from afar, it’s easy to imagine jesus wandering through a wilderness when he left Nazareth. But that’s a mistake. Hiking through the same landscape, I see how close everything is; he likely walked well-trod paths and stayed in villages each night, as we’re doing. Take the first 10 miles: The trail starts at the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the spot where, according to Luke, the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear the son of God; from there it meanders just over five miles to Sepphoris, known as the home of Mary’s parents, and likely a place where Jesus worked as a young man; then it crosses a forest to arrive at Cana, site of the wedding feast.
“If you’ve grown up with stories from the Bible,” says Landis, “it’s incredibly powerful to experience the landscape where they happened. Not knowing where things are is like playing chess without a chessboard. But it’s not just the sites. Jesus lived in a complicated world, and the Galilee is still a complicated place today. Interacting with that world—its religious and ethnic and political diversity—puts you in the stories.”
Sepphoris, or Zippori, is one of those complicated places. Over the last 2,500 years it’s been a Jewish stronghold, destroyed by the Romans and resurrected as a first-century center of wealth and culture; the site of a Crusader fortress that was destroyed by Muslims in the 12th century, and later rebuilt by Bedouins and used as a school during the British Mandate period; and an Arab village until 1948. Today it’s a protected preserve—Zippori National Park.
After touring the ruins—one intricate mosaic tells the story of the binding of Isaac; another depicts Dionysus, god of wine, and uses 1.5 million stones in 23 colors—we descend into a cavernous Roman-era cistern. It’s really more like a mini slot canyon, 200 yards long and deep enough to provide a cool, shady sanctuary at midday. It contains only a shallow puddle today, and reminds me how precious water has always been here. Even at the height of spring, I’ll see only a handful of running streams in 40 miles. I refill my bottles from the park’s faucet, thankful I don’t have to make do with the muddy liquid in the cistern. A first-century hiker would have no such luxury. A traveler on foot in the desert heat, 2,000 years before CamelBaks, would be intimate with the power of thirst. I recall Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman. As any hiker can attest, a simple drink of water when you really need it can feel like a form of salvation.
For Christian pilgrims, the holiest water around is in the nearby Jordan River. Today, thousands of salvation seekers go annually to Yardenit, one of the Jordan River sites claimed to be where John the Baptist dunked Jesus. There, you can rent a white robe (required) for your geographically correct baptism.
At first, I’m taken aback by the commercialism that has developed around the most famous biblical sites. At Cana, we drop our light packs (we carry no camping gear) at a guesthouse and walk to the nearby Franciscan Wedding Church. Dozens of couples from all over the world crowd the courtyard. They’ve come to renew their vows at the sacred site, long believed to be the place where, when the wedding hosts ran low on vino, Jesus saved the day with the ultimate party trick. I watch as a minister in a red polo shirt, praying with an Alabama twang, blesses the marriages of one group. The couples toast each other, most likely with official Cana wedding wine, which is sold in souvenir shops on both sides of the church. Certificates commemorating the event are available in English, Korean, Spanish, and eight other languages, for $7.
Crass? Maybe. But there’s nothing false about the way the couples embrace after drinking the wine from paper cups. And I’m learning to mind Jesus’s admonishment not to judge others—especially when it comes to pilgrims in the Holy Land.
A day earlier, at the Basilica of the Annunciation, I found it hard to see what was spiritual about the big church built in 1969. Travelers arrived by the busload, bought postcards and maybe a souvenir cross in the nearby souk, then departed as another busload took their place. Many of the sightseers wore name tags, and tour guides shuttled them along. But inside, deep in a grotto beneath the building, where the air is cool and dry and you can smell the earth from the Byzantine-era ruins, I watched a group of Italian pilgrims gather around the bare rock walls in the lowest part of the shrine. There, they prayed at the very spot where Mary purportedly communed with God’s messenger. There was no denying the rapture on their faces. With Christianity, as with all religions, you can’t always distinguish between exploiting someone’s faith, and fulfilling it.