Retrospect

This time last year we were just getting ready to come back from Rome; my wife, two friends and me.  It had only been a brief visit, but was nevertheless very enjoyable.  Although the  weather was not exactly tropical it was far from that experienced last weekend when our television showed the fountains in St Peter’s Square with frozen cascades!

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My first visit to Rome was back in 1973 when my parents took us on a family holiday.  For my father it was in the nature of a pilgrimage because he was in Italy during the Second World War and had memories of Rome – virtually undamaged as it had been declared an open city  – but more especially of Salerno and southern Italy.  We went by train, and early in the morning we passed Monte Cassino, shining brightly in dawning glow. “Last time I was here”, said Dad, “there was barely one brick standing on another.”  One of the reasons Dad booked us on this particular trip was that it was a two centre holiday, and part of it was spent in Amalfi.  During the war my father had had the task of driving troops there for R&R and had got to know the place – and one particular family –  well.  It was very moving when we managed to meet up with the family again.

Then in 1999 I had a consultancy post with the United Bible Societies which meant that for a year I had to travel to Rome for about a week each month. Do try to sympathise – it was work! 🙂  There was a major reconstruction project going on at Ciampino airport which made leaving the place quite exciting at times: there never seemed to be any consistency about routes!

There wasn’t much consistency about the places I stayed in either. (Autocorrect had just replaced ‘places’ with ‘palaces’ but I didn’t get to any of those!)  My favourite was the Casa dei Cleri on the via Scrofa, which was quite near the Pantheon.  Another was a guest house run by a German order which was on the other side of the Tiber.  Walking to work in the Spring mornings with the city waking up was a magical time.  Then the traffic started!

One favourite guidebook claims that there are only two sorts of pedestrian in Rome – the quick and the dead! – and that is not far from the truth.  There was a pedestrian crossing that I needed to use to get to the office on the via IV Novembre, and it was absolutely no use waiting for a driver to stop and courteously let us cross.  The only way was to march boldly on, avoiding eye contact but being very aware of the scooters who were going to challenge one’s machismo.  But don’t try that if you hear police or ambulance sirens in the distance: they are not that distant!  I was quite bemused one day to find that I had somehow attracted a party of Japanese tourists in my wake as I made the crossing.  Alas, that sort of thing will not happen now as the  crossing has been replaced by lights and the motorists – even the scooters – must stop

Starting again

When your blog writes plaintively that it’s missing you and would like to hear more, then you have to be pretty hard-hearted not to respond, and to tell the truth I did not intend the hiatus to be as long as this.  The problem is that I am finding out that the old cliché is true: retirement is a full-time occupation! (My old English master back in the day used to instruct us that a cliché was only a cliche because it was both true and over-used!)  And whilst I’m in confessional mode, I should say that it was early in 2015 that my blog wrote to tell me it was lonely, and I have only now got around to doing something about it.

So, there is a lot to fill in and I have some perigrinations to revisit in this blog over the next few months.  I may even be able to find pictures!  The only problem is that since my last entry WordPress has updated everything and I am going to have to learn how to use it again.  I may even find out how to put an acute accent in the correct place in cliché! 🙂 (Found it!)

But where to begin? Chronologically? Geographically? On a whim?

For example, I spent January and February 2015 in Nicosia, Cyprus as a locum during part of the vacancy for the Dean at St Paul’s Cathedral.  That was a very interesting time coinciding with the coldest, wettest winter in living memory!  I even have a picture of snow falling on the Cathedral.  Or last January when my wife and I and two friends spent a few days in Rome.  The huge Christmas tree was still up in St Peter’s Square with a life-sized Nativity scene.  Or back a couple of years when we stayed at Harrogate in the hotel where Agatha Christie was found after she had gone missing.

Most recently I have made two trips to the battlefields of the Somme.  The first was in August as part of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society’s Convention where we traced some of the places associated with DLS’s husband ‘Mac’ Fleming, culminating in attending the ceremony at the Menin Gate.  The second visit was with members of the Cambridgeshire Regiment Association, visiting the sites where they fought and in particular the Schwaben Redoubt where we unveiled a new memorial commemorating the action.  As the Honorary Chaplain to the Association I had the immense privilege of leading the Service of Dedication. Again we ended the day at the Menin Gate for the Last Post ceremony, with Association members on parade.  I was again privileged to be asked to lead the prayers at this event, where some 2,000 people had gathered.

So there we are!  The end of the year may seem an odd time to start again, but it is, I think, a good time for retrospection!

