Today we headed north to visit two significant sites just south of the Sea of Galilee; Belvoir Fortress and Beit Shean (also known as Scythopolis). This trip was a catch up; there are a certain number of trips which you need to complete to finish the course and to take the exam. I missed quite a lot when I was sick and over the next few months need (and also want!) to go through them all; fortunately the place where I am studying has several courses running in parallel in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa so it is not too complicated to join a trip with another course. Today was a bit of a treat – there is an English speaking course in Jerusalem and I was joining them. Although I enjoy the challenge of studying in Hebrew it certainly made my life a lot easier to spend the day in English!
Our first site was the old crusader fortress of Belvoir, dating to the 12th century. It was clearly an extremely impressive fortification, commanding a fantastic view (hence its name) over the Jordan Valley to the Gilead mountains in modern day Jordan. The fortifications were necessary when Saladin attacked; in fact it took him two attempts to take the castle and respected the knights so much that he gave them free passage to Tyre. The fortress was only destroyed around 50 years later, and its bottom floor has survived largely intact.
It was extremely impressive to see such a complete crusader fortress and our guide painted a very good picture of how it would have been to live in and defend it, bringing the story of the site very much to life.
Our secondsite of the day was the ruins of Scythopolis, or Beit Shean. We entered in the back late, ascending to the ancient tel. The earliest settlement on the site seems to have been from the 5th millennium BCE; on the top of the tel you can see some remains dating to the Egyptian conquest of the area in the 15th century BCE; this was the centre of the administration for the region and there are column bases in what would have been the governor’s house dating to this period.
As we came over the top of the tel, the excavations of the Byzantine city were laid out before us. It was quite simply breathtaking (the 44C heat may have also had something to do with that, but still the site really is quite awesome). The excavations cover a significant part of what was believed to be the city centre, although based on archaeological surveys they estimate that they have only unearthed around 2-3% of the Roman city of Scythopolis.
Scythopolis was the Roman capital for the northern part of the country, known as Palestina Secunda. It was a flourishing city, although most of what is visible today is from the slightly later Byzantine period. It is possible to wander through two of its bathhouses (including enjoying one of the best preserved Byzantine toilets in the world, its main shopping street (cardo), and perhaps most impressively, its theatre, which is nearly entirely original and is still used for concerts today.
It is also quite remarkable to see the results of the huge earthquake that hit the area in 749. Whole facades have collapsed into the earth; huge columns have smashed into paving stones. It’s almost feels as if the earthquake just happened and you are wondering through its wreckage.
As a side note, I mentioned that it was an extremely hot day. We were suffering in the heatwave, but as we have been told before, the tour guide course goes out into the field, even through fire and water (or, as we experienced in December, hail). Our guide made the point to us that if a tourist comes to Israel for a short trip and that is the only time they have, then that is when we will need to guide them. So part of our studies is getting used to dealing with the heat, and thinking about where and how to deal with the hottest parts of the day. This course is as physically demanding as it is mentally!
All in all, a really fascinating trip, and both sites are definitely well worth a visit for anyone heading to the north.
Our journey of discovery into the world of Christianity continued with a day based around important sites along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, known as the Kinneret in Hebrew. We swapped the rolling hills of the lower Galilee for the calm and beauty of the lake shores.
Our day began at Kibbutz Ginosar and the museum named after one its most famous former inhabitants: Beit Yigal Allon. The museum is about man and nature in the Galil but of particular interest for Christian visitors is the ‘Jesus boat’. This 2000 year old boat (matching the time period of Jesus’ life) was found in 1986 covered in mud along the shores of the Kinneret. After a major restoration programme it was put on display in this museum. Although there is no evidence directly linking Jesus to the boat, given that many of his disciples were fishermen, and Jesus himself lived along the Kinneret shoreline for a time, it gives a unique insight into his way of life. There is also a short movie explaining the find and the complicated restoration process (2000 year old wood is quite delicate!).
