As I am in Israel for a long, but finite amount of time, and as a Christian visitor interested in both physical and spiritual challenges, I decided to seek out a pilgrimage route that would allow me to experience the Galilee and sites from the life of Jesus in a more personal way than on a tour bus - by taking a trek. This would also afford me some time alone, and the opportunity to make peace with what was a difficult year for me personally. To that end, I decided to check out the Jesus Trail.
This is how I met Maoz Inon, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who owns the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, plus another hostel in Jerusalem. It was he who initiated and developed the trail, according, he told me, to three principles: that it would feature hiking in beautiful landscapes, it would have a connection to Christian tradition, and it would encourage the involvement of local communities. In 2009, Inon won the support of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which agreed to paint the yellow trail markings, as well as of several local governments and the acknowledgment of the Tourism Ministry.
The Jesus Trail is a 65-kilometer hiking path in the Galilee, leading from Nazareth northeast to the Capernaum area on the northern bank of Lake Kinneret. We learn from the New Testament that Jesus walked in this general area on a regular basis. While there's no way of knowing if he walked along the precise trail now named after him, this could have been the case.
Inon suggested a four-day "classic" Jesus Trail tour, a trip that can be lengthened or shortened according to the individual's needs. As for me, I'm a 38-year-old journalist from Berlin and a sometimes-ambitious hiker in pretty good condition, but I had absolutely no intention of breaking any speed records or getting up at 6 in the morning. Four days of fairly intensive hiking would be just the right amount of effort, I decided.
One need not be a religious Christian to find interest in the trail, which integrates historical sites from different eras, related to different religions - in addition to a lot of nature, spectacular panoramas and physical challenges.
Arriving in Nazareth, I am warmly welcomed at the Fauzi Azar Inn, located in an impressively renovated Arab mansion, and also, while exploring the town, by the local citizens. After visiting the shuk and the El-Babour spice mill (compared to Tel Aviv, the prices it charges for its huge variety of nuts, grains and spices come as a great relief ), I enter the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel (as recounted in the Book of Luke 1 ) and received the news of her pregnancy. Inside is a group of French pilgrims who sing and play a guitar so beautifully that I do not mind the fact there are so many of them, and I sit for a long time.
In the evening I have dinner with a Spanish tourist at a local restaurant, and we end up singing along with a group of young Arab Israelis who sing in a choir directed by Palestinian singer Dalal Abu Amneh.
The following morning I hit the road early, after a big Israeli breakfast with Heather, a young American volunteer at the Fauzi. She also serves as a guide for trail pilgrims, and is supposed to help me get going on my way toward Kafr Kana, my first stop.
We leave Nazareth through a lot of garbage, pass through olive groves and Zippori National Park and enter the small Arab village of Mash'had, which in Muslim tradition is the birthplace of the Prophet Jonah. From there it's downhill, with Kafr Kana already in sight.
The 14-kilometer walk to Kafr Kana has taken me about five hours. I arrive at the Cana Wedding Guest House, a nice, family-run place right next to the Franciscan "Wedding Church," where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine (John 2:11 ). In biblical times, weddings went on for a couple of days and the entire community was invited, so copious amounts of wine were required. The guest house offers about 50 beds, the only ones available in the whole village. That is very peculiar, considering all the weddings and other ceremonies that take place here, and the pilgrims' groups that arrive practically every day. I witness an elderly couple renewing their marital vows in the presence of their families; they all sing and take pictures so happily that, for the second time in two days, I decide to remain in the church for a long while.
Worth fighting for
Inon accompanies me for two kilometers the next morning after I leave Kafr Kana, and explains that he hopes the lack of accommodations there and in other historical places in the Galilee might eventually ease up thanks to his efforts. He says he was a little bit surprised when the Israeli Tourism Ministry dedicated a new hiking path called the Gospel Trail in November, which follows almost the same route as the Jesus Trail. The ministry invested NIS 3 million in its new trail, in light of the fact that Christian visitors, whose numbers are increasing, represent more than two-thirds of all incoming tourists - a target audience worth fighting for.
After Inon leaves me, I continue through fields, via the nice Beit Keshet forest and past an army base, until I hit the busy Road 65 close to Golani Junction. Due to construction I lose the path of the trail, and discover I am lost. Fortunately, all roads lead to Rome. "Rome," in this case, is Kibbutz Lavi, which I arrive at via a dirt path, having only missed paving stones from an ancient Roman road that once linked Acre and Tiberias.
Lavi, founded in 1949 by British immigrants, is an Orthodox religious kibbutz and the country's biggest manufacturer of synagogue furniture (seats, holy arks, lecterns and so on ). Manager Guido Sasson takes me on a tour of the kibbutz, which also has a large hotel and an agricultural branch.
