Return from Exile
Between Egypt and Nazareth, 4 BC
Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary (also known as the Muharraq Monastery, or Burnt Monastery) (below) about 200 miles south of Cairo, is another of the places said to be built on the site where the Holy Family settled while in Egypt. According to the Coptic church it was here that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young childs life (Matthew 2:20-21).
But, as some point on their way back to Judea, intending, it seems, to settle in Bethlehem, an unhappy surprise greeted them. Joseph learned that Herod had been succeeded by his son Archelaus who began his reign with a massacre of 3,000 Jews who rebelled against him at the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, Joseph chose to take Mary and Jesus back to Galilee, where Antipas, a somewhat milder son of Herod, had been appointed tetrarch, with the approval of emperor Augustus.
Matthew's gospel does not tell us which route Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus followed out of Egypt. Rather than take the road through the hills of Idumea, Judea and Samaria (the territory inherited by Archelaus after his father Herod's death), the family may have joined up with one of the many merchant caravans heading northward on the ancient and well-traveled (and safer) road, known to the Romans as Via Maris (Way of the Sea) connecting Egypt to Damascus and the rest of the Ancient Near East.
The Via Maris began at Pelusium (theater remains, right) at the mouth of the Nile River. There, nomads bartered for goods and prepared their animals for the trek northward. The route left the Nile delta and entered the desert, following the coast eastwards.
Camels were used almost exclusively, as the initial leg of the route was mostly waterless sand dunes. Before setting out the animals were rested, well-fed and, of course, well-watered. Then the nomads had to convince their camels to carry their loads. Too heavy a load and the camels simply refused to get up. Its amazing how much abuse a camel could take and not stand up. As the camels cannot be trusted to follow a trail, a donkey lead the way.
With the Nile at their backs, the Holy Family left the hot, humid climate behind and entered the even hotter, but drier climate of some of the worst sand dune desert in the Near East. To their left was the Sabkhet al-Bardawil, a briny, shallow lake along the Mediterranean coast. The water was literally poisonous, being very salty. The vast lake was enclosed by a sand bar, keeping the water penned-up, unable to freshen up. Since the animals had been well-watered, they ignored the lake. However, on the return trip, the lake was at the end of several day's trek without water. For miles the animals could smell it and more than one camel died drinking from it.
Along the route, there were villages and cities a days march apart, about fourteen miles on average. Under Roman occupation (30 BC to c. 640 AD), camping areas for the caravans they were kept in good order. The settlements depended on the caravans. During times of instability and war, they often disappeared as the caravans quit the route, looking for safer passage elsewhere. If the legends are to be believed, Joseph, Mary and their young son left Cairo in Egypt and traveled many days before reaching
The small village of al-Arish, known in biblical times as the "Brook of Egypt," lay on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai peninsula, 214 miles northeast of Cairo. It was a strange place, situated at the end of a large wadi (dry river bed) that drained almost the entire Sinai plateau, where it seldom rained. But an inch or so of moisture could cause a gully-washer, sweeping away the entire village.
The inhabitants didn't worry; they simply collected the driftwood and rebuilt it. Al-Arish has always been a forbidding outpost, where no one wanted to be stationed. For most of the year there were a few date palms and water just below the surface. For their livelihood the inhabitants depended on fishing the Mediterranean. Their few goats browsed among the tamarisk and salt grass, and remained on the brink of starvation. One respected occupation was smuggling, usually incense, past the border patrols at Gaza. Without the usual taxes, the risk was worthwhile.
Modern Al-Arish is distinguished by its clear, blue water and it's soft, white sand. It is an increasingly popular tourist destination with a yacht marina and many luxury hotels.
Passing through al-Arish, Joseph, Mary and Jesus entered the southern part of the coastal plain, controlled in Old Testament times by the Philistines, the arch-nemesis of the Hebrew tribes as they attempted to occupy and settle in their "land flowing with milk and honey" and, later, of Saul and David as they sought to establish their kingdoms.
This small area is now the very troubled Palestinian-controlled region know as the Gaza Strip.
