Trekking the Sea of Galilee

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One of the most exciting hiking paths is now almost complete and open to the public: the 35-mile Sea of Galilee Trail, which goes around the Sea of Galilee, passing through some of the most significant historic and spiritual landscapes in the Holy Land on the way.

A decade ago, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) started a campaign to open the beaches and lakefront of the Sea of Galilee to the public. Even though seafronts and lakefronts must be open to the public according to laws that have been in effect since the times of the Turkish empire, various public and private bodies have sliced up portions of the Sea of Galilee lakefront for private or commercial use for many decades. The SPNI checked out the situation around the lake and submitted an eye-opening report.

The SPNI found 190 fences along the Sea of Galilee’s 35-mile shoreline that barred free access to nearly all of the beaches along it. Many of the beaches had been taken over by private individuals or villages around the lake without any authorization; various structures, including entire buildings, were being built around the lake without any building permits; there was not even one beach open to the public free of charge; and over 20 different government agencies were responsible for the lake, operating not only without coordination, but even in contradiction of one another at times. Finally, there was not a single hiking trail along the beaches, not to mention around the lake.

The SPNI’s report spurred the public to action. The government responded to the lobbying by creating a single agency, the Sea of Galilee Drainage and River Authority, to coordinate the activities of all agencies involved with the lake and to return the lake to the public, as the SPNI campaign had demanded. The government also enacted the Sea of Galilee Trail Law, which called for the creation of a hiking trail around the lake.

During the last 10 years, over 5,000 volunteers, many of them schoolchildren, together with coordinated legal action, have changed the situation completely. Fences have been taken down, beaches have been cleaned up, and dozens of public beaches have been opened to visitors.

The Sea of Galilee Trail, a 35-mile hiking route around the lake, is the centerpiece of all these activities. Nisim Asaban was put in charge of creating it. This involves not only hacking a path through the undergrowth and vegetation along the shores, but also getting the beaches, hotels, and villages along the lake to cooperate and support the initiative. Even though the law is on Asaban’s side, he believes in persuasion – helping people understand that the trail will bring more visitors to the lake and as such become an economic asset – and objects to any detours on the route. The whole trail along the lakefront will open to the public eventually, he claimed repeatedly.

Today, 10 years later, his vision has proven itself – nearly all 35 miles of the hiking trail have been opened and marked. There are only four small sections where detours had to be made, but even they, Asaban says, already have been marked and will open to the public in a few weeks.

 Hiking the Trail

 Even though the trail can be walked along in segments, the real enjoyment of it comes from doing the full four-day trek around the lake. The route is not difficult: there are no mountains to climb (except one tell) and there is no strenuous walking. The route is replete with hotels, beaches, campsites, and restaurants. To really enjoy the experience, it is recommended to hike along the trail for about four hours early in the morning (5 a.m. to 9 a.m.) and then spend the rest of the day relaxing on one of the beaches.

Hiking shoes, hats, sunglasses, and sufficient water is a must. In the summer, a bus service runs around the lake, making every segment easily accessible.

Before setting out, it is recommended to contact Asaban at nisim@lakekinneret.co.il for advice, updates, details on organized treks, and more. A trail map in Hebrew with all the trails marked on it is available (SPNI Hiking Trail Map, number 1, 2008 edition), but an English version is not yet available. The Sea of Galilee Trail is color coded black, purple, and white.

Day One : Tiberias to Heptapegon – 9 miles

This segment of the path goes through the remains of ancient Migdal, the town of Mary Magdalene, and continues to the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes and the site of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes.

Start the hike at Dekel Beach, right by the northern exit from Tiberias along Route 90. When the level of the lake rises in winter, some segments of the path at this point will be submerged under a few inches of water.

A short 600-yard hike leads to Peniel-by-Galilee, the Tiberias YMCA. The path runs along the beach in front of it. Also known as the Harte Villa, it was constructed for Dr. Archibald Harte, who was the general secretary of the Jerusalem YMCA in the 1920s and oversaw the building of the Jerusalem YMCA, across the road from the King David Hotel. After Harte’s death, it became one of the YMCA’s guesthouses with 13 guest rooms which are in great demand.

