My Trip to Israel (and a tiny bit to the West Bank) for Archeology and History
—with maybe a little Pilgrimage-like Spirit-stuff added for good measure
Quite a long time ago (1982), I participated in a seminar course focused on the history of medieval pilgrimage. The travelers of those times followed ancient paths to sites they considered holy for many reasons, including spiritual ones but also for secular ones —tourism, recreation, entertainment and so on. Were they really so different from ourselves?
With a good friend (Jonathan W.) along to share the experience, I recently took some time out of the daily grind to soak in an excursion to some of the ancient sites, mostly within the nation of Israel but including short visits to the West Bank —specifically, Jericho and Bethlehem. The trip organizers —Biblical Archeology Society, in cooperation with TUTKU Educational Tours—focused our itinerary on the history and archeology of the sites we visited, such that we had a very full 8 days of near-immersion in the a few of the many sites in the Biblical land of Israel.
Near-immersion, because there are still television sets and cell phones. And security checkpoints and modern plumbing.
Since I still retained at least a little bit of what I learned of the experiences and travails of those old travelers, I thought it might be useful and interesting, to myself at least, to jot down some reflections on the similarities and differences between their experience and ours.
A few notes and observations on this theme follow.
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Day 1— Caesarea, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo.
After a travel day, we arrived in Tel Aviv and took a taxi to our hotel in Netanya, where we stopped for the single, pre-launch evening. The view of the Mediterranean shore of Israel in those parts the next morning was beautiful and refreshing. We met the rest of our group at breakfast —a bountiful spread indeed— and got on the bus.
Caesarea Maritima was a port city foundation of Herod I —called the Great, and the same person referenced in the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. The ruins of his constructions are all over the country, recognized and protected by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (sort of their Interior Department). As we went on through the eight days of our tour, we heard and saw a lot about Herod and his family —many of whom he executed when he perceived them as threats to his power. A great builder, but not a success as a family man. The site itself is amazing in its complexity and the outline of the original plan is clear through examination of the remaining ruins.
As I mentioned, the flight was long and we flew economy class (on Turkish Air), which was pleasant enough but not luxurious. Air travel, hotels and tour arrangements do not come cheap, in our time or perhaps any time. Medieval people also invested significant sums towards making their spiritual journeys, sometimes sponsored by their villages or local religious institutions. I think facing some degree of difficulty or at least inconvenience may be an important part of making a pilgrimage —a casual stroll or drop-by to the historic sites of your own neighborhood hardly fits the bill. To get some mental space outside yourself and your common routine, to see some unfamiliar parts of the world with fresh eyes — that experience may well demand some minimal degree of mental, and probably physical, distance from quotidian concerns. In other words, when one stands at the place of the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and has a mindfulness and awareness of the history entailed there, the occasion offers many points for contemplation. Perhaps it is best not to miss them entirely.
Mt. Carmel hosts a chapel on a hill near the site where the Beatitudes (‘Blessed are…’ ) of Jesus were given, according to tradition. There is also a commanding 320° view of the surrounding area available from a platform at the summit.
“Blessed are you poor ones! God’s domain belongs to you.”
“Blessed are you hungry ones! You will have a feast.”
“Blessed are, you who weep now! You will laugh.”
We heard much more about the activities of this Jesus fellow, a marginal Jew of the first century CE as some have called him, throughout our visit. He seems to have caused quite a stir in this region.
Tel Megiddo is the height-of-land located near the anticipated site for Armageddon, a final battle spoken of in one or more of the New Testament documents, as well as in a Hadith from the Islamic tradition. As has been true for more than 1900 years, nothing happened while we were there. I don’t think an interest in such matters is psychologically healthy, although obviously many of those in my faith tradition disagree.
By the end of the first day, we had gotten acquainted with a few of our fellow travelers and had a better sense of the two tour guides: Prof. Carl R., an archaeologist with significant field experience in the region; and Ofer D., an Israeli native who knew the ‘lay of the land’ to an uncanny degree. We learned from each of them throughout the tour.