Measuring 3.5 miles by 30 miles, the Gaza Strip consists of near-desert terrain, yet, it is one of the world's most densely populated regions. Its population was swelled by an influx of refugees most on the losing side of Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Many fled their homes, or were driven out in the wake of Israel's military successes in the Negev and Mediterranean coast. Most were accommodated in eight large refugee camps, where a disproportionate number 60% of the population still live today. In the 1967 Six-Day War, the Arabs lost again and the Gaza Strip was occupied by the Israelis until 1994, when it came under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Despite its self-governing status, the whole Gaza Strip remains dangerous and troubled. Since September of 2000 the Israelis have sealed off the area making it the world's largest concentration camp. Few can enter. Hardly any can leave. Unemployment is rampant and hopelessness pervades the area.
Continuing northward, Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have passed through Raphia, then on to Gaza
The dunes along the coast become quite large and the footing became treacherous, unable to support a camel's weight. Al-Arish, though, was an Eden compared to Raphia. There was little else to commend this small collection huts. Often brackish water collected in low areas behind the dunes creating malaria-infested pools. Here the route ran far inland. Modern Rafiah, immediately north of the Egypt/Gaza Strip border, has a lively weekly market.
Gaza (also called Azzah, meaning "the strong") was the southernmost of the five great Philistine city-states (the others were Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath, the latter the home of the giant Philistine champion, Goliath). Gaza was the last major town on the frontier for caravans heading towards Egypt. It had an excellent location, spreading across a hilltop (now called Tell al-Ajjul) two miles from the sea, from which it was separated by a procession of sand dunes. The approach to Gaza was through extensive forests. Sitting on its little hill, Gaza was a welcome sight after the desert.
Gaza's location on the Via Maris made it important militarily. It is mentioned in the Amarna Letters (13th century BC) and in clay tablets found at Taanach, a site not far from Megiddo, some 12 miles southwest of Nazareth. Some say it has been taken and destroyed in wars more often than any other town in the world.
At Gaza the Via Maris intersected the Incense Route, coming from the Nabataean city of Petra east of the Dead Sea. Along the route was Beersheba, a copper-smelting town, with ore coming from Timna in the Jordan River valley. Many caravans met at Gaza to reform, some turning to the south with copper, some continuing north along the Via Maris and others heading northeast across the dreary plain, and into the bluish hills toward Jerusalem, where they sold their incense for use in Jewish religious rites. Otherwise the incense was loaded aboard ships bound for Greece or Rome.
In the period of the Judges, the legendary strong man, Samson, took hold of the doors of the Gaza city gate, together with its two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He then carried them on his shoulders to the top of a hill facing Hebron, some 30-plus miles away. It was Samson's fascination with the Philistine women, Delilah, that brought about his downfall. After several attempts she finally coaxed the secret of his great strength from him his uncut hair and Samson was captured. The Philistines gouged out his eyes and imprisoned him in Gaza. Later, at a victory celebration at the temple of the god Dagon, Samson pulled down the support pillars, collapsing the temple and killing 3000 Philistine men and women.
Gaza was caught up in the wars of Israel, Assyria and Egypt, and became a fortress of the Persian Empire. In 332 BC Alexander the Great sold its inhabitants into slavery for its futile opposition to him. By the 1st century BC silting sand had destroyed its port. But its fortunes revived under the Romans and it became known for its many pagan temples. This is the atmosphere of the city at the time Mary, Joseph and the some two year-old Jesus would have experienced as they passed through the city on their way north.
According to the book of Acts, Philip, one of the seven appointed to care for the growing Christian community, received a message from an angel to go down to Gaza. On the way he met a eunuch, a high official under Queen Candace of Ethiopia, and inspired him to be baptized (Acts 8:26-39).
Today, Gaza City (right) evokes images of poverty. Controlled by the Palestinian Authority, it is a noisy, crowded and much-troubled city of almost 300,000. There is not much to see, as there are few reminders of its long and eventful past. Most visitors are struck by its unattractiveness, made worse by the proliferation of ugly concrete buildings. Its principal site is the Great Mosque or Djami al-Kebir, originally a 13th century AD Crusader church. Not long ago, a joint Palestinian-French archaeological expedition found remains of its ancient port, dating back to the 8th century BC and known in Greek texts as Anthedon, in at least two sites along the shoreline. At another site, the remains of a tower dating back at least to the 5th century BC, have been found part of fortifications facing the Mediterranean Sea. A Christian cemetery and Mameluke remains have also been uncovered.
