This trip met my expectations because we hit all the major stops relevant to the Old Testament forefathers and to Jesus and His disciples.
That's about the only way my expectations were met.
I learned very quickly that a lot can change over the course of thousands of years. Most of these locations we visited are nothing more than ruins. No original structures remain - only piles of stone where they once sat. Not only that, but when an army captured and destroyed a city, the victors would rebuild a new city - right on top of the former destroyed city. This creates layers and layers of ruins. The most extreme example of this is at Megiddo. This city was destroyed and rebuilt something like twenty-five times! King David of the Old Testament is responsible for layer sixteen (I think).
Multiple layers of ruins at Megiddo
At the top of Megiddo overlooking the Valley of Armageddon
Another thing I learned very quickly is that any location that has any inkling of holy significance has a church built smack dab on top of it. Most of these churches were built in the early centuries A.D., and as mentioned above, destroyed and rebuilt. I guess I understand why people wanted to build churches and worship in these special places...but it sure got annoying to get all psyched up to see a place, and then be disappointed when I couldn't really see it at all.
Probably the biggest example of this was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is an extraordinarily beautiful and elaborate building, impressive all on its own. I must have missed part of the explanation for the place when we arrived, because I didn't even realize what it was when we walked through. (I went back later so I could appreciate it more.) All in this one giant building is the location of Jesus' crucifixion, the stone where his body was prepared for burial, and what's left of the tomb where he was laid. It's a sight well worth seeing...but a far cry from the lone, bare hill and peaceful, secluded tomb I've always pictured.
But since there's not much I could do to change the current scenery, I put my imagination to work and tried to picture things as they once were. It was still a very cool thing to be able to visit all of these places, and doing so helped my perspective immensely.
The part of this trip that far exceeded my expectations was the part I wasn't expecting at all. And it's also the reason that I will recommend in a heartbeat this trip with this group. A fair amount of our time was spent listening to speakers and visiting organizations that are actively working to make a positive difference amidst the current circumstances. The first several people we met with were Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Their stories are heartbreaking and their messages are challenging. Each person we heard from has experienced directly the heavy Israeli hand of control and persecution. What they face on a daily basis is unfathomable to us in comfortable North America. These people may or may not have enough clean water to get through the month, they cannot leave the confines of their cities without special permission or getting shot, and they fear for the future of their children. They have every reason to be angry, bitter, and hateful. I would not blame them for it.
And yet...their desire for reconciliation is stronger than their desire for revenge. So every morning they wake up with hope that things will one day change, and that is what keeps them moving forward one day at a time. Many of them actively work for peace and seek to serve both Palestinians and Israelis. In the culture I live in that demands selfishness in all things, this message is incredibly challenging. To seek peace and harmony with those around me sounds nice on paper and in Bible study. To see men like Sami and Zoughbi work tirelessly and selflessly to reach out to the very people who will throw stones or shoot bullets at them without a moment's notice, and to do this because they want friendship with these enemies...that is an example so powerful I don't know that I could ever attain it.
Learning from these folks of all backgrounds, nationalities, and faiths put breath into our trip and made it come alive. I see the trip as two categories - sightseeing and meeting the people. If I had to do it all over again with only one or the other, I would hands-down choose meeting the people.