Travel Sketching in the Holy Land

Nothing prepares you for the feeling you get when you see the Old Walled City of Jerusalem for the first time. It touches you at your core, strange...yet you feel you belong. No wonder this area has been fought over for many centuries. Everyone wants to own it because they feel this is where their soul was born. (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Nothing prepares you for the feeling you get when you see the Old Walled City of Jerusalem for the first time. It touches you at your core, strange...yet you feel you belong. No wonder this area has been fought over for many centuries. Everyone wants to own it because they feel this is where their soul was born. (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Wherever I travel, I carry a sketchbook that I fill with quick sketches and notes about how I feel and what I observe as I take in the sights. Instead of photos, my sketchbook is the primary conveyance for capturing my memories and feelings during a trip, a diary of sorts. Our visit to the Holy Land is no exception. By sketching, I am able to immerse myself in the place and time, and the scene becomes more vivid and ingrained in my mind.

Travel sketching is not difficult. The supplies are simple -- paper, pencil, pen and watercolors (optional). Only cursory drawing skills are needed. If you can draw a line, square and circle, you are good to go. I constantly remind myself, I am not making masterpieces, only trying to encapsulate in my own way something that holds my attention and makes a certain site memorable to me. This frees me to just draw and not worry about achieving perfection.

When traveling in a group, it is difficult to find time to pause and sketch; so frequently, I end up sketching when I get to the hotel or our home. But even if I do not draw right on site, the fact that I know I will be eventually sketching a place makes me see, experience and remember more.

Here are a few of my sketches in Israel:

 The Baha'i Gardens in Haifa (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

 The Baha'i Gardens in Haifa (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

With the calm Mediterranean waters and Mount Carmel framing the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa, there is a sense of tranquility that envelopes the area that I tried to capture in my drawing. But then, you realize that just a stone's throw away is Lebanon, and the threat to this serenity becomes very real. Not too long ago, 93 Hezbollah rockets hit this area. That awareness quickly brought me back to reality. 

The Western or Wailing Wall (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

The Western or Wailing Wall (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

The Western or Wailing Wall is holiest place for the Jewish people. Like thousands of people before me, I tucked a piece of paper in a crack on the wall, which held my prayers for peace, protection and thanksgiving. For my sketch, I was hoping to express the moment of personal communion with God, which I felt from everyone around me. 

Via Dolorosa (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Via Dolorosa (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Following the footsteps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa through the winding streets of the Old City of Jerusalem was arduous, both physically and emotionally, and I was not even scourged and beaten and made to carry a cross. The scene on the streets seemed unchanged from Jesus' time -- souks filled with shoppers, children playing and folks going about their daily business, only stopping to gawk as a spectacle such as the march leading up to the crucifixion passed by.  

The Church of the Annunciation in Ein Karem (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

The Church of the Annunciation in Ein Karem (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

At the Church of the Annunciation in Ein Karem, I wanted to portray in my sketchbook the ever-present Franciscan monks who are caretakers of many of the Holy Sites in the Terrae Sanctae (Holy Land). I spotted this Franciscan monk tending the garden by the bronze statue depicting the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth at the moment of annunciation.

I felt safe in Israel, but I probably would not travel there on my own. If you are planning to go on a Holy Land pilgrimage, a reputable tour operator is a must. Also, join a group that is small, maybe 10-12 pilgrims, for a more intimate experience. Bring a personal object (such as a rosary or medallion) that you can rub against the Holy Sites and relics. Many of the sites, such as the stone where Jesus was laid after He was taken down from the Cross, are believed to be miraculous, and objects rubbed against it have been known to protect, cure the sick and answer prayers.

For those who would like to begin a travel sketchbook, my advice is to not let the perceived lack of skill keep you from giving it a try. Once you start, you will be amazed by how more keenly observant you are and how much more meaningful your travels will be. You'll discover that you can create travel sketches that are, as a Facebook friend commented, "much better than mere souvenir pictures."


Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan

Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan

Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan is a retired corporate director of accounting, payroll and compensation at OfficeMax (formerly Boise Cascade Office Products). An alumnus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she now devotes her time to volunteer work and her travels, art, food, quilting and needle arts, which she writes about in her blogs, Finding Art and Ang Kusina ni Lola Alfonsa.