By Khalil Haddad
For Christians worldwide, the Galilee is the most important geographical area in the world. It is, after all, the place where Jesus spent most of his life and exercised his ministry. This article sheds light on some of the most important Christian sites in this area.
The Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Nazareth is mentioned in the Bible, in the Gospel of Luke, as the place of the annunciation of Christ’s birth. Luke does not mention a precise location, but according to tradition and an apocryphal book known as the Book of St. James, it happened in the house where Mary lived and which was her refuge after having experienced a strange incident near the spring from which she was drawing water. Christians believe that the Catholic Church of the Annunciation was built over the house where Mary lived.
The current church was erected during the 1950s and 1960s over remains from various eras. Starting in the early Christian period, people prayed in what they believed had been the house of the Virgin Mary, which led later Christians to venerate it as the place of the annunciation. A Byzantine church was built here in 427. Destroyed in 614, it was rebuilt by the Crusaders in the early twelfth century and destroyed again in the late thirteenth century. In 1620, the Lebanese prince Fakhr Addin II gave the property to the Franciscans who in the early 1200s had been declared the custodians of the Holy Land. More than a century later, they were allowed to build a small church that was enlarged in 1887 but then demolished to make room for the current church. Erected in the year 1969, it was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio who incorporated the ruins of the former churches and in brutalist style constructed most of the church’s internal walls using uncovered concrete. The modern church serves the Roman Catholic community in Nazareth and the hundreds of thousands of visitors and pilgrims who visit every year. It is built on two floors: the lower level contains the ruins of the house and the old churches, and the upper floor accommodates the worshipers every Sunday. The church and its courtyard are decorated with numerous mosaics of the Virgin Mary, given as gifts by believers from all over the world.
The Church of the First Miracle, Cana of Galilee
Cana of Galilee is a village near the city of Nazareth, today the largest Arab city in Israel. Back in the time of Jesus, however, Nazareth was a small village, and Cana was a larger town located right next to the main highway that connected the Mediterranean coast with the Sea of Galilee.
The New Testament’s Gospel of John tells the story of a wedding in Cana of Galilee to which Jesus, his mother Mary, and his followers and disciples were invited. The Gospel of John tells us that at this wedding, Christ performed his first miracle, turning the water into wine at the instruction of his mother, and we can see that the conversation between Christ and Mary contained some tension.
Some scholars argue that it is hard to believe that there would not have been enough wine because in Middle Eastern culture, the host family would certainly have expected a certain number of people to attend and prepared more than enough food and drinks for them. Others suggest that the Virgin Mary told Jesus to do something about the shortage of wine because the people who had followed him to the wedding, uninvited, were responsible for this shortage.
Local tradition associates this miracle with a certain location in Cana of Galilee where Catholic and Orthodox churches were built right across from each other. The current Catholic church was built in 1881 and expanded between the years 1897 and 1905. Archaeological excavations have revealed remains of a Jewish synagogue from the fourth and the fifth centuries and a Byzantine church from the fifth and sixth centuries that commemorated the above-mentioned miracle. The Greek Orthodox church was built roughly around the same time. Unlike its Catholic counterpart, it is surrounded by wide courtyards. Its design is a classic eastern Christian design featuring icons that fill the church and decorate its outside. The two churches serve the local Roman Catholic and Arab Orthodox communities and the many visitors and pilgrims who come here every year.
Mount Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration
One of the most memorable events in Christian faith is the Transfiguration, in which Jesus revealed himself as God to his disciples Peter, James, and John, appearing with two prophets from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. Many Christians believe that this event happened on Mount Tabor, even though the gospels do not indicate an exact location beyond saying that it happened on a high mountain. Mount Tabor is located on the eastern end of Jezreel Valley, one of the Holy Land’s most important crossroads, which gives Mount Tabor significant strategic value. Thus, several churches were built on the mountain over the centuries to commemorate this event.
One of the current churches is part of a Franciscan monastery complex. Completed in 1924, it was built by the architect Antonio Barluzzi over the ruins of a fourth-to-sixth-century Byzantine church and a twelfth-century church from the Crusader period. Another church is Greek Orthodox and includes three grottoes that once belonged to the Crusader church. Called tabernacles, they are said to represent the three huts that Peter desired to build, one for Jesus, the other two for Moses and Elijah. The Grotto of Christ is in the eastern part of the church. Steps lead down to a lower level that contains a sanctuary roofed by a modern vault. There is a chapel in each of the two towers at the western end of the church. The Chapel of Elijah is located in the south tower; the north tower holds the Chapel of Moses.
Other Christians believe that the Transfiguration happened on Mount Hermon, a much higher ridge located farther northeast in the Holy Land. They base their choice of Mount Hermon over Mount Tabor on the Bible’s claim that Jesus took the three disciples to a high mountain to be alone, which could have happened only on Mount Hermon because a Roman army base was located on strategic Mount Tabor to control the surrounding region.
The Sea of Galilee and Its Sites
The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake located in the northeastern region of the Holy Land, running along the so-called Syrian-African section of the Great Rift Valley. In the area around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus Christ exercised most of his ministry, from his baptism in the Jordan River until his last visit to Jerusalem, where he was crucified. Therefore, this area is full of sites that are important for Christians worldwide.
The Mount of Beatitudes
The site known as the Mount of Beatitudes lies on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum and the archaeological site of Gennesaret (Ginosar), on the southern slopes of the Korazin Plateau. Its altitude of around 25 meters below sea level, nearly 200 meters above the Sea of Galilee, makes it one of the lowest summits in the world. This hill is widely believed to be the place where Christ gave his famous Sermon on the Mount, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5, 6 and 7), considered to be the most important teaching in the New Testament. Because Jesus started this sermon by blessing eight different groups of people, the mountain is known as the Mount of Beatitudes.
A Byzantine church was erected on the slope below the current site in the fourth century and used until the seventh century. Remains of a cistern and a monastery are still visible. The current Roman-Catholic Franciscan chapel was built between 1937 and 1938 based on plans by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi.
Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass at this site in March 2000. The Jesus Trail pilgrimage route connects it to other sites traditionally associated with the life and ministry of Jesus.
If asked to choose one specific location that could be considered the most important of all sites associated with Christ’s life and ministry in the Galilee region, Capernaum would definitely be the one. Capernaum was a fishing village established during the time of the Hasmoneans (possibly better known as the Maccabees) on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It had a population of about 1,500 people. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues that were built one over the other. A house turned into a church by the Byzantines is believed to have been the home of Saint Peter, Christ’s disciple. The village was inhabited continuously from the second century BC to the eleventh century AD, when it was abandoned sometime before the First Crusade. This includes the re-establishment of the village during the Early Islamic period, soon after the earthquake in 749. Inhabited again later on, it became known as Al-Samakiyya and was depopulated of its Palestinian population by Zionist forces during the 1947–1948 war in Mandatory Palestine on May 4, 1948.
The town is cited in all four gospels (Matthew 4:13, 8:5, 11:23, 17:24, Mark 1:21, 2:1, 9:33, Luke 4:23, 31,7:1, 10:15, John 2:12, 4:46, 6:17, 24, 59), where it was reported as the hometown of the tax collector Matthew, located not far from Bethsaida, the hometown of the apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Some readers take Mark 2:1 as evidence that Jesus may have owned a home in the town, but it is more likely that he stayed in the house of one of his followers, traditionally believed to have been Peter who might have moved there for business reasons. Christ certainly spent time teaching and healing there, which is why it is also referred to as the Town of Jesus.
Article photos are courtesy of Jamal Kiwan.