Holyland Tour in Focus: Israel
The Dead Sea goes by many different names in the Bible:
In the book of Genesis, the Dead Sea is called the Vale of Siddim: “All these were joined together in the Vale of Siddim, which is the Salt Sea” (Genesis 14:3).
In the book of Joshua, the Dead Sea is called the Plains Sea: “That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the Sea of the Plain, even the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho” (Joshua 3:16).
The book of Zechariah refers to the location as the Former Sea (i.e., meaning “early”; the Hebrew root q.d.m. means “early” or “before” and thus also refers, spatially, to the east, where the sun rises. Therefore, the phrase “Former Sea” indicates that the Dead Sea is located in the eastern part of the land of Israel): “And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the Former Sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be” (Zechariah 14:8).
Early in 1949 archaeologists identified cave 1, triggering the beginning of an archaeological investigation of the area. Exploration of the cave, which lies one kilometer north of Wadi Qumran, yielded the remains of at least 70 manuscripts, including bits of the original seven Scrolls. The cave’s discovery established the origin of the purchased Scrolls, while archaeological artifacts recovered there confirmed the Scroll dates suggested by paleographic analysis. At the same time the Bedouin continued to search for Scrolls, as these scraps of leather proved to be a lucrative source of income. Fresh material found by Bedouin in other caves proved that the Cave 1 discovery was not an isolated phenomenon in the desert; additional caves with manuscripts also existed.
The years between 1951 and 1956 were marked by accelerated activity in both the search for caves and the archaeological excavation of the Qumran site. An eight-kilometer-long strip of cliffs was thoroughly investigated. Of the 11 Qumran Caves that yielded written remains, five were discovered by Bedouin and six by archaeologists.
Jesus the Christ in Jericho
The only surviving written history of Jericho is of those recorded in the Bible. Archaeology has demonstrated that the Biblical record is a precise eyewitness account of events that transpired there many thousands of years ago. “And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.” (Mark 10:46-52)
It’s reputed to be the oldest town on earth, with stories to match. The Israelites supposedly brought down its walls with a great shout and trumpet blasts. Here Jesus healed Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, and dined with Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector. And both Cleopatra and Herod the Great coveted this lush oasis. Jericho (the name means “City of palms”) is mentioned 70 times in the Old Testament.
MOUNT OF TEMPTATION
The Mount of Temptation, with a gravity-defying monastery clinging to its sheer face, is traditionally regarded as the mountain on which Christ was tempted by the devil during his 40-day fast.
As recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) — and fleetingly in Mark (1:12-13) — the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert. While he fasted, the devil tempted him three times to prove his divinity by demonstrating his supernatural powers.
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:8-10)
The mountain is also known as Mount Quarantania and Jebel Quarantul. Both names arise from a mispronunciation of the Latin word Quarentena, meaning 40, the number of days in Christ’s fast. This period of fasting became the model for the practice of Lent in Christian churches.
Since Jericho was on the normal route from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus passed through it several times. Near the centre of the city, a centuries-old sycamore tree recalls the incident in which the tax collector Zacchaeus, too short to see over the crowd, climbed a sycamore’s branches in order to see Jesus. (The African sycamore fig should not be confused with the sycamore of Europe and North America, which is a different species.) “He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:1-5)
The Birthplace of the Lord: Bethlehem
The West Bank city of Bethlehem, about 9km south of Jerusalem, is celebrated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The city of Bethlehem (in Hebrew its name means “house of bread”) perches on a hill at the edge of the Judaean desert. Bedouin from the desert rub shoulders with pilgrims and tourists among a mix of cultures in its town market and its narrow, ancient streets. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. “ (Matthew 1:22-25)
Jerusalem: The Holy City
Jerusalem is revered as a holy city by half the human race.
For Jews it is the city King David made the capital of his kingdom, and where the Temple stood, containing the Ark of the Covenant. For Christians, it is where Christ died, was buried and rose again, and the birthplace of the Church. The Jewish and Christian Bibles mention Jerusalem several hundred times.
For Muslims it is al-Quds (“the Holy”) because they believe Muhammad ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount during his Night Journey.
