Roads

I bend forward into the sink. Icy water runs across my hair, face, and neck. The cold shocks the leftover night from my head. It is 4:00 am. The call to prayer sounds in the distance.

I back away from the flow, close the faucet, and shake like a dog. Satisfied, I pull a shirt over dripping hair and skin, and don the elastic band holding a headlamp. I flip the switch.

Fully awake, I load my gear and slip the pack on my shoulders. I try to be quiet. I can hear the slow breathing of two families in the cloth igloo next to mine.

I crunch up the gravel lane of the “Green Goat.” I am grateful for this quirky place. The “Goat” has provided the rest that I needed. Rejuvenated, I launch into the darkness.

My primary concern is still the heat. By midday the temperatures are predicted to top the century mark. I want to be done walking before then. Since my first hour will be spent retracing my steps on an asphalt road, getting lost is not a problem. As it is Shabbat(Saturday), traffic will not be a problem either.

Galilean sunrise.

Soon I approach the Golani Junction from the south. The eastern sky is aglow. I switch off my headlamp.

A barricade detours traffic away from the new construction. I carefully pick my way through it. I am alert to sudden drops, steps, holes, and piles of material. There are no OSHA standards here. Concrete meets blacktop as the old intersection of two major arteries is being replaced with a more efficient cloverleaf. After years of work (and millions of shekels), the effort is almost done.

It is twilight and I walk the center lane of this fresh and car-less highway. It runs under a bridge. I follow and and from beneath, look up at the dark ribs. Very soon, these ribs will support four lanes of traffic. For now, the cloverleaf is eerily deserted. Beyond the bridge, earthmoving machines practice Shabbat as well. These behemoth rest to one side, nose to tail. As I walk by, I reach out. My fingers brush a tire. I am amazed by the sheer size of these machines. They can swallow tons of earth. The whole business, actually, is an engineering marvel.

(Editor’s note: the new Golani Interchange opened to traffic approximately one month after the experience described here.)

I make no attempt to locate the “Jesus Trail” markers. I am after something older. Much older. Riding the ridge behind the McDonalds are the reported remains of a paved road from the Roman period.

Modified map from Uzi Liebner’s Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee: An Archaeological Survey of the Eastern Galilee (2009). The road I seek is Liebner’s R1, highlighted in yellow. The interchange is inside the red circle.

This ancient road linked the port of Ptolemais with the two major urban centers of Roman Galilee: Sepphoris and Tiberias. The remains of Ptolemais are lapped by Mediterranean waves; the remains of Tiberias are lapped by the gentler waters of the Sea of Galilee. The Roman road connected these points and made it possible for commercial and military traffic to move without hindrance across Galilee. Mile-markers were placed at intervals and helped travelers gage the journey. Some of these have been found.

Natural corridors essentially fixed the route and were undoubtedly used for centuries before the Roman period. Travelers continued to walk it up to and through the period of the New Testament. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus followed this path when moving between Nazareth and Capernaum. Likewise, the Apostle Paul would have traveled a portion of this road when traveling from Damascus or Ptolemais. Finally, we know that Josephus camped along this way (Liebner 2009: 289).

Salvage excavations suggest that the Roman road was upgraded and paved in AD 120 during the time of Hadrian. See here and here.

Much of what we know about Roman engineering is because of the efforts of a first century BC author, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, or simply, Vitruvius. His 10 volume work, titled De Architectura, is a one-of-a-kind to survive from classical antiquity. Vitruvius describes in great detail how harbors, roads, aqueducts, bridges, and machines were designed and operated in his day. Vitruvius dedicates his work to Caesar Augustus, the emperor from the time of Christ’s birth.

Roman road construction, from L. A. Hamey and J. A. Hamey, Los ingenieros romanos (Madrid, 1990).

Vitruvius makes it clear that there was not one formula for Roman road-building, but rather principles that guided engineers in using local materials to meet the unique challenges of local landscapes.

It takes me a while, but I eventually locate a path that runs from the modern construction area. It takes me up a gradual rise. At the crest, I find the road. The pavers are still locked together. They are basalt, a very difficult stone to cut. It is an engineering marvel.

Pavers and kurb stones of the Roman road.

A highwayman indicates the way to Sepphoris and Ptolemais.

It is a good place for breakfast. I sit on the pavement, lean back against a large stone, and enjoy a Clif Bar. The sun is now fully awake.