The Jesus Trail, Day 4: Arbel to Capernaum, and home to Jerusalem through the West Bank

According to the Jesus Trail guidebook (Walking the Jesus Trail by Anna Dintaman and David Landis), the path from Arbel…

…follows the Israel Trail blazes on a steep but beautiful route down a cliff face. […] Be careful as you descend. There is a bridge with handholds in the rock to assist you in the steepest section. The path can be slippery when damp, and park authorities do not allow hikers to descend in wet weather.

This put the wind up us. We were not reassured by the history of the cliff. According to the historian Josephus in his Jewish War (written around 75 CE), the troops of Herod the Great winkled Jewish rebels out of their holes in the Arbel cliff “by lowering down his soldiers in large baskets on ropes to pull out the rebels, causing them to fall to their deaths.”

For us, clearly discretion was going to get the better of valour. Still suffering from the exhaustion of the previous day’s walk we decided to take a taxi from our overnight accommodation, past the cliff-face descent, down to the edge of the Sea of Galilee / Kinneret. Please forgive us, dear reader.

At the town of Tabgha we joined a throng of tourists and wide-eyed Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. According to all four Gospels, at Bethsaida, about seven kilometres north-east of modern Tabgha, Jesus turned two fishes and five loaves of bread into a meal sufficient for five thousand people. There was even food left over. (I’ve always wondered whether the fish was cooked or not. Did the 5,000 have to light fires and cook the fish, or was it miraculously already cooked when distributed. Just asking.)

In the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes visitors light candles before a Greek-style icon of Jesus. They also pray, prostrate themselves on the floor, and (of course) take photos. A picturesque, Byzantine-style mosaic representing fish and loaves lies stamped into the floor in front of the altar. The image has been turned into a hundred different souvenirs snapped up by tourists in the adjacent gift shop. We too invested. We bought the image on a set of table mats that (hopefully) will help us feel more thankful as we tuck into our regular meal of grilled salmon and bread rolls back in Canberra.

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A Byzantine-style fish and loaves image on the floor before the altar of the Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves in Tabgha.

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The faithful prostrate themselves on the floor before the altar.

No more than two hundred metres down the road stands the lakeside Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. It commemorates the moment recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 16 verses 16-18) when, after his resurrection, Jesus spoke to his friend and follower Simon Peter, telling him “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus was making a play on words. “Peter” is derived from the Greek word “petros” meaning “rock”. (Peter’s Aramaic name Cephas is also taken to mean “stone” or “rock”.)

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Hammering home the metaphor, a large rock fills the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, believed by many to be the first leader and the founding “rock” of the Christian church.

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A sign at the front door of the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. As a die-hard religious sceptic I interpret the sign to mean “This is a church, rational explanations have no place here… please, no thinking allowed, just have faith”.

The relentless crowds inside the beautiful but simple church have compelled real worshippers to shift outside. Under trees beside the church there is a small open-air chapel where we saw priests conducting a Catholic mass for a congregation of about 25 devotees. Nearby, visitors crowded a small, pebbly beach and looked out across the calm of Kinneret towards the Golan Heights on the opposite shore. Some removed their shoes to stand ankle-deep in the holy water, dextrously recording themselves with selfies as they did so.

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We have arrived. I stand outside the Church of St. Peter in Tabgha, and below…

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… Emmy stands on the pebbly shore of the Sea of Galilee, near where Jesus is said to have walked on water.

The final leg of our walk took us three kilometres along a picturesque, neatly paved, lakeside path to a park built around several small religious buildings on the long-abandoned site of Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), the village where Jesus is said to have based his ministry. We had reached the end of the 65 kilometre Jesus Trail. After subtracting the taxi rides in Nazareth on the first day, and Arbel on the last day, we had walked somewhere between 50 and 55 kilometres. We had seen much of the beauty and diversity of Israel, as well as its disturbing divisions. And our ancient bones, muscles and brains had survived the rigours of the walk. We felt pretty satisfied with that.

