Hiking the Holy Land: an Israeli Sojourn

Having missed out when my study abroad group traveled to Israel several years ago, the country had long been top of my list of next destinations. And given its small size would allow me to hit many of the key destinations with minimal travel time, it was the first country that came to mind when I realized I had a week of vacation time to play with and I was getting antsy after too long without traveling.

Still, with 5,000 years of history, religion, and nature packed into this tiny state, there was still no way to get everything into a week trip, especially when considering the extensive time spent to fly from the U.S. (with a layover in old “friend” Istanbul Ataturk airport). Thus, this trip did exclude several of Israel’s main destinations, including Bethlehem, Eilat, and even Israel’s largest city Tel Aviv. Yet with the aid of the weather and efficient intercity transit system, I nonetheless hit a diverse mix of destinations including the “must-see” sites in my opinion. After a very early morning flight, I took the train up to Haifa along the Mediterranean coast and the nearby historic city of Akko, ending the day in Nazareth. I then spent two days hiking the Jesus Trail between various sights (biblical and otherwise) in the Galilee. That was followed by a stop at the Roman ruins of Bet Shean while en route to Jerusalem, where I spent the latter half of my trip, including a day trip south to Masada, En Gedi, and the Dead Sea.

Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, is not particularly known as a tourist site in the manner of several others I visited. Haifa is primarily industrial and residential, developed (like Tel Aviv) primarily since the 20th century. Yet what it lacks in significance for the Abrahamic religions it makes up for in being the spiritual heart of a fourth faith, Baha’ism, whose founder Baha’u’llah was exiled to the vicinity of Haifa and whose followers, who had built a community in the area during his lifetime, endowed the city with the spectacular garden terraces surrounding the tomb of Baha’u’llah’s mentor, the Bab. Also, like almost every settlement and natural feature in Israel, it has biblical ties – in Haifa’s case, it’s built around Mount Carmel, home of the prophet Elijah.

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Haifa cityscape

Beyond the Baha’i sites, Haifa primarily serves for tourists as the gateway to the northern parts of Israel. Shortly north of the city is the smaller city of Akko, formerly known as Acre. Once a Phoenician settlement, it became famous as the main port of the Crusader kingdoms of the Levant during the Middle Ages, before falling to Muslim armies. Both Crusaders and Muslims (primarily the Mamluks and Ottomans) left significant architectural riches in the city that outlasted the tumultuous creation of the state of Israel. Today, the old walled city contains a plethora of mostly well-preserved castles, mosques, and marketplaces hidden among its labyrinth of alleys. It felt very similar to Dubrovnik, but with more local residents and fewer and more scattered tourists.

The last step in this long first day was in Nazareth, third holiest-city of Christianity (I would presume if there’s a ranking). Home of Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus, Nazareth played a key role in the gospels even if in a less memorable fashion than Bethlehem and Jerusalem. While several churches mark biblical events (most prominently the Basilica of the Annunciation, where God called Mary to have a child) and serve the local and tourist Christian population, today’s Nazareth is far different than the city of yore. Archaeological evidence shows that biblical Nazareth contained at most a few hundred residents, but today’s city is approximately 75,000 – not huge, but certainly a major local hub with the feel of a larger metropolitan area. Nazareth today is also predominantly Arab – Israeli Arabs (distinct politically if not ethnically from Palestinians) form approximately 25% of Israel’s population, with large concentrations in the Galilee. Nazareth’s Arab population was originally mostly Christian, but as in other Christian communities of the Middle East, high emigration, settlement of displaced residents from other portions of the country, and higher birth rates among the Muslim community have made Christianity a minority religion here.

Note that for most biblical sites mentioned in this blog, there is limited if any extra-biblical corroboration for their locations, and they can largely be preceded by “assumed” or “traditional”. While many of these sites were identified very early by the Byzantines, even that was several hundred years after the time of Christ, and many of their original structures were destroyed by invaders or natural disasters. And to be fair, the Bible is also not so descriptive as to replace GPS coordinates, and it would take superhuman archaeological skills to prove even in a town that existed in the first century AD that a specific building housed Jesus and/or his apostles. Indeed, for some of these stories (such as the Annunciation to Mary and the feeding of the 5,000), multiple Christian denominations have built their own churches or monuments each claiming to be the true site of the event. Of course, whether or not these events happened at all historically depends on one’s personal faith. Moral of the story – marvel at the architecture of these sites and use them to reconnect with the Gospels and worship in your own fashion, but do not put too much faith in a specific rock, ruin, or tree.

