Category Archives: Pilgrimage

Magdala on Sea of Galilee

Magdala Nunayya (Magdala of the fishes) was an important Jewish city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee established during the Hasmonean period, centuries before neighboring Tiberias. In Christian tradition, it is the birthplace of Mary Magdalene and where Jesus went after he fed the five thousand (Mark 8:10).

Q: What do you get when you cross a hotel, a new spiritual center and an archaeological site at the historical location of Magdala/Tarichaea overlooking the Sea of Galilee?

A: The Magdala Center, a new tourist and pilgrim destination.

The original excavations at the site were done by the Franciscan Corbo in the 1970s. Paved streets and a large colonnaded square typical of a Roman city were found, along with buildings with mosaic floors. On the floor of one urban villa an image of a sailing ship, a type of Mediterranean vessel, modified for the lake was found in mosaic. Scholars think that boats like this were used to transport goods between Magdala and the Decapolis on the eastern shore of the lake. The shape of the hull and the additional cutwater (forward curve of the stem of a ship) resembles the features of the boat discovered in the mud near Ginnosar.

In excavations from 2007 carried out by De Luca large portions of the paved Cardo and the Decumanus were uncovered. Underneath these streets were drainage channels which fed numerous wells and fountains, part of the city’s sophisticated water system. In 2008 thermal pools were discovered. The water supply system serves primarily the large thermal complex east of the Cardo and the large Quadriporticus which served as palaestra (rectangular court surrounded by colonnades with adjoining rooms) for the visitors of the thermae. The newly discovered harbour of Magdala includes in situ: massive foundations of a tower with casemate, a Hasmonean wall built of ashlar stones with dressed margins, ramps for recovering ships, a staircase, a large L-shaped basin with breakwater and six mooring stones incorporated in the painted plastered wall – the largest and best preserved harbour on the Sea of Galilee discovered so far. Everywhere in the excavations De Luca encountered damage caused by the First Jewish Revolt in which Magdala played a major role (as recorded by Josephus). Plans are to re-open this site in the near future.

In the most recent excavations by archaeologists Avshalom-Gorni and Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of a salvage dig a building that covers about 120 square meters with simple mosaics covering the floor and frescoes of colored wall panels was found. The building has stone benches along the walls and columns that would have supported the roof and has been identified as a first century synagogue.

Synagogue 1st C at Magdala aerial

from IAA

from IAA

Perhaps the most interesting find is a nearly 3-foot-long limestone block found on the floor in the center of the synagogue elaborately carved on the sides and top. On one side is the first and only pre-70 Galilean depiction of a seven-branched menorah between 2 amphorae and fluted columns (another early menorah is the drawing in plaster found in a mansion in the Herodian quarter in Jerusalem). The precise function of the stone remains uncertain – it may have been used as a table on which Torah scrolls were rolled out and read. Perhaps less impressive but still very interesting is a series of mikva’ot (ritual baths) that have been uncovered that fill from underground springs.

Mikva at Magdala

The excavations have also found the fish market and some pools used for holding and sorting the fish brought in by the fishermen, attesting to the importance of fishing to the economy of Magdala.

In the plans, besides the hotel, a church or Spirituality Center is being built called “Duc in altum” based on the words from Luke 5:4 that Pope John Paul II chose, “Put out into the deep” to say, that with God’s help, anything and everything can be accomplished. The building is in the shape of an octagon which is usual for a martyrium as opposed to the traditional Byzantine basilica (rectangular, central nave with apse, and two or more aisles). Not only the shape is reminiscent of early Orthodox churches but the interior of the main chapel is decorated with paintings of holy figures like in an Orthodox church, in the spirit of ecumenism. The area of the altar has a replica of a wooden boat so that as you sit in the chapel, you face the boat with a view of the lake behind it.

Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, Jesus asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  Luke 5:3

Duc in Altum sanctuary

There are 4 smaller chapels off the main hall, each decorated with beautiful mosaics by artist Maria Jesus Fernández depicting scenes from Jesus’ ministry: the resurrection of  Jairus’ daughter, Jesus calling the disciples, the exorcism of Mary Magdalene and Jesus calming the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Below is an ecumenical chapel where the floor paving stones are from Magdala’s first century market.

