Pilgrims, but No Progress: Israel's Wasted Tourist Gold Mine in the Galilee

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The monk smiled as he decorated the Christmas tree at the front entrance to the Church of St. Anna. The church is located on the outskirts of the moshav Tzippori, situated on the site of the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris. As he slowly walked around the tree, he wrapped its branches with a gold-colored ribbon, repeating the process several times. He apologized that he had not been expecting visitors and went to find the keys to the church, so he could show us the chapel.

Returning with the keys, the monk says he comes from Argentina. He has been living in the Galilee for the past few years, with another monk, in a small stone house adjacent to the church. According to Christian tradition - he explains to us graciously and patiently - this was where Anne (or Anna ) and Joachim (Jesus' grandparents and the parents of his mother, the Virgin Mary ) lived. Beyond the path surrounding the structure are the ruins of a large-dimensioned ancient church with three impressive stone arches. The monk also informs us that near the church are remnants of an ancient synagogue, of which almost nothing remains today.

According to another tradition (which he did not mention ), at this site eight centuries ago, the "true cross" - the name Christians give to the remnants of the cross they believe Jesus was crucified upon - was seen. This happened (ostensibly ) in 1187, on the eve of the crushing defeat of the Crusaders by the army of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin, when the cross was transferred from Jerusalem to the church in Tzippori, its last known location. Since that time, it has disappeared without trace.

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The Church of St. Anna.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The Catholic-Franciscan church in Kafr Kana.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The Greek-Orthodox church in Kafr Kana.Credit: Moshe Gilad

At noontime one day, a few days before Christmas, not a living soul can be seen around here. About 100 meters from the ruined church are the meticulously maintained houses of the moshav. A short distance from the church is Tzippori National Park, where visitors can see the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris, an urban center during the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud. This was also where the seat of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and tribunal of the Jews, was located, and where editing of the Mishnah was completed in the third century.

Although the church is beautiful, it is not considered an important station along the route that retraces Jesus' footsteps in the Galilee. A visit to the site of the Church of St. Anna produces rather melancholy thoughts, such as how little Israelis know about the Christian sites in their own country, and, more significantly, how much potential and how many opportunities are waiting for entrepreneurs who decide to develop tourism in the Galilee.

Ostensibly, it is not too complicated a task to persuade Christians and curious visitors from other religious faiths to come to the site where Jesus' grandparents may (perhaps ) have lived - especially since the place is so beautiful during this particular season. The bright green, fresh vegetation that has sprung up in the wake of the recent heavy rainfalls is the dominant color here; the Lower Galilee's landscapes are spread out before all those who stand beside the gate of the ruined church.

Our tour includes four sites - in the village of Nain, on Mount Tabor, in the town of Kafr Kana and at Tzippori. The New Testament relates that Jesus performed miracles at the first three sites. According to a relatively late Christian tradition, Mary's family was said to have dwelled in Tzippori. The sites are separated from one another by a short distance (less than an hour's drive ) and are all closely connected to religious traditions.

In comparison with other sites that have been sanctified by Christians in other countries - such as Fatima in Portugal, Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Lourdes in France - these four do not receive the tourist attention they deserve. Last year at Santiago de Compostela, more than 300,000 visitors walked hundreds of kilometers by foot in order to complete one of most celebrated pilgrimage routes (St. James' Way ) in the world. What a far cry from the meager tourist attention focused on the friendly monk who lives in relative seclusion in Tzippori!

A brown sign at the entrance to Nain, located not far from Afula, informs visitors in huge letters that the village is the site of the Widow's Son Church, and gives the impression that this is a well-organized tourist site. However, except for one highway sign (posted more than a kilometer from the village ), there are no other indications of the presence of this Catholic church. A stroll through the village revealed the church, which is surrounded by a metal fence and situated directly opposite a mosque (all of the village's modern residents are Muslim ). The church is a lovely, rectangular stone structure that was first built in the fifth century and is now undergoing major renovation. Hopefully, once it is completed, the site will be open for visitors.

The village can be identified as the "city called Nain" referred to in the New Testament. The Gospel According to Luke (7:11 ) relates that Jesus arrives with his apostles in Nain, where a funeral for a boy is in progress. The chapter relates that the mother of the dead boy is a widow and that Jesus, feeling compassion for her, performs a miracle and brings her son back to life.

In the fifth century, Nain attracted Christian pilgrims, but today they do not visit. Although the church is still intact, the village has disappeared from the list of sites that tourists visit while walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

Ghada (pronounced Rhada ) Boulos and Hana Bendcowsky are experienced and well-informed tour guides. After my visit to Nain, I contacted them and they offered various explanations for the village's disappearance from Christian pilgrimage sites in northern Israel. According to Bendcowsky, the chief problem of places such as Nain is the fact that pilgrims generally have a limited amount of time and money. Naturally, they want to visit the most famous and impressive sites and thus, Nain - which, despite its importance to Christian tradition, is less impressive than other sites - has been sidelined.

Boulos feels that one of the problems is the size of Israel's Christian community. Today, a tiny minority of the country's population, some 150,000 people, are Christians (81 percent of whom are Arab ). Furthermore, to develop a site like Nain, Boulos adds, there is the need for the cooperation of governmental and municipal agencies; unfortunately, she points out, such assistance is lacking at many such places.

