I had spent a few days in Nazareth in the north of Israel seeing the sights. As well as the usual batch of churches, Nazareth has a lovely, labyrinthine old city with spice and coffee makers, cafes and restaurants. I took a wonderful walking tour through the city and got pleasantly lost in its old market.
Whilst in Nazareth, I heard mention of The Jesus Trail. Established in 2007, this 4-day walk links some historical sites that Jesus visited along paths that he may have walked. The religious side didn’t interest me as much as a hike through some scenic and historic countryside.
I liberated a copy of the Hiking the Jesus Trail guidebook from my guesthouse and after a hearty breakfast I set off. The trail started in front of the Church of the Annunciation in the centre of Nazareth. This example of slightly gaudy 1960s architecture is built on the site where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she was pregnant with Jesus. Two other churches in Nazareth also claim to be site where Gabriel appeared – maybe Mary was sceptical after the first visit and Gabriel had to pop back to drive the message home
The trail wound up through the old city which I had gotten to know well. Ascending the stairwell above the souq, I started to get a view back over the city. While admiring it, I met a friendly old Arab coming down the stairs. He gave me a warm welcome to the city, wished me luck on my walk and gave me a candy to set me on my way.
Nazareth is one of the few Arab-majority towns in Israel. The majority are Christian, with around 30% Muslims. A suburb on the outskirts is Jewish. It all seems a pleasant example of how we can just all get along if we put our minds to it.
Nazareth is no longer the village of Jesus’ time. The first few kilometres of the trail took me through the suburbs of Nazareth and some new developments on the outskirts of town. I eventually hit the countryside and around lunchtime I reached Zippori National Park. Zippori was once a town of the Roman Empire and some well preserved ruins remain. One highlight was the ancient underground reservoir that was hand carved out of the rock. Now dry, it is a 250m long tunnel with I walked with the help of my iPhone torch.
I found lunch – well instant noodles – at the park’s headquarters and continued on my way. My goal for the day was to reach Cana. This is the site where Jesus turned water into wine (Jesus was way cool). The local tourism industry was doing good business selling local wine, so if Jesus returned, I think they’d be upset by the reintroduction of a cut-price competitor. I checked the local guesthouse, found they had a free bed (the guesthouse was empty) and so stayed for the night.
I visited the two churches in the evening along with the busloads of day-trippers. Israel attracts many Christians who are overwhelmed by their visit and feeling of closeness to Jesus. During my travels, I encountered one tour group at a Christian church. Their tour guide would give an explanation of the site (in, I think, Portuguese) then the group would burst into song. I encountered them several times and they would repeat the same ritual. I wasn’t aware of the existence of “Spiritual Singing Tours of Israel”, but this seems to be a “thing”.
For dinner I found a local restaurant that cooked up a delicious kofte for me. It is currently olive harvest season in the middle east and so I also got to sample some freshly pressed olive oil from this season’s harvest. Soaked up with some bread, it is most delicious.
The following morning I woke early. My body clock has been synced by the early Muslim Fajr call to prayer which is around 04:30 each day. I took a local “pizza” which was arabic flat bread dough topped with a sesame and olive paste and freshly cooked in an oven. Washed down with strong arabic coffee, I was ready to start my second day of hiking.
The trail took me out of town and along a forested ridge line with views over the plain. By mid-morning I reached the village of Ilaniya and the Yarok Az Organic Goat Farm. “I come seeking water and WiFi,” I announced upon arrival. These I received, as well as a cup of herbal tea – the herbs being picked straight from the garden. As well as herbs and vegetables, the farm had a collection of goats and two beautiful horses. I was invited to stay for the evening as an alternative to the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel that was further along my trail. I committed to continue my hike for the day and backtrack by bus to the farm for the night.
I continued on the hike. Part of the hike followed the remains of a former Roman road – the rectangular stones of the top layer, worn away but still clearly visible. The road was a major thoroughfare and may well have been walked by Jesus at the time. The road dissolved into farmland and let me towards Kibbutz Lavi and my lunch stop.
Kibbutz Lavi was established in 1949 and has developed into a small town with a 4-star hotel. Far from my image of a kibbutz of mud-built houses on a dusty plain. I had a choice of the meat restaurant or the dairy restaurant (well separated). I chose the, cheaper, dairy option and enjoyed a gigantic salad topped with cheese and a delicious loaf of fruit-and-nut bread.
