Mount Tabor’s distinctly rounded shape rises 575 meters above the eastern end of the Jezreel Plain and 11 km west of the Sea of Galilee making it easily recognizable. It is a sacred mountain that goes back at least to the second millennium BCE when there was a shrine for the worship of the Canaanite god Baal on the summit. In the 14th century Deborah chose Barak of the tribe of Napthali who gathered 10,000 men and descending from the mountain attacked and vanquished Sisera and his army (Judges 4:5). There was a military fort on top of the mountain during the Hasmonean period and the time of the Jewish Revolt, and likely in Jesus’ day as well. Tabor (along with Sartaba another distinctly shaped mountain rising above the Jordan valley) was one of the mountains where bonfires were lit to relay the beginning of the New Month from the Temple in Jerusalem to the Diaspora.
Early Church fathers considered Tabor to be the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured before his disciples, Peter, James, son of Zebedee and John the Apostle and was seen to converse with Moses and Elijah (recorded in the Gospels, Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). Other possible candidates are mountains nearer to Caesarea-Philippi, Mount Panium (Banias) and Mount Hermon. In Christian teaching, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between Heaven and Earth.
The Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza wrote that he saw three basilicas on Mount Tabor in 570. The current church was built in 1924 by Barluzzi on the ruins of a Byzantine church from the fifth or sixth century and a Crusader church from the 12th century, which was built in honor of Tancred, Prince of Galilee, instrumental in capturing Jerusalem for the Crusaders in 1099. The Franciscan friars live next to the church in a monastery established in 1873. There is also a modest East Orthodox church built in 1862.
When archaeological excavations uncovered an ancient crypt with a stairway down to it and the remains of walls of the apse from earlier periods Barluzzi respectfully incorporated these into the new church. Barluzzi chose the west front of the church in Roman-Syrian style (decadent classical with a slightly eastern decoration) of the fourth to seventh centuries with an open arch headed narthex set flush between two towers leading to large bronze doors, designed by Tonnini, each weighing one and a half tons. The two towers allowed Barluzzi to include the remains of the Byzantine-Crusader chapels in the body of the church. In the southern tower are the bells, cast by Bassano del Grappa.
Inside the church has a split level plan with open views down to the barrel vaulted lower level, and upwards to the domed apse. The nave roof is higher on heavy timber trusses with clerestorey windows. The roof tiles and the windows are made of alabaster to let in light. The ornamentation of the central nave is simple, with two friezes, one of stone engraving that follows the line of the arches and the other in a straight line of mosaic under the windows.
Madden described the interior as “a striking vision, a wonderful transfiguration of stone, marble and mosaic [by Umberto Noni]. The central nave gives us a full view of the eastern apse. It has two levels, the upper level commemorating the divine nature of Christ and the lower recalling different manifestations of his humanity.”
The aisles are narrower than the nave and like it end in elevated apses. In the south apse the altar is consecrated to St Francis. The two bronze statues with the sanctuary lamps and the candlesticks are also the work of Tonnini.
The tower chapels have eastern apses and therefore are entered through doors in their apses. In the southern chapel the apse is decorated with a painting of the prophet Elijah in his confrontaition with the false prophets of Ba’al on the Carmel. On the floor is the original Byzantine mosaic floor with white, black and red tesserae, which was restored once in the Crusader period and which has been taken up and recomposed partially in a new location. The crosses portrayed in the mosaic floor indicate that it must have been laid before 422, when the Emperor Theodosius II prohibited the use of crosses in pavement mosaics out of respect.
The northern chapel, dedicated to Moses, has a modern mosaic floor. In the apse is a painting: Moses holds the Tablets of the Law in his left hand; behind him there is Sinai and on the sides a large burning bush and a rock with water flowing from it (Exodus 17:6).
To conclude with Madden’s words, “Within the building itself we are immediately struck by the skill of an architect who could seize on the essentials of a site a situation and a mystery, express its meaning in stone, mosaic and bronze, and illumine it all through alabaster with the light of the sun itself. It is small wonder that many people think the basilica to be the finest in the Holy Land.”