It is an indication of how close Stella Maris is to the Holy Places that we were able to use it as a base and still sally forth each of three consecutive days to see Cana, Nazareth, Mount Tabor, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Caesarea Philippi and the Golan Heights. Galilee was looking very green and luscious, with an abundance of fruit growing everywhere.
Cana and Tabor
78 - Cana Church of the miracle
Cana is now a town of some 18,000 inhabitants, roughly 80% Muslim, 20% Christian. While most of the hotels would probably put in a bid to have been the site of the wedding feast, the Franciscan church seems to have the best case (Photo 78) , built as it is on the site of a Byzantine church from the 5th century. When we visited the present church, preparations were taking place for an imminent wedding! (Photo 79). One suspects they get a lot.
79 - Cana interior of the church
Across from the church is another dedicated to Nathaniel (Bartholomew), the “Israelite without guile”, who hailed from Cana (Photo 80). In the town itself, not surprisingly, there were prominent billboards advertising wine! (Photo 81).
81 - Cana wine
On our way from Cana to Tabor we passed by the village of Naim. The brown sign (indication of a tourist site) simply said: “Widow’s son”. Tabor itself is visible from afar – it is a beautifully-shaped mountain, and gentle in its slopes (Photo 82). However, we managed to drive right to the top – a hazardous journey, with hairpin bends and dizzy precipices.
83 - Tabor ruins of Benedictine Monastery
The present Basilica of the Transfiguration was only consecrated in 1924, though needless to say, it is on the site of many previous churches. For example, we saw the remains of a very large Benedictine monastery from the time of the Crusades (Photo 83). Saladin must have passed this way, for we saw a tower built by him.
84 - Basilica of the Transiguration
The basilica is absolutely magnificent! (Photo 84). It was designed by Antonio Barluzzi, the renowned Italian architect, who designed many of the more modern churches in the Holy Land.
85 - Tabor interior of the Basicilia
The theme of light is very strong, and the light streams into the basilica from many angles (Photo 85). Paco, our guide, describing how the basilica lights up at sunset, spoke of “an explosion of luminosity”. We felt it was wonderful to be there, and the magnificent mosaic over the altar was compelling, and opened on to the mystery of what happened here (Photo 86). We were indeed in a holy place …
86 - Mosaic of the Transfiguration
Our day by Galilee was unforgettable, and for the most part indescribable. Here you knew you were in the heart of things, and the lie of the land is similar to how it was when the Son of Man walked it. And as for the lake … here you certainly felt that time had stood still. It has been well said that the lake is about the only place a church was not built where the Lord walked!
87 - Basicila of the Beatitudes
The day was beautiful, and the lake was dead calm. Our first stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes, overlooking the lake – or more specifically, the lovely Franciscan basilica. We had the Mass of the Beatitudes in the open air, after which we had leisure to walk or sit around and view the magnificent basilica, again the work of Barluzzi, and built in the 1930s on the site of three previous churches (Photo 87). It is called the basilica of the Beatitudes, even though recent excavations put the more likely site to be farther down the hillside – but no matter! The basilica is octagonal, and clear windows all round let in the light to wondrous effect, as well as opening on to the lake and the hillside, and even the sky (Photo 88).
88 - Interior of the Basicilia of the Beatitudes
The words of the eight beatitudes (in Latin) adorn the interior (Photo 89).
We then went down the hill to Tabgha, and the “Church of the Seven Springs”, built to commemorate the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Photo 90). It is closely modelled on an old Byzantine church on the same site, after excavations uncovered remarkable mosaics on the floor of the original church from the fourth century, including a stunning mosaic depicting five loaves and two fish.
90 - Church of the Seven Springs
91 - Tabgha Church of the Primacy
Nearby is the exquisite little Church of the Primacy, right down by the lake shore (Photo 91). Listening to the “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”, it was very easy to picture the scene: what St John describes as the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, and the ensuing triple protestation of love on the part of Peter and the role of leadership entrusted to him in the new reality emerging (Photo 92).
92 - Interior of Church of the Primacy
93 - Capernaum
From there, we moved on to Capernaum (Photo 93), where Jesus worked many of his miracles and indeed lived for a while (Mt. 9, 1). The excavated outline of Peter’s house is located here (Photo 94) . Paco was at pains to point out that, of all the sights connected with the time of Jesus, this was the most authentic of all. A church in the shape of a boat has been tastefully and expertly raised over the precious site, which is still visible even from inside the church by means of a glass floor (Photo 95).
94 - Ruins of house of St peter
95 - Church over the house of St Peter.
Right next door are the remains of a quite magnificent synagogue from the fourth century, on the visible site of the synagogue that was there in Jesus’ time – the one built by the centurion whose servant Jesus cured (Photo 96). Jesus would often have taught in this synagogue. Capernaum must have been important for it to have a Roman centurion.
96 - Capernaum Synagogue
We came back to the Franciscan Sisters on the mount for a lovely lunch – complete with St Peter’s fish! And after a further period to ourselves, we had the piece de resistance, a trip in a boat on the lake. It was absolutely heavenly, and it is best to leave words aside, beyond saying that the day was perfect, and we had the boat all to ourselves – a large wide boat made entirely of timber (Photo 97). Out on the lake, one could see how it was entirely ringed with undulating mountains and hills – a setting uplifting beyond words (Photo 98, 99). One was reminded of some lines of Hopkins about his great Oxford mentor, Duns Scotus: “This air I gather and release He lived on; these weeds and waters He haunted who of all men most sways my spirit …” (Photo 100).
