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A Spiritual Journey and Then Some

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.

The trail will take you to the highlights of the region, such as the Mount of Beatitudes, the presumed site of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, but will get well beyond them. The first day of the four-day hike, for example, ends with an overnight stay in Kfar Qana, the town regarded by Christians as the place where Jesus turned water into wine, at the wedding at Cana. This has been a place where tourists pause, rather than linger, but after 12 miles of walking, you are ready for a shower, a meal and a bit of downtime. Locals are starting to open their homes to visitors, and for about $25 you'll get a place to sleep and breakfast on the way out, exactly the type of small endeavor the trail's founders hope will accumulate along it.

The walk is designed to begin in Nazareth, where Inon five years ago partnered with the Arab family that owns a 200-year-old Ottoman building in Nazareth's Old City to create the Fauzi Azar Inn.

It is named after the family's patriarch, who weathered the 1948 war and held onto the homestead. The family is proud of the fact and, given the tension in the country over land and ownership, was suspicious when Inon suggested a joint venture.

"We did not even know how to pronounce his name," said Suraida Nasser, one of Fauzi Azar's granddaughters and the manager of the inn. "I said to my mother, 'He's a Jew. I don't know what he wants to do. But this is a totally Arab place. They'll kill him. It's dead.' "

Five years later, Inon's company manages the property, still owned by the Azar family. Revenue has paid to renovate what is by any standard a gem of a building, from the hobbit-size metal door (an old Ottoman security measure that forces entrants to stoop) to the elaborate frescoed ceilings, a Nazareth trademark.

Some similar projects are underway in old Nazareth, and restaurants have opened in their wake: Sudfeh, with a bit of Arab-fusion flair that includes shrimp wrapped in kunafa pastry, and the more traditional Tishreen are good choices.

There are other places to stay, such as the more upscale Golden Crown, where the tour buses roost, but the Old City sets a nice mood for the start of the walk.

If you don't have time for the full trail, you can pick a section for a day trip out of Nazareth, Tiberias or other points, and catch a bus or taxi on the return. Sami and I had only three days to spare, so we skipped the second section, a walk along a Galilee ridgeline that seemed the least interesting historically.

Day 4, from the small Israeli town of Arbel to historic Capernaum, could easily be truncated. The morning climb down the Arbel cliffs is a high point. But after passing the Arab town of Wadi Hamam, the trail runs through miles of agricultural land that is not so interesting unless you are an agronomist or you really like walking. Stop at the gas station when you hit the highway and arrange a car to the Mount of Beatitudes and you can save a few hours.

Day 3 of the trail, however, running from the Golani Junction to Arbel, should not be missed, a day-long stretch that is scenically striking and historically dense. It is a hike that will take you from a small Holocaust memorial outside Kibbutz Lavi to the rubbled remains of the Palestinian village of Hittim, over the plains where Saladin defeated the Crusader army and through the spectacle of the Arbel valley.

You can also tour the tomb of the Biblical Jethro, father-in-law of Moses and known as Neve Shueib to the Druze Muslims who have built a mammoth shrine in veneration.

The actual course of the Jesus Trail grows a bit hazy at that point, which is why we had to slide down a hill. I pressed Inon about whether this was what he expected tourists to do. He explained there was another way that would require backtracking a mile or so, and that's where the trail would run to avoid our "shortcut."

My guess is that Jesus took the long way.

Washington Post special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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