Jesus Trail

Sturdy students

I type this sentence from the departures terminal of the Tel Aviv airport. The folks pictured below are winging it home at this very moment.

Look closely. These are the faces of sturdy students for sure, even if a bit odd.

On the streets of Nazareth.

On the streets of Nazareth.

Seth Bryant (second from left) was their chief. He pastors the New Hope Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia and brought this team from the other side of the world. They came for a 12-day experience in Israel-Palestine. There’s nothing odd about that.

Fact is, the itinerary for most two-weekers is fairly predictable. One cannot come here and dodge places like Caesarea-by-the-Sea, Tiberias, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. The paths between these sites is well-worn by the feet of millions.

Seth tempts gravity on the edge of Mt Arbel. Below him is the Plain of Genesaret and the Sea of Galilee.

Seth tempts gravity on the edge of Mt Arbel. Below him is the Plain of Genesaret and the Sea of Galilee.

Sturdy students, however, do other special—or shall we say, odd—things. Here are a few extras that set the New Hope crew apart from the typical tour group.

1. Walking two different portions of the Jesus Trail. New Hope hiked from Nazareth to Sepphoris and again from the heights of Mt Arbel to Magdala. Given the mid-summer temperatures this year, that was a real feat!

2. Spending time visiting with members of the Christian HolyLand Foundation. Learning about the challenges and rewards of contemporary ministry in Galilee proved to be a high point of the journey.

We enjoyed the hospitality of Hani and Shifa Billan who are doing local ministry in Cana, Israel. They are a part of the Christian HolyLand Foundation team. See the link    here    for more on CHLF.

We enjoyed the hospitality of Hani and Shifa Billan who are doing local ministry in Cana, Israel. They are a part of the Christian HolyLand Foundation team. See the link here for more on CHLF.

3. Substituting a drive through Palestine (West Bank) for the usual cruise down the Jordan Valley. As it turned out, the group picked up sites like Jenin, Samaria, Jacob’s Well, and Shilo. These are not sites on the beaten trail. Another extra was doing lunch in Nablus that included world-famous knaffeh and coffee!

Staying hydrated is a challenge on the trail in the summer.

Staying hydrated is a challenge on the trail in the summer.

One other thing that set this group apart was the variety of hotel experiences. One cannot imagine a stronger contrast than the setting of Kibbutz Lavi and the setting of the Angel Hotel. The former is an old Galilean commune frequented by Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews; the latter is a boutique hotel run by a family of Arab Christians inside Palestine.

Sprinkle a few nights on the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee between these and it adds up to a full cultural experience.

The platform underneath our seats is a part of the construction effort of Herod the Great who rebuilt the YHWH temple in Jerusalem. It’s a good place to reflect upon this history, as well as the legacy of Islam. Today, this area is known as the  Haram esh-Sharif  or “the noble sanctuary.” It is the third holiest site in all the world for a Muslim.

The platform underneath our seats is a part of the construction effort of Herod the Great who rebuilt the YHWH temple in Jerusalem. It’s a good place to reflect upon this history, as well as the legacy of Islam. Today, this area is known as the Haram esh-Sharif or “the noble sanctuary.” It is the third holiest site in all the world for a Muslim.

Not every group is ready to embrace these kinds of experiences, but this one sure was.

I guess they were a little odd.

But they made memories that will last a lifetime.

Our sturdy driver and dear friend Robert Makhlouf proved to be a difference-maker.

Our sturdy driver and dear friend Robert Makhlouf proved to be a difference-maker.


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Sam, an old camel friend of mine who lives in Jericho, is known to snoggle the unwary tourist from time to time.

If you’ve never experienced a camel snoggle, you’re not living life to the fullest. Why don’t you consider joining one of our future trips? Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

Canyon Critters

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The sun was directly overhead when we arrived at the trailhead. The asphalt was gummy.

“Bring everything you need to survive for an hour and half,” I chirped. “Maybe two hours. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and an extra bottle of water.”

Our crew didn’t need my reminders. On the previous day we had hiked from Nazareth to Sepphoris, an accomplishment in any season. It is a notable one at the end of June with the temperatures scraping three digits.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

Even in this season of scarcity I hoped to spot some wildlife on the trail. Today we aimed to follow a stream that trickled through the canyon (Arab. wadi) from the plain near Nabi Shuʿayb (the traditional burial place of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses) to the moment where the canyon released its travelers on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

The canyon is called Wadi Hamam or “Valley of the Doves.” It forms one leg of the ancient highway connecting the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus likely walked this path in Eastern Lower Galilee.

I don’t know what wildlife encounters an ancient traveler would have had, but five kinds of critters surprised us.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

Our first critter appeared out of nowhere. I stepped through the thicket and almost ran into a cow. It was standing in the water, blocking our path. She raised her head. Menacing horns protruded from her brow.

City-boy Mike confessed: “I said ‘Holy _____! Look at those horns. It’s a bull. We’re all gonna die.’ Later I asked for forgiveness.”

“Yah! Git!” I coaxed. The cow moseyed on, yielding the road.

A few minutes later Thunder Bobby hollered, “What’s that?” Our second critter of the day, a pudgy hyrax, looked down from his overhead perch. Like everyone else under this sun, he was slow to move. He watched us carefully with beady black eyes. Finally he barked a warning to his hyraxian homies (see our previous post on these “Wise wee folk” of the Wadi Hamam here) and crawled out of sight.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Our third critter encounter came as a result of Lightning Seth’s keen eye. High above us, he spotted the movement of a Palestinian mountain gazelle. We all watched in amazement as the gazelle (unlike the cow and hyrax) sprinted and leaped with vigor across the steep slope. By the time I finally got my camera unholstered it was already gone.