We left the kibbutz and travelled north to the Mount of Beatitudes. This is considered the site of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount and is so named after the blessings, or beatitudes, that are contained within the address. The site is managed my Franciscan nuns and the modern day Church of the Beatitudes is built a little up the hill from ruins of the 4th century Byzantine church marking the same event.
There are commanding views over the Sea of Galilee and the church has been built with wide windows to allow the visitor to be inspired by the beautiful scenery and to try to imagine the surroundings within which Jesus would have spoken to his audience.
We headed down the hill to Tabgha, site of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. This site, managed by German Benedictine monks, commemorates Jesus feeding 5000 men (and therefore around 20 000 people, with their families taken into account) with just two fishes and five loaves of bread. We entered the church and were impressed by the beautiful Byzantine period floor mosaic commemorating the event; one of the most famous mosaics in Israel as it directly connects a miracle to a site. I reflected on when aged seven my teacher gave us fish fingers and pieces of toast in class to commemorate this miracle. Sadly, no fish fingers were available on this occasion, but we had been promised some St Peter’s Fish for lunch, so there was something to look forward to.
We continued by foot to the Church of the Primacy of St Peter. This church is really right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee and as our guide told us the story behind it we watched pilgrims washing their feet in its holy waters. We heard the story of how Jesus appeared here to Peter and the disciples, charging Peter with looking after his flock in his absence. Inside the church is a rock called Mensa Christi (the Table of Christ) which is considered the rock upon which Jesus laid out the food for his apostles. As with many other churches in the area, it is also built on the ruins of a Byzantine site, proving that this has long been considered the location of this miracle.
We continued on to Kfar Nachum, or Capernaum, via a brief stop for a lunch of some St Peter’s Fish (so named as it is believed to be the species of fish that appeared with a golden coin in its mouth to Peter in the story in Matthew 17.
Jesus moved to Capernaum after being expelled from Nazareth, living with Peter and his family. While here he performed several miracles and gave many important sermons. Our first stop was in the Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles, close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a small but pretty building with an interior decorated with beautiful murals in the byzantine style, showing various important scenes in the life of Jesus and his followers.
We then visited the part of Capernaum owned by the Franciscans. Here is the Church of St Peter’s House, a modern structure built over the remains of a Byzantine church, which itself is built on the remains of a very interesting structure. In the vicinity excavators have found many houses from the Second Temple period (i.e. the time of Jesus) and one of them with a very interesting difference from the rest. In one of the houses, one room was covered in plaster at some point between 50-100 CE and became an early place of Christian worship. Later layers of plaster contain Christian graffiti and the room was enlarged in the 4th century (once Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion). This type of site, one of Christian ritual before the establishment of church buildings, is called a domus ecclesia. There are not many of them around and this is considered the oldest one in existence. As the oldest site with evidence of Christian practice, it is very significant. And it is believed that the ritual began here because it is the site of Peter’s house.
There are also excavations of a synagogue in Capernaum. It was clearly rather large and may even have had a second floor. Most of the site is reconstructed so it is unclear if it is similar to the original structure, but it was still impressive to see.
From Capernaum we continued around the Sea of Galilee to Kursi. This site is quite unusual in that it is a holy Christian site owned by the Israel Parks Authority. This is because it was actually discovered very recently, when after the 1967 Six Day War meant that this area became more secure, Israel decided to build a road. When digging for its construction they discovered the ruins of a Byzantine period church, and up the hill a small chapel by a large boulder, together with a monastery. This site is considered the location of the Miracle of the Swine, when Jesus banished evil spirits into a nearby heard of pigs. We heard the story from the New Testament and enjoyed the delicacy of the ancient mosaic floor, although sadly it had undergone an iconoclasm in the Muslim period so many of the animals had been defaced. The actual site of the miracle is considered the large boulder by the small chapel.
