Monday, May 28, 2012

Travels in Israel: Nazareth, Home of Mary and Jesus

Nazareth, village of the Annunciation.
"Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" was meant by the Romans as an insult. At that time, Nazareth was about the size of two football fields, a tiny backwater village of no importance. That a "king" could come from it was absurd.

Nazareth is a town of several religions, all catered to by merchants.
Today it's a city of 75,000; tourists and pilgrims flock to the Church of the Annunciation, supposedly built atop the house of Mary. That dwelling, like many of its era, was a troglodyte structure, a house built on a cave.  Is it the house of Mary? No one knows for sure, but a Byzantine and later a Crusader church were built on the spot before the current basilica was constructed in 1955-'69. It is now a parish church for some 7,000 Catholics.

Church of the Annunciation with its Madonna lily dome.
Tip: Nazareth is a city of hills. Tour buses and vans take passengers up to the church, but you will have to walk down to where the bus can park. It's not a bad walk.

The church is in two parts. The upper church is topped by a dome patterned after the Madonna lily, a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and is surrounded by walls of mosaics of Mary from around the world. I found these charming and couldn't stop photographing them.

Just a few of the many Madonnas.


The cave of Mary's house? You decide.

The Grotto or Cave of the Annunciation is in the lower church. Is it the cave where the Angel appeared to Mary to announce that the virgin was carrying the child of God? Scientists date the cave no later than the 4th century and the Greek Orthodox Church has the annunciation occurring as Mary was drawing water from a spring.  No one I saw had dates or details on the mind.

Tip: There are 11 steps from street level to the upper church level, 14 steps down and 13 steps up to and from the lower church.

A chapel marks the spot where Jesus was to have been thrown off a cliff by his neighbors.
According to our guide Ronnie, the leaders of Nazareth wanted to get rid of Jesus because of the trouble fomented by his preaching. According to legend, they planned to throw him off a cliff but Mary talked them out of it.

The best meal I had in all of Israel was at Tishreen, 56, Spring Street, near the old Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, about a block from Mary's well, where they believe the annunciation occurred.

Mary's well, look but don't drink the water.

The well water is no longer potable but Tishreen's food can't be beat. You can see the recipe for their Chicken Breast in Plum and Coffee Sauce at my blog, Food Afar - Recipes from a Travel Writer.

Leia Mais…
Monday, May 14, 2012

Travel to Israel: The Sea of Galilee

Overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
It's a large lake not a sea but the Lake of Galilee just doesn't have the same ring or cache as the Sea of Galilee. When travel was on foot or ass-back, it must have looked like a sea to those who lived around it. No wonder pilgrims concentrate only on its northwest shores and surrounding villages.

One thing is true, it is indelibly identified with Jesus from gathering its fishermen to be fishers of men and walking on water to the delivering the Beatitudes and reappearing after the Crucifiction. Christians flock here to walk in his footsteps. Although walking "over" his footsteps is more accurate, it's near enough to inspire the devout. As our Jewish guide remarked, it's more important to walk in the spirit of the man than worship where he might have walked.

Tip: You will do some walking here but it's not bad. Uneven surfaces abound so don't walk and gawk.

Church of the Beatitudes.
Church of the Beatitudes
Early morning fog shrouded the sea/lake as we drove up into the hills above it to the Church of the Beatitudes which commemorates the Sermon on the Mount. No one knows if this is "that" mount; it was the one Arab villagers, under pain of death, pointed out to Crusaders. Many suspect it was chosen for its beauty and view. It is an idyllic spot to contemplate that memorable message. 

An easy drive for us, it was an all day - 11 1/2 hours - effort for Jesus to reach it by foot from his home in Nazareth.
Mary Magdalene as depicted at the Church of the Beatitudes.
Nearby is Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene.

Inside the Church of the Beatitudes.
The view is beautiful - you can see the whole Capernaum area - and the atmosphere is peaceful. The octagonal-shaped church is a small gem.

As you walk toward it from the parking lot, the path is lined with rectangular markers bearing the Beatitudes.

Just before you reach the church there's a spot where groups often gather.

Few, however, take the time to look underfoot at the beautiful mosaic of Christ's life.

Most memorable of all, the heart-felt hymns - "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace" - sung by a Korean group of pilgrims inside the church. 

