Holy Land Pilgrimage with Gila

 

HOME
BIBLE REFERENCES
BOOK GILA  
GILA’S GIFT SHOP
HEROINES
HOLY LAND HEADLINERS
HOLY SITES:
GILA’S HIGHLIGHTS
SONGS & PRAISE
TIPS FOR TOURS
ABOUT GILA
CONTACT
 
 
 


"WHEN THE LORD BROUGHT BACK THOSE THAT RETURNED TO ZION,
WE WERE LIKE THOSE WHO DREAM"
PSALM 126:1

 

July 26, 1983

 
Dominating the Samarian hills, Sebaste was a superb location for a summer retreat.  Two thousand years ago, King Herod the Great had named the city after his patron the Roman Emperor Augustus.  Only 30 some miles from Herod's seaside palace at Caesarea, Sebaste at 1400 feet above sea level caught the refreshing breeze wafting eastwards from the Mediterranean.

 

Sebaste was a lookout over the hills of Samaria

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Sebaste's lookout over the hills of Samaria

 
This is the place where Herod married Mariamne, the beautiful, strong-willed heiress to the high priest temple aristocracy. Herod, consumed by ambition to rule over the kingdom of Judea, had realized very early on, that if you can't be blue blood royalty yourself, then the next best thing was to marry into it.
 
Earlier, by nearly nine centuries, another high-profile couple tied the knot on this very hilltop.  Ahab, heir to the throne of Israel, married Jezebel, the Phoenician princess from Sidon.  I imagine that wedding to be a mega-event with platters of roasted lamb garnished with garlic, beef burgers from the cows of Bashan, fava bean vinaigrette, honey-coated fig cakes and pomegranate liqueur, a Samarian specialty, served to the guests.

Ahab's dad Omri king of Israel had chosen this hill for his palace, paying two talents of silver for the property.  He named it Shomron (Samaria in English) after its former owner.  Omri had cemented his alliance with the wealthy, sea-faring, pagan Phoenicians with this marriage between Ahab and Jezebel.  The Phoenicians more than likely supplied him with cedar wood for the royal residence and perhaps ivories as well to decorate the furniture.
 

Ruins of Ahab's White House in Samaria

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ruins at Sebaste/Samaria -- some of Ahab's White House

 
During the honeymoon, Ahab discovered that he had married a head-strong, cunning and ruthless woman who quickly became his closest advisor.  When Ahab's neighbor Naboth refused to sell him a choice vineyard plot which produced the most tweeted-about Chardonnay for miles around, Jezebel solved this thorny problem.  She conspired to accuse Naboth of blasphemy, bribed witnesses to deliver false testimony and Naboth was subsequently eliminated by being stoned to death.

Jezebel of course had not taken into account that "troubler of Israel" Elijah of Tishbi.  Sure enough, Elijah appeared, wearing his signature London Fog trench coat (actually it was probably a full-length woolen cloak with a leather belt) to accuse Ahab, "Have you murdered and also taken possession?  Thus says the Lord, 'In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, yes, yours'."

And there's more gore to come:  After Ahab was wounded while fighting the Arameans (modern-day Syrians) and bled to death, his chariot driver brought Ahab's body back to Samaria for burial.  The chariot was washed in the pool of Samaria and the dogs licked his blood while the harlots bathed, just as Elijah had foretold.

where is the notorious Pool of Samaria

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Where is the notorious Pool of Samaria?

A Connecticut Yankee by birth, I must have imbibed that Puritan perspective where black is black and white is white with no in-between.  I adore spaghetti westerns where the "bad guys" get their just reward.  Elijah is my hero.  A tall skinny guy (after all, he was fed by ravens) with long hair, blazing eyes and ears perked to sounds of silence.

The students always liked my Elijah stories -- I could tell by their rapt attention.  And I had no reason to suspect that today, July 26 would be any different.  I was guiding a group of college kids from the East Coast, mostly New York and New Jersey.  They had come for a summer program sponsored by the Jewish Agency, the same type of tour I had joined when I was a teen.  Our red Egged bus was full of chattering joyful students.  This was before the days when nearly all kids tour with earphones blasting their favorite rock/rap/hip-hop music and they seem impervious to the outside world.  These kids actually related to one another.
We arrived at Sebaste from the Galilee via the Jezreel Valley and Jenin.  Afterwards we were planning to travel south along the patriarchal highway, the watershed route, in the footsteps of Abraham and Jacob to Shechem and then on to Bethel with a possible detour to Shiloh and then "up" to Jerusalem with our first look over the holy city from the Mount of Olives.

