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Saturday
Oct032009

Galilee, Israel

By Edward Britz

A good friend of mine approached me one day with the prospect of taking a trip to Israel. He had attended Hebrew University for some time and wanted to show me around his favorite place on Earth. "What a great idea!" I responded sarcastically.

I HAD THIS IGNORANT IMAGE of Israel in my mind, aided by your average Bible-times illustration and our thrill-seeking, ratings-driven media. Dusty, malnourished sheep fighting over wiry tufts of weeds, as a weathered shepherd looks on, accompanied by occasional sounds of military conflict. Needless to say, the well-earned rebuke I received was as colorful as the land he began to describe. So, I accepted. The trip of two grew and I found myself with 4 other friends sardined in some European hatchback cruising down the highways of Israel’s backcountry.

What I saw enlightened me. With the guidance of my history-major friend, we walked on antiquity; on stone streets and around marble pillars echoing the clamor of yesteryear. Israel’s culture is truly as deep as its roots. Its passions are as rich as its past, and its people are as warm as the evening breezes coming off the Sea of Galilee. By the way, Israel is quite lush and green and with plenty of fat sheep.

I could by no means fit the 2-week trip into this article. Israel may be the size of a nutshell from the American viewpoint, but you can scarcely fit it into one. So lets focus on a once political and cultural hotbed of activity just 73 miles from the outer walls of Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee.

This "sea" is actually a fresh water lake with excellent fishing. At 700 feet below sea level, it is also the second lowest point on the Earth’s surface, after the Dead Sea. It has occasional and severe storms in the winter despite that is only 150 feet deep, 13 miles long and 7.5 miles across.

The region is perhaps known best as being the dominant area of Jesus’ ministry in a time when the Roman road was allowing for an unprecedented exchange of ideas and a mingling of cultures. As a result, it is a major destination for Christian pilgrims. You will find an active tourist industry, complete with tours and many hostels and hotels, to choose from. Drive around the lake and enjoy the views.

Start in Tiberius, the most prominent city on the shore. Tiberius was a showpiece of Herod Antipas. It is the new "capital of Galilee." In 18 AD, when the foundations were being laid, some ancient graves were discovered, so no devout Jew would work there. Herod Antipas settled it by force with foreigners. Thus birthed a city that was predominantly Greek in custom and religion until 70 AD, when many Jews settled there as a result of Jerusalem’s destruction. Earthquakes, floods and wars threatened the city many times, but what you see today is an active community of 45,000 inhabitants. There are plenty of hostels and hotels. Make sure you see the ancient city walls, the Citadel, the El Bahri Sea Mosque and Museum, and Hammath-Tiberias National Park.

When we arrived, we were thankful to get out of the car, stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat. We happened upon a kindly restaurant owner who, with a wink, would make food for "bad Americans", food involving meat and cheese together. Not so kosher. Some of the less adapting of our group were having cheeseburger and meatlover’s pizza withdrawal a few days into our trip, so this was a welcome treat. I had a St. Peter’s Fish and I highly recommend it. Caution: we Americans are so accustomed to meat not looking anything like the animal from which it came, so your initial view of your meal could be a shock. Don’t let the fish head gross you out. Just eat around it.

This is not a bad place to base yourself for a few days as you explore this beautiful region, though we preferred a little hostel out of town, right on the coast. Nightlife is better in Tiberius, peaceful sunsets over tranquil waters are better away from the city lights.

Bethsaida is the famous home of three of Jesus’ disciples: Peter, Andrew and Philip. This brings up an enjoyable memory for me. Being only recently discovered, we missed the highway markers and trudged along in vain for hours down some gravel road with thumb-sized grasshoppers bounding around us. We came upon some armed military personnel relaxing near their vehicle under the shade of a tree. To make sure they were safe to approach, our friend, the one who instigated this whole trip, crept up on them through the bushes to get a closer look. We all agreed, this did not look like the makings of a pleasant confrontation. We had visions of our eager leader bouncing out of the bushes to innocently ask directions while a startled, trigger-happy soldier reacts accordingly. Besides, he had the car keys. So, he crept. We backed up. He bounced out, and the soldiers, though startled, laughed. We saw talking. We saw pointing. We sighed from relief and were soon on our way to the real Bethsaida.

There is no excavation like it in the area. It functioned as a community from a thousand years before Jesus to the 3rd century, when two earthquakes destroyed it. It lay dormant and hidden for 1,700 years. Nothing was rebuilt over it through the centuries, so you’ll see courtyards paved in basalt stones and remnants of walls and gates. You can actually walk around an unadulterated piece of history.

We only had time to visit one more place, Kursi, on the east shore of the lake. This is where it is believed that Jesus cast demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. From the fifth to the eighth centuries, the largest Byzantine monastery in Israel provided services to pilgrims seeking this area. It was destroyed by an earthquake, covered in silt, and discovered accidentally only 30 years ago during the construction of a new road. We walked around taking notice of the dark basalt stonework, the aqueduct, and the beautiful mosaics depicting various birds and fish, grapes, dates, and pomegranates.

From the sites to the food, the open air markets to the people, Israel has much to offer. The history alone will leave you speechless. But the food is also excellent. Eat a schwarma, a fig cake. Talk to the outgoing and enjoyable people. You will never feel anything but welcome, even if you’re one of many packed into a car full of curious Americans. My only advice: saturate yourself with the culture, and avoid the American chain restaurants. Sure, their logos are nifty in Hebrew, but your goal was to leave your country, right?

Shalom!

For more information visit: http://www.goisrael.com/

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