The severe domed hill of Mount Tabor, beautiful in its symmetry, dominates the Lower Galilee – so much so that the biblical Psalmist twins it with the far higher Mt. Hermon to the north: “The north and the south – you created them; / Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.” (Ps. 89)
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At an elevation of 588m or 1,911 ft., Tabor is the tallest peak in the region, making it the traditional – and even natural – candidate for the “high mountain apart” of the New Testament “Transfiguration” story (Mark 9).
According to the Gospels, Jesus ascended the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, and was “transfigured” before them, suddenly appearing as a radiant white figure, flanked by Moses (the embodiment of Law) and Elijah (representing prophecy).
The true measure of the spiritual attraction of Mt. Tabor, especially for Catholic and Eastern Orthodox pilgrims, can be found in the sometimes endless lines of groups at the foot of the hill, waiting more or less patiently for their turn to board the fleet of taxi-vans that service the site. If you have your own car, you will be spared the tedious wait, but beware of the cavalier cabbies that sweep up and down the switchback road to the summit.
You will find the beginning of the ascent (marked) on the road between the two villages of Shibli and Dabouriya – or ask the locals. For the truly intrepid, there is a hiking trail that begins in Shibli and strikes up the steep slope, picking its way through the dense woods that clothe the hill.
Crowning the hill, and visible from great distances, is a soaring Roman Catholic church, directly ahead of you as you reach the summit. Its Greek Orthodox neighbor occupies a quite separate compound to the left.
The Catholic site is owned by the Franciscan ‘Custodia Terrae Sanctae,’ the Custody of the Holy Land, a monastic order that has engaged in the acquisition and preservation of Christian holy places since the 13th century. The present church, completed in 1924, was designed by the industrious Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, himself a Franciscan monk. Among his better-known creations are churches in Jerusalem (“All Nations” at Gethsemane, “Dominus Flevit” on Mt. of Olives and “Visitation” in Ein Kerem), and on the Mt. of Beatitudes in the Galilee.
The site is thick with ruins of Christian occupation in the Byzantine and Crusader periods (5th-6th centuries and 12th-13th centuries respectively).
Left and right of the entrance to the modern church are twin bell-towers built over two small, older chapels that the architect incorporated into his contemporary design. One is dedicated to Moses (depicted in a simple wall-painting holding the Tablets of the Law), the other to Elijah (depicted at a burning altar as he contested with the prophets of Baal). The modern sanctuary impresses with its high interior and unusual architecture. In the split-level altar area, at the furthest end as you enter the building, a mosaic depicts the Transfiguration story.
To the left and right of the building as you face it from the outside, steps lead up to patios offering tremendous panoramic views of the Lower Galilee and the Jezreel Valley.
Trivia: Geology has a name for an isolated feature like Mt. Tabor that protrudes abruptly from a flat or gently sloping plain. It’s called a “monadnock” – a Native American word and the name of just such a mountain in New Hampshire, U.S.– or an “inselberg” (German for “island mountain”).
The Catholic site is open 8am–12 noon and 2-5pm year-round.
Entrance fee: None.
Modest attire is required.
At the taxi station just north of the bottom of the switchback road there are clean restrooms (NIS 2 fee), a refreshment stand and – of course – a souvenir store. There is a free WC on the top of the hill (to your left as you enter the main gate) but it is less sanitary.