From Bethlehem we traveled for several hours to the Sea of Galilee around which Jesus began his ministry. There were so many wonderful sites that came straight out of the Bible. It was just incredible to stand in places that Jesus likely stood, or at the very least, to have crossed paths with him at some point or another. As we toured the Galilee region, we visited many churches that were built on sites where Jesus preached and performed miracles. Many of the sites in Galilee, and Israel as a whole, are considered legitimate because Constantine sent his mother Helena to investigate Christian holy places. A leader of another religion had built shrines over many of the Christian holy places in the first century in an attempt to wipe them out. But by doing this he confirmed they were the legitimate sites where Biblical events had taken place. Then when Helena came along, she was able to find them easily and formally declared them Christian holy places. This is a common story at many sites throughout Israel.
On the way to Galilee the Israeli police stopped us. The officers had parked their car on the side of the road and were randomly stopping people. We were one of the unlucky ones that got stopped. An officer talked with the driver in Hebrew, walked around the van, opened the side door and took a look at all of us Americans in the back seats. All the while we were looking at the large assault rifle that was strapped over his shoulder and hung loosely at his hip. Big guns became a theme throughout our trip especially once we got to Jerusalem. Without saying another word he crossed the street to his patrol car where he had a conversation with the other officer.
While we were waiting, I looked across the street at a road sign that pointed the way to Jericho. It was so funny to see signs pointing to places I’ve grown up hearing about in church and reading about in the Bible. Modern day Jericho is a Palestinian city that is experiencing the same thing as Bethlehem. Eventually the area will be completely walled off too. And surely the Israelis will attempt to grab even more land from the Palestinians there. We also found out that cars owned by Palestinians have white license plates with green trim, while cars owned by Israelis have yellow license plates. This makes it very easy for Israeli policemen to discriminate between Palestinians and Israelis, and quite honestly make life a lot more difficult for Palestinians.
The officer returned to our van and cited the driver because none of us were wearing any seat belts. We all looked at each other as if to say, “Oh yeah!” and then buckled up. We hadn’t seen a single seat belt in nearly four months since taxis in Egypt don’t have them, and we had simply gotten out of the habit of wearing them. The driver accepted the ticket and we were on our way again.
A couple of hours later we came to the first city at the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, which is mentioned in the bible. Apparently the Romans came here to experience the famous hot springs that are visibly steaming. We could even see them from the road. We stopped and ate lunch and then continued on to The Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10
When we reached the parking lot and got out of the car, there was a beautiful panoramic view looking down on the Sea of Galilee. We walked along a sidewalk to find an octagonal chapel built on the side of the hill just above the site where Jesus spoke. The chapel has eight sides, one for each of the beatitudes. We looked down at a green field that slopes up to the chapel and is the place where the crowds gathered to listen to the sermon.
Our next stop was the town of Taghba where we visited two sites. The first one was a church built over the rock where Jesus divided the fishes and the loaves to feed 5000 people. It was a beautiful church made primarily of stone, but had steel accents. It was a simple church, but that only added to the experience, especially after visiting many of the overdone Greek Orthodox sanctuaries. It was a breath of fresh air. We arrived just as a worship service was beginning so we weren’t able to see many of the famous details since the sanctuary had been roped off. From the back we could see the rock where Jesus performed the miracle, but we missed out on the incredible mosaics for which the church is well known.
The second stop in Taghba, and my favorite of the day, was a church called the Primacy of St. Peter. It is built at the site where Jesus appeared to seven of the disciples after his resurrection. As the story in the bible goes, Peter decided to go fishing and the others joined him. They did not catch anything all night, but in the morning Jesus was standing on the beach and shouted to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They didn’t recognize Jesus at first, but they followed his instructions anyway. Suddenly the nets were so full of fish they were unable to pull the net in. Peter, upon realizing it was Jesus who was standing on the shore, jumped into the water and swam to meet him. The others came back by boat, dragging the overloaded net behind them. Together they ate breakfast using of the fish they had just caught. Afterwards Jesus spoke to Peter asking whether he loved him three times. Each time Peter responded by saying, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus’ three responses were, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my Sheep,” and “Feed my sheep,” respectively. Although I never would have thought of it, Teri says this is Peter’s redemption for denying Christ three times just before his crucifixion.
