Israel Part 2: Sea of Galilee, Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, Capernaum, Magdala, Tiberias
Updated: Oct 30
Sea of Galilee
Daybreak at the Sea of Galilee
Though not a morning person at all, I woke up before the sun so I could watch it rise over the Sea of Galilee. Though it is called a sea, this body of water is not a sea at all. In fact, it is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth and the second lowest lake after the Dead Sea, which is saltwater. (More to come on the Dead Sea in a later post.)
Sea of Galilee
The morning was peaceful, the waters were tranquil and I felt a sense of serenity beyond description. In the stillness of this moment, it was hard to believe that Jesus once calmed a raging storm on these waters (Mark 4:35-41). This was a storm so famous that Rembrandt depicted it in his famous 1633 painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. (This painting, which is his only seascape, and considered by some to be his most dramatic work, was tragically stolen in 1990 from the Gardener Museum in Boston.)
I learned later in the day that storms on the Sea of Galilee, of the magnitude described in the bible, are not common, but do exist. In fact, our hotel manager described a fierce, 2020 storm that created waves so large, they broke through a window at the hotel and flooded the dining room. For more on storms on the Sea of Galilee, watch this video.
The "Jesus Boat"
From the hotel, we headed to the Yigal Alon Museum to see a 2,000-year-old fishing boat ("The Jesus Boat" or “The Ancient Galilee Boat”) that was found at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. Boats of this size (27 x 7.5 x 4.5 feet) and construction (flat-bottom boats made primarily of cedar planks joined by pegged mortise and tenon joints) are mentioned more than 50 times in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.
In 1986, during a severe drought, two fishermen spotted the outline of the boat, emerging from the mud on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the Gennesaret where Jesus and his disciples spent time. Archaeologists promptly arrived on the scene and spent the next 10 days, working around the clock with volunteers and excavators, to fully unearth it safely.
To protect the waterlogged wood, they encased the boat in polyurethane foam and fiberglass prior to lifting it with a crane and floating it to a new location. For the next 12 years, the boat was kept in a wax bath for preservation. Carbon dating of the wood reveals a date range of approximately 40 B.C.- 50 A.D. Inside the boat, they found a Jewish oil lamp and a broken pot, that reflect the style of lamps and pottery used in Jesus’ time.
After touring the museum, we walked toward the water, surrounded by beautiful scenery and music.
Then we got ready to board our own boat and set sail on the Sea of Galilee.
We set sail in idyllic conditions with the sun shining on smooth waters.
Boat Ride on the Sea of Galilee
Mount of Beatitudes
From the Sea of Galilee, we headed up into the hills of Northern Israel, to the Mount of Beatitudes which offers stunning views of the lake, the surrounding villages and the Plain of Gennesaret. The Mount of Beatitudes is also known at Mount Eremos, meaning "solitary" or "uninhabited" in Greek.
Though the exact location of the place where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount has not been confirmed, given the Mount of Beatitudes' proximity to Jesus' base in Capernaum, as well as other written accounts including one by a fourth century (the century scholars place Jesus' birth in) pilgrim, evidence makes it entirely reasonable that this is indeed the location where Jesus delivered his famous sermon.
Throughout the property, I found excerpts from the sermon, which is the longest recorded sermon by Jesus.
Additionally, there were excerpts from other books of the bible containing Jesus' teachings.
In 1938, an order of Franciscan monks built this eight-sided church that sits on the hillside. Each side of the church celebrates one of the eight beatitudes mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. The word "beatitudes" comes from the Latin word "beatitudo/beatus" meaning "blessed," which is the word that Jesus begins each of his eight pronouncements with ("blessed are the poor in spirit," "blessed are those who mourn," "blessed are the meek" etc.).
The interior, Byzantine-style dome of the church is adorned in gold mosaic with each of the eight beatitudes written beneath it in Latin.
