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January 13, 2010January 13, 2010  0 comments  Christian Communities

Israel - the homeland of Jesus of Nazareth. Most of His life - birth, ministry, crucifixion - happened right here. Wherever you turn, you find remnants of eras past, bearing silent witness to the beginnings of Christianity. Though of the three Abrahamic religions, the Christian population in Israel is the smallest, Israel is indeed home to thriving pockets of Christians. Scattered throughout Israel, especially in the northern section, the Galilee, are small enclaves of Christians, some even living in their own Christian villages. To lead a Christian life in the land of its birth is truly a unique experience. And, in fact, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country in which the Christian population is actually growing.


The kibbutz of Nes Ammim is one such Christian village. Located in the Western Galilee, near the city of Nahariya, Nes Ammim was created in the wake of the Holocaust. Christians in Europe, horrified by the atrocities of the war, decided to do more than offer sympathy. They wanted to lend a hand in building a homeland for the Jewish people. In the early 1960s, the movement settled in Israel. Like inhabitants of all of the early kibbutzim, the first few years were filled with hard physical labor, as they built the land, literally. They planted avocado orchards, and started a thriving flower industry. Nes Ammim became a popular spot for Christian pilgrims to volunteer, whether for a few weeks, a few months, or even longer. A youth hostel and guesthouse sprung up. But the Intifadas hit the Christian tourism industry hard, and the numbers of guests to Nes Ammim dwindled. The flower industry, too, was hit by rising production costs and withered.


However, the Christian community of Nes Ammim did not simply close up shop. Today, Nes Ammim is synonymous with reflection and peace, offering a neutral arena for dialogue between Jews and Arabs. The volunteers at Nes Ammim facilitate constructive talks between the two sides, and many of them then return to their own homelands as ambassadors for peace. Nes Ammim also runs a guesthouse, which offers modern amenities, as well as guided tours, access to local sites, and a Museum of Jewish-Christian Relations. Come as a guest or stay to volunteer - it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Christian traveler.


Shfar'am, also known by its Arabic name, Shefa-Amr, is another, predominately Arab, village in the Galilee which is home to a large Christian community. Located northeast of Haifa, Shfar'am is mentioned in the Talmud and was once the seat of Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court). Today, the population consists of Druze, Christian, and Muslim residents. There are many fascinating Christian sites in Shfar'am, including an ancient Crusader fort. Byzantine tombs indicate a strong Christian presence here in the 5th and 6th centuries, and on the entrance to the graves are inscriptions which mention Jesus. Another highlight of Shfar'am is an ancient synagogue, recently renovated. St. Jacob's Church was an active church in the 4th century; now, it is it the site of the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. And the Greek-Catholic community of Shfar'am still prays at St. Peter and St. Paul's Church.


In addition to the Christian holy sites, Shfar'am is famous for its mastic-flavored ice cream. (Mastic is a member of the pistachio family). It is also home to the Bet al-Musica Conservatory. The conservatory offers courses in various instruments, and holds concerts and performances throughout the year. There is also the yearly "Fort Festival," an event which draws people from all over as Arab children compete in a singing contest. The Nakhleh Coffee Company, the leading coffee producer in the Arab world, is based in Shfar'am. More cafes are opening up, drawing tourists and locals alike.


Of course, no mention of Christian communities in the Galilee would be complete without talking about Nazareth. After spending some time in the city proper and visiting the churches, spend a day in "Nazareth Village," - as its website says, "The Nazareth that Jesus Knew." The village is a full-scale, authentic reproduction of life in a 1st century Holy Land village. Visit 1st century homes, synagogues, olive presses, and more, all based on archaeological evidence.


Many of the north's large cities, like Nazareth, Haifa, and Tiberias, have sizable Christian presences. Visit the Scot's Hotel in Tiberias, run by the Church of Scotland. Haifa is home to a Maronite church, a Carmelite church, and St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Parish Church, in addition to the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery.


While touring the Holy Land, make sure to visit the villages and enclaves of fellow Christians, to see first-hand that Christianity, a strong presence in the land hundreds of years ago, is still a vibrant - and growing - presence today.

