Instead of asking “what would
Jesus do?”, travellers from all walks of life are now asking “where did Jesus
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
Trail or the Himalayan Trail and are now enjoying a hike in the
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 (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.
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
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
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