Suggested day trips to Christian sites in Israel

Daytrips from Tiberias to Christian Sites at Sepphoris, Mount Tabor, and Megiddo Israel

Many pilgrims visit the Galilee to renew their faith at the many Old and New Testament sites mentioned in the Bible. While Tiberias is certainly beautiful in its own right, there is little of any Biblical significance within its city limits. Because of its central location however, Tiberias makes an excellent base for daytrips into the countryside to sites like Megiddo, Sepphoris and Mount Tabor (where Jesus was transfigured).

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Megiddo: A Visit to Armageddon

Megiddo, an inconspicuous hill holding the remains of at least 26 ancient settlements, maintains a silent vigil over the western end of the fertile Jezreel Valley as it has for five millennia. Set at the crossroads of civilizations, this city has witnessed a number of battles involving Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites (Joshua 12:21), Assyrians and Babylonians in ancient times; and the French (under Napoleon), Ottoman Turks, British and Israelis more recently.

But at least one more battle remains to be fought because Megiddo is Armageddon -- the site of the Biblical Apocalypse (Revelation 16:16). However, visitors should note that Armageddon is actually a corruption of the Hebrew word Har (mountain) and the city name of Megiddo.

A tranquil blue sky, soft breeze and singing birds welcomed Diane and me to the lush surroundings of Megiddo. Feeling confident that there would be no fighting today, we ascended the 100-foot hill to tour its ancient contents.

Visitors have the option of climbing the mound by passing through one of two period gates situated next to each other on the north side. The fortified Solomonic Gate, constructed using dressed stones and rough field stones, originally had three guardrooms on either side of the passageway; but now only the three on the left, as you face the mound, remain. While the gate's design is attributed to King Solomon (1Kings 9:15), the structure was more likely built during the reign of King Ahab (9th century BCE) or Jeroboam II (8th century BCE).

The second gate, Canaanite from the Late Bronze Age, stands just to the right of the Solomonic Gate. This gateway, wide enough to accommodate chariot traffic, was more likely for ceremonial rather than defensive purposes.

Atop the mound on the east side, you find a deep trench cradling the remains of four cult temples. The most notable feature is a circular stone altar, approximately ten yards in diameter. Dating back almost 4,700 years, this piled stone disc with seven steps was used for animal sacrifice by the Canaanites.

Walking around the trench, be careful when you walk toward the southwest as you might accidently fall seven yards down into a sunken circular grain silo. Assuming that you were not injured in such a fall, you could climb out of this hole, eleven yards in diameter, using one of two circular stair cases that cling to the inside wall. Dating to the reign of King Jeroboam II, this silo held approximately 12,800 bushels of grain.

While Megiddo was a fortified city from Israelite times, the Solomonic Stables were far from being large enough to accommodate the 40,000 horses mentioned in the Bible (1Kings 4:26). Divided into northern and southern sections, these stables date to the time of King Ahab. The southern stable is better preserved and features several rows of stone pillars dividing the long room into side stalls and central stalls. Horses were tied to the pillars and allowed to feed from stone mangers. Five of these have been reconstructed.

Located next to the stables, the Iron Age water system was essential to the survival of Megiddo, especially during times of crisis. A 120-foot deep vertical shaft connects to a 215-foot long tunnel. The far end of the tunnel connects to a cave with a spring inside. You can descend 183 steps and walk to the cave which was located outside the fortifications. In ancient times, the cave entrance was camouflaged with a cover of loose rocks and rendered inaccessible to besieging armies. The mouth of the cave is now open for you to exit if you wish.

Should you choose this option, you find yourself outside the bounds of the national park so you should carry your admission ticket with you as you walk back around to the Visitors Center. Alternatively, you could climb back out of the shaft and exit by the Solomonic or Canaanite Gate.

At the Visitors Center, you can see how everything fits together by reviewing a short video and a series of models detailing the different city levels. The models in particular superimpose a number of the structures over the ages in a manner that is not apparent at the site itself.