Nazareth, as the genesis of Jesus’s ministry, forms the start of a relatively new hiking path called the Jesus Trail. Modeled after the Camino de Santiago (though much shorter), this trail connects the purported locations of major events in the Gospels in the upper Galilee, as well as other historical, religious, and natural sites of interest along the way. Intended as a four-day trek, timing constraints forced me to hike just the 22 miles of the latter half (which my feet were very thankful for in the end). My section of the trail, while excluding Nazareth and Cana, caught the following sites:

  • The Horns of Hattin, site of the most famous battle of the Crusades, a decisive Christian defeat
  • Nabi Shueib, the tomb of the Druze prophet Jethro. A minor figure in the Bible (he was the father in law of Moses), he is revered by the quasi-Islamic Druze sect as the father of monotheism.
  • Cliffs of Arbel, both an impressive natural feature and the site of a major Jewish revolt during the time of King Herod, where the rebels lived in fortified caves in the cliff face.
  • Tabgha, the site of the feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus walking on water, now hosting multiple churches
  • Capernaum, the epicenter of Jesus’s ministry along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Unlike several of the other Christian sites, there has been extensive archaeological evidence of major Jewish settlement at Capernaum in the first century AD, including the alleged home of Saint Peter, who like many of Jesus’s disciples came from this region.

Additional sites near but not directly along the trail include Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene; the Mount of Beatitudes; the Roman city of Zippori (Sephoris) and various other ruins from across the eras.

You may have noted that the number of sites is very high for the relatively small distance traveled, a distance that’s even shorter as the crow flies. While Jesus likely did not trek hundreds of miles on a regular basis in general, this also is a result of the extraordinary density of the Galilee. The Galilee is one of the most fertile regions of Israel, and as a result it has been extensively developed for agriculture and human settlement, with new villages every few kilometers. The fact that Jews and Muslims live generally in separate villages, and that there are relatively few individual houses outside of settlements (presumably for security purposes) also increases the number of settlements. Unfortunately, that population density means that a relatively small section of the trail is actually on isolated hiking paths – much more is on the road, or following various tracks through farmland and pastures (occasionally needing to scare a cow out of the way). For someone used to hiking in the parks of the U.S., this was disappointing – the hike became more of a means to connect the sites rather than an enjoyable outdoor activity in and of itself.

I stayed the night after finishing the hike in the Galilean beach city of Tiberias, which seemed like a pleasant if slightly rundown city though I arrived too late and exhausted to do much sightseeing in the city itself (while Tiberias has an impressive historical pedigree, its major sites are tombs of Jewish sages, of less relevance to my personal interest in this trip).

The next day I did not attempt such an arduous undertaking as the Jesus Trail, but with so much to see there was no day I could truly rest. I was heading to Jerusalem, but made a brief stop along the way at the Roman ruins of Bet Shean (Scythopolis). A key regional center in the Roman period and earlier (5,000 years of settlement are built on top of each other to form the tell that overlooks the site), Bet Shean contains the classic buildings of a Roman city – amphitheater, arena, bathhouses, temples, and plenty of columns (fallen or standing). While destroyed by earthquake in 749, the remaining structures clearly demonstrate the consistency the Romans applied to urban planning across their empire as they brought back many memories of similar ruins in Turkey.

After Bet Shean was a relatively short bus ride to Jerusalem through the Palestinian West Bank. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of course a key part of modern Israeli life, but while I have digressed into geopolitics in earlier blogs I will leave that controversy aside here. However, it is striking to note the contrast between the well-maintained but heavily fortified Israeli settlements, many along the limited arable land along the Jordan river, and the ramshackle Palestinian villages, many perched on desolate desert hilltops. The boundaries between Israeli Palestine and Arab Palestine are geographically convoluted but clear – while Israeli vehicles transited across Palestine unmolested and in many cases the border was unnoticeable (in contrast to the other semi-independent states I had been in or near, such as Northern Cyprus or South Ossetia) multiple signs warned of violence or death for Israeli citizens leaving the main roads to enter into the Palestinian Zone A. I began my exploration of Jerusalem that evening, but I will jump ahead slightly to the next day’s trip to Masada, En Gedi, and the Dead Sea.

