Jesus of Nazareth grew up in the verdant area near the Sea of Galilee. Modern visitors can see the places where his ministry flourished.
By Avigayil Kadesh
"And Jesus went about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people" Matthew 4:23.
The Sea of Galilee, known as Lake Kinneret to Israelis, lies on the ancient Via Maris that linked Egypt with the northern empires. Its strategic location and excellent fishing made the lake’s vicinity a popular place for Greek, Hasmonean and Roman settlement. And because Jesus of Nazareth grew up in this area, his ministry revolved around the Sea of Galilee.
The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke describe how Jesus recruited the Galilee fishermen Simon and his brother Andrew and the brothers John and James as apostles. His famous Sermon on the Mount is believed to have been delivered on a hill overlooking the lake, and this is also the body of water upon which the Gospels say he walked. The miracle of the loaves and fishes took place on its banks.
That’s why, ever since the times of the Byzantine Empire, the Sea of Galilee and its environs have attracted countless Christian pilgrims. Today, Christian tourists account for at least 65 percent of incoming tourism to Israel. And in the Sea of Galilee region, there’s more than ever to tie modern believers with the origins of Christianity.
Walking on water
The Sea of Galilee itself is a major Christian tourist attraction because this is where Jesus is said to have walked on the water (John 6:19-21), calmed a storm (Matthew 8:23-26) and showed the disciples miraculous catches of fish (Luke 5:1-8; John 21:1-6). Several tour companies offer Christian-themed boat rides, and there’s even a “Walking on Water” Christian tour around the lake.
Speaking of walking, the Israel Ministry of Tourism and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund inaugurated the $3 million Gospel Trail in November 2011 along the paths that Jesus is believed to have walked on his way from his childhood home of Nazareth to the future center of his ministry in Capernaum (Kfar Nahum, in Hebrew) on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The signposted footpaths and roads of the 62-kilometer trail, which begins at Mount Precipice near Nazareth, can be traveled by foot, bicycle or car.
Not to be confused with the Gospel Trail (although there is necessarily some overlap) is the ecology-centric Jesus Trail, completed in February 2008 at the initiative of Israeli backpacking/hostelling industry pioneer Maoz Inon. This route runs 65 kilometers, beginning in Nazareth about 16 miles from the Sea of Galilee and passing through Zippori National Park, Cana, Moshav Ilaniya, Kibbutz Lavi, Karnei Hittin, Nebi Shu’eib, Arbel National Park, Migdal, the “Jesus Boat Museum” at Kibbutz Ginosar (where a 2,000-year-old boat raised from the Sea of Galilee is exhibited), Tabgha, the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum.
Capernaum National Park
The ancient village of Capernaum – sometimes called “the town of Jesus” -- lay in ruins until it was discovered in 1838 by an American explorer. Later archeological excavations uncovered the former sites of a church and a synagogue.
In 1968, the Franciscans restored these sites and also revealed a house that may have been inhabited by the Apostle Peter and served as a meeting place for early Christians, judging by the many fragments of plaster found there with Christian symbols and inscriptions including the names of Jesus, Simon and Peter.
A large octagonal church was built around the house of St. Peter, featuring a mosaic floor, and in the 1990s the Franciscans built a modern church on top of these ruins. It has a glass floor in the middle so visitors can see the original church below.
It’s possible to hike to Capernaum National Park via the Gospel Trail or Jesus Trail, or from a two-mile promenade along the Sea of Galilee. And a dock built by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, near the antiquities site, allows tourists to sail to Capernaum from Tiberias and Ein Gev.
Pilgrims can wander among the park’s natural and domesticated plants, such as the Christ-thorn jujube, said to be the species from which the crown of thorns was made that Jesus was forced to wear at the crucifixion.
Tabgha (the word is an Arabic corruption of the Greek name Heptapegon, or Seven Springs – Ein Sheva in Hebrew) is on the lush northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, so it’s not hard to imagine why Christians of the early Byzantine period found it an attractive place to live and to commemorate the ministry of Jesus and the miracles ascribed to him here. The earliest building found at Tabgha, from the fourth century CE, was once a small chapel – perhaps the shrine described by the fourth-century Spanish pilgrim Egeria.
The fruitful garden of Tabgha is accepted traditionally as the site where Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, as described in Matthew 14: 13-21. Hence the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes was built here in the fifth century, as well as the Church of St. Peter's Primacy (where Jesus is said to have appeared to his disciples after the resurrection) and several other Byzantine-period monasteries, churches and shrines.
The monastery and church at Tabgha were destroyed in the seventh century, probably during the Arab conquest of the country, and buried beneath a thick layer of silt and stones. In the 1980s, after excavation, the church and portions of its original mosaic floors were restored. One of the mosaics depicts a basket of bread flanked by two fish, and it was moved in front of the altar. The church belongs to the Order of the Benedictines and is open to visitors.
