Israel’s ‘Holy Grail’ Trail Offers Gospel for Christmas

Israel Trail
A tourist walking along the Israel trail. The National Trail has been chosen as one of the world's great treks. Marking along the Gospel Trail was finished last year to boost Christian tourism starting in 2012. Photographer: Nitzan Shorer/Israel Ministry of Tourism via Bloomberg

Israel’s National Trail gains extra significance this Christmas.

The walk has been named one of the world’s epic treks. It follows part of the Gospel Trail, for those who want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and adds ancient battlefields and deserts, skirting Tel Aviv skyscrapers. It’s more than twice the length of the entire country, and the magic isn’t just in the geography.

“It’s not all pristine wilderness experience,” said Allan Rabinowitz, a Jerusalem-based tour guide who hiked the trail in 2009 with his wife and teenage son to fulfill a dream and raise nearly $40,000 for research into Lou Gehrig’s disease, which killed his mother. “Some parts are pretty ugly.”

“What impressed us most deeply was the human landscape,” he said, “the way we were treated by the people who we met and those who reached out because of the campaign.”

The path stretches nearly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from the Lebanese border in the north to the Red Sea in the south, crossing a variety of physical, ethnic and religious landscapes. Fit hikers, proceeding at a pace of about 20 miles a day with no days off, may be able to complete the entire trail in about 30 days. It took 60-year-old Rabinowitz and his family 74 days.

About 10 kilometers of the trail overlap with the 62-kilometer Gospel Trail that traces the path Jesus may have taken when he left his home of Nazareth for Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Nazareth Christmas

There is usually a rise in the amount of visitors during Christmas in Nazareth, which is the starting point of the Gospel Trail, which opened in Nov. 2011.

Special markers along the segment provide relevant biblical quotes that link the landscape to Jesus.

“Tourists and pilgrims walking the Israel Trail near Christmas will find added significance in the section that meets up with the Gospel Trail,” said Noaz Bar Nir, director general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

Parts of the trail, especially near Jerusalem and in the Negev desert, are steep and rugged. In the mountains near the resort city of Eilat, the only way forward sometimes involves climbing metal ladder rungs driven into the face of sheer rock walls.

Other sections along the coastal plain run straight and flat along the seashore, heading over an overpass and weaving around a highway.

Cultural Differences

“It is ironic to see trail markers on concrete poles,” said Rabinowitz. “It’s not exactly the Appalachian Trail, but it covers the tremendous stark differences of Israel both culturally and geographically.”

The trail, which is marked out in a set of 16 maps, recently was named to National Geographic’s top 20 epic trails, or what the site called “the holy grail of trails.”

The international designation of the 20-year-old trail should boost the image of a land known for the bloodshed of its past and the threat of violence in its present and future. The trail will boost economic growth with the development of supplementary services, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said.

Hiking along the trail forms a special bond with the country, said Misezhnikov, who first walked along the paths for the bar mitzvah of the son of a friend.

“You see wonderful people live here, you feel their warmth, stay at their homes, you see what they are making with their own hands and you fall in love with this country,” the minister said.

Trail Angels

Rabinowitz also singled out the voluntary system of “trail angels” who put their names on a website and open their homes for showers and meals to hikers. He and his family had coffee with a Bedouin family, camped out with Harley Davidson motorcycle gangs, and celebrated a holiday on a kibbutz.

“When you reach the valley of your spirits, then something pops up, something very surprising, and that happened very often,” said Rabinowitz.

Hiking, camping and spending time in nature is part of Israel’s culture, reinforced by scout groups that many Israeli children participate in through their high school years.

“From a very young age, children are taught tradition and love of the land of Israel through their feet,” Dov Greenblatt, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Nature, said.

The trail’s hikers have included David Grossman, who started it to mark his 50th birthday and used his experience as material for the novel “To the End of the Land.”

Missile Death

His pilgrimage also coincided with the drafting of his middle son. The book tells the story of a woman so concerned about the welfare of her own son that she takes to the trail to help calm her anxiety. Before Grossman finished the book, his own son, Uri, was killed in 2006 by a missile fired by Hezbollah in the second Lebanon War.

“Life on the trail is calm and far from current hostilities,” wrote National Geographic’s Doug Schnitzspahn in his report on Israel for the magazine’s epic trail section.

In part, that may be because the network doesn’t enter disputed areas such as the Golan Heights or the West Bank, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“The joy of the trail is meeting the Israelis hiking it and spending some time in small kibbutzim where the local people will take hikers into their homes. On the trail, there is peace and friendship,” Schnitzspahn said.

The Israel National Trail would never have been marked were it not for the enthusiasm of a journalist who hiked the Appalachian Trail, another National Geographic epic, in 1980. The network opened 15 years later, patched together from thousands of kilometers of pre-existing trails.

“We are a very small country, maybe the size of a neighborhood in China,” Greenblatt said. “But I don’t know of many countries with such diversity. Within only a few hours’ drive, one goes the open spaces of the Golan to the green of the Galilee, to the coastal plain and then on to the Negev desert, the Arava and Eilat.”

Muse highlights include Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on film, James Russell on architecture and John Mariani on wine.

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