On Thursday, our last day in Israel, we rose early and went back to the Dung Gate, the closest gate in the sixteenth-century Ottoman walls around the Old City of Jerusalem to the Western Wall or Wailing Wall and the main entrance to the Temple Mount. (In Arabic, the Dung Gate is known as the Bab al-Maghariba, or “The Gate of the Maghribis,” Maghribis being people from Morocco, Tunis, and perhaps Algeria.) But the crowds wanting to go up onto the Mount were even larger than the previous day, so we decided to try again during the brief afternoon opening time.
Instead, we determined to go earlier to the Garden of Gethsemane than we had planned.
It’s a favorite site. I’m reasonably confident that, among those ancient olive trees, visitors really are very near the place where Jesus prayed, was arrested, and, according to Latter-day Saint belief, commenced the unfathomable process of the Atonement.
One of the principal reasons for my finding the site plausible is the road that goes right up between the two portions of today’s “Garden of Gethsemane.” It runs uphill to the left of the Church of All Nations (shown above) and over the saddle of the hill to the town of Bethany, where Jesus stayed with Mary and Martha and Lazarus whenever he was in the Jerusalem area. (It also runs right past the Orson Hyde Garden, which is just to its left, perhaps a hundred yards or so above the Garden of Gethsemane.) This is absolutely the most logical route for him to have walked, and it makes perfect sense that he would be aware of the olive grove at its base.
I’m rather skeptical of many “holy sites” in Israel. I don’t believe, for example, that one can know precisely — and I mean precisely — where Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so I’m not particularly impressed with the silver star in the floor of the city’s Church of the Nativity. which pinpoints the exact spot.
But there is unimpeachable logic to support that road connecting Bethany with Jerusalem, and I tend to be more persuaded by such reasoning than by traditions dating back only to the time of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, in the fourth century. So I tell people that I take to Israel that, sometimes, it’s the unromantic and rather prosaic things that are most authentic. There is no silver or gold along the Jerusalem/Bethany road. No candles or incense. It’s just asphalt. Rather noisy, and notorious for pickpockets near the Church of All Nations. But it’s a virtual certainty, in my judgment, that Jesus walked this very road.
Next, we went to Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, with its magnificent view over the Kidron Valley to the Old City and the Temple Mount. It was fun to be back, and to talk there with my friends and colleagues Kent Jackson and Eric Huntsman, who are on assignment at the Center. (My wife and I flew over, on 24 April, with seventy-nine BYU students who were en route to Jerusalem to study at the Center, and, when we touched down at the airport, we had the chance to talk with Jared Ludlow and Steven Harper, who were there to greet them, and with Jim Kearl, who was also on the flight with us.)
After lunch, we made another attempt — our third — at getting onto the Temple Mount. (I’ve never before had such problems with access. In fact, in the old days, I used to wander onto the Mount and into the Dome of the Rock whenever the mood hit me. But access to the Dome for non-Muslims is almost impossible these days. Alas.)
The line was relatively short, but so was the window of opportunity for getting onto the Mount. It would be open for only an hour. We waited and waited and waited, and the line moved not at all. Suddenly, though, we were whisked through security, ahead of other groups and without any real checks. That’s never happened before. I asked our Palestinian guide, Aladin Siyam, what he had done to get us through. “That’s a trade secret,” he said.
We only had about ten or fifteen minutes there, but at least we got on. I had just about given up hope.
Next, we stopped very briefly for a group photo in front of the Seven Arches Hotel, which also has a spectacular view of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock.
And, finally, as the culmination our entire trip, we visited the Garden Tomb, or Gordon’s Calvary, and held a short testimony meeting there. I don’t believe this to be the actual site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, but there is absolutely no question that the Spirit can more easily be felt at this garden oasis in stressful, busy, noisy East Jerusalem than at the horrific Church of the Holy Sepulchre — which is, anyway, only a few hundred yards away as the crow flies.
We had dinner in East Jerusalem, and then most of us headed directly to the airport. I slept off and on for most of the flight from Tel Aviv to New York, which was, for me, an unprecedented miracle. Customs and Immigration and Transfer at JFK airport were hell, the worst I’ve ever seen. Long waits, inadequate signage, chaotic, disorganized. (“We are the face of the United States,” the sign in the first room advised Customs and TSA employees.)
It’s good to be home, though. I’ve already had a taco.