On my first week abroad in Israel, I participated on a tour that acquainted us with the basic geography and history of the country. Over five days we visited Sepphoris, Nazareth, Beit Shearim, Tel Hazor, Tel Dan, Banias, Nimrod’s Fortress, Capernum, Hippos, and Caesarea Marittima.
Sepphoris was a relatively large and well-off Roman city that contained lots of amazingly-preserved mosaics— it’s most famous one is even called the Mona Lisa of the Levant. We also visited the city’s water system, which was really cool to see. From where we toured, the water would be carried down the mountain and into the city through a series of tunnels and aquaducts.
For lunch on our first day we went to Nazareth. There I had my first taste of authentic-street shawarma and it was amazing! The dish quickly became our tour group’s staple food choice. Later we were also able to see the Church of the Annunciation. My favorite part was all the depictions of Mary the church owned. Countries from all over sent the church images of Mary and they hung all around the outside and inside of the famed church.
Our last stop on the first day was Beit Shearim, an ancient Israeli burial site. Honestly this was probably one of my favorite places to visit, because exploring the catacomb-like tombs were unforgettable! Unfortunately, since it was so dark down there, I could not get any good pictures, but I did get a few of the coffins!
The second day we toured Tel Hazor, the largest tel in Israel. This site was active in the Middle Bronze Age and the Iron Ages, and at various points was the northern most extent of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In my opinion, the most interesting part of Tel Hazor was its cultic elements, which we still do not know much about. We also got to tour its water system, which is pictured below.
On our third day we visited Banias/Panias/Caesarea Phillipi, and yes, it really does have that many names. It was originally called Panias, and functioned mainly as a cultic site for Pan. It then became Caesarea Phillipi, for Augustus and Herod’s son, under the Romans. Banias is its Arabic name and came from Panias, but since Arabic doesn’t have a “P” sound it was simply changed to a “B.” Anyways, the place was beautiful, and so green! I knew Israel’s ecosystems were diverse, but I never pictured it having forests and rivers that looked straight out of a tropical rainforest!
After Banias we went to Nimrod’s Fortress, which was probably my second favorite place that we toured. The hike to the fortress’s keep was quite the journey, but the views from it were to die for! The views in general, from anywhere on the fortress, were amazing. All you had to do was peer over a wall and you got to see beautiful rolling hills that went on for miles.
We began day four at Capernaum, right off the Galilee. The church there was beautiful of course, but my personal favorite part was just sitting on the rocks, looking out at the Galilee. The water was so blue and the air was so peaceful, it was just an impossible to describe experience.
After Capernaum we drove up to Hippos/Susita, and boy was this one a workout. Hippos sits atop a huge mountain, with a water source nowhere to be found. Sure, it has a great strategic location, but I personally didn’t think all the effort that went in to getting water there and building up the city justified it. I was amazed at how they were even able to bring all the materials they needed up there! They must have moved tons of stone up the mountain, and I can say from experience that climbing and navigating your way up is not fun.
Our last stop, and my favorite, was Caesarea Marittima. It was one of the Levant’s most important ports and is located on the Mediterranean. When Rome ruled the region, Caesarea was one of its local seats of power and included all the bells and whistles that came with being an important Roman city: a hippodrome, amphitheater, lavish public baths. King Herod even built one of his palaces there! And I can completely see why. The weather there was perfect and the Mediterranean was gorgeous—if I had to pick a place to live in the ancient world I definitely would have chosen Caesarea.