As I walked to the outskirts of Lavi, I could see an approaching thunderstorm with impressive lightning strikes. With the first drops of rain, I took shelter at a collection of storage containers converted to accommodation. I was welcomed there by some young Israelis and offered tea and chocolate. They introduced themselves as being part of the New Guardian volunteer program. This turned out to be a pro-Zionist movement to defend Israel against Palestinian arsonists. From the stories I heard while travelling in the West Bank of Palestine, the Palestinians have their own reasons to defend agricultural land against Israeli vandalism. Still, the lads were very friendly and hospitable. In the afternoon they gathered for lessons and during a break in the rain, I continued my journey.
My goal for the day was to summit the Horns of Hattin. This is a former volcano and the site of a decisive battle in the second crusades. In 1187 the crusader army marched east towards the Sea of Galilee not stopping for water at Tur’an (which I passed earlier in the day). This gave Saladin’s army the advantage and his victory led to end of the second crusade.
The Horns of Hattin afforded me a spectacular view of the countryside showing my route to date and my path for the coming days towards the cliffs of Arbel and down to the Sea of Galilee. The top of the hill was exposed and with the storm approaching, very windy. I had been mislead by an optimistic weather forecast and didn’t have a rain jacket with me. Although my clothes were synthetic fibre, only my shoes were waterproof. I set a quick pace down from the hill and walked down to a bus stop on the highway where I could get a connection back to the Yarok Az farm.
The daughter of the owners was having a birthday party with a dozen 9-year old girls all preparing their own pizzas for cooking in a gas oven. I was invited to join and created a kosher pizza topped with onion and local olives.
The next morning, I took a walk around the farm, accompanied by an adorable and super-friendly kitten. As the farm woke, I helped feed the chickens, goats and horses. Feeding the goats provides them with distraction while they get milked. I also tried my hand at milking, which was an interesting experience. The goat nipples are the size of a fat banana and of course warm to the touch. I was instructed to be firm and when squeezing, the milk would come out at a ‘surprising’ angle. For breakfast, I took porridge with some yoghurt made from the goat’s milk.
I set off mid-morning and returned by bus to the Horns of Hattin. My bad luck with the weather the previous day continued. As I approached the hill, it started to rain. I put my papers and iPhone into a plastic bag and resigned myself to getting a bit wet. At the top of the hill, the rain intensified and I took shelter under an olive tree (WWJD?). During a gap in the rain I pressed on, descending the far side of hill only to be caught again by another shower. I took shelter again, this time under a eucalyptus tree. At the start of the 20th century, Israel imported the eucalyptus from Australia – despite their arsonistic tendencies.
I continued once the rain cleared. The clouds providing the advantage of protection from the blazing midday sun. I visited the Nebi Shu’eib mosque on the way down the mountain. This is a temple of the Druze, a famously secretive offshoot of Islam. According to their beliefs, we reincarnate. So if you weren’t born Druze in this lifetime, they won’t try and convert you – they’ll just wish you better luck for your next reincarnation.
Further downhill, I passed through the ruined mosque of the former town of Khirbat Hittin. This Muslim town was evacuated during the war of 1948 with the original inhabitants finding themselves unable to return.
The trail wound down the valley of the Arbel stream ending with a steep ascent to the town of Arbel perched near the cliff. I checked myself into the guesthouse there and enjoyed a fine meal of Peter’s Fish – tilapia caught in the Sea of Galilee. Delicious!
I arose early the next morning for the fourth and final day of my hike. I covered the remaining kilometre to the Arbel National Park and enjoyed the early morning view from the cliff-top across the Sea of Galilee. The next stage of the journey was the most adventurous with a steep descent down the cliff. The path was well marked with metal hand/foot-holds for the most treacherous sections. The path then traversed around the side of the cliff to split in the mountain.
The final leg of the hike descended through small towns and farmland and finally, at Peter’s Primacy Church, I set foot into the Sea of Galilee. There was no walking on water, but my feet were grateful to cool off after over 70km of walking. I finished off the day with a visit to the (alleged) house of Peter and Synagogue of Capernaum where Jesus (allegedly) taught.
The return trip by road to Nazareth was challenging. Saturday is Shabbat in Israel and is taken very seriously with no trains and only limited bus services (Shomer Shabbos!). I ended up hitchhiking most of the way back with a public bus taking me home to Nazareth.
The trip wasn’t a spiritual journey. Many of the ‘sites of Jesus’ are very speculative, but roman Roads are quite plausibly routes that Jesus might have taken. I very much enjoyed the slow pace of travel and the time to read and appreciate the rich history of the region. Hiking alone gave me time to think and appreciate the nature.