The first full day of the Catholic Press Association's tour of Israel served as a valuable history lesson of the many peoples who have occupied the land and revealed the diversity among those who live there today.
First stop was Jaffa, an ancient harbor city just south of Tel Aviv. Dating back to at least the fourth century B.C., the city has been under Egyptian rule (see photo at left of the Ramses Gateway), Roman rule, Byzantine rule and Turkish rule. Statues of Napoleon Bonaparte remind visitors that he sieged the city in 1799.
For Christians, the city holds significance as the home of Simon the Tanner, and the place where St. Peter had his vision of clean and unclean animals to consume (Acts 10:5).
Next up was Caesarea, home to a Roman theater (photo at left), hippodrome, aqueduct and more. Built at the command of Herod the Great, it was the center of Roman culture during the life of Christ.
Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, is home to one of the loveliest places we've seen on our journey thus far, the Carmelite Stella Maris church and monastery (below). Built on Mount Carmel, altar of the 19th-century church is built above what is said to be the Prophet Elijah's cave.
The city is also the spiritual center of the Baha'i religion and home to the Druze community, which has its roots in Islam.
Our final stop of the day was Nazareth, the highlight of which had to be the Basilica of the Annunciation (below), which is believed to be the home of the Virgin Mary and where the angel visited her to inform her she would bear the Son of God. The original stone structure can be seen on the lower level of the church, along with the remains of a Byzantine church. The upper level is topped by a magnificent dome.
One of our most fascinating encounters of the day was with Ronnie Farj Eid, a Ministry of Tourism official in Nazareth who is an Arab Christian (Nazareth has the largest Arab population in Israel). Eid, who lives in a small village near the Sea of Galilee, spoke of what it is like to be a Christian in the Middle East and expressed his fears that in the next 100 to 200 years, there would be no Christians to fill the churches in the region. Many of us have heard about the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Holy Land, but it can seem like such an academic topic. Hearing a fellow Catholic's story made the problem very real to me.
Saturday we will visit Mount Tabor and the Sea of Galilee, including a planned boat ride. I'll share our adventures on OSV Daily Take, and you can also follow my updates at @shayesOSV.