Niche for a statue of the Pan, pagan god of shepherds and forest,Hermon National Park, Golan Heights. (Glenn Juday photo)
By Professor Glenn Juday
Hermon National Park (Banias) at Caesarea Philippi
We load up the coach and head north into the Golan Heights – territory that came into Syrian possession at the end of the British mandate in Palestine (1949 armistice line), and then was captured by the Israeli Defense Force in 1967. It’s a strongly, even bitterly disputed area. However, in the last couple of decades, outside periods of actual all-out war, generally the area has been free of trouble unlike the period 1948-67. The highest point is Mt. Hermon (elevation 2,814 m or 9,232 ft), which contains the triple boundary of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The heights, and especially Mt Hermon, provide a clear view of large expanses of the surrounding countryside. Any of the preparations necessary for significant military operations in the surrounding area would be obvious, so at the least the pilgrims and tourists can vacate if it starts to look dicey. In addition to military vantage, Mt. Hermon offers skiing, the chance for a cool weather break in a hot part of the world, and especially the late-season release of water from melting snowbanks into the Hermon River, a major tributary of the Jordan River.
The rain and snowmelt that infiltrate the highland piles of rock around the slopes of Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights pop out of the ground in an impressive series of springs at Banias, the ancient site of Caesarea Philippi. As usual, names tell a tale. The Greeks had arrived in the area in the 3rd century BC following the conquests of Alexander the Great. They were captivated by the beauty of the site and especially the springs that issued from a well in the back of the main cave along a great rock cleft. They dedicated the site to the pagan god Pan, the god of forest and shepherds, applying the name “Panyas” to the site. Much later, when the area was inhabited by Arabic speakers, the letter “B” was substituted for “P” (rare or generally absent in the Arabic language). Thus the name Banias.
In the first century BC the Roman Emperor Augustus annexed the Banias area and presented it as a gift to the Kingdom that Herod the Great ruled. After Herod’s death the kingdom was divided into four parts and placed under Roman limits to autonomy. Herod’s son Philip the Tetrarch (literally, “one-fourth part”) established his capital near the springs, and named it Caesarea Philippi after Caesar Augustus.
One of the ancient world’s great pagan temples was built on the site of the springs of Panyas. It was essentially unique in the Greco-Roman world because of how seamlessly it integrated the features of the site – springs, cave, well, rock wall – into the architecture of the temple site, which has been well investigated and can be accurately depicted. Pilgrimage groups, especially Catholic ones, are one of the main visitor groups, along with outdoor recreation and visitors interested in antiquities. Two prayer areas are even provided. Why?
Because one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity took place at Caesarea Philippi, as recounted in Matthew Chapter 16. Here Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Simon answered, "You are the Christos (anointed one), the Son of the living God." Jesus immediately replied, “And I tell you, you are Peter (Rock), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The context speaks in this case.
The trip up to Panyas was not a local jaunt, but a significant journey out of the territory Jesus had preached in to reach a well-chosen backdrop. With the great rock cleft as a backdrop, a new and living rock was appointed and given the name rock. The new shepherd was at the site of the pagan temple of shepherds, with the living (flowing) water gushing forth to bring life in an arid place (symbolic of baptism). The deep cave well at the back of the temple was thought to be the gates to the nether world, which would not be able to resist the new and spiritual regime. And Jesus said to the newly named Peter “I give you the keys to the kingdom.” Keys, a symbol of delegated royal authority, were conferred in a city of royal authority that was being usurped for the claim of higher authority. The symbolism is very, very deep and very clever. One of the principal titles of popes has always been “Successor to Peter.” Nearly all statues of St. Peter have him holding keys. Catholics regard the incident at Caesarea Philippi as revealing and commissioning the authority that remains with them today, the supreme shepherd who serves and guard the flock. And here one of the pilgrim priests leads everyone in a renewal of baptismal vows.
Overlooking UNDOF Camp, Golan Heights near Quinetra
Our pilgrim group loads up the coaches which follow the winding, ancient road high up into the Druze mountain village of Majdal Shams (elevation 1,130 m or 3,707 ft ) for lunch. The Druze follow a unique religion with an initial relationship to Islam. It is a closed religion perpetuated by current members through family descent. They are one of the world’s well-adapted mountain people, and have constructed extensive terraces to pursue agriculture. They are hard-working and loyal to their region and generally to the nation they find themselves in. The village restaurant is the highest elevation we will reach.
We travel on to an overlook across the military disengagement zone between Israeli and Syrian forces at the northernmost part of the Golan Heights. The zone is monitored by a UN force. “United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established on May 31, 1974 by United Nations Security Council Resolution 350, following the agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. Since then, UNDOF has remained in the area to maintain the ceasefire between the Israeli and Syrian forces and to supervise the implementation of the disengagement agreement.”
