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The information sheet for the combined class trip to the Galilee today was interesting, as the professor made a point of putting the date using both the Gregorian calender (May 7, 2009) as well as the Jewish calender date (13 Iyar 5769). And, without further ado, the trip:

Bet Alfa
The first stop of our trip was at a kibbutz from the middle of the 1900’s. During the clearing of the land and improvements to make it into a kibbutz, they discovered a beautiful mosaic underneath the topsoil. Digging further, and actually bringing in the Hebrew University (it was their first archaeological dig, as a matter of fact), they discovered the remains of a local, village-based synagogue. The remains are now inside of a building, with a short video presentation explaining the different parts of the mosaic. I say it was a village-based mosaic, as the quality of it is clearly lacking, denoting that they had to use a cheap and therefore less-skilled mosaic artist to do the work. The photos I attached do a good job of highlighting this, as the human figures are not proportionate, intended symmetry is not quite so symmetrical, and so forth. At the same time, it was really neat to see that a local community had saved the money necessary to adorn their house of worship with artwork.

My personal favorite part of the mosaic was the representation of the Binding of Isaac, at the base of the mosaic and closest to where the entrance would have been. The artist couldn’t quite fit the figures properly, but the entirety of the story is there (even a minuscule cloud with the Hand of God coming out of it to stop Abraham from killing his son). For other people, it was a deeply religious experience to pray outside the synagogue while facing Jerusalem, so everyone enjoyed the first stop on the trip.

Yardenit
Departing the synagogue, we traveled up to the north of Israel, stopping right near the “Island of Peace” mentioned in a prior blog post on the border with Jordan. We went west, and stopped at the Yardenit, which is one of the few places that people can go to baptized in the Jordan River. As I mention in one of the photograph’s captions, our group was ironically mostly Jewish, and yet there we were, watching as a few groups of pilgrims got baptized in the Jordan. Some of the guys with us even had kippas and tsi-tsi (the strings hanging from their belts), so I feel as though we were one of the most unique groups to ever visit there. In addition to the well-thought-out place for people to easily and safely walk into the Jordan, there were also multiple panels with a verse from Mark, in a HUGE number of languages. Although I have pictures of the Latin, English, and Scottish Gaelic, they had anything ranging from Sri Lankan to Georgian to anything else you can imagine. It is reminiscent of the church in Jerusalem which has the Lord’s Prayer in hundreds of languages (which I will be visiting soon).

Hamat Tiberias
The third stop on our trip was the ruins of an ancient synagogue on the edge of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, the Kinneret). We enjoyed the view of the Sea, and walked into the property of the ancient ruins/natural springs. Professor Fishman told us all sorts of details about the place, both facts and and conjecture about the site. Among my favorite parts of the entire day was her explanation of the remains of the mosaic floor we were regarding. Smack-dab in the middle of the floor was not only a pagan Zodiac wheel, but the center of that was Helios, the Greek god of the sun. That is almost unbelievable, that an artistic floor in a Jewish house of worship could have a god from a different religion featured prominently in the work. She explained to us that many Jewish and Christian people of the 3rd and 4th century actually took in many Greek beliefs and worked to make them compatible, with people paying respects to the sun before going to church/synagogue.

Kfar Nahum (Capernaum)
We drove a bit down the road, to the remains of Kfar Nahum, or as Christianity has derived the name, Capernaum. We drove past THE Mount, as drawn from the “Sermon on the Mount” on the way in. Going into the grounds of the ancient village, we noticed several points of interest immediately. First, the warning side telling us that our 1) Dogs; 2) Cigarettes; 3) Guns; and 4) Short clothing were not welcome on the grounds (plus, our security guard waltzed right in with his pistol strapped to his side). Second, there was a beautifully-rendered sculpture of Peter greeting all pilgrims and visitors. There was also a long line of recovered columns, and the professor gave us some background information on what we were seeing.

