Sitting on the penthouse deck of the Air BnB where I was staying, and beholding the Sea of Galilee laid out before me, I contemplated where to begin and how to open a portal into a time and people when Jesus ministered along its banks and stirred the soul of a people.
From the city of Tiberias, the city Herod founded and built and moved to in 19 AD, I began my trek. Heading north, my car hugged the western banks of the Galilee. First I came to Migdal, hometown of Mary Magdalene. I had not realized it was right on the coastline and so close to the major pilgrimage sites for Christians. I got off and came to the site of the old town. It was closed due to massive construction of a large hotel, restaurant and grounds that will become a major center for Christian pilgrims.
Heading further north, I took the exit to Tabgha and Capernum. Tabgha, the site of the loaves and fishes, was a sea of tourist buses and throngs of people and I decided to move on for now. As I drove, I noted a fence running along the length of the Galilee and a paved walkway near the road for those who wish to walk.
Suddenly 2,000 years felt like a long time. So much has changed. I wondered if I would even catch a glimpse of how it once was. I yearned to sit by the sea, to be with the trees and the fauna, to feel what it may have been like for Jesus, the disciples and those that came to be healed or to hear him speak. Was there such a place now?
Coming to Capernum, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, I drove past another sea of parked tourist buses, navigated all the walking pilgrims to get through the fenced entrance, passed the ticket counter and entered the tourist complex. A large statue of Saint Peter, larger than life, was featured in the square.
There were the remains of a 4th century synagogue built over the synagogue of Peter’s time. In the center of the tourist park there was St. Peter’s, a modern 8-sided church. Beneath the church were the ruins of what is purported to be Peter’s home. The shape of the house was round with many avenues and rooms. I thought this seemed large for the home of a fisherman.
Outside and around the bend there was a gravel veranda of sorts that looked onto the Galilee. At last! I was by the sea, the cradle of Jesus’ ministry. Resting on a stone underneath a large shade tree set in a planter, I was just yards from the Galilee. I noted that the sign named it a lake and mused that it does has fresh water, not salt, and so imagined it is more lake than sea.
The day was already hot, but I was comfortable in the shade. The tourist groups were not coming down here, which allowed me time to just be with the water and air and land.
Birds skimmed across the quiet waters. I watched a White Egret walk along the rocky shoreline. Occasionally a fish breached the water and then slid back in. The Galilee was known for its abundant fish, and while sitting there I felt this was confirmed as I watched a number of fish make themselves known.
Capernum sits at the top of the Galilee and looking out, I could see the Western and Eastern shores and straight ahead the sea goes to the horizon and opens to the Jordan River. To the left is Golan (East) with sloping hills dotted with trees and green. To the right (West) Genesaret and Migdala are visible as well as Tiberias, further down the coastline. I was surprised at the close proximity between all the locations where Jesus held his ministry.
From Tiberias heading West, there is a great valley and road through it (even in ancient times). Walking, a person could be in Cana within the day. Just beyond Cana is Nazareth and Sephora. Going a little further north from Capernum is Bethsaida. The Mount of the Beatitudes and the places where Jesus fed the crowd with fives loaves and two fishes is within a half hour to an hour’s walk from where I sat.
It felt to me that the people of these villages would have traded with each other, known of each other. Migdala salted fish and so if Peter caught a big catch, he might take part of it to the port of Migdala where he would be paid for the fish they would prepare and market.
News would travel across the waters, literally. The fisherman up and down the coast would meet up on the water, and share the latest events. The sea was the gold of Galilee – it was the means of livelihood, sustenance, travel and news.
Jesus’ ministry took place primarily near the water’s edge, whether on the Galilee or along the Jordan. The main road to Jerusalem goes along the Jordan River to the South. Then the river moves north of Galilee, starting up again not far from Peter’s home and winds past Bethsaida and Golan.
The international road from Damascus to Tiberias passed through Capernum and Migdal. Both of these villages would have been stopping points for international travel. They would have been exposed to Romans, Phoenicians, Turks, Greeks… Most likely, people would have stopped to buy fish and refreshment on their journey, much like an ancient roadside gas/convenient store.
As I left St. Peter’s Park, and was down the road aways, I noticed a small lot of cars and pulled into see what it was. It was Capernum’s National Park, a small campground near the shore dotted with tents of weekending Israelis. I felt I had struck gold. Here was the Galilee, without landscaping and walkways. I parked and walked a dirt path through the willowy grass, dandelion flowers and a ground cover that had sprouted small purple flowers. White butterflies fluttered around a type of wild purple aster.
Sitting under a tree, I noticed how hard the earth was. The soil felt like rock itself. The coastline was dotted with rocks as far as I could see. A stray cat wandered past – cats are all feral in Israel and treated very well. In the morning, people will put out milk and food for them and the cats are allowed to wander at will to wherever they wish to go. I had seen one curled up in a church, on a table at a restaurant, wandering a busy street and now here in the national park.
It occurred to me that the shoreline would be a strategic place from which to preach. First, people all along the Galilee can see where a crowd has gathered along the shoreline and know where to come, or be curious to come see why they have all gathered.
Second, the hills come sloping downward to the water; if Jesus were to stand at the water and everyone sat up on the hill, this would create a natural amphitheater where he could be easily seen and heard. And then, for those gathered, they would see Jesus with the backdrop of the sea behind him. The water, always present. The cool, refreshing, life-giving water. The living water of Israel embodied in the sea and realized in Jesus himself.
Third, when the crowds were large, Jesus taught while standing in a boat just off shore. After, he could row to another shore to preach to a new group or simply to take a break.
After spending time relaxing and being present to the Galilee and landscape, I felt feeling like I was beginning to feel the movement, the song of the Galilee. I got in my car again and headed a little further north and discovered another Capernum site, not one in my tourist book or on the tour group route. It was a Greek Orthodox church honoring Jesus’ ministry in Capernum.
Walking into the church, I was met by paintings floor to ceiling on all sides and across the ceiling. Each painting depicted a different aspect of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. There were virtually no depictions of the feminine, but the artistry and beauty of the church touched me.
Leaving the church, the gardens wound around to the sea and there were benches and areas in which to simply sit by the Galilee herself. The lushness and beauty of this place calmed and enchanted me. The Galilee was a prominent feature of this site and I was able to drink her in. The grounds even had a water fountain, made over from an old well. Other sites offer no water or sell bottled water; in this heat, water has been essential to the ease of movement through my days. I was struck by the overall nourishment I felt at this site. The grounds and church invited lingering and so I did.
As I headed to my car, I noted a dirt trail off to the side and decided to see where it headed. To my great delight it headed to a several mile trail, all part of a nature preserve, that goes from Capernum to Jordan. I found myself suddenly able to stroll along the shoreline, past groves of olives and rows of grapevines. This is what I had longed to do since the start of the day and here I was. I had found it: a place to walk along the shoreline.
I came to a dock that jutted out into the sea. Walking out onto the dock, I was able to turn and look back at the shoreline, able to feel the wind whisking across the waters, feel the freedom of being on the water. I thought of how the fisherman must have felt being able to unhinge themselves from the land, from family, from wives, from the worries of the world, and set sail each day.
As the sun began to sink in the sky, I made my way back to Tiberias, pleased with my adventure and reflection of my first day by the Sea of Galilee.