The Holy Land: Holy Mountains
I could never have imagined stepping in biblical places and names reserved as snippets from Sunday evening Gospels like Beersheba, Samaria, Dan, Mt. Nebo, Mt. Hermon, Mt. Tabor or the land of the twelve tribes like Issachar, Naphtali and Zebulun, etc. I admit to my ignorance about the Holy Land geography. I did not know where Palestine or Jerusalem lay. We passed Jericho without me knowing that we were in Palestine.
We sailed on the Sea of Galilee, which our guide referred to as the ‘Holy Triangle’ because it was bounded by three holy mountains: Mount Hermon, Mount Tabor and the Mountain of the Beatitudes. We also saw another mountain and the cliffs of Mt. Arbel from the water, but it was not part of the Holy Triangle because no evidence was found that Jesus went there. Most of the important synagogues, temples and churches in Israel were built on top of the hills and mountains though.
Mountain of the Beatitudes
A short drive from Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus' ministry, we reached the mountain once known as Mt. Eremos. It was said to be where Jesus delivered the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). The teaching included Jesus showing the disciples how to pray “The Lord’s Prayer” and the eight verses known as Beatitudes that start with "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..." (Matt 5:3-11).
Now known as the Mountain of the Beatitudes, the mountain is topped by octagonal church designed by Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian priest/architect. The church was beautiful inside with onyx bejeweled altar. The eight sides of the church represent the eight beatitudes. The seven virtues - justice, charity, prudence, faith, fortitude, hope and temperance - are depicted by symbols in the mosaic floor. There was a nun or a religious woman collecting petitions and money (fifteen dollars or ten euros for a petition/prayer). The church was very small for a crowd or a big pilgrim group like ours to worship. However, the church ground was very spacious with beautifully manicured gardens. Our priest celebrated a mass at a space with an altar provided outside, by the gardens overlooking the fertile valley of Gennesaret and the Sea of Galilee.
Mount Hermon (Mountain of the Chief)
On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Mount Hermon (a chain of peaks) loomed around us. Mount Hermon called the "Mountain of the Chief”, straddles the border between Syria and Lebanon. The southern slopes of Mount Hermon extend to the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights. We saw radio towers at the top of the mountain and temples in between. Mount Hermon was referenced in various religious texts, for example, in the ‘Book of Enoch’ and the ‘Book of Chronicles'.
We visited the area called Caesarea Philippi in Golan Heights, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, near the ancient city of Dan. Caesarea Philippi was said to be the birthplace of the Pagan god Pan, the god of nature, mountains, flocks, shepherds, fields and forests. Caesar, one of the gods in the Greek and Roman cultures, also built a Roman wall and a sanctuary there. Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi to challenge the pagan worshipers and proclaimed that he would build his church, which would point to the one true God. We also saw the caves at Banyas at the foothills of Mt. Hermon. In ancient times, many springs emerged from the mouth of the caves that the area was held sacred.
In recent history, Mount Hermon was much politically contested by the nations in the area. It was also contested for its natural resource – water from the melting snow. Our bus drove along the road with barbed wire fences. The fence was posted with “DANGER MINES” sign every ten yards or so - evidence of a highly sensitive and treacherous area.
Mount Tabor (The Mountain of Transfiguration)
We took a cab to get to the top of Mount Tabor, where the very narrow road to the top comprised of eighteen curves. The view from the top was spectacular. "You're seeing the famous Israel valleys, the valleys that composed the main civilization in ancient times. Mount Tabor was the site of battle between Barak under the command of Deborah, and Jabin commanded by Sisera... ,” said our guide. He described Mount Tabor as between 1600 to 1929 feet above sea level and located at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. The not-so- precise geographical info and the foreign-sounding characters and names of the area like Jabin and Jezreel made it sound as if our guide were telling us a legendary tale. Said to be the oldest mountain in Israel, it was an important mountain in ancient times. People came to the mountain to sacrifice animals to their gods. They found an altar there and found where the blood of the animals flowed from the mountain. People used the mountaintop to mark the beginning of a festival by lighting a fire. The smoke from the fire signaled the Jews in Lebanon to start walking to Jerusalem for the festival.
In time of Jesus, Mount Tabor was the scene where Jesus transfigured. Jesus walked from Caesarea Philippi to Mount Tabor, taking three of his disciples - Peter, John and James. When they reached the top of the mountain, Jesus turned ‘white’ (transfigured) and was called the ‘Son of God’. (Matthew 17:1-9). He then appeared to Moses and Elijah. “The reason for appearing to Moses and Elijah was because Jesus did not only come for the Jews, but for everybody,” said our guide.
Today a church, designed by Antonio Barluzzi, stands on top of the mountain, built over the remnant of a Byzantine church from the 4th century, the spot where Jesus transfigured. Inside the church, we saw the Byzantine altar with beautiful peacock design in the middle. We found a chapel/altar on each side, one for Moses and one for Elijah. In the upper part of the church, we found a scene of transfiguration on a gold mosaic background.
Mount Arbel and the Arbel Cliffs
Mount Arbel has no direct connection to Jesus (where Jesus did this or that). But we found the mountain overlooking where Jesus did his ministry: Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus public ministry; the Sea of Galilee and the fertile fields of barley and wheat; olive, fig and almond groves, and the Mountain of Beatitudes. Our bus drove through the road called “Via Maris” or “the Way of the Sea” (said to be the road traveled by Jesus while preaching around Galilee), and stopped at the foot of Mount Arbel, where we did a very short walk.
Mt. Arbel was declared a National Park and the Israel Parks Authority has built trails and parking lot, restroom facility and entrance fee. Today, private travel companies offer hiking and walking tours around the National Park.
NOTE: All photos by the author