“Israel is a five-trip place,” says my learned father. “You just can’t see everything in one trip.” This sage advice proved true for us this Christmas. Though we did manage to see a great deal of the country as it is only the approximate size of New Jersey, we didn’t come close to ever saying, ‘been there, done that.’ Thing is, we could have done the trip a number of ways. I planned the itinerary to try to have a little bit of everything: some history, some nature sight seeing, though mostly a Christian pilgrimage to get a better sense of biblical places. But it could have been quite different. We could have done it solely from a Biblical perspective, trying to track down all of the places where one can see the remnants of biblical times. We could have focused on a broader history, touring the many, many archeological sites that cover the whole country. We could have taken a tour that guides you on foot along the path that Jesus took during his three years of ministry. As you can see, there are many ways in which you can “do” Israel. But one of the prettiest ways most assuredly would be to explore Israel’s many natural wonders.
Because there are so many historical, sociological, and religious reasons to visit Israel, it surprised me greatly that the landscapes alone would be worth the visit. The stunning views began as soon as the plane flew over the bright blue Mediterranean coast. Shades of blue turned into white foam crashing onto long sandy stretches. Palm trees and fields surrounded Tel Aviv in a sea of green. From the airport, we rented a car and travelled north up to the remains of Caesarea along the coast. While the remains of Roman theaters, ports, and stadiums were fascinating, our attention kept drifting towards the mighty waters that crashed up against the ancient stone harbor with waves leaping thirty feet into the air. This aquatic display continued all the way north to Akko, where we spent the night with the window open, listening to the water as it lulled us to sleep.
The next day we drove across the country to Tiberias across rolling hills of farmland. Olive trees sprung up in patches of orchard across the hillsides. The sun darted in an out of enormous cumulous clouds, casting gigantic shadows over the valleys, which in turn gave new tangibility to the 23rd Psalm (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.) We got really excited, by the way, whenever we saw sheep. On the other side of the range, we began a long decent down to the Sea of Galilee. We turned off the road and drove up a long driveway to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes, the hill where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Atop the hill nowadays is a Catholic church with the beatitudes written on its wall. The church, however, was nothing compared to the view. The hill is now a huge garden, with roses and juniper and palm trees framing the blue water of the Sea of Galilee below. The sun shone low and golden that day. The air smelled sweet and a light breeze caressed our skin. We sat on a ledge looking at the view while our dad read us the Sermon on the Mount.
The next day we visited several more sights around the Sea of Galilee. We saw ruins of churches and synagogues in Capernaum, and the monastery at Tabgha (where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand men), but it was not the structures that captured our interests. Hills covered in green grass, colorful flowers, and rocks tumbled down to the water’s shores. The water lay still as glass with haze floating above it, glowing in the direct sun. The temperature must have been a perfect 72 F. Never in my life could I ever remember visiting so peaceful a place. I could have sat by that water all day. This was also the place, for your information, where we took pictures of ourselves “walking” on the water. Let’s say it was a When In Rome situation.
The following day we traveled north up toward Dan. Here we toured the region known in the bible as Caesarea Philippi, though known otherwise as Panias in Greek or Banias in Arabic. Once again, the archeological remains both fascinated and inspired, but, once again, the beauty of the area was equally if not more impressive. The whole area, with its babbling brooks, waterfalls, and hills that grow into mountains—it all looked exactly like what I always pictured the Promised Land to be. I don’t know where I had gotten this image into my head, but what I saw matched it perfectly. The Banias Spring, one of the three main sources of the Jordan River, flowed out from underneath a monumental rock face. Erosion had created for the spring a tall cavern, and inside reflected light from the water danced all over the mossy walls. It was easy to tell why Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Muslims all worshipped here, for the natural beauty of the place and the phenomenon—water flowing from rock—certainly suggest divine cause.
I have much more to tell, but it is bed time, so I will break here. Part II is on the way.