As I mentioned in the previous article, we’re doing a series of posts on our trip to Israel and Jordan, based on a presentation we did speaking to the historical and biblical relevance to various sites. This one is pretty lengthy because the sites are all so close together up in that area, so we were able to visit a lot in one day.
I’d recommend starting with this introductory post to get familiar with the geography of the area and all the places we went. We gave some background on the history and politics of the region as well, particularly as it relates to the modern state of Israel.
After you read the introductory post, make sure you catch these other posts:
Dad and I flew into Tel Aviv in the evening and our friends picked us up, got some food into us (yummy fresh falafel and pita), and then we crashed into bed. But we were up early the next morning to get on the road, since we had a ton of ground to cover in the north of Israel. Below is the route we took, then back to Tel Aviv.
Our friend Steven picked us up and we headed north, stopping in Netanya quickly for coffee and French pastries (Netanya is a community of French Jewish emigrants), then arriving in Caesarea Maritima for our first stop.
History of Caesarea
- Caesarea is relatively new by the standard of many of the sites we visited–originally settled in the 500s BCE by the Sidonian (Phoenician) king Abdashtart during the Persian empire
- The port town flourished during the Hellenistic period (300s BCE), and was first mentioned by the name of Straton’s Tower in papyri from 259
- The Romans conquered the area sometime between 100 and 70 BCE, and it served as the base for Roman legions quelling the Great Revolt in 66 BCE, which was partially caused by conflicts between Jews and gentiles in the area
- Mark Antony presented it to Cleopatra, but when Octavian defeated Antony, Rome awarded it to Herod (the Great) in 30 BCE and he built a large port called Caesarea (more on that below)
- It became the capitol of Judea after the fall of Jerusalem in the 70s AD, and the center of the Bar Kokhba revolt between 132-135 AD, likely where leaders of the revolt were tortured to death
- The city flourished in the Byzantine era, languished after the Arab Conquest, and then flourished again during Crusades
Herod the Great’s Caesarea Maritima
When Herod was awarded the city around 30 BCE, he built a large port city called Caesarea, which is mentioned in Josephus. It was a planned city, with a hippodrome, aqueducts, temple, amphitheatre, markets, etc. You can definitely see the signs of wealth in the ruins.
Caesarea in the Bible
The city was a major Roman political center during the time of Christ and well into New Testament times—it’s mentioned over 15 times in book of Acts.
- Not long after his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul sailed from Caesarea to his native Tarsus (Acts 9)
- Peterwas summoned to Caesarea from Joppa after his vision of the great white sheet to meet with the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10)
- It was at Caesarea that Herod Agrippa I was struck down by God for his idolatrous blasphemy (Acts 12)
- Paul passed through frequently, and was later held prisoner there for two years (Acts 24) and put on trial (Acts 23-26)
Next we drove over to the biblical tel of Megiddo, which overlooks the Jezreel Valley. For bible scholars, both of these names are super familiar.
Tel-Megiddo and the Valley of Jezreel
A “tel” is an archaeological mound, a hill rising out of a flat plain, marking the site of a city dating from ancient times. There are over 200 tels in modern-day Israel, but three that have been designated as official biblical tels—Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba (Be’er Sheva). They were chosen because they have substantial remains with biblical connections, were densely-populated areas, and also because of their underground water systems (you can read more on the designations here).
This is a model of the ancient city based on the ruins.
History of Megiddo and Jezreel in the Bible
The city was of strategic importance for millennia, as it sat right at the crossroads of major trade routes and so lots of caravans (and armies) went through the Jezreel Valley. It is mentioned throughout Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Chronicles.
- It was part of Manasseh’s territory, but they were unable to drive the Canaanites out of Megiddo and other cities (Josh. 17:12, Judges 1:27)
- It came under King Solomon’s control and was one of his three military fortresses and district capitals (I Kings 9:15)
- The city was captured by the Assyrians in 700s BCE, then really faded from prominence
Megiddo was excavated earlier than other tels, and so less gently. There’s a part of the ruin (pic below) where you can see layers of civilizations—they estimate anywhere from 20 to 30 (depending on who you ask) individual layers of cities and peoples are in the archaeological record here.
Megiddo and Jezreel as a Battleground Over the Centuries
This city and valley has possibly seen the most battles of any single spot throughout history. A few examples:
- There was a huge battle between the Egyptian pharaoh and rebel Canaanite king of Kadesh (and first recorded use of the composite bow, which I find fascinating)
- During the reign of Judah’s King Josiah, another Egyptian pharaoh, Necho, came to Megiddo to engage the king of Assyria. Against God’s instructions, Josiah involved himself in this battle and was killed (2 Kings 23:29). Josiah’s death at Megiddo was a stunning blow to Judah. He was the last good king before the nation’s destruction at the hands of Babylon.
