Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The must-see place to see in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, probably the world’s most important Christian site and one of the world’s oldest operating churches. And definitely the place to go if you want to spend Christmas in the Holy Land. The exact site of Jesus’ birth is in an underground grotto beneath the Church, marked by a 14 pointed star set in the ground. Bethlehem is fairly easy to get to, especially if on an organised tour.
You’ll probably want to spend some time in Jerusalem. We highly recommend any visit to Israel includes the Old City in Jerusalem – it’s one place where you could end up overstaying, there’s just so much to see! The major Christian sites you’ll want to catch in Jerusalem, both within and beyond the Old City are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of St. John the Baptist, Church of All Nations, The Upper Room or perhaps even follow the steps of Jesus along The Via Dolorosa.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion It’s an impressive looking Church on the inside (3D image of the inside here), perhaps less so from the outside as it’s wedged in between other buildings. The various sites throughout the Church mark various spots in Jesus’ final hours and in his death.
The Church of All Nations (3D panoramic view of the inside of the Church here), along with the adjoining Garden of Gethsamane, is located at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. Here, Jesus conducted his last prayers before being betrayed by Judas and then captured by the Romans. The Garden of Gethsemane, which is right next to the Church of All Nations, is believed to have been a garden even in Jesus’ time and is a lovely, tranquil spot. It is here that Jesus and the Disciples came after the Last Supper, and here where Jesus gave his last sermon.
The Church of St. John the Baptist is located in the gorgeous hillside neighbourhood of Ein Kerem, a short drive out of Jerusalem city centre. This church marks the birthplace of St. John, who is best known for baptising Jesus.
The view from the Mount of Olives is wondrous: the densely packed walled city of Jerusalem embraced by the Hinnom and Kidron valleys, the Golden Gate to Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, Mount Zion, City of David and more, bring alive both prophecy and Psalms. It is from the Mount of Olives, with its view not only toward the Holy City and its green surroundings, but toward the wilderness, that one understands how Jerusalem got one of its earliest names, Zion (2 Sam. 5:7), which comes from a word meaning desert.
On the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives is Bethany, where a beautiful church marks the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha (John 1:11), and where visitors can descend and emerge dramatically from the traditional tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11:43).
A walk which begins at Bethphage, follows the traditional path Jesus took in his triumphal entry to the Holy City (John 12:13-15). It stops in the quiet garden chapel of Dominus Flevit, marking the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), and then passes the ancient Jewish cemetery, where the deceased await the resurrection when the Messiah comes to the Mount of Olives (Zach. 14:4). This is an important place to pause and consider that the Mount of Olives is not only a geographical link between the desert and the fertile Jerusalem hills, it is the spiritual link between death and life, also emphasized by the resurrection of Lazarus in Bethany.
In the early days of Christianity, monks came to the Mount of Olives in large numbers, seeking the solitude of its heights where they could deepen their understanding of these and other Scriptural truths.
The walk culminates in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the most dramatic sites on a Christian itinerary. This and Olivet’s other sites – the Pater Noster (“Our Father”) Church, named for the prayer Jesus taught (Matt. 6:9-13), the Dome of the Ascension, the Tower of the Ascension and Viri Galilaei (Acts 1:11) – stir powerful emotions that make this visit an unforgettable spiritual highlight.
Visitors to of the Garden of Gethsemane are amazed when they learn that the gnarled olive trees they see could have been young saplings when Jesus came here with the disciples on that fateful night after the Last Supper (Matt. 26:36; Mark 14:32; John 18:1). Today the ancient trees rise from manicured flower beds; in Jesus’ time this would have been an olive grove where an olive-oil press – gethsemane in Greek – was located.
The impressive Church of All Nations, built in the 1920s over earlier churches, relates the events of this place in brilliantly detailed floor-to ceiling mosaics: Jesus praying alone (Mark 14:35-36); Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Matt. 26:48); the cutting off of the ear of the High Priest’s servant (Mark 14:47).
The Garden Tomb, a rock hewn tomb believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, is well worth a visit for the atmosphere of peace and the beauty of the gardens —there is also ample room to hold church services. Although there is some doubt over the precise location of the burial tomb, looking out from the Damascus gate one sees a skull-like hillside opposite (“Golgotha”)? and subsequent excavations at the site found a tomb close by.
Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel with a population of over 60,000, of which some 31 percent are Christians. Since Jesus spent much of his childhood here, Nazareth has been closely associated with Christianity and attracted many pilgrims throughout the last two thousand years. The most significant site in Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest Christian church building in the Middle East, dedicated in 1964 on another Papal visit, this time by Pope Paul VI.
There are a number of additional Christian sites in Nazareth well worth a visit, including the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangel Gabriel (built over the freshwater spring known as “Marys Well”), the Greek Catholic “Synagogue Church” (site of the synagogue where a young Jesus was taught, and where he later preached), and the Church of St. Joseph (built over a cave identified as the “workshop” of Jesus’ father Joseph).
Click here for a clip of Nazareth that might whet your appetite for more…
Located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the small town of Capernaum (or Kfar Nahum in Hebrew) was the centre of Jesus’ ministry. He lived here for some time, healing the sick, preaching in the synagogue and performing many miracles (Matthew 4:13, 9:1)
There are several churches here that celebrate the life of Jesus, including the Church of the House of St. Peter, a large house of several rooms and a courtyard that Jesus chose as his home, and the Synagogue, where Jesus often preached and performed miracles: both these locations have been restored and converted into a museum (3 shekel entrance fee).
“They went as far as Capernaum, and as soon as the Sabbath came he went to the synagogue and began to teach. And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.”
Often referred to as The Sea of Wonders, for it is here more than any other place mentioned in the Bible, that the ministry of Jesus – his teachings, miracles and daily life with His disciples – really comes to life.
It was on this lake that a great storm arose (Matthew 8:23-24), that Simon was asked to put out his nets again having been fishing all night, where Jesus walked on the water to be with his disciples (Mathew 14:22-23) and where, from the Mount of the Beatitudes Jesus gave His sermon on the mount.
Tabgha (known as Ein Sheva in Hebrew) is located on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee and is the traditional site of the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish (marked today by the Church of the Multiplication). It is also believed to be the place of the sighting of Jesus’ third resurrection appearance (marked by the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter), where Jesus conferred authority of the church to Simon Peter.
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.” (Mark 6:41)
Located just north of the Sea of Galilee, where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee, Bethsaida is perhaps one of the lesser known Christian sites in Israel, but well worth seeing if you’re interested in revisiting the sites of miracles: it is here Jesus is believed to have healed a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). Bethsaida is also known as the birthplace of three of the Apostles, Peter, Andrew and Philip. Recently rediscovered, there is some dispute as to its exact location but the site known as Bethsaida, or et-Tel, has a lot to offer archeological fans over its 21 acre site: there is even an old cobbled street from the days of Jesus.