The Harod spring – Early Monday morning we shouldered our way through Abu Dis traffic and motored south to Jericho and then north into the northern regions of the upper Jordan valley. The drive at first follows a dry and dusty course, desert behind, the Jordan river to the east, a narrow strip of green marking its border. As we headed further north the hills and valleys the green spread and then morphed into a lush landscape. Thousands of acres of date palm plantations; chicken, dairy and fish farms. Now we see and understand the Canaan’s land of promise.
Our first stop was the Harod spring, at the foot of the Gilboa range, the site where Gideon chose 300 men. Staring pensively into the clear shallow waters of this small spring it’s hard to fathom the drama here 3200 years ago. This spring was also on the path from Nazareth to Jerusalem which means Jesus most likely stopped here. This idyllic spot is surrounded by date palms, eucalyptus and fig trees as well as a plethora of other vegetation.
Before moving on, our guide showed us the correct way to stoop for a drink, the way that would ensure a place in Gideon’s army.
Bible reference: Judges 7.
Gilboa – This was a high and curve-smattered scenic drive overlooking the broader Jordan valley and more locally the Jezreel valley, where King Saul and his sons met their demise. With wide eyes we took in a colorful array of flowers, busloads of chattering school kids, and teachers teaching the national narrative. Once again, no foreign tourists but lots of locals. From the top of the mountain, we could see endless green, green fields of grain, more fish ponds, chicken farms, and date palm plantations. From Gilboa we descended down to the next stop: the jaw-dropping Bet She’an.
Bible Reference: 1 Samuel 1:14.
Bet She’an – Bet She’an is a national park which extends over an area of 400 acres and includes the ancient city of Bet She’an Scythopolis and the Tel Bet She’an. Excavations started here in the early 1920s and have continued almost ever since, although more intensely since the 1980s. The discoveries here are astonishing and it’s probably one of the most impressive early Roman cities in Israel. Just the pure amount of dirt and overburden that had to be removed to uncover this place is beyond comprehension—the ruins were buried under 20 to 30 feet of debris, rock, and soil. And… they’ve only uncovered a tenth of what is believed to be there.
Bet She’an, or Scythopolis as it was known in the days of Jesus, was one city of ten that comprised an area, or group of cities, known as Decapolis. This region is mentioned 2 or 3 times in the New Testament as a place where Jesus taught. Archaeologists so far have uncovered a large amphitheater, bathhouse, a couple of long colonnaded streets, an agora (market), a nymphaeum (public fountain), public lavatories and a bridge, among other wonders. To think that Jesus most likely walked these cobbled Roman streets drew me often into pensive thought. What must the locals have thought of this man?
As if that wasn’t enough, up above the Roman ruins is a large steep-sided Tel (ancient mound) on top of which lies the ruins of a much more ancient fortress. After a short but exhausting hike up a long flight of stairs we saw a sign that said: Tel Bet She’an: An Israelite fortress – these basalt boulders are the remains of the wall of a massive fortress from the time of King David and King Solomon, destroyed in a raging fire during the military campaign of Shishak king of Egypt in the region, five years after the death of King Solomon.
What is even more fascinating, or gruesome, is the fact that Saul’s body was hung from the ramparts of this same city. “When David was told what Saul’s concubine Rizpah, daughter of Aiah, had done, he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan where the Philistines had hung the bodies after they had struck down Saul at Gilboa” (2 Samuel 21). To think that this took place more than a thousand years before Christ! The ruins up on the top of the Tel are very different than the Roman ones down in the valley. Quite obviously architecture and technology had come a long ways in a thousand years.
Yardenit Baptism site – Not the authentic site of Jesus’s baptism but a lovely spot none the less. A green-tinged river, banks lined with huge trees, tall palms and lovely flowers. A place where many busloads bring the pilgrim tourists, baptisms take place, and just as many souvenirs are sold. White doves sat on the railing, taking turns ascending and descending from the sky around. Large fish swam in the waters close to shore, visible to us as we stared into the depths and expressed thanksgiving not only for the lovely day, but also for the fact that we did not have to undergo a dunking baptism. We did not spend much time here but enough to quick pour some Jordan River water into a small glass canister to bring home. I’m not entirely sure why but it seemed like the thing to do. If you wish to see it, it now sits on a shelf and looks like… water.
Site where the Pigs ran into the Sea – This was a quick stop at a deserted overlook, the Sea of Galilee right down below, a couple hundred feet, and the Golan Heights immediately rising up to the east, just across the road. A gnarly fence lined the ditch across from the parking lot with signs posted: Danger, Mines! In other words, crossing that fence would put you in as much danger as those pigs doomed by evil spirits faced so long ago. I recall the Bible stories showing a sheer cliff and pigs literally flying off and plunging hundreds of feet into the water. The actual site is nothing like that; rather a steep and rocky undulating slope down to the water. After an intense discussion regarding swine and spirits as it pertains to water and drowning, we continued the drive.