Postscript

Exhaustion was still clamped around our legs like manacles, so we decided to return to Jerusalem direct by taxi. Our driver took us around the northern curve of Kinneret and down the eastern shore, squeezing between the lake to the west and the beetling presence of the Golan Heights to the east. We went south through the town of Beit She’an and, unchecked, through a border crossing into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. We were on Highway 90, which is forbidden to Palestinians except with special permits. It runs the full length of the occupied West Bank. In the northern sector it sticks close to the Jordan River. The countryside left and right of the road has largely been de-populated (for “security reasons” say the Israelis). Ethnically cleansed is a more accurate term. The former population of Palestinian Arabs has been uprooted and shifted west, mostly to the major urban centres of Nablus, Ramallah and (further south) Hebron. In the northern sector the eerily empty landscape is filled with low hills of tawny grass, punctuated here and there with market gardens and plantations of dates, olives and bananas. In places there are derelict houses of the former Arab population, and once, we saw rows of stumps marking (according to our Jewish driver) a destroyed Palestinian olive grove. Here and there the highway passes squalid Bedouin communities, their tents filled with goats and surrounded by litter. The highway curves around the Palestinian town of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea, and heads west into Jerusalem, passing signs pointing left and right to the prosperous Jewish settlements of Ma’ale Adumim. On this Jews/foreigners-only route, Palestinians are rendered almost invisible in their own land.

The occupied West Bank and Gaza are the conscience of Israel… and it is a very ugly sight.

The Jesus Trail Day 1: Nazareth to Cana

Nazareth is the starting point of the so-called Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometre, four-day hike down to the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Two thousand years ago Nazareth was a tiny village where, supposedly, Yeshua ben Yosef (better known as Jesus) grew up. Today, with a population nearing 80,000, it is Israel’s biggest Arab city. Most people there are Muslims, but about 30% identify as Christians, mostly Catholic.

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“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single selfie.” I’m in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, bringing Lao Tze’s ancient aphorism into the 21st century. Behind me tourists take pictures of the cave where Mary was told of her divine pregnancy.

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Our accommodation in Nazareth, the basic but very welcoming Villa Nazareth.

Airily throwing aside our burden of years (we’re now both on the wrong side of 75) Emmy and I signed up for the Walk as independent walkers whose baggage would be transferred by Abraham Tours from lodging to lodging along the way (see: https://abrahamtours.com/tours/jesus-trail/ ). The first leg, from Nazareth to Cana, would take us sixteen kilometres into the journey.

We checked in to the basic but squeaky-clean first stop, the Villa Nazareth B&B hotel among the twisting alleyways of Nazareth’s old city centre. We had some preliminary reconnaissance to do. Our guidebook mentioned that the walk out of Nazareth began with a steep flight of 405 steps. On our first evening in town we walked through the ancient stone passageways to the foot of the steps and peered up. One glance and our elderly legs began to tremble. Our knees sent painful signals clambering up our fragile nerve-paths to register a warning… “You’re very old, don’t risk that climb!”

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The exterior of the huge Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth…

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… and inside pilgrims, tourists and devotees of Mary swarm through the spacious, second-floor of the basilica.

Back at the Villa Nazareth I had a word with Razie, the ultra-helpful receptionist: “Could you arrange a taxi to take us to the top of the steps tomorrow morning?” Razie managed to look both surprised and not surprised. “Of course,” he said. “Very sensible.” Then he nailed me with a friendly but stern glare. “You should take a taxi right to the edge of Nazareth,” he said. “Almost every day we have to deal with walkers who get lost in the tangle of streets around the top of the steps. There’s a lot of construction going on up there, the way is not clearly marked. It’s very demoralising to get lost before you’ve even started.”

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Above and below: the narrow streets and alleys of old Nazareth

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I tried to look as if we didn’t really need to by-pass this initial obstacle, but inwardly I snapped up Razie’s advice and immediately ordered the taxi. The following morning, Tuesday May 7th, beyond the edge of Nazareth city, a short walk took us into a sparse, scraggy, rubbish-strewn forest. We were utterly alone. The weather was clear and warm but with a cooling breeze. The feared 30+ temperatures didn’t eventuate. The path was well-marked with frequent white and orange trail markers on trees and rocks. We strode forward confidently, jabbing our walking poles into the stony ground, scanning the rocks and trees ahead for the trail-markers that would take us down to the waters of Galilee. We were on our way!

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These trail markers – called “blazes” – appear about every 150 metres or so (usually) and will guide us 65 kilometres down to Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) on the Sea of Galilee.

