Jesus Trail

Modern Nazareth

I step off the public bus in Nazareth. I drag my pack out of the luggage compartment and step away from the curb. The bus fumes away. It is early evening.

I draw a deep breath. Here we go.

The street is a familiar one. I am just under the Church of the Annunciation. According to the Latin tradition, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary in this place that she would bear a son. His name would be Jesus (Luke 1:31).

I first heard about a trail bearing this name while spending time in Galilee a year ago (2012). Israel-Palestine has a well-maintained network of hiking paths that cover the country. I’ve known about about the Israel National Trail system (Shvil Ysra’el) for years now and have even walked short sections of it. But the phrase “the Jesus Trail” was foreign to me. So I asked around. While some folks nodded knowingly when the subject was raised, none of my acquaintances (even Galilee locals) had actually experienced it.

The Jesus Trail came up again in an email from Nadia. Nadia is the Assistant Director of Operations from the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. She is the person through whom most of my tour work in Israel/Palestine is facilitated. It seems that the Jesus Trail was flashing on JCBS’s radar as well. But again, no one in the organization had personally experienced it.

So when I returned to the university, I did some online searching and found a guidebook written by Anna Dintaman and David Landis titled Hiking the Jesus Trail and other Biblical Walks in the Galilee, 2nd ed. (Harleysville: Village to Village Press, 2013). It looked practical, so I ordered a copy, flipped through it and decided if and when I had some spare time, I would try it.

My slightly worn copy of Hiking the Jesus Trail. It is even more worn today.

That spare time suddenly opened up when the wheels of one of my summer tours came off. I was left with a gap of two weeks with no responsibilities. I couldn’t fly home. I didn’t have a place to stay. My dig buddies weren’t in the field (no bunks to bum). So I thought, Here’s your chance! Make lemonade.

Of course, the timing couldn’t have been worse. July is the hottest month of the year in Israel-Palestine. The guide book shrieked the warning: “Prohibitively hot, high risk of heat-related illness.” I chewed this for a while, but in the end chalked it up as advice for lesser beings. After all, we archaeologists know heat (!).

So, when I left the States in May 2013, I packed with a hot trail in mind. Dedicated purchases included a Lowe Alpine TT Tour 70 backpack, an Olympus Tough TG-2 camera (I’m sick of lugging my digital 35 mm setup around), and a SteriPEN Traveler (a water purification device I bought for the African jaunt just previously described on this blog site). Apart from these three items, I had enough odds and ends from other outdoor escapades to keep me alive for ten weeks on three continents: a backpacker’s stove, a cook kettle and cup, two Nalgene bottles (one with a microfilter straw), iodine, liquid bandage, a shorty therm-a-rest sleep pad, a silk sleep sack, pocketknife, headlamp, handheld GPS, and a small tent (sans rainfly, of course).

These items all went into the pack along with other things needed for our regular summer work: four shirts, two pairs of zip-off pants, two pair of underwear, three pairs of socks, hat, sunglasses, my wife’s MacBook Air (thank you, Vicki), a cell phone, a baggy of laundry powder, a sewing kit, a stretch of clothesline, and a partridge in a pear tree (just checking to see if you are really reading this). There were a few other essentials, like safety pins in my hat, but that was the bulk of it.

No doubt Marco Polo walked to China less encumbered. So I did what I could to save weight: I hacksawed the handle off my toothbrush.

Everything goes in here.

From the Jesus Trail chatter, it seemed that a guest house in Old Nazareth was a focal point for this particular adventure. Maybe if I hung out there, I thought, I could talk to other hikers who were coming or going to get a feel for the challenge. I made reservations for two nights in a hostel known as the Fauzi Azar Inn.

Now, for the sake of my American readers, hostel accommodations are quite common in this part of the world. It is a very European thing, often student-driven, budget-oriented, and usually consisting of a mixed dormitory sleeping area with a shared bathroom. Depending on the company that lands in the bunk above you or the shower next to you, hostels can be wonderful or terrifying experiences. (Buy me lunch one day and I’ll curl your ear hairs with stories from a crusader dungeon in Acco! I have high hopes that this experience will be better.)

Afoot in Nazareth's Old City.

I sling my pack over my shoulders and put my mind to the immediate task: locating the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth’s Old City.

It proves difficult, at least initially. I have a general idea where the place is, a printed copy of a local map, and even the GPS coordinates. None of these work. From the look of it, others may have had similar issues, so relief comes when I quit trying to think through the problem and just follow the little posted signs that direct lost travelers through the labyrinth. Little do I know that locating trail blazes will soon become an obsession.

At last I arrive. I stand before a door within a door. It is classic Ottoman in style. I must step up and bend down simultaneously to get through the small opening with the pack on my back. This cannot be done easily. I push, grunt, wiggle and pop through the portal with all the grace of the newly born.

Forget the map and the GPS; just follow the signs posted overhead.