Monday, December 12, 2016

Around the Sea of Galilee: Capernaum, Tabgha, Mount of Beatitudes, Golan Heights and Upper Hula Nature Reserve

Nov 21, Mon: The Sea of Galilee: Capernaum (St. Francis Church) Tabgha, Mount of Beatitudes, Golan Heights and Upper Hula Nature Reserve.

            When we awoke, we were quite delighted to discover that our hotel was right on the shores of the lake and that our rooms offered grand sweeping views of the city of Tiberius on the one hand and of the Sea of Galilee on the other. After witnessing sunrise on the Sea of Galilee, we hurried down for breakfast and discovered that it was not quite as extensive as the one offered by Hotel Shalom. But I found out that a chef was preparing eggs any which way and I chose to try a local favorite called Shakshuka—which is eggs stewed in a spicy tomato sauce. They were quite delicious indeed. In an attempt to eat local food, I filled my plate with hummus, roasted eggplant and feta cheese that I ate with olives—and, of course, coffee. Moti bundled us into his van when we had eaten our fill and drove us along the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the spot upon which visitors board boats for a ride on the waters of the Biblical Lake.  

Boat Ride on the Sea of Galilee:

            In the case of most pilgrims to the Holy Land, the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee is a very solemn affair—part of a Christian pilgrimage undertaken in a serene, solemn spirit. Ours was nothing like the usual one. We were greeted by the boat owners who discovered that we were from the USA. They then called upon two of our members (Vasanti and Glen) to hoist the American flag as a recording of The Star-Spangled Banner played in the background. This was followed by the hoisting of the Indian flag and the singing of the Indian National Anthem, the Jana Gana Mana.

By the time the anthems were sung, the boat has reached the middle of the lake. Our guide Moti produced his Bible and asked me to read a passage from it in which the story of Jesus walking upon the water is reported. It was at this time that he offered us a little thought for the day. Most of us were still seething at the thought of the injustice committed against him by the man in the church. He, however, asked us to remember where we were and to think about the lessons that we could take back from the Holy Land. In particular, he spoke to us about forgiveness.  He told us to keep in mind how hard it might have been for the British man to make the call to us, to admit his fault and to offer to compensate for the damage caused. He told us to remember that he had probably spent a very bad night and probably felt deeply ashamed about what he had done in public. He told us to think about forgiveness and to focus on the serenity of our surroundings.

            Moti’s words had a deep impact on me and I thought that it was ironic that two thousand years after Christ first came to deliver his message of love and forgiveness; we were receiving a lesson from another Israeli Jew! Having received this message, it was time to trade! We were then shown a number of local handicrafts that the boat owners wished to sell: pendants made from stones found at the bottom of the Lake, music recordings of the hymns being played, etc. A few of our members bought some souvenirs. Towards the end of our cruise, the boat owners played the Goan Konkani song, Mira Mira, which they told us was popular among pilgrim groups from Goa. In a joyous mood, some of us danced on deck.


Stopping at the River Jordan:

            With our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee done, Moti drove us off towards our next destination—but first we stopped briefly on the banks of the River Jordan that crosses through this part of the region. Some of us gingerly made our way down to the river banks, trailed our fingers in the waters of the Jordan and took a few pictures there. Everyone was surprised by how narrow the Jordan is—Llew and I were not surprised as we have seen the River Jordan from the country of Jordan (when Israel was on the other bank being patrolled by Israeli soldiers).

On to Capernaum (Capharnaum):

            Out next port of call was Capernaum known as “The Town of Jesus”. Being driven out of Nazareth by local Jews who thought he was a crank, Jesus made his base in Capernaum. It was here that he recruited the twelve who would become his most faithful Apostles. This was also where he began preaching as a rabbi or teacher and first came to the attention of the Roman legions as well as the Jewish elders who questioned his authority. This area is also designated as a National Park.

            Because it was at Capernaum (and probably very close to the location at which we stopped) that Jesus chose Peter to be his right hand man (“Thou art Peter and Upon this Rock shall I build my Church”), there is a lovely sculpture of St. Peter overlooking the square with these words engraved at the base. However, the church at which most pilgrims pause is dedicated to St. Francis. It is built on the ruins of what was supposedly the home of Peter and allegedly a location at which Jesus would very often have been. The Church is very modern indeed and is dominated by a mosaic of Jesus in pink and green on the main altar. If you stand by the altar and peer down through a section of glass floor, you can see the ruins of Peter’s Home.

            Right outside the church lie the ruins of a 4th or 5th century synagogue that was once a thriving center of Jewish worship. Two massive columns at the end of the ruined location contain engravings in Greek and Latin—which would suggest that a palace of sorts was built on top of the synagogue. The location also offered a very good view of the pink-domed Russian Orthodox Church on the water’s edge.

Exploring Tabgha:

            The next stop on our exploration of places of importance on the Sea of Galilee was Tabgha and we arrived there very shortly. Tabgha is said to be the site of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. We could well imagine, as we gazed out at the sparkling waters of the Lake at mid-day, the vast throngs that had gathered to listen to the rabbi preach. When Jesus found five loaves and two fishes belonging to a member of the congregation, he blessed them and told his apostles to share them with the crowd. The Gospel tells us that every single one of them was fed and twelve baskets of leftovers were collected at the end of the meal.