Statue of St. Peter.
Capernaum, Town of Jesus and Peter
Nearby is Capernaum, which calls itself the Town of Jesus. This is one site that can be verified as much as any can. The Apostle Peter lived here, supposedly with his mother-in-law. He was known for his miraculous cures and when the structure was unearthed, graffiti on the wall read, "Peter Save Us".

Inside the church built over the house of Peter.

Looking down into the house from the church above.

Today what's left of the house can be seen from below and within the modern church built over it.

Looking at what remains of Peter's house from ground level.

Steps up to the church.
Tip: There are 21 steps to the inside of the church and 7 steps down to the center of the circular building to look down into Peter's house.

Remains of the White Synagogue.
Adjacent are the ruins of the late 4th century AD White Synagogue that was built on top of the synagogue from the time of Jesus and Peter.
And below the White Synagogue, the synagogue around which Peter and possibly Jesus walked.

At the time of Christ, Capernaum was an important area, an economic hub and crossroads. If you had a message to get out, this is where you came.

Leia Mais…
Monday, May 7, 2012

Israel, Galilee: River Jordan and Hellenistic splendor

A wide spot on the River Jordan
Both Jordan and Israel make much of the Jordan River and both lay claim to "the" spot where John baptized Jesus. Most likely that was near Jericho where roads joined to cross the small river. (Which country's side the two entered the river from is evidently the point of debate.)

Entrance to Yardenit.
Israelis readily admit that Yardenit is not "the" spot (it was a swamp until the 20th century), but for pilgrims, it is where they get baptized. As our guide reminded us, the concept of total immersion is a much simpler version of the Jewish mikvah, ceremonial bath.

Stairs lead down to river-level platforms.
A group had just finished their total immersions as we arrived at the lushly green and shady river bank. Concrete walkways and steps down to the water level have been built and there is, of course, a large gift shop.

Gotta take a "dip".
Even though we know it isn't "the" spot, we all feel compelled to walk down and put our hands in the famous water.

Robes for rent or sale at the gift shop.
Anyone can be baptized here but they must rent a white robe from the gift shop.

Tip: Didn't write down a step count but if memory and photos serve, there are 26 steps down to each of several concrete platforms.

Nutria? In the River Jordan? Who knew?

As the crowds dispersed and the river waters calmed, the nutria came out to beg a snack. Somehow over-sized aquatic rats with big orange buckteeth didn't quite fit with my Sunday School version of the Jordan River.

A nice surprise were the large tile plaques of the baptism passage from the Gospel of St. Mark in a variety of the world's languages.

Bet She'an
Grander yet less commercial is Bet She'an, which had been a major city since 400 B.C. when it was an important caravan stop under Egyptian rule. As is so often the case, excavations have unearthed Canaanite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Arab cities. 

The grapes in the hair identifies this as Dionysus.
Its glory days were in the Hellenistic era when it was the capital of the 10 Greek cities known as the Decapolis. After the Jewish state was declared the area became a popular site for kibbutzes.

Biblically, King Saul died at nearby Mount Gilboa during a war with the Philistines who hung his body from the city walls.

Many of us had traveled and written about remains from all of those eras but most of us had never heard of Bet She'an Now we aren't likely to forget it.

Spread across a valley, these ruins are impressive, but thoughts of what had been before the earthquakes of 363, 409 and most destructively, in February, 749, set our imaginations to flight. 

Oven kept the coals hot and pipes under the floor of this portion of the 1 1/2-acre bath complex kept the steam pouring in when water was splashed on the coals around them.
Especially considering only 10 percent has been excavated.

The power of that earthquake cracked these massive columns.

Up to 8,000 people sat here ...
The most impressive ruins are those of the circa 200 Roman theater which sat about 8,000.
... to watch performers here.

Tip: You are going to have a lot of walking here. Steps are minimal but you descend on foot to the valley bottom and back up. 

One of the more elegant streets as this earthquake-ripped flooring demonstrates.
Roman streets are uneven and earthquakes have made the terrain very irregular. 

Take your time, use a walking stick and it's doable. 

If you prefer to leave the walking to others, there's an excellent scale model of what it used to look like on the pleasant patio outside the bathrooms, small gift shop and canteen with outdoor tables and chairs at this national park. 

The views from this vantage point are encompassing. Feral cats will happily but warily share your snack.

While you're looking, that cross atop the high hill is left over from the filming of  Jesus Christ Superstar.

Leia Mais…