Saturday, March 24, 2007


There are so many "traditional" sites in the Holy Land. The traditional site of the burial of Absalom, the traditional site of the devils going into the swine, the traditional site of the burial of St. George's second-favorite dog, etc. The fact is, many of the traditional sites were established in the 3rd, 4th, 5th centuries, even later. So how can people know that an event occurred in a specific area 400 years earlier? Well, archaeological evidence often points to a site, but it's a science that is up to debate.
Just for Mormons, we can be relatively certain about a few sites. Two modern prophets have been to the Church of the Nativity and said, about the grotto, that it was close by that the Savior really was born. They have said similar things about the Garden Tomb. Well, it was really quite special being down in the grotto. I bent down and touched the silver star that marks the traditional birth place of the Savior. It was actually oily, as if there was a ceremony during which they annointed the star, and it tasted like olive oil...just kidding, no way was I going to taste it.
The church was absolutely amazing. It is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, having survived both Islamic and Persian raids. The old, Byzantine mosaic floor is visible through trap-doors in the current floor. The pillars are made of limestone but were polished until they looked like marble. There are actually 3 different churches that have their own little sections and they constantly squabble over who gets to do what.
Outside there are tons of tourist-hungry shopkeepers (the wall really put the squeeze on their source of income). Our group alone completely cleaned out the immediate vicinity of its Bethlehem Blankets. (They're beautiful little blankets. A lot of LDS people bless their babies in them.) My sister even bought an olive wood carving of her namesake, Rachel. Once again, my frugality complex shone through, and I limited my purchases to a few blankets. I'll have to get over that eventually, and I will, I just want to make sure I'm getting what I really want with my money. Oh, BTW, the picture is twilight over Bethlehem, from a shepherd's field. The mountain in the background that looks like a volcano is the Herodian, the huge stronghold that Herod the Great built.
After Bethlehem we spent several hours in a field that is still used by shepherds. After eating for a while and enjoying some quiet reflective time to read scriptures and ponder, we had a beautiful little program with Christmas carols, Luke 2, and testimonies. It was something else to sit on a hill where shepherds lived and worked at the time of the Savior's birth. You could look over the hills to the old city of Bethlehem and just imagine that the angels were appearing to the Shepherds. After the angels left, they might have just looked up and seen the candles in the windows of Bethlehem. They then would have run straight across the fields, maybe they took the road, but they went straight up to Bethlehem and worshipped the Babe in the manger.
This next week is pretty busy, we're headed up to the Galilee until a week from Monday. If I can get access to the Internet, I'll let you know what we're doing. If not, you won't hear from me 'till we get back.

Swimsuits and Sweaters

As I was looking for an open dryer yesterday, I found that one person had put just two items through the wash: a swimsuit and a sweater. Far from being perturbed by the amount of items, I found that this is a perfect depiction of a winter semester in Jerusalem, from Dead Sea swimming to Shepherd's Field freezing, all within 36 hours.
As you can tell, we went to the Dead Sea last Wednesday on a field trip. By far, it wasn't the only thing that we did that day, but it's about the coolest thing I've done in a long time. The Dead Sea is 1370 feet below sea level and, due to the diversion of river-water for crops, is falling quite rapidly, as in 1 meter a year. It is also the lowest dry place in the world.
If you've never swum in either the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake (well, there are a few more saline lakes), there really isn't a way to adequately describe it. As you dip down, you have absolutley no feeling of falling. I wouldn't even call it floating, I would call it suspension. We took turns curling into a ball and letting others in the group spin us around. If you push yourself up out of the water and try to sink down, you invariably don't get in past your chin, and all the time you can feel a film of salt and other minerals on your body. As long as you don't let it get in your eyes, nose, mouth, or ears (ears aren't too bad), you feel just fine, but if you swallow some, you'll have a sore throat for a month. :)
Before the Dead Sea, we hiked to the top of Herod's Fortress, Masada. If there is one word to describe Herod, it would have to be paranoid. He was constantly in fear of three things: his family, his subjects, and his nemesis, Cleopatra. To qualm these fears, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy to build several places of refuge, Masada being one of them. He even built a mountain. He built it. It's called the Herodian, and you can see it from the hills around Bethlehem. Many years after his death, Masada fell into the hands of Jewish Zealots, and the story has it that they held off Roman forces for months and, instead of submitting at the very end of the seige, they robbed the Roman forces of their victory by committing suicide. Kind of a gruesome ending, but every Israeli schoolchild is taught the story. The unofficial theme of the Israeli army is "Masada has fallen, and it will never fall again!" There were 2 women and 5 children that didn't commit suicide, and they preserved the story.
We also went to Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This area was the ancient home of the Essenes, a group of hyper-religious, insanely strict jews, who even went to the point, some scholars argue, to say that using the restroom on the Sabbath day constituted a Sabbath-day violation. They probably lived in Jerusalem until they got really mad at the High Priest, at which point they went to live by the Dead Sea. The most suprising thing about this area is that the scrolls that they had hid 1900 years earlier were not discovered until 1947. They were discovered by a young Bedouin shepherd boy who found a strange crevice in the course of a normal day. He threw a rock down, heard breaking pottery, and the greatest archaelogical discovery of the 20th century was unearthed. Go figure.
Well, I'd better break this entry off. Don't worry, I'll talk about Bethlehem, just in the next entry. :)
(btw, a huge shout out to Breanne White for giving me her pictures of the Dead Sea. I was too busy swimming.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

¡Baila Baila!

Even in times when finals are bearing down on you, you can still find time to have a little fun. Last Wednesday, just before our dignitaries got here, we had a "Western Night" at the snack bar (Did I mention that we have a snack bar? It's open every night from 9-10.) Well, the western night became a line dance party, the line dance party became a swing party, and then we just dropped the pretense all together and had a "whatever you happen to be able to do, or not do" dance party. I prefer to call my dancing "Raw, untamed talent" as Danica so aptly put it. Of course that was refering to my "Irish Dancing." The picture is of Jane and Carly. Jane was nice enough to let me snag her pictures, but on the condition that she got honorable mention. Well, here it is. :)
Aside from seeing an already exhausted Landon lift the great Matt Durham high above his head in a bird-like fashion, we've been busy both with finals and with making the most of the experience. Today we went to the Archaeological park that is right outside the Al-aqsa mosque. It was quite interesting walking around on ruins that date back to the time of the Second Temple, because most of streets from that time period are at least 20 feet under your feet.
That's another interesting thing about Jerusalem, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that the ground level from 2000 years ago is at least 10-15 feet below the current ground level. We all decided that the rocks and dirt in Jerusalem have actually evolved to the point that they reproduce, kind of like coral.
Anyway, tomorrow is our little float in the Dead Sea! We also get to go to Masada, a mountaintop fortress built by Herod the Great (well, his men built it, you know), and Qumran, where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Enjoy the rest of your day!!

Welcome to the Jerusalem Center!

Well, the people that we said that to are probably more qualified to welcome us, they've been here much more than we have. But this last week a breath of fresh air coursed through the building in the form of Elders Holland and Samuelson and President Kearl, as well as all their wives. We've had plenty of opportunities to interact with them and get to know them better. I've discovered that once you're in a conversation with them it's just like you're talking to your grandparents, you just don't know them quite as well.
It's a different experience living in the same building with an apostle and a member of the Seventy. Almost every student has a story to tell about a quick conversation when they ran into them when they were by themselves. For example, somehow both Elders Holland and Samuelson found out that I'm into computers, and each in their turn has called me a "techno-geek." :) Not in any disparaging way, just as a statement of fact. We all know that "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established," and "whether by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same" so I guess that my being a "techno-geek" is doctrine now. The other students say "He hugged me, twice!" "He patted my head!" "He liked my broken-leg trick!" We all loved the District Conference, followed that evening by a Q&A session especially for the students. They got here Thursday, will be here on goodwill errands until Tuesday, and then they fly out again.
It's not too common that the Brethren would be able to come all the way out here, but when the Center closed, a lot of good relationships and ties were put on the back burner. Now that students are back, it's time to reestablish those ties, so the Brethren are happy to come out and see their old friends after a very long Sabbatical.
Just so people know, President Kearl, the dreaded Econ 110 professor, is one of the best men that I've met. He's direct, he lays the issue down as only he knows how to do, but you always know where you stand with him. He's also a very insightful and humble man. Well, no one likes a kiss-up, so hopefully he doesn't actually read this.
We have exactly a month left here. We're in the middle of our first round of finals that includes Old Testament, Arabic or Hebrew, Palestinian-Islamic History and History of Judaism. After this week, for the rest of the semester, we have double-time in our Near Eastern Studies class and, finally, the New Testament. We actually started the New Testament for class this morning and I can honestly say that if you want to understand the New Testament, read the Old. Whereas I normally would have just glossed over the first four chapters of Matthew, I found so many connections to previous reading that it took me at least three-times longer than it normally would have.
Well, I'd better sign off, but I can't do so without offering a big "Congrats!" to my cousin, Conrad, and his wife, Donica, who just yesterday became mommy and daddy. So congratulations, and I expect to be able to hold every one of my new cousins, nieces, and friend's babies when I get back in a month.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Safety, the Best Option

If I could choose one phrase that I heard more than any other before I left it would probably be "Wow, don't get blown up." Well, with all the trouble that we see on TV and read in the newspaper, I can hardly blame everyone for thinking that. For the benefit of the 88 students that will be coming here in the Spring (and, I should say, for the benefit of concerned parents), I think I should talk about the actual situation inside Jerusalem, inside Israel proper, and in the other countries that we visit.
I'll start by saying that I haven't met a bad person here. I haven't felt unsafe at any moment. I may have felt uncomfortable once or twice, but I was new and green (I wouldn't consider myself an expert after two months, but I'm not entirely ignorant). Jerusalem, a city of 800,000 people, actually has a lower crime rate than the Provo-Orem area. It isn't perfect, for example, just last week a young Muslim man died. But that was the first death in nearly 2 years. Even in the riots that occurred last month, there were no deaths, there were just injuries. Students spend 80% of their time in Jerusalem, if there ever are any problem, there are always rumors that precede it, and students are always kept clear of any areas that might be sources of contention.
Last week we were in Jordan. Jordan, just like most other places in the Middle East, is safer than most cities in the United States. We spent several hours wandering around Amman, Jordan's capital, after dark. Even Egypt, though chaotic at times, was absolutely full of people that loved to have you there.
I should stress, however, that all is not well in the Middle East. There are very specific rules that keep us students safe. For example, we always have to go out in groups of three, with at least one male in the group if we are going to be out after dark. This is principally due to the "curiosity" of young males around here. We westerners would call it sexual harassment. It has been known to progress to actual physical contact, but not when the rules are observed. I'm talking to Liberty, a friend of mine, and she says that there is a definite difference when there is a guy in the group, even during the day. Men aren't nearly as forward, teenagers tend to keep their distance, and the only comments are "One man, two women!! Lucky man!"
As far as physical security, we are well taken care of here. We don't act stupidly, and we don't really have much to worry about. Concerning security of the young ladies in the group, every guy here is ready and able to go with a group of girls and lend their presence. Basically, we recognize there are risks, there are risks to jumping off your bunk bed in the morning, but the risks are greatly controlled and the rules are specific. Aside from seeing Matt Durham eaten by a giant steel lizard, I feel safer than in Deseret Towers.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Free Days, the Cure for Everything Else

As much as we love learning about the scriptures, studying Near-Eastern history, looking at tells and running around the area, the occasional free day is always a welcome break. Last time we went down by Gaza, but this Friday was a day unlike any other.
300 kilometers south of here is the northern tip of the Red Sea. This is Israel's southernmost border and a huge tourist town named Eilat has been built there. To tie it into the scriptures, Solomon built a navy, and they set out from that area, previously called Ezion-Geber. I was actually kind of shell-shocked when I went there. It was much more like a beach town in Europe or the South, and two months in a highly orthodox community leads you to expect that everyone must dress that way. Scandalous that people should wear shorts! :) I soon learned to ignore it and it turned into a relaxing day filled with, well, nothing that we had to do, just a few things that we wanted to do.
The few things that we wanted to do included, lying on the beach, playing frisbee on the beach, snorkeling (a first, for me) just off the beach, and lying on the beach. Coming from someone who's had a full-time job every summer since he was 13, this relaxation was a new experience, but one that I could get used to, every once in a while. :) There is a beautiful coral reef about 6 kilometers south of town in an Israeli National Park that is 3 kilometers long and 200 meters wide. I've long been mortified of deep water, but aside from the few moments of panic at the start, snorkeling alongside thousands of fish, sea snakes, and even a little octopus was one of the most relaxing experiences I've ever had.
After several hours just taking it easy on the beach, swimming out to "Moses' Rock," the most beautiful area in the park, and enjoying the sun, we headed back to town to quench the obvious thirst in the group for largely inexpensive goods. The girls in the group, on average, bought at least 2 skirts each, and the sunglasses, interesting jewelry, and ice cream stands were frequented. Don't ask me what I bought, you'll be sorely disappointed to find that it was confined to dinner and an ice-cream bar. There's the frugality complex shining through. :)
I'll get a picture up that someone in our group took, but he hasn't posted on facebook yet. In the meantime, enjoy this picture from
Y'all have a great day.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Well, it's been a few days since I've written, but that's because we've been in one of the few remaining monarchies on earth, officially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It was one of the most incredible, yet rushed, experiences that we've had this semester. We saw everything from great Roman cities of the Decapolis (mentioned often in the New Testament) to Petra, an area that looks just like Canyonlands, if you ignore the huge monuments that are literally carved out of the sandstone walls. To orient you, I can mention that "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" was filmed in Petra. The huge facade in the sandstone that, in the movie, contains the cave where the Holy Grail was kept is about a mile down the canyon. All these amazing sites that we see make me regret not having an amazing camera (That's going to be my graduation present to me...It's official). You can honestly spend days at each site and still not see everything that you want to.
The thing that stood out to me the most about Jordan is the King. King Abdullah II has been king for over 10 years. His father was King Hussein. Everywhere you go you see pictures of him, on walls, bumper-stickers, postcards, everywhere. Honestly, most everyone in the kingdom seems to love him and he seems like a very good man. The term "Hashemite" comes from the name "Hashem," who was the great-grandfather of Muhammad. Every king of Jordan is a descendant of Hashem, and they all seem to love that connection to Islam.
One of the nights we were able to spend time with a bunch of members from the Greater-Syrian district of the church. The district president that we met is responsible for members of the church from Egypt to Jordan to Syria to Lebanon. The restrictions on proselytizing are mostly the same in those countries, except that if people ask questions, a church member can answer. If a Christian wants to be baptized in the church, in some countries they can. But it is against the law in all of those countries for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. After the meeting on the state of the Church in the area, we spent time in broken-English and broken-Arabic getting to know the members. It was so much fun!
Other places that we were able to visit include the traditional site of Jesus' baptism (it's on the border between Israel and Jordan, but it's easier to access from the Jordan side.), the traditional site of the miracle of the Swine, and several others. The site of Jesus' baptism is associated with several other events, the crossing of the Jordan River by the Children of Israel, just before their conquest of Jericho, and the crossing of Elijah and Elisha just prior to Elijah's ascension in the chariot of fire. These sites are all described in a similar manner in the scriptures.
Unfortunately for us, the river Jordan has been largely diverted away for agricultural purposes, so the height has dropped about 20 feet. Instead of being 40-50 feet wide, it is about 12-20. It also is very dirty, but I touched the river Jordan and saved 1/2 liter of water anyway. It's sitting on my shelf downstairs.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Church in Israel

When the Center was being built, there were protests all over the city of Jerusalem because of the "Mormon Missionary Center," as they called it, that was being built on Mt. Scopus. The students had been here for decades, but the thought of having a permanent residence for the Mormons was opposed by 80% of the residents of Jerusalem. All during construction, those in charge received threats of violence, censure, and foreclosure of the lease.
Even though the Church had previously agreed to a non-proselytizing (apparently the word "proselyte" isn't a verb, it's only a noun) condition here in Israel, BYU decided that a firmer commitment was needed. Jeffrey R. Holland, who was the President of BYU at the time, obtained a signed statement from Howard W. Hunter and brought it to Israel. After he arrived, protesters gathered outside his hotel, but rather than stay inside, he went out and talked with each protester individually. After his visit, instead of 80% of the people being opposed to the Center being built, only about 30% were opposed. The rest of the construction was still rocky, but bearable.
The non-proselytizing agreement is one that every member in Israel, and not just the students, abide by. Before we left, we were informed that the only correct answer to a question that dealt with our beliefs was "I cannot talk about the matter." The direct result of this agreement means that, to this day, there are only 3 known native-Israeli members of the Church. Up until yesterday we only knew about two, but a guy that was baptized in South America and came back to Israel finally found the church here after years of separation. His parents (his father was a Rabbi) and his mother were both killed for their beliefs in the church, and since then he's never told anyone that he's a member. I can't say his name, nor will I give any personal information past what I've already said, but he's a fascinating individual.
One more bit of AWESOME news! In two weeks there will a dedication of the first LDS chapel in Israel --in Tiberias by the Galilee. Jeffrey R. Holland is coming to dedicate it and will be staying at the Center with Elder Samuelson and Dr. Kearl for a while. We're so excited!! They'll actually be staying in the Center and even though they'll have a really busy schedule, we may actually be able to eat with them and talk with them for a while. Elder Holland will also be giving a fireside for the branch here.

Hezekiah's Tunnel

2700 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was severely threatened by the Assyrian ruler, Sennacherib. The Assyrian army, which had just twenty year earlier deported the Ten Tribes, attacked the kingdom of Judah and destroyed every single outpost. They even destroyed the highly fortified city of Lachish and the inhabitants were brutally killed. The Assyrian battle tactics were so brutal that, often, all they had to do was send a messenger to a city to tell them that they were coming, and the city would surrender without a single shot.
Hezekiah, however, had been preparing. During 5 years, he built a broad wall to extend around the newly-settled Zion's Hill, which is just west of the Temple Mount. He was faced with the dilemma of water, though, because the water sources were a weak point in the wall. During 5 years, his people had been digging a tunnel from the lower portion of the city, now called the Pool of Siloam, to the Gishon Spring. The tunnel winds around for 1700 feet, possibly following an existing karst in the rock, and provided a water source that was completely undetectable to the invading army.
The tunnel was finally rediscovered in the mid-19th century. It served at least until the time of Jesus, as He instructed the man who was blind from birth to go and wash in the pool, so that he could be made to see. Throughout the centuries, people have determined that the Pool of Siloam had already been found, but a site that casts a larger archaeological shadow has recently been found about 200 feet farther south. You can see it in the picture to the left.
Well, Thursday afternoon we all went deep, dark, down into the depths of Warren's shaft and accessed the Gishon Spring. From there we wound our way down underneath homes, streets, and markets to the Pool of Siloam. Being the nerds that we are, we did everything from, of course, splash the students in front of us, to sing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," to convert the tunnel into a Slip & Slide.
It was unanimous. We're all doing it again. :-)