Kursi National Park
Kursi, east of the Sea of Galilee at the mouth of a riverbed descending from the Golan Heights, is traditionally the spot where Jesus healed two men possessed by demons, as described in Matthew 8:28-33. A huge sixth-century monastery and church built there to commemorate the miracle lay hidden in ruins until road construction in the early 1970s unexpectedly exposed it to the modern world. The Israeli government excavated the site and developed it into a national park.
The Israel Antiquities Authority discovered evidence that the monastery was once quite a busy hub for pilgrims. A paved road led from the monastery to a small harbor where the Christian pilgrims arrived in boats, and another paved path led from the entrance of the monastery complex to a large plaza in front of the church at the center of the complex.
To the south of the church there was a chapel with mosaic paving over a crypt containing the tombs of monks who had served in the monastery. The complex apparently had living quarters for monks and overnight accommodations for pilgrims as well. The whole structure was abandoned after a devastating eighth-century earthquake.
Mount of Beatitudes, Mount Arbel, Mount Tabor
The Mount of Beatitudes, on a low hill near Tabgha, is the spot where Jesus is believed to have given the Sermon on the Mount ("Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ...”).
The octagonal-shaped Church of the Beatitudes (to symbolize the eight beatitudes as described in Matthew 5:3-11), designed by the architect Antonio Barluzzi, was built by the Franciscan Sisters in 1938 on the hilltop. The building’s lower walls have a marble veneer, and a gold mosaic crowns the inside of its dome. Pope Paul VI left his cloak for permanent display in the church after his 1964 pilgrimage.
At the Mount of Beatitudes, Catholics gathered to observe a Mass celebrated nearby by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Israel in March 2000.
Mount Arbel, located near the Sea of Galilee’s western shore, towers above ancient Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. Arbel has a long and bloody history. It’s mentioned by the prophet Hosea (Hosea 10:14) as the place where Assyrian invaders slaughtered many Israelites by forcing them off the mountain. The Roman historian Josephus mentions that a Seleucid general executed many people at Arbel, and in 39 BCE, Herod the Great killed many of his opponents on Mount Arbel by smoking them out of the caves in which they sought refuge.
From Hasmonean to early Christian times, the Jewish city of Arbela sat atop the mountain and served as the center of the linen-making flax industry. Today a moshav (cooperative farm) called Arbel has been established there, adjacent to the archeological site of a late third-century synagogue on the edge of the mountain and Arbel National Park .
Mount Arbel is a popular hiking destination, but it is possible to drive up the backside of the mountain from Moshav Arbel and then either drive or walk the short distance to the crest, which affords an excellent view of the Sea of Galilee and Mount Tabor to the south.
Mount Tabor (or Tavor), at 1,900 feet above sea level, offers views of the Gilboa Mountains to the east, the Carmel Mountains to the west and the Golan Heights to the north. That’s what made it a perfect lookout for ancient Jews to light the beacons heralding the sighting of each month’s new moon.
This mountain is believed by Christians to be the site of the transfiguration, when according to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus took the disciples Peter, James and John to see an apparition of Moses and Elijah. Fifth-century shrines once stood here. In modern times, the Church of the Transfiguration was built in the early 20th century, with an Eastern Orthodox wing and a Roman Catholic wing as well as a monastery.
Mount Tabor is part of the Israel National Trail and there are also many biking trails on and around the mountain. Cyclists can stay overnight at the HooHa Cyclists’ House in nearby Kfar Tavor village. Tourists can sample wines at the Tabor Winery, or make their own sweet almond confectionary at the Marzipan Museum and factory.
Mary’s Well and Nazareth
The 2,000-year-old city of Nazareth, with its 30 churches and monasteries, is a highlight of Christian trips to Israel. That’s because this city nine miles west of Mount Tabor is where Jesus most probably was raised. The phrase "Jesus of Nazareth" appears 17 times in Christian Scriptures.
The official symbol of Nazareth is Mary's Well. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary used to bathe young Jesus and wash his clothes, and where Jesus fetched water. Moslems and Christians consider the well and its water to contain unusual healing properties.
Mary's Well is the centerpiece of Spring Plaza, which was renovated as part of millennium celebrations in 2000. At that time, archeologists discovered the remains of tunnels and pools from different periods, which are now described in an exhibition at City Hall. The well's current shape is based on pictures taken by 19th century Christian pilgrims.
About 100 feet south of Spring Plaza, above the actual spring supplying the well, is St. Gabriel Church of the Annunciation. Greek Orthodox tradition maintains that this is where the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
The nearby Basilica of the Annunciation sits above the grotto where Roman Catholics believe Joseph and Mary lived and where Mary received the angel's announcement. The present building was constructed on the ruins of churches dating back to Byzantine (324-634 CE) and Crusader (1095-1291) times, some of which are still visible. A $24 million commercial complex under construction is planned to include a 186-room hotel with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Basilica.