At Gaza, the Via Maris swung inland, away from the coast, across the undulating hills. Olive trees are abundant; citrus trees are also present. Several towns pass in succession, including Ekron and Gath, two more cities of the ancient Philistine "pentapolis."
North of Gaza and to the east is a region called Shephelah, a rocky plateau between the coastal plain and the higher central mountain range rising 1,500 feet above sea level. Its name, meaning "lowland," is derived from the Hebrew shachah, to humble or make low. Unlike today, the Shephelah was once heavily forested with "sycamore-fig trees" (1 Kings 10:27). But the trees were cleared and sold to Egypt on a regular basis and soon disappeared. Simply called "the foothills" or "western foothills" in the Old Testament, the Shephelah was cut by strategic valleys running roughly east-west, and each is prominently mentioned as in the Old Testament, mostly as the scenes of major battles: the Valley of Aijalon, Valley of Sorek and Valley of Elah.
Located some 12 miles north of Gaza, Ashkelon (meaning "the fire of infamy: I shall be weighed," in the sense of a weighing-place or market) sat on the long sandy coast strip and had early sea trading links with Cyprus and Egypt. A prosperous town and port on the Via Maris, by 2000 BC it was enclosed by great walls. Ashkelon sat on the edge of the sand dunes and the drifting sand forever threatened to cover up the walls and buildings, but also made attacking the walls very difficult.
From 1175 BC to 604 BC, Askelon was dominated by the Philistines, who turned it into one of their five leading cities. Enemies of the Israelites, the Philistines are depicted in the Bible as brutish, but modern excavations have revealed a sophisticated culture. After the Babylonians destroyed it and wiped out the Philistines it continued as an important and prosperous city. A profoundly Hellenistic city, in 104 BC Ashkelon became a free city and it was possibly the birthplace of Herod the Great. In the decades just prior to the birth of Jesus, Herod rebuilt the city and it flourished in the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Still later, the Crusaders re-fortified the city but, in 1187 AD, Saladin captured and destroyed it to keep the Crusaders from using it as a base. Richard the Lion-Hearted saw the flames of the burning city from his camp at Jaffa.
At 150 acres, Ashkelon is one of the largest tells in all of Israel. Its most prominent feature are its great semicircular walls (below).
Restored Canaanite city gate (c. 1800 BC) (below left). The extensive ruins of ancient Ashkelon are surrounded by the modern city of Ashkelon (below right).
About 9 miles northeast of Ashkelon was the city of Azotus, New Testament form of Ashdod (meaning "powerful"), another of the former Philistine city-states (1 Samuel 6:17). The other four were Ashkelon, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron. The Via Maris did not actually go through Azotus, but remained some 3 miles to the east. Still, it would have been a good place for the Holy Family to stop for the night. Drifting sand (below left) constantly threatened to bury the city and the planted fields. Frequently it was a race to harvest the ripened crops before they were buried beneath the dunes.
Azotus/Ashdod sat on the edge of the sea, with it's wall (remains above right) running from the coast around the city and again to the coast, in a half circle. The city was the setting for one of the most well-known Old Testament accounts: After routing the Hebrews, the joyous Philistines took their great spoil of victory, the Ark of the Covenant, from Shiloh to Ashdod, where they placed it in the temple of their god, Dagon. But, the next morning they found the image of their deity a merman, half man, half fish lying face-down on the ground. They restored the image to its place, but the following morning the idol had again toppled, breaking off its head and hands. To make matters worse, the people of Ashdod were afflicted with tumors possibly the bubonic plague, carried by rodents. For seven months the presence of the Ark at Ashdod, then at Ekron (two other Philistine cities), brought nothing but disaster. Eventually, the Ark was taken to Kiriath-Jearim (modern Abu Gosh on Route 1 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) where it remained for some 20 years until King David brought it to his new capital at Jerusalem, seven miles due east.
