Fragile Grass

by Mark Ziese on May 2, 2015

“The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of YHWH blows on it; when the breath of YHWH blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8). I stand on top of the tumulus (burial mound) of a once-great Phrygian king. […]


Mediterranean Shrublands

April 25, 2015

Mediterranean shrublands ring the Mediterranean seaboard from Palestine to Spain and create the most familiar landscape to the reader of the Bible. Here, winters are short, mild, and wet, while summers are long, dry, and hot. These conditions both foster and isolate an enormous variety of life forms and encourage the dynamics of localization, or […]

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Into the Dark Wood

April 18, 2015

We park the RHD (right hand drive) vehicle on the “wrong” side of the road and walk to the lookout. The mountains of Western Cyprus unfold. It is magnificent. One does not expect such vertical drama on an island. Clinging to crumbling slopes are some of the oldest trees on planet earth. I rehearse my […]

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Swarming with Life!

April 11, 2015

The Biblical text swarms with life. Goats, trees, bees, and bears form part of a background against which prose narrative tells stories and poetic passages draw inspiration. Occasionally, the created order steps forward and occupies center stage: a lion mauls, an oak tree snares, a donkey speaks! Such moments are brief though, and nature returns […]

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Imagining Ecce Homo

March 29, 2015

In the coming days, many of us will construct an image of Jesus standing before “the Powers.” Such constructions freight the weight of biblical passages like Isaiah 53:7, Philippians 2:6-8, or John 19:5 and are grist for personal reflection in the Easter season. The fourth gospel adds the words ecce homo to the image. The […]

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What Lies Beneath

March 21, 2015

From the top of the stairs, I peer into a cross-section of Jerusalem’s history. “Who built Jerusalem?” asks Eyyal. He quickly follows this question with another. “Who didn’t build Jerusalem?” The British, like the Ottomans before them, used the stone structure remembered as the Kishle as a military barracks and prison house. Rusted stubs tattoo […]

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The Barracks

March 14, 2015

I enter the barracks. The smell of raw earth makes a first impression. My eyes take a moment longer to dial down from bright sun to deep shadow. A long hall of concrete, steel, stone, and dirt emerges. Excavations beneath the barracks have been conducted over the course of the last decade, but only in […]

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Lost in l’espace

March 6, 2015

When the baggage carousel stopped, I thought: Welcome back to “Exploring Bible Lands.” The reason the carousel had stopped, of course, is because there were no more bags to spit out. All the bleary-eyed travelers had yanked and been yanked by that cruel machine empowered to deliver the final punctuation to the experience of air […]

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On Distractions and Diet

October 14, 2014

Before this goes any further, an apology is in order. Readers who regularly go to Bible Lands Explorer for a diet of mildly frivolous data are worried. I know because I get your emails. People ask: Did you fall off your camel? Slide backwards into a mountain crevasse? Get arrested by the Mossad? While all […]

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The Jesus Trail Goes to Brazil

September 21, 2014

Tim Cahill (founding editor of Outside magazine) once remarked, “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” Along the Jesus Trail, one cannot help but meet new people, try new foods, hear new languages. It is reason enough to repeat the journey. Last year, I bunked in a dormitory room along the Trail and […]

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Sandal Farts

September 17, 2014

A couple of friends surfaced in our recent move to Florida. They were hiding behind some small boxes under the bed in the loft. I hollered down the stairs to Vicki, “Hey, Look! My old sandals!” It was a keen discovery, akin to finding the body of Jimmy Hoffa. I brushed off the fuzzy green […]

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Flock Fort 1

September 12, 2014

One cannot walk through the Palestinian village of Bayt Sahour without contemplating the phrase Migdal ‘Eder. The words themselves are simple enough to translate; pulling them down to earth and hoisting them back into the air, however, is another matter. Migdal ‘Eder is a transliteration of the Semitic phrase, “fort of the flock.” Such “forts” […]

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The Ruins of the Sheepfold

September 1, 2014

East of Bethlehem lies an enclosed area known as Khirbet Syar el-Ghanam, “The ruins of the sheepfold.” It is one of three locales in the Arab village of Bayt Sahour linked to the memory of the Christmas shepherds. Issa and I step past its gate in pursuit of deeper desert. Fortunately for us, the gauntlet […]

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The First to Hear the News

August 18, 2014

Packs on our backs, Issa and I follow a ridge out of Bethlehem. The asphalt drops down sharply. We swing east to face the morning haze. Bethlehem’s sister villages rise to meet us. They huddle on desert’s edge. Among them is Bayt Sahour. The Arabic label, Bayt Sahour, suggests the “house of the night watch” […]

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Watermelon Walls

August 4, 2014

This story begins 18 years ago on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. I was driving a vintage Fiat 127 in heavy traffic when the truck in front of me suddenly slammed on his brakes. Despite my cat-like reflexes and the best of Italian engineering, I slammed into the truck. His bumper was bent. My […]