I loved the challenge of finding the hidden turn-off to Sebaste, driving up the narrow road framed by the Arab village of Sebastiya down to our right and the terraced fruit orchards of figs, almonds, olives and pomegranates up the hill to our left.  We drove along an impressive row of hundreds of columns still upright from the Roman period.

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Gila walking along the Roman Street in April 2014

We parked in the huge parking lot, once a Roman Forum. There was a small kiosk to our right. Ten years later Mussa, a local villager just returned from studies in the States, would convert it to a trendy Middle Eastern eatery with the best tabouleh salad I have ever tasted.

Ruins of the Roman Forum near the parking lot of Sebaste

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ruins of the Roman Forum near the parking lot of Sebaste

Mussa's restaurant at Sebaste opposite the Roman ruins

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Mussa's restaurant has the red roof; the parking lot is to the right

In those days we had no plastic mineral water bottles to litter the landscape, so we all filled our canteens from Styrofoam jerry cans on the bus.  Then we tramped up the steep trail towards the west with yours truly leading the way to the top of the Roman theater.  We peered down onto the rows of seats for the audience and then way down below in the valley we saw the Roman hippodrome.

I told the kids that Roman passions ran high when it came to chariot-racing, the most popular form of public entertainment in the Roman Empire.  Frequently revolts broke out in the hippodrome (just like riots at European soccer matches today).  The charioteer drove standing upright in his chariot, wearing a light helmet and a belted tunic in his team's color -- white, green, red or blue.  Eventually these colors came to be identified with specific political parties.

Roman chariots were built as light as possible, purely for speed and were drawn by two or four horses.  The larger the teams of horses, the more expert the driver needed to be.  The public adored the fastest drivers -- they were comparable to our modern day million-dollar Super Bowl athletes.  Before I finished, one of the spunky guys in our group stood up, clenched his fists showing muscular biceps and imitated a chariot driver to shouts of "Ben Hur" from the group.  (Remember this was before "Gladiator" made Charleton Heston look like a wimp.)

Ruins of the Roman theater at Sebaste

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ruins of the Roman theater at Sebaste

Sebaste's hippodrome for chariot racing was located down in the valley

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Looking down towards the valley, location of the hippodrome or horse course

We continued west on the trail through the terraced orchards until we saw the well-preserved steps of Herod's Temple to Augustus.  We climbed, just east of these steps, to a high point, for a 360 degree view.  On winter tours after a heavy rain had cleared the dust, I would point out the Mediterranean and Caesarea marked by its modern power plant towers.  But in the July haze, we had to rely upon my descriptive abilities and our imaginations.

The Augusteum or temple dedicated to Augustus may have been 75 feet high

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Augusteum or temple dedicated to Augustus may have been 75 feet high

 

COMING TO JERUSALEM? 
BOOK GILA for a customized private tour

 
Then we descended from the high point at the acropolis to the ruins of Ahab's White House.  I'm not kidding -- the Bible dubs it the Ivory House.  The First Book of Kings tells us, "The rest of the history of Ahab, his entire career, the Ivory House he erected…is not all this recorded in the Book of Annals of the Kings of Israel?"

But Israel's prophets, especially Amos, railed against the conspicuous consumption of the Israelite royalty personified as lying on beds of ivory.  As an aside to the kids, I remarked, "As if they were lying on waterbeds while carrying on business of state!"

Amos decreed that the people who lie upon beds of ivory shall be brought down.  The ivories, imports from pagan Phoenicia, symbolized the decadence of the northern kings who lounged on ivory couches while ignoring injustices to the poor.

In the 1930s, an expedition from Harvard University found hundreds of fragments of ivories which once decorated palace walls and furniture.  These ivories, many of them found with Hebrew letters on them, demonstrate the wealth of the northern kingdom of Israel and indicate the influence of foreign cultures upon the Israelite upper classes.
 
As I was going on about the ivories, I look around the group to see if I still have their attention.  Hmm, I think.  Time to stick in the joker which is Agatha Christie.  Her husband Max Mallowan was an archeologist digging out the king's palace in Nimrod, Assyria which is northern Iraq of today.  Agatha loved jigsaw puzzles and as she sat at excavation headquarters cleaning the ivories, she tried to figure out which broken pieces went together. 

At the same time, Max's workmen on the site were surreptitiously pocketing other ivories, many of which later ended up at the British Museum in London or the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.  Some of the ivories Agatha Christie was piecing together may even have been looted from this very palace, as well as other palaces conquered by the Assyrians in Damascus and Phoenicia.

