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Tiberias and Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee
THE Promised Land can feel much less promising for travellers during the bouts of high heat common to Israel and the Middle East. Being well below sea level in places like Galilee and the Dead Sea only makes visitors feel the heat more intensely.

The city of Tiberias is situated on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee.
So travelling in the comfort of an air-conditioned coach between Nazareth and Tiberias, in the Israeli region of Galilee, gives visitors an appreciation of the difficulties of the walking treks made by the man who would become Messiah some 2,000 years ago.

Jesus of Nazareth made his long walk to the region of Galilee in northern Israel at around age 30, and thus started the period of His life that would define the foundations of Christianity.

To get there, He had to cross over 160 kilometres of Judean wilderness in a circuitous route on foot, a trip that now takes less than two hours on a smooth and fast highway. That road slices through the crop rows of the Jordan Valley, and finally reaches Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, once a Roman city and now a shoreline holiday destination.

Excavations at Roman Tiberias.
Tiberias offers a rambling waterfront promenade, which invites strolls by the many families and friends who come here from other parts of Israel for their holidays. The lake's considerable size (21 kilometres long, 13 km wide) is readily apparent from here. But the border with Jordan lies in the hills just east of the shoreline on the other side, demonstrating the compact dimensions of Israel and its neighbours.

Just adjacent to the boardwalk are boisterous lanes lined with restaurants, vendors, shops and a few taverns. It is a friendly, attractive and unpretentious beachside resort city.

But Tiberias still has many reminders that its roots can be traced to the Roman occupiers of Israel. It was built by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and was named after the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar.

The ruins of Roman Tiberius have recently been prepared for touring, and visitors can now see these impressive artifacts at the new Tiberius Archaeological Park at the south end of the city.

Tourists can stroll freely through the rocky Roman remains and see reconstructed highlights such as a gate complex, bridge, towers, drainage channels and amphitheatre.

Excavations at Roman Tiberias with view towards Sea of Galilee.
Jesus made His way north of Tiberias, but stayed near the Sea of Galilee -- which is of course not a "sea" in the saltwater sense. It is a large freshwater lake that is fed by the River Jordan and fulfils virtually all of Israel's water needs. Its depletion over the years, largely due to farm irrigation, is a serious issue in Israel. But this problem also indirectly played a role in a key archaeological discovery -- one tourists can now experience.

Found poking through the mud near the shore of the drought-stricken lake in 1986 were the remains of a wooden boat. Close examination of the vessel determined it was in fact about 2,000 years old, and a massive effort to recover the boat without damaging it was then undertaken.

Once brought on shore, the ancient Galilee Boat, also known as the Jesus Boat, was submerged in a chemical bath for seven years before being mounted for display at the Yigal Allon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar. Based on artifacts found on board like nails and pottery, plus carbon dating, the famous fishing boat was determined to be from between 50 BC and 50 AD, neatly bracketing the time period of the life of Christ. Fishing boats just like this are mentioned often in the Bible, but there is no evidence connecting this boat to Jesus or his disciples.

Jesus ended His long walk north in Capernaum, a picturesque town on the Sea of Galilee. There, he came to know Peter, one of three men in Capernaum who would become disciples. And he stayed at the home of Peter's mother-in-law.

Archaeological digs have shown ancient ruins found at Capernaum may in fact be those of this house. Most significant about the find is that a tiny stone chamber in the house is quite possibly where Jesus founded the first-ever Christian ministry. Visitors can see this important spot, which is relatively accessible for photography, and not secured obtrusively. A church built on arching supports is suspended above the chamber, and has a glass window floor to allow overhead viewing.

The synagogue in Capernaum.
Touring key historical sites on the Sea of Galilee, like Capernaum and Tabgha, is mostly done by coach tours, although touring by rental car on the scenic, smooth and well-marked roads is a snap. The truly hardy, however, can choose to tour the lake by bicycle on a new purpose-built bicycle course that circles the Sea of Galilee.

The course can be accomplished by renting a mountain bike in Tiberias and setting aside a full day for the trip. At 55 kilometres, the circuit can be completed in five to six hours, leaving a bit of time for sightseeing if an early-morning departure can be managed. Prepare for lots of sun and circle in a clockwise direction so as to knock off the really hilly sections of the road between Tiberias and Capernaum. Spring is probably the best time to ride the circuit, as the summer months can be brutally hot.

Others of an even hardier constitution can consider taking part in the Tiberius Marathon, which is staged in early January and has been running for 33 years. It is a regulation marathon length of 42 kilometres and is considered the lowest marathon in the world, at 200 metres below sea level.

Although it is primarily Christians who are drawn in great numbers to these ancient sites, it's a fascinating trip for anyone interested in history and ancient culture or indeed for anyone interested in Western culture in general, since these sites, and the stories attached to them, for centuries formed so much of the basis of art, music and literature.

Author: Ted Davis | Source: Winnipeg Free Press [April 23, 2011]

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