Our 4th day in Israel started at the Sea of Galilee Resort as we packed our bags, had breakfast then met with the rest of our group in the lobby for our 9:00am departure to Nazareth. The 45-minute drive to the west would take us through the valleys of Lower Galilee which are known for their rich and fertile soil.
We arrived in Nazareth, recognized as the Arab capital of Israel, just before 10:00am. Nazareth has a population of about 80,000 people, with a predominately Arab population of around 69% while nearly 25% are Christian. Because Nazareth is purportedly the childhood home of Jesus, it is a popular site for Christian pilgrimages. Among the most visited sites are the Church of the Annunciation and the Church of Saint Joseph.
Our first stop was at the Church of the Annunciation, built on top of what the Catholic Church believes to be the home of the Virgin Mary. This is where the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mary and announced that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God. The current church was built in 1969 and sits atop of an earlier Byzantine church which itself was built over a Crusader-era church. Beneath the Church is a grotto where the Annunciation is supposed to have taken place.
A short distance from the Church of the Annunciation is another well visited Christian site - the Church of Saint Joseph. This Church is built on top of the ruins of the house where Joseph lived. It is here where Jesus was baptized and where Mary and Jesus lived when the holy family returned from Egypt.
After our morning tour of Nazareth, we boarded our bus and drove southeast toward the Jordan River and after about 45 minutes, arrived at the town of Beit She’an.
The modern town of Beit She’an has a population of about 18,000 people. It has historical significance in biblical times as the place where King Saul and his 3 sons were hung on its walls during the battle of the Israelites against the Philistines. In Roman times it was the main city in the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Israel. The ruins of this ancient Roman city are now preserved in a national park in Beit She’an. We spent several hours walking through this impressive site which, while not as expansive or intact as Pompei, still provides a sense of the culture, architecture and engineering accomplishments of ancient Roman civilization. Painstaking excavation is still taking place, mostly by foreign students, and new discoveries are always on the horizon. We finished up our exploration of Beit She’an and walked out of the site to a street side cafe where we enjoyed schnitzel on a pita.
Following our lunch, we boarded our bus and headed south through the fertile lands of the Jordan Valley travelling through miles and miles of date palm plantations that border the Jordan River.
As we crossed from Israel into the West Bank enroute to Jericho, we passed through a military check point. We continued southward along the Jordan River until a few kilometers before Jericho where we stopped at the foot of mountain. The mountain face is a precipice and near its summit on a protruding ledge sits a magnificent Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the city of Jericho and the Jordan Valley. This mountain is believed to be where Satan tempted Jesus during his 40 day fast and is thus referred to as the Mount of Temptation.
We continued the short distance from the Mount to Jericho, on the way stopping to view the oldest sycamore tree in the world. Some believe that this is the biblical sycamore tree upon which the tax collector, Zachaeus, climbed in order to see Jesus as he entered the city of Jericho.
It was approaching 4:00pm when we arrived at Jericho, reputed to be the oldest walled city in the world. Archeologists have discovered more than 20 different settlements here with some artifacts dating to 11,000 BC. This is a Palestinian city with a population of about 20,000. As we drove through the city we passed a large Palestinian refugee camp which was walled and topped with razor wire. It turned out our hotel, the Oasis, was across the main street from the camp.
We passed through a gated security check as we entered the hotel property, which is completely surrounded by a high wall and protective fencing. The hotel decor is a bit dated, but is quite an impressive structure, with a large outdoor pool, expansive gardens and palm trees throughout the grounds. The property exudes an opulence that seems surreal and out of place given the simplicity and conditions of the surrounding area. We checked into our room and were greeted by the smell of stale cigarette smoke. It turns out that there were no non-smoking rooms in the hotel. Fortunately, we were only staying for one night and slept with the window open. While there were some challenges with the hotel including intermittent wifi and the power going out several times, we had a restful sleep and were looking forward to our next day of exploring.
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