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Past Speaks to Present in Galilee

THERE is a passage in the gospel of Mark that always puzzled me: the story of how some villagers brought a sick man to be healed by Jesus. "And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press," the King James Version reads, "they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay." (Mark 2:4)Maneuvering a stretcher onto a roof seems unreasonably risky, and smashing through the roof uncommonly violent. But the village where Jesus performed that healing still stands, here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and archaeological discoveries make the story plain. Recently excavated, less than a hundred yards from the water's edge, lies a complex of low, black basalt walls, the remains of Capernaum, where Jesus lived during his mission in the Galilee. Up the sides of those walls, from open courtyards, run steps to roofs that would have been constructed from light beams and a mixture of mud and straw - easy to reach, and easy to remove. There can be few places on earth where sites of antiquity speak so clearly to the modern-day visitor as Capernaum and other nearby spots that provide the setting for much of the New Testament. And even the crowds of pilgrims who flock here by the busload do not block the view one gets of real life 2,000 years ago. Whether they be Incan, Roman, or Pharaonic, most remains of ancient peoples offer little more than a glimpse of the lives of the great and the powerful - emperors, high priests, or fabled warriors. Here, however, at the birthplace of Christianity, the Bible relates the names of ordinary villagers and details of their lives that lend the sketchy ruins an unusual dimension. Nowhere is this more striking than at one of the ruins closest to the lake, once a nondescript fisherman's house, that has been tradit ionally considered the home of the apostle Peter. An eight-yard length of one wall of the original house is preserved, and the first Christians of Capernaum paid special attention to that room, plastering the floor in the first century, and covering the walls with Christian graffiti. At the beginning of the fourth century, the room was subdivided and re-roofed, as witnessed by Etheria, a nun from the Bordeaux region of France. She visited here around 381 and recorded that "the house of the prince of the apostles in Capernaum was changed into a church; t he walls however of that house are still standing as they were." Later still, an octagonal Byzantine church was raised on the spot, and it is the walls of that structure that are most clearly visible, although today the whole site is shadowed by what looks like a flying saucer on stilts, built a few years ago as the latest in a series of churches over the room where Peter lived. Etheria also tells us that the undressed block of yellow limestone embedded in the floor beneath the altar of a reconstructed Byzantine church two miles away is the rock on which the early Chr istians believed Jesus broke bread to feed the 5,000. The rock, standing in a field watered by seven springs that still gush today, was venerated by the first Christians, and in 350 it became an altar in a church built by a wealthy Jewish nobleman. Outside, looking across the lake to the towering Golan Heights looming through the haze, my attention was caught by a lone figure standing in the prow of his small boat. Elegantly, with practiced ease, he tossed a perfectly circled net into the water, and began to draw it in. The same simple style has yielded catches in the Sea of Galilee for millennia. Not far away, at a local kibbutz, visitors can see the sort of boat from which fishermen like the disciples earned their living. It lies in a tank of hot, murky water, behind a glass screen, soaking up the chemicals that will preserve its 2,000-year-old timbers. Twenty-four feet long and six feet wide, the boat was found in 1986, buried in the lake shore mud during a particularly severe drought. Almost intact, it was identified, by carbon dating and by the sort of joints used in building it, as the kind of craft in common use at the time of Jesus. The boat was discovered by two brothers, both fishermen. It must have been in just such boats that two other sets of brothers - Peter and Andrew, and James and John - were working when Jesus called them to be his disciples. Such echoes of the past are irresistible wherever you go in the Galilee. Its lush valley pastures were famed for their richness 2,000 years ago, when Jewish historian Josephus Flavius wrote that "there is not a plant which its fertile soil refuses to produce, and its cultivators in fact grow every species." Today, "kibbutzniks" produce oranges, bananas, figs, dates, olives, and nuts from the well-watered earth. Likewise, modern-day windsurfers on the Sea of Galilee (now a popular Israeli resort) are troubled by just the same sort of sudden storm, blowing up from clefts in the surrounding hills, that got the disciples into such difficulties before Jesus calmed the winds. Sometimes, though, the amenities of modern life clash with the Galilee's past. Eating a rather unexpected Chinese meal one night at the water's edge in Tiberias - now a brash imitation of the Cote d'Azure - I was taken aback to see an enormous floating disco, music blaring and lights flashing, cast off for an excursion. It is not hard to escape such intrusions, though. Forty-five minutes' drive from Tiberias, up steadily narrowing roads into the rocky wilderness of the Golan Heights, Nimrod's fortress lords it over the surrounding terrain. Built by Arabs in 1126, captured and fortified soon afterward by Crusaders, and regularly changing hands until the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land fell in 1291, the ruined fortress crouches massively on a windy crag, overlooking gray, scrub-covered ravines on all sides. Hunched behind an arrow slit, peering out at the floor of the Galilee valley far below, it is not hard to imagine the bewilderment that the archer must have felt nine centuries ago - whether a Belgian with the Crusaders or a Kurd with Saladin's army - at being so far from home, fighting the medieval equivalent of a world war. On the flanks of Mount Hermon to the East, clearly visible from the fortress, stands a huddle of red-roofed, white-walled houses - a Jewish settlement staking Israel's claim to what is still occupied Syrian territory. As I stood on the ramparts, from the blue distant hills of South Lebanon came the sound of machine-gun fire and mortars. Soldiers are still fighting for control of the land that was home to "the Prince of Peace."

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