The Primacy of St. Peter was built over the rock where Jesus stood when he called to the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. The church sits right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. The air smelled faintly of salt and fish. Sunbeams cast down through the partly cloudy sky onto the surface of the water. Small gray pieces of gravel crunched under our feet as we approached the edge of the sea. The water was low so caretakers had filled in the area with gravel so people could approach the shore. Along the long side of the church, right on the edge of the water was a large rock with steps hewn out of it leading up to the place where Jesus stood. A small sign laid on the ground that read, “This is a holyground.” The large rock continued inside the church, into the sanctuary where beautiful stain glass windows lit up the room with bright shades of red, green, orange and blue. A beautiful, but strange mosaic hung on the wall depicting a prone pope kissing the ground where Jesus and Peter stood. Just outside the church doors, there was a statue of Jesus and Peter standing where Jesus asked Peter whether he loved him. A plaque at their feet said, “Feed my sheep.”
I was awed to stand where Jesus stood, looking out over the water. I could imagine myself standing next to Jesus as he shouted, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” I wasn’t distracted by any over the top decorations. The church, in my opinion, gave proper respect to the event that happened there. The place provided a real sense of what it must have been like when those fishermen were just some guys making their way in life. When they rowed their boats out onto the water for their daily catch, before they became “fishers of men.” It was one of the few places where I could actually reflect on what I was seeing while I was standing there. It felt real.
Next we drove to Capernaum, the “hometown” of Jesus. At one point, Jesus went to preach at Nazareth and was rejected, so he moved to Capernaum. Capernaum is now an archeological site where monks have been excavating buried structures. The two main features are the ruins of and old Jewish synagogue and a Christian church, both built in the 4th century. Excavations were performed under the synagogue and it was determined that it was built on top of a 1st century synagogue, perhaps the one Jesus taught in.
Only a few meters away are the ruins of a 4th century church that were built on top of the site of Peter’s house of which a few walls still remain. It too is octagonal and was ruined and rebuilt several times making a series of low, concentric, octagonal rock walls. Both the synagogue and church were finally destroyed in the 7th century during the Persian invasion and were then abandoned. Erosion caused nearby hills to fill in the area for the next several hundred years until Franciscan monks began to excavate.
In the mid nineties a new church was built over the site of Peter’s house and the ruined churches. And by “over” I mean suspended over to where you can still see the ruins of the original churches. It is very modern and reminded us all of a large UFO that had landed on the ground. It didn’t seem to fit at all with the surroundings but was quite beautiful on the inside. The worship space had a glass floor in the very middle so we could look down on the ruined churches from above.
Of note are the ruins of homes from the same time period. They are spread all over the area, and in between the synagogue and the church. They are really just low rock walls that show where the boundaries and interior walls of the old homes were.
Our next stop was the River Jordan, the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The actual site along the river is not really known, in fact it is suspected that Jesus was baptized at a site that is now controlled by the Israeli military, but it really didn’t matter. I bought a small plastic bottle with the words “Water from the River Jordan” printed on the side and used it to collect a sample of the river.
We left the river and headed back to Jerusalem. I’ll finish off the rest my incredible adventure in my next journal. Stay tuned.
Today, January 7th, is Christmas for Christians in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. I imagine the Armenian and Greek Orthodox sanctuaries at The Church of the Nativity are filled to the brim with people, just like the Roman Catholic one was filled when we were there at “our” Christmastime. Just for kicks we are celebrating Christmas again at Dawson Hall by hosting a large dinner for several of our friends. It should prove to be a good time.
I hope all is going well with you. Take care and God bless.