The Bible doesn't tell us just where on the River Jordan John baptized Jesus, so the whole river is considered sacred. These visitors are standing on the Jordanian side.
ALL: NINA M. RICCIO/SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC VOICE
Pilgrimage reveals little known history
at Holy Land sites
The Grotto of the Anunciation in Nazareth, said by some to incorporate the remnants of Mary's home.
Part two of a series
One of our first stops on our "Catholic Pilgrimage to the Holy Land" was to Caesarea, a once-important port city built by King Herod. (He was paranoid, a lousy husband and ordered the killing of Jewish firstborns, but he did leave a legacy of great buildings behind.)
Herod built the city by design, and in just 10 years it boasted an aqueduct, theater and a palace fit for a king. It was also home to Cornelius and his family, among the first non-Jews to be converted to Christianity.
Later that day, we headed to Nazareth, known as the "Arab capital" of Israel. I found out that Jesus was never really accepted in his hometown of Nazareth and Christianity didn't become as entrenched there as it did in the area around Galilee.
Our weeklong pilgrimage tour, put together by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, focused on sites important to Christendom, with a few extras thrown in as well.
Nazareth is home to the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the site of the humble home where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to give birth to Jesus. A line of people filed slowly past the subterranean chapel, built roughly to remind worshippers that this significant event happened in the most simple of places.
Near the basilica, a controversial billboard had loomed for years, admonishing Christians to question the Trinity and warning them that there is no god but Allah. That billboard has since been taken down and replaced with one that calls for respect for all religions. No one knows the full story behind the new billboard or how the old one came to be removed, explained Sister Beatrice from the Centre International Marie de Nazareth nearby. It was a reminder to all of us that tensions in the region often simmer just below the surface, even when daily life continues as usual.
Not far from Capernaum, home of St. Peter, is the Church of the Beatitudes, built on the site where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. The church is shaped octagonally to represent the eight Beatitudes, and there's a stunning view of the Sea of Galilee visible through each of the windows. We later traveled to Magdala, the "crossroads of Jewish/Christian history" and hometown of Mary Magdalene, where the remains of a synagogue and marketplace from the first-century town were recently unearthed. The Magdalena Institute was built there as a retreat center, and it gives special acknowledgement to the women who have given so much to the Church throughout its history.
It was Friday when we stopped at the beautiful Stella Maris Monastery perched atop Haifa's Mount Carmel. This is the home of the Carmelites, who founded a "hosteleria" there in the 17th century, a combination of hostel and hospital for pilgrims who had traveled for months to reach the Holy Land and were always exhausted and often sick when they arrived. A visiting nun mesmerized us with a beautiful rendition of "Ave Maria" — just one of those spontaneous outbursts of religious fervor that happened often. But what seemed more significant was the Muslim call to prayer we heard over the minaret's loudspeaker just an hour later. Because it was Friday at midday, the call to prayer was several minutes long, and all Muslim men are expected to go to mosque. Listening to the two expressions of religious belief within such a short time was a reminder of just how important this tiny stretch of land is to so many millions of people.
Driving through the Dead Sea area and then up to Jerusalem, our little tour bus passed small patches of crops — olive trees, date palms, citrus and avocados. On each of these patches, a network of irrigation tubing was visible, and where the tubes ended, the soil gave way to dry sand once again. You have to hand it to those early Zionists for their determination and effort in clearing the land of rocks and creating an irrigation system consistent enough to grow crops in semi-arid conditions.
Next: We arrive in Jerusalem.
(Nina M. Riccio is a Connecticut-based traveler and freelance writer focusing on education, health and family issues.)
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