Damascus, as you may know, is the capital of Syria and is a major cultural centre of the Levant and the Arab world. Know locally as the “City of Jasmine”, Damascus is home to almost three million people. Carbon dating suggests the site of the city has been occupied since around 6300 BC and the city itself from the second millennium BC. Egyptian records tell us King Biryawaza ruled Damascus in the 14th century BC and, after a war, it fell into the hands of Ramesses II in 1259 BC.
Damascus is first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Genesis.” During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus.” (Genesis 14:15) Abram, later Abraham, is in the process of rescuing his nephew Lot who has been carried off by Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar who attacked and looted the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah in what is known as the War of the Kings. King Kedorlaomer wanted to show the neighbouring territories his strength; fortunately, Abram was around to defeat him and recover the goods and his family.
The following chapter of Genesis tells us Abram’s servant came from Damascus. “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3) There is, however, no mention in the Bible about how Damascus came to exist.
According to the 1st-century AD historian Flavius Josephus, Uz, the great-grandson of Noah, founded Damascus. Of Abraham, Josephus states: "Abraham reigned at Damascus, being a foreigner, who came with an army out of the land above Babylon, called the land of the Chaldeans … Now the name of Abraham is even still famous in the country of Damascus; and there is shown a village named from him, The Habitation of Abraham.”
The next Biblical reference to Damascus is during the reign of King David. “When the Arameans of Damascus came to help Hadadezer king of Zobah, David struck down twenty-two thousand of them. He put garrisons in the Aramean kingdom of Damascus, and the Arameans became subject to him and brought tribute. The Lord gave David victory wherever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:5-6) The Arameans had arrived during the 11th century BC and established one of their kingdoms in Damascus. Their presence prevented the Kingdom of Israel from spreading northwards, which led to a clash and inevitably war.
“When David destroyed Zobah’s army, Rezon gathered a band of men around him and became their leader; they went to Damascus, where they settled and took control.” (1 Kings 11:24) Although David had defeated the Arameans, one man Rezon deserted from King Hadadezer and rose his own army. Throughout the reign of King Solomon, Rezon was an adversary and was constantly hostile towards Israel.
The Book of Kings records the rulers of Judah and Israel but also gives the names of the kings of neighbouring territories. Chapter 15 tells us that Hezion was the king of Aram-Damascus during the reign of King Asa of Judah. In chapter 19, the Lord instructed the prophet Elijah to “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.” Unfortunately, this did not stop the hostilities against Israel.
Conflicts continued until the 8thcentury BC when Ben-Hadad II was captured by Israel under King Ahab and granted them trading rights in Damascus. “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” (1 Kings 20:34)
Following this, Damascus entered a mini Dark Age and very little is known about the period, however, it was soon taken over by the Assyrians. This was encouraged by King Ahaz of Judah. “The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it.” (2 Kings 16:9) This fits with prophecies written by three people:
· Isaiah 17:1 - “See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins.”
· Amos 1:4-5 – “I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad. I will break down the gate of Damascus”
· Jeremiah 49:24 – “Damascus has become feeble, she has turned to flee and panic has gripped her; anguish and pain have seized her, pain like that of a woman in labour.”
Damascus was conquered by Alexander the Great and was under his rule until his death in 323 BC. Following that, the city was fought over by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires, until the Romans came along in 64 BC. Damascus became one of the cities that made up the Decapolis along with Gerasa (Jordan), Scythopolis (Israel), Hippos (Golan Heights), Gadara (Jordan), Pella (Jordan), Philadelphia (Amman, Jordan), Capitolias (Jordan), Canatha (Syria) and Raphana (Jordan).
Much of the historic parts of Damascus resemble the Roman period since much of it had to be rebuilt after the previous wars. When Caesar Augustus gave Herod the Great land in 23 BC, Damascus may have been included. Following his death, the city was given back to Syria. When Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, he recorded, “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” (2 Corinthians 11:32) It is not certain when Aretas IV Philopatris of Nabatea gained Damascus, however, he was King of the Nabataeans from 9 BC to 40 AD. Some speculate Emperor Caligula may have gifted it to the king around 37 AD.
The Apostle Paul, or Saul as he was originallynamed, was near Damascus when he underwent his conversion. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 9:3-4) Paul was left blind by this initial contact and the Lord called on a disciple called Ananias to come and find him. “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” (Acts 9:11-12)
Judas of Damascus was a Messianic Jew who gave Saul/Paul lodgings when he was suffering from blindness. It is at his house on Straight Street, now known as Sultany or Queen’s Street that Ananias found Saul. This is the main street of the city. Following his return to full sight, Saul/Paul spent several days with the disciples and began to preach about Jesus. In Acts 22, Paul recounts his story of conversion to the people of Jerusalem and in Acts 26, he told King Agrippa the same in an attempt to persuade him to be a Christian.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul reveals he once returned to Damascus. “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:17) He remained there for three years before finally moving on to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and James, the brother of Jesus. Although he did not meet the other apostles in Jerusalem, it is believed Thomas may have lived in or near Damascus.