Next we stopped at Tabgha, a small town at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The town was named "Tabgha," which comes from the Greek word for "Seven Springs," because it served as a fresh water source in ancient times.
This sign greeted us, signifying that this is believed to be the place where Jesus performed the miracle of feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children, with two fish and five loaves of bread. This is the only miracle (aside from the resurrection) that Jesus performed that is recounted in all four gospels of the bible. (John 6:1-14)
Archaeologists discovered the remains of a church that stood here in the 300's, as well as the mosaic above, depicting two fish and a basket of loaves. Today, a modern church has been built around the remains, preserving this mosaic under its altar.
This is also the location of Jesus' appearance to the disciples after the resurrection (John 21: 1-14). The disciples had been fishing all night, and into the morning, without any success when Jesus came and stood on this shore, called to them, and filled their nets with a yield so large, they had difficulty towing it in.
Our next stop, Capharnaum (spelled "Capernaum" in English), is located about four minutes from Tabgha. Here, we visited the Capernaum (Kfar Nahum) National Park.
Capernaum was Jesus' adopted hometown. The city, and its surrounding areas, are where he preached and performed more miracles than anywhere else.
Capernaum was also an important stop on the ancient Via Maris ("Way of the Sea" in Latin) trade route between modern-day Egypt and Syria, making Israel an international crossroad. Mile markers, such as the stone column above, signaled the location, as well as the distance to a destination, for travelers on this route.
Many people passing through Capernaum heard Jesus speak, or saw him perform miracles, and took the news back to their hometowns, quickly spreading word about his ministry far and wide (Matthew 4:24).
This bronze sculpture by Canadian artist, Timothy Schmalz, entitled "Homeless Jesus" was created as a visual representation of a sermon Jesus preached telling his believers that when they care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poor, the naked and for strangers, they are indeed caring for him. The only indication that the sleeping figure is Jesus, is the crucifixion wounds on his feet.
The original "Homeless Jesus" is located in Toronto, Canada. Subsequently, replicas by Schmalz have been erected in Italy, Hungary, England, the United States, Australia, Singapore, Ireland, Belgium, Scotland and this one, in Capernaum, Israel.
Located in Capernaum is the house of Peter (one of Jesus' disciples), where Jesus stayed for a short time. It was in this house that Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39). It is also very possible that this is the house Jesus was teaching in when friends of a paralytic, lowered him through the roof, and Jesus healed him (Luke 5:17-24).
You can also find a synagogue built on top of another synagogue in Capernaum. This is the fourth century synagogue built of large, white, limestone, ashlar stones, also called the "White" Synagogue. The White Synagogue was built on top of a destroyed synagogue where Jesus preached the "Bread of Life" sermon. In this sermon, Jesus makes the first of his seven "I am" declarations.
Two German archaeologists discovered the synagogue in 1838. The large, white limestone has been determined to come from distant quarries making it distinct from the other buildings in the area, made from the local black and grey basalt.
Pomegranate Carving (center)
Ornate, Jewish ritual symbols, etched in stone, can be found everywhere on the synagogue's capitals and columns. One example is this pomegranate image carved into the stone. Pomegranates ripen during Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, and are a symbol of abundance and fertility.
Star of Solomon (right)
This five-pointed star was the seal on King Solomon's signet ring. King Solomon was the son and successor of King David, the writer of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, and is considered both the wisest and wealthiest man who ever lived.
Perhaps the most sobering thing I saw in Capernaum was this millstone. In reference to people who cause others to stumble, Jesus said this:
"It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble." (Luke 17:2)
I'm not sure precisely what I thought the dimensions and weight of a millstone were before this moment, but I didn't think a millstone was anywhere near as large as this. Consequently, the gravity and significance of this teaching took on a more formidable meaning for me.
And on that heavy (no pun intended) note (sigh), we headed to lunch.
David's Harp is a waterfront restaurant on the Sea of Galilee. The name is both a reference to King David, who played the harp (1 Samuel 16:14–23), as well as to the Sea of Galilee which is shaped like a harp. The meal we had here was wonderful.