Opposite the guesthouse stands the ancient mound of Tel Rakkat, which is mentioned once in the Bible (Joshua 19:35) as one of the cities in the land of the tribe of Naftali.??I can’t find my Tanakh to check if it is f or ph and don’t remember?? A little further on, the path passes a small Russian monastery and then reach the springs of Ein Rakkat, four springs that flow into a series of pools with knee-high water. The waters of the northernmost spring fill a small round pool, which probably dates to the Roman period. In 1986, archaeologist Yitzhaki Gal discovered an inscription in Aramaic carved into a basalt stone that was part of the wall of the pool reading, “Remember for their kindness Rabbi Ulla and his brother who donated three dinars for the synagogue.” Rabbi Ulla is known from the Talmud; he lived and taught in Tiberias in the fourth century CE. Archaeologist Shmarya Guttman has suggested that the ruins around the spring should be identified as the town of Hammat, which Josephus mentions as the place the Roman army set up camp during the Great Rebellion of the Jews against the Romans in the first century CE.

Continuing north, the slope of Mount Arbel towers over the trail, leaving a narrow strip of beach between the mountain and the sea. There is a big rock in the water here that is known as the “anthill” (Sela Hanemala) and associated with a variety of ancient legends. Most of them tell of ants that were cut off from their nest on the rock when the level of the water rose and the miraculous help that they received from the reeds on the shore that bent over to allow them to climb back on their rock. The area is one of the few untouched segments of lakeshore.

Leading out of the shadow of Mount Arbel, the path arrives in the Vale of Magdal, where the town of Migdal was situated. Not merely the home of Mary Magdalene, Migdal was the most important Jewish town along the Sea of Galilee during the time of Jesus. It was a major Jewish stronghold during the rebellion against Rome in the first century CE; a bloody sea battle was fought here between the Jewish fishermen of Migdal and the Roman army. The remains of ancient Migdal are in the plot recently acquired by the Legionaries of Christ to build a retreat center. Recent excavations there have uncovered the remains of an impressive synagogue from the Roman period. Modern Migdal, founded in 1910, stands to the west of the beach, on the other side of Route 90. A few of the founders’ original houses stand in the valley itself along with some other buildings.

A little further on, a large house surrounded by a fence stands near the shore. This was the house of Sir Alfred Mond, the first Baron Melchett, a British industrialist, financier, and politician. In his later life, he became an active Zionist. In 1921, he visited the Land of Israel and subsequently made large contributions to various Jewish organizations. (He was the first president of the Technion and the founder of the town of Tel Mond.) The baron’s son, Henry Ludwig Mond, built this house on the Sea of Galilee. A few year ago, the house was sold and has passed through a few phases of trying to become a high-class tourist accommodation. It is currently empty.

The path now runs alongside a line of venerable eucalyptus trees to the riverbed of Nahal Zalmon, which it crosses on a small metal bridge before entering Kibbutz Ginnosar.

Kibbutz Ginnosar’s name comes from the ancient Jewish name for the valley: the Valley of Ginosar, which means the gardens of the kings’ minister. The kibbutz was founded in 1937 and operates a museum dedicated to the history of the Galilee. The exhibitions include a first-century fishing vessel, which was found in the mud on the Migdal shore.

Follow the lakeshore through the kibbutz and exit at the northern end. The path crosses the riverbed of Nahal ’Ammud and reaches the Karei Deshe Guest House of the Israel Youth Hostel Association. On the other side of Karei Deshe are the ruins of Minnim, the impressive remains of a palatial farmhouse from Umayyad times (the eighth century CE). The monumental walls and towers, mosaic floors, rooms, and central courtyard are all still standing. Next to it are the remains of a caravansary from the eighteenth century.

The trail now approaches one of the few sections of the shore that it does not yet run through and so a detour is in order. At the fence of the Sappir Pumping Station (the beginning of the Israel National Water Carrier), follow the road along the fence until Route 90. Another long hiking route, “The Jesus Trail,” runs along the eastern side (the sea side) of Route 90. Follow the trail along the road and up the hill of Tel Kinrot. At the top of the hill, the trail turns right, following a road that leads up to the summit?? is this different than the top of the hill of Tel Kinrot, which offers a beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee.

