Israel's Jesus Trail

Israel's New Jesus Trail Takes Visitors Into Countryside

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 7, 2009

We ducked under barbed wire, waded through spiky milk thistle and slid down a hillside that was too steep to walk. I couldn't help wondering: Is this what Jesus did?

My colleague Samuel Sockol and I were walking the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile trek that wanders from Nazareth in northern Israel through Arab villages, kibbutz farmland and some stunning landscape to the Sea of Galilee.

Inspired by Peru's Inca Trail and the Camino de Santiago in Spain, both popular spots for global hikers, the Jesus Trail is being developed by Israeli entrepreneur Maoz Inon and his American partner, David Landis, as a way to draw tourists out of the buses and into the countryside.

The hope, they say, is to help smaller businesses in more out-of-the-way places make money -- and in the process make a bit themselves by coordinating guides, renting handheld GPS equipment to do-it-yourselfers and offering other services. Inon is also involved in a Nazareth guesthouse that provides a convenient base for travelers.

There's a larger purpose as well, they say. Inon, who is Jewish, has focused on projects with Arab partners in Israeli Arab towns as a sort of peacemaking gesture; Landis, a Mennonite, also hopes the project will encourage understanding among faiths and cultures.

Though the venture is called the Jesus Trail, the appeal is meant to be broad. Nazareth and the Galilee are important to Christians, who regard the area as the setting of Jesus's boyhood, adult ministry and initial miracles. However, the route is a layer cake of "narratives," covering Christian holy sites, small Arab towns typical of northern Israel, the remnants of Palestinian villages empty since Israel's 1948 war of independence, ancient Jewish sites, modern kibbutzim, Crusader battlefields and Muslim shrines.

It is a captivating idea for the less formal traveler with good footwear (and a well-filled water bottle). Given the ongoing conflict in the area, the idea of hiking in Israel might seem unwise. But keep in mind, this trail runs through a region of the country that has been stable and safe.

The other, much longer "Christian walk," from Nazareth to Bethlehem, cuts through the occupied West Bank and various Israeli military checkpoints. West Bank security has improved markedly in recent months, and some companies offer guided walks along that route as well.

The Jesus Trail is still in its infancy. In parts the path is well blazed, and in places it overlaps with Israel's national and regional trail system.

In others, well, like the life of Jesus and other religious figures, some of it remains a matter of faith, at least when Sami and I made the trip in mid-April. Blazes painted on rocks were lost behind springtime weeds, signposts had disappeared and fresh barbed wire (meant to control cattle, not people, we were assured) had to be navigated. But now, I've been told, the blazing has been completed and all's right with the trail.

As Landis said, "walking makes the trail." Improved marking is being coordinated with Israeli trail groups, he said, and an increase in traffic will help make the way clear.

And rough spots aside, it is a fascinating walk -- from the steep stairs that climb out of Nazareth's Old City, by the old Roman town of Zippori, into villages such as Meshad that are off the beaten path, through the valley of Arbel (and down a cliff if you are vertigo-free) and on to the Sea of Galilee, known in Israel as Lake Kinneret.

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