Day 2 —Tel Hazor, Tel Dan, Banias/Caesarea Philippi, Golan Heights
My traveling companion watched a few minutes of TV on the first night, but I had little interest in the news for the duration of the trip, even during US midterm elections. My thought was that the opportunity of “away time” like this ought to be augmented by an observed period of low distractions, of which our own time has in abundance. Reflections — perhaps on scripture or perhaps on other works of literature —I thought preferable. While we were busy all day, the sort of un-booked time we had after dinner is hard to come by in the usual crush. A pause doesn’t need to be a visit to the historical holy sites of one’s own culture, or anywhere really, except in one’s mind. But a quiet place helps —a forest will do, or somewhere by the roar of the ocean.
By the way, the MET (in New York) has a lovely little essay on medieval pilgrimage; it talks about its development over the long centuries and provides many illustrations from among the Museum’s collections. I recommend you give it a few minutes of your reading time.
Tel Hazor is a national park, its site being identified — with good reason —with the Biblical ‘Hatsor’ referred to in 1 Kings 9:15 as among the cities fortified by Solomon. The legwork necessary to get up to the top of this site —and the next one, Tel Dan —was challenging, and one or more of our group opted not to climb the old stone steps. The option of a winding ramp would have been most welcome.
Tel Dan Nature Reserve is a similarly ancient crossroads of trade, in the northernmost parts of the Nation of Israel, within sight of the border with Syria. It was an area the Israelites contested with the Canaanites. An important 9th c. BCE stele was excavated there containing text that refers to “the House of David.” This site, too, included some very steep walking, some of which I skipped. Nearby Mt. Hermon provides the principal headwaters of the Jordan River, and the rivulets which spring up on this slope are amble, vigorous, and noisy. The contrast with the somnambulant lower Jordan, below (south of) the Sea of Galilee, is striking.
I found Banias/Caesarea Philippi exceptionally interesting. Situated near a small, but well-watered cirque in the Golan Heights, this site is was the second of the two major sources of the Jordan River we visited. In previous times it was also a pagan shrine (dedicated to Pan, no less!); in Jesus’s time —he is reported to have visited this small city selected as a regional capital by one of the lesser Herodians. Perhaps he only walked in the park and rested for a few days; there’s no knowing.
As we later saw at Magdala, the intermixing of monotheistic and polytheistic motifs in many of these structures indicated a less doctrinaire separation of the faiths and practice than later generations might have it.
We took a side trip up to the border regions of the Golan Heights and walked around a former IDF guard post. One supposes it could be activated again at any time; a cold peace can also be a very fragile one; and, post-civil war, Syria is now a colony of Putin’s aggressive regime. We could see the suburbs of Damascus as well as a mountain in Lebanon, reminding us that Israel is quite a small country, geographically.
Day 3 —Capernaum, Sea of Galilee
Medieval people would sometimes write of their experience upon approaching Jerusalem as one of “going up,” reporting on their feelings of “ascent.” Even if the journey had been simply ‘travel’ to that point, there was something commonly felt, but hard to describe, as they came over the hill and within sight of the holy city. In pilgrimages to Rome, they spoke of approaching the threshold of the apostles (ad limina apostolorum).  An early post-Constantinian writer, the author of Peregrinatio Aetheriae (386), describes several sites that were already frequented by pilgrims in her time.
By Day 3, we were getting to the threshold of landscapes more notionally familiar from our reading of the New Testament documents. The Sea of Galilee – also sometimes referred to as Kinneret (modern) or the Sea of Tiberias (Roman)— might also be considered a simply as a large, wide space in the Jordan River, which gushes in at its northern end, and exits lazily at its south. The more technical term for this flow arrangement is “fluvial lake,” i.e., a lake produced by water running over a low and wide spot in the terrain. Nazareth, traditionally accounted the growing-up-place of Jesus, is 20 miles (32 km) to the south and west of the Sea; I don’t recall any account of why he might have relocated, but several significant NT events occur on or by the water.
This third day was probably the least physically challenging. First, I think, we visited Capernaum. This seaside village (also spelt as ‘Capharnaum’) refers to itself as “The Town of Jesus” and has a reasonably good claim upon this honorific. The foundations of a house, quite likely, on the evidence —owned and inhabited by Simon Peter, the Big Fisherman himself, has been excavated there. A modern Roman Catholic church, run by brothers of the Franciscan Order, has been constructed over the site, and includes an unusual, transparent ‘viewing station’ constructed in the central floor for curious pilgrims to look down into the excavation itself.
