Or, perhaps, a better title would be “Ancient and Modern”. We began our tour today with a drive to Mount Bental in the Golan Heights. This was a strategic point in the 1967 and 1973 wars. It was controlled by Syria until the latter war and was eventually taken over by Israel in 1983. The mountain itself is one of a chain of extinct volcanoes, and lies just to the south of Mount Hermon which on the day of our visit was still snow covered.
At the summit of Mount Bental there are the remains of the military installations built by the IDF, and a number of steel sheet cut-outs still give the impression of soldiers observing Syria and ready to man the defences. It was a little disconcerting to realize that at this spot we were closer to Damascus than to Jerusalem!
There is a UN buffer zone between Israel and Syria at this point, and we saw a UN car travelling along the road down in the valley. One incongruity is that at the summit there is a cafe called Kofi Anan, literally ‘Clouds Coffee’, but recalling the name of a former Secretary General of the UN.
From here we moved on to a place now called Banias which is the biblical Caesarea Philippi and one of the sources of the River Jordan. Banias, also known as Panias, is the place where Jesus challenged his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16,13-20) and when Simon bar-Jonah boldly answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” was renamed Peter, the Rock, upon which Christ would build his church.
It was a significant place and time in Jesus’ ministry, because Panias was a major shrine to the god Pan, and Jesus is therefore emphasizing his Divine nature. (There’s a good few sermons in that text as well!)
After some time to explore we gathered together for a short time of
worship and had the opportunity to renew our own baptismal vows, and being symbolically washed in Jordan water. It was, as you might expect, a very moving moment, and we were a very thoughtful group as we went off to lunch at the Kibbutz HaGoshrim. This is a place with an interesting history, and has now developed into light industry and tourism rather than agriculture: this may be because it is situated in one of the national parks, and indeed the area is very beautiful.
After our very satisfying lunch we moved on to the HaHula Nature Reserve <http://tinyurl.com/o5fz9sd>. Originally a huge marshland the area was drained in the 1950’s to create more arable land. However, it was soon realized that there were some unique species in the area and about 4,000 acres was returned to wetland. It was, in fact, the first nature reserve in Israel, and has become an important habitat for over-wintering birds.
Much in evidence were muskrats, huge catfish and turtles, but there were not many varieties of bird observable on the afternoon we were there. We heard plenty though, hidden in the high grasses bordering the 2km walk.
Although the day did not have the intensity of those we had experienced in Jerusalem, there was much to think about. And this was reinforced when we got back to our hotel and heard that shortly after our visit to the Golan Heights the Syrians had attacked and destroyed an Israeli car not far from where we had been. The Syrian claim was that it was a military vehicle violating Syrian territory.
Panias was first settled before the third century BC, in the spread of Greek culture that followed the death of Alexander the Great, and like most of this region has been fought over intermittently ever since. In our Church of England liturgy we pray, especially on Good Friday, “for those who would still make Jerusalem a battleground”. That is, I think, a prayer that we should pray every day, for the whole Holy Land.