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Bethlehem

Nativity bell towersBethlehem is a city in the Palestinian Authority with a population of 21,947 and another about 25,000 in the neighboring towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla. The majority (72%) in the district are Muslim today. Christians in Bethlehem constitute less than 15% of the population (Fifty years ago, Christians made up more than 70% of the population). In the Hebrew Bible, the city is described as the birthplace of King David, in the New Testament, as the birthplace of Jesus, and hence is a center of Christian pilgrimage. Although Israelis are not allowed by Israeli law to enter areas of the Palestinian Authority, I have authorization as an Israeli tour guide to take foreign tourists to Bethlehem and Jericho.

The main attraction in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity which stands at one end of Manger Square facing the Mosque of Omar. On the sides of the square are restaurants, souvenir shops, and a modern building that houses the Tourist Information Center, a bookstore, a restaurant and an exhibition hall which currently has a display of creches, the models of Jesus’ birth in the manger from Christian communities around the world, each in their own native style.

Mosque Omar, Manger Sq

The Church of the Nativity was begun in 327 CE by Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus as told in the Gospels of Mathew and Luke; the sanctuary had an octagonal floor plan centered directly above the cave and was completed in 339 CE.

Nativity pre529

Nativity todayThis church was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in 529 CE. Justinian rebuilt a new basilica in 565 CE similar to the original, making it one of the oldest surviving churches.  In this plan, the octagonal sanctuary was replaced, being enlarged to three apses. Since then the church has had numerous additions, including its prominent bell towers. The Church of the Nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first to be submitted by the Palestine Authority.

Wooden trap doors give access to portions of the original geometric floor mosaics that survive from Constantine’s church.

C Nativity mosaic

Twice the church was spared, by the Persians during their invasion in 614 CE because, according to legend, they were impressed by a representation of the Magi — fellow Persians — that decorated the building. In 1009 the Muslims prevented the application of el Hakim’s decree ordering the destruction of Christian monuments because, since the time of Omar, they had been permitted to use the south transept for worship.

Entrances Church of NativityJustinian’s building had three imposing doorways of which only the central one is now in use (the left entrance is blocked by a buttress, the right by an Armenian hall for pilgrims). The one remaining doorway has been severely constricted – in the Crusader period, it was lowered with a Gothic arch; after 1515, the entrance was further reduced to prevent looters entering with horses and wagons – today it’s called the Door of Humility. Under Crusader rule the church was comprehensively redecorated, the interior walls  covered with gold mosaics. and a unique assembly of Crusader art was painted on the red limestone columns. Access to the grotto is via a pair of Crusader Gothic doorways on either side of the raised sanctuary, the bronze metal doors and baptismal font are from Justinian.

Beside the church is an elegant medieval cloister which was restored in 1948 by Barluzzi. The adjoining Church of St. Catherine is built in a more modern Gothic revival style. Beneath the church is a series of caves where St. Jerome lived and worked on the Vulgate, his translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin (having previously translated portions from the Greek Septuagint which came from Alexandria) from 384 CE.

From Bethlehem you can drive east through Beit Sahour to Shepherd’s Field, the site where the shepherds saw the Star of Nativity. There are two rival locations, one Greek Orthodox and the other Franciscan. Both sites have been excavated, and there have been churches and monasteries on both sites since the 4th century. This area is also believed to be where Ruth the Moabite gleaned in the fields of Boaz behind the harvesters. Ruth married Boaz and had a son Oved, the father of Jesse who was the father of King David.

The Greek Orthodox site is at Kanisat al-Ruwat and includes a cave used as a church from the 4th century, of which the barrel-vaulted roof (5th century) still survives; today, a new large church has been built on top. About 600m to the north is the Franciscan site with a low natural cave or rock shelter that is used as a modern chapel. Above is a modern church built by Barluzzi in 1954, shaped like a tent and decorated with a beautiful bronze angel by Duilio Cambellotti.

Shepherd Field Church

If you continue east, perched on the cliff above the Kidron valley is the Monastery of Mar Saba dating back to 483 CE.

Solomons Pool

West of Bethlehem are three large reservoirs from the Hasmonean period, called Solomon’s Pools, that stored the water from two aqueducts from springs in the Hebron Hills. From these pools the Upper and Lower aqueducts continued via Bethlehem, Armon HaNatziv, Abu Tor to the Old City (remains of the aqueduct can still be seen along the route); another aqueduct was built by King Herod to bring water to Herodium. The Palestinian Authority have built a large conference center with a restaurant and small archaeological museum overlooking the pools.

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

The Church of the Annunciation has a long history. In the middle of the 4th century, a shrine with altar was built in the cave in which Mary had lived. Emperor Constantine commissioned a larger structure when his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land to discover the locations of and commemorate important events in Jesus’ life. The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem [interesting that Barluzzi worked on all three of these important churches]. It was known to still exist around 570 CE, but was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest.

