Galilee, ISRAEL — Christians visiting Israel now have two ways to physically retrace Jesus’ footsteps as he journeyed through Galilee.
Over the winter, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism opened the Gospel Trail, a 39-mile hiking trail in Galilee that passes through many of the sites where Jesus lived and preached.
The similar Jesus Trail was opened almost four years ago in the same region. The 40-mile route was developed by a group of international and local volunteers in coordination with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
In contrast, the new Gospel Trail was developed by the tourism ministry and the Jewish National Fund. Its launch was attended by several local Christian leaders.
“The Gospel Trail represents a major means for maximizing the tourist potential” of the Sea of Galilee region, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told journalists during the opening ceremony. “It will encourage economic growth in the north through the creation of new jobs and an increase in income from the visitors.”
Christian leaders say the development of tourism in the north, where most of Israel’s 150,000 Christian Arabs live, is vital to the continued existence of their community. The Christian population has dwindled as the faithful, seeking a life outside the tumultuous Middle East, have emigrated to Western countries.
Closely linked to their churches and the tourism-pilgrimage industry, many indigenous Christians find it difficult to support their families when pilgrims are scarce. A record number of tourists traveled to Israel in 2011, and that has helped local Christians, Church officials said.
Tourism officials hope the new trail will attract an additional 200,000 Christian visitors to Israel, especially to the north of the country. As it is, some 2 million Christians visit the country every year.
Both trails afford hikers — and, in some areas, cyclists and horseback riders — a genuine taste of what the area must have been like during Jesus’ time.
Though the area has, of course, been modernized over the past two millennia, the majority of the routes on both trails are quiet and green. In the late winter and early spring, wildflowers fill the countryside. There is no rainfall in the summer, when temperatures and humidity soar.
Both trails offer heart-stopping views of the majestic Sea of Galilee and the historic churches around it.
Since it is new, the Gospel Trail is still short on amenities like water fountains, restaurants and bathrooms.
“We’re trying to give the real feeling of the landscape where Jesus walked from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. There weren’t any bathrooms then,” Pini Shani, director of the tourism ministry’s overseas department, told the Register.
True, but tourism ministry officials are nonetheless encouraging private entrepreneurs to develop this infrastructure in the near future, and several sites, especially churches, do have the necessary facilities.
A four-day hike on the Gospel Trail starts at Mount Precipice, on the outskirts of Nazareth, and continues on to the Arbel Cliffs, which served as the backdrop of many ancient battles; the ancient ruins of Beit Saida (Bethsaida), the birthplace of the apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip; Capernaum, the starting point of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; Ein Nun, a natural spring; and Kfar Kana (Cana), where Jesus is said to have healed the nobleman’s son.
Pilgrims will also visit Migdal/Magdala, identified in the Gospels as the home of Mary Magdalene, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where a pretty church overlooks the sites related to Jesus’ ministry. It was here that Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass during his 2000 Holy Land pilgrimage.
In contrast to the Gospel Trail, the Jesus Trail begins in the heart of the Christian-Muslim city of Nazareth, near the Basilica of the Annunciation, and passes through beautiful Zippori Park — a nature reserve with archeological ruins attesting to its roots as an important city, and the Arab towns of Mash’had and Cana. It winds its way to Ilaniya, which has an ancient spring, olive press and synagogue, or Kibbutz Lavi (a good rest area), with a stop at the Yarok Az organic goat farm and lodge.
Highlights also include Nebi Shu’eib (the biblical Jethro’s tomb), the Arbel National Park, Migdal, the 2,000-year-old, biblical-era “Jesus boat” at Kibbutz Ginosoar, Tabgha, the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed miracles.
Both trails allow visitors to go at their own pace and to explore the countryside and archeological sites that dot the area. It is possible to camp in the national parks, and there are several small inns along the routes, or not far from them, especially on the Jesus Trail.
During a stop on the Gospel Trail, journalists were taken to Tel Kinrot, a hill above the Sea of Galilee. In addition to a gorgeous view of the sea and the Mount of Beatitudes at Tabga, the site has archeological ruins dating from the Chalcolithic to Ottoman periods.
Gazing at the sea, Luis Alvarado, a pilgrim, said walking in the footsteps of Jesus “has enhanced my faith. Being in the place where the Bible happened brings the Gospels to life.”
Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin is based in Jerusalem.