The rising sun was obscured this morning by low cloud cover and haze. I was thankful that we did our Sea of Galilee cruise yesterday when the visibility was excellent. I was slightly saddened to leave the Sea of Galilee, but Israel has a lot to see. So, after breakfast we loaded our luggage on the bus and took off for Capernaum. Visiting the “City of Jesus” was an unforgettable experience. As you approach the site, you see a very contemporary Roman Catholic Church that looks like a UFO hovering above old ruins. This is the Church of the House of St. Peter. Beneath, the church lies the 1st century remains of St. Peter’s House, a house at which undoubtedly Jesus often stayed. It was here that he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and also where he healed the paralytic which was let down through the roof. The remains of a 4th century church built over his house are also found beneath the contemporary church.
There are also other spectacular ruins in Capernaum, including a beautiful 4th-century synagogue. In one corner of this building, archaeologists have excavated deeper to find what they believe are the remains of the 1st century synagogue which Jesus and his disciples would have visited. Tears filled my eyes as I walked among the ruins, realizing I was in a small fishing village whose inhabitants and visitors would change the course of human history… and more!
After leaving Capernaum, we drove down the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee, passing by Gadara. Although we did not stop and exit the bus, we looked up onto the hillside where Jesus would have cast the demons out of the Gadarene, allowing them to enter the swine which subsequently tumbled down over the steep hillside and into the water. It’s so wonderful to be able to put a mental picture with a biblical story. Not far afterwards, we crossed over the Jordan and entered into the West Bank area of Israel. The West Bank is a rather large section of Israel which, as the name implies, borders the west bank of the Jordan river. The politics of this area is complicated, but due to increasing numbers of suicide bombers from the West Bank area years ago, now every vehicle which exits the west bank is stopped and subject to inspection. Immediately across the Jordan from the West Bank lies the country of Jordan.
Our next stop was the city of Beit She’an, a historically important city which sits at the junction of the Jordan River and the Jezebel Valley and along the road from Jerusalem to Galilee. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, settled possibly 7000-8000 years ago. The tel, with at least ten layers of cities is obvious as one closely approaches. We did not explore the tel, however, but the magnificent remains the Roman city built beneath the tel. This was perhaps the leading city of the ten Decapolis cities, and the only one west of the Jordan River. We first visited the striking theatre which is wondrously preserved. From there we walked down to the public latrine, where men got cozy doing their business. We then viewed the columns from the spectacular entrance to a bathhouse before walking down the Decumanis Maximus and making a left hand turn on the Cardo where we walked through the remains of the public bathhouse. The city was destroyed by a large earthquake in 749 A.D.
After Beit She’an, we continued southward through the West Bank, soon arriving at Qasr el Yahud, the location on the Jordan in which Jesus was baptized of John the Baptist. The Jordan is a rather average, unremarkable appearing river, but one of great significance in Jewish and Christian history. Not only is this the place where Christ was baptized, but is also held to be the spot where the Israelites crossed the Jordan river under Joshua, and where Elijah the Prophet ascended into heaven. What a blessing to visit there! The guides were astonished at the fact that just as we arrived we were deluged by a thunderstorm. Our guide said he had never seen this kind of rain at this location in the desert (in which rain is obviously pretty rare). A number of Russian Christians were baptizing themselves in the river at this location. Our guide excitedly pointed out that the young Russian women were wearing nothing under their thin white robes, exposing to the world what lay beneath when they exited the water. Of course, none of us men looked. (No pictures provided.)
Afterwards, we continued on to Jericho, perhaps the oldest continually occupied city in the world (around 11,000 years). Unfortunately, we lost our guide, Ze’ev, before entering since he is an Israeli citizen. Apparently, he is not allowed to enter into the city, which is under Palestinian administrative control. Fortunately, our bus driver, Khalil, is Palestinian, so he drove us through town to the Mount of Temptation, the 1201 ft. high mountain towering over Jericho. There is an Orthodox monastery on the mountain which is identified with the place of Christ’s temptation in the Judean wilderness. Time would not allow us to stop at the tel where the excavation of the old city has taken place. We briefly saw it as we drove by in our bus on the way to visit a site associated with Zaccheus. There is a large sycamore tree in Jericho which some say is the actual tree which Zaccheus climbed in order to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passed by.
After an all-too-brief visit to Jericho, we picked up our abandoned tour guide on the side of the road and continued through the Judean desert to the Dead Sea. I was deeply impressed by the ruggedness and starkness of the landscape. The area was characterized by steep mountains of rock and sand with very little vegetation. In just a few more minutes we entered the area on the southwestern edge of the Dead Sea which contains our hotel, the Isrotel Ganim, which sits adjacent to the shores of the sea. After a quick check in, we donned our bathing suits and headed for the beach for a quick float in the Dead Sea. How wonderful to wade into the Dead Sea, 1407 feet below sea level, the Earth’s lowest location on land. It is almost ten times as salty as the ocean. It’s hyper-density makes for excellent buoyancy. Cindy and I were amazed at how easily we could float – even in a sitting position! It was really cool! When we walked out of the water, our skin felt oily, as if we had just walked out of a spa treatment.
We then returned to our very nice hotel room where we relaxed for a bit before dinner. The food at the Isrotel is the best we’ve had yet. The hotel is impressively situated between the cliffs of the Judean Desert and the green waters of the Dead Sea. The location is amazing. We are so thankful!