This is a classic day trip from Jerusalem, as each site, while close geographically, is significantly different in its clear attractions. Masada, which I hiked up to see the sunrise, was a natural mesa transformed into a palace by Herod (you will note that Herod comes up in regards to multiple of these sites – whatever his personal flaws recounted in the Bible, he clearly dedicated himself to transforming Judea into a modernized architectural wonder equal to anywhere else in the Roman Empire. and then a fortress by the Jewish rebels, who committed mass suicide atop the mountain when facing imminent defeat by the Roman legions. While the ruins are more extensive than I expected, the highlight is stunning views over the Dead Sea and into Jordan, as well as the canyons and mountains surrounding the site.

En Gedi is another break from the desert’s emptiness, though this time natural. An oasis since biblical times, the river of En Gedi, flowing over a series of waterfalls from its mountain source, supported many settlements since vanished, and today sustains a diverse collection of rare desert flora and fauna – unfortunately this fauna did not make an appearance during my visit.

The last stop on this trip was at the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. With a highly elevated salt content, the Dead Sea’s water is far easier to float in than a standard lake or pool – even I, who cannot float in a normal pool to save my life, could float there. It also is said to have therapeutic properties – while I did not apply a full mud bath as some people did, putting just a little on my limbs did make them feel noticeably softer, while the overall water texture was somewhat oily. And with the temperature noticeably warmer than in Jerusalem and very exposed to the sun, jumping in any body of water was a needed break from a lot of hiking.

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Dead Sea

Lastly and most importantly is Jerusalem, holiest place on Earth. All the modern development that has occurred within the city is subsumed beneath its religious fervor – the sounds of prayer lifting over the deserted Shabbat streets, the Muslim adhan echoing from the hills of East Jerusalem, the Christian pilgrims bearing their crosses to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Regardless of the truth behind the stories that animate every corner of the Old City, Jerusalem has an undeniable spiritual energy barely suppressed by the crowds and trinket-sellers that intrude like the moneychangers in the biblical temple. One could spend a lifetime getting lost in the narrow alleys of the Old City, tracking down the tomb of every saint and sage and trying to find one’s own epiphany (and that does not even count the world-renowned museums and artistic exhibitions of the newer parts of the city). I limited myself to the key Christian sites, taking the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and tomb) and visiting the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, while also getting a more secular historical overview and city panorama at the Jerusalem Citadel (also largely built by Herod), then mostly wandered to find unique corners of the city not covered in the guidebook. While Jerusalem (and Israel as a whole) draws visitors from all over the world, the prominence of Russians, Indians, and Africans in pilgrim groups demonstrated the diversity of modern Christianity.

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Jerusalem Old City Panorama

As befits its status as the center of empires and the home of global faiths, Jerusalem’s residents are particularly diverse, with Jews from Morocco, India, Iran, Ethiopia, and other African and Asian countries mixed with the largest cohort from Europe. The most prominent Jewish group is the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi),now one-third of Jerusalem’s population. Easily noticeable in their suits and felt or fur hats (for men) and long dresses (for women), the ultra-Orthodox have an extraordinary high birth rate (more than 4 children per woman) and are rapidly replacing secular Jews, giving Jerusalem a far more conservative character than the other main Jewish cities (the Arab population, primarily confined to East Jerusalem, is growing as well). Due to its diversity, Jerusalem has a dining scene influenced by every corner of the world with a Jewish population, arguably the best of any city I’ve visited (I ate Georgian, Armenian, Kurdish, Puerto Rican, and Yemenite cuisine, as well as the traditional Israeli breakfasts at the hostel). Unfortunately though, Israel is very expensive, especially compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors, with prices comparable to if not exceeding Western Europe and the U.S. (an unfortunate drawback for someone like me who usually eats on a budget).

If it were possible to understand all of Israel in a week, scholars and diplomats would not need to spend their lifetimes trying to piece together the incredibly rich history and culture of this place, or its occasionally tragic modern results. Luckily, as just a tourist I was able to come away quite satisfied, though as with most places I go, there may always be a next time.

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