Travel: A pilgrimage to the Holy Land
March 18, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series of installments from photographer Dennis Jones, who is traveling in the eastern Mediterranean.
I feel a mild sense of benign pity for those devout souls making their first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The images ingrained in me from the pages of my childhood Sunday school books are quaint and perfect.
Anticipation and reality rarely meet, especially in modern Israel.
It’s Sunday. We rent a car for two days of travel around the Galilee. Israeli roads are first rate. Signage is good, both in Hebrew and English. We head east from Haifa to Nazareth, Jesus’ home town.
It is early spring. The rolling hills are a vibrant emerald. Blossoming almond trees tint the landscape a soft rose as yellow wildflowers and crimson poppies dot the fresh grasses. The land of milk and honey is here, a reality.
Upon arrival, my benign pity begins forming; Jesus’ quaint, biblical village is now a sprawling, graffiti-ridden city. A purpose-built viewpoint above the town provides a panoramic view. Its small amphitheater and arbor are sadly strewn with broken glass and trash.
The Basilica of the Annunciation, where according to tradition, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a son, is in the middle of chaotic Nazareth. Come to find out, the Orthodox and Catholic churches have separate locations where this allegedly took place.
This typifies the problem and the source of my sympathy. It wasn’t until three centuries after Christ’s death that the locations of his miracles, sermons, annunciation, birth and death were fixed.
Yes, there were traditions, but when St. Helena, Roman emperor Constantine’s pious mother, fixed the sites, a capricious element must have crept in.
The multi-level Catholic Basilica, built in 1969, is by far the grander of the two. Both floors are of equally large size. The grotto, said to have been Mary’s home, lies at ground level below the main sanctuary. An octagonal hole above the grotto and circular altar area, perhaps fifteen feet across, connects the two huge spaces.
Driving to the Orthodox church, we find not only the well where Mary supposedly obtained her water, but an older, far more modest church. Take your pick.
The ancient city of Tiberius is tonight’s goal. Traveling the ancient caravan route between Akko and Damascus, we pass the Horns of Hattin, a small mountain where in 1187, the Crusaders hastened their demise through an ill-conceived battle with the Arabs.
The storied Sea of Galilee, the lowest fresh water lake on Earth, comes into view as we descend 693 feet below sea level to and the shoreline at the modern city. With an often turbulent history stretching back millennia, on this warm spring night, Tiberius is as placid as the sea. Orthodox families, men in black hats and coats sporting side-curls, women with head scarves and long dresses, rambunctious children eating ice cream, stroll leisurely amid the kosher falafel restaurants and tour boat operations.
The morning dawns bright and clear. The azure waters sparkle within their mountainous borders. We drive north along the western shore to the tiny village of Capernaum, the home of seven apostles and where Jesus spent much of his life.
Again a modern church has been built on the foundations of an ancient one. Lovely old mosaics of birds and animals encircle the simple altar area.
Walking past ancient olive groves and an Orthodox monastery to the quiet shore, the sound of singing reaches us; a service is being conducted in one of several shoreline sites set aside for pilgrims and their priest-led tour groups.
The Mount of the Beatitudes is a short drive uphill from Capernaum. The lovely basilica is situated on a tree-lined prominence with broad views of banana groves rolling down to the sea.
Again, hymns and the sounds of mass greet us as ministers and priests lead their pilgrim followers in worship. It is a gorgeous, soft, spring morning. The peaceful gardens are here, despite the modern churches, masses of buses, tour groups and the hawking of souvenirs, a taste of the environs in which Jesus lived and preached can be found along these northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. My feelings begin to soften in an appreciation of the pilgrim experience.
Dennis Jones is a local professional photographer and writer. He and Yolanda Marshall are traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. To see more photos, visit his blog at http://www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.