The Homeward Trek – Day Thirteen, 26th May

As I mentioned in the early posts our flights outward and home were meant to be with El Al, but for some reason I am not clear about we were moved to BA flights.  Outwards that meant a very early start, and it would have been similar going home, but our BA homewards flight was not until 16.40, which meant that we had an extra half day, and McCabe very kindly arranged an extra tour for us.  We were delighted that we had Ali back to drive for us as it was like meeting an old friend.

Once we had all the luggage sorted out and checked onto the coach we moved off for our bonus journey.  Our immediate objective was the Muqraka, otherwise Mount Carmel where, traditionally, Elijah had his contest with the prophets of Baal.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Tiberias but it took us a little longer as we made a couple of diversions to see other places as we passed by in the coach.  After Tiberias much of the area we drove through was good agricultural land, and it was amazing to some of us to see that already the wheat harvest had been gathered in.  We discovered that this was the first harvest and there would be a later one.  Fertile ground indeed!

Our route took us around the port city of Haifa, where, apart from the dock area, one of the landmarks is the Baha’i World Centre, with  splendid gardens and a panoramic view over the city.  Ali took the road up the mountainside and we were able to get off the coach briefly for the spectacular view.

The Bah'ai World Centre, and part of Haifa

The Baha’i World Centre, and part of Haifa

Unfortunately in the picture you can’t get much sense of the magnificent gardens which have a restricted access.

Onwards to Mount Carmel, passing through a couple of Druze villages.  Here the land is much more stony and difficult to cultivate with machinery, and was a vivid reminder of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4, 1-9).

On the summit of Mount Carmel is a convent of the Discalced

Elijah at Mount Carmel

Elijah at Mount Carmel

Carmelites (i.e. they don’t wear shoes) <http://tinyurl.com/pacjkz8> and a rather fierce statue of Elijah slaughtering the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18).  The Chapel there was simple and relatively plain, and there was a courtyard garden in which it was a pleasure to sit for a while.  It was possible to go up to the flat roof of the monastery and look at the view, and particularly down the Jezreel Valley.  On a clear day it is possible to see Nazareth and Mount Tabor from this vantage point.

From Mount Carmel we had a panoramic drive through parts of Haifa, during which we saw other major landmarks like the University of Haifa  and the Technion, or University of Technology, which is the oldest university in Israel.

Our drive then took us on to Jaffa, the  ancient city known as Joppa where Peter lodged for a while by the sea with Simon the Tanner after healing Tabitha (Acts 9, 36-43).  Here we had lunch, and some of the party took the opportunity to make a quick trip down to the seashore and paddled in the Mediterranean!

And then it was back to Ben-Gurion Airport to check in for our flight.  Fortunately we were able to go through as a party rather than as individuals, but nevertheless I was one of the few who were called aside for a stricter examination of the luggage.  It turned out that what had raised suspicion was my folding walking stick which was interpreted as potentially a dismantled rifle.  On the way out this had been in my hand baggage in case of need, and in a fit of absent mindedness I had packed it in my hold case!  Fortunately we found out before I had to unload all the dirty washing for examination, and I have to say that the young lady who dealt with me was very courteous and pleasant, unlike my experience in 1999.

The flight home was uneventful, but the cloud cover prevented us from seeing much of the terrain below.  We arrived slightly early and eventually found our coach back to Ely, and we finally arrived home just before midnight ready to fall into bed.

So ended our pilgrimage, and in the days that have followed we have been mentally processing our experiences and making sense of the frenetic days.  We have made some new friends, and got to know others better.  And I don’t think that process will stop!

Chapel at Mount Carmel.  The altar is made up of twelve stones

Chapel at Mount Carmel. The altar is made up of twelve stones

Sabbath in Tiberias – Day Twelve, Saturday 25th May

Our hotel is a short walk – about 15 minutes – from the centre of Tiberias, and some of our group have already explored the town, but the four or five of us who have been out previously to Tabgha and Nof Ginosar, have so far not venured in that direction.  So, at breakfast we decided to remedy that shortcoming.

Sea of Galilee, early morning

It was a pleasant walk into the town, which was mostly shut up because of the Sabbath.  That didn’t stop us from window shopping, however and there were some shops where that was decidely the best way of shopping.

The town of Tiberias is very ancient, established by Herod Antipas (one of the sons of Herod the Great) around the year 20CE, and named, probably in an act of sycophancy, after the Roman emperor Tiberias.  Despite Herod’s making it the capital of his territory in Galilee, for many years it was shunned by observant Jews because the town enclose a cemetery and was thus ritually unclean.  Over the centuries its importance became greater, and in the 16th century became regarded as one of Israel’s four most holy cities, after Jerusalem and Hebron. It was, however, from the first, a cosmopolitan town since Herod Antipas imported non-Jews from other parts of his Tetrarchy.  Over the centuries the make-up of the population changed several times, as Tiberias was conquered succesively by the Romans, the Byzantine empire, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Mamelukes, and the Ottomans, who were succeeded by the British Mandate and eventually, in 1948 by modern Israel.

