Arrival at the airport
Our pilgrimage starts at airport: security staff at the airport may ask you various and sometimes unexpected questions. Please answer all questions calmly and do not be irritated; similarly, please do not be ironic and avoid irrelevant talk. The security staff are doing an important job to provide for everyone’s safety.
Passports and documentation
You should always keep your passport on your person, throughout the whole pilgrimage. Our group will regularly travel between Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled territories, crossing through checkpoints sometimes several times per day, at any one (or all) of which an examination of passports may be required. Clergy who are taking part in the pilgrimage should also carry printed copies of their ecclesiastical documentation with them at all times.
Daily travels, excursions and timings
The printed programme is an approximation: the nature of life in the Holy Land is such that plans sometimes change, by necessity, at the last moment, and intended timings need to be revised. Updated times and changes to forthcoming plans are always announced to pilgrims at the end of the preceding activity. It is important always to listen attentively when the guide is speaking, so you can be aware of any changes.
It is essential always to be punctual, disciplined, and to arrive at the agreed time without delaying other people. Please note that indicated/announced departure times are those when the group/bus will be leaving from the indicated place, not when you should beginning making your way towards the bus; you should therefore always plan to be boarding the bus at least five minutes before this time, to be in place for departure. There have been instances in the past when people who were late were left behind at the hotel, as the pilgrim group cannot be delayed in its full itinerary by individuals who do not keep to the schedule.
Spending money, donations and costs
The registration cost of the pilgrimage includes hotel accommodation, three meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner; except when one or another of these might be forestalled for fasting reasons relating to Divine Services), and travel and entry fees for all excursions to various place in the Holy Land.
The local currency is the Israeli shekel, though most monasteries and other places will also accept US dollars (please note that it is more profitable to pay for goods and services in shekels). Monasteries and the vast majority of shops do NOT accept credit cards, so cash is essential. Pilgrims are encouraged to withdraw cash from cash points (ATMs) only associated with known and reliable banks, and not provided by small shops or tourist hubs, where the exchange rates can be much higher. Guidance will be given on where these can be found. We recommended that you bring a small handbag for documents and money, which you should keep with you at all times.
With the blessing of the Bishop, it is our custom to collect donations to support the essential works of our Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, as well as those who help us and our groups. Traditionally, we collect such donations for: our guide, Mother Susanna; for the Abbesses of the two principal monasteries (Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives) and their communities; and the Mission itself — these are presented to their recipients during the Farewell Dinner; and during the visits to Bethany and the Lavra of St Chariton in Farah, our pilgrim groups customarily make a collective donation in gratitude for their hospitality and as a sign of our support. We also traditionally make a collection to support the Bishop for leading the pilgrimage. We ask all pilgrims to be generous in supporting these causes and to bring/reserve funds for these collections; the monasteries and monastics in particular rely entirely upon donations for their physical survival.
Water, food and medications
During the whole trip please drink only bottled water (due to the danger of gastrointestinal upset, which is extremely common amongst those who do not follow this advice!); we recommend you use bottled water even when brushing your teeth. Tap water can safely be used for showers and washing clothes. At our request, the hotel will provide a pack of bottled water for each person at wholesale price (15 shekels for 8 x 1.5L ). This will be left at everyone’s hotel room; we ask you please to pay for this water to Pilgrimage Treasurer upon your arrival.
It is essential to stay hydrated throughout the pilgrimage! We are living and moving about in the desert, and every year there are one or two who are not attentive enough to drinking plenty of water, and suffer discomfort from dehydration. It is a good idea to bring a light bag / rucksack, in which you can carry a bottle of water with you during the various excursions.
If you have your own medications, please bring them with you in sufficient quantity for the whole pilgrimage. It is also a good idea for everyone to bring customary (over the counter) medications for upset stomach and motion sickness; and if your stomach is sensitive to the new food, please bring remedies for indigestion, heartburn and bloating. At the end of the trip, if you wish, you may leave all unused medicines to the sisters from the Convent, who will gratefully receive them.
Dress code, clothing and footwear
Vladyka reminds the group of the importance for each pilgrim to wear appropriate clothes and footwear in Holy Land. The appearance of a pilgrim should be with accordance of an Orthodox Christian, and specifically dress in accordance with the customs of our Church Abroad. As a general reminder, this means:
- Shoulders and legs must be covered (for men, trousers; for women, dresses or skirts that extend below the knee). Sleeves should be long or extending to the elbow. Shorts (of any length), leggings and tunics are not allowed; nor are tank-tops or sport/casual t-shirts. Pilgrims of both sexes are reminded to be attentive to ensuring that the fabric of your clothing, while being light, is not of a see-through / transparent sort.
- Women should wear headscarves and have their heads covered at all times; men may (and, in light of the sun, generally are advised to) wear hats when outdoors, but these must be removed when in churches or on the grounds of monasteries or sacred shrines.
