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Day trips from Tiberias in northern Israel

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Not to be outshone by Jerusalem, nothern Israel lays claim to plenty of historical events and locations, including ancient sea ports and some of the key sites of Jesus' ministry.

145 Galilee

Following Jesus’ footsteps

Following a guide around Tiberias, I struggle to recall the bible stories I’d heard as a child. Some come more easily than others. Here in the surrounds of the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem seems very far away from these rolling hills, pastures and colourful, blooming vegetation. In Jerusalem’s Old City, I traced Jesus’ last torturous days and for the first time was able to think of him as a real, historical person. Around the Sea of Galilee, I’m visiting the same locations that he visited during his short ministry leading up to that fateful episode, and his biography keeps getting clearer.

My guide takes me through the ruins at Capernaum, thought to be the headquarters of Jesus’ public ministry and home to Apostle Peter. The subterranean ruins of where Peter’s small home was sits beside a collection of similar rock foundations — the homes of village fishermen and possibly Apostles Andrew, James and John. These simplistic formations are humbled further by the adjacent ruins of an elaborate synagogue, its Corinthian columns of white limestone and intricately carved stone reliefs. Etchings in the floor, perhaps those of children’s games, are still visible. This synagogue was built on top of another one that is still mostly buried. The book of Luke mentions that Jesus taught from here — perhaps from the one we are standing above. I look through the limestone blocks that form a portal, out over the rubble to the Sea of Galilee, and wonder if the view has changed much.

Only a couple of kilometres away, under a clear blue sky, we arrive at the Shrine of the Beatitudes, built just last century. The octagonal, black basalt and white limestone building is surrounded by a covered porch. It’s a peaceful place, well situated under palm trees and also overlooking the lake. Here is a place of pilgrimage. On this hillside, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, which contained the eight Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and dictums such as “turn the other cheek” and “judge not, that ye be not judged” — familiar to today.

125 Galilee

Some metres downhill is Tabgha, the site where Jesus is said to have fed 5,000 men and their families with only five loaves of bread and two fish, and still had leftovers to fill 12 baskets — some believe literally. A restored Byzantine church from the 5th century now stands on the site. Its partially original floor mosaics display various religious motifs, including, of course, a basket of bread and two fish. Outside, near an aged olive press, a man and woman play classical pieces on their violins under the shade of palms and massive growths of bougainvilleas.

Along these shores is where Cana is said to have been — the wedding feast site where Jesus turned water into wine, and from the mud of these shores, a 2,000-year-old “Jesus Boat” has been recovered — the kind that people of the day would have used: shallow and wide, with mast and sail.

Being physically present in these places has made a difference for me. The players of the New Testament and their activities have stepped out of the pages and landed here on the lush shores around this pretty lake. Now, I can picture a real man named Jesus, and his cohorts, planning, preaching and determined. I can see them in their robes and sandals, visiting the local settlements, heading towards the sombre destiny that would become known to the world at large centuries later.

My guide has arranged a surprise. Lost in thought, I follow him downhill to a dock and board Faith, an enlarged Jesus Boat replica, sort of. The worship boat casts off and we motor around the lake taking in the scenery. It’s sunny and breezy. I scan the shores for the Shrine of Beatitudes and Capernaum. Then a keyboard appears and crew/band members take their places on an elevated stage at the stern. Our barefoot captain picks up a microphone, welcomes the passengers and starts into a religious pop song in Hebrew. I don’t know the words. I do recognize the third piece to be “Amazing Grace”, though, and sing along in English, repeating the first verse since it’s the only one I know. Then he picks up the tempo. Some passengers form a circle and hold hands, stepping in and out to the beat. Another ballad follows. I close my eyes, the wind on my face, and in my head I hear Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On” — until I remember what happened to the Titanic.

150 Galilee

Roman and Crusader ports

It’s another warm, sunny day. I’m on the Israeli coast, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Tiberias. I’ve just walked through the excavated remains of ancient Caesarea, the city that Herod the Great had built as a Rome away from Rome around 25-13 BCE, and which he named after Augustus Caesar. Walking through the ruins, it’s easy to imagine a bustling city of 15,000 when it was the largest and busiest port on the eastern Mediterranean.