Its iconic symbol, the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock, stands on the Temple Mount, also identified as Mount Moriah, where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
CHURCH OF THE ASCENSION
The 64-metre tower that dominates the Mount of Olives skyline belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension. It was built to this height in the 1870s so that pilgrims unable to walk to the Jordan River could climb its 214 steps and at least see the river. Atop the freestanding square tower is a sharply-pointed belfry. It contains an eight-ton bell, cast in Russia and pulled and pushed — mainly by women pilgrims — on a circular wagon from the port of Jaffa. It was the first Christian bell to ring in the Ottoman city of Jerusalem. ”And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
While the church is dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus — an event most Christians believe took place about 200 metres further west at the Dome of the Ascension — it also claims a connection to St John the Baptist. An old tradition says the Baptist’s head was buried on the Mount of Olives and discovered on the site of the church by two Syrian monks in the 4th century.
CHURCH OF PATER NOSTER
At the Church of Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives, Christians recall Christ’s teaching of the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples.
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:1-4)
A long tradition holds that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in the cave that forms the grotto under the church. When the Crusaders built a church here in the 12th century, they called it Pater Noster (Latin for Our Father).
CHURCH OF DOMINUS FLEVIT
The little teardrop Church of Dominus Flevit, halfway down the western slope of the Mount of Olives, recalls the Gospel incident in which Jesus wept over the future fate of Jerusalem.
This poignant incident occurred during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, when crowds threw their cloaks on the road in front of him and shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Looking down on the city, Jesus wept over it as he prophesied its future destruction. Enemies would “set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side . . . crush you to the ground . . . and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:37-44)
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
The garden of Gethsemane, near the foot of the Mount of Olives, is named in the New Testament as the place where Jesus went with his disciples to pray the night before he was crucified. ”Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:36-39)
The name in Hebrew means “oil press”. Oil is still pressed from the fruit of eight ancient and gnarled olive trees that give the garden a timeless character.
Mount Zion, the highest point in ancient Jerusalem, is the broad hill south of the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. Also called Sion, its name in Old Testament times became projected into a metaphoric symbol for the whole city and the Promised Land. Several important events in the early Christian Church are likely to have taken place on Mount Zion:
- The Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, both believed to have been on the site of the Cenacle;
- The appearance of Jesus before the high priest Caiaphas, believed to have been at the site of the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu;
- The “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary, believed to have occurred at the site of the Church of the Dormition, and
- The Council of Jerusalem, around AD 50, in which the early Church debated the status of converted gentiles (Acts 15:1-29), perhaps also on the site of the Cenacle.
CHURCH OF ST. PETER IN GALLICANTU
Built on an almost sheer hillside, the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu stands on the eastern slope of Mount Zion. “Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” On its roof rises a golden rooster atop a black cross — recalling Christ’s prophesy that Peter would deny him three times “before the cock crows”. Galli-cantu means cockcrow in Latin. “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:69-75)
The scene of Peter’s disgrace was the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas. The Assumptionist congregation, which built St Peter in Gallicantu over the ruins of a Byzantine basilica, believes it stands on the site of the high priest’s house.
King David’s Tomb
The Old Testament clearly indicates that David was buried somewhere else. However, the site — directly underneath the Cenacle, where Christians commemorate the Last Supper — remains a place of pilgrimage for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
David’s death at the end of his 40-year reign is recorded in 1 Kings 2:10: “Then David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David.”
Archaeologists have shown that the City of David, also called Zion (or Sion), was the low spur south of the Temple Mount and east of the present Mount Zion.
CENACLE ROOM (The Upper Room)
The Cenacle room on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem is where two major events in the early Christian Church are commemorated: The Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29)
The hill of Mount Zion, the highest point in ancient Jerusalem, is dominated by the Church of the Dormition. The location is identified in Christian tradition as the place where the Virgin Mary died — or “fell asleep”, as the name suggests.
Two cities: Jerusalem and Ephesus (in present-day Turkey), claim to be the place where the Virgin Mary died. The Ephesus claim rests in part on the Gospel account that Christ on his cross entrusted the care of Mary to St John (who later went to Ephesus).
