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Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Road to Galilee

Day two was full. We hit the road at 8:00, immediately after breakfast

It really would have been nice to see more of Tel Aviv, which is a beautiful city and, actually, Israel's largest. Jerusalem's total population is a little more, but Tel Aviv takes up more real estate and has the lion's share of the wealthy, highly-educated Israelis. Tel Aviv was the heart of the Zionist movement and the birth of Israel in 1948. We saw sites where Saddam Hussein hit with scud missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But alas, we had to move on... We wound out the main road northward through high-end neighborhoods and the burgeoning tech center of Israel. It's not hard to see the truth that about 70% of Israel's 7.5 million citizens live in urban areas. 

We followed the coastline north through Netanya (once a center for gold and diamonds); through Alexander (named for Janus the Hasmonean ruler); and into Caesarea Maritima."Maritima" means "near the sea." Named for Augustus Caesar, built by Herod the Great, Caesarea is, even in ruins, a wonder to behold. Three years before Herod, the Phoenicians had a port here, but the crazy-but-brilliant Idumean Herod transformed something modest into the centerpiece of Roman naval and commercial traffic. We watched a short video about the long history of Caesarea--from Herod and the Romans, to Byzantine rule, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, to the present. Then we walked the grounds, listening closely to Anton Farah's amazing commentary. The amphitheater is still there. So are the ruins of the hippodrome, where chariots raced. Herod's palace is obvious, leaving behind his swimming pool, fed by an awesome freshwater aqueduct system--Herod started it and Roman emperor Hadrian later expanded it. The Romans were unbelievable builders. And others who came later left their mark as well, witness the ruins of Crusader fortress facilities. One of the most striking things we saw was the ruins of a pagan temple, a Christian church, and a Muslim mosque all on the same site here. Time just passed it on from one set of worshiper hands to the next, each adapting to their own needs.

This happens to be holiday here in Israel--the feast of Shavuot or feast of Weeks. Most of us know it better by its Greek name, Pentecost. This holiday, which celebrates the giving of the Law, comes fifty days after Passover, closes schools and businesses, and prompts many Jews to celebrate in various ways. We have seen a lot of people spending family time outdoors--sightseeing, playing, picnicking, you name it--as we have traveled. 

After Caesarea, we continued north to Mt. Carmel. On the way, we passed old Crusader camps, miles and miles of fertile countryside--sunflowers, bananas, almond trees, and more. Haifa is a striking city with a population of 300,000 that welcomes you eventually to the climb up Carmel. At the top, the Carmelite monastery marks the spot where Scripture says Elijah squared off against the prophets of Baal, eventually destroying them following victory in their battle of the gods. On the top of the monastery, we got a tremendous view eastward toward the Jezreel Valley and upcoming destinations--Megiddo, Gilboa, Nazareth, and more. Anton gave us a play by play of everything we could see from this magnificent vista.

We had lunch in the mountains (some call this area Israel's mini-Switzerland) at a Druze restaurant. The Druze are an odd and secretive religious order directed by Muslim sheikhs. They claim to follow Jethro, Moses' father in law, but few really know what they believe. One thing they are known for is food, and we stopped for an hour to eat falaffel and schnitzel and more. Here, we crossed paths with Steve and Lynette Austin (from Abilene and UCC) and their concurrent tour group. We will see them again tomorrow and look forward to that. 

We continued on through rural areas that reminded me of the Texas Hill Country--rocky, oak trees, steep hills, winding roads, and cacti. Exiting the higher mountains, we came down to the plain of Jezreel, driving by kibbutzim and old Roman cemeteries (including a family tomb with a rolling stone entrance in front). Our next stop was Tel Megiddo. From 3:00-4:00pm we took a walking tour of the park there, which is memorable, to say the least! Anton explained that this site has always been the topography, a significant, strategic place where roads between Asia and Africa and key mountain passes (valleys) intersect. A political and military hotspot for centuries and centuries. This real estate changed hands twenty-five times, being built and destroyed over and over. Megiddo is presumed to be the "Har-Mageddon" or "Armageddon" referenced in Revelation 16. Christians have long associated this place with a final cataclysmic end times battle between good and evil. Maybe. Maybe not. But it was a big deal in Solomon's day, for sure. Perhaps he brought Sheba here to impress her? His palace and stables are still here, having been excavated by many teams over many years. Jeroboam's granary is incredible. We went down into King Ahab's famous water tunnel, a genius feat of engineering (and slave labor, no doubt) to get water into Megiddo. It was a long walk down and out, but well worth it. 

Leaving Megiddo, we hit the road east to Tiberias, through Afula and by Mt. Moreh (see the story of Gideon and the Midianites). We passed Nain, where Jesus raised a widow's dead son. We passed Mt. Tabor and the region of Deborah and Barak and Sisera and Jael. We saw Nazareth in the hills to our north (we will spend time there soon). Now in Lower East Galilee, we passed a sign to En Dor (remember Saul's witchy friend?). We sped by the Horns of Hattin, where on July 4, 1187, the Muslim commander Saladin finished off the Crusader army once and for all. 

Then, like an old friend we had never met, it appeared on our left--the Sea of Galilee. Like a bowl of water, surrounded by hills and mountains, there she was. Soon we were in Tiberias, on her southwest shore (250 meters below sea level, by the way). We couldn't check into our hotel until 6:00 due to Sabbath, so we took a quick trip south to the location where the Jordan River exits Galilee. This is one of the traditional sites associated with Jesus' baptism, and many come here to be baptized. We watched several being immersed. It's a peaceful place, surrounded by big trees (and a very commercial gift shop). After an hour here, we came back into Tiberias and checked into our hotel--the Caesar--had dinner and retired for the evening, pooped. We will be here three nights.

Tomorrow: Morning worship, then north to Capernaum, Tabgha, Caesarea Philippi, and the Golan Heights.

Shalom Y'all,
Brent and Melinda

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