The Holy Land. Home to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bedouin, Druze. Home to impressive mountains, secret tunnels, winding rivers, searing deserts, and breathtaking foliage. A land soaked in history, where the silent stones have witnessed thousands of years of pilgrimages, sacrifices, miracles, and rebirth.
As you make plans for your pilgrimage, checking and re-checking your bags, make sure you are prepared - prepared to be inspired, to be awed, to say over and over, "This is the exact place where Abraham lived… where the Temple stood… where Jesus was born…" Seeing the places you've learned about only in books, treading the same ground that Jesus walked, or touching the walls of an ancient monastery - that excitement will stay with you, long after your pictures are placed into an album. Here's a handy two-part guide for your Christian tour to the Holy land. Some you may already know; some may offer a new glimpse into the history of Christianity and the holiness - and natural beauty - of the land.
We start our trip in the north of Israel, called the Galilee, and head southbound to Jerusalem.
Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, is the capital city of the North District of Israel, and home to many Arabs, who make up the majority of the city's population. For a Christian tourist, must-see sites in Nazareth include the Church of the Annunciation, and Mary's Well right below it. There are other historical churches in Nazareth, many of them hundreds of years old, including the Mensa Christi Church, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Right outside Nazareth, take a moment to contemplate Mt. Precipice, or Mount of the Leap, from where Jesus leapt to escape an angry mob and was miraculously unharmed. Within Nazareth, you can visit Nazareth Village, a reconstruction of life in Nazareth as it was in the time of Jesus.
Sea of Galilee
Like Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee is in the northern part of Israel and a definite MUST on your tour. The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake of Gennesaret or Lake Kinneret, is Israel's largest freshwater lake. It would be worth visiting just for its breathtaking views, and place of honor as the lowest freshwater lake on earth. But the Sea of Galilee is steeped in Christian religion and tradition as well. Much of Jesus' ministering took place here, including His famous Sermon on the Mount. This is where the miracle of walking on water is recorded, and each year, pilgrims come to the mouth of the Sea of Galilee where it meets the Jordan River to be re-baptized.
Acco, or Acre, located in the Western Galilee, is an important part of Crusader history. Captured by Richard I in the late 12th century, it was eventually given to the Knights Hospitaller, who cared for sick or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land. When on a Christian tour, it is recommended to stroll around the Citadel of Acre, visit the "enchanted garden," cultivated based on descriptions of an actual Crusader garden that existed, and visit the Knights' Halls, which were excavated underneath the Citadel.
Take a few moments to enjoy the stunning scenery at the famed Carmel Mountain range, located in northern Israel, near the modern port city and hi-tech center of Haifa. An important archaeological site, it contains fossils and remnants from more than 600,000 years ago. Biblically, it is significant as the location of the Prophet Elijah's famous confrontation with a rival sect, where he proved that God was truly in control. Later, in the 12th century, a Catholic religious order was founded at the site of Elijah's cave. The order, called Carmelites, built a monastery, dedicating it to Mary. Visit the beautiful Stella Maris Church, and participate in Mass held there daily.
Mount Carmel is also sacred to members of the Baha'i Faith. The Baha'i World Centre and the Shrine of the Bab are found there. The Bab, one of the central figures in Baha'i faith, was laid to rest there in the early 20th century, and the majestic building includes an intricately-designed golden dome, decorative terraces, and one of the most beautifully planned gardens in the world. No food there please! (Litterers are more or less regarded as heretics.) The area around the shrine is designated as the religion's headquarters.
In the Lower Galilee, the Arab village of Kafr Cana was recognized by the Vatican as the ancient city of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding of a poor couple. A Catholic church now stands at the location where the miracle is believed to have happened. It has become a popular destination for weddings and vow renewals, and visitors make sure to purchase some wine before leaving! In addition to the Catholic church, you can visit the Church of St. Bartholomew, built on the site of the home of Bartholomew, one of Jesus' disciples, and the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, which houses what is believed to be the actual jars in which the wine miracle was performed.
Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
A Christian tourist could spend her entire trip poking around the many archaeological and religious sites located in Jerusalem. One of the most famous of these sites is the Western Wall, a remnant of the holy Temple of the Jews, the stones of which date back to the Herodian period. While the Western Wall is available at all times, day and night, check the visiting hours for the Temple Mount before going. Jews and Muslims consider the Temple Mount one of their holiest sites, and visiting hours are scheduled around Muslim prayer time. Similarly, the famous mosque Dome of the Rock has strict visiting hours.
While in Jerusalem, walk the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Grief, which marks the path that Jesus walked, carrying His cross, on the way to His crucifixion. The path is marked by fourteen stations, commemorating famous encounters and episodes which occurred during the walk. Nine stations are found on the route, with the last five inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On Fridays, a Roman Catholic procession, led by the Franciscans follows the route. Other re-enactments take place as well along Via Dolorosa.
End your walk at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. The Church's care and maintenance is divided between several Christian communions, who use the chapel daily for Liturgy and Mass, as well as on special occasions for holy ceremonies. Within the Church, you can visit many sacred sites, such as the Stone of the Anointing, the Rock of Golgotha, and the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene. The Church also holds some of the most incredible Crusader art from the 12th century.
Stay tuned for Part Two… we will continue the Christian tour to the Holy Land in the center of Israel, and then head down south to the Negev region.