But the earliest traditions all locate the end of Mary’s life in Jerusalem, where the Tomb of Mary is venerated at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
The Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall, is a 187-foot-high section of the ancient wall of Herod’s Temple, the second temple built on that spot. The Wailing Wall is on the western side of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Herod the Great constructed the oldest layers of the wall between 20 B.C and 19 B.C. as the second Jewish temple was being built. The wall extends for 1600 feet, but houses built against it obscure most of its length. Today the exposed portion of the Wailing Wall faces a large plaza in the Jewish Quarter, which has been a venue for pilgrimage and prayer for Jews since the 16th century. The first Temple, Solomon’s Temple, was built during his reign, 970-930 B.C. and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The Temple was reconstructed in 516 B.C., with a significant expansion in 19 B.C. by Herod. The Romans under Titus destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D. to crush the Jewish revolt that had been going on for four years. The destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. by Titus was predicted in Ezekiel 21 and Moses also predicted its destruction and subsequent scattering of the Jews into distant lands (Deuteronomy 28:49-52). The Bible also predicted the restoration of the Jews to their native land (Ezekiel 36:24, 33-35). The nation of Israel was reestablished on May 15, 1948 by a United Nations resolution. Although the Jewish people have been restored to their geographic and political nation, they have yet to be restored to their covenant relationship with God because they have rejected their Messiah, Jesus Christ. Several Old Testament prophets foretell the mourning or “wailing” of Israel: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them’” (Jeremiah 9:17). “Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the LORD has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath” (Jeremiah 7:29).
MOUNT MORIAH (Temple Mount)
Mount Moriah in Old City Jerusalem is the site of numerous biblical acts of faith. It is also one of the most valuable pieces of real estate and one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate on earth. This is a profoundly sacred area to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Sitting atop Mount Moriah today is the Temple Mount, a 37-acre tract of land where the Jewish temple once stood. Several important Islamic holy sites are there now, including the Dome of the Rock – a Muslim shrine built thirteen hundred years ago – and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Mount Moriah’s history begins in Genesis. In the twenty-second chapter, God commands Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you” (Genesis 22:2). The place God led Abraham was Mount Moriah. Abraham didn’t fully understand what God was asking him to do in light of God’s previous promise to establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac (Genesis 17:19); nonetheless, he trusted God and by faith offered Isaac as a sacrifice. Of course, God intervened and spared Isaac’s life by providing a ram instead. Abraham thereafter called this place “The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided’” (Genesis 22:14). Because of Abraham’s obedience on Mount Moriah, God told Abraham that his “descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me” (vv. 17, 18).
HOLY SEPULCHRE CHURCH
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem covers what Christians believe is the site of the most important event in human history: The place where Jesus Christ rose from the dead. “And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:4-7)
This sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulchre displays a mish-mash of architectural styles. It bears the scars of fires and earthquakes, deliberate destruction and reconstruction down the centuries. It is often gloomy and usually thronging with noisy visitors.
This is the pre-eminent shrine for Christians, who consider it the holiest place on earth. And it attracts pilgrims by the thousand, all drawn to pay homage to their Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Empty Tomb of Jesus
In a setting of neatly maintained gardens and trees, the Garden Tomb provides a tranquil environment for prayer and reflection. But any claim that this is where Christ was buried and rose from the dead lacks authenticity.
“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
The open tomb carved into a rock face, with skull-like erosion in a limestone cliff nearby, can be found down an alley off Nablus Road, north of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.
CHURCH OF NATIVITY
Entering the church, that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace, means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 metres high.
“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7)
The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.
A short distance south of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a shrine called the Milk Grotto, on a street of the same name.
An irregular grotto hollowed out of soft white rock, the site is sacred to Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike. It is especially frequented by new mothers and women who are trying to conceive.
By mixing the soft white chalk with their food, and praying to Our Lady of the Milk, they believe it will increase the quantity of their milk or enable them to become pregnant.
Rows of framed letters and baby pictures sent from around the world to the Milk Grotto testify to the effectiveness of the “milk powder” and prayer. (The powder is available only at the shrine; it may not be ordered from overseas.)
Caves where shepherds “kept watch over their flock” still abound in the area east of Bethlehem. Here, the Gospel of Luke tells us, an angel announced the birth of Jesus.
“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:10-14)
The angel’s good news was not given to the noble or pious, but to workers with a low reputation. Jewish literature ranked “shepherd” as among the most despised occupations of the time — but Christ was to identify himself with this occupation when he called himself “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11). The traditional place of the angel’s visit is the town of Beit Sahur. Originally known as the Village of the Shepherds, it is now an eastern suburb of Bethlehem.