May 10, 2013May 10, 2013  0 comments  Holy Sites

“After the Lord Jesus had talked with them [apostles], he was taken up to heaven and sat at the right side of God.” (Mark 16:19)


After his resurrection, Christ appeared to his disciples many times. However, after 40 days since he was brought back to live, Jesus rose up to heaven. According to Evangelist Luke, it happened close to Jerusalem, in the area of Mount of Olives, on the way to Bethany.


When the apostles saw Jesus suddenly disappearing behind a cloud, they were disoriented and shocked. Two angels, however, made them calm down, predicting Christ’s return: “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.” (Acts 1:11)


The Chapel of the Ascension


In the early days of Christianity, still before the Emperor’s Constantine conversion in 312 AD, early believers honoured Christ’s Ascension in a concealed cave on the Mount of Olives. This kind of secret worship was quite common, as it was much safer to congregate in hidden places in the time of the Roman persecution. Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 381 - 384 AD, in her writings describes her participation in a celebration of Ascension that took place on the present open site, uphill from the cave.


Chapel of the Ascension


The spot on the Mount of Olives for building the chapel commemorating Christ’s Ascension was pointed out by Constantine’s mother Queen Helena, who was a pious Christian. She also defined the sites for erecting the Basilica of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulcher.


The first shrine was built with help of Poimenia, a member of an imperial family, in the 4th century (around 378 – 384 AD). The great rotunda open to the sky was erected and called Imbomon, which means "above the hill".


The Byzantine structure had originally two concentric ambulatories (6 m and 2 m in perimeter) that surrounded the principal round space with the spot from which Christ is believed to ascended to heaven located in its center. The church had no proper apse,  just an altar located east of the rock. The archaeological investigations of C. Schick in 1887 and Fr. Corbo between 1959 and 1964 confirmed the round design.


Furthermore, in the 5th century the Chapel of Ascension went through a phase of architectural shifts, when around 438 Melania the Younger installed a shrine in it, eukterion which means ‘a place of prayer’ for St. Stephen. The inauguration ceremony was held during the first imperial visit to the Holy Land of Empress Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II (around 438).


It is not certain if the the church was destructed during the Persian invasion in 614 as the pilgrim Arculf describes the round church open to the sky in 670. However if it was destroyed, the Imbomon might have been restored by Patriarch Modestos around 626.


While the church still existed in 870, it seems to have vanish before Crusaders’s arrival. It was probably destroyed by Fatimid caliph Hakim in 1009.


The Crusaders built on its place an octagonal church which could have been reached by taking 20 steps up. Under the altar was shown a stone from which the Lord rose to heaven, and in which the legend and strong belief sees Christ’s footprint. The chapel was surrounded by still clearly visible columns and arches. The church was encircled by a fortified Crusader monastery.


Chapel of the Ascension


In 1187, the Church of the Ascension came under the Muslim possession and it was transformed into a mosque in 1200, which preserved much of the Crusader design but added a roof and a mihrab. Though not mentioned in Quran, Muslims believe that Jesus ascended into heaven. As the chapel was mainly used by Christians, in 1620 the mosque was relocated to a new structure of Zawiyat al-Adawiyya Mosque built just next to it.


In 1835 the Crusader structure became an enclosed room – the walls were added between the columns and a small dome was built over the roof.


Feast of Ascension


The Ascension Day that commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven is observed on Thursday, on the fortieth day of Easter. It is a movable feast since Easter is as well. The Catholic and Protestant Churches will celebrate the Feast of Ascension this year on the 9th of May 2013 and the Eastern Orthodox Churches on 13th of June 2013.


In Jerusalem, the feast is annually celebrated with a solemn mass at the site of the Chapel of the Ascension.


Chapel of the Ascension


If you go:


The Chapel of the Ascension and the Zawiyat al-Adawiyya Mosque are located in the suburb of At-Tur on the Mount of Olives. It is easy to reach it on foot from Jerusalem’s Old City. It is also possible to take bus #75 from the Bus Station next to the Damascus Gate, which will take you there. Entrance fee: 5 NIS ($ 1.50)


Visit as well:




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Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010. 

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