This particular species is iconic to the region. For more on its endangered status, see here.

Lightning Seth was quick. He caught the gazelle on his phone. Watch the video below.

Later, we spotted two more on the opposite side of the canyon.

Our fourth critter encounter was also on the slope above us.

I turned back to see if the group had successfully crossed the stream. Movement caught my eye. It was a wild boar. A pumba. A big pig.

And he was not running downslope into the Sea of Galilee (!) but upslope and away from it. I caught the still image. City-boy Mike caught the video that follows.

The celebration of bacon was a part of our conversation for the rest of the day.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

Caves appeared in the ancient limestone above our head as we approached the opening of the canyon. Here was our fifth critter sighting.

At first I thought it was school children. City-boy Mike saw the bit of color as well and hollered, “Hello!” “Hello!”

A couple of goats appeared at the mouth of one of the caves.

I’ll bet there was a shepherd dozing inside.

The goats came out to have a look.

The goats came out to have a look.

During our walk in Eastern Lower Galilee, I had hoped for some animal encounters. Cows from the nearby village were a given. Maybe goats. The other critters were a pleasant surprise.

Far from being a“valley of the shadow of death,” the Wadi Hamam with its stream and thicket turned out to be a veritable “valley of life.”


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Our current group of Bible Land Explorers are from Roanoke, Virginia. They are not content to “do” the usual tourist tour, but have specifically requested special engagements like hiking portions of the Jesus Trail.

If you are interested in experiencing the land of the Bible in a fresh way, consider joining one of our future trips. Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

Above the Jesus Trail, 2019

I must confess that it took me a long time to recover from the jump between film and digital photography. Shutter speeds and F-stops made sense. But these new gadgets and all their buttons seem so irregular and complicated.

I was just beginning to feel good about my digital Lumix when this college kid shows up with a drone and a phone.

Cody, his phone, and his drone. Nazareth, Israel.

Cody, his phone, and his drone. Nazareth, Israel.

The drone was not much bigger than a deck of cards (with rotors retracted). The phone, was, well, a phone . . . but it had an app that controlled the drone!

It blew up my world.

Cody was a crazy-good pilot. He could fly that little whirlybird in and out of the palm of his hand. He buzzed the treetops, circled the moon, chased the cows, and we watched the whole thing happen in real-time on his phone.

Cody was one of our Bible Land Explorers who walked the Jesus Trail in January of 2019. He sent me this edited clip of the experience.

It looks like another technological curve is ahead of this old dog.

Enjoy.

And the next time we do the Jesus Trail, you really should join our merry band.

Note: all the clips featured here were taken along the Jesus Trail except the last. The view to Jerusalem was taken from the Haas Promenade just south of the city.


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We have seats available on a couple of trips scheduled for summer of 2019. Registration will be closing soon on our May 25-June 4 excursion as well as our June 4-15 trip. These are similarly paced and priced. If you are interested in either please contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.


Slippers and a clothesline

Slippers and a clothesline

“What does that do?” I ask, as I come up the trail behind a middle-aged woman. I eye a widget dangling from a ‘biner on her backpack.

“Wham-O’s new particle levitator.”

Fwooooooooot, I whistle. “It looks so different! I didn’t think they could compact it any more.”

Jesus trail report, 2017

Jesus trail report, 2017

Thirteen explorers from five U.S. states met at the opening of 2017 to walk the Jesus Trail. The Trail is a blazed course that passes through urban and rural regions of northern Israel-Palestine. Many sites of significance were encountered by the group; these give testimony to the deep and diverse history of the area known as Galilee.

Mysteries and moses' mentor

Mysteries and moses' mentor

We stand alone in the room of stone. Husam gestures, “This is the grave of Jethro, the teacher of Moses.”

I knew it was coming and yet his words still catch me by surprise. Husam’s face is sober. His words are deliberate. Moses had a mentor. And, according to the biblical text, a father-in-law. 

Jesus Trail, Jan 3-10, 2017

Thousands of sightseers view the land of the bible through the window of a tour bus. A few seek a deeper experience. If you are among the latter group (or know someone who is), I invite you to try Galilee on foot. There is no better way to slow down and appreciate the natural beauty of the Heartland. For those who are veterans of a standard study- or pilgrimage-tour, this may be the perfect way to build upon that previous experience.

Debouchery

The Wadi Hamam begins gently in eastern Galilee near the village of Eilabun.

I follow a winding stream through the canyon known as Wadi Hamam. The water offers focus; it splashes across gravel, slowing only occasionally to waller in mudholes. Dense vegetation crowds the water’s edge. It is a narrow passage of brush and boulder, soft willow and thorny jujube, one that Dorsey calls “virtually impassable today” (1991:96). I can see why.

An Edgy Guy

We sat uncomfortably in the classroom, rocking from side to side, trying to absorb the Hebrew text of Pirke Avoth. This portion of theMishnah claims that Moses carried not only a hard copy of Torah down from the mountain, but an interpretive oral tradition as well. The latter was chewed, memorized, and repeated from mouth to ear for more than a thousand years. When it was finally committed to writing in the early centuries of our own era, the achievement for Rabbinic Judaism was enormous. The sayings of the fathers was frozen for all time. Future students would have much to ponder.

So Close, So Far

In the savage heat of July 3-4, AD 1187, the Crusader army thumped east from Sepphoris. They stopped to draw water from a spring, presently located behind the McDonalds with the McDrive Thru (Birket Maskana). The goal of the march was ostensibly to relieve the citadel at Tiberias. In a short time, however, that Crusader plan would be reduced to something more primal.

Salah-ed-Din’s eyes narrowed when he received the news. His siege of Tiberias had achieved the desired result. Guy was lured into open country.