The ruins along Caesarea’s coastline reveal what once was a rich and vibrant city, with shrines, bath house, stadium and theatre. Games, famous to the known world of the time, were held here once every five years. The city must have swelled to accommodate athletes and spectators of the gladiatorial games and chariot races held at the seaside hippodrome, and performances at the "high-tech" theatre that was capable of flooding the stage for water scenes. Even the public toilets have survived.

The extensive break walls of the harbour, still considered a great engineering feat of the time, were constructed with wooden forms filled with concrete that hardened under water, likely the first time in history that this method was used. Ships leaving this impressive port supplied Rome, ten days away, with exports and riches from the east. Apostle Paul left for Rome from here after two years in prison — he pled his case to Caesar and lost.

105 Cesaerea

Caesarea was taken by the crusaders in 1101, but little remains of their influence. For that, I head 70 kilometres (43 miles) further north to another port town, Acre (or Akko) – a crusader city nearly intact and thought to be over 3,000 years old.

In the 13th century, Acre was flourishing. The crusaders had controlled it for nearly 200 years, making it the main port of their Christian empire in Palestine. Over time, Acre had acquired a collection of churches, mosques, merchants and warriors. Its protective walls, however, could not keep the strife of the outside world from influencing the city inside: Fonduks (open-square warehouses) vying for commercial control were loyal to their own rules of law; faiths suffered from internal divisions; Hospitaller, Teutonic and Templar military religious orders were in conflict amongst each other and with the merchant sects. Acre was not at peace within its walls. The Mamluks attacked in 1291 and the crusaders lost the city.

Today, crusader-built walls, towers and overpowering structures still exist and still exude strength and security. I cross a stone courtyard surrounded by archways of the Hospitaller Fortress, and step down beneath the citadel and the prison into the knights’ halls. Long ago, serious strategizing and war planning, as well as ceremonies and elegant feasts, took place in these dimly lit halls with massive columns and vaulted ceilings. Hall after hall, cool, dark, protected.

040 Acre

I exit the fortress into a narrow alley at ground level and wander up the passage. The stone streets are lined on each side by Jewish shops with awnings that block the sky to provide shade for shoppers examining produce — spices, shoes, scarves — but it’s late in the day and most shops have closed their doors.

Continuing through a maze of twisting, turning roadways, shops are replaced by a mishmash of homes built one atop the other in various stages of decline. A disarray of wires trail across walls, above doorframes and past broken window shutters. Stone archways overhead connect to homes on both sides of the street. I pass stairways leading up to street levels that I cannot see, and turn corner after corner until I’m standing in the courtyard of the Ottoman Khan Al-Omdan (Inn of Pillars) — one of the oldest inns in Acre.

Merchants stored their wares behind the locked doors at the ground level and slept in upper level rooms. Today it is abandoned and people use the courtyard as a passage from one street to another. I walk through tunnels and past plots filled with garbage bags that I guess to be either clean-up attempts or dumping areas, and hope that Acre’s restoration projects will expand some day to include private residences. There is so much potential here.

I take a break at a seaside restaurant and watch youths, standing on the very walls that confounded Napoleon I in 1799, leap out into the air and then plummet into refreshing water metres below.

025 Acre

It’s dusk; time for me to return to Tiberias, but I’m not ready yet. I haven’t seen the theatrical performance of Acre’s history at Hamam Al Basha, the Turkish Bath restored to pristine condition, nor the El-Jazar Mosque, said to be one of the most impressive in Israel, nor any synagogues or churches. I still want to visit the local souk and Turkish bazaar and wander these streets some more. Although these buildings are housing people of the 21st century, this labyrinth is telling me stories of antiquity and I’m not finished listening.

I recommend knowledgeable, experienced, flexible and humorous Roni Winter (winterron@gmail.com), a trilingual (English, German, Hebrew), government-licensed tour guide and archaeologist.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2008

This article was published at ©WorldGuide.eu 2009

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