Our day was drawing to a close and our final stop was in the south of the Kinneret where the River Jordan flows out and south towards the Dead Sea. Here is Yardenit, a relatively new site where many Christian pilgrims come to be baptised in the holy waters of the Jordan. We were privileged to witness a ceremony by some visitors and also heard the tale of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist.
It is a beautiful and calm place and a nice site at which to complete what had been rather a hectic day. Next week our Christian odyssey continues in Jerusalem.
Today’s trip came with a fair amount of nostalgia. A large proportion of the many tourists who visit Israel every year are Christian pilgrims, so a significant chunk of our studies are dedicated to learning about Christianity and Christian sites in order to be able to help them to make the most of their visit. I went to a Church of England primary school for seven years and as a result am relatively familiar with many of the key moments in the life of Jesus, so it was quite fascinating to begin to visit the locations attributed to these events in the bible and remember the stories from when I was a child.
Our first stop was at Mt Tabor and the Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration on its peak. It was the first of what was to be several churches and with each one our guide used the same structure. First, we would learn about the event the church commemorated and would hear the story from the bible. Second, she would tell us about the reasons for identifying the event with the location. Third, we would learn about the history of the building on the site and its architecture. This structure helped us organise the large amount of information we received throughout the day.
The Transfiguration was a significant event when before three of his disciples Jesus begins to shine brightly with a heavenly light and he speaks with Moses & Elijah. The impressive church was constructed in the 1920s under the design of Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian architect who designed many of the churches in Israel. Our guide explained to us how he always tried to incorporate the event commemorated at the site into his design, together with any archaeological remains – in this case historical churches on the site from the Crusader period and as far back as the Byzantine period in the 4th century. We entered the church and enjoyed the atmosphere. Near the altar it was possible to look through a glass window in the floor down to the bed rock upon which the miracle would have taken place.
We travelled north to Kfar Kana, identified with the site of Kana in the Galil as referred to in the Bible. Here is the place of Jesus’ first miracle, narrated in the Gospel of John, where he turns water into wine at a wedding feast. We visited both the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the site which both contain ancient stone water pots and both claim to be on the site of the wedding. Underneath the Catholic church archaeologists found remains of a synagogue; it makes sense that this would have been the location of a wedding in the town. However the churches are close to each other and it is also entirely feasible that the festivities would have spread over a large area, so it is plausible that both could be on the site of the wedding.
Also in Kana we passed the Church of St Bartholomew, locked all year except on his saint day, as according to the Bible he came from the town of Kana. In Kana and throughout the rest of the day we witnessed many groups of pilgrims – we were travelling shortly after Orthodox Easter and also Catholics consider May a holy month for Mary, Jesus’ mother. It was quite fascinating to see all the groups, to hear the variety of languages from Russian, Polish and Czech to Spanish, Italian, Tigri and of course English.
We continued south west to Nazareth. In the time of Jesus, Kana was the large city of which Nazareth was a small satellite village. Now, because of the fact that Nazareth has become a holy site, it is Kana which is part of the Nazareth municipality. Our first site was the colossal Basilica of the Annunciation, one of the most important churches in the world. This church marks the site of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would give birth to the son of God.
The church is modern, having been constructed in 1969, but like most of the churches in the area is built over ruins from a crusader and Byzantine church. In fact, there is even evidence of pre-church Christian ritual in excavations in the crypt. The crypt contains the cave which is considered the home of Mary and has been dated as a dwelling cave to the right time period. It is a quiet, dark and sombre space; after visiting we went up the stairs to the main basilica where we witnessed part of a mass for a visiting group of pilgrims.
Close by, in the same complex, is the significantly smaller Church of St Joseph which was constructed over another cave, considered to be the home of the Holy Family on their return to Nazareth and the location of Joseph’s carpentry shop. Here you cannot really see directly into the cave but on descending into the crypt you can see glimpses of it through some bars.