During biblical times, Kinrot, or Kinneret, was the largest city around the Sea of Galilee; this is the site that gave the Sea of Galilee its Hebrew name, Kinneret. The city is mentioned seven times in the Bible as well as in early Egyptian sources, the Amarna letters sent from Ugarit in the thirteenth century BCE, and more. Excavations have revealed the site was inhabited from the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BCE) until the times of the kings of Israel. Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III destroyed the city in 734-732 BCE. During the Roman period, the town of Ginnosar (biblical Gennesarth) was built over the remains of ancient Kinrot.

A trail marked in red leads down from the lookout point through the area belonging to the German Pilgerhaus hospice and to the Galilee Trail on the shore. Follow the trail north out of the Pilgerhaus property and then along the road to the junction that leads to Tabgha in the Valley of the Seven Springs, known as Heptapegon in Greek, where the first day of the hike ends.

Day Two: Heptapegon to Dugit Beach – 9 miles

After visiting the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Church of the Primacy of Peter, follow the road past the bus parking area in front of the Church of the Primacy of Peter. Take the steps down to the shore of the lake to see the small structure known as the “well of Job,” a pool built over one of the seven springs of this valley. As its water are warm and contain a touch of sulphur, they have been said to have therapeutic qualities over the ages and were named after Job, since he was afflicted with a skin ailment.

At the shore is a small waterfall; the waters emanate from an artesian well that was dug in the 1970s on the shore. The purple-marked Galilee Trail now turns east as it continues along the shore.

The trail along the shore leads by olive and mango groves and through little bays and small outcrops into the sea, affording beautiful views of the lake and secluded spots to watch the waterfowl, rock rabbits, terns, and kingfishers that abound here.

At the restaurant at the end of the trail, near the entrance to the site of Capernaum, is the “town of Jesus.” Take the approach road to the entrance to the site to check out the ruins of Roman Capernaum.

The large, ornate third-century synagogue in the middle of the ruins is the centerpiece of this site. Built over the remains of an earlier synagogue, maybe from the time of Jesus, it is one of the best examples of ancient Galilean synagogues. Remnants of a building covered with early Christian graffiti have been discovered opposite the synagogue; it has been identified as the House of Peter that was sanctified by early Christians and a Franciscan church has been built over it.

Take the approach road back to the road along the lake and follow the pedestrian walkway east to the entrance to the Capernaum National Park. Turn right at the first junction and the road will lead to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles (it is the building with the red dome) standing on the lakeshore. The church’s eighteenth-century wall paintings have recently been restored.

The trail starts at the entrance to the church, leading along the lakeshore through the natural brush and undergrowth that was familiar to Jesus and his disciples.

Once through the eucalyptus grove, the trail reaches Amnun Bay (named after the endemic Saint Peter’s Fish, which is called amnun in Hebrew), runs through the grounds of the resort there, and continues east along the lake, finally reaching the outlet of the Jordan River into the Sea of Galilee.

Follow the trail up to the road and then carefully cross the Arik Bridge over the Jordan River.

If you were crossing this bridge 2,000 year ago, you would have been crossing the border from the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas to the tetrarchy of Herod Philip and would have encountered the tax collector sitting in his booth at the crossing. Six out of the 12 disciples not only came from the territory of Herod Philip, but also were natives of Beithsaida, which sat in between the trees to the left.

After carefully crossing the bridge (it is is a main road), take the dirt track marked in red that leads off towards the lake (south) immediately after the bridge. The trail leads into the Beithsaida Valley, an area of flowing water, streams, and lagoons replete with wildlife and vegetation.

Follow the red-marked track to an old house on the lakeshore; it once was the house of the bek, the local Turkish governor, and later was the venue for a few attempts at settlement. Follow the red-marked track to its end, at the mouth of Nahal Meshushim, a brook with many lagoons. From here, a dirt track marked in green leads up the stream, makes a U-turn while crossing the brook, returns to the lagoon, and leads to a junction with the purple-marked Sea of Galilee Trail and another track marked in blue. (This sounds complicated, but is not. Just follow the green trail markings.)

