Israel: Nazareth, Sea of Galilee and Acre February 23-25
February 22 Friday: Tel Aviv – Nazareth – Tiberias
At 9:25am, I took a bus from the Tel Aviv bus terminal to Nazareth which is about 100km away. Nazareth is the hometown of Jesus and the site of many of his reported acts and miracles and the starting point of Jesus’ trail, a 65-km long hiking and pilgrimage route connecting many sites from his life and ministry.
I spent the next three hours walking around the old town. Pilgrims flog to Nazareth to visit the Basilica of Annunciation, the largest church in the Middle East and traditional site where Mary received the message that she would give birth to Jesus. The church is decorated with multi-cultural portrayals of Mary and Jesus. Next to the Basilica is the St Joseph’s Church which is also an archaeological site.
I walked through the souq (the market) to visit the Synagogue where Jesus read from the Torah scroll. I planned to stay at Fauzi Azar Inn, a friendly hostel located in a 200-year old mansion built in Arabic style with a 20-ft high painted ceiling. But the lovely receptionist advised me that there’s no bus to Tiberias till sunset on Saturday. She kindly let me leave my backpack in the hall while I was sightseeing. She also called a hotel in Tiberias to reserve a room for me.
I climbed the steep slope to the Salesian Church and School at the top of a hill and had wonderful views of the city and surrounding areas. My final stop was the Mary’s well located inside an Orthodox church.
At 3:30pm, I was on my way to Tiberias which is less than 30km away. I had a decent but basic room with a view of the Sea of Galilee. The town was dead quiet as most (if not all) shops and restaurants were closed for Sabbath. I had a delicious and large grilled mullet at the only pub that was open.
February 23 Saturday: Sea of Galilee
There is no bus till sunset. Most people in the hotel rented a bike. Owing to my back problem and lack of knowledge of the terrain, I did not want to take risk. As it’s too costly to hire a car for the day, I decided to walk though I had no detailed map of the area.
In the Second Temple period, the Sea of Galilee was surrounded by Jewish settlements and Tiberias is one of Judaism’s four holy cities. Numerous events depicted in the New Testament took place in the northern part of the lake, where he preached the fishermen.
I started my walk around 10am but wasted a lot of time walking to and fro in an attempt to find a walking path along the lake. The weather turned bad and started to rain. I finally reached Ginnosar and paid 20 shekels to see the “Jesus boat” measuring 8.2m long, 2.3 m wide and 1.2 m high. This 2000-year-old boat was discovered by two brothers from Kibbutz Ginnosar in 1986. I told the receptionist that I would be walking to Capernaum despite the rain. She was sympathetic and found me a tour group from the US which leader was prepared to give me a lift. I was moved by her kindness and initiative.
The coach took the group to the Church of the Beatitudes, the traditional site of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. As it was closed when we got there, the group skipped it. We followed the Pope’s walk to Capernaum. The views are fantastic with mountains, rolling hills, cultivated green fields on one side and the Sea of Galilee on the other. The group stopped twice to read from the Bible. But we did not go to Tabgha. At 3:15pm, we reached the archaeological site at Capernaum which was the centre of Jesus’ Galilee ministry. Jesus lived here for a substantial period healing the sick, preaching in the synagogue and performing miracles. A church is built on top of the site of St Peter’s house.
At 4pm, the group took a boat back to Ginnosar where they would stay in bungalows run by a Kibbutz. The leader arranged the coach driver to drop me at Ginnosar where I could find a way back to Tiberias. I was hungry and had an early dinner in Ginnosar. Instead of wasting my time waiting for a bus, I took a taxi for 42 shekels and was back in Tiberias before 6pm.
February 24 Sunday: Tiberias – Acre (Akko) – Tel Aviv
I got up early in order to make my way to Acre, which old town is a World Heritage Site, before returning to Tel Aviv. I had to take a bus to Haifa and then another one to Acre.
I reached the old town on foot from a bus transit centre in Acre. The old town has been inhabited for over 5000 years. The Phoenicians, the Pharaohs, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, and the British have come and left their marks and footsteps on the city. The port was built during the reign of Ptolemais II (285-246 BC). It was the capital of the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land in the 13th century. Five religions live in Acre – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druse and Bahὰ’is.