The second church was built over the ruins of the Byzantine era church during the Crusades, after the conquest of Nazareth by Tancred in 1102 but was never completed. Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin in 1187 ended construction of the church. Five Crusader Romanesque capitals carved by stonemasons from northern France were discovered during excavations along with artifacts from the Middle Bronze Age, Israelite period, Herodian-Roman  and Byzantine periods are in the small museum in the Franciscan convent. In 1260, Baybars and his Mamluk army destroyed the church during their attack on Nazareth.

The Franciscans received permission to return to Nazareth in 1620 and constructed a small structure to enclose the holy grotto that is venerated as the house of Mary. In 1730, they received permission to construct a new church, which was enlarged in 1877.

Church of Annunciation, Nazareth, 1945

Church of Annunciation, Nazareth, 1945

This church stood until 1954 when it was demolished to enable the construction of a new basilica.

In 1924 Ferdinando Diotallevi, the custos, or head of the Franciscan Custody, with the approval of Pope Pius XI began to plan a new basilica to commemorate the Annunciation in Nazareth. Diotallevi intended to entrust the building of the church to Antonio Barluzzi, a young architect who had already proved his abilities and qualifications by building the Church of the Agony (Gethsemane, 1922-24) in Jerusalem and the Church of the Transfiguration on top of Mount Tabor (1919–24) for the Franciscan Custody. Barluzzi was asked to submit his plans for the Church of the Annunciation, but the project was aborted, due to political tensions inside and outside the Custody.

The idea of rebuilding the church emerged again fifteen years later in 1939 when the new custos, Alberto Gori, reappointed Barluzzi to the project. During World War II Barluzzi resided in Italy returning to the Holy Land in 1947. During that time he designed two churches. The first was the incredibly ambitious project of rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The new plan was prepared by Barluzzi and Luigi Marangoni but was never built [sometimes an architect’s best plans are never actualized, check out Louis Kahn and the Hurva synagogue].

Model Church of Holy Sepulcher, Barluzzi

The second was the design for the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth which Barluzzi thought would be his final work in the Holy Land.

Barluzzi designed a church in eclectic style, using contemporary construction technique, reinforced concrete covered mostly by local limestone. The church was a concentric building dominated by a large dome reminiscent of St. Peters in Rome and surrounded by four towers dedicated to the four evangelists. The towers symbolized the voices announcing to the four corners of the world the event of the Incarnation – critics said the building looked too much like a mosque. In the plan, the length of the church was 90 meters, and the height from the ground to the cross on top of the dome was 72 meters, a very large building. Inside, Barluzzi designed a rotunda over the holy grotto and four wings for the requirements of the liturgy. Like his other projects Barluzzi was involved in the smallest details of the inner decoration far beyond the usual level of architectural planning. For each statue he designated a location, character, symbolic meaning, and connection to the main theme of the church. By 1941, Barluzzi had prepared many sketches of the church and a model on scale of 1:100, and his plans were approved by Father Leonardo Bello, the minister general of the Franciscan order.

Barluzzi drawing Annunciation

Model Church of Annunciation, Barluzzi

All the necessary permits were obtained from the State of Israel, and in December 1954, the year designated by the Vatican as the Year of Mary, the cornerstone of the church that corresponded to Barluzzi’s plan was laid in a well-attended ceremony. However, four years later, in 1958, the new Franciscan custos, Alfredo Polidori took the project from Barluzzi.

Barluzzi wrote in his diary: On 3rd February 1958 the Custos of the Holy Land replaced me by the architect Muzio of Milan to build the Nazareth sanctuary. This gave me heart trouble all night long.. I am going back to Rome and I will seek refuge at the Delegation of the Holy Land…

Barluzzi died on December 14, 1960 in a small room at the Delegation of the Holy Land.

The new basilica was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio of Milan, one of the leading architects of the Novecento style who came to Israel for the first time in 1958. Muzio planned the church as a fortress, to contrast the new church with the remains of the earlier  churches – he meant to convey that its fate, unlike that of its predecessors, would be different. The fortified nature of the church is evident in its size and strength, its seclusion from the urban surroundings, and the details of the building, like narrow windows, almost slits. The church dimensions are 44.6 meters long and 27 meters wide, and the dome height is 55 meters, still a large church. The outer walls are covered in light-colored combinations of local stone with modern reliefs and engravings that decorate the southern and western façades. It seems that the church was based on an earlier St. Antonio church that was built by Muzio in Varese, Italy.

