I had won Cox & Kings’ Grab Your Dream Contest and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. Here’s an account of just one facet of this trip. This story – In The Footsteps Of Jesus – appeared in Conde Nast Traveller India. Click to read it there.
Israel. Jesus had walked this land. I know of people dropping pins on a map, but His case is a little different – over the centuries, people have dropped pins all along the path He actually trod.
Though mine was an itinerary of convenience, Israel continued to make me acutely aware of His footsteps everywhere I went.
My casual brush with Him started in Tel Aviv. Before entering the labyrinth of sloping lanes in Jaffa that all lead to the pre-biblical port, we found ourselves gaping at St. Peter’s – Tel Aviv’s most imposing church.
In the footsteps of Jesus
This engagement with His footsteps grew serious soon after. Nazareth brought us to Basilica of the Annunciation. Its biblical significance is enormous. This is where Gabriel told Virgin Mary of her conceiving baby Jesus. The entrance of a narrow street leading to the basilica has an unfinished mosque. Its construction was stopped because Vatican intervened.
Many nations have gifted this holy site their own renditions of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in the form of paintings, illustrations, murals and installations. Some of those are adorning the walls of the basilica while many more have been displayed in the gallery on its periphery. I have seen fascination writ large on the visitors’ faces as they stand admiring these remarkable works of art.
Not far from here, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in and around Tabgha, some more gems are located, namely the Town of Jesus called Capharnaum, the Church of the Multiplication, the Church of the Transfiguration and the Mount of the Beatitudes. Each is inextricably linked to Him.
Jesus left Nazareth when his work was not acknowledged there. He then moved on to Capharnaum, St. Peter’s mother-in-law’s village. A church has been built at a location that is believed to be St. Peter’s house. On the same scenic site, a new octagonal church has come up overlooking the deep blue Sea of Galilee.
Statues of St. Francis and St. Peter have also been erected here. Excavations by archeologists around the area have also revealed ancient ruins of a synagogue built over another – the newer one is about 17 centuries old.
During our cruise on the Sea of Galilee, our boatman cast his fishing net to catch some St. Peter’s fish. If he had caught even one of them, we would have been considered a ‘blessed group’, but it was not to be.
Along the road that leads to Tabgha, there lies a small fenced mount that has a few excavated rocks, ostensibly from the biblical era. This is the famed Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus had delivered his most noted sermon to His disciples (Blessed are those… who remember!).
The Church of the Multiplication is a minimalistic modern church. It is built on the site of one of Jesus’ miracles. It is said that here He fed a crowd with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.
One of Jesus’ major miracles was Transfiguration. The mount of transfiguration is believed to be the site where Jesus transfigured into a luminous presence while He was with 3 of his apostles – John, James and Peter. A serene church has been built on this holy site. This is not just a revered place for Catholics, but for other sects of Christianity too. I found a group of Protestants performing their handholding ritualistic prayers here.
From Tabgha, while driving towards Golan Heights, we crossed a culvert and stopped. Our guide asked us to disembark from the vehicle but refused to explain the reason. We walked into the roadside clearing and suddenly heard the sound of flowing water. Soon enough we saw a gentle stream placidly flowing through the woods. Here, our guide revealed that we were standing on the banks of River Jordan – the holy river where the baptism of Jesus had taken place!
Bethlehem brought us to the spot where Jesus was born. Riveted in a small nook tucked under an arch decorated by a golden tapestry, is a fourteen-pointed silver star (Bethlehem Star) that marks the place where Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to baby Jesus. This place was the first Palestinian site to be accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status and it bypassed the regular 18-month process normally followed for this honour.
Jerusalem has, by far, the most number of places linked to Jesus’ life. On Mount Zion, close to the Dormition Abbey, is the compound that houses King David’s tomb. The upper floor of this structure houses the chamber of the ‘Last Supper’.
As a city, old Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim. Via Dolorosa (literal translation – ‘path of suffering’) is the way on which Jesus carried the cross for his crucifixion – a pious practice still followed every Friday by hundreds of Christians. It has fourteen stations and every station is well marked. The first seven stations of Via Dolorosa meander through the Muslim Quarter, while stations eight and nine are in the Christian Quarter. The last five stations are inside the Holy Sepulchre (Sepulchre = Tomb, Mausoleum).
Station three, where Jesus stumbled and fell for the first time, has an Armenian church – Armenian Catholic Patriarchate. A Latin cross on the wall of an Orthodox Greek Monastery marks station eight, where Jesus consoled the women of the city. The path finally leads on to the Holy Sepulchre – a church that houses the location of his crucifixion and his tomb.
Inside the Holy Sepulchre, there are also a few chapels, including St. Helena’s chapel. The dominant dome of the Holy Sepulchre has a portrayal of Jesus the Pantocrator, or sustainer almighty (Hindu equivalent of Vishnu, the preserver).
Just opposite the Holy Sepulchre is a mosque – the Mosque of Omar. Legend has it that Omar was asked to pray inside the Holy Sepulchre, but refused as he did not want Muslims to usurp the location as their own holy site. He signed a protection guarantee for Christians to freely pray in the Holy Sepulchre. This guarantee later became known as ‘Covenant of Omar’.
It was Omar who had entrusted the key of the Holy Sepulchre to his Governor, an ancestor of Nusseibeh family. Till date, this Muslim family holds the key. While entering the church, I was greeted and welcomed by the current key-holder descendant of the family.
Now that Jesus was crucified, what next? Our guide led us to Mount of Olives. It lies to the east of Jerusalem. This mount has a Russian Orthodox Church dedicated to Maria Magdalene. She is believed to be the first disciple to see Jesus after his resurrection. Atop the mount is a small chapel, the Chapel of the Ascension. After the resurrection of Jesus (celebrated in the modern times as Easter Sunday), it is believed that He ascended to heaven from a revered stone in this Chapel.
Jesus had a short but eventful life. While I was being guided through the path He followed through Israel and Palestine, one thing that left me in awe was the unbelievable convergence of the varied religions, faiths and nationalities around Him and His life. Visit Israel and chances are you would also end up querying the veracity of the geographic and cultural boundaries our race has created.
BTW, this entire experience enriched my travel photography journey!