- Even modern times—both Napoleon (1799) and British General Allenby (1918) defeated Turkish forces here
- Revelation 16:16 – speaking of the time right before Christ returns, when the armies of the world will turn to fight Him, it says “and they gathered them together to the place which is called in Hebrew, Armageddon”
- This would be something more like Har-Megiddo
- Interestingly, Jezreel means “God will sow”
The Sea of Galilee Area
The Sea of Galilee is the lowest freshwater lake on earth, and the second-lowest lake in the world (after Dead Sea). This is where a lot of Jesus’s ministry was concentrated, so there are many sites around there that various tour groups visit. The three we focused on were Tiberias, Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes.
The Sea of Galilee in the Bible
The Galilee area is referenced quite a bit, including throughout Mark 1, when Jesus was beginning His ministry. It’s also referenced once as the Sea of Tiberias, which it was often called instead.
- Jesus recruited His first disciples by the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16–20)
- He went over the Sea of Galilee and the multitude followed Him, then He fed the 5,000 (John 6:1)
- Situated on the western shore of Sea of Galilee, about 200 meters below sea level
- Established around 20 AD, founded by Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great)
- Jewish oral tradition holds that it was built on the site of the ancient Israelite village of Rakkath or Rakkat, mentioned as a walled city in Joshua (Josh. 19:35)
Tiberias was a strictly pagan city at first, but later became the religious, administrative, and cultural center of the Jewish nation after the loss of Jerusalem for 500 years, until the Persian and Arab conquest. Many of the most important post-bible Jewish books (such as the Mishna and Talmud) were composed in the city, which was the home of many Jewish scholars. In fact, the Sanhedrin was based here from the second century on.
We had a great shwarma lunch from a little outside food stand in Tiberias, which is a thriving resort town these days. Its modern vibrance was a stark contract to the other city (ruins) we visited on the Sea of Galilee, and we’ll get to why in a minute. The one verse in the bible that specifically calls out Tiberias the city also mentions that other destination, in fact—Capernaum.
John 6:23 “…however, other boats came from Tiberias, near the place where they ate bread after the Lord had given thanks—when the people therefore saw that Jesus was not there, nor His disciples, they also got into boats and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus”
It’s believed that Jesus lived here much of his adult life, so the ruins of Capernaum are a major draw for mainstream Christian visitors. His living in this area also fulfilled the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2 (Nazareth is part of Galilee as well).
Capernaum in the Bible
Capernaum is mentioned a bunch in the New Testament, given that it was the staging area for much of Jesus’s early ministry. These are just a few examples:
- Jesus began His ministry in the town synagogue (Mark 1:21, John 6:59)
- He cast out the unclear spirit in the synagogue as well and did other miracles and healings (Mark 1:23-34)
- He became renowned for His power to heal the sick and infirm (Mark 3:1–5, Matt. 8:5)
- Mark 2:1, Mark 9:33, and more
A lot of the ruins are made of the local black basalt rock, giving it a very unique look. You can even see that basalt as the foundation underneath the more famous white synagogue in the pic below. That older (basalt) synagogue is believed to be where Jesus taught at the beginning of His ministry. The white synagogue was built around the 3rd century AD, and is made of white limestone.
In addition to being the supposed home of Jesus during some of His adult years, Peter was from Capernaum as well, and they have built a (quite honestly hideous) church on top of what was believed to be his house. They have a statue of him as well, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
“Woe to Capernaum”–the “cursed” cities of Galilee
Capernaum is also famous as being one of the three cities that Jesus pronounced woes on in the bible.
“Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes…
And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matt. 11:20-24)
It’s really interesting that these three cities are in beautiful settings (below is the setting of Capernaum and then the ruins of Bethsaida and Chorazin), but unlike Tiberias these three cities didn’t survive.
Nothing was ever built on them again from a few hundred years after Christ forward, and that’s definitely strange since settlements tend to perpetuate over the centuries—typically when you find ruins, it’s layers and layers of different civilizations building on top of the previous. It’s hard to say for certain whether Jesus’s “woe” pronouncement was the cause, but it’s certainly an interesting coincidence.
You can also walk right down to the Sea of Galilee when you’re visiting Capernaum, which is nice and surprisingly peaceful (given the crowds). The vegetation was really interesting as well, and you could look across the sea to the Golan Heights, which was cool (you can kind of see the settlements in the third picture; it was pretty hazy).
