A gravel path stretches before us, extending into the rolling hills and beyond into the dramatic Arbel Cliffs in the far distance. Green meadows sprinkled with red poppies and yellow daisies flank both sides of the path. Once and in a while, we’d stumble upon a herd of grazing cows or roaming horses. In the company of two other hikers, we’re walking the Jesus Trail and soaking in the great outdoors in the Holy Land.
The Jesus Trail is a 40-mile pilgrimage route that follows the footsteps of Jesus through the Galilee Region, connecting all the important sites from the life of Jesus. Israel is a major hub for the Christians, Muslims and Jews; and religious sites are scattered all over the country in large numbers. Both Alberto and I have no religious affiliations – and although we find the religious history of Israel and the Palestinian Territories intriguing – we’re here on the trail to see and explore Israel’s backcountry.
It comes as a surprise to many including myself that a project as massive as the Jesus Trail is actually a private endeavor of two hiking enthusiasts, Maoz Inon, an Israeli who is an ambassador of independent travel in Israel, and David Landis, a guidebook writer from the US. The duo met in 2005 while hiking in Israel, and hatched the idea of creating a path that doesn’t just link the major tour bus route but also other inaccessible sites and rarely visited Muslim and Jewish towns.
Mike, a Canadian student volunteering at Maoz’s Fauzi Azar Inn, is our guide for the day. He usually walks with hikers on the first part of the trail until they’re familiar with the orange markers and how to identify the route. On his off days, he heads out and walks the trail himself too. “I love the outdoors. There are so many interesting trails in Israel, I wish I had the time to walk them all,” he shares enthusiastically.
Though the Jesus Trail officially starts from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, we started our walk from Kibbutz Lavi since we were short on time. I’d always pictured Israel’s backcountry to be harsh, dry and sandy, but this landscape is quite the opposite – lush and emerald green from the winter rain. We were told this winter has been exceptionally good, blessing the area and the Sea of Galilee with plenty of water. At Kibbutz Lavi, the path leads us towards beautiful green pasture lands and acres of olive groves.
Kibbutz Lavi is one of the few Orthodox religious kibbutzims in the area and is well known for its synagogue furniture production. To give some background on the subject, a kibbutz is a unique collective community set up by the Jewish immigrants during the early 20th century, that combines socialism and utopian ideals. These kibbutz are usually centered around agriculture, though many of them have expanded beyond to keep up with the times.
Horns of Hattin
Leaving Lavi behind us, we walk towards the direction of the Horns of Hattin. The double-peaked volcanic formation resembling the horns of a bull is an important site for the Muslims (as Masada is to the Jews). It was here where the Battle of Hattin took place in 1187, between the Crusader army and the Muslim forces under Saladin. The Muslim army emerged victorious and this heralded the downfall of the Crusader presence in the area. Saladin eventually conquered Jerusalem.
Under the clear sky, we wind our way through the beautiful prairies up the slopes of the horns where we feasted on a panoramic view of the area. It was a bright and sunny spring day – perfect for a day of hiking – and we could see the entire Jesus Trail weaving through the greenery like a snake, the Sea of Galilee to the East and Nazareth to the West.
Scrambling down the rocky slopes of the Horns of Hattin, we wander into the impressive Druze mosque of Nebi Shu’eib. This is an important site for the Druze, an offshoot of Islam. The Nebi Shu’eib houses the tomb of Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, who’s believed to have passed down the rules of righteousness to Moses. The Druze religion dates back to 10th-century Egypt and most of its followers are found in Syria and Northern Israel. Every April, Druze followers make a special pilgrimage to this spot.
With our heads covered and shoes removed, we head to pay our visit to Jethro’s tomb and we’re surprised to find massive sparkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, said to have been gifted by the Druze in Syria in lieu of the upcoming pilgrimage.
Ruins of Hittin
After visiting the Druze mosque, we follow the slopes down to the base of Nebi’ Shu’eib where the ruins of a lonesome mosque stand. This marks the former location of the village of Hittin, one of the 400 Arab towns that were completely destroyed or abandoned after the war in 1948. When the Israeli army set off to remove all the non-Jewish populations in the region, over hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled to the surrounding territories, and are now still living in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
To be continued….
Walking the Jesus Trail in Israel – Part II