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Old Donkey Blanket

July 28, 2014

Bethlehem is flung like a old donkey blanket over knobby vertebrae. The backbone rises, falls, and rises again, clacking through the villages. Hebron is up the line, above Bethlehem; Jerusalem rests below it. Once through the Great Barrier Wall, Issa and I make our way along one of these knobs. Our goal is Mar Saba, […]

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Current Issues

July 20, 2014

I get pestered regularly with questions about electricity. Now mind you, I do my best to satisfy all inquiries, but to be perfectly transparent, I know nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, about electricity. Of course, neither did Ben Franklin. That’s why he was out kite-flying in the middle of a lighting storm. KA-ZAM! He should have been a […]

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An Austere Idea

July 14, 2014

Opportunity collided with a hankering. We responded in the only appropriate way: we grabbed our daypacks. It had been a trying month in Jerusalem. Local unrest, rocket sirens, noisy neighbors, and the smell of old books had taken their toll. Despite these challenges I had managed to finish my publication commitments. There were three days […]

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A Neighbor with an Odd Letter

July 11, 2014

Those attuned to world news are aware of the escalating violence that has has rocked corners of Israel-Palestine in the last few weeks. In the aftermath of a particularly brutal killing of an Arab boy (he was burned alive), residents of Beit Hanina and Shuafat took to the streets in protest. Confrontations between police and […]

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Things that Go “Boom” in the Night

July 8, 2014

I’m bunking in the middle of Jerusalem’s Old City for a month. It is less than one hundred meters from the desk where I now sit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The CHS is perhaps Christendom’s most sacred space and the best guess at the spot where Jesus was raised from the dead. […]

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Falafel Chapel

July 6, 2014

“Orange juice?” “Falafel?” The invitation floats down Jerusalem’s Old City streets, seeking lodging in the ears of the hungry. In this case, the voice behind the appeal belongs to Sameer. Plump oranges are piled to his knees. To his right is a stainless steel display stretching across the front of his shop. A peek inside […]

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To the Glue Factory

June 29, 2014

She looked like a good pony: short, but sturdy and footsure. Her lines were pure economy. Not even Todd, whose appreciation of such things ran ahead of most, would call her elegant. The icon proudly worn on her chest indicated that General Motors played some role in weaving together her DNA, although as I pondered […]

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Little Things

June 24, 2014

Keep in mind that there are many ways to pack strategically. And the items that I believe to be essential, may not seem so important to you. This will become quite obvious in this installment of our series designed to help you pack for your trip. It has taken me three decades to do it, […]

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Covering your Bottomside

June 22, 2014

Just as one’s choice of topside covers for Spring/summer travel in Israel/Palestine are dictated by nature and culture, so too, bottomside covers. What garments meet the threshold of social responsibility, yet allow for freedom of movement? In this fourth installment of our series on packing strategically we consider ways to efficiently cloak the trusses of […]

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Covering your Topside

June 21, 2014

When it comes to clothing, it is easy to pack too much. The strategic packer must weigh his/her choices and resist the temptation to throw one more shirt in the bag simply because there is space for it. Falling into this “fill the gap trap” adds unnecessary worry, weight, and cost to your life. Two […]

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June 21, 2014

A couple of years ago I went to the top of a snowy peak believed by many to be Mt. Ararat (Ağrı Dağı). It was a four day hike. The leather boots I purchased were a wee bit small, but I thought they would work fine. Boy, was I wrong! I developed blisters on the […]

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June 20, 2014

Traveling abroad is exciting. But it can be challenging as well. One of the ways to offset the challenges of foreign travel is to pack strategically. If you have the things you need, not more or less, you will be far more comfortable, more mobile, and better able to direct your focus to the world […]

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Fire in the Hole!

June 15, 2014

I knew we were in trouble when Mafouz hung up the phone. He looked at me, wide-eyed. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “There was a fire in the church this morning. The grotto burned up!” Now my eyes were wide.  News of the fire was disturbing for several reasons. First, it was disturbing because we were […]

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Where Helena met Armenia

June 8, 2014

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City is the omphalos (navel) of Christian imagination. Its roof encloses key moments of sacred memory, including places associated with Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Countless pilgrims have risked life and treasure to enter these wooden doors. A visit can change a person. Or start a […]

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June 1, 2014

It didn’t take long. I reclined, alone, in the ever popular Coptic Guest House in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter. David Abulafia’s heavy tome on the Mediterranean Sea began bobbing above my head. It sank to my chest, then to the floor. Overwhelmed by the obscurities of Luwian hieroglyphs and two weeks of pilgrim responsibilities, I slipped […]