From Capernaum we drove just a few minutes up a hill to the Mount of Beatitudes.
The (supposed) Mount of Beatitudes
I say “supposed” because there’s really no way of knowing where Jesus gave one of His most famous sermons. If you look at the map below, the site today is near Capernaum, just up the hill, but my dad seems to remember their tour guide from the ’80s pointing to a place near Tiberias. So who knows?
One story that I found really interesting (though can’t corroborate for sure) was about Constantine’s first wife, Helena (Flavia Julia Augusta). Constantine, as most people know, was the Roman emperor who made Christianity the state religion, and his first wife was very devout and did quite a bit of pilgrimage in the Holy Land area.
The story that our friend Steven heard from different locals and tour guides was that when she came to visit, she wanted to know where all these famous sites were, but since no one could know for sure (and they were afraid of telling the emperor’s wife “no”), the local people just picked a spot and that became gospel truth. It definitely could explain how certain places became famous when modern and biblical evidence suggest otherwise (particularly in Jerusalem), so thought that was an interesting story to share.
So the Mount of Beatitudes is…a tourist destination. The landscaping is very pretty but very sanitized (in my language, not very authentic feeling). There are a supposed to be lot of Byzantine ruins in this area due to Constantine’s wife, but we didn’t see any of them.
The Mount of Beatitudes in the Bible
Obviously this references Jesus’s famous “sermon on the mount” in Matthew 5-7, which includes the beatitudes or “blessed are the…”. We have no way of knowing where He actually preached the sermon, though.
From the Sea of Galilee we then headed up to the coast to the Arab town of Acco.
History of Akko
Akko is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites Israel, with a fascinating and rich history (I find that’s often true of port cities). Below I’ve outlined just the bare-bones history and it’s still quite lengthy.
- Began as Tel-Akko
- Known as Ptolemais during Greek & Roman times, with the status of an autonomous “polis” (which was a big deal)
- It was a key port city along with Tyre and Sidon during Greek times, and was the main port in the area until Caesarea was built during Roman era
- It flourished in the Byzantine times, but was captured after the great Jewish revolt in 614, and shortly thereafter it started to become an Arab stronghold
- Over the course of hundreds of years, the balance of power slowly shifted to the Arab community from Jewish and Christian elites; it was renamed Aka during this time
- It was a world center between 1000-1300 AD, during the time of the Crusades, and switched hands a few times; it was the capital of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the 13th century and a major world city and financial center, run by the Templar
- Became an Ottoman town and today it is an Arab-majority town, famous for its market
- Also sometimes called Napoleon Hill; yep, he swept through here too (that becomes a theme in this region…)
There is this really interesting breakwater that was built during Roman times to make it a safer harbor, which you can see in the picture below. It’s like a really shallow shelf (also known as a sea wall or jetty) that’s built around parts of the city to protect it from the force of the waves.
Akko in the Bible
- Similar to Megiddo, the Israelites didn’t obey God and completely conquer the land
- “Nor did Asher drive out the inhabitants of Acco or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, or Rehob” (Judges 1:31)
- Paul and Peter both stayed here during New Testament times
- “And when we had finished our course from Tyre, we came to Ptolemais (Acco) and saluted the brethren, and abode with them one day (Acts 21:7)
We were running a little later than planned for dinner, so we found a place to sit down. After quite a bit of back and forth with the owner, we somehow ended up with a smorgasbord of salads (a traditional meal), as much as we could eat.
Stuffed and happy, we walked out of the restaurant…and were rewarded with an absolutely breathtaking Sabbath sunset on the breakwater around the harbor. It’s one of those travel moments that is unexpected and you know will stick in your mind forever.
Haifa & Mt. Carmel
We didn’t spend any time in Haifa, but stopped quickly to see the Baha’i Gardens at night on our way back to Tel Aviv. Haifa is the third-largest city in Israel and a major tech center as well. It’s also where Mount Carmel is located, which is mentioned a few times in the bible.
- Mount Carmel thought to be where Elijah faced off with 450 of Ba’al’s prophets (I Kings 18)
- The “cave of Elijah” is thought to be nearby, from around the 9th century BCE
- Center of Baha’i faith and home of famous Baha’i Gardens & Shrine of the Bab, faith established in 1860s in Middle East
- Considers itself monotheistic, but accepts (for instance) Buddha, Christ, and Muhammed as different revelations of the same god
Our first day in Israel was packed full of history and biblical sites. There were many places we didn’t visit as well, but we definitely hit some of the most well-known places.
Make sure you read the other posts in our “Travel in the Holy Land” series!
I’d love to know if you have any questions about where we went, please let us know in the comments!