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Israel’s forests are quite degraded. Some people treat them as rubbish dumps.

Around mid-morning we walked into Mash’had, a quiet, almost deserted, little town of multi-floor stone houses. Under Israel’s apartheid-like patchwork of segregated communities Mash’had is labelled “Arab-Muslim”. Like most towns in Israel it lays claim to a special connection with the distant past. Jonah (called Yunus by Muslims) was born into history there three thousand years ago. He got eaten by a giant fish and survived. In the course of time, story becomes history, so Jonah’s grave in Mash’had is proof-positive that he really did survive a three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish.

Heading out of Mash’had we stopped for a drink at an open-air café in the garden of a big, stone villa. The lady of the house apologised she couldn’t keep us company, and after putting cool drinks before us, she tugged at her hijab scarf and leaped into a car. “You here… at home!” she called, revving the car and disappearing into the streets of the town.

From the garden we looked across to the town of Cana spread out as dense and white as a ragged lace curtain along the opposite slope of a small valley. This was our destination for the day, but crossing the valley turned out to be an ordeal. The “path” was a rocky ditch that dipped and zig-zagged among olive trees, tall tough grass, and herds of goats. But we got there. After threading our way through narrow alleys around Cana’s famous “Wedding Church” we checked in to our ultra-simple but very welcoming accommodation at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse.

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Australian gum trees are everywhere in the forests along the Jesus Trail, and here we have a bottlebrush thriving in the garden of a villa in the Arab town of Mash’had.

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Sammy, our affable host at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, enjoys the apple-flavoured tobacco of his hookah.

The strong aroma of fresh apples hung in the warmth of the late afternoon air. Sammy, the affable proprietor of the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, was sitting on the balcony-verandah, his mouth clamped over the mouthpiece of a hose that led to a hookah on the floor. Thick clouds of sweet-smelling smoke tumbled from his mouth accompanied by cheerful gurgling from the hookah. Between each puff, Sammy’s face broke into its trademark mile-wide smile.

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This sign, on a wall in Nazareth, accurately sums up the disaster that overtook the Arabs who had legally lived in their homes and farmed their lands in Palestine for a thousand years. There is fault and ill-will on both sides in the Palestine-Israel dispute, but far more than any other issue, it is this clear, unresolved injustice that keeps the enmity alive.

But at eight o’clock the smile suddenly froze and disappeared. It was May 7th and across the small town of Cana a siren sounded, marking the beginning of Israel’s Memorial Day commemorating soldiers who have fallen in the country’s wars. Understandably, most Palestinian Arabs, like Sammy, do not celebrate this day. As in many public events in Israel, Palestinians are excluded. The state actively lobbies to discourage the small but growing number of Israelis who, on this grief-laden day, try to hold a joint Israeli-Palestinian grieving for the thousands of lives lost, Palestinian and Jewish. This year they held it by torchlight in a park in Tel Aviv. Arabs and Jews who took part were subjected to spitting and abuse from a crowd of racist ultra-right Jews. They were aided and abetted by the government which tried to stop Arabs from the occupied territories from crossing into Israel to attend the commemoration. Israel is a Jewish state – the official line runs – so reconciliation and inclusion are not (officially) on the agenda.

More on Cana’s famous wedding in the next post.

The emptiness at the end: we spend a day in Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral's main tower seen from a neighbouring narrow street.

Canterbury Cathedral’s main tower seen from a neighbouring narrow street.

It was still raining as we walked into the pilgrim city of Canterbury through its medieval West Gate. Canterbury is not a big city (it has a permanent population of around 50,000 which rises to around 80,000 during university term time) so it didn’t take us more than fifteen minutes to stroll through its narrow streets to the city centre. But in the space of that fifteen minutes a miracle happened. The rain-filled clouds that had sagged above us all day – in fact for the previous two days – suddenly shrank away to the edge of the sky. We walked through Christchurch Gate into the yard of Canterbury Cathedral and stopped in astonishment. The ancient building was glowing tall, spiky and golden in a flood of warm sunlight pouring over it from a clear blue mid-afternoon sky.