For lunch, we sat down at a Druze-family-operated restaurant and ate “St. Peter’s Fish,” which was a Galilean tilapia served roasted. I found it absurdly bony and nearly tasteless. No wonder he left his nets. After lunch we visited a small museum containing a first-century fishing boat which had recently been recovered from the mud.
We closed the day with a small-craft ride on the Sea of Galilee towards sunset, which was lovely. From our perspective, the sun set between the Horns of Hattin, the site of a major Crusader setback at the hands of Saladin, in 1187.
Israeli parliamentary elections held on this day returned B. Netanyahu to a premiership for, I think, the sixth time.
Day 4 — Sepphoris, Nazareth, Jericho, Lower Jordan River
Before he could travel in safety, the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (ca. 333) possibly had to wait for the Emperor Constantine to decriminalize his faith. The politics of the holy land has affected effected the experience of religious travelers from that day to this; mine included. There are soldiers here and there throughout, and especially near border crossings and the Temple Mount (in Jerusalem). Jericho is in the West Bank, as is Bethlehem.
In the early 1st CE, Sepphoris was a boom town, favored by the local rulers and located on a crossroads. Nowadays, neighboring Nazareth is the much more significant settlement. One of the points our guides made was that Joseph —and in one place, Jesus (Mark 6:3)—were identified as tektōn (τέκτων) —i.e, builder-craftsmen of some sort. There would have been plenty of work for skilled housebuilders in Sepphoris. Maybe our guy learned Greek there.
On the other hand, Jericho (Tel-es-Sultan) bills itself (with good reason) as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. We spent a short while there, long enough to see some of the walls and hear an explanation of what might have happened in the incident with the trumpets. Key fact: Bricks were made out of mud in those long-ago days, and not fired into clay.
The afternoon was dedicated to visiting the traditional site where John baptized people in the Lower Jordan. The outflow there is slow and turgid, and the river’s width very narrow. The flies were fierce. Wading over to the Kingdom of Jordan would have been a trivial exercise; and also a big mistake of course. Several of our party took the opportunity to re-affirm their baptismal vows. I am confident that it took great faith to stand in that water for more than 10 seconds.
Day 5 —Masada, Qumran, Dead Sea
By Day 5, we were about as immersed as we were going to get, but still had not visited the primary sites of ‘Christendom’ although they were coming nearer to hand in our itinerary. The night before, as we checked into our Jerusalem hotel, we had had a glimpse of the modern city, and glimpsed a tower or two, far off. The morning bus ride took us to Herod’s mountain fortress of Masada, a much-storied place. Famously, in the final act of the First Jewish-Roman War (CE 66-74), the Romans constructed an earthen ramp which provided the Legion with marchable access to the fortress, and the remaining defenders committed suicide rather than be taken in triumph by Rome – i.e., into death (after torture) or slavery. These events are described in detail by Josephus , writing only 5 or so years later — who was himself involved in the first year of the conflict. This war was remembered as a great success by Roman historians, who saw it as on the credit side of the ledger in the careers of the Emperors Vespasian and his son, Titus. Alternative evaluations remain available.
The Masada site today maintains a large 2-car gondola arrangement to schlep us tourists up and down; there are, however, well-maintained stairs to the summit and a few of our group hoofed it up. (Penitential?) I was especially wowed by the view of the Roman ramp, and Herod’s water collection & storage system. For a ruthless killer, that guy was a genius at adapting his architecture to his landscapes.
Josephus (d. 100) is also remembered as an early non-Church writer who mentioned – and sometimes discussed at length —such New Testament figures as Ananias and Caiaphas (important temple priests in Jesus’s time) as well as James the Greater, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself.
We drove by the Qumran Caves where, in 1948 ff., the document collection known as the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were found. The little visitors center at Qumran itself is not extensive, and it is focused mostly on the monastic (Essene?) site on the coastal plain between the Dead Sea and the caves, which rise into mountains to the east. Whatever we make of them, the DSS are a critically significant discovery for the domain of Biblical studies, both of the Baptist’s time and about 100 years before.
