Wake-up call on Thursday (the 21st) was the earliest of the trip--we needed to be on the bus by 7:30--packed, fed, and checked out. From the peace of Ginosar-by-the-Sea our bus took us around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and across the Jordan River, which both feeds and drains the lake. (Aside to any readers in the San Joaquin Valley: The Jordan is certainly not a very impressive stream, despite its symbolic significance. It is quite comparable to the Calaveras.) Very soon, we are climbing (the Sea of Galilee is below sea level, and our immediate destination is 2500 feet above sea level) into the region known as the Golan Heights, which, before the 1967 war, was part of Syria; Israel has since formally annexed it. The book of Acts never tells us precisely where on the "Damascus Road" St Paul had his life-changing (world-changing, actually) encounter with the risen Christ, but, in any case, we are on that road.
By 9:30 we will be overlooking Syria, some 40 miles or so from its capital, within sight of the U.N. border checkpoint. But first, Yossi tells us, he
has a surprise for us. When they were excavating for the present road, they discovered several ancient tombs hewn out of the hillside. These were actually "suites" of a sort--with an entryway, a common area, and several niches radiating therefrom. Common practice in the ancient semitic world was to recycle tombs. Bodies would be wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a niche long enough for the flesh to decompose. When only the skeleton remained, the bones would be placed, more compactly, in a stone or ceramic container known as an ossuary, thus liberating the tomb niche for another occupant. When we reached one of these sites, the bus pulled over and we were able to get off (carefully, since we were near a blind curve in the road) and inspect the arrangement for ourselves. We were, of course, at least 100 miles from Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was (temporarily) buried. But what we were looking at dated from the same era, and looked very much like Joseph of Arimathea's "own new tomb which had never been used" would have looked ... complete with a rolling stone to seal the entrance!
On our way to the Syrian border we pass by several smallmilitary installations, both active Israeli bases and defunct Syrian ones. Soon we are in the shadow of Mount Hermon, definitely not "skip[ping] like a young wild ox" per the Psalmist, and, moreover, shorn of the mantle of snow it usually wears at this time of year, which is a source of no small anxiety, as the snows of Mount Hermon feed the Jordan, and the Jordan feeds the Sea of Galilee, and the Sea of Galilee supplies all of Israel with fresh water. The concern with the depth of the snowpack reminded me eerily of the years I lived in central California. As we exit the bus at an observation point, the air is much brisker than it was in the valley. Before us lies Syria; we can see at least two distinct towns. Behind us is a bluff housing an Israeli military post, with a raft of sensitive surveillance equipment. One of our number somewhat naively turns to take a picture in that direction and is startled to hear our bus driver honking his horn. Apparently the soldiers who staff the outpost are a tad humorless and not shy about descending suddenly in a jeep and confiscating the cameras of curious tourists.
Our route continues in borderland, first with
Syria, then with Lebanon. The landscape is green and arboreal (the famous Cedars of Lebanon), with Druze villages and ruins of
Crusader fortresses darting in and out of our view as we traverse the windy mountain road. A ski resort in the distance is quiet because the terrain is quite devoid of snow. The next stop is Caesarea Philippi, still in the territory of the Golan, but not so much in the "heights" anymore. This is a major archeological site that once houses a temple to the Greek god Pan. It was here, of course, that Jesus put the question to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and Simon Peter gets the answer right. One can picture this exchange taking place at the site of the pagan temple, with Jesus turning his back to it and facing south toward Jerusalem even as he began to clue his followers in on what would take place there.
Here, as in many other places on our route, the 13 of us find ourselves dodging a group of about 700 Nigerian pilgrims, who pretty much get to go wherever they want to go, because there are so many of them and so few of us.