Of course there are annoying, cynical academic types who will say this was not a miracle. Britain’s weather is very changeable and what happened was a routine meteorological event. It had nothng whatever to do with our arrival. Religion, they will say, is an alchemy of symbols and rhetoric that can transform the mundane, the trivial, the impossible, not to mention the downright bleedin’ obvious, into a mind-blowing miracle.

We arrive in steady rain at the medieval West Gate of Canterbury city...

We arrive in steady rain at the medieval West Gate of Canterbury city…

... and fifteen minutes later, Canterbury Cathedral bathed in sunshine against a blue sky. A miracle, just for us.

… and fifteen minutes later, Canterbury Cathedral bathed in sunshine against a blue sky. A miracle, just for us.

But what do they know? The pilgrim sees with the sharp vision of hope, the rationalist sees with the narrow, picky vision of evidence-based science clouded by an excess of data, cushioned by the comforts of hindsight, and aware that scientific “truth” is never final, perfect or uncontestable.

In the spirit of imperfect scientific enquiry I decided to attend the daily ritual of Evensong. So towards half-past five that afternoon Emmy and I entered the cathedral and stood on the gleaming flagstone floor looking up open-mouthed at the vast vault above us. The tourists had been cleared out and a resonant silence filled the airy interior. We went up several wide stone steps into what is called “the quire.” Here several rows of dark wooden pews lay lengthways on either side of the stone floor. They were slightly raked one behind the other like seats at a tennis court. Vergers in long, swinging black robes paced up and down solemnly ushering worshippers to their seats. We opened a little wooden gate at the end of one pew, squeezed in and took our seats in carefully nurtured silence. Around 100 people were in attendance.

The Quire in Canterbury Cathedral where Evensong is held, with ranks of pews left and right.

The Quire where Evensong is held, with ranks of pews facing each other left and right, and the lectern for scripture readings bottom centre.

A river of mellow organ music flowed gently into the quire in intricate melodious eddies. We couldn’t see the pipes or the organist, the music was just there, part of the ambience. At precisely 5.30 everyone stood up and twelve all-male choristers (in a bizarre touch they are officially called “lay clerks”) filed in wearing long white smocks with split sleeves draped over black full-length cassocks. The procession forked into two groups of six, each entering a pew that faced the other across the floor. A priest – a woman – welcomed visitors and extended a special word of welcome to newly arrived pilgrims.

The Evensong service got under way with a contrapuntal “responsory” in which the two halves of the choir spoke musically to each other. The bass, baritone, tenor and counter-tenor (falsetto) voices danced slowly and delicately around one another in an elaborate, gravely beautiful musical gavotte. This was followed by versicles intoned by a choir member in a high, half-spoken half-sung monotone and responses intoned in similar style but with extended contrapuntal elaboration by the rest of the choir. The cathedral itself seemed to sing an ethereal third line of counterpoint in the faint resonances it sent back from its walls and windows.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Then came the first reading, the opening verses of Psalm 14.

The fool hath said in his heart “There is no God.”

I sat up and paid attention. This was getting personal.

They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. No not one. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand and seek God. But they had all turned aside, they had all been totally corrupted. There is not one that doeth good, no, not one.

I suppose I should have been chastened by these tough-love words, so obviously true in my case. But I was not humble enough. Inwardly I nodded, but outwardly I looked as indifferent as I could and returned to enjoyment of the music. The choir of Canterbury Cathedral is deservedly world famous. The disciplined passion of its singing is striking. Its gentle surges and passages of repose are beautifully modulated. Everything is balanced, pure, harmonious and serene. The singers are artists of the highest order.

Evensong ended with the normal Anglican-Catholic confession of faith (which I allowed to pass by me completely of course) and the singing of Nunc Dimittis (Now go forth), a simple and powerful dismissal that encapsulates the spirit of Christianity as it rose in Palestine two thousand years ago.

***

The following day Emmy and I returned to the cathedral to have a good look around inside and out. Again we stood transfixed in the long hall of the nave. Far above us the stone ribs of the walls bent inwards on either side and splayed like palm fronds to intertwine in an ornate pattern of criss-cross curves and circles down the length of the ceiling. Between the trunks of stone embedded in the walls, narrow stained glass windows cast glittering glances of bright blue and red light into the bower-like space of the nave.

The main nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To give you an idea of its dimensions, the tiny figure standing bottom-centre is Emmy.