Bible reference: Matthew 8; Mark 5.
Capernaum – And here we are. In Peter’s home village. We walked through the ruins of an old synagogue and quietly whispered through the church built over what is assumed or believed to be Peter’s home. The church is shaped like an octagon, quite modern in appearance (in other words, in this case at least, not majestic or beautiful) with a large open glass-covered hole in the middle. Apparently the reason for the octagonal shape is to mimic the ancient 5th century church that was discovered here. We stood at the rail and considered the dusty ruins of a first century house below, imagining Peter and his family, fileting a freshly caught trout from the lake mere meters outside their door.
Jesus also lived in Capernaum, see Matthew 4:13. My impression of that stop was something I can only describe as tranquility. The day was so lovely: 68 degrees, sunny, no breeze. Springtime in full bloom with wild flowers everywhere; shades of reds, yellows, blues. And all of this wonder on the edge of a small but deep blue sea. A tour group was here, presumably from the States who I heard talking about us to their guide. He said, and I quote: “I think they are of Anabaptism tradition, Mennonites maybe.” I turned back and said, yes, we are Mennonites. We spoke briefly and amicably before boarding the little blue bus for yet another adventure.
Bible reference: Matthew 4:12-17; Mark 1:21-28; Mark 1:29-31; Matthew 17:24-27; Matthew 9:9-12; Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 7:1-10; Mark 2:1-12; John 6:22-59.
Mount of the Beatitudes – Another tranquil and quiet setting on the hills overlooking the Galilee with the cliffs of the Golan Heights to the far east. A church and monastery have been built up on this incredibly scenic overlook. The hills are steep here but to the south of the monastery is a funnel or amphitheater shaped valley, running from the shores of Galilee to the top of the hill. As per tradition Jesus preached while standing near the bottom and the people sat scattered over the hillside. One can imagine now how his voice likely projected up the valleyed hillside.
We strolled here for a while, following flower strewn pathways and simply enjoyed the breath of life. We watched some kind of exotic birds, something akin to a parrot, roosting on top of the church dome. One particular bird was attempting to enter a very small hole and appeared to have become stuck, his main fuselage and tail sticking out as he fluttered crazily. I am supposing he is still there, unless one of the nuns ladder-rescued him or the friendly cat we befriended chewed him to bits.
Scattered over the grounds, here and there among the bushes and flowers, are numerous small pavilions with a few rows of benches and a podium. Groups can come here to worship and hold their services.
Between Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes we parked along the road and walked down an old overgrown path to the sea, turned left, and followed it for a ways. We were alone on that lovely day, eyeing the flowers, watching the Rock Hyraxes (an interesting animal resembling a ground hog) on piles of gray stone as they eyed us back, warily. This is a very old path, apparently, and one that would have been used by travelers going between Capernaum and Nazareth. It is almost certain Jesus walked there too. And here were heard the strains of “…and the flowers kissed the shoes that Jesus’ wore” as Rosalee, Myra and Jeanie were overcome by the nearness of those long-ago days when this Friend of man was here in person.
Bible reference: Matthew 5:1-7:28; Mark 4:1-9; Matthew 28:16-20.
Sea of Galilee – After skipping stones and dipping our feet in the sea we parked close to a Jewish Kibbutz and, as evening was coming on, added a few layers for warmth. We then made a small procession out onto a jetty where we met David, our guide for the evening and the pilot of our “Jesus” boat. This is a small wooden craft, large enough for probably 10 or 15 people, that is built like the early fishing boats used in Jesus’s day. This experience was probably another one of the many highlights. David was personable, talking about his family and modern life in Tiberius, while regaling us with ancient tales. He told us he liked to see the logic in the miracles of the New Testament. For example: the story of the coin found in the fish’s mouth. He said that the miracles was not that a fish had a coin in its mouth but that Jesus knew which fish it was. Apparently a species of tilapia in Galilee, nicknamed St. Peter’s fish, lay their eggs close to the shore. The female, known as a mouthbrooder, lays her eggs and then scoops them up from the sand with her open mouth. Because this happens in the shallows close to the beach it is entirely plausible that debris, including coins, would be laying there and that a fish would scoop up not only eggs, but a coin as well.
David also pointed out the mountains to the far east, the Golan Heights, and told us that back in Jesus’s day there was a city there, way up at the top of that hill. This city (called Hippos or Sussita, one of the cities of the Decapolis), would light fires at night that could be seen clear across to the other side of the Galilee. He said when Jesus was talking about the city on a hill that could not be hid, he was speaking of that one. It was an illustration that made sense to the local people and now makes much better sense to me.