After the time of Jesus, Azotus was one of the cities were the evangelist Philip preached on his way to Caesarea (see Acts 8:40). Today, Ashdod is a port and industrial city with a modern, fully equipped harbor. The site of ancient city, Tell Ashdod, is 3.5 miles south of the modern town. Nearby is the Arab village of Isdud, which preserves the ancient name.
Located on the coastal plain, about 9 miles north of Azotus/Ashdod, Jamnia (Hebrew, "God causes to build") was originally called Jabneel.
At the time of the Hebrew conquest it was assigned to the tribe of Judah and was on the northern border of the tribe. In the 8th century BC it was captured by Uzziah from the Philistines. During the Maccabean Wars (2nd century BC) it served as a base for the Seleucid armies, but it was burned by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BC. Captured by the Hasmonean ruler, John Hyrcanus I, it became part of the kingdom of Alexander Janneus. In 63 BC, it was taken by Pompey and about 57 BC it was rebuilt by Gabinius, proconsul of Syria. Part of Herod the Great's kingdom, it eventually became the property of the emperor Tiberius. After the fall of Jerusalem to Titus in 70 AD, it became the seat of the Sanhedrin, and in 90 AD, the Canon of the Old Testament was discussed there. The city became the capital of the Jews until the rise of the rebel leader Simon Bar Kokba, Hebrew hero and leader of a major revolt against Rome under Hadrian (132135 AD). In the Middle Ages the Crusaders fortified the city. It still exists as a good-sized village under the name of Jebuah, about two miles from the sea, seven miles south of Joppa.
Another 14 miles north from Jabneel was the port city of Joppa (Jaffa), now part of modern Tel Aviv.
Jaffa (or Joppa) (below) believed to be one of the oldest port cities in the world, is mentioned in Egyptian sources and Amarna Letters as Yapu. In the Bible it was the place where the prophet Jonah embarked for Tarshish (Jonah 1:3), only to be swallowed by the "great fish" (Jonah 1:13-17). Solomon used its port to bring cedars from Tyre to the construct the First Temple (2 Chronicles 2:15). The New Testament account of Peter raising the widow Tabitha (Greek Dorcas), recorded in Acts 9:36-42, took place in Jaffa. Peter also had a vision there in which God told him not to distinguish between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:10-16).
At Jaffa, the Via Maris turned inland, heading northwest for the cities of Antipatris (now Tell Afeq, near Rosh Ha'ayin) and Lydda (OT Lod), skirting the Plain of Sharon (meaning "plain" or "level"). Our route is more direct, however, as we continue northward along the Mediterranean coast, through the Plain of Sharon, running for 34 miles almost to Mount Carmel. We recall one of the most beautiful images painted by the Song of Songs: "I am a rose* of Sharon, a lily of the valleys" (Song of Songs 2:1).
* "Rose of Sharon" is derived from the Hebrew chabatstseleth. It is not a classic rose but a meadow-saffron (above right) crocus or tulip!
In the footsteps of Jesus...
This day for our tour group begins with a relaxing barefoot stroll along the Mediterranean shore near our Tel Aviv hotel, watching the sunrise, breathing in the salt-air and collecting small shells along the beach. After breakfast, and a visit to the picturesque ancient port of Jaffa, we head north on Route 2 along the Mediterranean coast. Right, view northward from Jaffa's old city, with the modern multi-story buildings of Tel Aviv, beyond.
In ancient times, much of this area was forested, with numerous references in the Bible and other sources, describing its woodlands. But with exploitation and neglect, much of the land became malaria-infested swamps. The draining and management of the swamps has turned the Plain of Sharon into a rich agricultural area, so that we find the air fragrant with the scent of Jaffa oranges ripening in groves along the road. It is claimed they are the finest oranges in the world, entirely seedless and with no tough membrane between segments.
Antipatris, another important station on the Via Maris,was known as Aphek in Old Testament times. It protected an an important source of water the Yarkon River (flowing from here to the Mediterranean) and took its name from the Hebrew word aphik, riverbed.
