We arrived in Israel, at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on the afternoon of January 29th. The airport is gorgeous. The new terminal, which our friend Ilan tells us is called Terminal 2000 because it was supposed to be completed by 2000 (it was finished in 2005), looks exactly like we expected architecture here to look -- big blocks of white stone, shining in the desert sun. So imagine our surprise when we rented our car and exited the airport, only to discover that Israel is green, green, green!
Peter did an admirable job of driving in both Israel and Jordan, which is a good thing since I discovered at the counter of the rental car company that my license had expired on my birthday a month before. Oops! We only got lost once on the first day, when our only task was to find Nazareth, which would be our base of operations for visiting sites in Northern Israel. We made it through rush hour in Tel Aviv. It's a very attractive city, at least in parts, and from the passenger seat, I got to enjoy the futuristic architecture of the city:
We rolled into Nazareth just at 6:00 pm. We were greeted by the bells of the great Cathedral of the Annunciation (more about the church later). We found our hotel with only a little difficulty, and ventured out to eat. We were lucky to stumble on an absolutely wonderful restaurant that we returned to three times on our trip! We've traveled enough to know how lucky we were.
The next morning, we left bright and early, because we had outlined an ambitious itinerary of Biblical and Crusader sites in the area and we were not sure we could navigate well enough to find and see them all. But in the end we did, and with some time to spare! The Galilee area is gorgeous, lush, and very compact. It really bakes at other times of the year, but in the early spring of this fairly dry year, it was very pleasant.
Our first stop (ironically) was Megiddo, otherwise known as Armageddon (from Har Megedon, or "Mountain of Megiddo"), most famous for its prophesied role as the site for the Apocalyptic battle at the end of the world. It certainly is peaceful today, and we were early enough to be the first visitors and have it completely to ourselves:
THE PLAIN OF ARMAGEDDON, SURPRISINGLY GREEN
Megiddo lies at the head of the Jezreel valley, and by the 3rd millenium BC had been fortified. The Canaanites were there early, but were eventually overtaken by the Egyptians (in 1486 BC), who were then conquered (probably) by Solomon, who later lost the city to the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. Archaeologists have identified at least 20 successive settlements, built in layers. There was much of interest to see, but most striking were the stables for the horses, the discovery of which proved that people in this area fought with chariots at a very early date (which corroborates Biblical accounts) and the Canaanite tunnel dug from inside the city to a spring outside the walls:
THE STABLES. YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE THE POSTS BETWEEN HORSE STALLS
THE ENTRANCE TO THE UNDERGROUND WATER SYSTEM OF THE CANAANITES
The museum was small and silly, especially the diorama of the sacrificial site discovered here:
BIZARRE DIORAMA IN THE MUSEUM. DO ANY STAR WARS FANS THINK THE "PRIEST" LOOKS LIKE A TUSCAN RAIDER?
Next we traveled to Beth Alpha. This was the site of a 6th-century Jewish settlement and synagogue of which the mosaic floor has survived. It is a second-rate mosaic at best. Not really an impressive site, but the funny thing is that there is a sound and light show that they ran just for us (the only visitors). A screen drops down and they play a video and shine lights on different parts of the mosaic as they talk about them. The film is the story of the construction of the mosaic, and it's all about how the Rabbis of Beth Alpha didn't have enough money to put in a really good floor, so they had to hire a cut-rate hack artist. Talk about telling it like it is! Really, the only reason this site is as important as it is now is because the mosaic was discovered by some Jewish colonists who arrived in Israel in the 1920s after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and it gave them a tangible link to their past heritage.
THE SECOND-RATE MOSAIC
A SCENE FROM THE CHEESY MOVIE REMINDING US THAT IT'S A SECOND-RATE MOSAIC
A SCENE FROM THE MOSAIC: THE SACRIFICE OF ISAAC. SEE THE RAM CAUGHT IN THE TREE? YES, THAT'S A RAM.
Next on the list was Beth Shean, an incredibly impressive site. Most of the monumental remains here date from the Roman period -- it is the best-preserved Roman city in Israel in fact, but the history of the site goes back much further. The Canaanites were here as well, 5000 years BC, followed as at Megiddo by the Egyptians.
A VIEW OF ROMAN BETH SHEAN FROM THE TOP OF THE ACROPOLIS
Here at Beth Shean, the house of the Egyptian governor has been discovered on the high acropolis overlooking the city. Imagine our surprise when we finished the climb and saw an Egyptian stele!:
The Philistines took Beth Shean in the 11th century BC, and Solomon took it from them (are you starting to see the pattern in this area?). Alexander the Great came through, conquered the area, and named this place Scythopolis, and the Romans kept that name when they took it in the 1st century BC. It was a major center of Byzantine Christianity until an earthquake in 749 all but destroyed it. The Biblical associations of the site are grim. It was on the neighboring mountain of Gilboa that Saul and his sons were killed in battle (or, in the case of Saul, committed suicide).