Transfiguration at Mount Tabor

Winding narrow roads and hairpin turns reward you with panoramic views of the eastern Jezreel Valley at the summit of Mount Tabor. The breathtaking scenery from 1,843-feet above may have been the very reason that the early Church leaders identified Mount Tabor with the site of Jesus' transfiguration even though the Gospels (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36) do not mention a specific location.

Entering the limestone brick Basilica of the Transfiguration, your eyes are immediately drawn to the golden mosaic high in the apse vault. A radiant Jesus is flanked by Moses and one apostle on the left and the Prophet Elijah and two apostles on the right. Peter, James and John are the apostles but it is not clear who is who in the mosaic. In August on the Day of the Transfiguration the reflected rays of the sun illuminate this mosaic. Unfortunately we were visiting in March.

The basilica houses three chapels. The Chapel of Christ is located beneath the apse and holds the main altar for the church. Descending the steps, you stand before a vaulted roof. The vault ceiling is decorated with a mosaic featuring twelve angels bearing witness to clusters of light rays emanating out in four directions. Looking back toward the main entrance, you see a chapel dedicated to Moses to the left of the door and the Prophet Elijah to the right. Both chapels hold a stone altar inside. Exiting the church, you pass a number of Byzantine ruins.

Sepphoris: The Ornament of the Galilee

Sepphoris, a Romanized Jewish town set on a hillside approximately four miles from Nazareth, is not mentioned in the New Testament. However oral Christian tradition has it that Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, resided here. Perhaps Mary first met Joseph in this thriving Galilean city. Joseph, a carpenter, likely worked in this city at some time because the 400-strong population of Nazareth was hardly large enough to provide fulltime employment. Following this line of reasoning, a young Jesus may have also been familiar with Sepphoris during his formative years. Was Jesus referring to Sepphoris when he said "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden" (Matthew 5:14)?

At one time, Sepphoris had as many as eighteen synagogues but the only one identified to date is from the 5th or 6th century CE. The floor of this synagogue is decorated with mosaics including: Abraham and Sarah visited by Angels, the Binding of Isaac and the Consecration of Aaron in the Tabernacle.

Visitors may be surprised to find a mosaic of Apollo riding on his sun chariot inside a Jewish house of worship. For some strange reason, the first Commandment immediately sprang to my mind.

On the hillside, a short walk from the synagogue, sits a 3rd century CE Roman villa. Mosaics set in the triclinium floor (living room and dining room) depict scenes from the life of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and fertility. In one scene, Bacchus and Hercules go head-to-head in a wine drinking competition. According to myth, Hercules lost. Nearby is Venus, a mosaic portrait of a young woman adorned with a laurel crown and earrings. She has been named the Mona Lisa of Galilee.

Walking down to the lower part of city, you find a number of mosaics inside the Nile House. Mythological figures include Amazons on horseback, a centaur and a monster from whose mouth the River Nile spills out.

Another scene depicts a tower-like nilometer; this device was used to measure the crest of the river during the annual flood. This picture shows a man standing on a woman's back in order to measure the height of the river. Other houses in this neighborhood also have mosaics. The most notable is Orpheus playing his harp before a crowd of wild animals.

Complete your tour of Sepphoris by returning to the Visitors Center to see the video titled Ornament of the Galilee which is what Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, named this city.

If You Go

You will require a rental car in order to visit Sepphoris, Mount Tabor and Megiddo in one day.
You can make the most of your travel time by visiting Megiddo first and then working your way back to Mount Tabor and then Sepphoris.
Megiddo is approximately a one-hour drive from Tiberias on Highway 66 between Yokneam and Megiddo Junctions. There is an admission fee.
Mount Tabor is approximately 30 minutes from Tiberias. Turn off Highway 65 and follow the signs. Admission to the Basilica of the Transfiguration is free.
Ancient Sepphoris is now named Zippori. Zippori is approximately 20 minutes outside Tiberias. Turn off Highway 79 near Nazareth into Zippori. There is an admission fee.

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Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick's articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Updated: August 23, 2016

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