Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. Psalm 84:5
There is something special about walking the land. I’ve always felt that way, whether it was walking the John Muir Trail in California or the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. It’s the pace, the step by step plodding that allows you to take in the scenery in a way you never could by vehicle. It also allows time for contemplation, about the place, or about yourself in that place. Israel is full enough of group tours, and I’d come to Israel in part for spiritual pilgrimage and I found that walking the land between Nazareth and Capernaum, as Jesus often did, was one of the ways to do that.
The very founding of The Jesus Trail is a remarkable story in its own right. Maoz Inon, an Israeli had traveled to some of the earth’s exotic locations and noticed how trekking had lifted local economies while preserving local cultures. David Landis, an American trekker had a vision of using communications and tourism to connect people, and the idea of the Jesus Trail began to take root.
The kind folks at the Jesus Trail certainly made the trek easy. While I pride myself on doing things independently, this time I decided to pay a little extra to have all of my logistics taken care of. You show up at the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, meet with the staff for an overview of the route, and then your bags (everything except for your daypack) are transported from guesthouse to hotel for you each day. You walk at your pace and then stay in luxury each night. Now the definition of luxury will certainly change from reader to reader, but if you’re a true backpacker, believe me, it’s luxurious! The walking is hard, it’s hot and dusty in Israel, and there is a bit of route finding to do, so to show up in mid to late afternoon and have a hotel with a pool, a buffet, or an in-room jacuzzi awaiting, well, it might have just changed my idea of independent travel. It was worth it!
Fauzi Azar’s granddaughter shared the story of how the Jesus Trail came to start in a former Arab home. She was honest and admitted her reluctance to working with a Jew. Her mother, however, wanted to honor her late husband’s name. That neighborhood in Nazareth had once been drug infested, and the home was sitting idle, beginning to fall into disrepair. She opened the home and allowed Maoz to convert it into a guesthouse, requesting only that the name of Fauzi Azar should remain. The former home is gorgeous, with inner courtyards and high, ornate ceilings, and the neighborhood is now safe and clean. It served for me as a metaphor of the entire trek.
As Jesus walked the land he likely met an eclectic mix of people, peasants, soldiers, Samaritans, the religious elite, merchants and travelers crossing from Africa and Asia. The Jesus Trail takes the pilgrim through Arab towns, into a Jewish Kibbutz, with an Arab Christian family, and you’ll likely encounter Druze, Baha’i and other people of faith.
While followers of Jesus don’t place an over-importance on specific sites, it was neat to think that in certain places you were walking where Jesus actually walked, or were at the site of a synagogue where he likely stood and talked. You’re doing it all at a pace that allows you to meditate and pray as you go.
We had a day in Nazareth to do a walking tour where I ran across a group of men who regularly play backgammon and later that day watched a beautiful almost-full moon rise.
I hadn’t even realized when arranging the trek that a young American guide would walk with us from Nazareth to Cana the first day. The guide was a young post-grad student who is studying Hebrew and was so pretty and intelligent that I figured she must really work for an intelligence services agency, but I won’t delve into my conspiratorial theories in this post.
The initial walk is up around four hundreds steps to the top of Nazareth, through a suburb and then eventually through some beautiful fields and forested hills to the to ancient city of Zippori where I made a photograph of the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee.”
We continued walking through small towns and fields until we gained our first view of Cana, the place where Jesus performed his first miracle, turing water into wine. “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.” John 2:11
Upon reaching Cana and checking into our guesthouse, I decided to walk to the top of the city to take in a photographic view. A young boy, Hesham Abo Khalf, noticed that I was looking for such an advantage and invited me into his home and onto the rooftop. He gave me water and a banana and invited me to stay for supper. The family’s hospitality incredibly gracious and I wished to have been able to stay with them longer. The first photo is of Hesham, and the following three are of his neighbors and a young boy down the road with blue glasses.
The walk on day 2 took us through Cana and then through olive groves along a hillside which eventually led to a bit of route finding around the Golani Junction. The last of the day took us through the beautiful farmland worked by the people at Kibbutz Lavi and then finished at their luxurious hotel complete with a beautiful room and an amazing buffet. Oh, and I’d decided to walk the entire Jesus Trail in sandals. You know, like Jesus did. I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out, but by the time I started the trail they were well broken in and worked just fine.
Most people will tell you that day 3 is their favorite day of the walk. It definitely keeps you in the “wilderness” as much as any stretch can. You start the day as you finished the previous, walking through the tilled earth and up towards the Horns of Hattin. Hattin comes from the Hebrew word for wheat which is certainly applicable.
The Horns of Hattin was also the site of an epic battle between the Crusaders and the Muslim army led by Saladin in 1187. The Crusaders alone had 1200 knights and 18,000 foot soldiers, and were defeated by the Muslim army. Later that year Jerusalem was also to fall.
The Horns of Hattin can be strongly windswept and have groves of wild olive trees that were probably tended in centuries past. It’s the perfect place to stop and reflect and pray for a time before moving on, and it offers the very first views of the distant Sea of Galilee.
A short drop into the valley and one is led by the trail back (past a really cool Mediterranean Chameleon) into groves of olives trees, past cow pastures with the Jesus Trail markings emblazoned, and finally up a long steep climb to the small town of Moshav Arbel and a guesthouse with a gourmet chef and an in-suite hot tub. I finished the day taking a walk up to Arbel National Park and looking back at the setting sun over the Horns of Hittin.
The 4th day of the trek started where the previous days trail ended, at the ancient ruins of the Synagogue of Arbel. From there you follow the paved road into Arbel National Park. This point has to be the scenic highlight of the entire trek! Standing above the Sea of Galilee one gets a view of the vast expanse of the beauty of the Sea of Galilee.
It’s worth taking the red trail on the descent of Mt. Arbel. There are huge spikes nailed into the mountainside to give you a climb almost straight down the mountain face, where you’re almost sure to spot marmots scrambling among the rocks. It’s also worth taking some time to explore caves on the descent. The historian Josephus tells the story of how Herod the Great eradicated the threat of Hasmonean rebels hiding out in the caves. He would have soldiers lowered down in baskets on ropes to pull out the rebels, causing them to fall to their deaths (Hiking the Jesus Trail guidebook).
At the base of the descent there just happens to be a well-placed ice cream stand. Some folks doing day hikes would get picked up by taxis here. Those of us continuing walked through orange and grapefruit groves, banana plantations, and finally, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Stopping by Tabgha one can visit the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.” John 6:11
Following the pilgrim sidewalk from there you find Capernaum, the place where Jesus had a house for some time during his ministry years. I wondered if he sat, like I did, along the shores by the synagogue and watched the sunset. I wonder if he ever pondered that he came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
There the trek ended. After that it was a short taxi ride (included in the tour package) into the town of Tiberias where I sat by the sea and relaxed…
The crew of good folks I was walking with on day 1 (thanks to whoever posted this photo on the Jesus Trail Facebook page)