At the junction, take the Galilee Trail that leads back to the lakeshore, crosses over another brook (the Majrasa), and then runs south along the shore. It soon reaches a series of shoreline campgrounds and a large hotel on the Kinnar, Duga and, further south, Dugit beaches, making it a good place to end the second day.

Day Three: Along the Eastern Shore – 9 miles

Start the day by checking out the large rock with fishes and loaves of bread carved on it that stands on the beach at Dugit. The rock marks the site of a second feeding of the multitudes and healing of the Gentiles, following the description in Matthew 15:31, “When these Gentiles saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking and the blind seeing, they glorified the god of Israel.” An old Byzantine manuscript enumerating the various Christian sites around the lake mentions a hill called Dodekatronon, the hill of the 12 seats, where Christ sat down and taught and where he also multiplied the seven loaves to feed the four thousand. The most likely spot for this is Tel Hadar, the small hill with the rock on top of it. The site fits the Gospel story as related by Matthew and Luke.

In 1981, the memorial stone was set up to mark the spot. Nearly a decade later, the site was excavated and a prominent circle of stones was unearthed on it, together with the remains of a Canaanite city destroyed in the eighth century BCE. The current stone was set up in 1991.

Further south is the Kursi beach, which is located at the site of ancient village of Kursi, where the Gerasene Demoniac was healed. These are the shores of the ancient territory of the Decapolis, “the other side” in the terminology of the New Testament, meaning the non-Jewish side. Here pigs were raised and when Jesus arrived on the shore, he was accosted by a man (called Legion) beset with demons. Jesus exorcised the demons into a herd of pigs and the crazed pigs rushed down the slope of the mountain, plunged into the lake, and drowned.

Kursi has been shown since the Byzantine Era as the site where this miracle happened and a large Byzantine monastery was discovered about 500 yards from the beach (today it is on the other side of the main road along the lake).

The path continues southward, running under a cliff – the only cliff on this side of the lake – that is traditionally said to be the cliff from which the crazed, demonized pigs plunged to their death.

Further south is Kibbutz Ein Gev, at the small harbor with restaurants clustered around it.

Follow the road from the restaurant to the main road around the lake and walk along the bicycle track that runs parallel to the road. The track passes the Ein Gev campground. A mile further down, the road and bicycle track move away from the beach and the Galilee Trail markings appear again, running right along the lakeshore.

The track runs by fish ponds and finally reaches Kibbutz Ha’on.

Day Four:  Back to Tiberias – 9 miles

Follow the track through Kibbutz Ha’on along the shore to Kibbutz Ma’agan. From here, a slight detour is needed – return to the road along the lake and walk along the promenade for a short distance to the Kinneret College, from where the Galilee Trail leads back to the shore and along the lake.

About two miles later, the trail reaches the outlet of the Jordan River from the lake. Swimming across the river is not recommended, so follow the trail to the bridge over the Jordan River and cross the river carefully (this is the main road).

A small detour along the road to Kibbutz Kinneret leads to the Yardenit baptismal site. The trail continues along the northern bank of the Jordan River and runs around Ohalo College and by the oldest archaeological site on the lakeside, Tel Beit Yerah. On the tell’s northern slope, the trail runs through the cemetery of Deganiyyah, the first kibbutz. Many of the early Zionist pioneers are buried here. One of the most-visited tombs is that of the poetess Rahel. A book of her poems lies in a box next to her tombstone.

The trail now continues north along the shore for the last leg of the journey; the beaches and springs along the way make for a wonderful respite. It finally arrives at the end of the Tiberias lakeshore promenade, which leads back into the town and the place where the hike around the Sea of Galilee began.

The publishers of this article disclaim any responsibility for the conditions of the roads, trails, and sites described herein or for the safety or security conditions in the area. Visitors touring the area or following the routes described in this article do so at their own risk.

The map and route descriptions must be supplemented by the following: a map of the region (SPNI Hiking Trail Map, number 1, 2008 edition); proper hiking equipment; updated information on weather and trail conditions; an experienced, qualified guide; and coordination with the army, where necessary.

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