For our last day in the Galilee, we decided to undertake something of a grand tour of history, starting at nearly the southern most point and for the earliest of the historical sites we'd visit and ending up back closer to our Zimmer for a fusion of modern and ancient.
We started our day at Beit Shean, an enormous site of Roman ruins. I've truly never seen anything like it. They think that the original town covered some 2 acres and was home to nearly 40,000 people. Even in ruins the site is impressive. It includes a surprisingly well kept theatre (that originally would have seated 7,000), 2 bathhouses, a huge colonnaded main thoroughfare with a religious complex to the left and market area to the right, a bridge across the valley, myriad original mosaics everywhere, and a path up the "tel" where the remains of an Egyptian house can even be seen. We were there for neigh on 3 hours and probably only saw three-quarters of what there was to see. Given the pace and scale of the excavations still underway, no doubt each year there will be more and more to see. To say it set a very high bar for the rest of the day would be an understatement!
The next stop, after winding up through the Jordan valley was Belvoir Castle, an old ruined Crusader fortress, built originally by the Knights Hospitaliers. The road up the mountain to the castle was a little hair raising - one lane wide and possibly in the worst condition of anything we've yet encountered in Israel, the Scorpion's Ascent included. Once we finally got to the top, however, the views were amazing. The ruined citadel itself wasn't quite as impressive as the Nimrod Fortress from the previous day, but it was still pretty cool regardless. Much larger and more spacious than any of the other crusader castles we'd previously seen. Also, filled with centipedes, which was surprising in the heat.
By the time we finished with the castle it was already pushing 1pm and we still had 3 churches on our list with restricted closing times. So instead of the previously planned leisurely lunch in central Tiberias (and with it, sadly, went our last real option for a local fish supper), we stopped for a quick falafel pita & ice cream just outside of Tiberias on our way up the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Not the most gourmet of meals, but it was as tasty as it needed to be and quick.
After finishing off our ice cream (halva & pistachio for Stephen, white chocolate & lychee for me, and coffee & maple syrup for Branson), it was back on the road again for our first still complete church of the day: The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes just outside of Capernaum. Another modern church built on the remains of many older versions, it still featured some of the original mosaics from the previous Byzantine church. These were definitely the highlight and it was nice to be able to take our time to wander about the small sanctuary.
This was to turn into something of a theme as our plans began to coincide with that of many other groups on organised tours. While no doubt they benefited from not having to worry with the logistics of getting to each site (a challenge to be sure) and dedicated guides to provide the historical/relgious context, we had the advantage of being able to linger (or not) at each site as much as we liked, or to avoid the worst of the crowds or to talk with the volunteers/monks/nuns/priests/caretakers at each site. I'm glad that my first visit to this very holy land was in a less corralled fashion to let some of the significance of what we saw soak in. That said, I think for the next trip I would choose to have a guide for some of these to get a better insight into the finer points of architecture, history and theology.
Then it was just up the road to Capernaum itself for the surreally space-ship like church of St. Peter. It was a rather innovative and certainly interesting way of "hovering" a fairly large church over archeological ruins while still preserving the accessibility to the ruins themselves. A conundrum that almost every church we had yet and would yet visit had to contend with. St. Peter's certainly also had some of the most beautiful gardens yet of any of the churches we visited with a myriad flowers in bloom and plenty of green framing and providing a welcome refuge. Just next door was a very interesting ruined synagogue. Built more classically (not surprisingly) and out of a coppery, creamy sandstone it was a pleasant and grounding contrast to the modern church. Being surrounded by ruins of the local village, it made the church feel like a lonely outpost in an otherwise abandoned site.
Another jaunt up the road brought us to our first proper Orthodox church, dedicated to the 12 apostles. It was rather refreshing after all the modern churches with clean lines and uncluttered interiors to enter a much older and smaller building. Also, I have such a soft spot in my heart for the architecture and symbology in Orthodox churches, so it was nice to spend some quiet time among the icons and incense. I think the nicest touch of this church (aside from the peacocks roaming the olive grove) was the baptismal path that led from the church out to the Sea of Galilee where initiates could be baptised directly in the sea so closely associated to Christ's ministry. Sitting on the steps of this wild baptistry with the water lapping at my feet, it made much more clear what the calling of the apostles from the sea to be very different sorts of fishermen must have been like.
The sun, however, was setting and we had one more item on our agenda for the day. So I reluctantly drew myself away and back into the car. While Branson was rerouting us, I flipped through the guidebook again and realised that the proposed drive would take us right past the Mount of the Beatitudes! Given it was late in the day, we figured it would be closed, but we headed up anyway and sure enough a closed gate met us. But the little lookout behind the church was still open, so with one more quick view of the Sea we headed off again.
This time our drive would take us not to a Christian holy place, but to a Jewish one, the city of צְפַת - spelled either Safed, Zefat, or Ts'fat, the latter being the closest to the Hebrew pronunciation, I'm given to believe. We arrived an hour or so before sunset and strolled through the extremely picturesque artists colony, the sephardic community and up through the Old Town to the ruined citadel with its monument (no doubt controversial) to the taking of the town by the IDF during the War for Israeli Independence. From here we watched the sun dip behind Mount Tabor, and reflected over our day. As the blue haze of twilight replaced the golden light of sunset, it was back to our car and the kibbutz for our own sort of last meal. The next morning would see us drive to Jerusalem and start the last phase of our trip.