One bit of disclosure … the beautiful pictures are NOT mine, they are “borrowed”. They are meant to be illustrative. We did take digital photos, and I will try to make them available to those interested after editing the list.
Now, the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Kinneret or the Sea of Chinnereth) was the focal point of our trip to the Northern Region. Our trip was based at Inbar Country Lodge, a small kibbutz (10 members) in the hills on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. A few words of background: (1) the “Sea” is not a “Sea” but rather a giant freshwater lake. (2) The Chinnereth is “absolutely still” except when an occasional wind whips up waves. (3) The Kinneret was one of the primary locations of the ministry of Jesus Christ, and thus is filled with “historic sites” that are known in the Gospels as the locations of many of Jesus’s miracles, as well as his baptism.
That said, the setting is “spectacular” even if the swimming potential is over-rated. Many of the beaches are “rocky” with occasional sand. It also appears that much of Israel heads north to the Kinneret to camp during the summer and so much of the waterfront is a non-stop campground, filled with reeds, campsites and “garbage”. Moreover the water is murky, like an Adirondack’s lake. Having seen the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba (the Red Sea at Eilat), we were a little disappointed. Only if you get past the garbage, can you see the amazing beauty of the place. They sky is a deep deep blue. The lake is placid, as smooth as glass. From our vantage point on the East side of the Sea of Galilee, we could see the city of Tiberias climbing up the mountain on the West side of the Sea, over 10 miles away. Cliffs and spectacular mountains surround the entire Sea of Galilee. Coming from the East, you wind down switchbacks to approach the shore. Once inside the water, you realize it doesn’t smell at all like a sea … there is no salt. Check, Dead Sea is FULL of salt and hot to beat. Check, the Mediterrean Sea is luke warm to body temperature, but has waves. Check, the Red Sea is cool, refreshing and crystal clear. Check the Sea of Galilee is “warm on the surface” with cool depths below. As you kick your feet, you pull up cool water from below. It is very refreshing. It is also very shallow; you can walk out a great distance from the shore and still stand. You can also picture a mass-baptism in the Sea of Galilee, with several dozen initiates waiting their turn for the purifying baptismal dunk.
The Galilee is on the west side and south of the Chinnereth; the Golan is on the east side, and north. We spent the first day of our 3 day soujourn setting up at our kibbutz (Inbar Country Guest House) and then proceeding to Safed (also spelled Safed, Zefat, Tsfat, Zfat, Safad, Safes, Safet, Tzfat, etc.). We continued to have trouble with our GPS, anticipating what it would “transliterate” the Hebrew into for English spelling. We generally hit 2 out of 3 correctly. For the rest, we needed to rely on a map, and point the GPS to the “nearest” town that we could find. Along the way we found the shrine of “Rashban” which we thought was “Ramban” aka Maimonedes. It appears that site had been appropriated by Hasidim who had turned the tomb into an enormous study hall with hundreds engaged in fervent non-stop praying.
We continued to Safed and parked outside the Old City. Safed had its golden age in the 12th Century and has been home of the oldest continuous Jewish settlement in Palestine. It was where “kabalah” was invented. And so to walk the Jewish quarter is to walk through living history. In 1948 the control of Safed by the Jews was hotly contested. Where house to house combat once reigned is now peace, beautiful old synagogues, and an exquisite art colony. We saw exquisitely beautiful Judaica (the best we saw in Israel, including Jerusalem) as well as “Jewish-inspired art”. They ranged from “Kabalah-inspired” to representational art using only Hebrew letters, to wild flights in bright colored acrylic.
From Safed we proceeded to Tiberias, for our first view of the Kinneret. We stayed along the lake front and found a fashionable area filled with restaurants. For dinner we had grilled kebabs and “St Peter’s Fish”. This turns out to be a smallish “white” fish from the Sea of Kinneret that is deep fried or broiled in olive oil and served whole. The restaurant was a mob scene. We also ordered a “small salad” which turned out to be a dozen different dips and a mountain of pita bread, a meal in itself.
The next day, after a full multi-course Israeli breakfast (fresh bread, yoghurt, tzatziki, eggs, pancakes, olives, tuna fish, feta, swiss, blue cheese, pancakes, juice and Turkish coffee), we headed to swim in the famous “sea”. We circled the Sea to a location recommended by Inbar Kibbutz. In retrospect, we should have headed to the resort beaches south of Tiberias. From the sea (after an hour of floating in tranquil water, we had had enough), we headed north and east. Our goal was a fortification on the Golan heights. We wound up the Jordan river valley and then turned onto the plateau that is the Golan Heights. We passed a brigade of tanks “exercising” near the border. After passing though fruit tree orchards, vinyards and verdant fields, we arrived at our destination, a lookout point that shows the one border crossing between Syria and Israel, as well as the UN outpost on that border. Thirty years ago I was on the same spot. And behind the lookout are two enormous hills, one topped with radio antenae and listening posts; the other with a tourist restaurant and fortifications from the 1973 war. From the top of the “hill” you could appreciate the strategic importance of these hills to the defense of Israel. It was at this spot that the entire Syrian army was delayed for two days in the Yom Kippur war by a small brigade until reserves and reinforcements could be brought up. Today, it is the most peaceful border that Israel has.
We continued to drive through the Golan Heights, rich beautiful farm country with soaring hills and mountains. We passed Nimrod’s fortress, but it was too late to enter. In the town of Kiryat Shmona (on the Lebanese border) we picked up kosher steak kebabs to grill at our Kibbutz later that night. Along the way we passed several other intriguing spots, many already closed. But one, near Tel Dan, was intriguing: busloads of Orthodox families. It turned out to be a camp site along the upper Jordan river, home of ice-cold waters and white-water rafting. It was too late in the day, but the idea of doing this sport is Israel was intriguing.
The next day, we passed Armegeddon. Actually it was the ancient town of Megiddo. This town had the fortune (or misfortune) to be conquered and destroyed by 25 successive civilizations. In its 7,000 year history it was destroyed more times than any other location likely in the world. The last civilization to build on this site was the Assyrians in the 3rd Century BCE. Since then, not the Greeks, not the Romans or anyone else has built at this site; it must cursed. And thus it is a goldmine for archeologists seeking to uncover artificats of early biblical, hebrew, canaanite and pre-canaanite civilizations. This town is referred to in both the hebrew bible and the gospels. In the Book of Revelations the plains of Megiddo is where the “last battle” will occur. Scary, huh. Battles were fought in the valley below Megiddo up until the Israeli war of independence (1948). In fact, the Ottoman Turks were decisively beaten by the British in 1917 on the plains of Megido.
I don’t want to forget Beit She’an. This town in the watershed of the Sea of Galilee, on the Jordan River was the Roman and Byzantine capital of the region. It was also a major Philistine town. You find mention of it in the Book of Kings as the location where Saul’s body, and that of his sons were taken after he was defeated by the Philistines; their bodies were hung on the walls of the fortress for all to see. Today, it is an enormous excavation. Most of the site concerns the Roman period and the Byzantine period that followed. But on the top of an enormous Tel (or hill) there are remains of the Hebrew city, of the Philistine fortifications and even the Egyptian governors mansion. After a long and very hot day, we finally returned to our air conditioned abode in Tel Aviv. The tent city outside our apartment was still there, along with the Yemenite drummers.