That day’s excursion concluded with a stop at the Dead Sea, which is dying. Several of our group floated in its super-saline waters — my travel partner and I instead enjoyed a beer at “The Lowest Bar in the World,” (elev. -420 m.) and cheered on those brave/foolhardy souls. 
Day 6 —Jerusalem: Gethsemane, Old City, Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb
For that long-ago seminar I mentioned, I wrote a research paper entitled “Bones and Bishops.” It focused on a particular incident involving St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan (d. 397) and the discovery (L. invenere) of some putative relics —i.e., bones—of two martyred 2nd c. saints, Gervase and Protasius. One might be forgiven for inferring, in skeptical mode, that good Saint Ambrose umm… amplified his facts a little, as part of his struggle with the emperor at that time, Theodosius. Chalk it up to clerical savvy of a political kind.
I bring this ancient artifact (my paper) up because part of the draw of the holy sites was and probably is, by some, thought to be a lingering presence of a holy person. Medieval people, and some modern ones, seek the aid and comfort of a saintly person in a place strongly associated with them. Of course, sites associated with the career, trial and state execution of Jesus would fall in a similar category.
Gethsemane (a garden and a chapel): A lovely walled-in area managed by the Franciscans, it still has olive trees. A spot of quiet in the midst of a noisy city.
Old (Ottoman) Jerusalem was divided into four (or five) quarters, among them the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and another one. Math was still a newish concept in those days, perhaps. We enjoyed a little break as shopped a bazaar-like area in the Muslim Quarter, all tight in on narrow streets and wall-to-wall shops, and lunched on falafels and shawarma.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is based on a discovery (that word again) by the redoubtable St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s Mumsie when she visited the area in 326 and went around looking for Biblical sites, of which she found some. She was aided in this effort by Eusebius of Caesarea (remember Caesarea from Day 1?) and Macarius of Jerusalem, each of whom was a big deal in their own way and lived in the area. The church itself is massively built/rebuilt, and is dark and feels ominous inside. It was probably the main site the pre-Crusader westerners demanded access to and were torqued off when they did not get. The facility is run by representatives of four Christian denominations, who squabble about stupid shit.
Garden Tomb: While the Holy Sepulchre is the most popularly attributed site for the short period of time Jesus is thought to have laid in his grave, as with so many holy sites and relics, there is a second option. The Garden Tomb is small – it could have been hand-hewn —and has a nice little channel for the closing-stone (mentioned in Mark 16:3) to roll in. The site’s curators have thoughtfully imported a substitute stone.
Plaza of the Dome of the Rock: Islam gained control of Jerusalem, taking it off the hands of the Byzantines, in around 636. Not long after (691) , a large scale Muslim shrine was erected on former site of Herod’s Temple – also the former site of a Temple dedicated to Zeus – and who knows what else besides; it is not worth fighting over. This octagonal building is beautiful, and its blue outer walls and gold dome are visible from most everywhere in Jerusalem and some points beyond.
Even passing through three inspection points, our non-Moslem group not able to enter the Shrine; instead, we could perambulate the plaza. Which we did. A case of their house, their rules I guess.
Before our group could enter the plaza surrounding the Dome of the Rock, the women amongst us had to pass “modesty tests”—no visible knees, shoulders, elbows allowed. No ankles either, it seemed; also, a scarf required for their heads. Those who did not pass were offered covering skirts and, ummm, sarapes? in order to pass muster. These had the appearance of yellow and brown flour sacks to me, or racoon suits. The temperature was around 85 ° F and after a while at least one of our companions did show initial signs of overheating—but this was towards the end of the plaza circuit and she rallied after ditching the stupid getup.
Anyway: We sat to take a group picture, and our group leader —the guy with the camera —said, “Say, Cheese!” I said “Say, Fight the Patriarchy!”
At least half the group laughed. You may guess which half.