The Mary of Nazareth International Center was opened in 2010 by the Chemin Neuf Community, offering an audiovisual journey (in several different languages) into the life of the Virgin Mary and the Marian roots of Christianity.
Nazareth Sisters Convent offers subterranean tours of ancient tombs, columns and houses possibly dating back to the Roman period in the Holy Land, which started around 37 BCE and continued until the Byzantine conquest. There's a small museum exhibiting old coins and pottery, and an enclosed courtyard and guest rooms.
Other Nazareth sites of Christian interest are the Church of St. Joseph, built on the ruins of agricultural buildings where Joseph's carpentry shop is believed to have been located, and the Crusader-era Synagogue Church, next to the Greek Catholic Church in the middle of the old market. According to tradition, this was once the synagogue where Jesus prayed and preached.
The Mount of the Precipice (officially Mount Kedumim), at the entrance to the city from the direction of Afula, is traditionally where Nazareth's citizens took Jesus after he declared himself the Messiah. Remains of a Byzantine convent later established there are open for visitors to explore.
The city of Sepphoris, or Zippori in Hebrew, was a major Jewish city of the Galilee, home to many sages and scholars. Situated a few kilometers outside Nazareth, it was built in Jesus’ lifetime and so it is quite possible that he and his carpenter father had a hand in its construction. Christians and Jews lived together in Zippori from the fifth century on.
The Crusaders believed that Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary the mother of Jesus, lived in Zippori. They built the Church of St. Ann here and also a fortress that was later rebuilt in the 18th century by the Bedouin ruler of the Galilee.
A walk through Zippori National Park includes many partially restored ruins: a 4,500-seat Roman theater, a Talmudic-era residential quarter, synagogues and other structures featuring some of the most significant mosaic floors in Israel, especially the famed “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” and the fifth-century Nile Mosaic.
Visitors can also see the remains of a 250-meter-long, first-century CE underground water system, which had a capacity of 5,000 cubic meters of the precious liquid.
Bethsaida (Beit Tsaida in Hebrew), the birthplace of the apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip, is mentioned in the Christian Scriptures as a place where Jesus performed several miracles. A bit north of the Sea of Galilee, Bethsaida is an active archeological site first excavated in 1987.
Underneath the first-century fishing village of Jesus’ times, archeologists discovered the ruins of an ancient city dating back to the Iron Age, approximately the 10th century BCE. The spectacular finds here include the remains of a palace and the largest and best-preserved city gate yet discovered in Israel.
Here, where the Jordan River flows from the Sea of Galilee southwards to the Dead Sea, it is believed that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist (“Yardenit” is the diminutive form of the name of the Jordan River in Hebrew).
Open daily free of charge, Yardenit is where you can often see groups of white-robed Christian pilgrims standing in the water waiting to receive blessings from their priest or minister.
Nearby Kibbutz Kinneret hosts a Visitors Center that includes a place to rent or buy a white robe, shop for souvenirs, eat, shower and change. Several baptismal pools can be reached by following the Wall of New Life created by an Armenian artist from Jerusalem, which depicts the account from the Gospel of Mark (1:9-11) about the original baptism.
Close to Tabgha, about five miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee at the junction of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, is Hamat Gader Hot Springs. It’s one of Israel’s most popular attractions, and many Christian pilgrims come here to experience what was a grand Roman resort in Jesus’ day. Researchers believe Jesus and his followers frequented these thermo-mineral springs that maintain a steady temperature of 42 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit).
Among the other attractions at Hamat Gader are a preserved ancient synagogue with a beautiful mosaic floor, 40 acres of tropical parkland with covered outdoor settings, restaurants, and one of the largest crocodile farms in the Middle East.
Today’s Arab village of Kafr Kana, northeast of Nazareth, was identified by the Vatican in the 17th century as Cana of the Galilee, where Jesus was said to have turned water into wine at the wedding of an impoverished couple. This was the hometown of Jesus’ disciple Nathaniel of Cana, later known as St. Bartholomew.
In the Roman and Byzantine periods 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, there was a large Jewish community living in Cana. By the Mameluke period, about 800 years ago, most of the residents of Kafr Cana were Christian and today they are almost all Moslem.
The most significant Christian site in the village is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, built in the late 19th century on the traditional site of the miracle of the wine. Inside the church are two of the six stone jars that Greek Orthodox followers believe Jesus used in performing the miracle.
Another scriptural reference to Cana is in John 4:46, which mentions Jesus visiting Cana on his way to heal the son of a royal official at Capernaum.
Because of the story about turning water into wine at a wedding, modern Kafr Cana has become a popular place to hold weddings or renew wedding vows. About 200,000 tourists visit each year. The center of the village, which boasts several churches, has been renovated with a promenade and small plazas.
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