LUCEDALE -- Tucked away in George County is a miniature version of the Holy Land, lovingly maintained for more than 50 years.
Palestine Gardens covers about 2 1/2 acres of wooded land just north of Lucedale on, appropriately, Palestine Gardens Road.
Don and Cindy Bradley are its caretakers now, aided by faithful, one-eyed Boo Boo the dog (also known as Bruiser). The Holy Land replica began in 1960 as the project of Rev. Harvell Jackson, a Methodist minister. The Bradleys have been there for about 22 years, maintaining and expanding the miniature cities and landscape and giving tours to people and groups.
How it was in Jesus' time
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Palestine Gardens, a Liliputian version of the Holy Land as it was during the time of Jesus, depicts towns and cities mentioned in the Bible. Don Bradley gives animated accounts of events in Jerusalem, Emmaus, Bethlehem, Jericho, Samaria and Galilee and the region's mountains and plains, tying them to the life of Jesus.
Cement, portions of bricks and other materials are used to replicate to scale buildings from modest homes to grand palaces of the time. Even plants, such as horsetail and clumping cane add to the backdrop.
"This plant is a horsetail plant, and the joint in it that you see here is the leaf, like in cane," Don Bradley told a small group of visitors one recent weekday afternoon. The plant was thriving near the arching garden gate at the front of the gardens proper, just before the miniature version of Jericho.
Walls of Jericho
Surrounding Jericho are the famous walls, as well as the tree that vertically challenged tax collector Zacchaeus climbed to get a better view of Jesus, who was surrounded by a crowd.
Exhibits aren't limited to tiny buildings. A display of reproductions of ancient coins includes an example of "the widow's mite" and a denarius, "the penny of the Bible," Bradley said.
The impressive spread of Bethlehem is "Mr. Jackson's original city," Bradley said. It features the twin pools of Bethesda and the Pool of Shalom, which Bradley built.
A great deal of attention is given to the Temple Mount, including the irregular steps leading up to the temple.
"There were different-size steps as you entered the Temple Mount," Bradley said. "You couldn't just run up the steps. You had to walk slowly, methodically, watching your steps. It had you going to God in reverence."
Cut limestone was used to build the original temple, but concrete plays a big role at Palestine Gardens. Look closely, and you'll see ceramic floor tile and sections of bricks cleverly used to replicate ancient materials or structures.
New Testament comes alive
The New Testament story plays out at Palestine Gardens, but the appeal also lies in the gentle beauty of the wooded, gently rolling land. Ponds offer places for quiet reflection -- or to get a glimpse of resident turtles sunning themselves on a log. There is a serene feeling along the paths, too. It's no surprise that the gardens have been used for many weddings over the decades. In fact, Bradley said, a couple recently stopped by and pointed out the area where they were married 50 years ago.
The Jordan River
The last stop on the walking tour ends at the headwaters of the Jordan River, and the Bradleys are happy to pray with visitors as they end their tour.
There is no set admission price for Palestine Gardens, but donations are accepted. The gardens are open March through November, and hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday (closed Monday). The garden's website, palestine gardens.org, offers a detailed and accurate map.