The main nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To give you an idea of its dimensions, the tiny figure standing in the aisle before the altar is Emmy.

Readers of this blog will recall that several times I have complained about the misuse of churches to put a gloss of Christian respectability, even piety, on the lives of those who have participated in military murder, especially in wars of imperial aggression. (See Glazgeh: the friendly city and Santiago, killer of Muslims). Canterbury Cathedral is no different. One wall tablet commemorates eight local military personnel who were killed in the 1914 Battle of the Falkland Islands against a German sea squadron. In typical fashion their deaths are dedicated “to the glory of God”. Another commemorates the life of Major Simon Willard who, in the seventeenth century colony of New England (North America) “was made commander-in-chief of the British Forces against the hostile Indian tribes.”

Even an imperial war in southeast Asia is commemorated in this tablet.

An imperial war in distant Southeast Asia and another in South Africa are commemorated in this tablet.

I suppose you can argue that by condemning these violations of basic Christian teachings I am judging the people and events of history by values that were not current at the time. This would not be true. Nothing is more basic to Christianity at whatever time in its history than “You shall not murder” and “Love your enemies.” Christian pacifists (i.e. those who try to live by the values taught by Jesus Christ) have always been present at all times in history, but they have been ignored, or treated with contempt or ruthlessly eliminated by the hypocrites of mainstream “Christianity”. Saint Augustine (354 – 430) exhausted much of his considerable brain-power thinking up justifications for war and his thinking has been influential. Even today, as many protest at religious justifications for war and religious excuses for murder, the Augustinian nexus between the “Christian” establishment and the waging of war remains unbreakably strong.

Much of Canterbury Cathedral’s allure down the ages comes from the events of 1170 when its archbishop Thomas Becket was assassinated inside the cathedral by agents of King Henry II. Today the gory details of the murder are told with special relish. By my count we heard three times during our visit that an assassin’s sword lopped off the top of Becket’s skull leaving his brain exposed. Apparently Becket was still alive at this moment, but one of the assassins then dashed the archbishop’s head against the floor scattering his brains and blood over the flagstones. Visitors can stand at the exact spot where this happened, as I did, but I was examining the floor so closely I forgot to take a photo.

Within two years of his death Becket had been appointed a saint and his grave in the apse of the cathedral became a popular place of pilgrimage. But 350 years later King Henry VIII changed that. In his campaign to purge the Catholic faith and the Pope’s authority from England he ordered that Becket’s remains be dug up, his bones pulverised and the tomb destroyed. In later centuries, with the decline of religious bigotry, pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral resumed.

The absent tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, marked by a single candle in an empty space.

The absent tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, marked by a single candle in an empty space.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 2nd I reached the end point of the English Camino. The spot where Thomas Becket’s tomb once stood – now called Trinity Chapel at the far end of the cathedral – is marked by a single candle standing on the floor at the centre of an empty space. There are no remains, there is no tomb. As I stood there a small crowd of pilgrims pressed around me.

“There is nothing here,” one whispered. “It is empty, like Christ’s tomb.”

Faith creates its own reality. If the tomb had still been there it would have been seen as proof of Becket’s sanctity and the truths he stood for. But for some, apparently, its eerie absence under the cathedral apse is even more convincing, even though all that remains of Becket now is a mirage of stories. Perhaps (I am hoping) some pilgrims may ask themselves whether Canterbury Cathedral’s final emptiness – the absence at the heart of its magnificence – tells us something useful about the character of religious faith.

***

As Emmy and I walked the streets of Canterbury city we couldn’t help but notice the pervasiveness of Chaucer and pilgrimage in the city’s place names. We walked past another final destination in the pilgrimage of life, a retirement home for ladies and gentlemen called Pilgrims Lodge (at number 10-12 Pilgrims Way).

A rest home for elderly ladies and gentlemen at the end of life's pilgrimage: Pilgrim Lodge on Pilgrims Way.

A retirement home for elderly ladies and gentlemen at the end of life’s pilgrimage: Pilgrims Lodge on Pilgrims Way.

“Perfect for us,” I exclaimed. “Let’s go in and check it out. Maybe we can make a booking.”

It took just a single glance from Emmy – no more than a nano-second – and yet another of my brilliant ideas was shot down in flames.