We walked into the narrow alleys of the market to our next stop, the confusingly named Church of the Synagogue. This Orthodox church is located on the site traditionally associated with the synagogue of Nazareth. Here, according to the story in Luke 4, Jesus read a prophecy from Isaiah and announced to the congregation that he was here to fulfil it. Unfortunately they were not ready to receive this news and reacted rather badly, expelling Jesus from the town, even about to throw him off a cliff, although fortunately they did not follow this through.
Our final brief stop in Nazreth was at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The church is located over the Nazareth spring (known as Mary’s spring) and is based on a story from the Gospel of James, part of the Christian apocrypha. Here we learn that the Annunciation actually happened in two stages: first the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary while she was drawing water at the spring, but she was frightened and ran back home, where he appeared to her again and delivered the full prophecy. In the crypt of the church it is possible to look down on the spring (the only spring in the city, so it is also the spring from which the Holy Family would have drawn their water) and it is also possible to touch the holy water through a pipe system.
We then left Nazareth for our last stop of the day at Mount Precipice. This cliff, located just outside the city, is considered the site to which Jesus was expelled following his problematic announcement in the synagogue which I mentioned earlier, and indeed there is a sheer cliff face from which he may have been thrown. The site commands outstanding views of both the Jezreel Valley and Nazareth; it was with these stunning vistas that we wrapped up the day.
I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my first Christianity field trip. I felt that I learned a lot about an important world religion (33% of the globe identify as Christians) and it was moving to see the pilgrims many of whom were really quite overcome with being in the holy sites. Regardless of belief, there is something rather exciting about being in a site identified with a historical event (in this case as told in the Gospels) and reading the story in situ. I’m looking forward to the rest of our Christianity excursions!
The green and hilly region of the Galil in the North of Israel is divided into two, largely based on topography. The Lower Galil is lower in two senses of the word; it is both further to the South and has lower hills (affectionately referred to as mountains in Hebrew).
The Galil is a beautiful place to visit. The rolling green hills make a beautiful backdrop; they are filled with hiking trails. It is also an area of great historical significance. The Galil contains the city of Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, and a lot of the miracles he performed took place here. From a Jewish perspective, it became one of the main Jewish centres after the second temple was destroyed; there were several towns here which hosted the Sanhedrin, the Jewish parliament, and indeed the Mishna (Oral Law) was codified in one of these towns, Tzippori.
But neither Tzippori nor Nazareth were the focus of today’s trip. Rather, we were to get an overview of the region. This overview began at Tel Chanaton. A tel is an archaeological mound. This means that it was a dwelling place for man over several centuries, and was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Each time it was rebuilt, the new settlement was constructed on top of the remains of the old one, and the mound grew.
Tel Chanaton was a dwelling place of man from the Bronze age up until the end of the Persian rule in Israel, roughly a period of 3000 years, and then intermittently afterwards. It is mentioned in ancient sources including letters between Canaanite kings and indeed the bible. From our lookout on the tel we learned about the topography and geology of the Galil in addition to the importance of its situation close to several ancient trade routes. It was a place for people to stop off while travelling and restock food and water. In later times it was also used to collect taxes from travellers.
Israel is full of these mounds and many have been extensively excavated, but Tel Chanaton has not yet. Some excavation has taken place though and you can squeeze into a small tunnel that takes you into the remains of a Crusader fortress that was based here. There is something quite remarkable about being inside it, knowing that it was not originally buried in the earth. It helps understand the other mounds you see, knowing that all the remains were originally like this.
We moved on from the tel to the Muslim Arab village of Kaukab Abu al Hija. This village is named after the great Husam ad-Din Abu al-Hija, a lieutenant of Saladin. He was known as a righteous man, a man of the people, who encouraged good relationships between Jews and Muslims. We heard a couple of the legends of his time in charge of the area.