Church of Annunciation, Muzio

Muzio actually erected two churches, one on top of the other. The lower church protects the valuable archaeological remains of the Byzantine-era church which are displayed next to the holy grotto, the perimeter of the modern church follows the outer limits of the walls of the Crusader-era church. The upper church is designated for the celebration of the liturgy. The upper church is connected to the monastery by a suspended courtyard that protects the underlying remains of the ancient village of Nazareth from the time of Jesus that was discovered during excavation work in 1955.

Annunciation Church grotto

Inside, the modern style of Muzio’s work manifests itself in the extensive use of exposed reinforced concrete and sharp angles. The stained glass windows are striking.

Annunciation church stained glass

The church is decorated by works of art dedicated to Mary and to the Annunciation that were donated by every nation of the Catholic world. Muzio was not involved in choosing the art. The church was built by the Israeli building firm Solel Boneh during the years 1960-69 and cost 2 million dollars.

Annunciation church dome

Chuch of Annunciation, Interior

Church of Annunciation, Interior 2


For an excellent in-depth analysis, see Masha Halevi’s article, “The Politics Behind the Construction of the Modern Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth” at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/catholic_historical_review/v096/96.1.halevi.html

Nazareth

Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel with a population of about 75,000 of whom 69% are Muslim and 30.9% are Christian, mostly Orthodox, but including Maronites, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals and Copts. In the New Testament, the city is described as the childhood home of Jesus, and hence is a center of Christian pilgrimage, with many shrines commemorating biblical events.

Gabriel chuch, Nazareth

The Church of St. Gabriel is located over an underground spring, which according to Eastern Orthodox belief is where the Virgin Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation.

Mary's well, Nazareth

Water from the spring still runs inside the apse of the church; it also feeds the adjacent site of Mary’s Well, located 140 meters away.

In the old city market is the Synagogue church, a Melkite Greek Catholic church at the traditional site of the synagogue where Jesus studied and prayed. This is where one Sabbath morning Jesus delivered his famous sermon (Matthew 13, Mark 6, Luke 4) based on Isaiah 61, where he declared himself the Messiah.

Mount Precipice, Nazareth

This so infuriated the congregation that they wanted to throw him off a nearby cliff. Just outside Nazareth, Mount Precipice is believed to be the site described in Luke 4:29-30 but “he passed through the midst of them and went away.”

St Joseph church

St Joseph’s Church marks the traditional place of Joseph’s carpentry workshop.

Under the Mary of Nazareth International Center, next to the Church of the Annunciation, an archaeological excavation recently conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority has uncovered remains of a dwelling that date to the Early Roman period. According to excavation director Yardenna Alexandre, “The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus”.

Based on solid New Testament scholarship and the most up-to-date archaeology, Nazareth Village brings to life a farm and Galilean village, recreating Nazareth as it was 2,000 years ago, when Jesus lived there.

Church of Annunciation, Muzio

Church of the Annunciation is the largest Catholic church in the Middle East. In Roman Catholic tradition, it marks the site where the Archangel Gabriel announced the future birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-31). The new modern, fortress-like basilica was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio and built by the Israeli construction firm Solel Boneh during the years 1960-69.

Christian Pilgrim Itinerary (9 days)

If you are interested in experiencing the Holy Land as a Christian pilgrim I am happy to work with you to create a personalized tour. Here is a sample 9 day itinerary with visits to religious and archaeological sites with time for prayer and reflection. We will visit the trinity of cities: Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem and their churches: Annunciation, Nativity and Holy Sepulcher. Click links for more information. I will be sharing more details on Nazareth and Bethlehem in upcoming blog posts.

Day 1 pickup at the airport and drive to Nazareth

Day 2  Nazareth

  • Mary’s Well and Greek Orthodox church
  • Synagogue church
  • Church of the Annunciation
  • St Joseph’s Church
  • Mary of Nazareth International Center
  • Mount Precipice
  • Transfiguration on Mount Tabor
  • dinner in Tiberias overlooking Sea of Galilee

Day 3  Around Sea of Galilee

  • Korazim
  • Jordan river
  • Tabgha: Church of Multiplication; Peter’s Primacy
  • lunch: St. Peter’s fish
  • Capernaum
  • Domus Galilaeae
  • Jesus boat
  • dinner in Rosh Pina with a view

Day 4 Galilee

drive to Jerusalem; Shabbat dinner with my family

Day 5  Bethlehem

Day 6  Jerusalem Old City

  • Mount Zion
    • Dormition Abbey
    • Room of Last Supper
  • Peter in Gallicantu – model of Jerusalem in Byzantine period
  • Gethsemane
  • Church of Agony
  • Tomb of Mary

Day 7

Day 8  Judean desert

Day 9

Euthemius, Judean Desert Monastery

The history of the third monastery of Euthemius, which bears his name, illustrates the history of Christian monasticism in the Judean desert. Young monks were drawn to the holy Euthemius and the monastery became the most important and central among the Byzantine monasteries in the 5th century CE.

