Israel: Where time began

Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem — that’s where it all began 2,000 years ago. This is Israel, the land where Jesus was born, walked, and preached, performed miracles and died on the cross. For many, this is the place where time began.

Much of the world bases its calendar upon the birth of Jesus, although historians and theologians have argued for generations as to when exactly that event took place. But the world will go ahead anyway and celebrate the new millennium on Jan. 1, 2000.

And it’s an event that will have a huge and dramatic impact on Israel. Last year, Israel welcomed 2.3 million visitors, a figure expected to soar to four million in 2000. Even the Pope, John Paul II, is hoping to visit the country’s many holy sites.

“The Pope,” reported Israel 2000 Chairman Shlomo Ilya, “would like to go down in history as the Pontiff who visited the Holy Land in the year 2000.”

Earlier this year, the Pope issued an Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Advieniente, advocating a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for all Christians as a meaningful way to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

With visits from the Pope and other worldeaders, plus the millions of pilgrims and tourists expected in 2000, Israel is going through a multi-million dollar construction and clean-up boom. New hotels are near completion, roads are being built and old ones improved. All in all, the country is investing over $500 million on new infrastructure for the expected flood of tourists. Churches of all denominations are undergoing a facelift and put in pristine condition. For example, during a tour of Israel two months ago, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. About half the interior was blocked off with scaffolding as carpenters and artists rushed to complete renovations. The religious services in various chapels competed with the sounds of workmen hammering and drilling. It was, to say the least, chaotic.

Walkways, parks and facilities in Galilee are being expanded, including the historic sites of Capernaum, Nazareth, Kfar Kana, Tabgha, Mount of Beatitudes and Caesarea Philippi at the foot of Mt. Hermon.

Accommodation is another millennium challenge. Israel has 50,000 hotel rooms at present, and will have an additional 10,000 by the end of 1999. One example is a very posh 400-room, 5-star Marriott Hotel in Nazareth. It’s on a magnificent site, on a hill overlooking this vibrant city, so dramatically different today than in the days of Joseph and Mary.

Various levels of governments are working like mad to provide moderately-priced accommodation in the Jerusalem area where 3,000 new beds are required. Many visitors will be housed in private homes — temporary B&B facilities. Kibbutzim near Jerusalem and close to popular Christian sites will be adding guest houses and small hotels. While kibbutz accommodation may be austere, the food is wonderful.

Here’s a brief rundown on some of the “don’t miss” sites I visited during my recent tour:

Bethlehem: Governed by the Palestinian Authority, most signs are in Arabic. The churches on the traditional site of Jesus’ birthplace are beautiful. However, parking for cars and buses is extremely limited but, fortunately, Palestine Tourist police are very helpful. Plan to stay in or near Jerusalem and make the short drive to Bethlehem by car or bus. The town has countless jewellery and souvenir shops, some good, some bad. On the highway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, there’s a fancy gambling casino located in Jericho, the world’s oldest city, and now controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Nazareth: A bustling city full of churches and synagogues. Must-see sights: the Basilica of the Annunciation, the biggest in the Middle East; the Church of St. Joseph; St. Gabriel Greek Orthodox Church built over Mary’s Well; and the Synagogue where Jesus preached and the Salesian Church of His youth.

Sea of Galilee: It’s really just a large inland lake (80 km wide and 100 km long), surrounded with religious (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) sites and many ancient archaeological ruins. It’s also a great place to rest for a day or so from trekking around the many lakeside resorts. An ideal way to view the lake and the Golan Heights is to take a trip on one of the motorized sailing boats, replicas of the fishing craft which plied the Galilee 2,000 years ago.

Jerusalem: One of the world’s most fascinating cities, and the focal point of three of the world’s major religions, Jerusalem is an exciting mixture of culture and history. It’s also a shoppers’ delight — you can buy almost anything in the city’s many bazaars and exclusive boutiques. A must-see is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane. Walk the Via Dolorosa — from St. Stephen’s Gate through the Old City to the Holy Sepulchre, marking Jesus’ ‘Last Path’ to Calvary. Most of the 14 Stations of the Cross are on the Via Dolorosa, the final five are within the Holy Sepulchre.