Walking with Jesus in the Galilee

Much more than a Christian pilgrimage, the 65km Jesus Trail in northern Israel encourages travellers to tread carefully.

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.

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 (Naārā) 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.

Afterwards, climb to the top of the hill for panoramic views of the whole trail, and hike 9km northwest to end the day with a delicious meal at the Arbel Guesthouse, where the chef's specialty is lamb casserole and homemade chocolate. Hikers are welcome to stay a night here or at the nearby luxurious cabins of Arbel Holiday Homes

The final day begins with a 2km trek north from the village of Arbel to the summit of Mount Arbel, an imposing mountain overlooking Lake Galilee, then heads 5km down to the small closed-off ruins of Migdal (biblical Magdala), thought to be the home of Mary Magdalene. The tiny ruins of Migdal's old synagogue are not open to the public but visitors can take a 2km detour to the shore of Lake Galilee for a trip on the Jesus Boat, a 2,000-year-old vessel that was excavated and restored in 1986. From here, either enjoy a swim in Lake Galilee (from one of the many pebbled beaches or pay to use the facilities of Kibbutz Ginosar, 2km east around the lake). Or go straight to the Mount of Beatitudes, 2.5km to the northeast, to see its tranquil gardens and church, known for the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon, the longest piece of teaching from Jesus, was the “I Have a Dream” speech of its day and includes such famous quotes as “Blessed are the peacemakers”.

The trail ends just 2km southeast of the Mount of Beatitudes in Capernaum, a large fishing village at the time of Jesus and said to be the home of Saint Peter. Travellers can explore the ruins of two ancient limestone synagogues, a modern Catholic church built over a 5th-century octagonal church known as St Peter's House and the spectacular pink-domed Orthodox Church of Capernaum.

In addition to following Jesus' footsteps, the Jesus Trail closely follows the principles of the Leave No Trace organisation: only walking along established footpaths, respecting wildlife and carrying trash bags to dispose of any waste. "There is no enforcement of garbage disposal fines in Arab towns," explained Inon. "But thanks to the Jesus Trail, the local communities are becoming more aware of their environment."

Indeed, the Jesus Trail aims to have a positive impact on the local environment. In 2012 they participated in Clean-up the World Day (an annual global conservation event to be held again on 20 to 22 September 2013) by leading hundreds of local school children in and around Nazareth, picking up garbage along the route.

"We also encourage hikers to sleep in the villages and not to camp, as it contributes to the local economy and reduces their impact on nature," Inon said. "One of the highlights is that one night you are staying with a Muslim family in Cana and the next night with Jewish families in Kibbutz Lavi. This is the core of the Jesus Trail."