Itinerary Allow four days of hiking for the 40-mile route, and spend at least one full day in Nazareth before you start. Go in spring or fall. Accommodations It’s possible to camp along the Jesus Trail, but you’ll get more out of the experience (and can carry a light pack) by staying in towns. Most guesthouses have bunkroom accommodations for as little as 100 NIS (about $25 in new Israeli shekels) per night. Guidebook/map/info Obtain everything—including lodging reservations, shuttles for you and/or gear, GPS data, and more—at jesustrail.com. Order Landis and Dintaman’s guidebook, Hiking the Jesus Trail ($25), on the site, and get a 25-percent discount by using the code "Backpacker.”
Every pilgrim trail, by definition, steers hikers to specific holy sites. And the Jesus Trail is no different when it comes to places like Cana. But it also forces you off the well-worn pilgrim’s path, into obscure parts of the Galilee where there are still discoveries to be made.
On day two, we walk through a pine forest—rare in the Mediterranean climate—to Illaniya, a Jewish farming community that’s definitely not on the Lonely Planet tour. The houses aren’t old. The cropland is not remarkably different from cropland elsewhere. But a 15-minute walk from the goat farm where we stay, on a hillside green with mallow and knee-high grass, a local woman, Esther Yankelevitch, shows us a Jewish burial cave that dates from the Roman era. It hasn’t been officially excavated, and nothing marks the entrance; it’s located on private land that belongs to a dentist. “You can see the steps leading down to a ritual bath here,” she says, pointing to a depression outside the cavelike opening. I duck my head to climb through, and descend a rocky chute into the crypt, which is dark in midafternoon. I stand up straight—the arched ceiling is high overhead—and use my headlamp to illuminate a faint menorah painted on the naked rock.
Places like these transform a hike on the Jesus Trail into a kind of treasure hunt. Elsewhere, we come upon a first-century synagogue that’s recently been found. Archaeologists’ flags on the heart-shaped columns show a dig still in progress. And across the valley from the Menorah Cave (see it by staying at the Yarok AZ Ecological Farm and asking for a guide; yarokaz.co.il), Yankelevitch points out an ancient olive press that lies half-buried in a field; you could literally trip over it. Nearby, we descend into a well with an arched roof and stone walls; it’s not as old as the olive press, but one large block, four feet long with a cross etched into it, is a recycled piece of Roman work. “No one throws away a good cut stone,” she says.
The next day, a few miles east, we follow the Jesus Trail to the remains of a Roman road hidden in plain sight, in a field that slopes up the last big hill before we get a glimpse of the Sea of Galilee. The raised roadbed, 15 feet wide and embedded with rocks, once connected the coast to the inland sea. It’s the one place on the entire route that Jesus almost certainly walked on his journey to Capernaum. Yellow mustard grows between the rocks, some of which are missing or cracked. I wonder what it was like to hike for miles on a road like this, with just thin sandals on your feet. Or nothing. It was no small request when Jesus told his apostles to go forth without so much as a staff.
After the Roman road fades, we climb through waist-high wheat, thistles, and mustard to the Horns of Hittim, a double-peaked hill about 1,000 feet high, where Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187. It’s a popular dayhike with locals (in fact, this is the first place we see other hikers, on day three). A singletrack trail leads up the rocky ridge to the broad, flat summit, where the view stretches to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, and we can see most of the terrain we’ve covered, as well as the terrain to come. “I didn’t know about this spot until I scouted the route for the first time,” says Landis. “I arrived here about an hour before sunset, in the fall, and everything was golden. At that moment, I knew the trail was going to be a success.”
While the marquee sites along the trail, like Sepphoris and Capernaum, are impressive, I find myself most captivated by the places in between. It’s where the scenery is the most beautiful, to be sure, and the trail most like a trail. But it’s also where you get an intimate view of the conflict that modern travelers can’t—and shouldn’t—ignore.
I’ve resided on a kibbutz with bomb shelters that had seen regular use, and I’ve picked tomatoes with Palestinians from Gaza. I’m not oblivious to the complexities of the dispute. But elsewhere in Israel, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the polarized perspectives coming out of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. The Galilee offers a different take.
On the descent from the Horn of Hittim, we stop at the ruins of the mosque of Hittim, where a village was located until the 1948 war. On the grounds of the crumbling mosque, an extended family has laid out a picnic. Skewers of marinated meat sizzle on a small charcoal grill. Abud, a 60-something Arab-Israeli, insists on sharing their stuffed pitas. It’s the kind of hospitality I encounter at every step, from an invite to a Sabbath dinner to the Muslim teens who offer a swig from their bottle of arak. Abud tells me that he comes here frequently to check on the mosque, in order to prevent vandalism and preserve what he can. He does this because of a shared history with the local Muslims, he says, but he himself is Christian. I ask how he feels about being uprooted by the violence following the creation of Israel.
“I live in Tiberias now, on the Sea of Galilee, and I’m happy,” he says. “My children are happy. One son volunteered for the Israeli Army.” Talk about turning the other cheek.
But while the conflict seems less intense in the Galilee, Arabs and Jews still live in separate towns, choosing separate-but-peaceful. For most, the fundamental divide is too great. “I have friends who are Arab,” one Jewish farmer tells me. “We have people on both sides who want peace. But the problem isn’t politics or land. It’s our culture, our mentality. We’re raised differently as kids.”
But along the Jesus Trail, in small ways, you can see the mistrust eroding. And it’s happening because of the trail. Exhibit A: the Fauzi Azar Inn, a 200-year-old Ottoman mansion that’s been converted into a guesthouse, and serves as info hub and launching pad for the trail. It was established by a partnership between Inon, the Jewish cofounder of the trail, and the building’s Arab owners. This type of collaboration is so rare, says Inon, that it took some time for locals to believe it was a legit business. “There were rumors I was bringing in settlers,” he says. “Then they thought it was a brothel.”
Inon and his partners are not alone. Suad and Sami Bellan, a retired Arab couple that recently opened the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, traveled to the more-established Arbel Guesthouse (in a Jewish community where we stay on night three) to get advice on their operation from owner Sara Shavit, who returned the visit. Now the two guesthouses send travelers each other’s way.
Breakthrough? It’s something, when you consider how little has changed in 2,000 years; back then, the actors were different but the fighting no less intense. “Jesus was a radical,” says Landis. “When you see how hard it is to break down cultural barriers—even in the relatively peaceful Galilee—it makes his egalitarian message even more powerful. ‘Love thy neighbor’ was revolutionary in the first century.” And still is today.