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April 30, 2014

I follow a winding stream through the canyon known as Wadi Hamam. The water offers focus; it splashes across gravel, slowing only occasionally to waller in mudholes. Dense vegetation crowds the water’s edge. It is a narrow passage of brush and boulder, soft willow and thorny jujube, one that Dorsey calls “virtually impassable today” (1991:96). […]

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The Valley of the Shadow

April 22, 2014

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …” Psalm 23:4 This line from the twenty-third Psalm offers comfort in times of trouble, assurance in moments of fear. It has been a whispered prayer of believers through the centuries. The song matures quickly. In just six verses it moves the listener […]

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An Edgy Guy

April 3, 2014

We sat uncomfortably in the classroom, rocking from side to side, trying to absorb the Hebrew text of Pirke Avoth. This portion of the Mishnah claims that Moses carried not only a hard copy of Torah down from the mountain, but an interpretive oral tradition as well. The latter was chewed, memorized, and repeated from […]

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A Wee Wise Folk

March 25, 2014

I descend into the gorge of the Wadi Hamam. The rising sun plays hide and seek with the rocks. It is a beautiful morning to be out and about, pack on my back. The air is cool. There is not a soul in sight. The Sea of Galilee glitters in the distance. I pick my […]

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So Close, So Far

March 11, 2014

In the savage heat of July 3-4, AD 1187, the Crusader army thumped east from Sepphoris. They stopped to draw water from a spring, presently located behind the McDonalds with the McDrive Thru (Birket Maskana). The goal of the march was ostensibly to relieve the citadel at Tiberias. In a short time, however, that Crusader […]

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February 27, 2014

Shemuah (A “heard thing,” “report,” or “announcement”). First, please accept my apology for the interruption. The last few weeks have been overwhelmingly busy. I hope to return to the Jesus Trail soon. Second, hear my thanks to all who explore Bible Lands on a regular basis. Our mutual interest in things geographical, historical, biblical, and […]

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Dead Reckoning to the Horns

February 19, 2014

I put my nose on the sun. The pavers of the Roman road scatter and disappear but the ridge continues. Cultivated fields drape like panniers from either side of it. I cut through these, occasionally hopping a fence row. I am certain that at some point I will rejoin the “Jesus Trail.” It doesn’t happen. […]

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February 10, 2014

I bend forward into the sink. Icy water runs across my hair, face, and neck. The cold shocks the leftover night from my head. It is 4:00 am. The call to prayer sounds in the distance. I back away from the flow, close the faucet, and shake like a dog. Satisfied, I pull a shirt […]

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Down on the Eco-Farm

February 3, 2014

  I tumbled into consciousness in the decade of the 1960s. For some it was a return trip. For me, it was a notable first. That it happened in the state of Oregon where both firs and fungus grow tall, means that flower-power, hippies, and leather fringe jackets will forever trigger childhood flashbacks. (Not to […]

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The Green Goat

January 27, 2014

Desperate for a good night’s sleep, I exchange the Jesus Trail for asphalt. I backtrack up the highway to an Israeli hostel. It carries a most curious name: Yarok-Az, or the “Green Goat.” It is advertised as an “eco-friendly organic goat farm.” Such a description will charm a sticky tick out of a tight place. […]

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January 20, 2014

Somehow, I drift off to sleep. It is a feat akin to napping during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. On the floor of the percussion section. Between kettle roll and cannon fire. When I open my eyes at last, the mechanized chaos has been replaced by a soothing sound: the cooing of doves. It […]

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Monkey Butt

January 13, 2014

(With Christmas season over, we return to the Jesus Trail. I find myself on the edge of the Lavi Forest, between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.) I stand by the road in the wood and wave goodbye to a dear friend. He smiles weakly and waves back. I detect concern in his eyes, as […]

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How Christmas Trumped Realpolitik – Part II

January 6, 2014

Eb wanders in the room, looking a little disheveled. His hands are in his pockets. “Where have you been, Mr Milk Groootto?” I smirk. He rolls his eyes. “Nowhere.” After the whole Divine Indiscretion fiasco, I wasn’t sure when I would see Eb again. But I’m glad he’s here and I know just what he needs. […]

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How Christmas Trumped Realpolitik – Part I

December 30, 2013

(Note: In light of the Christmas season, I am taking a break from our Jesus Trail adventures. Today we head south for a visit to Bethlehem. We will return to the Trail in January. Merry Christmas to all our readers!) I hold Josephus by the hand and squint into the wind. Our view is good, but Herod’s was better. […]

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A Divine Indiscretion

December 21, 2013

(Note: In light of the Christmas season, I am taking a break from our Jesus Trail adventures. Today we head south for a visit to Bethlehem. We will return to the Trail in January. Merry Christmas to all our faithful readers!) There is nothing more natural, beautiful, or healthy than a mother with a baby […]

