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Postcard from Galilee – Rocks, Ruins, Churches and Birdsong

November 11, 2011

The day before we landed in Israel, an Israeli immigration team miraculously arrived on our ship as it steamed towards Haifa. Formalities duly completed, six of us left Haifa on a sunny morning for a tour of Galilee. Our guide was Ramzi, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem. He wasn’t a guide in the sense that he provided us with a running commentary on the places we visited. He was happy to answer questions, but left it to us to ask them.

We started in Acre, the site of the last Crusader power base in the Holy Land. The Crusader citadel was the headquarters of the Templars – the great military monastic order. A squat and massive projection of medieval power. The buildings are well preserved and substantially restored, as befits a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The thick walls enclose a huge complex of buildings, including dungeons, meeting halls and refectories. There is also a tunnel carved from solid rock that once led out to the port, through which the inhabitants could presumably escape and resupply. The average height of the crusaders must have been a good deal less than today’s visitors – we navigated most of the tunnel at a crouch.

From there we took the road to Galilee. As we drove past olive trees, mango and banana plantations, I was immediately struck by how green the landscape was. Not just the areas obviously irrigated, but the hills covered with grass and trees. We drove past Hattin, where Saladin won a decisive battle against the crusader army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Accounts of the battle tell a tale of a Christian army unable to find water, succumbing exhausted and parched in an arid landscape. Very different from today’s terrain, scrubland dotted with olive trees and surrounded by irrigated plantations.

The green intensified as we rolled down towards the Sea of Galilee, where the apostles plied their trade as fishermen.  The first of the “holy places” we encountered was the small hill where Jesus was supposed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Again, a scrubby hillside, far from the impressive terrain that features in all those movies about the life of Christ.

Further down towards Galilee was the Church of Multiplication, where Jesus is supposed to have performed the miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes that fed the five thousand witnesses to his sermon. This was a relatively modern church built by an order of German Franciscan monks on the site of an earlier structure from which only a magnificent floor mosaic remained. It was a quiet and peaceful place – a simple design, bare walls and a forecourt with a pool full of carp. Despite the large number of visitors disgorged from the tourist coaches, the predominant sound was of birdsong and the trickling of water in the pond.

The German presence in Galilee was a surprise, but shouldn’t have been. Germany was allied to the Ottoman Empire in World War 1, and the Kaiser was keen to cement ties with the Ottomans. German archaeologists have been active in the Middle East ever since Schliemann excavated in Troy and Mycenae in the 19th century. The tomb of Saladin was restored by the Kaiser in Damascus, and the foreign quarter in Haifa is known as the German quarter. He also visited Jerusalem and was responsible for several public works in the city.

Beside the Benedictines of the Church of Multiplication, Germans  were very much in evidence on our trip. We encountered parties singing in German both in Galilee and Nazareth. A reminder that the Christian tradition of which Johann Sebastian Bach was a part long predates the genocidal thuggery that was partly responsible for today’s State of Israel.

A few hundred yards on, we came to a second church that houses a rock on which Jesus also stood. We walked past the church to the shore of Galilee, and then drove up to yet another church on top of the Mount of the Sermon. From there, a superb view across Galilee to the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the Six Day War. Immersed as we were in the peaceful surrounds of the Galilee shore, it was hard not to think of the families separated by the annexation of the Golan Heights – where relatives speak to each other across the border through loud hailers. And a few miles further, where the unfortunate Syrians are enduring their bloody repression.

Onwards to Capernaum, where Jesus’s ministry gathered pace. This was a substantial archaeological site, with a remains of a Herodian synagogue and, under yet another modern church, the walls and foundations of what the faithful believe was the house of St Peter’s mother.  How they identified this site as the holy place is beyond me. I guess the answer is through centuries of tradition. To me, it looked like any of the neighbouring sites.

In the synagogue, an English guide was haranguing his customers in eloquent style. He spoke of the ministry of Jesus as the “greatest revolution in the history of man” – a message that seemed to go down well with his devout listeners, but one that might spark an interesting debate in a less febrile setting.

We then set off for Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It was late in the afternoon, and as the sun went down we were stuck in a massive traffic jam on the only road through Cana, the site of Jesus’ first miracle – the turning of the water into wine. Had we stopped off in this ugly-looking town, we would have had plenty of opportunity to stock up on souvenir bottle of Cana wine. Predictably.

But after crawling a few kilometres in an hour, we finally arrived in Nazareth – a sprawling, hilly town full of tourist shops, cheap hotels and restaurants. There we were led to the Church of the Annunciation, alleged to be the site where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary. This was a massive structure – again built over a set of rocks. And like the other churches, it’s relatively new. Yet another testament to the huge amount of money that has flowed into the area – presumably from churches and individuals around the world – over the past century.

From there, back to Haifa – a long hike jam packed with traffic that would not have looked out of place in any Middle Eastern conurbation. As we crawled back Ramzi pointed out this and that Arab town. For some reason we didn’t seem to pass many areas populated by Jews. One thing was clear though. The Holy Land is far more densely populated than I ever imagined, as we would also discover on the road to Jerusalem.

Our guide was charming yet reticent. He was one of the lucky Palestinians – he had a job. We asked him about his life in the occupied territories, and he gave a tactful answer. “Complicated”, he said.

From the superficial view of a day-trip tourist, the Galilee region is surprisingly pastoral. It lies within the territory of the State of Israel established in 1947, and as such seems firmly under the control of the state. I saw little of the edgy atmosphere to be found in our next destinations, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But you don’t get under the skin of a place in a day, and had we the chance to talk to more of the people who live there, a richer and perhaps less sanguine picture might have emerged.

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