Nazareth Rise

I rise so as not to disturb other sleepers. Three Columbians, two young men and one woman, came into the hostel last night to join the two Canadians and myself already in residence. One of the Columbians took the bunk beside me, another swung into the bunk directly above. I listen to their breathing. It is slow and regular. The single oscillating fan cools the room and helps cover the noise of my exit. I dress and drag my pack out from under the bed. I carry it into the courtyard and set it on a bench.

It sure is dark at four in the morning.

But it is also cool. And right now, the latter is a more pressing issue. I want to be over the rim of Nazareth’s bowl before the sun rises. If it is a struggle to climb out of here in a small-engined car, I can’t imagine doing it on foot.

Our dorm room (by day) at the Fauzi Azar Inn.

Everything is zippered and buckled. I leave my pack by the door. I enter the bathroom, stick my head under the flow of cold water in the sink, shake like a dog, and jam my hat on. Hygiene complete.

I climb the stairs to the shared kitchen to mix a cup of instant coffee (This is Israel-Palestine, get used to it).

The coffee is hot but I throw it down anyway. I am anxious and excited all at the same time. For several months I have thought about walking the Jesus Trail. I’ve read the guidebook, studied the maps, and schlepped my gear halfway around the world to be ready for this day. Now it has come.

I am going to walk across Galilee. Solo.

Crazy, I know.

When I did these kinds of things as younger man, I feared meeting up with unsavory characters. That thought doesn’t bother me much anymore. I might actually welcome the company. No, the fear in my old age is dropping over from heatstroke atop some bald hill, twisting an ankle in an awkward step, or choking to death on the dust of a petrified granola bar (you could preserve mummies with that stuff).

Impulsively, I take a picture. It’s like, you know, what the kids do, like holding their own camera at arm’s length? I figure it might be the last time anyone sees me alive. They’ll find my stiff body on a bald hill with a broken ankle, grinning with granola chips stuck in my throat.

Like a deer in the headlights.

I bid adieu to the Fauzi Azar Inn. I had come here hoping to to run into some others who were hiking the trail, who had just hiked the trail, or who were thinking about hiking the trail. Of course, none of this materialized. Nobody does the trail in July, the hottest month of the year. Even Linda, the future mayor of Nazareth, scrunched her eyes when I told her my plans.

“Put a tiny bit of sugar and salt into your water,” was her advice. “It will make two bottles seem like four.”

Armed with this miracle of the multiplication of the water, I leave my room key and a note of thanks at the empty desk and head back downstairs. I stretch the elastic band of my lamp around my head and turn it on. I am now a cyclops of the night. I pull on my pack, complete with a liter of wonder water on each hip, and squeeze through the little door.

Remembering the struggle to find the inn two days ago, I had scouted the first few turns of the Jesus Trail in advance. The guidebook warns its readers that getting out of Nazareth can be tricky. Urban is a different kind of wilderness. And Old Nazareth is a different kind of urban.

A Jesus Trail Blaze. This one tells the happy wanderer that the path is turning to the right.

This cyclops quickly discovers it is easier to spot the blazes in the daylight. The “blaze” marks are a kind of code painted on rocks, walls, lamp posts, anything that doesn’t move. The Jesus Trail code consists of three painted bands, white-orange-white. Theoretically, you should be able to stand at one blaze and spot the next one. By such breadcrumb navigation, you can survive without a GPS device. Of course, this is only true if you can find the stripes in the dark andif they haven’t been defaced by a malicious pack of walids.

I take it easy and slow. Once I miss a turn and have to backtrack. I regain the trail. It is a steady climb up, up, up. I pass between walls, houses, over curbs and sidewalks. An occasional streetlamp lights the way. I glide like a wraith, not another soul is living.

Sweat runs down my forehead and drips into my eyes. I mop it with the front of my shirt. I turn and photograph the stairs. I have no idea how many there are. I don’t even want to know.

The urban trail out of Nazareth. Note the distinctively shaped hill on the horizon.

Day breaks about the time I crest the ridge. I flip the switch of my lamp and pull it off. I look back victoriously to the bowl of Nazareth.

Then I get my first view to the north. The ridge falls away in the direction of Sepphoris (Arab. Suffuriyyah; Heb. Tzippori). The site is not mentioned in the New Testament, but was one of the most significant urban centers in Jesus’s Galilee.

I first came across a popularization of the idea in the early 1990s (I’m thinking here of Richard Batey and his Jesus and the Forgotten City) that Jesus may have played some role in building Sepphoris. He was, after all, a tektōn (“carpenter,” “craftsman,” “day-laborer”) and people with such skills would have been needed by Herod Antipas to build his new capital.

I consider the walk from Nazareth to Sepphoris with my eyes and immediately gain a fresh feel for the argument. If Nazareth residents did help build Sepphoris (and I’m not convinced that they did), it would have been a difficult commute. It is not so much the distance between the two sites (it is only five miles or so as a bird flies); it is the grade. Switchbacks would easily double both the distance and effort required to make the trek. Sanders suggest it would require a half a day to reach Sepphoris from Nazareth. This is perhaps a pessimistic estimate for young legs, a realistic estimate for old ones. Evans veers in the other direction, optimistically, and suggests the journey could be done in a little more than one hour. In the absence of smooth surfaces and concrete stairs, my guess (for a healthy person) would be more than that, perhaps two hours. A worker would likely string together a few days at the job-site before returning.

Interpretive painting of first century Nazareth. The view from the ridge. Note the distinctively shaped hill on the horizon. Illustration from Crossan and Reed, Excavating Jesus (2003).

Confronted by the biblical text and the logistics of travel, I am reminded of the value in knowing the land, walking its trails, eating its fruit. Arguments invented in the comfort of one’s office are no substitute for an on-the-ground experience. One really must walk Galilee before one can talk Galilee.