Twice in its long history it has been noted as a centre for rabbinic study, and the great 12th century philosopher, physician and rabbinic scholar Moses Maimonides was buried in Tiberias as he wished, after his death in Egypt.  Seventeen times since 30 CE it has been severely damaged by earthquakes, the last time in 1943, and in 1934 what had been rebuilt after the major 1837 earthquake was either damaged or destroyed in a major flood.

Remains of an early Synagogue

There are, however, some of the ancient buildings remaining, although some, like a Sephardic synagogue, are in ruins.  There are also the remains of an Roman amphitheatre, now set in a small park.

One thing that we did note was that although there were many people on their way to worship at the synagogues, and we passed several on our walk, there were no extremes of dress as we had seen in Jerusalem.  In that sense it seemed a homogenous community, but Tiberias has been a place where both Ashkenazi and Sephardi have settled. Is this, perhaps, because of Tiberias’  cosmopolitan foundation?  It would be interesting to follow up, I think.

Roman Catholic Church in Tiberias – interior

After our walk around the seaside part of the town, and the shopping area, we headed to the harbour where we found a cafe and sat and talked fo a while.  It was rather lovely, just to sit and chat and unwind and watch the world go by.

Then we strolled back to the hotel to gird ourselves up for the packing, ready for an early start the next day; for then we begin our journey home.  And since we would be travelling home on a Sunday the whole group gathered together in the hotel garden in the evening for a final act of worship together, a Eucharist which reminded us of the memories we had gathered on this pilgrimage.

More Exploring – Day Eleven, Friday 24th May

Just along the road from our hotel, but unfortunately just too far to walk especially in this heat, is the Kibbutz/hotel/resort of Nof Ginosar.  This is the place where we embarked for our sail across Lake Gennesaret, and as we walked to the pier we passed a large building where, we were told, was a museum which included  a first-century CE boat that had been discovered locally.  Sadly we did not then have the oportunity for a visit so our little group, slightly augmented this time, decided that our second free day would be used to go and investigate.  Once again we ventured into Israeli taxis, but this time our drivers were more mature men, and although the mobile phone inevitably came into play at least hands were kept on the wheel!

We arrived at Nof Ginosar and as we walked from the car park to the museum we were greeted by a young egret, who seemed to be as interested in us as we were of him (or her – I told you I’m not a

Young egret at Nof Ginosar

Young egret at Nof Ginosar

birder!).  After this brief encounter it was on into the museum which is named after Yigal Alon  (1918-1980) who was a member of the Kibbutz, a military and political leader and a firm believer in, and promoter of,  peace and coexistence.

The reception hall of the museum is spacious and has one of the best shops that we encountered on our journey, coupled with a very helpful and friendly staff.  There were all sorts of souvenirs on display, including the ubiquitous t-shirts, to exquisite silverware and Dead Sea mud beauty products.  It was almost worth the trip just to  visit the shop!

But the thing we had come to see was the 2,000 year -old boat.  Was this the boat that Jesus sailed in, owned by Peter and Andrew?  Well I have to say probably not, but just possibly yes.  The historian in me says that it is the lack of provenance which causes the uncertainty.  What is undeniable, however, is that this is the sort of boat that Jesus would have known and used. (Matthew 13, 2; 14, 22-23, Luke 8, 22-25 etc).  The story of its discovery, reclamation and restoration is fascinating <http://tinyurl.com/kq99upp> <http://tinyurl.com/k8xv9wc> and the display alongside the boat is informative and helpful.  For example, no fewer than twelve species of wood were identified in its timbers, suggesting that it was patched numerous times by owners who were too poor to afford professional repairers. The archaeological remains found in and around the boat have also been important in showing light on life by the Sea of Galilee two millenia ago.

The remains of the Galilee or 'Jesus' boat

The remains of the Galilee or ‘Jesus’ boat

Although the boat has now been preserved (and that in itself is a fascinating story) it is kept in a temperature and light controlled hall, and admission is controlled by a sliding door operated by the staff at the reception desk.  Once inside, however, there is no limit on the time you can spend in there.  The display panels, supported by an

One of the display panels, detailing the woods used in the boat

One of the display panels, detailing the woods used in the boat

audio-visual presentation, do amply show the meticulous restoration and archaeological work that took place.  As one who has had previous responsibility for, and experience in, exhibitions and displays, I was very  impressed with the quality of the work done here.

