On the Sea of Galilee

The water that Jesus reportedly walked on is the Sea of Galilee, so we felt pretty excited to see it. Unfortunately, when the weather started to warm up Sunday afternoon, the air got smoggy (though our student guides at the Technion Monday insisted it was only mist, not pollution.) Whatever it is, it almost completely obscured our initial views of the Galilean body of water, as Steve and I drove east from the real sea (the Mediterranean) Monday afternoon. Only when we drove to the top of the mountain where folks think Jesus gave his most influential sermon (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.) did we get a good view of the famous fishing grounds. It’s not a sea, of course, but a really big fresh-water lake. It reminded us of Tahoe, though surrounded by hills that look Southern Californian, browner and drier than the Sierra Nevada, even in springtime.
The Mount of Beatitudes is a lovely spot, noisy with birdsong and shaded by towering cypress and other trees. We had to pay 10 shekels to park in the lot, but otherwise it doesn’t feel like anyone’s running the site. There’s a pretty little basilica, built by some Italian Catholics,
and a guesthouse and a well-stocked gift shop.
But there was no one, really, for us to ask why anyone thought this was the very spot where Jesus reportedly gave the sermon. Matthew 5:1 says only that he went up into “a mountain” somewhere in Galillee, and there are plenty of those all over the place.
Still, mountains overlooking bodies of water make great religious sites. We’d started the day in Haifa with a reminder of that. Everyone associates Israel with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it’s also the holiest place on earth for the Baha’i faith. That was started by a Persian (known as “the Bab”) in the 1800s who dreamed up sort of a Middle Eastern version of Unitarianism (“All the monotheisms are right!”). Baha’is excel at building religious monuments. They constructed a temple near Northwestern University (where Steve and I met as undergraduates) that’s one of the prettiest landmarks in Evanston. Their world headquarters in Haifa amazed us. The huge property spills down Mt. Carmel, facing Haifa harbor. The Bab is entombed in a gold-domed mausoleum below and above which beautiful terraces have transformed the mountainside. One hundred full-time gardeners tend the formal, immaculate gardens around the property. It was breathtaking.
The terraces climb further up the hill above the dome, though you can't see the in this photo.
The other great theological figure of the Baha’i faith is buried near Akko, the city on the other side of the bay from Haifa. We drove there but didn’t have time to look for the Baha’u’llah’s tomb because there’s so much else to see. Akko is 4000 years old, and among the guys who’ve called it home are Alexander the Great and Richard the Lion-hearted. (Napoleon tried to acquire it too at one point, but lost.) We wandered around the narrow twisty passages of the stony Old City for an hour or so, admiring it. (But what we’ll probably best remember is the delicious lunch of hummus and pita bread and olives and pickles ($3 per person) that we gobbled down in a jam-packed joint in the souq.)
From there we drove to the Mount of Beatitudes and on to our hotel in Tiberius, arriving a bit after 4. Tiberius is one of the biggest tourist bases on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and when we wandered over to the waterfront later, looking for something to eat, we passed big groups of Israelis and Romanians and other visitors. I wanted to eat tilapia. They call it St. Peter’s Fish in these parts, and apparently it’s native to the lake, which means when Jesus was recruiting his fishers of men, they were recruiting tilapia.
We ordered it filleted and charcoal-grilled, and it was delicious. The heat of the day had faded, so we sat outside, right next to the water and later strolled, taking in the surreal mix of sights. Around us children zoomed by on miniature electric dune buggies. We passed a McDonald’s and a Maze of Terror and a store selling Holyland Jewelry.
We returned to the waterfront for breakfast this morning and it was almost deserted and peaceful. In the morning sunlight, the Sea of Galilee still looked misty, but a few large tourist boats were moving, preparing to take out groups. We wondered if they chug out to the exact spot where Jesus walked, If so, we won’t see it with our own eyes. We’re departing from Tiberius in a few minutes to instead circumnavigate the shore, where plenty of other miraculous spots should await us.

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