Monday, March 12, 2007

Israel: Galilee

As temperatures here in Israel warm up into the 70's and the rainy season comes to an end, I've finally started hitting the road more within the country. With consideration for Lent, late last week I took a couple of days and headed up to the Sea of Galilee region, along with about a gazillion pilgrim groups from all over the world. By afternoon the parking lots around the major sites were packed with their busses, and you could comically see more on the hillside roads in the distance. Many of their leaders tried to keep the groups together by holding up flags of the countries where they were from, and at one point on the hill leading up to the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, I felt like I was at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Brazil! Nigeria! Philippines!

The journey north is fast, thanks to the recently completed Yitzhak Rabin Highway, Highway #6, which is exactly like a brand new American interstate. I stayed on the bus until Capernaum Junction, just outside a place called Tabgha, which is home to three Christian holy sites centered around rocks that were venerated by the Christians of Capernaum in the days of the Roman Empire. The most important one, the Mount of the Beatitudes, I didn't ascend, as it was closed for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2:30, and I'd saved it for the way back. I did, however, hop over to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes, built in 1936, on the site of an older Byzantine Church that was destroyed in 614 during a Persian invasion. Unlike all the other Catholic-run sites I can remember, this one was run by the Benedictines rather than the Franciscans. There were also two gift shops - one outside, the other on the interior courtyard. Christians, I've noticed, always have shops at their holy sites. Protestants sell souvenirs, the Orthodox sell candles, icons, and other religious items, and Catholics sell a mix of both. (Jews and Muslims also sell things, but there's no shop - there's just a guy near the entrance who whips things out of his coat.)

Further down the road is the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, a small, black basalt building at the site associated with John 21, when Jesus appeared to some of his disciples while they were fishing after the resurrection. The fact that Jesus told Peter to "feed his sheep" is taken as a sign of his headship of the disciples, though it isn't as strong or direct as the verses in Matthew where he says: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Catholics interpret this as inaugurating the papacy which goes back to Peter as the traditional first Bishop of Rome. While I was there a replica of a first century CE fishing boat was on the water nearby, and you could watch from the shade in the early morning light as they cast out their net. I heard a guide tell an African group at the site that the people on the ship were pilgrims rather than paid professionals of some kind. I also decided to give the traditional Franciscan "pace e bene" greeting to the old Franciscan friar on duty at the site, though he didn't know any English, so the conversation ended there.

From there it was another two kilometers or so to Capernaum, now an archaeological site found within Capernaum National Park, which includes much of the Sea of Galilee's northern shore. Also Jesus was called Iesus Nazarene, he actually lived and preached in Capernaum, perhaps because of its awesome lakeside scenery. The visible ruins are all from the Roman period, with the most impressive being a synagogue that was built in the 4th century on the site of an older, Jesus-era one. There is also a lot of Peter stuff, with a bronze statue of Peter near the entrance and a large, very modern church with huge windows on all sides over a site which is considered to be Peter's house in Capernaum, visible through the floor.

It was interesting to hear what the different pilgrim groups were talking about, as this was a popular site to stop for a sermon and Bible reading. On the steps of the synagogue, a group from somewhere in Africa was focusing on healing, which as Christians will remember is how Jesus spent most of his time during his ministry. The healing of the body was related to the healing of souls. Nearby, along a shady lane with the ruins of some Roman houses, an American group was focusing on the punishment of sinners, as Jesus had predicted the destruction of Capernaum, and in fact this occurred during an 8th century earthquake. God striking down evildoers was a big deal. Finally, near the entrance, a Nigerian group was into the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church which traced itself back to Jesus's charge to Peter. It was striking how people could take three such different points as their main theme for the same place.

After hiking back to Capernaum Junction, I grabbed a bus to Tiberias, a city of about 40,000 on the shores of the lake where I decided to just chill for the afternoon taking in the beautiful scenery, which reminded me more than anything else of Italy outside the mountains. Tiberias itself is also a place of pilgrimage, though not for Christians. It was a gathering place for Jewish intellectuals after the destruction of the temple and exile from Jerusalem, and thus the main site for the compilation of the Mishnah, the Jewish oral law which goes with the Torah. Religious Jews go to visit and pray at the graves of the Jewish sages buried in the hills around the city, though these were often hard to find. I did run across the burial site for the one I had heard of before arriving in Israel, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, court physician to Saladin who studied at Karaouine in Fez, Morocco, articulator of the 13 Principles of Faith for Judaism. His grave is marked by a red metal structure overhead, and it divided by a barrier into a men's and women's side for praying.

I took in what I could of Tiberias, but for me it was mainly just a place to relax and enjoy the scenery, sitting on a bench with a view of the lake and it shores, drinking a cup of coffee while reading Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. The next day, though, I headed out for Nazareth, my first Arab city within Israel proper. On the way, the bus passed through Kfar Kana, the Biblical Cana where Jesus attended a wedding, though I didn't stop. It also went either through or by Nazareth Illit, a 20th-century Jewish town built near the Arab one. Nazareth itself was a highly unusual Arab city in that it took me forever to find a cafe where I could get a cup of tea or coffee. Israeli Arabs, or Palestinian-Israelis, really are more Israeli than anything else, despite the rising social tension of recent years.

The most prominent site in Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation, built in the 1960's but incorporating the remains of earlier buildings inside around the Grotto of the Annunciation. This and the Church of the Nativity are, as far as I could tell, the only churches I've been to that have a regular local congregation in addition to all the tourists and pilgrim groups that come through - the regular Sunday services are held in an upstairs chapel, while special ones are down by the Grotto. The basilica is surrounded by a wall on the inside of which are pictures from the Virgin Mary from all over the world. Next door and really part of the same complex was St. Joseph's Church, built on the reputed site of Joseph's carpentry shop. Apparently no one told the medieval Christians who first venerated the place that carpenters in Roman Galilee were probably itinerant. A rival spot for the annunciation is Mary's Well, located just off the well-developed Well Square downtown and marked by the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The Orthodox version places the annunciation here when Mary was drawing water, and you can see the well down below a special chapel in the church, lined with icons as Orthodox churches are.

After that I ate in a local burger joint before heading back, first by taxi to Afula and then on the bus to Jerusalem. The things I did and saw are the type of things that appeal to people's piety, but I can't claim to have felt particularly pious as I travelled. For example, in Tiberias, I ate for dinner something called St. Peter's Fish, which is unique to the Sea of Galilee. The meal cost about $15, when if I were in fact following in the way of Jesus and the disciples I probably should have grabbed a felafel sandwich and given $12 to the poor. This, however, is common to pilgrims. Almost all the groups I saw were probably eating in nice restaurants and staying in mid-range or better hotels. In this as in so much else, it's much easier to venerate and admire than it is to follow.



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