Day 7 —Bethlehem (West Bank)/Church of the Nativity, Herodium
By Day 7, we began to be aware of the approaching conclusion of the trip, and home-related concerns started to creep back in. This is probably inevitable, as we are blessed (or cursed) with some metacognition, and most of us are planning-oriented sorts of creatures. Like the Beatles in India, I suppose; it is good to be away and have interesting experiences, but it is also comforting to know who is picking you up at the airport.
Church of the Nativity: In the morning, we were driven to Bethlehem for our second visit to the West Bank. The Church of the Nativity is said to be the oldest Christian church in continuous operation, having been spared from the ravages of a Persian invasion (614) due to a mosaic depicting the potentially Zoroastrian Wise Men (Matt. 2:12 μάγοι; ‘wise men’ ) on one of the walls. Although this narrative does not appear in the nativity sections of Luke —neither does the “flight to Egypt” —that does not mean Matthew’s account lacks historical foundation. It does mean that I doubt parts of it.
We had no difficulties in entering or exiting the West Bank. Perhaps there is currently a period of relatively low tensions. I should also point out that the Gift Shop was gob-stoppingly full of a large number of enticing things. Also, that I allowed a street vendor to prevail upon me to buy three nice scarves from him, for cash.
Herodium: Herod, like most other humans before him, knew he was going to die at some point. He therefore had a lovely tomb area prepared, and it has been recently provided with modern stairs and some signage. The site was later used by partisans at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, with the usual result: Romans 1: Zealots, Nothing. As it turned out, by order of Emperor Hadrian, Jewish families soon were turned out of the Jerusalem area entirely — and the city paganized and renamed —after this (final) revolt, in yet-another devastating diaspora.
Day 8 —City of David (excavations),
Western (‘Wailing’) Wall,
Shrine of the Book/
Our final full day, and last day as a group, was again busy. It was a gorgeous day, weather-wise. We walked through ongoing excavations in the “City of David” section of Jerusalem, visited a portion of the Western Wall (up close this time; I left God a little note); and, if I am not overlooking a site, closed at the Yad Vashem (a Holocaust Museum, which should be visited by all) and the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, a place I have long wished to see. This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls are normally kept. They were out that day, maybe someone borrowed them for a school project? This site also features an outdoor model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, at a 1:150 scale. In other words, huge, the size of an actual city block.
On the ride back to the hotel, everyone started saying their goodbyes. Our taxi pickup to the airport came at 5:45 AM, and we were off on our return trip.
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And In the End…
Having been privileged to experience all this, and now having taken the time to encapsulate my recollections, I’m still left wondering what I might make, or ought to make, of it. History and archeology are their own reward, I suppose, for those of us who appreciate the benefit of knowing a little about the past, even the ancient past. But none of my previous trips (Canada, Spain, Ireland, England, Wales) felt like this. I therefore suppose that I had additional motivations, which I can only characterize as spiritual ones. And so, and despite my anti-effusiveness, I’ve tried to include all of what I have to say about that.
There was, for me, a strong & positive value in coming to the hallowed places of my own tradition. In some contrast with ancient religious tourism, I conclude that medieval pilgrims, by and large, gave a credence to the power (Aristotelian energeia) of the place and the saints/relics who rested nearby —a specific form of belief that I as a modern don’t share, and probably can’t. At least, not at all in the same way. I’m too aware that there are relics of the three wise men said to reside in Germany, and the two (four?) heads of John the Baptist are still rolling around somewhere; perhaps someone even has the silver charger Herodias had it/them served on, and uses it as a charcuterie board. Also, that all the sites we visited had electric lights and modern plumbing. Even so, I think it valid to observe similarities between their experiences to ours, and to frame them as best understood on a continuum, rather than as some sort of conceptual, and unbridgeable, schism.
I’m glad I went.
/DDD Nov 17th, 2022
 Primarily of the Christian variety, although I recognize that there are similar practices of long-standing for those of the Jewish and Moslem faiths, and indeed, worldwide.
 Whose staffs I cannot praise enough.
 We were informed that there are more than twenty-five thousand designated archeological sites in this country – one whose total square miles — or meters, if you prefer — approximate those of Vermont.