Now as we sit in the ruins of the White House, I retell the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah.  We imagine the prostitutes splashing in the pinkish bloody waters of the Pool of Samaria.  I contrast the death of Ahab, fatally wounded while in disguise in his war chariot, with the ascent of Elijah in a chariot accompanied by fire and a whirlwind.  We talk about power and authority: king versus prophet. We consider, "Do evil people inevitably 'pay' for their sins?  Is there such a thing as divine justice?"

 
Then we move on to Herod.  Like Ahab, Herod "the Great" was an energetic and zealous builder.  He raised Samaria from its ruins and renamed it Sebaste, meaning venerable, which was the Greek name of Augustus his patron.  Herod's Sebaste enclosed an area of 160 acres with the temple to Augustus at its acropolis.
 

This base probably stood in Herod's temple dedicated to Augustus

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

This base probably stood in Herod's temple dedicated to Augustus

 
But Herod's palace was haunted.  After rescuing Mariamne from Masada where she and her family and Herod's family had taken refuge, Herod married the proud princess at Sebaste.  This event may have been a catered affair with shish kebab, baby chickens doused in spicy almond sauce, cinnamon pears, exquisitely stuffed dates, Roman nut cakes and imported Cypriot wine.

Twelve years later, in a jealous rage, Herod had Mariamne slain.  He accused her of infidelity and trying to bribe his cup-bearer to poison him.  But this was not the end of Herod's marriage difficulties.
 
Once she was dead, the king's affections were kindled for her in a more outrageous manner than before, according to Herod's historian, Josephus Flavius.  At night he would desperately roam from room to room, madly calling out her name.  Later, it was right here at Sebaste that Herod ordered that their two sons be strangled.  It was said about Herod that he loved his relatives best when they were dead!

But the rabbis had something else to say.  There is a Talmudic legend that out of love for Mariamne, Herod had her corpse preserved in honey for seven years.
 
I didn't always tell the story of the honey.  It depended on the sophistication and Puritanism of the group.  I'm not sure that I told it to this particular group, but I am certain that I told it to myself.
 
Just as we approached our last major ruin, a fifth century Byzantine church, I stopped short to face the kids.
 

Now it was time to switch historical gears.  Here at Sebaste, I told them, added to the spooky legends of a bloody royal chariot, a honey-embalmed queen, a monarch stark crazy, we have the burial shrine of none other than John the Baptist.  Not his body, nor his soul, but his severed head.

The beheading happened at a royal celebration.  This time it was a birthday party for Herod's son, also called Herod.  My Jewish group was not all that familiar with the Gospel account of the strip-tease dance of the seven veils and Herod's step-daughter's demand for John the Baptist's head on a platter.  So I summarized the story.

 
Though John was clearly executed in the Herodion palace in Machaerus above the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, the tradition of burial of John's head was venerated here by fifth century Christian pilgrims.  It may have happened because early Christian writers confused King Herod who built Sebaste with his son, also called Herod who was king of Galilee and Perea (modern-day Jordan).  Or it could have been the guides who invented this tradition.  Perhaps there were souvenir stalls selling remnants of the silver platter or torn relics of the veils along the sight-seeing route.
 

Ruin of Church of John the Baptist at Sebaste

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ruin of Church of John the Baptist at Sebaste

 
In any case, in the fifth century a small church was erected here as a shrine to venerate the burial of the head of John the Baptist.  There is a cathedral down in the village of Sebastiya which supposedly marks the burial of his body.  Anything to attract pilgrims to two different venues…

Thus ended our tour and as usual, I had to ask a few of the trouble-makers to jump down from the precarious ruins they had climbed, hoping neither student nor ruin would be injured.
 
Despite its sinister and bloody history, our mood at Sebaste was pastoral and peaceful.  The group was fun and receptive.  Most of the students were not familiar with Ahab and Jezebel, but they were all conversant with good and evil and our discussion of the question of divine justice was vigorous.  I was looking forward to our next site, the old city of Shechem, where I would tell the story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob's daughter and the tricky deceit by Jacob's sons.  That's one story I didn't learn in Sunday School and I'll bet that they didn't either.
 

Peaceful pastoral view of Sebaste-Samaria

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Peaceful pastoral view of Sebaste/Samaria

 
When we returned to the bus, it was late morning.  The driver was anxiously pacing outside the bus.  He told me he had just heard the first radio reports of a mysterious shooting attack at the Islamic College campus in Hebron.  Some unidentified assailants had sprayed bullets into the Islamic College and for added effect, tossed a grenade.  Three students were dead and no one yet knew how many students and faculty members were wounded.  It was speculated that this may have been retribution for the murder of a Jewish yeshiva student a few weeks earlier in the casbah, or crowded marketplace of Hebron.
 