Northern wall Euthemius

Euthemius came to the Holy Land as a pilgrim in 406 from Armenia and stayed at the laura of Faran, founded by the monk Chariton at Wadi Qelt. A laura is a cluster of caves or cells where monks live in seclusion and meditation. They gathered centrally once a week, generally on Sunday, for prayer. After five years, he and a fellow hermit, Theoktistus, moved to a cave on the cliffs of Nahal Og. With additional monks attracted to Euthemius, the site became the first coenobium in the Judean desert. A coenobium is a communal monastery where the monks live together with a strict daily schedule of work and prayer, a walled complex that consists of living quarters, refectory and church.

Inside Euthemius monasteryTo continue in solitude, Euthemius and a fellow hermit, left the monastery and moved to the ruins of Masada. In 428 CE he returned to the monastery of Theoktistus but preferring solitude went to live in a cave to the west of the monastery off the main Jericho-Jerusalem road. When other monks joined him, it grew into a laura. In 475, after a full life, Euthemius died at the age of 97.  After his death, the laura became a coenobium and a crypt was built in the center of the monastery around the same cave where the monastery had begun and his bones re-interred there. Pilgrims came to visit the monastery to pay their respects to Euthemius and a tradition arose to pour wine down a chute to the crypt which poured over his bones – the wine was collected as a keepsake.

By the end of the fifth century many important monasteries were established, including Mar Saba, Martyrius, Gerasimus and St. George – all of which can be visited on a tour of monasteries in the northern Judean desert, also called the desert of Jerusalem because of its proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Unlike most Christian sites, the monastery was not damaged by the Islamic conquest of 638. However, it was severely damaged in the 659 earthquake – the ruins of the church that we see today are from after the earthquake, the mosaic floor is from the Byzantine period.

Mosaic floorThe monasteries in the Judean desert were frequently attacked during the Islamic period and in 809 the monastery was plundered and destroyed in the 12th century. The main arched gate on the northern wall and the eastern wall and the opus sectile floor in the church are from the Crusader period.

Crusader opus sectileThe other important aspect of the Judean desert monasteries are their water systems, for little rainfall falls in the region and water had to be accumulated or it would be impossible to live there. Four tremendous cisterns were discovered in the monastery. You can enter the largest one (12 meters by 18 meters and 12 meters deep that would hold 3000 cubic meters) which is outside the eastern wall. Channels bring water from runoff to a collecting pool and then to the covered cistern.

Large cistern Euthemius

Christian 4-day itinerary

This is a sample multi-day itinerary that I created for a woman who was traveling with her 16 year old son. They have a family tradition that for the child’s 16th birthday s/he can choose a destination that s/he would like to visit. This son choice Israel. I met them at Masada on their way from Eilat to Jerusalem.

“Thank you for helping to make our trip to Israel so memorable!
Without your vast grasp of the beautiful land of Israel and Jerusalem we would have been lost…
Thanks for your great service. Take care and good luck with your guiding.”
Day 1
  • Masada
  • Dead Sea: PEF marker, sink holes
  • Qasr el Yahud baptismal site
  • Saint George’s monastry, Wadi Qelt

Day 2

  • City of David: Hezekiah’s tunnel, Siloam Pool, Herodian street
  • Walking tour of Old City
    • Arab shuq
    • Roman Cardo, Madaba map
    • Mount Zion: Dormition Abbey; King David’s Tomb; Last Supper

 

Day 3

  • Peace Forest at Ramat Rahel and archaeological excavations
  • Israel Museum: 2nd Temple model; Shrine of Book
  • Mahane Yehuda
  • Back to Old City
    • Bethesda Pools; Church of Santa Anna
    • Tomb of Virgin Mary in Kidron valley
    • Garden of Gethsemane; Church of the Agony
    • Via Dolorosa
    • Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Day 4

  • Emmaus
  • Trappist monastery at Latrun
  • Walking tour of Jaffa
  • To airport