 Jonathan befriended some semi-feral cats who were also resident at the hotel. This was a recurring motif. The stray cats of Israel found a fast friend in Jonathan.
 “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.” Cum audisset inter pueros quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium (Attributed to Augustus by Macrobius, in his Saturnalia).
 This proper-noun spelling is correct, even though Word appears not to agree.
 ‘According to tradition’ covers a multitude of uncertainties. The versions of Matthew and Luke vary. If Jesus indeed delivered these sayings (Gr. logia), he must have said them somewhere. Perhaps in more than one place.
 The term ‘Tel’ refers to a human-made mound resulting from successive settlement, over centuries. Troy is a well-known example of a Tel, as is Jericho. Tels are often of high archeological value, providing information not otherwise available. One thing about a Tel, however, is that in digging into them, some parts are inevitably destroyed. Some of the 19th century excavations were became a jumbled mess, their informational results highly uncertain. Contemporary archeologists are trying to mitigate this issue with improved techniques. The future will always be better at it —a fact which puts everyone now working in a bit of a pickle.
 The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority provides handy and detailed maps of all of these major sites, although I did not find PDF’s of them online. I did, however, find this.
 I also learned that several of the mountains in that region are small (nearly) extinct volcanoes.
 This mountainous area is the source of nearly all the naturally occurring potable water in the area. This supply is now supplemented by desalination facilities.
 Car or bus travel may well mitigate against that ‘threshold’ feeling. You just get out of the vehicle and trot up. At Lough Derg in Ireland, pilgrims used to crawl the last mile or so on their knees.
 A careful reader will note that we did not approach Jerusalem in NT narrative order. As it turns out, approximately equal time was allocated to BCE sites as to Herodian and 1st CE sites, and in order of travel convenience. We did not focus on Crusader-era (or later) sites much at all.
 A freshwater lake, and the largest such anywhere in this region.
 Part of the original 11th c. motivation for launching the Crusades involved restoring access to the holy sites for pilgrims. It is a long, complicated tale and I won’t get into it here. Runciman’s books about the Crusades are still an enjoyable read, if no longer up-to-date in a scholarly way.
 My chronology may be a little munged in here, but I don’t think it matters much. I’m not on the witness stand under the eye of a hostile prosecutor. The timestamps on my iPhone snaps are the best guide I have, if it comes to it.
 Thus, the AV says, “carpenter.” Jerome’s Vulgate has “faber” – i.e., worker.
 Actually, no one is quite sure where the J-Man was baptized. https://www.baptismsite.com/the-place-where-jesus-was-baptized/
 An old term, which I hope you will forgive in this context.
 In two places, one including significant expansion/textual corruption by a later Christian copyist.
 The scrolls probably weren’t walked far from their place of origin. But the unity of the Qumran Community with the Essenes – who are mentioned in 1st c. texts – is not completely established. N.B., the folks who produced the video are a little on the J4J side. Caveat videantur.
 The most southerly parts of the Dead Sea are already land-ish, and are mined for minerals by heavy machinery. The dismal example of the (former) Aral Sea comes to mind.
 Despite what MSFT Word thinks, this is the proper spelling for a site that is older than the English language, and so is not up to us.
 Which I still have. I like to think my style has improved, at least a little, if not my methodology.
 I think that is about happened.
 “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you,” as the old chestnut goes. Good Roman Catholics venerate the saints; they do not worship them. Whatever the Calvinists may say on the matter.
 The antique names no longer represent the resident population of these areas.
 For extensive details about pre-Helena Christian pilgrimage activity to the Levant, I recommend reading Pierre Marval’s “The Earliest Phase of Christian Pilgrimage in the Near East (before the 7th Century)” (2002); accessible through JSTOR.
 In order to more adequately address circumstances such as these, I sometimes wish Twain were still alive.
 With good reason.
 Luke does report J.’s circumcision on the 8th law, as required according to the law. So he had that going for him.
 I am not heartless, and I recognized in him a person skilled in the art of the hustle. It was a fair deal, and worth it for the story.
 Well, actually—we were told there was an issue with the super-sealed display cases they are normally housed in, and so they had been temporarily relocated until this could be addressed.
 Too soon?