Of all the places in Israel, the Sea of Galilee has changed little since Jesus walked the shores and recruited his disciples. We thoroughly enjoyed this tranquil, quiet, and serene area.
Mark Twain even wrote about the Galilee: “But in the sunlight, one says: Is it for the deeds which were done and the words which were spoken in this little acre of rocks and sand eighteen centuries gone, that the bells are ringing today in the remote islands of the sea and far and wide over continents that clasp the circumference of the huge globe?”
Bible reference: too many to mention. Here are a few: Matthew 14:22-23; Luke 5:1-11; Mark 4:1-9.
Tiberius – We docked the Jesus boat in the near darkness, the sun long gone over the western mountains, and said goodbye to David. We made our way then to Tiberius, a clean and rather progressive city perched on a hillside, as many of these cities seem to be. The steeper the streets the better. We drove around the downtown looking for Shawarma and just before giving up and finishing off the beef sticks, we spotted an open side-walk shawarma joint with the iconic brightly lit vertical grill. The problem here was that the meat was almost gone but he seemed amenable to serve us what he had. We lined up and made sure the last morsel was delightfully devoured.
From there to a lovely Airbnb at the top of a hill, where we crashed, exhausted.
Arbel Nature Reserve – If I recall right this was the morning that Heath had planned for us to do a sunrise hike somewhere up vertical cliffs with ladders and water passage. I believe Jeanie got involved here and nicely advocated for our lives and this was shelved (left for next time, better said) in favor of resting our sore, tired bodies. Instead we just got up at 6 (instead of 5) and still did a morning hike that consisted of ladders and caves but no water passage. I stand corrected: we did walk through early morning dew-covered grasses which left most of us with wet feet—this counts as water passage, at least by Rose’s standards. We have zero hard feelings about this as this hike became a favorite and I can’t wait to do it again.
Here’s the story: As this group did not sleep in ever, we found park gates closed at times. Never mind, gates did not stop us, the intrepid explorers intent on squeezing every drop from this Israeli excursion. Instead we drove up a bumpy dirt field-road, parked, climbed under a fence and walked to the trail through the wet dewy grasses already alluded to, dodging cow pies, crimson anemones, and wild tulips. This turned out to be a rather steep hike on the side of a charcoal-colored basalt mountain, sort of a careful toeholds go-easy-there eyes on the path not on the incredible view or you will become part of the view kind of a hike. Met a cow grazing on a tiny outcropping on a virtual cliff-side and it is a little shaming to have a cow look at you with a bored stare, chewing its cud, and wondering what the big deal is. It’s just a sheer drop, nothing more.
The goal of this hike was a number of caves on the far side, over facing the valley far below. These caves were home to various factions fleeing armies over the years. Josephus writes a rather grisly tale of Jewish rebels hiding out in these exact dark and dangerous perches. Apparently Herod the Great’s soldiers grew impatient with a siege on the caves and lowered men down in baskets from the top. From their baskets they speared the cave dwellers or grabbed them with hooks and tossed them over the cliffs.
Mount Arbel does not appear to be listed or mentioned in the Bible but it is a formidable mountain that stands sentinel over the Galilee region and features prominently on the landscape. From the trail below the cliffs we could look down on Capernaum, Mount of the Beatitudes, and Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. From there you can also see parts of the Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometer route pilgrims walk that covers many sites where Jesus visited.
Nazareth – Then on to Nazareth by way of Waze, a formidable Israeli designed maps app, similar to Google maps. Not sure if I have mentioned it before but this app was a source of much amusement to all but the driver and his trusty navigator. Waze was designed to relieve the notorious Israeli traffic jam and it takes its job very seriously, directing a hapless driver to take literally any route that will avoid congestion. This meant we truly got to see a city and village from every angle, angle being the key word. I don’t think I have ever seen roads built so steep and curvy inside a town. I believe it was in Bethlehem where we actually spun out trying to mount a forward attack on a street. Narrow alley-ways, extremely sharp turns, with cars parked on either side was simply par for the course.
We finally arrived—Waze does come through in the end—and parked. We had an appointment at the Nazareth Village where they invite you to “be a part of it.” They have built or reconstructed a first century village (actually built on the ruins of ancient Nazareth) on a steep hillside and staff it with volunteers in period dress. There were also period donkeys and period sheep. Most of the volunteers seemed to be from the UK or the States. Rose says this attraction was a highlight and I believe her, it probably was. My problem with highlights is when everything is a highlight, where do you draw the line?! We became immersed in the time of Jesus as we followed our guide up and over the paths, past gardeners and a shepherd and, one point, watching in amusement as two loose donkeys attempted to make a run for it.