The next big change Damascus saw occurred in 634 AD when it was invaded by Muslim forces. For hundreds of years, various Islamic countries fought each other for land and Damascus was passed from army to army until 1516 when the Ottoman Turks captured the city. For 400 years, the Ottoman’s controlled Damascus, however, they allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live amongst each other peacefully. By 1867, approximately 140,000 people lived in the city, 30,000 of which were Christian (mostly Catholic), 10,000 Jews and 100,000 “Mohammedans”.
From the beginning of the 20th century, life in Damascus became more political. During the World Wars, France, who made the city the capital of their League of Nations Mandate for Syria, owned Damascus. Eventually, Damascus was freed from French control in 1946 and Syria became an independent nation.
Today, Sunni Islam is the main religion in Damascus, however, around 20% of the population identify themselves as Christian. There are three Christian districts in the city, each full of churches, including the Chapel of Saint Paul, House of Saint Ananias, Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus and Saint George’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral.
The main road of the old Roman city, Straight Street, where the conversion of Paul occurred is a key historical tourist attraction. Interestingly, the Grand Mosque of Damascus claims to contain the body of St John the Baptist.
In 2008, Damascus was chosen as the Arab Capital of Culture. It has also been twinned with five cities around the world: Toledo, Spain; Córdoba, Spain; Yerevan, Armenia; São Paulo, Brazil; and Istanbul, Turkey.
Jericho is a city that features in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. Today, it is a Palestinian city on the Jordan Bank with a population of over 18,000. Believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it is also the first known city to have had a protective wall built around it. So far, archaeologists have found evidence of settlements dating back to 9000 BC.
The last Ice Age ended in around 9600 BC and it was shortly after that when humans began to settle in the areas around the Jordan River. Remains of constructions built by these Epipaleolithic people have been unearthed, suggesting there were at least seventy houses. These buildings were built from clay and straw, therefore, little else can be determined other than they were quite small, probably containing only one room.
The Wall of Jericho was constructed around 8000 BC. It was roughly 12 feet high and 2 feet wide with a tower that was 22 steps high. Whilst the tower may have been used for ceremonial purposes, the function of the wall was likely to keep out the floodwaters from the Jordan. By 7000 BC, new houses were being constructed from mud bricks, each consisting of several rooms and a courtyard.
Not much is known about the comings and goings of people during the Bronze Age, however, from the 4th millennium, there is evidence the walls were rebuilt several times. By 2600 BC, Jericho was inhabited by the Amorites, although they seem to disappear around 300 years later. Jericho was taken over in 1900 BC by the Canaanites until an earthquake destroyed the city in 1573 BC. It remained uninhabited until the 9th century BC when it was rebuilt.
In the Book of Numbers, Jericho is used as a reference for the location of the Israelites. For example, “They left the mountains of Abarim and camped on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Numbers 33:48) It is estimated Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in 1447 BC, therefore Jericho was uninhabited at this time but may have still been known by the people in the vicinity. Alternatively, since the final form of the Book of Numbers was written in the 5th century, the name may have been added then.
The most famous account of Jericho in the Bible is, of course, in the Book of Joshua, which tells us of the Battle of Jericho. Unfortunately, scholars believe the book holds little historical value since there are issues with the dates. The Bible dates the battle as taking place around 1400 BC, however, archaeological evidence suggests the city was uninhabited at the time. The Book of Joshua was first written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC) and revised in around 538 BC, therefore, the dating could be an estimate, an incorrect one at that.
Nevertheless, the Book of Joshua provides a great example of Israel’s obedience to the teachings and the laws set down in the book of Deuteronomy. It also tells us that the Israelites conquered Jericho, a city that had fallen into sin.
“Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. ‘Go, look over the land,’ he said, ‘especially Jericho.’ So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.” (Joshua 2:1) Jericho was the first city of Canaan that the Israelites had decided to conquer. By sending in two spies, Joshua discovered the inhabitants were afraid of the Israelites and God. The prostitute Rahab told them:
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:9-11)
Following this, she asked the spies to promise that the Lord would show kindness to her for helping the spies. “Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.” (Joshua 2:12-13) With an instruction to tie a scarlet cord in her window so that she and her family could be identified by the Israelites, the spies returned to Joshua.
Acting on the will of the Lord, Joshua prepared the Israelites to attack the city. When the time came to attack the city, they found the gates closed and the citizens hiding in fear of the approaching attackers. “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.’” (Joshua 6:2)
Rather than attempting to force an entry, the Israelites marched around the city walls once a day for six days with the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day, they were instructed to march around the city seven times after which the priests blew their horns and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Following God’s instruction, the Israelites entered the city and slaughtered every man, woman, child and animal apart from those belonging to the family of Rahab. Joshua then cursed anybody who rebuilt the foundations of the city with the death of the eldest and youngest children. According to the Bible, the city was rebuilt during the reign of King Ahab (871-852 BC), although not by him but by Hiel theBethelite. “In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken by Joshua son of Nun.” (1 Kings 16:34)
Jericho was destroyed once again during the 6th century BC by the Babylonians during their conquest of Judah. The Book of Ezra records the number of people “whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon.” (Ezra 2:1) From Jericho alone, there were 345. The Bible, however, provides evidence the city of Jericho was once again flourishing during the 5thcentury BC. It had been rebuilt during the Persian period and during the construction of the walls of Jerusalem, “the men of Jericho built the adjoining section” after the Tower of Hananel.