THE VALLEY AT THE FOOT OF MOUNT GILBOA (WE THINK)
The Bible says that the Philistines, when they found Saul's body the next day, cut off his head, stripped him, and "put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shean" (I Samuel 31:10). Archaeologists have found some remains of the walls from that bloody period:
ISRAELITE-PERIOD WALLS AT BETH SHEAN
Moving forward in time, we next visited the Crusader fortress of Bellevue. The name means, literally, "Beautiful view." On a clear day you can see across the Jordan river into Jordan. We did not have a clear day, unfortunately, but the view was still pretty spectacular. The ruins are of a fortress of the Knights Hospitallers, and are quite impressive:
From here, we were moving on to the sea of Galilee itself, to view some of the sites associated with the life and ministry of Christ. Along the way, we took a detour to visit the famous Yardenet Baptism Site, where thousands of people come every year to be baptized in the Jordan, supposedly near the site of Christ's own baptism. It is so commercialized as to be almost offensive. Really, it's a store and restaurant where they will "rent" you a baptismal robe for $10 and will only allow you to touch the water if you have paid. Some religious experience! Here's a nice picture of the Jordan though. And luckily, the other sites we visited were more interesting.
First was Tabkha, an area on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that hosts three churches almost side-by-side, each built on what has been identified as a site where Christ delivered an important sermon and/or performed a miracle. The first is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. Although the church was built in 1890, the mosaic (including the loaves and fishes), are from the 5th century.
Beside it is the Church of the Primacy of Peter, marking the spot where Christ appeared to the Apostles after the Resurrection. It is a striking building, constructed by the Franciscan order out of black basalt. Here we also went down to the waters of the Sea of Galilee for the first time.
A VIEW ACROSS THE SEA OF GALILEE FROM THE CHURCH
I DON'T KNOW WHAT KIND OF CREATURES THESE ARE, BUT APPARENTLY THEY ARE IN THE BIBLE. I DON'T REMEMBER THEM TALKING, THOUGH!
Higher on the hill behind these two churches is an absolutely gorgeous structure, the Church of the Beatitudes. While we waited for a large group of Korean tourists to finish taking their pictures inside the church, we read some of the Sermon on the Mount from the little New Testament we carried along with us. Wherever the Sermon was delivered along the Sea, it was a very beautiful spot!
From here we drove a short distance to Capernaum, at the northern shore of the Galilee. It is a strange site. According to the Bible, it was to here that Christ came when he left Nazareth as a young adult, and it served as the focus of his ministry in the Galilee area. It was also the hometown of several of the Disciples. The remains of a very early house-church were excavated here, which was then naturally identified (whether correctly or not) with the house of Simon Peter, who the Bible says was a local. A church was constructed directly on top of the excavations, elevated above it, and you can look down through a glass floor to see the house below. The result is kind of a space-age looking church that seems ready to take off.
YOU CAN'T REALLY SEE MUCH OF "PETER'S HOUSE" THROUGH THE GLASS FLOOR OF THE CHURCH, BUT HERE IT IS
Other interesting excavations here include a synagogue reliably dated to the time of Christ, and therefore called the Synagogue of Christ, since it may be assumed that he attended temple here during his time here. Capernaum is small, but well worth a visit. It was interesting to us for another reason as well, for it was here that we first encountered several busloads of Nigerians. Little did we know that we would see more and more groups of them practically everywhere we went in Israel. Apparently the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is extremely popular in Nigeria! And boy do they like to sing!
After leaving Capernaum we rushed to another point on the shore of the Sea, back to the south, to a little Kibbutz (an type of settlement where many young Israelis go to live and do manual labor in a communal atmosphere for a year or so of their lives) called Kibbutz Ginosar. Near here, amateur archaeologists discovered a fishing boat in the Sea of Galilee. Luckily, they called in the professionals, and a team was able to retrieve the boat from the water and it is now on display in a very attractive museum here. We arrived after closing, but the woman at the desk was kind enough to let us in.
The boat has been dated to roughly the time of Christ. So of course the question is, was it one of the boats that he or his disciples rode in? In reality, probably not. But it does illustrate the type of boats they were working with.
By the time we left the boat museum, it was starting to get dusky. On our way back to Nazareth we missed a turn and ended up taking the scenic route. That was fine, because we got to at least wave at several other interesting sites in the landscape:
Mt. Tabor and the plain below it, where Deborah and Barak defeated the armies of Sisera and the Canaanites. The settlements nearby are still called Daburiyya and Ahuzzat Barak after them.
We also drove by, but did not photograph because it was getting dark, the Kibbutzes of Nain, where Jesus healed the widow's son (Luke 7:11-17) and Endor, the home of the witch that Saul consulted in Samuel 28:3-19 (now known as Ein Dor).
It's safe to say that by the time we made it back to Nazareth we were completely steeped in Biblical associations!