Jesus Christ has been big business in the Holy Land for centuries, ever since Saint Jerome and Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, made pilgrimages de rigueur for the faithful.
Today pilgrimages are even bigger business. The promise of a life-changing experience while walking where Jesus walked, preached, died, and was resurrected attracted more than a million Christian pilgrims in 2010, according to Uri Sharon, of the religious tourism desk in Israel’s Tourism Ministry.
In the hope of increasing that number, this week Israel launched a new tourism “product”: the Gospel Trail. It consists of more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) of footpaths and roads between Nazareth and Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his public ministry. It was in Capernaum that he taught in the synagogue, found his first disciples, and performed miracles of healing.
No one knows the exact path Jesus took, but “this is the most likely route that Jesus could have used,” Sharon said. The ministry and the Jewish National Fund invested nearly $800,000 in creating the trail; the ministry is also encouraging entrepreneurs who will provide services along the trail, including accommodations.
Pilgrims can walk the route in about three days, ride it on a bicycle or on horseback, or traverse it in groups by car. The trail is clearly marked by cairns on which the topmost stone bears a mosaic-like image of an anchor—one of two kinds that were in use in the first century CE.
“It’s a trail you can walk with a Bible in your hand,” Sharon said. “And you can encounter landscape, flowers, and animals that Jesus encountered.”
This is particularly helpful in understanding the language of the New Testament and the parables Jesus told, which are filled with elements of nature, such as wheat and tares, a fig tree, a mustard seed, a vineyard, good fruit and evil fruit, and sheep and goats. The short stretch of the trail (parts of it rocky and bumpy) that I rode on a bicycle passed through olive groves of olive and citrus orchards, where a multitude of birds could be heard singing. It was a warm, sunny day that followed heavy rains, so the fields were green and the leaves on the trees glistened.
Tour guide Yossi Granit explained the relevance of the olive tree to the life of Jesus. “An olive tree never dies,” he said. “It keeps growing shoots, and a shoot in Hebrew is netzer.” According to the Hebrew Bible, the Messiah will be a shoot (netzer) from the root of Jesse (the father of David). One can easily see the connection between “netzer” and Nazareth.
One stop on the trail is the Nun Spring, where a rectangular pool of clear water is shaded by tall trees. The spring is near the town of Migdal (ancient Magdala), home of Mary Magdalene. The 1,500 present-day inhabitants live mostly on tourism, and the trail is expected to bring further development to the town.
One of the side routes leads to the Mt. of Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Parts of the route overlap with the Jesus Trail, a private venture that begins at the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, and with the Israel Trail, a 1,000 km. path that leads from the Lebanese border in the north to the Red Sea in the south.
The last stretch of the Gospel Trail is wheelchair accessible. The route’s end is marked by a large stone on which a map and a verse from the New Testament are inscribed:
“He…withdrew to Galilee and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali…”
At that spot one can board a traditional wooden boat or a larger ferry to cross the Sea of Galilee, the only sweet-water lake in the Middle East. On the day the trail was launched, the guests on the ferry included Boutros Pierre Mouallem, archbishop emeritus of Acre, Haifa, and Galilee of the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church, the largest church in the Holy Land.
Also on board were seminarians at Domus Galilaeae, a Catholic center where they learn about their Hebrew roots, “to understand the meaning of prayer, of feasts, and Hebrew liturgies, which were the daily food of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” as the Web site puts it. It was thus fitting that as the sun set on the waters where Jesus walked, the seminarians sang “Shema Yisrael,” the most important Jewish declaration of faith.
Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. No part of the photograph may be used without written permission of the Israel Tourism Ministry.