Christian tradition places the birth of John the Baptist — who announced the coming of Jesus Christ, his cousin — in the picturesque village of Ein Karem 7.5km south-west of Jerusalem. “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:11-17)
The angel Gabriel appeared to the elderly priest Zechariah while he was serving in the Temple and told him that his wife Elizabeth was to bear a son. Zechariah was sceptical, so he was struck dumb and remained so until the baby John was born.
St. John the Baptist Church
There are two churches of St John the Baptist in the town. Best-known is the Catholic Church of the Nativity of St John, identifiable by its tall tower topped by a round spire. It is also called “St John in the mountains”, a reference to the “hill country” of the Scripture.
The church combines remnants of many periods. An early church on this site was used by Muslim villagers for their livestock before the Franciscans recovered it in the 17th century. The Franciscans built the present church with the help of the Spanish monarchy.
The high altar is dedicated to St John. To the right is Elizabeth’s altar. To the left are steps leading down to a natural grotto — identified as John’s birthplace and believed to be part of his parents’ home.
Church of the Visitation
The Virgin Mary’s visit to Elizabeth — depicted in mosaic on the façade — is commemorated in a two-tiered church, on a slope of the hill south of Ein Karem.
Completed in 1955 to a design by Antonio Barluzzi, the artistically decorated Church of the Visitation is considered one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel sites in the Holy Land.
This is believed to be the site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s summer house, where Mary came to visit her cousin. On the wall opposite the church, ceramic plaques reproduce Mary’s canticle of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in some 50 languages.
Picturesque Jaffa, on the Mediterranean Sea just south of Tel Aviv, is where the apostle Peter received a crucial vision that changed his mind about accepting gentiles into the early Christian Church.
Peter was staying in the seaside house of a tanner called Simon and went up on the roof to pray.
He fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and a sheet lowered, filled with all sorts of animals, which he was told to eat. When he protested that some of the animals were unclean, a voice told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”.
Realising that “I should not call anyone profane or unclean”, Peter accepted an invitation to visit a centurion called Cornelius at Caesarea, about 48 kilometres up the coast, and accepted Cornelius as the first gentile to convert to Christianity (Acts 10).
St. Peter’s Church
The steeple of St. Peter’s Church in Old Jaffa, overlooking the picturesque fishing port, has for over a century been a beacon signaling to sea-weary pilgrims that the Holy Land was near.
The church’s charming red brick facade is an unusual accent in a city built of stone; its interior, with vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows, marble-covered walls and a huge painting over the altar of Peter’s visitation by an angel, recalls churches in the Italian tradition.
St. Peter’s, which holds daily Mass in several languages for a lively local congregation, was built in 1654 over a medieval fortress. In the late eighteenth century it was twice destroyed, and the present structure was completed in 1894.
World history is never far away anywhere in Israel, and Jaffa’s St. Peter’s is no exception: a room at the church reportedly hosted Napoleon Bonaparte when he came to the city in 1799.
House of Simon the Tanner
The best-known rooftop in Jaffa – thanks to Peter’s famous vision – belongs to the House of Simon the Tanner (Acts 10:9-47). It is recognizable by the lighthouse, installed in 1875 to guide ships and fishing vessels past Jaffa’s rocky shoals.
Members of the Armenian Christian Zakarian family, who still live in the house, were in charge of operating the lighthouse for generations. After many years of darkness, it once again illuminates Jaffa’s nights as part of the house’s restoration. In the old days, Mrs. Zakarian would welcome an endless stream of Christian visitor seeking to stand where Peter was praying when he saw his vision of the great sheet filled with unclean animals, which led him to convert the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea.
The house and roof are now closed for renovation; however the Old Jaffa Tourism Association looks forward to its reopening.
The prophet Elijah’s fire-lighting challenge — one of the Old Testament’s most spectacular contests between Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, and a pagan deity — took place on the south-eastern summit of Mount Carmel.
Stretching south-east from the Mediterranean Sea, with the city of Haifa sloped against it, Mount Carmel is actually a coastal range rather than a mountain.
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.” (1 Kings 18:36-40)
From ancient times it was considered a sacred place. It is often cited in the Old Testament for its beauty and fertility.
The 6th-century Greek mathematician Pythagoras is recorded to have visited the mountain because of its reputation for sacredness, stating that it was “the most holy of all mountains, and access was forbidden to many”.