We walked over to the ruins of the fishing village itself, and got to admire what Jesus prophesied (correctly): that Capernaum would never become large nor prosperous. The village was right next to two important buildings: first, an ancient ruined synagogue which was still partially intact, and then the church built on raised pillars above the home of Simon Peter. The synagogue had its rear wall still standing, as well as parts of the side and back walls. There were the remnants of pillars, and so we all sat on the top of the destroyed wall to listen to the professor go on to explain why the beautiful building was constructed during a period of time in which Roman law forbid the construction of new synagogues, and Christian sensibilities were against any ornate Jewish houses of worship (the belief at that time was that the Jews were to be a defeated people, as the professor explained).

We eventually departed the synagogue to go examine the house of Simon Peter, where one of the funniest things in the world happened. The professor, a kindly little old lady with a New York accent, short of stature and high in knowledge, basically the archetype for the coolest grandmother ever, pulled a fast one on all of us. The second sentence in as she explained the significance of Peter’s house being a church at first, and then later getting expanded, was that “the followers of JEEZ-us believed….” I wrote it that way because this short Jewish woman managed to pronounce the name “Jesus” like a fiery Southern Baptist preacher, and that pleases me to no end 🙂

I took the offer to go and pray for a moment in the church (it has been a very rough week, in all honesty), and so I walked up the stairs into the oddly-shaped sanctuary. I sat down to pray, and at the same time I was taken in by the absolute beauty of the room I was in. While not Spartan in design, the room was suitably simple for most of the space but then had two aspects that truly made the place special: 1) the wonderful wood-carving panels around the room; and 2) the fact that the glass panels in the middle of the floor looked down into the home of Simon Peter. A really neat place.

Heptapegon (Tagbha)
We walked out of the remnants of Capernaum and took the bus for a 4 minute ride down to another place right on the water; the Hetpapegon Church. The fancy name refers to the seven loaves (and 2 fish) that Jesus used to feed a crowd of 5,000 and the traditional location of it. We went inside the church and were treated to some jolly, happy German pilgrims singing a hymn. Our group went first to the right side of the church to examine the portion of the Nile River mosaic on the side, the more damaged portion. It is nearly as odd to the find the pagan symbol of the Nile River (fertility, the Nile gods, etc) on the floor of a Christian church as it was to find Helios firmly on the floors of several synagogues; I suppose the respective peoples enjoyed the imagery and wanted to incorporate it. In the case of this church, perhaps it can be understood that THE church signifying Jesus’ miraculous multiplying of food to have THE symbol of fertile growth of food from the ancient world represented artistically.

We went to the other side of the sanctuary, and enjoyed the other part of the mosaic. On our way out, I noticed and commented on the fact that “this is the first church I have ever seen with a koi pond.” My fellow classmate and tour member Micah pointed out to me, in an understated way, that “yeah, but how many times have you been to a church where Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed thousands?” I lost that round, it appears :/

Tsippori
We departed and drove towards Nazareth, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We arrived at yet another synagogue, and it was neither the best nor the worst of what we saw that day. Check out the photographs, as I posted the explanatory board from the place which shows the entire mosaic floor and the various meanings.

Bet She’arim (Catacombs)
We ended our excellent trip the way every excursion into the world should end… with a trip to a massive network of caves filled with coffins and tombs 😦
In all seriousness, though, we went in even though we had gotten there 17 minutes before they were set to close, and in the typical Israeli style, we argued aggressively enough that they let us in, as “we had come so far” and “were such good students, how couldn’t the let us in?” The professor leading our trip was quite the lady, to be sure.

We looked around what really was a set of caves filled with coffins of stone (some decorated, some whole, some broken, and some plain). The photos do justice to what we saw, and I unfortunately didn’t catch so much of what the professor had to say due to there being lots of people and only a small corridor at points to try and get close within to listen to her.

All in all, an excellent trip that was very informative and well-planned.

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