- Footwear must be suitable for walking on dry, sandy and rocky ground, and also for wearing into shrines and churches during excursions. This normally means comfortable, dark-coloured trainers or walking shoes. Sandals may be worn, but should be securely fitting so that you can walk on varied terrain; if you wear sandals, you must bring socks with you (both men and women), and these must be put on before entering into churches, shrines or the grounds of monasteries, since it is considered inappropriate to go bare-toed into the holy places. ‘Flip-flops’ are not permitted (except when going into the Jordan and at the seaside; see below).
- Priests and Deacons wear their cassock at all times, and wear the ryassa when entering churches or the grounds of monasteries. Monastics wear the skufia at all times; married clergy do not need to wear a skufia.
Clothes made of natural fabrics are recommended, as these breathe best in the desert heart. It is best to have clothes that are comfortable and do not require ironing. Make sure you bring summer hat or cap, sun glasses and sun cream; and also a long-sleeve jumper, as it can get chilly in the evenings. Please bring with you blister plasters, since even comfortable shoes can cause blisters during long trips. It is a good idea for some pilgrims, especially older ones, to bring one or two collapsible walking sticks (‘Nordic sticks’), which can help save energy while hiking on uneven rocky surfaces and uphill walking. You might find useful a light umbrella for protection from the sun, or a fan. Your stay in the Holy Land will involve an intensive programme and the weather will be very hot, so we recommend you bring more clothes with you to avoid washing during our limited free time. If you are planning to wash clothes, please bring with you some washing powder, as the local shops sell it only in big packages. You can also bring a few clothes hangers (there is always lack of them in the hotels), a clothesline and small foldable laundry basin as some rooms have very small sinks and no appliances for drying clothes. At the end of your trip, if you wish, you can leave unused cleaning products and other items with the Convent: the sisters will gratefully find a use for it.
Special exceptions: Clothing for immersion in the Jordan River, as well as swimming in the seas: During the pilgrimage, you will be immersed in the Jordan River in remembrance of your baptism: for this important occasion, please bring a special long white baptismal robe (alternatively, as is most often done, this robe can be bought in the shops of our convents for a small price of $7-10), a towel, and flip-flops or water shoes. A swimming costume or swimming trunks must be worn underneath the robe.
Our programme also includes time for relaxation and refreshment, both on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. For these occasions, we travel in our normal attire and make use of changing facilities at the locations to change into relaxed attire. Please bring your swimming accessories with you (swimming costume, water shoes/flip-flops, sun cream, towel, etc.).
Accommodation and moving about alone
Our principal hotel is located in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, next to the Russian Orthodox Convent of Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ atop the Mount of Olives. It is NOT blessed to leave the hotel on your own, or to depart the pilgrimage group individually. Female pilgrims should always move about on the streets in a group, ideally accompanied by at least one man.
Telephones, Telegram, internet and communication
Do not forget to activate any desired international call roaming package with your mobile provider before your trip (since many providers do not allow this to be activated once you have left your home country). Alternatively, you can purchase a local SIM card at Ben-Gurion airport, with an affordable phone and internet package. Free Wi-Fi is provided at our hotels.
The Pilgrimage utilises a Telegram group for all its communications during the pilgrimage itself. Details of this group are provided before the pilgrimage begins; it is required for each pilgrim to be subscribed to the group.
We understand the desire to take photographs to memorialise your visit to these most sacred places, and certainly photography is blessed during the pilgrimage. However, our Bishop has also noted — especially in the most recent years — the intrusion of photography into almost every minute of pilgrimage, to the degree that it almost takes over the experience of the visits to holy places. Therefore we ask all pilgrims to take close note of the following counsel:
- A single member of the pilgrim group is always blessed by Vladyka to be the ‘official photographer’, and to take photographs of key moments at each visit, with his blessing. These photographs are shared electronically with all participants at the end of the pilgrimage. You should therefore focus solely on taking photographs of particular importance to you personally, rather than feeling the need to document every moment.
- If you do wish to take photographs of a specific place or site, this should be done at the end of the group’s formal visit there (i.e. after the moleben, reading of the Scriptures, and any talk by the hosts), after the pilgrims have venerated the site and in the free time before departing. You should not take photographs during the activities or venerations themselves, so as not to disrupt your fellow pilgrims and so as also to focus, yourself, upon the spiritual experience of the place. The group’s photographer will have a blessing to take a few photos during these times on behalf of all.
- It is never appropriate to photograph monastics or clergy without their blessing. Similarly, it is forbidden to take photographs inside of churches or shrines where this is marked as not being allowed, even if you see it being done by tourists, since our calling is to live to a higher standard. When in doubt, ask a blessing — first!
- When clergy or monastics are speaking to the group, it is never appropriate to film them.