I left Nazareth for Capernaum on the first exploratory trip with a loaded backpack and sense of the uncharted, heading north from the Old City spring over the hill that follows goat paths to the ruins of an ancient Roman city. Little did I know that this route would become known as the Jesus Trail and walked by thousands each year, a pilgrimage for some and an adventure for most, while definitely an encounter with humanity for all.
There is a saying in Hebrew that a path is the cumulative wisdom of all who have walked it, a navigable history of their impact on the world. The 4-day, 40-mile Jesus Trail hiking route from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, retraces the footsteps not only of its namesake, but of the demographic diversity of the Middle East in all of it’s glory, tragedy and hope for the road ahead.
I pushed hard that first day and hiked farther than I had expected, taking in all of the layers of history along the way. I passed exquisite Byzantine mosaics, the hometown of Jonah through local Muslim narrative, Cana the site of Jesus’ first Miracle, pavement from a Roman Road along the silk route, and a religious Orthodox Jewish communal farm known as the world’s leading producer of synagogue furniture.
As the sun was setting on my weary legs, I paused for a moment to take it all in atop the Horns of Hattin, a dormant volcano whose crater is remembered as the place of one of the most significant battlefields in Middle East history: where the Crusaders were decisively defeated by the Muslim forces led by Saladin in 1187. Immersed in the narratives that shaped my hike, I was humbled to be yet another traveler to experience this land. With exhaustion from the day’s journey, I pitched my tent and drifted to sleep with a view of the Sea of Galilee between rugged cliffs in the distance.
The next morning I found a winding trail down past an elaborate Druze holy shrine known as Nebi Shu’eib, the tomb of the prophet Jethro and popular site for many Arab family weekend barbeques. While filling my Nalgene with cool, pure water from the spring, I was quickly invited by a Druze family of local pilgrims to share in a feast of shish kebabs and salads spread out before me and filling the entire picnic table. “As much as you love us, so much you will eat.”
Heading east into the “Valley of the Doves,” I wandered through massive olive tree groves and the ruins of an Ottoman-era mosque, and began the climb up to the cliffs of Arbel overlooking the Sea of Galilee with its splendid glow of late-afternoon light. A fourth-century synagogue heralds the entrance to this mostly Roman-era site, where magnificent cliff dwellings carved into the rock face command a view of the sea below and remind of of the fate for their inhabitants. The historian Josephus’ records describe how the last Jewish Hasmonean rebels were pulled from the cliffs with massive hooks and ropes to fall to their demise below. Once again the cyclical stories of defeat and triumph played out in the striations of history that my day has traversed, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian.
The 360-degree view from the solitary carob tree atop the cliffs is one of the best in the country, a place where you can see most of the Galilean sites of Jesus’ ministry, and the destination of Capernaum through the expanse below. The descent down the cliffs involves a series of metal staples and cables, hinting at a mild Via Ferrata traverse in a manageable scale for one with a full backpack. At the base of the cliffs, I found refuge at a flowing spring and once again set up camp for the night.
The sun had set, and as I started to gather firewood to prepare my dinner, footsteps appeared from the brush ahead of me. Thoughts and trepidation arose as I imagined my solitude encountering the unknown stranger approaching. A young Arab bedouin man appeared from the path below, curious to my rustling in a place very familiar to wanderings with his flocks. “You’re setting up camp here? I’ll be right back,” he stated. I waited 10 long minutes until he returned, this time with arms full of firewood, bread, and fresh yogurt. He graciously decided that he would cook my dinner, and our conversation lasted for hours late into the night, the sky cool with a sea of stars and jackal calls far away.
The next morning the trail was easy through orchards of pomegranate and olives trees, leading through a streambed where the blue lakeshore of the Sea of Galilee opened up before me. I dipped my dusty feet into the cool water, and reflected on my journey. What is the “wisdom” that built these paths, and where does it lead?
The Middle East is often known in international media for its notoriety, but I look forward to a future where it is celebrated for the vistas from its hiking trails, and for the local hospitality extended to walkers along the way. I am convinced that walking is a humble, non-threatening way to encounter new people, bring to life historical and spiritual texts and, through the physical challenge and removal from ordinary life, also grow to know ourselves better. I hope that stereotypes and preconceptions will melt away in the smelting of sweat, tired limbs, conversation and extraordinary encounters with others.
For full details of this hike and others nearby, check out my guidebook Hiking the Jesus Trail and Other Biblical Walks in the Galilee, outlining over 200 miles of connected trails in the Galilee.
About David Landis
DAVID LANDIS is a passionate explorer who cofounded the Jesus Trail in 2007 and has been involved with developing numerous pilgrimage hiking routes in the Middle East. He has coauthored a guidebook to the Jesus Trail and another to the Camino de Santiago in Spain. David is a certified Wilderness First Responder instructor and has worked as a wilderness guide, leading trekking adventures on the Saint Paul Trail in Turkey, the Camino de Santiago, and in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.