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From Plonk to Krug

December 17, 2013

The small eatery in Kafr Canna is abuzz with life. Some folks are take-awayers. Others, like Hani and me, dine in. Or out, I suppose. We sit at a table out front. Between us is a spread of delights: round pita bread, golden falafel balls, and a variety of Arabic “chip dips.” We dig in. […]

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December 11, 2013

After losing the Jesus Trail a second time, I trudge back up the hill to the center of Mashhad. I peer across the valley, stymied. The irregular outline of Kafr Canna rises in the distance. It is almost one of those “you can’t get there from here” situations. But I know I can. I can […]

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December 3, 2013

Who doesn’t know the story of Jonah? This Old Testament narrative is an ironic one. For starters, the antihero bears a name that means “dove” in Hebrew (Yonah), yet he acts in a most hawkish way. He receives the “word of YHWH,” the formula for a prophetic call, yet rejects this vocation. By his own […]

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Duct, Duct, Sluice

November 26, 2013

  I slouch on a stone wall near the entrance to Sepphoris. There, on the Jesus Trail just outside ancient “Bird-town,” the pine trees provide some welcome shade. The pack is peeled off my back and rolls over on the ground. I am a sweaty mess. I retrieve my blue Nalgene bottle from the pack pocket and […]

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A Frankish Fort

October 18, 2013

Gwuf . . . gwuf . . . gwuf . . . My walking shoes exhale as they press against the stairs. The pitch is steep, the steel rail, helpful. The passage is constructed of creamy limestone, glossy from the rub of countless hands and feet. I reach out to touch the wall. The surface […]

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Hide and Seek, Seek and Hide

October 7, 2013

Jesus insists that we do the right thing. In his Sermon on the Mount, he calls his listeners “salt” and “light.” We can make a difference. Our deeds are not done in secret. And then he drops the metaphor: “A town (Gk, polis) on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14). I wonder if Jesus […]

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And then I Stopped Breathing

September 30, 2013

But only for a moment. We were driving up the road to Sepphoris when George, my favorite driver, began stammering:  “Dr. Mark! Dr. Mark!” (George insists on such formalities, even in the midst of crisis.) I awoke from my drooling slumber, oddly enough, still lecturing on the finer points of the Middle Bronze Age. I […]

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Ribs of Stone

September 23, 2013

The dried seafloor is peeled back to reveal the road. It runs away from me like the pith of a split banana. The creamy ruts of farm vehicles are baked hard and pie-crust frilly on the edges. They issue commentary on a day prior to my own. I’m guessing it was a sweltering one, a […]

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Breaking Rocks, Gnashing Teeth

September 16, 2013

I drop over the al-Nabi Sa’in Ridge and hit dirt. Up until this moment, my experience of the Jesus Trail has been urban. The apartment buildings step downslope toward the Suffuriyyah drainage basin and exhaust themselves. The ground goes rural. I scamper over a barricade at the end of the street into a construction zone. […]

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Heaven’s Promenade

September 9, 2013

The bowl that holds Nazareth has a concrete rim. Because of the vista it offers, optimistic developers have dubbed that rim “Heaven’s Promenade.” The reality falls short of this lofty promise. Closer to earth, it is simply the al-Nabi Sa’in Ridge. The Jesus Trail runs along this promenade. Aging exercisers join me here to celebrate […]

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Nazareth Rise

September 2, 2013

I rise so as not to disturb other sleepers. Three Columbians, two young men and one woman, came into the hostel last night to join the two Canadians and myself already in residence. One of the Columbians took the bunk beside me, another swung into the bunk directly above. I listen to their breathing. It […]

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The ‘Hic’ in Nazareth

August 26, 2013

Nazareth is a congested place, a town poured in a limestone bowl. Undisciplined roads scrape the steep slopes. Some 100,000 people call this miracle-site home, and oddly enough, in a modern manifestation of honking glory, they all manage to pound away on their car horns at precisely the same time. Daily. The city is a […]

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A Nazareth Walkabout

August 19, 2013

Linda is not your usual tour-guide. Of course, hers is not your usual tour. For starters, this tour is free. It originates daily from the Fauzi Azar Inn. And even though the focus of our walkabout is Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus, the tour is not about the churches or shrines or even the […]

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A Story with Windows

August 12, 2013

The Fauzi Azar Inn is a structure with a story. I learn this from an elegant lady who knows it best. What I consider to be just a place to spend the night, she remembers as a childhood home. Her name is Suraida and she is the granddaughter of Fauzi Azar. Suraida is eager to […]

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Jesus Trail

August 5, 2013

I step off the public bus in Nazareth. I drag my pack out of the luggage compartment and step away from the curb. The bus fumes away. It is early evening. I draw a deep breath. Here we go. The street is a familiar one. I am just under the Church of the Annunciation. According […]

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