Walking with Jesus in the Galilee
Nazareth is the natural starting point for the Jesus Trail. The phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” appears no less than 17 times in the New Testament and is widely considered to be Jesus’ hometown. Today Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel, home to 80,000 people, of which 70% are Muslim and 30% are Christian. The town is so central to Christianity that the very words for Christian in Arabic (Naṣārā) and in Hebrew (Notzrim) derive from here.
The town’s main attraction is the Basilica of Annunciation, a large church built on a site where the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary. It is also the official starting point for the Jesus Trail. The current church was built in 1969 over the ruins of an old Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church that was destroyed in the 7th Century during the Muslim conquest of Palestine. Inside, the lower-level grotto was first consecrated as a holy shrine during the 4th-century reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine – who famously converted to Christianity and wanted to found churches to mark Jesus’ life – around the same time as Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Nearby in Nazareth's old market, the Synagogue Church is said to be the spot where Jesus started preaching at the relatively late age of 30. An ancient structure with an underground arch chapel, the church is almost certainly not the original, as all Jewish places of worship were destroyed by the Romans in the year 67.
From Nazareth, hikers follow the white-and-orange striped markers for 7.8km to the hilltop village of Tzippori. Although it has ruins dating from the 7th Century BC, most of the village was built in the Hellenistic period, around 300BC. The ruins of the old city are now part of the protected Tzippori National Park, famous for its Byzantine floor mosaics including the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. A place of commerce in Jesus’ time, some historians believe his father Joseph may have found carpentry work here.
Miracles and mountains
The trail then heads east for 5.8km, passing through the Arab villages of Mashhad and Cana, which is disputably the site of Jesus’ first miracle – turning water into wine. Each year thousands of travellers renew their wedding vows at Cana’s Franciscan Wedding Church, where ancient stone jars, presumably like the ones Jesus used, are displayed. Not surprisingly, local wine and souvenir shops mark this alcoholic miracle with bottles of local merlot, while travellers can stay a night at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, where accommodation ranges from dorms to large family bedrooms.
Day two of the trail heads 8km east from Cana through the forested Tur’an valley to the small Jewish village of Ilaniya, stopping for lunch at the Yarok Az Goat Farm where guests can learn about organic farming, cheese making and even stay the night in a dome-shaped eco-lodge. Otherwise, push on another 4km to end the day at Kibbutz Lavi, a rural cooperative village that was set up in 1949 by British Jewish immigrants. Aside from its 148-room hotel, the kibbutz makes synagogue furniture and has a Holocaust memorial dedicated to relatives of kibbutz members.
On the third day, hikers walk 5.3km north to the holiest site for the Druze – an Arab sect residing in Israel – called Nebi Shu’eib. Located at the base of the Horns of Hattin, a large hill where Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt, defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Druze believe this site is also the tomb of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. The complex is a huge mosque-like structure; outside there is a large courtyard for gatherings while inside the tomb is marked by a green satin cloth. Visitors will need to cover their heads and take off their shoes to enter.