Top Row: Baba Ganoush, Lentil Dip with Roasted Onions, Spinach Dip
Bottom Row: Roasted Cauliflower with Sumac, Cabbage Salad, Green Salad with Homemade Vinaigrette, Homemade Hummus
Grilled Whole Fish with Potatoes
Being in this famous, fishing town and arriving from the very shores where Jesus performed two miracles with fish, it seemed appropriate to order the fish.
Kanafeh is a dessert made with kadaïf or kataifi (crunchy, angel hair, phyllo dough), akawi cheese and ghee (clarified butter). After it is baked, it's drizzled with a rose water syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. This dessert was lite, refreshing and very, very delicious.
After lunch, we visited Magdala, another ancient, Jewish city located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Mary Magdalene, one of the few people specifically mentioned as being at Christ's crucifixion and the first to see him after the resurrection, is named after the city from where she came.
In this city in 2009, archaeologists found the remains of the oldest synagogue in Galilee, lying less than 12 inches underground. Coins found in the synagogue date back between 5 - 63 A.D.
The intricacy of the synagogue's mosaic floor was exquisite.
At the center of the synagogue, one of the most important archaeological artifacts in Israel was found -- The Magdala Stone. The Magdala Stone is a depiction of the Second Temple and features the oldest, carved image of the Temple's seven-branched menorah that has ever been found.
Other sides of the quartzite stone depict various areas of the Temple including the outer courts, the wall of the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies which is depicted by two floating wheels on two triangles, representing fire and referencing Ezekiel's vision of heaven and the celestial chariot. On top of the stone is a six-petaled rosette which has been described by the ancient, Jewish historian, Josephus, as being on the veil, adorned with flowers, that is directly in front of the Holy of Holies.
First Century Fish Pool
The excavators also found markets and fish pools used for storing and salting the fish brought in by local fishermen. Archaeologists are continuing to discover more on these grounds and posit that, to date, they have only uncovered about 10% of the archaeology here.
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.
Elsewhere on the property, there is a Spirituality Center. At the altar of the main chapel is a replica of a wooden boat, of the type Jesus would have used. Behind the chapel, and through the large windows, is a view of the lake. The setting almost makes you feel as though you are part of the crowds Luke describes, that came to the shores to hear Jesus preach from a boat.
Jesus Healing Mary Magdalene
There are also four smaller chapels in the Spirituality Center. All of them have stunning mosaics created by artist, Maria Jesus Fernández, that depict different scenes from Jesus' ministry.
From Magdala, we headed back to Tiberias where we were staying for the night.
I ate dinner at Little Tiberias, a family-owned, neighborhood restaurant serving gourmet, French Mediterranean cuisine, in a building that dates back to Roman times and brings a European feel to the Sea of Galilee.
Whole Labarax (Spotted Sea Bass) with Garlic, Wine, Herb Butter Sauce
The fish was freshly caught and delectable.
After dinner, I strolled leisurely through the town of Tiberias, stopping at stalls and stepping into markets to check out the local scene. I was almost back at my hotel, when I passed the Scots Hotel ...
.... and stumbled upon its small, hidden, outdoor dining room, decorated with string lights and in a great location for people watching and relaxing.
Vanilla Gelato with Raspberries
I started chatting with the restaurant manager, a vinophile, who convinced me to try a dessert while he educated me on Israeli wine regions, production and culture. He tempted me with a five-glass flight to learn more about and experience the local wines. Too tired, after an adventure filled day, I promised to come back the following night. With that, I walked the short distance to my hotel and promptly fell asleep, exhausted after a long and wonderful day.
*When I wrote and published my first post in this series about my trip to Israel on October, 1, I had no idea that Israel would declare war on October 7th after an attack by Hamas. I pray for peace and safety for all those in the region and all who are affected.