STELLA MARIS MONASTERY
Perched at the western edge of Mount Carmel, high above the Mediteranean and the coastal city of Haifa, is Stella Maris Monastery and church. The name of the 19th-century monastery — Latin for “Star of the Sea” — refers not to the magnificent view, but rather to an early title accorded Mary, the mother of Jesus.
”So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” (1 Kings 18:42-44)
The monastery is the world headquarters of a Catholic religious order of friars and nuns, the Carmelites.
Cave of Alia
On the northern slope of Mount Carmel, near the Haifa beach, is a cave where the prophet is believed to have meditated before his fateful encounter with the priests of Baal.
In this encounter, described in 1 Kings 18:1-40, Elijah issued a challenge to 450 pagan priests. Before an assembly on the summit of Mount Carmel, he called on the priests to seek fire from their god Baal to light a sacrifice.
When Baal failed to respond to their pleading, Elijah rebuilt the ruined altar of the Lord and offered his own sacrifice. Immediately fire from heaven consumed the offering, even though it had been soaked in water.
Baha’i Shrine and Gardens
A golden dome, marble walls, granite pillars and manicured gardens cascading down a slope of Mount Carmel make the Baha’i Shrine in Haifa a spectacularly colourful attraction for visitors.
The shrine is the world headquarters of the Baha’i faith, a monotheistic religion committed to the unity of humanity and the fundamental oneness of all religions.
The shrine, built in 1953, contains the remains of Siyyid Al Muhammad (1819-50). Known as the Bab, he is revered as the prophet-herald of the Baha’i faith.
The shrine’s nine sides represent the nine major religions of the world. Its dome is covered with 14,000 gold-coated bricks.
The Wedding at Cana
Cana in Galilee is celebrated as the scene of Jesus’ first miracle. It is actually the place of his first two public miracles in Galilee — the changing of water into wine and the remote healing of an official’s son 32km away in Capernaum.
On the first occasion, Jesus and his first disciples turned up at a wedding feast, possibly that of a close relative of his mother Mary. The wine ran out — perhaps because those additional guests had not been catered for — and Mary turned to her Son to overcome the embarrassment (John 2: 1-11).
“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” he responded. “My hour has not yet come.” But she persisted and her Son turned six jars holding more than 550 litres of water (equivalent to more than 730 bottles) into fine wine.
This miracle is significant for Christian pastoral theology. Christ’s attendance at the wedding feast, and his divine intervention to rescue the hosts from embarrassment, are taken as setting his seal on the sanctity of marriage and, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “on the propriety of humble rejoicing on such occasions”. The incident is also seen as an argument against teetotalism.
The thriving resort of Tiberias, with its balmy climate, lakeside hotels and fish restaurants, is a popular base for Christian pilgrims exploring the Galilee that Jesus knew.
Tiberias was a new city when Jesus began his public ministry. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, founded it around AD 20 to replace Sepphoris as his capital.
A fish-market and frontier post beside the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum became Jesus’ home town and the scene of many of his miracles. It was also the home of the first disciples Jesus called — the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John, and the tax collector Matthew (who as Levi collected taxes in the customs office).
In this town:
- Jesus worshipped and taught in the synagogue — where his teaching made a deep impression on the local people because, unlike the scribes, he taught with authority. (Mark 1:21-22)
- In the same synagogue, Jesus promised the Eucharist in his “I am the bread of life” discourse: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:22-59)
- Jesus and healed many people of illness or possession by the devil, including Peter’s mother-in-law and the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue.
- Jesus pronounced a curse on the town, along with Bethsaida and Chorazin, because so many of its inhabitants refused to believe in him.
Tranquil Tabgha, on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, is best known for Christ’s miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish to feed a multitude. But it is also remembered for Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples after his Resurrection, when he tested and commissioned St Peter as leader of his Church.
Tabgha is at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, about 3km south-west of Capernaum. The name is an Arab mispronunciation of the Greek Heptapegon (meaning “seven springs”). Several warm sulphurous springs enter the lake here, attracting fish especially in winter.
This was a favourite spot for fishermen from nearby Capernaum, and its beach was familiar to Jesus and his disciples. It is easy to imagine Jesus speaking from a boat in one of the little bays, with crowds sitting around on the shore.