98 - Lake Galilee
99 - Lake Galilee
100 - Lake galilee looking towards Gerasa
Paco in the goodness of his heart decided to bring us home the long way round – which meant a trip right round the lake, which was breath-taking. Along the way, we passed Bethsaida, birthplace of Peter and Andrew – now an extinct village. We saw the scene of the second miracle of the loaves, as well as the caves where the dumb demoniac would have lived until he met Jesus; we climbed right up into the southern Golan Heights (Photo 101), then down at the very end of the lake, where the Jordan flows out on its way to watering the Jordan Valley (Photo 102) – which means we did the entire circle of the lake, a journey of about 40 miles.
We skirted very close to our old friend, Mount Tabor, on the way home, getting a unique view of this most placid of mountains, described by Paco as “majestic” (Photo 103). This land is indeed blessed with a vast array of varied and beautiful mountains and hills, among them the one closest to our own hearts, where we were glad to rest our weary bones after one of those days that come one’s way only very rarely in life.
103 - Mt Tabor by night.
“From Dan in the north …”
104 - Mountains of Upper Galilee
On the third day, we did something somewhat different, but interesting all the same, taking in a mixture of sacred and secular sites. We headed north initially and, not far out of Haifa, we were close by the town of L’billin, birthplace of Mariam Bouardy (Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified). Leaving the slopes of Mount Carmel behind, we had the substantial mountains of Lower Galilee to our left as we turned eastwards (Photo 104). The topography was magnificent as we drove through Ammud, the “Valley of Vines”, as it is called, with quaint Arab villages on either side. As the ground rose, we were eventually able to see the lake of Galilee below us (Photo 105).
105 - Lake Galilee
These mountains of Galilee go in waves, north to south, with very deep valleys between them, and Paco pointed out that these valleys were very likely traversed by Jesus as he made his way to the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon (now part of Lebanon). It was borne in on us that Jesus and the disciples travelled considerable distances in their time together, most of it presumably on foot. Tyre is 30 miles from Capernaum, as the crow flies, and Sidon a further 25 miles on.
Veering north, we headed for the important biblical city of Dan, steeped in history from the time of the Patriarchs. Recent excavations have uncovered a wealth of history (Photo 106), and you could see the immense fortifications built by the Canaanites, and the various kings of Israel after them. It was here that King Jeroboam enticed the people to worship a golden calf in the newly-constructed Temple, on the grounds that it was too far for them to go all the way to Jerusalem once a year! From the elevation where the golden calf would have been placed, we were able to view the towns and hills of Lebanon, less than 10 miles away (Photo 107).
107 - Looking towards Lebanon from Dan
The Dan river flows with incredible force through a narrow pathway in the terrain (Photo 108). It is one of three rivers that create the Jordan river farther south, each of them rising in Mount Hermon, less than 10 miles away. Beautiful clear water.
Quite close to Dan is the (extinct) town of Banias, better known to us as Caesarea Philippi. An exotic cave in a vast cliff was the scene of pagan worship for centuries (Photo 109). Alexander the Great was here, and the Greeks built a temple to the gods Pan and Nemesis. Herod the Great was next on the scene and he had an elaborate construction built to honour the Emperor Augustus, and entrusted the town of Banias to his own son Philip, re-naming it Caesarea Philippi.
Everything is only ruins now (Photo 110), but it continues to be a major tourist attraction, partly because here too is another source that feeds the Jordan, namely the Hermon river. We walked down the length of it for about an hour and came to the most magnificent waterfall, almost Niagara-like in the power and force with which water cascades down into the valley below (Photo 111).
If you are waiting with bated breath to hear about the site of Peter’s profession of faith, you will be disappointed. For once, St Helena was completely stumped – there is no trace at all of where this significant episode took place, though obviously it was in this general area. I overheard one of the American guides telling his group that, in this place where kings and emperors walked, Jesus appeared as “the Christ, the Son of God”, the Universal King. Paco told us the day before that on the lake shore Peter received the primacy of love, here in Caesarea Philippi it was the primacy of power.
From here, we fastened our seat belts and wound our way up a series of mountains, through consistently beautiful scenery (we were again blessed with a glorious day). Though still Israel, this is Arab country, and most of the people in the villages are of the Druze religion (Photo 112). It was market day, and our driver, George, knew some of the traders and procured some delicious fruit for us. We came quite close to the base of the snow-capped Mount Hermon, which towers nearly 10,000 feet into the sky. It is flat-topped, with no sign of any growth on its slopes (Photo 113). It is apparently much frequented this time of year by skiers. We were now well into the Golan Heights, scene of so much tension between Israel and Syria, and a battleground on several occasions. In fact, Paco brought us to Mount Bental, scene of ferocious fighting in 1973 when Syria took Israel completely by surprise and made inroads almost as far as Galilee in an attempt to recapture the territory taken from them in the six-day war of 1967. Looking across what is called the “Valley of Tears”, we could see the towns of western Syria, just five miles away (Photo 114). A signpost told us we were 60 kilometres from Damascus (Photo 115). With the subsequent escalation of the war in Syria, a trip like this would be too hazardous now.
On our way home, Paco told us we were most likely on the same route St Paul took on his famous journey to Damascus (it was January 25, feast of the Conversion of St Paul!). We stopped to see the Jordan river, where it flowed swiftly, having been created by the confluence of the three rivers farther up (Photo 116). The Jordan would enter the Lake of Galilee from the north 30 miles farther down from where we were, and exit the same lake at its southern end 14 miles further on. Is it the same river after that? From time immemorial it has been known as the Jordan river, from its birth under Mount Hermon to its death in the Dead Sea 90 miles away, as the crow flies, but 150 miles as it glides at its own sweet will, dispensing life to plants, animals and humans along the way. It still has many stories to tell …