At the overlook we get a story from our principal licensed guide, Amer, who is a Palestinian Arab Catholic citizen of Israel. Amer’s father was a pipeline welder. When he was a young boy his father got a call immediately after the 1967 war to drive up to the captured Syrian village of Quinetra. The fighting had punctured an important water pipeline, and his father was responsible for patching it. As Amer wandered about in the deserted houses and ruins, he was captivated by a beautiful brass coffee urn. IDF soldiers around him were collecting household items to be sent down for sale in the markets. Dispossession is an old, familiar, and brutal custom. He asked his father if he could take the urn. His father angrily told him no, and explained that was not the right thing to do. But Amer says he put the urn in the car anyway and covered it.
When they returned home his father began to clean out the car and found the urn. Amer says that we can imagine the consequences that followed. Over time the issue was submerged. Then at Amer’s wedding, his father gave him the urn with the words that he was enjoining on him the family obligation to see it returned to the family to whom it belongs, preferably when they return to their home. Engraving on the urn made clear the family to whom it belonged.
It was a Christian family.
Church of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha
We load up and head back down below sea level to the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Another tale of a name sheds some light here. Tabgha is another Arabic corruption of the Greek, in this case “Heptapegon” which means seven springs. The site is the traditional location for the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes described in Matthew 14: 13-21. Churches of the 4th (about AD 350) and 5th centuries were constructed on the site. The Spanish pilgrim Egeria visited this church in the 380s. The church was enlarged around 480, including the addition of beautiful floor mosaics. The mosaics were repaired in the 6th century but the church was destroyed around 685 AD.
The current Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes was constructed in 1982 and it faithfully reconstructs the original. Even skeptics have to admit that the geography severely constrains alternative sites if the narrative is followed, and the tradition of 1,650 years ago is an outgrowth of local knowledge and memory. Interestingly, the ancient floor mosaic depicts 5 barley loaves in a basket with 2 fishes to the side. Modern mosaic tiles have been laid to complete the floor pattern. The modern tiles contain only pale shades so that the original stands out. The mosaic floor surrounds the altar, under which is a large piece of local unshaped stone that is the traditional site of the miracle.
Church of Primacy of Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee
Our final stop of the day is just down the shore. The modern church building was constructed in 1933 by incorporating sections of a 4th century church, the foundations of which are found opposite the main altar. This Church commemorates the charcoal fire on which Jesus had prepared a meal of fish for the Apostles at the miraculous catch of fish. The symbolism is thick here, because it was at a charcoal fire that Peter had denied Christ three times (Matthew 26). Now Jesus, around a charcoal fire, asks Peter three times if he loves him, and after Peter’s responses he responds that Peter is to “feed my lambs,” then “tend my sheep,” and then “feed my sheep” (John 21). This is taken by Catholics as the role of popes today. The rock on which this meal was prepared is preserved, and the small altar appears to rise from it. It is called the “Mensa Christi” or table of the Lord. This church survived longer than any other in the area, but finally was destroyed in 1263. But the rock survived.
Visitors to the Holy Land have to contend with three main contemporary languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English (the “international” language), each with its own unique alphabetic system. Many public signs are posted in each language. By the beginning of the 20th century Hebrew was not a living language, and its revival was a considerable accomplishment. Nearly all Israelis of today are able to converse also in English. The simultaneous influx of numbers of Russian Jewish immigrants has created at least a temporary language subculture. Arab residents of Palestine with good educational background or who depend on commerce with visitors are conversant in English, and skilled professionals are fluent. Arabic language is a tie that plugs Palestinians into a larger cultural, and commercial world. For years Israel had a large population of Arabic speaking Jews who migrated or were expelled from Arab nations, but only about 10 percent are speakers today.
For pilgrims, the written words encountered in displays or explanations at the holy sites will include English if there is any international dimension to visitation at all. Sites with a dual patrimony of Israeli heritage or significance and international interest will include contemporary Hebrew and English, and likewise sites in Palestine include Arabic and English.
The written words on art or sacred objects themselves will include Greek (yet another alphabet) and Latin. Scriptural quotations and key phrases in Latin are worked into much of even the contemporary art in the numerous Catholic Churches, such as frescoes, paintings, and statuary. Finally, France formerly played a large cultural and even administrative role in the Middle East, and some Church institutions or church facilities (schools, convents, churches) include French in their artwork.
This is the view of the shore where Jesus had prepared a charcoal fire that Peter would hav eseen just after landing the 153 fish and jumping into the water to swim the last distance to the shore. (Glenn Juday photo)
City of Tiberias,Israel on the slope along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Picture is taken from the northern shore at the Church of the Primacy of Peter. (Glenn Juday photo)
Altar at Church of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha. Mosaic tile floor is a composite of original 4th century tiles and modern reconstruction. Note the original floor near the altar includes a basket with 5 loaves and a fish on each side. (Glenn Juday photo)
Looking into Syria from Israeli controlled Golan Heights. United Nation Disengagement Observer Force camp in right middle ground. (Glenn Juday photo)
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