"The problem," she explains, "is not just the business of providing the initial investment funds - you also have to know how to maintain the sites after the money has been invested in their development. What is needed is a process of educating the members of the local population to preserve and appreciate the treasures they have; this process is often, sadly, nonexistent. The best results are obtained when there is a local entrepreneur who is involved, who displays good will and capability, for whom the site's development has an importance that transcends commercial concerns. When there is passion, such projects always prove successful."

Breathtaking views

The monastery at the top of Mount Tabor is one of my favorite local sites; indeed, I consider it one of the most beautiful in the entire country. The Church of the Transfiguration at the summit is a white stone building, designed in 1924 by Italian Franciscan monk and architect Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960 ). Barluzzi later built the octagonal Church of the Beatitudes on the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount (overlooking Lake Kinneret ) and the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

According to tradition, Jesus performed a miracle of transfiguration on Mount Tabor: The New Testament relates that he ascended Mount Tabor with three apostles - Peter, James and John - and his face suddenly shone like the sun while his clothes became radiant. The church that Barluzzi built is symmetrical and shines in the sun, too; once it even had a translucent ceiling (it was later replaced ). The porches of its observatory offer a breathtaking view of the Kinneret and the entire region.

The central problem facing this site today is the fact that it can be accessed only by a winding, narrow road. On Saturdays, the crowded conditions and the traffic jams at the top of Mount Tabor are unbearable.

As for Kafr Kana, both Boulos and Bendcowsky agree that it is an important stop for Christian pilgrims. Nonetheless, there is not a single sign, in any language, directing them and other visitors to the two churches - Catholic and Greek Orthodox, respectively - located on the same street, facing one another. There is no organized parking area, nor has any route been mapped out for visitors who want to reach the churches.

The few souvenir shops selling small clay pitchers - alluding to the first miracle the New Testament reports in Jesus' short life, when he turned water into wine - are the only evidence that this is a central tourist site. The orange markings of the Jesus Trail, which stretches for 65 kilometers between Nazareth and the shores of the Sea of Galilee, appear on walls adjacent to the churches. However, in reality they seem to serve as a code known only to those who are party to the secret.

A few weeks ago, two laborers affixed huge marble slabs to a wall in Kafr Kana. The slabs bore the inscriptions - in huge letters - of verses from the New Testament in English, describing that first miracle. Only a handful of visitors could be found at the two churches that day and, in contrast with the village's bustling main street, the atmosphere in the courtyards of the two churches was very tranquil.

Boulos works as a tour guide with Christians seeking to retrace Jesus' steps in the Galilee, and talks frequently with the visitors about religious traditions associated with the area. She explains that very few pilgrims travel there prior to Christmas and that the holiday is celebrated locally as a family event, when friends and relatives gather in private homes for a festive meal.

According to Christian tradition, Jesus and his disciples came to Kafr Kana - which is referred to in the New Testament as "Cana of Galilee" (John 2:1 ) - in order to participate in a wedding (a Jewish one, of course ). Jesus was asked by his mother to turn the water in six stone pitchers into wine for the guests. The miracle described in the New Testament creates a common denominator among the sites at Nain, Mount Tabor and Kafr Kana, which Boulos defines as the "metamorphosis axis": In all three of these places, Jesus is reported as having performed miracles of transfiguration.

The two churches that face each another in Kafr Kana are fascinating and yet very different. In the Catholic-Franciscan church - which was built in the 19th century on the foundations of a sixth-century church - remnants have been found of a fourth-century synagogue, as well as remnants of a mosaic bearing a Hebrew inscription. Visitors can descend to a lower floor, where they can see well-preserved remnants of the synagogue.

There is evidence that there was a Jewish community there until the 17th century. Today, there are 20,000 residents in the village; only 10 percent are Christians and the rest are Muslims. A plaque in the courtyard is dedicated to the memory of Father Giuseppe Leombruni, "who, with courage and determination, set out on July 22, 1948, to meet with the soldiers of the Haganah [pre-state Jewish underground] and persuaded them to show compassion for the residents of Kafr Kana."

The Greek Orthodox church across the road is decorated with colorful, breathtaking paintings depicting Jesus and his disciples drinking the wine that was poured out from the stone pitchers.

In both churches, many wedding ceremonies take place; Boulos explains that many couples from around the world come to get married there - although, in most cases, they are couples who have been married for a number of years and want to renew their vows. In the face of the village's popularity, how is it possible that there is not even one hotel in this village? The only rooms for visitors are available at a small, modest, family-owned inn.

How to reach the sites

Nain: Take Route 65 from Afula and travel in a northeasterly direction. The road leading to Nain is situated between Afula and Kfar Tavor.

Mount Tabor: Travel north along Route 65. Just before Kfar Tavor, between road markings 56 and 57, turn into Route 7266, traveling north and crossing the village of Daburiyya. Proceed along the narrow road leading to the summit of Mount Tabor.

Kafr Kana: Take Route 77 from Golani Junction, traveling west. At the intersection leading into Route 754, drive south until you reach Kafr Kana.

Tzippori: Continue along Route 77, traveling west. Turn onto Route 79, traveling south. Turn left at the intersection leading to Tzippori and travel northward to Tzippori. Cross the moshav until you reach the homes on its outskirts, where you will see a small wooden sign directing you to turn right toward the Church of St. Anna.

The monastery on Mount Tabor.Credit: Moshe Gilad