            In commemoration of the miracle, a modern church was built at Tabgha in 1936. It is characterized by a gigantic candle chandelier that looks down upon a very simple altar composed of a marble slab over simple marble legs. A small part of a rock is visible under the altar. Jesus sat upon that rock and preached before performing his miracle. All around the altar and flanking both sides of it are beautifully detailed mosaics in subdued colors with motifs of local flora and fauna (especially cranes) well detailed on them. They formed beautiful stone carpets in tesserae—a form of decoration that I also saw in the excavated ruins of Pompeii.

Off to the Mount of Beatitudes:

            From this venue, Moti drove our van to the Mount of Beatitudes—which, as the same suggests, was very close to the spot at which Jesus preached his most famous sermon on the Eight Beatitudes. Once you alight from the van, you make your way on foot to the Roman Catholic Church, designed by the famous Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi and completed in 1937. Punctuating the path to the church are eight stone ‘stools’, each of which is engraved with one of the Beatitudes. The Church itself is a splendid Baroque grey and white building with a lovely dome that stands upon an arcaded base with well-defined white arches. The interior of the church is not characterized by any memorable motif, but it made a peaceful place in which to pray.

Off to the Golan Heights:

            After a very long drive through what was practically desert, we arrived at our next port of call—the famous (or infamous) Golan Heights—also known as the Valley of Tears. Moti gave us a long lecture to inform us about the significance of the venue. He talked about the 1967 War that was suddenly waged against Israel by six of its Arab neighbors. Since Israel was taken completely by surprise, its forces suffered an astounding loss of life. Much of the fighting occurred on the Golan Heights—a stretch of mountainous desert from where one can glimpse Syria. Given that Syria has been the target of so much disturbance in the past couple of years, the thought of being so close to the epicenter of so much violent dissension was rather disquieting. In fact, even as I type this, Aleppo has fallen to the forces of Assad’s regime and the brave rebels who fought so hard to defend it, have been annihilated.

Moti pointed out the presence of a UN Building and an Israeli military building as well as the remains of bunkers that had been used during the war and rather rusted tanks that have been retained in their original state to denote the extent of the loss and the sacrifice made by Israel’s soldiers. Since it was the closest we would probably come to Syria, I was keen to have a group picture taken at this venue and Moti obliged us by permitting us to get out of the vehicle and pose. He assured us that although we could not see any human presence, we could be assured that we were being closely watched and that the entire area is continually under Israeli military surveillance. He also pointed out a ‘virtual fence’ in the distance upon which some settlements were easily evident. It was hard to believe that this seeming wasteland has been the focus of so much political discord over the decades.

Lunch at Mas’ede:

            Once again, we found our appetites fully whetted by the amount of sightseeing we had undertaken and we were well and truly ready for lunch when Moti stopped off at a small village called Mas’ede. He explained that the area was inhabited by members of an ancient sect of Judaism called the Druze and that its practitioners were obvious by the flowing black garments they wore.

            The lunch served by the Druze in an establishment owned by them was, in my opinion, one of the best meals we ate on the trip. It contained all of the staples of the Mediterranean diet starting with an astounding lentil soup that was very filling and leading to salads known as mezze such as hummus, babaganoush, lebnez and greens made of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. In addition, there was falafel (deep fried chick pea dough balls--some of the best we ate), dolmas (rice-stuffed vine leaves), pickled mushrooms, pickled olives and pickled cucumbers. For dessert, the owner produced baklava that was the perfect end to the meal.

Off to Witness the Bird Migration:

            Another longish drive after our heavy lunch led to a mandatory snooze for almost all of us as we made our way to the next venue—the Upper Hula Valley to see the Nature Reserve associated with the seasonal migration of thousands of birds that fly down from Siberia to spend winter on the Israeli mud flats.

            We had a little while to ourselves before we boarded the specially designed vehicles—sort of like safari campers—that took us out into the wetlands to see the birds. None of us knew what to expect. Although Moti had explained that local farmers actually feed the birds tons of food grains to prevent them from eating their precious crops, it was hard for me to fathom the amount of birds we were likely to see, their size or their nearness. Hence, it was quite an astonishing experience to drive deeper and deeper into the Reserve to see an abundance of large birds that seemed to be a species of common crane. They were huge and grey in color and they made a deafening din as they congregated together in the process of foraging for food. To our immense delight, we were fortunate enough to spy a large flock of pink and white pelicans that were only specks in the sky at first but grew larger in size and volume as they approached our vehicle. The large wing span of the birds made their flight very graceful. As we drove along the river, we also saw a great deal of mallard life—from colorful ducks to black cormorants. Indeed, I had never dreamed that a trip to the Holy Land would include a spot of natural history—so it was quite refreshing to find that our itinerary included such a variety of unexpected activities.

            Another very long drive around the shores of Galilee brought us back to our hotel in Tiberius where we freshened up and met in the lobby for drinks before deciding to dine in Pagoda, the Chinese counterpart of Decks where we had dined last night. We had very good Chinese soup and Pad Thai noodles for dinner which was punctuated by much laughter and camaraderie as we reviewed the many fascinating aspects of our day.

            When we got back to our hotel, we found that a live entertainer was present in the lobby and that the music being played was right up our alley. Ken took the lead on the dance floor and led us all in a rendition of The Electric Slide which had Moti and the many guests sprinkled around in the lobby quite amazed at the sight they saw—a group of middle-aged Indians bogeying with such abandon! About a half hour later, having made our mark on the hotel and its staff, we made our way to our rooms for the night.

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