The next morning, the sun is shining and the Horns of Hattin are waiting for me. The Horns are a double-peaked volcanic formation located six kilometers to the west of Tiberias. From the summit, one has a panoramic view of the entire Jesus Trail route, including the Arbel Cliffs, Lake Kinneret and Nazareth, as well as a good view of Mount Hermon to the far north. In 1187, Muslim forces under Saladin defeated the Frankish Crusader army here, ending the Christian conquest of the Holy Land.
Up on top of the Horns, I am ready to prolong this moment of awe, but out of nowhere, some 50 schoolchildren chattering loudly in Arabic appear on the scene. So I keep moving, descending the site along a pretty steep and rocky footpath now, along a lot of crushed cyclamen. The trail down to the Druze shrine Nebi Shu'eib leads me along a fence for too long; it is neither very comfortable to walk on nor pretty, and I am already exhausted.
I dare not rest at the huge mosque-like Nebi Shu'eib, which is the traditional tomb of Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (a prophet according to the Druze ), because I am worried I might not get to Moshav Arbel before dark. I still have a walk about some four hours ahead of me, and it is already 1 o'clock. While I can see the beautiful road leading into the scenic Arbel Valley from the entrance to the shrine, to reach it I first have to backtrack along a paved road and turn, so that I can continue the other way.
Dead woman walking
From this point, I walk endlessly without pausing - through ancient olive groves, past the ruins of the mosque of the abandoned village of Hittin, and hopping over a little stream several times as it winds back and forth across the trail - until my legs are in great pain. I need to sit down. Also, I seem to have lost the Jesus Trail again. I choose another path, which takes me out of the valley and up onto a hill, through high grass and some ancient ruins. I focus on a paved road ahead of me and climb up to it. From there I make my way to the ruins of a 4th-century synagogue that affords a great view of the valley. Just before dark, I hurry into the Arbel cooperative agricultural community, where my next overnight accommodations, at the Shavit family's bed & breakfast, await me.
Yisrael, the cook and owner of this pretty place, brings me fresh mint tea and a plate of five pieces of chocolate, which he just made himself, he says. I feel like I just entered the Garden of Eden. And the breakfast he brings me the following morning is the best I have ever had, if only because it gives me enough strength for the hardest part of the trail, my mission for the day: from Arbel National Park via the village of Wadi Hamam to Tabgha and Capernaum. It's 18 kilometers and my legs are sore just from thinking about it.
But I forget all the pain when I enter the Arbel Park and admire the view of Lake Kinneret from the lookout point on the mount. Again, two classes of schoolchildren join me and I unwillingly share their lectures, and am way too close to the yelling of their elderly teacher in Hebrew. I quickly follow the steep path down the face of the cliff, certain that no teacher would send their students down there - but I am wrong. They are right behind me, which is a little bit reassuring after all. Thank God for the helpful metal "staples" at the steepest sections, which one can grab hold of.
I enter the valley and see the mosque in the Bedouin village of Wadi Hamam, which dates back to Roman times. The muezzin starts to chant the most beautiful traditional call to prayer I've ever heard over the mosque's loudspeakers. I freeze and find tears welling up in my eyes. Not speaking to people for six-hour periods for several days in a row, and also being physically exhausted, obviously makes me very emotional and sensitive to human noise.
I walk from Wadi Hamam to Tabgha once again, seemingly endlessly and in a virtual state of meditation, through flat farmland, past pleasant orchard-and-fruit-tree scenery, but feel it is an hour too much of the same thing.
When I get to Tabgha, at the northwest corner of the Kinneret, I am already a dead woman walking. Before reaching the shores of the lake, I visit the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes ("Jesus then took the leaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish" John 6:11 ), built at the site in Byzantine times. I admire the beautiful ancient mosaic, light a candle and sit down for a minute with a friendly Asian nun. But just for a minute, as I still have three kilometers to go before I reach Capernaum, my final destination.
As I hurry along the Kinneret's beach-side promenade, I meet two other trekking women, very interested in my Jesus Trail experiences. While the sun is going down, I tell them how beautiful and exhausting Day 3 and Day 4 were, and how I wish that more people would walk along the trail, so that maybe the inhabitants of the towns it passes through will stop throwing their garbage alongside, and instead set up B&Bs and coffee shops and other places to serve pilgrims and trekkers, and provide their communities with revenues.
When I finally reach Capernaum, Jesus' "home base" during his ministry in the Galilee, I find a historic site that also features the impressive ruins of a large fifth-century synagogue. At this site Jesus was said to have performed several miracles, including healing a servant and a paralytic, and driving out a demon. When I stumble into the entrance, I ask the cashier if there are any buses or taxis that can take me to Tiberias. The response is negative, but it is accompanied by a friendly offer of a ride when the place closes for the day.
Meanwhile, I walk another kilometer to see the beautiful, pink-domed Orthodox church of Capernaum, located east of the ruins, and then somehow tumble back again to catch my ride. I am so tired, the waiting car feels like a miracle to me. Hallelujah.