Hebron?  I thought.  I had never visited the Islamic College in Hebron, but the Tomb of the Patriarchs I knew well.  The same Herod who built up Sebaste enclosed what is probably the authentic burial site of the Patriarchs with an impressive edifice, eerily similar to the enclosure encompassing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
 

Herodion enclosure over the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Herodion enclosure over the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron

 
In those early days I loved visiting Hebron's Cave of the Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  Most memorable was the Mosque of Isaac and Rebecca with its caged five-foot high tomb monuments decorated with lime-green, peacock-blue and faded shocking-pink scarves and embroidered bedspreads.  Next door was an improvised synagogue with large crème-colored ostrich eggs hanging on chains swinging over the tomb monuments of Abraham and Sarah.
 
But Hebron was 67 miles to the south, what did this have to do with us?  Why was the driver so nervous?  Then it hit me.  Riots and rock-throwing.  The driver interrupted my reverie by saying, "The question is how soon."  Hmmm.  We were stuck, in the middle of the "Wild West Bank" with the near-certain prospect of riots in all major towns and villages around us.  The rioters would be the Palestinian shabab (young men like gangs), the same age as my college students.
 
So now we had to decide, were the demonstrations spontaneous, or were they organized by the outlawed PLO?
 
Avi, our driver, had fought in some mean battles in Sinai in 1973 and I trusted him implicitly.  I looked at him intently as we spoke softly in Hebrew outside the bus as the kids boarded.  He was shorter than me, a mesomorph with a strong body and bulging muscles.  He had a large mole on his right cheek.  Avi thought the demonstrations were spontaneous and would start immediately.  I didn't think so – I thought they needed time to organize.  That would mean that we had time, also.  But not too much.
 
With a jolt, I realized that the decision of what to do was mine.  I felt in my guts that the demonstrations appeared to be "spontaneous" but there was a guiding hand behind them and I reckoned that an hour was needed for organization before the "spontaneous" riots broke out.  I decided we would make a run for it.  It's not like we had much choice.  Waiting at Sebaste with our heads down could be a disaster if the riots were prolonged.  We didn't have cell phones in those days to call for help or advice.
 
Avi was cool, calm and collected.  I think I looked that way, or at least I hoped I did. But my heart was thumping somewhere near my vocal cords.  Avi took his heavy 9mm black pistol out of his knapsack, checked he had bullets and loaded the magazine.  The safety was on.  He laid it in his lap.  I sat next to him in the guide jump seat.  I held the microphone, ready to tell the kids to bend over, cover their heads with their arms and put their faces between their legs if I saw any masked youths hurling stones at our bus.  I hoped there would be no Molotov cocktails.
 
We didn't backtrack.  I decided that we would race non-stop to Shechem/Nablus and then instead of driving through the old town and past Jacob's Well, to turn east to descend into the Jordan Rift Valley. 

And just like that, 35 minutes later, we had sped past the flash points of danger.   An hour later we heard on the Hebrew news that riots had just broken out in Nablus and there were already a number of dead and injured.  In those days there were no distractions or breaking news from smart phones or tablets, so the kids on my bus were clueless.  I, however, returned home from my tour of Sebaste totally spooked.

 
There were other dangers I subsequently encountered as a Holy Land guide.  Once we had to flee with Yankele at the wheel of his 30-seater safari truck when the Wilderness of the Temptation turned into an Israeli tank firing zone.  In the late eighties down in Jerusalem's Kidron Valley by Hezekiah's Tunnel, we were threatened by a Palestinian mob and I had to call the army to come rescue us. (There were no injuries and we emerged safely.)
 
But this episode at Sebaste was the first dangerous dilemma I faced as a guide.  I guess it's what you call "on the job training".  Nothing I had learned in the guide course had prepared me for this. 
 
This is one chapter in Gila's work in progress, "Holy Land Haunts:  Four Decades of Spirited Guiding."
 
Read what Tour Leaders say about Gila.
 
Tour the Temple Mount with Gila's MP3 audio tour in the company of Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Jesus and the disciples, the angel Gabriel and Mohammed.  Meet many other luminaries, both real and legendary.

LISTEN free to the first two minutes of itsGila Temple Mount audio tour:
Click here and then click "download" at top right.

Now also available as a written 24-page PDF with a Temple Mount plan, guidelines for passing the Temple Mount security check and ten recommended books on the Temple Mount from Gila's bookshelves.


GILA YUDKIN TCHERNIKOVSKI 64A JERUSALEM ISRAEL
gila@itsgila.com

HOME GILA'S GIFT SHOP   HOLY LAND HEADLINERS  TIPS FOR TOURS


 

Copyright © 2005-2018 Gila Yudkin. All rights reserved.
Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin