About The Holy Land
The Holy Land (Hebrew; Eretz HaQodesh ; Arabic: Al-Ard Al-Muqaddasah) is a term which in Judaism refers to the Kingdom of Israel as defined in the Tanakh. For Jews, the Land's identification of being Holy is defined in Judaism by its differentiation from other lands by virtue of the practice of Judaism often possible only in the Land of Israel. The term "Holy Land" is also used by Muslims and Christians to refer to the whole area in between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
Part of the significance of the land stems from the religious significance of Jerusalem, the holiest city to Judaism, the assumed place of Jesus's ministry, and the Isra and Mi'raj event in Islam. The perceived holiness of the land to Christianity was one of the motivational factors behind the efforts of the Crusades, which sought to win the Holy Land back from the Muslim Suljuq Turks that had conquered it from the Muslim Arabs, who had in turn conquered it from the Christian Byzantine Empire.
Many sites in the Holy Land have been destinations for religious pilgrimages since biblical times, by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. According to a Stockholm University study in 2011, these pilgrims visit the Holy Land to touch and see physical manifestations of their faith, confirm their beliefs in the holy context with collective excitation, and connect personally to the Holy Land.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christianity.
For Catholics, the Land of Israel is considered holy because of its association with the birth, ministry, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians regard as the Savior or Messiah, rather than anything that intrinsically differentiates it from other lands, or that is required for Christian religious observance. Outside of the places traditionally associated with Christian personalities, the "The uniqueness of the Land of Israel is...'geo-theological' and not merely climatic. This is the land which faces the entrance of the spiritual world, that sphere of existence that lies beyond the physical world known to us through our senses. This is the key to the land's unique status with regard to prophecy and prayer, and also with regard to the commandments" "Four Holy Cities" in Israel, Jerusalem, Hebron, Tzfat and Tiberias are regarded as Judaism's holiest cities. Jerusalem, as the site of the Temple, is considered especially significant. According to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem is Mount Moriah, the location of the binding of Isaac. Jerusalem is mentioned 669 times in the Hebrew Bible, in part because many mitzvot can only be performed within its environs. Zion, which usually refers Jerusalem, but sometimes the Land of Israel, appears in the Hebrew Bible 154 times. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christianity. For Catholics, the Land of Israel is considered holy because of its association with the birth, ministry, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians regard as the Savior or Messiah, rather than anything that intrinsically differentiates it from other lands, or that is required for Christian religious observance. Outside of the places traditionally associated with Christian personalities, the territory or the land of the Holy Land bears no mention in Christianity.
What is this Holy Land?
Nowhere on earth is more sanctified than the segment of the Middle East known as the Holy Land. In this sacred space, the main monotheistic faiths believe, God entered into a relationship with the human race.
In this land lie the ruins of the worlds oldest civilisations. Its strategic location, at the junction of Africa, Asia and Europe, made it a corridor between East and West and a much-trampled prize for conquering armies. Much blood has been spilt on its holy ground.
Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, by David Roberts in 1842 (Library of Congress)
It is a place of perpetual tension between Jew and Arab, and a place of extreme contrast in terrain from fertile farmland to arid desert.
Pilgrims have come since ancient times. With the Bible as their tour guide, they endured all kinds of hardship and perils in their quest to visit the holy places.
Holy Land stretches from Egypt to Syria
The term Holy Land encompasses the places in the Middle East that are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. It includes:
Israel and the Palestinian Territories (which hold most of the sites sacred to Jews and Christians)
Western Jordan (where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land and Christ was baptised).
The Sinai Peninsula in Egypt (where Moses and the Israelites wandered for 40 years)
Southern Syria (where Elijah took refuge and St Paul was converted)
This is the land described by God in Exodus 3:8 as flowing with milk and honey (that would have been sheep or goat milk and date honey).
Central to the Holy Land is Israel. The worlds only Jewish state, it occupies just a tiny proportion of the globe. It is the size of New Jersey or Wales, and about a third the size of Sri Lanka or Tasmania.
Around Israel on three sides are Muslim states, all much larger. And over all of the Holy Land countries are the footprints and landmarks of past conquerors among them the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks, OttomanTurks and British.
Holy to four faiths
The concept of a holy land became of great significance to both early Judaism and early Christianity. However, the expression holy land occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible (Zechariah 2:12), twice in the deuterocanonical books (Wisdom 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7), and not once in the New Testament.
What made the land holy? According to biblical scholar and archaeologist Jerome Murphy-OConnor, this occurred for the Jews when the Ark of the Covenant was carried into the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem and the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord (1 Kings 8:10). From Egypt to Syria, it was also the place where the patriarchs and prophets lived and were buried.
For Christians, the Holy Land is where Jesus lived, proclaimed his Gospel, performed miracles, was crucified and rose from the dead. From early times, the followers of Jesus venerated places associated with him, foremost among them the cave at Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre.
For Muslims, veneration of Jerusalem as a holy place goes back to Muhammad, who prayed facing Jerusalem before he was inspired to turn toward Mecca. He called Jerusalem the Holy City. Muslims believe Muhammad visited the rock of the Temple Mount during his night journey on the winged steed al-Burak in 620.
Followers of another monotheistic religion, the Bah faith, have their holiest site in Haifa, Israel. The golden-domed Shrine of the Bab is set on a hillside of terraced gardens.
Living faiths are part of the land
There is another reason for the holiness of the Holy Land because holy peoplestill live in it.
As biblical scholar Leslie J. Hoppe puts it, The Holy Land is home to sincerely believing Jews, Christians and Muslims, who are trying to live according to Gods will as they understand it. It is not always an easy matter for these people to follow the dictates of their conscience, yet they struggle to live faithfully and to hand on their respective religious traditions to the next generation.
People who come to the Holy Land and only visit shrines or historical sites do not experience the totality of this lands holiness. No pilgrimage is complete unless pilgrims come away with a greater knowledge and appreciation of the living religions of the Holy Land: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam . . . .
In particular, Christian pilgrims should spend time acquainting themselves with the local Church, which is, of course, the Mother Church of the faith. They should hear the Christians of the Holy Land give witness to their faith and speak of their hopes. They should learn of the practical ways this local Church lives the Gospel, and they should encourage their fellow believers to remain faithful to their commitment to Christ.
Christians in the Holy Land now live in a predominantly Judaeo-Muslim world. In Israel they make up less than 2% of the population. Economic hardship, political uncertainty and discrimination have caused Christians to emigrate, especially from the Palestinian Territories.
Christs birthplace of Bethlehem, once a Christian town, is now mostly Muslim. There are more Christians from Bethlehem living in Santiago, Chile, than in Bethlehem.
Going on a pilgrimage
The desire to be a pilgrim is deeply rooted in human nature. Since the earliest times, pilgrimages to holy places have been made as acts of devotion, penance or thanksgiving, or to seek blessings or miracles.
A pilgrimage is a sacred journey in which God is encountered through the places, people and situations a pilgrim meets.
The physical journey coincides with an inner spiritual journey that reflects the concept of life itself as a pilgrimage towards heaven.
Taking part in a pilgrimage offers more than just spiritual benefits. It enriches themind as well as the soul, by seeing how other people live, gaining an appreciation of their cultures and history, experiencing the sights and smells of their markets and bazaars, and sharing in what they eat and drink.
And this can occur in the company of people of similar faith and interests, some of whom may remain friends long after the pilgrimage is over.
The broadening experience of pilgrimage was expressed thus by the 19th-century French writer Franois-Ren Chateaubriand: There never was a pilgrim who did not come back to his village with one less prejudice and one more idea.
A long and respected history
The phenomenon of pilgrimage has a long and respected history not only among Jews, Christians and Muslims, but also among Buddhists, Hindus and followers of many other faiths.
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land has long been enshrined in the traditions of the worlds three major monotheistic religions those who believe in one God.
Jews come to the visit the tombs of the patriarchs and the Western Wall of theTemple Mount. Christians come to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Muslims come to worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy shrines.
For a Christian, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land can be a life-changing and challenging experience an experience which then makes every Bible reading come alive and have new meaning.
St Jerome, who arrived in the Holy Land in AD 385 and spent more than 36 years there as a Bible translator, wrote we understand Scripture better when we have seen Judea with our own eyes, and discovered what still remains of ancient towns.
Thrice-yearly obligation for Jews
From the time of Solomon, more than 900 years before Christ, pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was a thrice-yearly obligation for Jews. From the time he was 12, Jesus followed this practice with his family (Luke 2:41-42).
As Jerusalem came into sight, pilgrims would break into song and dance. The joyous nature of the occasion is reflected in Psalm 122:
I was glad when they said to me,
Let us go to the house of the Lord!
Our feet are standing
Within your gates,
During the reign of Herod the Great, between 300,000 and 500,000 pilgrims would assemble for the great celebrations of Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles and Pentecost.
With the city of Jerusalem bursting at the seams, pilgrims would erect tent cities on the Mount of Olives and other locations. Others would stay in nearby villages such as Bethphage and Bethany.
Journeys involved hardship
From the early centuries of the Christian Church, prayerful pilgrims made their way to the sacred places where Jesus lived and died and appeared after his Resurrection.
St Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), a native of Palestine, wrote: If anyone wants proof for the birth of Jesus Christ, let him go to Bethlehem and see for himself both the cave in which he was born and the manger in which he was laid.
Many travelled on foot. Their journeys involved enormous effort and self-sacrifice, and they faced great hardship and perils.
Eventually an organised system developed. Clergy planned a route and the places to visit. Hospices were set up along the way. Troops were assigned to protect the pilgrims.
Special laws allowed pilgrims safe passagethrough areas in the throes of war. Pilgrims even acted as a postal service, carrying letters from place to place.
Inevitably, an element of corruption appeared. In some alleged holy places, gullible pilgrims were shown spurious sites and fake relics. St. John Chrysostom (AD c.347-407) noted that many people hurried across the seas to Arabia to see and venerate the dunghill of Job.
Travel guide printed in 1515
The Bible was the guidebook for these early Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.
A more specific travel guide, Information for Pilgrims unto the Holy Land, was printed in England by Wynkyn de Worde in 1515 just 22 years after Columbus returned from the New World.
The pilgrim of those days, carrying a few possessions in a scrip (wallet or bag), was described by the Elizabethan writer and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of Salvation,
My gown of glory, hopes true gage;
And then I take my pilgrimage.
Millions of Muslims go to Mecca
Among Muslims, every adult must undertake the annual pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if he or she can afford it and is physically able. Every year more than two million Muslims do so.
The pilgrimage, called the Hajj, emphasises the brotherhood and sisterhood of Muslims and their equality in the eyes of God, regardless of wealth, class or power.
Its complex rituals include walking seven times around the Kaaba, a large granite cube covered by a black silk and gold curtain; throwing pebbles at white pillars in three places where Satan is believed to have tempted the Prophet Ismail; and animal sacrifice.
For a Muslim pilgrim, the intention is a vital part of the pilgrimage obligation, as expressed in this supplication:
O God, I wish to make this pilgrimage. Make it the right thing for me and accept it from me. I have intended this pilgrimage. I consecrate myself for it unto the Most High. To him be strength and majesty.
Preparation is necessary
Preparation is important if a pilgrim is to obtain the most benefit from a pilgrimage. This is especially so for a group pilgrimage to the Holy Land, since time is usually limited and most of it is committed to a preplanned schedule.
To arrive in the correct state of mind, preparation should be not merely on the material level, but even more so on the spiritual level.
For the Christian pilgrim, preparation can include reading Scripture passages relating to the sites being visited (references for each holy place are given on this website).
Whether the pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime experience or not, the pilgrim should be able to look forward to it as a privileged time in his or her life.
As Catholic theologian Fr Virgil Elizondo has written, it should be a time of unsuspected and uncontrolled life-giving surprises . . . . a fabulous journey of discovery of self, others, other cultures, nature and God.
Such an experience can be a time of spiritual nourishment, of deepened faith, of soul-searching and discernment, of new resolutions and strengthened commitments and, yes, of fun, enjoyment and new friendships.
Christians have different interests
Jews, Christians and Muslims are obviously drawn to different pilgrimage sites. But even among 21st-century Christian pilgrims, different groups have their ownspecific focus, as James R. McCormick in Jerusalem and the Holy Land (Rhodes & Easton, 1997) has noted.
Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant pilgrimages are quite distinct in their visits to holy places, and which ones they prefer to visit.
Orthodox pilgrims concentrate their pilgrimages around holy days. They spend time inside churches, making the rounds of icons to kiss or venerate them.
Catholic pilgrims come to renew individual faith. They focus on New Testament sites and reflect on appropriate Scriptures at each place. Following the Way of the Cross on theVia Dolorosa in Jerusalem is a typical example.
Protestant pilgrims prefer the uncluttered environs of the open country around the Sea of Galilee, or the natural setting of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. They tend to be unimpressed by the ancient shrines administered by Orthodox or Catholics which often offer no worship space for Protestant groups.
Among evangelical Protestants, Christian Zionist pilgrims have a focus on supporting the state of Israel, which they see as being in accord with biblical prophecy and leading to the Second Coming of Jesus.
A pilgrim is not a tourist
A pilgrim is not a pious tourist. A pilgrim and a tourist may follow the same itinerary, but the pilgrim is on a sacred journey in which God is encountered through places, people and situations.
The tourist sees sights, discovers new places, learns interesting facts, takes photographs and accumulates souvenirs. The tourist returns home the same person as the one who left, save perhaps for a broadened mind.
The pilgrim gains insights and discerns new truths about oneself. The pilgrim travels with the expectation that the one who returns will not be the same person as the one who set out.
The pilgrim has his or her mind on ultimatethings. He or she will not become a slave to a timetable or be distracted by gift shops. Time will be allowed for holy idleness. The pilgrim sets out open to the possibility of having identity and faith challenged.
The outcome of the pilgrimage will be thetransformation that has taken place inside the person. The pilgrim will return with an impression imprinted on the soul, rather than in the memory of a digital camera.
A pilgrim will let oneself go
The pilgrims mindset is established prior to departure. While packing bags and checking lists, the pilgrim will be mindful of the need to be open to Gods presence throughout the pilgrimage.
The pilgrim will purposefully leave behind family and business concerns. To quote Catholic theologian Fr Virgil Elizondo, It is crucial to let oneself go in order to be disposed to the action of God during the pilgrimage.
A Jewish writer, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, offers a four-part formula for visiting a holy site in his book Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide (Jewish Lights Publishing):
1. Beforehand, anticipate what you are going to see by reading about it.
2. As you get there, approach the site with all the expectation you can muster, as if it is the only spot on earth that matters.
3. When you arrive, acknowledge its sacred presence, taking some time to be alone with the site, yourself and God.
4. After you leave, record your afterthoughtabout what you experienced.
In the words of the Rev. Peter J. Miano, founder of the Society for Biblical Studies, Tourists pass through places, but pilgrims let places pass through them, allowing their hearts to be changed.
A pilgrim will have an open mind
The happiest pilgrims are the most relaxed. They dont expect everything to go smoothly. They dont get stressed over delays, itinerary changes or bad weather. They tolerate different people, customs and foods with an open mind.
The tourist may be hasty and impatient, mentally checking off sights on a to-do list. The pilgrim will be patient and considerate, remembering that the guide and tour leader are concerned for the welfare of the entire group.
The pilgrim will not be disconcerted to find that a treasured site is nothing like the picture in his or her mind. The pilgrim will not be inhibited by the ostentatious ornamentation of some holy places, but will focus on the meaning of the place.
The pilgrim will try not to be distracted when personal reflections are interrupted by another groups singing, a tour guides commentary or tourists chatting.
A pilgrim does not travel alone
Whether in a group or not, the pilgrim does not travel alone. The pilgrim is open to encounters with others that build relationships. The tourist may find companionship, but the pilgrim experiences community.
The pilgrim prays for the success of the pilgrimage and for other members of the group. He or she makes an effort to accept other peoples different spiritualities and others need for quiet times.
Pilgrims are open to sharing their personal faith stories (though tactfully in sensitive Middle East situations) and to appreciating the faith of others.
The tourist sees religious buildings as objects of historical or architectural interest. The pilgrim sees them as shrines of a faith that lives on today.
The Christian pilgrim in the Holy Land is aware that the very first Christians were simple villagers scattered around modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Descendants of these first Christians live in the same villages, still practising the Christian faith. These Arab Christians are called the Living Stones of the Holy Land. Joining them in discussion and worship is an act of solidarity for todays pilgrim.
A pilgrim respects the host country
The pilgrim treads lightly on sacred ground and on the planet. The tourist may unknowingly trample on holy ground or intrude noisily into sacred stillness. The pilgrim is sensitive and respectful.
The pilgrim does not waste water or electricity, conscious that these are precious resources in the Holy Land. The pilgrim disposes of rubbish appropriately, no matter how much litter lies around.
The pilgrim respects the host country and tries to learn about its culture not just as a spectator at an evening cultural performance. The pilgrim seeks to learn standard greetings in the local language.
The pilgrim learns tolerance towards persistent traders, accepting that they are just trying to make a living. The pilgrim accepts the presence of beggars and the ubiquitous expectation of tips, realising that pay rates are low.
The pilgrim may even ponder an 11th-century preachers injunction to European pilgrims: The pilgrim may bring with him no money at all, except perhaps to distribute it to the poor on the road . . . . the pilgrim who dies on the road with money in his pocket is permanently excluded from the kingdom of heaven.