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Saturday 6 October: A MATTER OF PRORITIES

The Mona Lisa of the Galilee

We are up bright and early. It is another gorgeous day and we are all going to Zippori National Park, an important historical site located in western lower Galilee. It contains some fascinating Roman ruins, some wonderful mosaic floors, a Roman theater, a fortress and church from the Crusader period, and was once a centre for rabbinical studies. Julia and I have been to Zippori before. We came in 2004, when our Jewish guide told us that this was where Jesus went to university to train as a Rabbi! None of this stuff about him coming from a poor home and working in a carpenter’s shop, then?

While we are waiting for the others to arrive Julia and I stand in the large parking area in front of Saint Margaret’s where we have a wonderful panoramic view over Nazareth. We watch a family building another storey on top of one of the houses below. When the son of an Arab family marries, he brings his new wife home and the family simply add another storey to the existing house for them to live in. There must be a wedding in the offing for everyone is working very hard to get this new floor to the house completed.

We enjoy the drive to Zippori – we are beginning to recognise the various roads around Nazareth. Israel is quite a small country really (about the size of Wales) and everywhere is closer to each other than you realise. When we get to Zippori, May tells us that we have two and a half hours to wander round the site. We have a map and an information guide and there is a route we can easily follow that allows us to see all that we want to see. The majority of the party head off to explore the site … Julia and I head for the coffee shop. We have been here before and we know that we will need an intake of caffeine to get us round the site with energy to spare!

It is a truly remarkable place. The ancient roads with the grooves made by the cart wheels still visible, the amazing mosaic floors, the Roman theatre, the Crusader Fortress with its great view from the roof … and so much more. It is very hot, but there are various water stations around the site where we can fill our water bottle with cold water. Next to the remains of the Crusader Fortress there is Dionysus House. It is air conditioned and provides a welcome break from the heat of the sun. It houses an amazing mosaic floor depicting the life of Dionysus, the god of wine, and his worship, and my favourite mosaic – a woman of rare beauty who has been dubbed ‘the Mona Lisa of the Galilee’.

The Crusader Fortress houses a fascinating exhibition to do with the Torah (the Law) and the Mishnah (the interpretation of the Law). At the beginning of the third century AD Rabbi Judah Hanasi moved to Zippori and brought the Jewish Sanhedrin with him. he lived in Zippori for 17 years until his death, and it was in Zippori that he redacted the Mishnah. The exhibits are interesting in that the Mishnah is much larger than the Torah. Even today, I am given to understand, many Jews are more familiar with the rules about how the Law should be applied than with the Law itself. It reminds me of how the belief system and lifestyle of many Christians is often determined by the various Christian ‘rules and regulations’ that are passed down to us – our equivalent of the Mishnah if you like – rather than the Bible itself!?

The time seems to fly by. There is so much to see. I am sure that there are all kinds of fabulous things here that we just did not get to see last time we were here. We visit the site of the old synagogue – another building with air conditioning that provides a welcome break from the heat of the sun – and sit quietly enjoying the mosaic floors depicting spiritual scenes rather than the more decadent mosaic floors of the other Roman buildings.

We return to Saint Margaret’s after a brilliant day in time to have a rest before dinner – it is chicken again of course – and then we are off to spend the evening with Bryson and May in their gorgeous apartment. Julia goes earlier so that she can bake some bread and use May’s washing machine to wash some of our dirty clothes. May has put on an excellent spread and the Downton Abbey addicts amongst us sit down to watch a recording of the latest episode that we have all missed by coming to Israel! Well, you have to get your priorities right, don’t you!

Jim Binney

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