From Casarea Philippi we back down to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and visit three more holy spots: the Mount of the Beatitudes, the site of the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 (Taghba), and the village of Capernaum, Jesus' adopted home town. They are all in close proximity to one another, though not walking distance for pilgrims in a hurry. The Mount of the Beatitudes, centered on a shrine church with a panoramic view of both the hillside and the lake below, is crowded with tour groups. As we approach the entrance to the area from where our bus is parked, a wind suddenly blows from the west, whipping up the waves on the lake. It is, right there, easy to see how Jesus' disciples could have set out in a boat into calm water, only to find themselves in peril, struggling to maintain control of their craft only a few minutes later. The shrineTaghba is, in my opinion, particularly beautiful. In front of the altar, some of the mosaic floor from the orignal 4th century church are preserved--an image of loaves and fishes that I have seen replicated many times, only now I was looking at the original. Capernaum certainly does include a shrine church--on the site of Simon Peter's house--but it is friendlier to the "pious historical tourist," since it was largely abandoned late in the firstr century, eclipsed by the nearby city of Tiberias. Some of the ruins have been re-assembled, giving an impression of the community's ambience at the time of Christ. The ruins of the synagogue are particularly impressive, and while the structure dates from an era several decades later than the New Testament, I found myself wondering whether it may be on the same site as the one that figures so prominently in Jesus' early ministry.
By this time it was after 1 PM, and we were hungry, though we had been warned that lunch would be late. Not to worry, though--our next destination was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, across from where we had spent the night, via the "territory of the Gadarenes" (aka Gerasenes), the keepers of swine into whom Jesus allowed a legion of demons to enter after casting them out of the man they were occupying. We pull up to a large dining facility that caters exclusively to busload after busload after busload of tourists. (Yep, the Nigerians are still with us.) Lunch consists of broiled tilapia--tilapia being the signature edible species of this body of water, both in ancient times and now. Preparing our meal was not exactly a labor-intensive endeavor, as the only thing they did before cooking the fish was to gut them: Head, tail, skin, and bones are all on the plate along with the edible part. It's just a matter of digging in.
After our repast we climbed down into a boat--rather larger and more high-powered than the ones used by Jesus and his friends--for a brief excursion out into the lake. It's a beautiful clear day, with air temperature in the mid-70s farenheit. We can see both ends and both sides of the lake. The significance of it all is getting too much to even process.
Back in the bus, and back to the Jordan River, only this time to a spot south of the lake, where it begins it long windy path down to the Dead Sea, nearly 100 miles to the south as the vulture flies. We stop at the most kitschy tourist trap of the whole trip, a spot where the west bank (speaking literally, not poltically) of the river has been dug out and paved, making it convenient for visitors to get into the water and do something related to baptism, whether its actually getting baptized, baptizing somebody else, orjust getting wet in such a way that enables some sort of reconnection with one's baptism. They even have changing areas and white smocks available to facilitate the encounter (not to mention a large gift shop). I got my hands wet, just to be able to say I'd done so, but was not moved to do anything more demonstrative than that. I just didn't have a good feeling about the place, probably related to the fact that it was nowhere near the actual spot where John the Baptist did his thing, which was way south in the Judean desert, near the Dead Sea. Of course, that actual area is in poltically sensitive territory these days, hence this more convenient (and bucolic, what with all the trees lining the banks) northern alternative. But hey, if there'd been a shrine church there,
I'd have probably been all over it!
Mercifully, tourist attractions in Israel all shut down around 4:30 PM, so our day is done. I'm tired just remembering it. We could easily have gone back to the same kibbutz-run hotel, but in the interest of exposing us to various alternatives for when we lead our own tours, our tour company has booked us into a different place, this one in the city of Tiberias, once again on the western shore, just a little south of our previous Ginosar location.
Tiberias seems to have something resembling a "night life," and it's fun to walk up and down the main drag, and along the seaside promenade, in the couple of hours of free time before dinner. Now it's a Jewish Israeli community, though it was not so in antiquity, and it was a particularly popular hangout for the Crusaders for the couple of centuries during which they were on the scene, leaving behind buildings and walls the remains of which are simply integrated into the contemporary city in a mostly non-pretentious way.