Our guide was from the UK and her husband was one of the shepherds. At each stop she would give us a little speech and occasionally the shepherd, or the gardener or the weaver, would tell us about their lives and trade. The most tempting part of this tour was the fact that they had a full potter’s house with tools. But, no potter. They need a volunteer potter! Perhaps someday I can go back as the resident potter for a few months out of the year.
From the Nazareth Village brochure: “Nazareth Village represents many years of historical, anthropological, and archaeological research, and every detail of this Early-Roman period agriculture village has been faithfully restored using materials and building methods that would have been available in Jesus’ time… The archaeological findings of cultivated terraces, a watchtower and the wine press hewn into the limestone bedrock, preserved virtually intact, provide a direct connection to the past and to Jesus’ life in Nazareth.”
As this was a lovely sunny day we walked the streets of Nazareth, sipping pomegranate juice and eventually following Heath into yet another sweet shop to study the local dessert scene. From there, sugared up, we walked to a synagogue where Jesus preached. Like so many ancient buildings in this land there was a reconstruction line in the wall where new walls were built on the discovered ruins. Much attention is paid to detail to replicate the original construction and often very little difference is noted. The black line, running up and down the walls show at what level the ruins were discovered.
Heath stood at the rock podium here and read the Scriptures to us while Rose changed her socks (socks still wet from the early morning hike through the dewy grasses), having managed to snag a bundle of socks at the market stall on the way in. One never knew when one would again encounter water passage and experience the misery of cold, wet feet.
Luke 4:16-21: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.”
Then on to the Church of the Annunciation which is the largest Christian church in the Middle East. The construction on this one tends towards the modernist and is a rather intriguing space, completed in 1969. Once again, churches have been built over this site since around 427 AD, as near as they can tell. There was an inscription found to the left of the cave entrance which reads “Gift of Conan, deacon of Jerusalem.” There was a thought that this deacon was perhaps responsible for converting this house of Mary into the first church.
Probably the most sensational discovery here was an ancient shrine, dating back to before the first church was built. They found Greek characters scratched into the base of a column that spelled out “Hail Mary,” the greeting of the archangel to Mary.
We were virtually alone in this massive edifice except for a watchful caretaker who followed us around, just waiting to pounce and purse her lips, giving us a terse “shhh.” Again, this is another church built over a cave, a sunken stone grotto, the site of which is believed to be the home of the Virgin Mary. It is also believed that here Mary received the momentous announcement from the angel that she was to become the mother of the Son of God. As we peer down into the cave, just in front of us, we try to imagine a young girl, likely no more than 14 years-old, trying to absorb this message before consenting: “be it unto me according to thy word.”
Bible reference: Luke 1:26-38.
Caesarea – And on to the Mediterranean where Herodian Roman ruins meet the deep blue Mediterranean. This city was the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, the home of Philip the evangelist, and the location where Paul was imprisoned for two years. After Jerusalem was destroyed Caesarea became the center for Christianity in Palestine. An interesting aside: In AD 195, it was determined here that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday.
This city was founded by Herod the Great in 22 BC and he spared no expense, building a massive hippodrome that seated 20,000 people as well as a built up harbor with a massive breakwater that gave safe anchorage to 300 ships. Since that time the waters have risen and covered part of the ruins but much can still be seen. Interestingly enough, Caesarea was the catalyst that started the first Jewish revolt when the synagogue there was desecrated and 20,000 Jews were massacred in a single day, according to the historian Josephus.
This is a huge site, another Israeli national park, stretching from a well-preserved raised Roman aqueduct south along the shore to an uncovered amphitheater. This has been an ongoing dig for years and has revealed an impressive historical narrative combined with incredible breathtaking views. This is yet another testament to Herod’s architectural ambitions combined with his taste for cruelty. The hippodrome has been uncovered and stretches for almost one thousand feet—this was the place where early Christians were fed to the lions. It also hosted chariot races and gladiatorial contests. The early sports worshippers would have had an incredible view of not only the spectacle before them, but also of the sea beyond.
Scattered cloud, a brisk breeze, and sunshine graced our necks as we walked the ruins for a few hours, marveling and imagining. One interesting note from here: There had been some doubt as to the existence of Pontius Pilate by scholars. Well, this doubt was removed with the discovery here of an engraved stone bearing the inscription of a certain Pontius Pilate. Once again, the Bible is proved a truthful witness.
Bible references: Acts 8:40; Acts 21:8-11; Acts 10; Acts 12:21-23; Acts 23:23-26, 32.
As the sun began its downward trajectory to the sea, we said goodbye to the ghosts of Herod, Peter, and Paul and began the long drive back Abu Dis.
Places to be continued…