CHURCH OF THE MULTIPLICATION OF THE LOAVES AND FISHES
The modern Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha stands on the site of a 4th-century church, displaying Byzantine mosaic decorations that are among the most elegantly executed in the Holy Land.
The whole floor depicts flora and fauna of the area in vibrant colours — peacocks, cranes, cormorants, herons, doves, geese, ducks, a flamingo and a swan, as well as snakes, lotus flowers and oleanders. But the best-known mosaic, on the floor near the altar, refers to the miracle the church commemorates. It shows a basket of loaves flanked by two Galilee mullet. The scripture says, “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.” (Luke 9:16-17)
Beneath the altar is the rock on which it is believed Jesus placed the loaves and fish when he blessed them.
CHURCH OF ST. PETER’S PRIMACY
This squat building of black basalt, built in 1934, is where Jesus is believed to have made his third appearance to his disciples after his Resurrection.
As the event is described in the 21st chapter of St John, Peter and six other disciples had been fishing all night without catching anything. Just after daybreak Jesus stood on the beach, though they did not recognise him. “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:4-7)
The rock incorporated in the church floor is traditionally believed to be the place where Jesus prepared breakfast. It was known to medieval pilgrims as Mensa Christ (the table of Christ).
MOUNT OF BEATITUDES
The Mount of Beatitudes, believed to be the setting for Jesus’ most famous discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, is one of the most beautifully serene places in the Holy Land.
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1-11)
The exact site of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:28) is unknown. Pilgrims commemorate the event at the eight-sided Church of the Beatitudes, built on the slope of the mount and accessible by a side road branching off the Tiberias-Rosh Pina highway.
The Jordan River runs through the land and history of the Bible, giving its waters a spiritual significance that sets it aside from other rivers. The Jordan is significant for Jews because the tribes of Israel under Joshua crossed the river on dry ground to enter the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert.
It is significant for Christians because John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the waters of the Jordan. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)
Mount Tabor, rising dome-like from the Plain of Jezreel, is the mountain where Christian tradition places the Transfiguration of Jesus. Its unique contours — variously described as “breast-shaped, “hump-backed” and “resembling an upside down tea cup” — captured the imagination of ancient peoples who attached to it supernatural qualities. In the Old Testament, Mount Tabor is described as a sacred mountain and a place for worship. It is not mentioned by name in the New Testament. “And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” (Matthew 17:4-8)
The Holy Family in Nazareth
Nazareth in Galilee is celebrated by Christians as the town where the Virgin Mary, aged around 14 years, agreed to become pregnant with the Son of God. It also became the home town of Jesus, Mary and her husband Joseph after the Holy Family returned from fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s soldiers.
BASILICA OF ANNUNCIATION
Modern-day Nazareth is dominated by the towering cupola of the Church of the Annunciation. It is an Arab city, mainly Muslim, with an adjoining Jewish upper city of Nazareth Ilit, but a profusion of churches, monasteries and other religious institutions make it a major centre of Christian pilgrimage.
The massive two-storey Church of the Annunciation, in strikingly modern architectural style and colourfully decorated, is the largest Christian church in the Middle East.
Its cupola, surmounted by a lantern symbolising the Light of the World, stands directly over a cave in the crypt that is traditionally held to be the home of the Virgin Mary. Here, it is believed, the archangel Gabriel told Mary she would become the mother of the Son of God.
“And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[b] 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:28-33)
Over a door on the southern side is a statue of Mary aged 14, the age she is believed to have been at the time of the Annunciation, welcoming all who come to visit her home.
“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[e] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:38)
Next to the Church of the Annunciation, on the northern side, is the Church of St Joseph (also known as the Church of the Nutrition and Joseph’s Workshop). This is a solid and unpretentious building, very much in the shadow of the imposing Annunciation basilica — just as St Joseph himself lived in the shadow of Jesus and Mary.
Further steps and a narrow passage lead to an underground chamber. A pious tradition from the 17th century, with no foundation, holds that this chamber was Joseph’s carpentry workshop.
Even if the site was the home of the Holy Family, it is unlikely to have had a carpentry workshop in the modern sense. The Gospels use the Greek word tekton, meaning builder or artisan, to describe Joseph. He most likely worked with stone more than with wood, since stone was the common building material.
The apse of the church has three noteworthy paintings: The Holy Family, The Dream of Joseph, and The Death of Joseph in the Arms of Jesus and Mary.
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