Instead of asking “what would Jesus do?”, travellers from all walks of life are now asking “where did Jesus walk?”.
Founded in 2009, northern Israel’s Jesus Trail is fast-becoming one of the world’s great hikes. More than a Christian pilgrimage, the trail is designed for anyone interested in archaeology, history or nature and encourages hikers not to leave an ecological footprint.
The 65km hike in the Galilee also offers travellers a chance to soak up the regional landscape where it is said Jesus grew up. Spread over four days, with around 15km of hiking per day, the trail starts in the town of Nazareth and ends at the ruins of Capernaum, stopping for reflection at many important Christian sites and passing through local Arab and Jewish villages. In contrast to the usual whirlwind coach tours of the region, the Jesus Trail was designed for slow travel, summed up by their motto, “Jesus didn’t take the bus”.
The Holy Grail of trails
The hike has proved to be very popular, and not just with Christian pilgrims. "Not everyone who hikes practices Christianity," said Maoz Inon, an Israeli tourism entrepreneur who co-founded the Jesus Trail. "Some are just regular hikers who have been to the Appalachian Trail or the Himalayan Trail and are now enjoying a hike in the Galilee."
But how can we know exactly where Jesus walked? Although there is little to no archaeological evidence connected to Jesus himself, historians can pinpoint certain places mentioned in the Bible. Variations of place names for Nazareth (sometimes called Natzrat or Nazara), Capernaum (Kapharnaum) and Tzippori (Sepphoris) appear in biblical texts and in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish rabbinical scripture written in Hebrew and Aramaic. “The trail also crosses an old Roman road from the time of Jesus,” Inon said, “So the chances are that Jesus travelled from Nazareth to Capernaum on these very same stones.”
Inon is a man on a mission. Aside from co-founding the Jesus Trail, he is also the founder of the Israel Hostels Network, owner of Jerusalem’s Abraham Hostel and Nazareth’s Fauzi Azar Inn. For many hikers, the Fauzi Azar Inn – a 200-year-old Arab mansion that is now a gorgeous hostel – is the starting point of the Jesus Trail.
For Inon, tourism can create more than just income, building bridges between different communities. "We want to promote the Middle East as one destination – like Southeast Asia or South America," he said. "My hostels give a free night to any traveller who passed through Syria, Iran, Iraq or Lebanon. Why? Because we believe they are real hardcore travellers."
Inon’s passion for travel was ignited in his 20s, when he went backpacking through Nepal, Australia, New Zealand and South America. During these trips he and his wife Shlomit stayed in many guesthouses, such as Ecuador’s Black Sheep Inn and Peru’s The Way Inn, and they were inspired by the way they empowered the local community and complemented the natural heritage.
"We realized that none of those sights and places could match the land of the Bible," Inon explained. "So we said to ourselves, we must create a trail that connects the important sites in Christianity, just like the Inca Trail climbs to Machu Picchu."
A new path
This vision became reality when Inon met David Landis, an experienced hiker from Pennsylvania and the author and photographer of the comprehensive Hiking the Jesus Trail guidebook. In 2007, Landis scouted out the best hiking route from Nazareth to Capernaum, looking to include as many different communities as possible to create a shared interest in its upkeep.
The trail was approved by Israel’s Society for Protection of Nature and blazed in the run-up to now-retired Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the country in 2009. The Pope, then 82, did not hike the Jesus Trail but did perform a mass with thousands of congregants atop the nearby Mount Precipice. In 2011, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair walked the first section of the Jesus Trail with Maoz Inon, along with photographers and TV camera crews.