In more modern times, this village stood out in the area by embracing the arrival of new Jewish villages. While other Arab villages protested, the mayor of Kaukab Abu al Hija argued in favour of the new arrivals saying that they brought with them better infrastructure and services to the area. He participated in cultural festivals that they organised and tried to develop his village for tourism. To this end, it was the first Arab village in Israel to have a ‘tzimmer’ (a sort of boutique BnB retreat) and they also developed a sculpture garden in the 1990s using work from Jewish and Arab artists in Israel.
There were many interesting sculptures in the garden, many connected with thoughts and hopes of peace. I found particularly striking the sculpture pictured of flowers of the symbols of the three major faiths against a stunning backdrop. Sadly our guide told us the flower with the Star of David was frequently broken (you could see where it had been restored); and the flower with the cross was torn down after the Pope made a speech a couple of years ago which was understood to have slandered Mohammed. Although this is sad, the encouraging thing is that the village council has consistently restored the sculpture. And hopefully it will endure.
We moved on to a viewpoint over a small hill (not a tel, we were told) which used to house the ancient city of Yodfat, where we heard the story of its demise. When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 AD, the military commander Vespasian was dispatched with his son Titus (of the arch’s fame) to subdue them. He set out into the Galil to destroy Yodfat which was a key centre for the rebels, under the command of man called Yosef ben Mattityahu. The Romans broke the city walls after 47 days; most of the town had committed mass suicide but Yosef ben Mattityahu survived. He returned to Rome with Vespasian and latinised his name, taking on the surname of his new mentor. The new Josephus Flavius became the official historian for the Roman empire in this region and his accounts are vital for us today in understanding what took place here under the Romans and indeed in locating important archaeological sites.
Our next stop was at the communal village of Hararit, where the inhabitants are followers of Transcendental Meditation and meditate together as a community. We passed through the village though to the fields behind it and to the Lavra Netofa. We heard the story of two Christian monks who came here to live an acetic lifestyle in isolation, with a few followers. They found a Byzantine period cistern which they converted into a small chapel which was beautifully decorated for Christmas. It was incredibly peaceful and calm, and an appropriate setting for the story of the monks. The last of them passed away in 2005 but the chapel and community is now maintained by a group of nuns who moved here on their request for this purpose.
We left Hararit and travelled a short distance to the communal village of Avtaliyon. Here we heard the story of the programme to encourage more Jews to move to the area of the Lower Galil in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, the traditional founders of new communities, the kibbutz, moshav and youth movements, were waning in their strength and influence. So a new concept, that of the communal village, was created. The idea was that people would form a group based on shared interests; perhaps it would be Transcendental Meditation, as in Hararit. There were other new communities created by graduates of the Technion, or employees of Rafael. These communities have remained small but now exist in the Galil and all over the country. Our guide argued that they had helped transform the Galil into an area not known for a good standard of living to an area with a good lifestyle, good education and good employment.
Here, we also learned about the manufacture of olive oil. 90% of olive oil in Israel comes from the Lower Galil. It is all made in the Arab villages except for in Avtaliyon, were they have their own press. Sadly, there was no time for tastings; a return visit is probably warranted.
Our final destination was the Muslim Arab village of Deir Hanna. The Arabic name translates as Monastery of John the Baptist, as a tradition says that he was born there. It is a large Muslim village with the ruins of an 18th century fortress at its centre. The visited the fortress and heard the story of its ruler, a local Sheikh called Daher el Omar who stood up against the Ottoman rulers, making himself an intermediary in their tax collection, and while doing so transformed the Galil region. There was barely a place around here that he did not influence, for example he built the city walls in Tiberias, in Akko, and even took a small village called Haifa, fortified and enlarged it.
Sadly for Daher el Omar, the Ottomans had enough of him after around 50 years and having grown in strength they sent a military force to wipe him out. No one replaced him and the Ottomans remained in full control until WWI.
While in the village we visited a local home where the family hosts tourists and explains to them about traditional Arab culture, accompanied by traditional Arab cuisine (not to be sniffed at!). We learned about the traditional way of living and enjoyed some homemade olives (our course fees did not stretch to baklava and coffee, sadly). As the sun set, the call to prayer sounded around the village, and it was time for us to head home.
