If You Visit the Holy Land, Get a Trustworthy Guide to Lead the Way

‘Send your light and your fidelity, that they may be my guide. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place of your dwelling.’ (Psalm 43)

Jerusalem rooftops
Jerusalem rooftops (photo: Kyrylo Glivin / Shutterstock)

Sometimes in life, you need to find the right guide.

My family found this out on a recent trip to the Holy Land.

The idea of going on a pilgrimage to Israel had been something that my husband and I with our children had been thinking about for years. My parents visited Jerusalem 10 years ago on a one-day excursion from a Mediterranean cruise they were on. The ship hired a guide to drive them from Haifa to Jerusalem for a few hours. Though my mother, a devout Catholic, was thrilled for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, their guide was Jewish. He brought them to all the Christian holy sites of Jerusalem without believing in any of them. 

Needless to say, this marred the experience.

“If you ever go to the Holy Land, go for more than one day — and promise me you’ll get a Catholic guide!” my mom told me afterward.

This year when we decided to go, we hired a guide through the group Terra Dei Tours, a Catholic tour company based in Jerusalem.

And that is how we met Samira.

Samira is an Arab Catholic who grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem, just around the corner from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church was built on top of the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried. 

As Samira walked us through the cobblestoned alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem, she would call out to neighbors and friends alike. Everybody seemed to know her. She knew all the guards at the churches we entered, and many of the priests stationed there. She knew the history of all the sites we visited, and as a practicing Catholic she took us to Masses, prayed the Rosary with us and talked about the Catholic faith in the world today.

Samira took us everywhere. We drove to the north of Israel, to the Sea of Galilee region. It was over 100 degrees every day but she was indefatigable. Her energy was contagious.

We visited nearly every site of the 20 mysteries of the Rosary and every station of the Cross. 

We waded in the Jordan River at the place where Jesus was baptized. We visited a cave near the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus used to meet with his apostles to pray. We went to Nazareth to see the grotto where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady. We saw the pool of Bethsaida, where Jesus cured the cripple.

Samira made all the events of Jesus’ life come alive as we walked in the places where he walked and touched the caves and walls he must have touched.

Through Samira’s guidance, Jesus became very real to us. We entered into the world he lived in, the culture, the food and the beliefs.

What we realized as a family was that without Samira, we would never have understood any of the things we were looking at. The Arabic and Jewish culture present in Israel today was somewhat jarring for Americans and Italians like us. Had Samira not been there to hold our hand and explain it, we would have been lost.

Through Samira, we learned that Franciscans have been the custodians of the holy sites for 800 years. In some sites, they share that guardianship with other Christian churches. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, for example, is jointly shared by the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The reality of divisions within Christianity were plain to see within this one church where there some side chapels are run by the Orthodox, and others by the Catholic Church.

What was fascinating to learn was that many of the holy sites we visited had been built and destroyed and rebuilt many times over the past few centuries. The original structure for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was first constructed under St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the third century. The Crusaders rebuilt many of these churches after they were destroyed during Muslim invasions. In some cases, they rebuilt churches several times because the same churches kept getting destroyed.

Not only did we come to understand the sites we visited, but we also gained perspective on fellow pilgrims who come to Israel every year. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped Christian pilgrimages to Israel for about a year and a half, but this year the numbers have begun to climb again.

We asked Samira about the pilgrim groups she leads from different countries, and she told us that Americans were among the friendliest. 

She said that the French were the pilgrims with the most physical stamina.

“They will think nothing of getting up at 6am and hiking for 12 hours up hills and mountains. And they don’t complain,” she said.

Which pilgrims impressed her the most?

“The Africans,” she said, without missing a beat. “They have more faith than all of us combined!”

Samira said this as we watched a busload of African pilgrims in traditional African clothes getting into the water at the Jordan River. They were laughing and singing. Even though it was 106 degrees — with a “real feel” of 112 — the group of Africans could not have looked happier.

God knows that we all need guides to bring us closer to Jesus, no matter where we live — even if we never make it to the Holy Land. These guides can be priests, nuns, Catholic friends or even a good spiritual book.

By having Samira as our guide, we were able to have the pilgrimage my mom would have wanted to have. Samira brought us closer to Jesus in a unique and personal way — all the marks of a good guide.

And I was finally able to keep my promise to my mom, who was surely smiling from heaven.