On the first floor is an exhibition gallery for touring art projects.  The one on show when we were there was by Palestinian artist Mervat Issa, a multidisciplinary artist, many of whose works try to move people along the road to peace.  The project on show was constructed from recycled paper which made colourful figures in a dance to evoke joy and hope.

We had time before the taxis came to pick us up for refreshments and a chat about what we had seen, then it was back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon, more rest, more reading, more swimming. And ice-cream!

Home – but not yet! – Day Ten, Thursday 23rd May

OK, I don’t claim to be a birder!  I have been reliably informed that what I said yesterday were swifts at the Mensa Christi chapel were, in fact, swallows.  Apologies but they were winging about so fast I just had to guess!!

Yesterday was the last formal day of our tour, and some of our party are returning home owing to work or other committments.  The rest of us now have  three days of leisure to explore, revisit favourite sites or just sit by the pool and – well, you get the idea.

Early morning at the Sea of Galilee, towards Tiberias

Early morning at the Sea of Galilee, towards Tiberias

I think I mentioned earlier that our hotel is right on the Sea of Galilee and this morning it was a deep joy to get up just before dawn and watch the sun rise over the mountains on the other side of the lake.  It was also fascinating to see the birds, mainly swallows and egrets, swooping over the lake, some so low that they were skimming the water.  Just over to our right there was a rock sticking out of the water, and this was a favourite spot for a pair of egrets to come and preen before taking off and flying round the lake again.

An egret's favourite perch - he's just taken off again

An egret’s favourite perch – he’s just taken off again

The other fascinating thing was to watch the shoals of fish of varying sizes come swimming close in.  Mostly there seemed to be two sorts, the talapia which are plentiful in the lake and catfish, some of which were quite large, up to two feet long.  These mornings were very quiet and peaceful, ideal for reflection before the busyness of the day.  Usually there were never more than three or four others around, and with plenty of frontage to the lake we didn’t have to crowd each other.  Sometimes a couple of hardy souls would go and swim in the lake or in the pool.

Four of us decided that we would like to go back to Tabgha and spend more time in the gardens there and by the lakeside where we had celebrated the Eucharist, so we hired a taxi and off we went.  The taxi ride was, to say the least, interesting since the driver had two mobile phones which he juggled, and at times he managed to drive with no hands on the wheel.  Nevertheless we did get there safely, only to find that there was a special celebration on at the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, and the gardens were closed.  Undaunted we walked a couple of hundred yards up the road back to the Mensa Christi chapel where there are also some fine gardens, but which visitors are not allowed into, so all we could do was look through

Chapel of the Mensa Christi - interior

Chapel of the Mensa Christi – interior

the fence!  When we were here yesterday our group was virtually alone: today people were arriving by the coach load.  Many of them had services at one of the open air chapels, and it was fascinating to sit and hear the familiar liturgy in different languages, Brazilian, Japanese, American.  Fascinating, too just to watch people as they stood by the lakeside.  Some looked out over the lake, some paddled, some filled little containers and all the while the guides were explaining the significance of the site to their various groups, and again the mixture of languages floated over the air.

The time passed quickly and, having gone our separate ways we got back together again, rendezvoused with the taxi and returned to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon.

By the waters … – Day Nine Wednesday22nd May

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

Our tours today are all focussed around the Sea of Galilee, and the places where Jesus had the main part of his public ministry.  Our first stop is at Capernaum, which we learn from Sayeed our guide, is pronounced with three syllables, not four.  This is the place where Jesus lived after he left Nazareth, the place that was home to him.  On our way we pass a sign pointing to a place called Migdal, which seems unremarkable until we are told that it is the hometown of Mary Magdalene, otherwise Mary of Magdala.  There is visible from the road bypassing the village evidence of a major archaeological excavation in progress.

It started out in 2009 as a dig prior to the construction of a new hotel, but the exploratory dig uncovered the remains of an ancient synogogue, <http://tinyurl.com/oxxopfo> in the middle of which was a curious stone engraved with a menorah, and dated from the early Roman period, and thus the oldest find of its kind.

Church of the Beatitudes

Church of the Beatitudes

Our first visit today was to the Church of the Beatitudes which, apart from a stunning church and a spectacular view across the lake, has some beautifully kept gardens.  Although we arrived there shortly before nine o’clock there were several coaches there before us, and yet unlike many of the sites we had visited it did not seem too crowded, and we were able to wander around quietly for a short time.