Early in the Hellenistic period (332-167 BC) it was a fort called Pegae on the border between the districts of Sharon and Samaria. In about 132 BC it was conquered by the Hasmonean ruler, John Hyrcanus I, and became known as Arethusa. When Herod the Great became king he built a new city there, renaming it Antipatris, after his father Antipater. The 1st century AD Jewish historian, Josephus, records that Herod picked the most lush area in the region to commemorate his father. At the time Mary, Joseph and Jesus possibly passed through it on their way to Nazareth, it was the center of a district with many prosperous villages. It is mentioned once in the Bible, in Acts 23:31: "So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris." Today it is identified with Tell Afeq, a sizable mound 30 acres; one of the largest ancient sites in Israel occupied by a large square Ottoman fortress (Ras al-Ayn) (below left) erected on the remains of the Crusader castle of Marabel. The site has been extensively excavated and remains from the Roman (Jesus' time) and Byzantine periods, include shops to either side of a thirty-foot-wide cardo (main street) (below right) a forum surrounded by colonnades and an odeon (small theater).
The route of the Via Maris changed dramatically after Herod the Great built Caesarea at the northern end of the Plain of Sharon. Where once it turned inland several miles back, most caravans now came to within a mile or so of Caesarea. Here the Way of the Sea ended, at least in name. The continuation inland, eventually reaching Damascus, was called the Trunk Road. The Romans simply named the entire route Via Maris.
In modern times, Caesarea is a major, not-to-be-missed pilgrim stop. But, the city played only a minor role in the life and ministry of Jesus Pontius Pilate resided there. For that reason we will forgo stopping at this marvelous archaeological site until another time. Caesarea played a major role, however, at the time of the formation of the early church, as Paul and Peter passed through the city several times, and Paul was imprisoned there for two years before setting sail for Rome.
Passing through the towns of Netanya and Hadera, we come to the junction with Road 65 heading northeast to Tell Megiddo, another major archaeological site, where we are filled with many insights into Old Testament history and one related to the New Testament, particularly the book of Revelation.
Whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the Via Maris. But, after many centuries of guarding the route as it moved through the Wadi Arah (Nahal Iron), the strategic pass between the coastal plain and the Jezreel Valley (also called the Plain of Esdraelon), and witnessing decades upon decades of major battles involving the Canaanites, Assyrians, Egyptians, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the city of Megiddo lost its importance. By the time Mary, Joseph and Jesus passed by the site heading for Nazareth, it was deserted. Even centuries after it was abandoned, the numerous major conflicts at Megiddo, like the unfortunate battle between the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco and the young king Josiah of Judah in 609 BC, made an enormous impression on St. John as he recorded his apocalyptic vision of the end times while exiled on the island of Patmos. The word "Armageddon," denoting the site of the great end-times battle between the forces of good and evil, is derived from the Hebrew "Har Megiddo," meaning "Mount Megiddo."
Today, Tell Megiddo (aerial view, above left, with modern Road 65 along the route of the Via Maris between Megiddo Pass [Wadi Arah] and the Jezreel Valley) is one of the few places in the world where pilgrims like us can see a 5,000 year-old round Canaanite sacrificial altar (above right) along with an adjacent temple square, a city gate dating from the time of Solomon and a underground water system from the time of the infamous King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel. Here, we learn that archaeologists have unearthed an incredible 25 layers of settlement built on top of each other, covering a period of 35 centuries! The introductory video at the visitor center states: "Megiddo was built 25 times and destroyed 25 times." Armageddon, indeed! coming through . The mound of the ancient city of Megiddo is just off the bottom right corner. Above right, Tell Megiddo overlooking the Jezreel Valley (note the excavated areas). In Jesus' time the Via Maris bypassed Nazareth, crossing the Jezreel Valley six miles to the south on its way toward the Sea of Galilee.
Beyond Megiddo, we enter the lush Jezreel Valley and head northeast for six miles to Afula, then north another seven miles to Nazareth, Jesus' home for some thirty years, where he was raised, learned to read, later taught in the synagogue and was ultimately rejected and attacked.
Jesus' Life Home n Jesus' "hidden years" growing up in Nazareth