I bought a combined ticket for 46 shekels to see the five attractions in Akko. I spent an hour in the imposing Hospitaller Fortress situated at the entrance to the old town. Hospitallers were a monastic military order established to treat the sick in the Holy Land. They moved their headquarters from Jerusalem to Akko in 1191 and remained there till 1291. There are several enormous and impressive halls including the Northern Hall, the Pillars Hall, the Knights Hall and the Hall of Columns. The public toilets tower is still standing today.
I then went to the Turkish Bathhouse, the Okashi Museum showing the works of Avshalom Okashi, one of Israel’s most prominent artists and the impressive 350m-long Templars Tunnel which had served as a strategic underground passageway linking the fortress with the port. The Templars were a monastic military order that guarded European pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land to visit the holy places.
Before leaving the walled city, I walked to the lighthouse, the port, the El Jazzar Mosque (1781/82), which is the largest outside Jerusalem, and the souq. The old town is Arabic in character with its people, architecture, sound, smell and litters. My last stop was the Treasures in the Wall Museum which exhibits artifacts of daily life of the people in the area in the last 150 years.
I walked back to the bus transit centre to take a bus back to Tel Aviv. The man at the information booth told me to take a train instead. He was right. The train left at 2:15pm and I was back in Tel Aviv around 4pm. I am impressed by Israel’s public transportation system.
February 25 Monday: Tel Aviv, Israel –Athens, Greece – Piraeus
I had marvelous and relaxing time in Israel till the last moment. I left Nilly’s house with my luggage in her car at 11:30am. We spent almost two hours the Eretz Israel Museum that focuses on the history and culture of the Land of Israel. The museum spreads out in a garden surrounding Tel Qasile, an ancient site of numerous important archaeological findings from Biblical times. We looked at the pavilions on coins and the ceramics. We spent more time on the special exhibition on Ethiopia which brought back happy memories of my trip to the country in 2011.
It is a large museum and we did not have time to visit the ethnography and folklore pavilions, the planetarium, the garden and archaeological sites around Tel Qasile where excavations began in 1948. We had a quick but excellent pasta lunch at the museum café.
Nilly took me to the train station in downtown Tel Aviv. The train is cheap (15 shekels) and takes only 10 minutes. I checked in before 3pm and my ELAL flight departed on time at 6:30pm. I was back in Athens two hours later.
I had a remarkable and amazing holiday in Israel thanks to Nilly and Rani. They are most welcoming and I treasure their friendship. Their beautiful house is cosy and I was so well looked after that I felt lost when I hit the road again!
This trip is most educational trip. First, I finally set foot on Israel for the first time in my life so that I can see and feel it. For some reasons, I thought it’s dry and hot with tight security. But Israel is green, sunny but cold in February. After my travel in Nigeria and Iraq, I find Israel relaxing with few checkpoints.
Second, I am most fortunate to have a chance to stay with a Jewish family and meet their friends. Jews are clear and well organized. With their efficiency, education and determination to build up its country, it is not surprising that Israel has developed into a modern and advanced country since its establishment in 1948. Their achievements are miraculous.
Third, I find Jerusalem filled with energy and overwhelming. Though I am an atheist, I find the atmosphere captivating, spiritual and bewitching. I can feel the pilgrims’ passion, respect and emotion. I can get myself lost in the alleyways thinking I am on a time-tunnel. I can spend my whole day watching people in the church, in the compound of the Dome of the Rock or in the street. Outside the Old Town, there is also so much to see. I need a few more weeks to see the city.
Fourth, I have a slightly better understanding of Israel as a country and as the Holy Land, the Jewish people, Judaism and Christianity. However, I still cannot grasp complicity of the geo-political developments, dynamics and conflicts of this region. I am concerned about peace and stability in the region and hope common sense, mutual trust, tolerance and humility would prevail.
Israel has a long history and the land is amazingly diverse with 67 national parks and 190 nature reserves in addition to countless archaeological sites. . It would be nice to live and work in Israel for a while to better understand the place and the people. Anyway, I shall return one day to visit Nilly and Rani and spend more time in the Holy Land.