Not part of the course, this one, but such a wonderful day out that I think it is worth writing about. A friend recently popped over to Israel for a few days and I said that we should go on a trip. I asked him for his interests and they were as follows: food, hiking and history. After a bit of research, I decided on an itinerary, and off we went.
We headed North from Tel Aviv, our destination for the beginning of our hike the small village of Mitzpe Hila, recently made famous as it is the hometown of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who last year returned home after being held a prisoner by Hamas for several years. Our business was just outside the entrance of the village, however, the trail head down to Nachal Kziv, the longest stream in the Galilee.
First however, there was an important stop – a small turn off from route 70 took us into the village of Kfar Yasif, famous as the home of the hummus restaurant of Abu Adham. This small hummus place became so famous in Israel that it has spawned a franchise with a few Abu Adhams now appearing in Tel Aviv. However, in my opinion, nothing beats the original, whether in terms of simplicity of menu, price, or (most importantly) taste [with thanks to hummus101.com for the picture].
Our bellies mightily full, we headed to the beginning of our hike. We went gradually down the bank of the stream, thankfully covered in thick woodland which shaded us from the afternoon sun. Every now and again there would be a break in the trees and a glimpse of a beautiful view over the Galil, such as the one below.
After quite a steep climb down, pausing to let a local goat herder pass with his flock, we arrived at Ein Tamir, a small spring that contributes to the Kziv stream. This was a great place to cool off and have a quick paddle while doing our best not to disturb the fish swimming around our feet, a quite pleasant sensation. A nice reward after such a steep descent.
We continued down the river, criss-crossing via stepping stones when every now and again we ran out of river bank (the trail helpfully pointed us in the right direction when we needed to do so). It would probably have been more practical to have done this as a water hike and just walked through the stream; unfortunately neither of us had brought appropriate shoes on this occasion. However, it was quite fun to jump along the stones, trying to identify the best route, avoid wobbles, and a good feeling of achievement on safely reaching the other bank.
After a while we arrived at what appeared to be a mini canyon; erosion having taken its toll on the surrounding rock. It was really rather beautiful.
Eventually we exited the shade, fortunately the heat of the day was already abating and it was very pleasant to be in the sunshine. We continued along the stream, continuing to cross over every now and again, and passed the ruins of an old flour mill, testifying to the impact of mankind on the area. The ruins were somewhat forlorn, although aesthetically pleasing in a rustic way; it felt a bit of a shame though to encounter this evidence of human construction as part of the beauty of this trail was the fact that we were almost alone; for the city dweller this isolation gives a certain sense of freedom and connection with nature; the mill reminded us that we were not so far from civilisation as we imagined.
Eventually it was time to begin our climb back up the river bank, and we could already spy our prize. Outlined against the setting sun was the Montfort crusader fortress. The ascent was steep and unkind on our tired legs but we pushed on and my, was it worth it. We had the stunning ruins of Montfort to ourselves, the remains of an 800 year old defence against the Mamluks. The remoteness of the castle, the fact that we were the only ones there, really gave us a sense of adventure, a sense of exploration. I can’t really explain how, but the castle retained a sense of majesty and might that could still inspire awe.
As if this was not enough, the backdrop was a spectacular panorama over the Galilee. In most directions the scenery remains woodland, I suppose that it is much the same as it was 800 years ago. Standing on the viewing platform, I tried to imagine the crusader knights rushing around the castle, looking out over the same hills below that I was looking over now.
We concluded our hike with a bit of a scramble over some rocks back up to where we had left the car, arriving just before darkness set in, and just in time to enjoy the colours of the sunset. The hike took about four hours in total, going at a leisurely pace and allowing for a nice splash in the spring and a good wander around the castle. We returned to Tel Aviv, happy with an excellent day out.