Then it was on to the lakeside Chapel of Mensa Christi, the place where, traditionally, after his resurrection Christ prepared breakfast for Peter and the others.  It was the place of Peter’s rehabilitation after his denial of Christ.  The chapel is Franciscan, and it seemed fitting somehow that swifts were busily flying around inside the chapel and feeding young in their nests in the roof.  I did get a picture of the birds flying around but, sadly, it only makes sense in a large size, and would not reproduce well in this blog.  There should be a large beach here, but the waters in the lake were so high that about thirty feet of the beach was under water, and we saw trees covered almost halfway.

Arriving in Capernaum we had a short, dusty walk from the coach

5th century synagogue at Capernaum

5th century synagogue at Capernaum

park to the synagogue in the centre of the village.  This building is of the fifth (or, some say, fourth) century as it appears to have been built on the foundations of an older synagogue.  It is this older synagogue which, it is thought, was the one built by the God-fearing centurion whose servant Jesus healed (Luke 7, 1-5).   All the Synoptic Gospels record Jesus healing and preaching in and around Capernaum, and one story in particular, that of Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and healing a man with an unclean spirit, (Luke 4, 31-36, Mark 1, 21-27) is unusual in that it is the only story recorded by both Mark and Luke which is not in Matthew.

Insulae at Capernaum, probably before 1st Century CE

Insulae at Capernaum, probably before 1st Century CE

It was in Capernaum that, for me at least, there was a new insight into many of the Bible stories.  The large village is built on an axis of a broad(ish) north-south aligned road, with side streets, some connecting, some blind.  In these streets were houses built so that extended families could live together, gathered round a central courtyard where the cooking etc was done.  The group of dwellings was called an insula, and looking at the floorplan it was quite obvious why the householder in Jesus’ story was reluctant to get up and get some bread for his friend who had  an unexpected visitor, (Luke 11, 5-9).  To do so would mean disturbing the whole household, humans and animals, and yet Jesus told this story as an example of persistence in prayer!

From the materials used and method of construction, it is clear that these insulae were single story buildings, and archaeology has confirmed that their roofs were made of light timber beams and mud reinforced thatch.  It was, therefore, relatively easy for the four friends of the paralysed man to get him on the roof, make a hole in it and lower him down to Jesus to be healed (Mark 2, 1-9).  (As a youngster I was horrified by this act of vandalism, so I was greatly reassured to see that the householder would be easily able to repair his roof!).

The householder might, in fact, have been Peter himself, since we know that he offered hospitality to Jesus at least once, after Jesus had healed his mother-in-law, and in the 1968 excavations of the western part of Capernaum an exciting disovery was made.  It was of a house which had been richly embellished in the fourth century CE, but was based on a first century BCE insula.  From the archaeological evidence, and contemporary and near contemporary documentary evidence the archaeologists concluded that this was indeed St Peter’s house which had later been converted into a house church.  Fuller details are at http://tinyurl.com/krvzvf2.

I could easily have spent more time at Capernaum, where some new archaeological excavation is underway, as well as some restoration of ancient walls, but it was time to move on to our next destination, the Church of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha.

It was here that we gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist at a lakeside chapel which, I have to say, was a very moving occasion as our ‘chapel’ had no walls and the sound of the lake, the call of the birds and the scent of the flowers all combined to make it special.  One of our number, who sat at the front, actually saw a kingfisher come and perch on a branch in front of her!

Preparing for the Eucharist. Note how far the trees are covered by water!

Preparing for the Eucharist. Note how far the trees are covered by water!

We discovered, incidentally, that the other name for the Sea of Galilee, Lake Gennesaret (or on modern maps Kinneseret) comes from the Hebrew for  harp or lyre, because it is that  shape.

Lunch today was, unsurprisingly, fish at St Peter’s Restaurant near Capernaum.  It was, in fact, St Peter’s fish (talapia) and we had the option of having it served whole or, for the nervous, boned.  The restaurant is huge, has long tables, is very popular and crowded and is very noisy!

Modern Galilee boat, loosely based on 1st century type.

Modern Galilee boat, loosely based on 1st century type.

After lunch we travelled to Nof Ginnosar, where we embarked on one of the wooden boats  to sail across the lake back to our hotel.  Some of our number were quite hoping for a storm on the way, but although the water was a little choppy all was well.  The boat hove-to in the lake and we had a short period of devotions before one of the crew demonstrated how the ancient fishermen used to cast their nets.  After this we had a demonstration of Jewish dancing in which

Casting the net

Casting the net

most of us were inveigled into participating.  Then, finally back to the hotel where the rest of the afternoon was free.  I had a swim in the Sea of Galilee and then the hotel pool, followed by a spot of sunbathing, but it was too hot to stay out too long, even in the shade of the awnings.