeological sites

-Olivia Nussbaum

Visit to Lebanon

Middle East 3Marhaba!

We’re back from Lebanon safely, and I’m in the dormitories at St. Elias Monastery again in Syria. It’s good to be ‘home.’ That’s right; our place in Damascus, Syria now feels somewhat like home. Damascus is familiar to us, with more or less some semblance of routine: wake up, eat breakfast, then hop on a bus for Berlitz to get drilled for 4 hours by our Arabic teacher. Of course a ton of different things happen in between all of those (bus rides never, ever get old) but we’ve finally got a small bit of understanding in the city and how it works. In Lebanon, it was starting over again.

Lebanon is a very interesting country. Like Syria it was under French mandate, but for far longer. After they got rid of the French, the Lebanese continued to teach French, English and Arabic in their schools. For this reason, almost every sign in Lebanon is in English or at least French instead of Arabic letters. Also, communication was loads easier. We stayed in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. Beirut seemed like a mix of a European city sharply contrasted with the Arabic world. Women would walk around without coverings and in skirts and heels (!) but then call to prayers would blast at 4:30 in the morning from the minarets stationed on every other block. Stores featuring modern Western names such as Nike, Versace, and Starbucks would be sitting right next to the ruined buildings shelled during the civil war and the war against Syria. One of the favorite parts of Beirut for almost everyone was being by the Mediterranean Sea. It. Was. Amazing. I’m stoked to see it again in Greece in warmer weather.

Students listen to the tour guide, Clare, as she speaks about the Byblos ruins. Aside from being in Beirut, we also had opportunities to go visit a ton of different ruins such as in Byblos, the city that gave the name to the bible (Byblos=book). Seeing Greek and Roman artifacts never gets old…even though they are. ha. ha. sorry….moving on. We also got to tour Jeita Grotto, a giant cave structure with an intricate series of giant stalactites and stalagmites that is under consideration for being named one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

I wasn’t able to attend the trip to Mt. Herman, a giant snow capped peak around a 2 hour drive from Beirut, as I came down with food poisoning. It was quick and unrelenting, but it was over within 24 hours. I would like to formally apologize to Joe, my roommate, for the whole business, but as other members have learned already it’s to be expected with travel.  Back to Mt. Herman, I was assured that it was stunning and I would have loved it. Especially the snowball fight that occurred in which rumor has it Linford tackled a student into the wintery tundra.

I’m sure you have heard something about all that is going on in Egypt. To say the least the situation is pretty awful. Normally our group would be in Cairo right now, so we picked a good year to change the program up and go elsewhere for the first month. Lebanon’s government fell the other week, and they had some peaceful protests before we arrived but we felt at ease the whole time. Getting into Syria went without a hitch, and there haven’t really been any signs of unrest here at all. This next week should be exciting, so keep checking for more blog posts coming from our group!

Ma’as Salaam!

-Dan Nafziger


Middle East 2I never thought that I could love a big city; that was before we came to Damascus.  I feel as if I can’t explain the wonders of this culture without showing someone in person.  I looked through all of the pictures we took, and I don’t think a single one of them does the city justice.  In the ever new stream of stimuli, I can only describe a fraction of what this city is like.  The magnificence of Damascus is soaked into every area of life–the cityscape itself, the history, the people, the activity and vibrance!

Last Thursday, we as a group retraced Saul’s adventure in Damascus. We read the history of Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus, walked into the Old City and read of Saul’s companions leading him by the hand into Damascus, read of Ananias’ part in Saul’s conversion story in Ananias’ home, re-enacted Paul’s escape from Damascus by sliding down a pole from a second story youth hostel (perhaps like the home where Paul stayed?), and finally ended our journey at the Bob Kissan church, which commemorates Paul’s escape.

Passing time on top of Mount Cassion. This past Saturday we were free of Arabic classes and ready to explore deeper into the city.  We conquered the steep mountain roads of Mount Qasyoom, one of the mountains on the border of Damascus.  Once we reached our destination, we looked out over a city that stretched from one horizon to the other.  I was dumbfounded!  It was incredible to see the city climbing up the side of Mount Qasyoom, to guess which dark splotch was the Old City and the abbey where we lived, and to know that in every square of the entire city there were bikes, taxis and buses surging through the streets; Muslims and Christians walking side by side; yummy shwarma, falafel, and cheese-stuffed breads baking on every street; and other intricacies of the culture going on that we have not yet noticed.   All of this was happening from one horizon to the other.

We are all incredibly thankful for the opportunity to be in this vibrant city.  As we travel from Damascus to Lebanon from Thursday until Sunday, our group is excited to experience another part of Middle Eastern culture.

-Aly Zimmerman