There is a good reason, cynics say, why many Christian holy sites are so close to each other, especially around the Sea of Galilee. In the early Christian centuries, local tour guides apparently charged pilgrims per site. Each scriptural locale had its price – who knows, perhaps there were even "package deals"? What unscrupulous tour guide would spend hours trekking to some better-documented but remote location if he could earn his fee from a satisfied client with much less effort?
Less-devout visitors were uncomfortable with the crowded cluster of pilgrim sites. The American writer Mark Twain explored the country in 1867, and recorded his impressions in The Innocents Abroad: The ministry of Jesus, he noted, took place in an area “no larger than an ordinary county in the United States. It is as much as I can do to comprehend this stupefying fact. How it wears a man out to have to read up a hundred pages of history every two or three miles… How wearily, how bewilderingly [the sites] swarm about your path!”
Modern archaeology has identified Jewish towns of the time of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament: Capernaum, Bethsaida, Korazin, Magdala. But the Gospels are vague about where several important events could have taken place. Among these is the so-called “Feeding of the Five Thousand” (Matthew 14), also known as the “Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.” Jesus had withdrawn alone to “a deserted place,” but “the crowds” followed him. As evening came on, his disciples suggested sending the people away to buy food, since all the disciples themselves had were five loaves and two fish. Jesus ordered them to distribute the meager rations, which were so miraculously multiplied that the thousands of people “all ate and were filled.”
In Tabgha, at the northwestern tip of the Sea of Galilee, the German Benedictines have preserved the Multiplication tradition in a modern church, built over the scanty remains of 4th- and 5th-century sanctuaries. What did survive from that far-off Byzantine era were sections of a superb mosaic floor. Most of the central nave is covered by a repetitive geometrical design, painstakingly restored in the 1980s; but the mosaics at the far end of the two side aisles are the real eye-catchers. In his dignified, uncrowded assemblage of water birds and plants, the artist demonstrated an exceptionally fine eye for form and proportion.
Curiously, some of the species are more common in Egypt’s Nile region than in the Holy Land. Perhaps the artist himself was Egyptian, or perhaps these Egyptian motifs were simply in fashion at the time. The suggestion is reinforced by the incongruous presence of a “Nilometer,” a tower with depth markings that would stand in the river to measure the height of seasonal flooding. The fertile silt deposited on the river banks was the key to Egypt’s legendary prosperity. The extent of the flooding, and thus of the silt deposits, could be used in any particular year as a prediction of agricultural abundance – and therefore to determine the tax bracket for that year.
The smallest and simplest of the church’s Byzantine mosaics is also its most famous: a depiction of two fish and a basket of loaves in front of the modern altar. As art, it is almost childish compared with the birds and plants; but for many pilgrims it is precisely its modesty that so powerfully evokes the scriptural story.
Opening hours: Sun. 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.; Mon.-Sat. 8:30 A.M. to 5 P.M.
No fee, but paid parking
On Rte. 87, a few hundred meters east of the junction with Rte. 90
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