Alexander the Great captured the region between 336 and 323 BC, making Jericho his private estate. Following this, the city became part of the Hasmonean and Early Roman empires during which time Mark Antony gifted the royal estate to Cleopatra. Following their joint suicide in 30 BC, the city of Jericho was given to Herod the Great (74-4 BC), who was king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. His son Herod Archelaus who ruled for two years succeeded him.
The city of Jericho is mentioned in three of the Gospels as places Jesus passed through. Matthew 20 tells us “as Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho” (20:29) two blind men called out to Jesus and asked him to restore their sight, which he did. Mark 10 records Jesus “came to Jericho” where he met “a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means ‘son of Timaeus’)” who he also healed. (10:46) The same story is told in Luke chapter 18.
In Luke 19, Jesus was passing through Jericho once again when he came across a chief tax collector named Zaccheus who had climbed a sycamore-fig tree to get a look at Jesus. Inviting himself to the tax collector’s house, Jesus inspired Zaccheus to repent of his dishonest practices.
Jericho was also mentioned in the parable of the Good Samaritan. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” (10:30)
The city of Jericho began to decline from 70 AD following the fall of Jerusalem to Emperor Vespasian. By 100 AD, it was a small Roman town and by 333 AD it was abandoned altogether. The current city of Jericho lies slightly to the east of the old town and was built during the Byzantine Period (6th– 7th century AD). It was then under Muslim rule until the Crusades when a couple of monasteries were erected, one of which was dedicated to John the Baptist. In 1187, however, the Muslim forces of Saladin evicted the Crusaders. Since then until the 1900s, the growing city was mostly Muslim.
According to a census in 1922, the population of Jericho was over 3000, the majority of which were Muslim, however, there were also 92 Christians and 6 Jews. During the Second World War, Britain built fortresses in Jericho and by 1945 the population of Christians and Jews had risen to 260 and 170 respectively.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jericho was under the control of Jordan, however, the city continued to grow. By 1961, the population had reached 10,000. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Jericho has belonged to Israel.
Jericho is situated 846 feet below sea level, making it the lowest city in the world. In 2010, Palestinian tourists ranked Jericho the most popular tourist destination due to its proximity to the Dead Sea. It also receives a lot of tourism from Christian pilgrims. Just for fun, here is a list of notable places in and around Jericho you could visit:
· Mount of Temptation on which a Greek Orthodox monastery sits
· The Spring of Elisha (Ein es-Sultan)
· The Sycamore tree of Zaccheus (for some reason there are two)
· The traditional site of the baptism of Jesus on the River Jordan
· The Monastery of Saint Gerasimos
· The Saint George Monastery
· The Stone, belonging to the Bronze and Iron Age
Nazareth, the largest city in the Northern District of Israel was the childhood home of Jesus. Despite being such a well-known place, it is only mentioned in the four Gospels and the book of Acts. Although the city was never mentioned in the Old Testament, it is suggested Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word Netzer, which means branch, and alludes to the prophetic message in Isaiah 11:1 about the “branch of Jesse” that would eventually lead to the birth of Jesus. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
In Biblical times, Nazareth was a town rather than a city, or to be more precise, “a town in Galilee.” (Luke 1:26) In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel visited Mary at her home in Nazareth to inform her that she would have a son. Her fiancé, Joseph, also came from Nazareth but, as we know, Jesus was not born there, but in Bethlehem. “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” (Luke 2:4)
Joseph and Mary could not immediately return to Nazareth due to King Herod the Great, who was searching for Jesus with intent to kill. Instead, the family fled to Egypt where they remained in relative safety until, “Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
Jesus grew up as a Nazarene and the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” appears at least seventeen times in the Bible. The Acts of the Apostles tends to refer to Christ as Jesus of Nazareth more than the Gospels, however, the Gospel of Mark tells us an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) The Gospel of John records at Jesus’ crucifixion, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19)
When the writers of the Bible introduce new people, they usually reveal where they came from, therefore, hometowns must have been important and used as a way to judge people’s character. Nazareth, being only a town and not yet a city, was not a highly regarded place, evidenced by the future apostle Nathanael’s reaction when he first heard about Jesus. “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.” (John 1:46) It is not certain why Nazareth was looked down upon, however, when Jesus “went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom,” (Luke 4:16) he was rejected by the crowds who “drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” (4:29)
There is very little in the history books about what Nazareth was like during the life of Jesus. There is no archaeological evidence of its existence until the Roman period, during which time Jesus was born. Similarly, although it is mentioned in the New Testament, there are no extant non-biblical references to Nazareth until around 200 AD. To make matters more confusing, the earliest references to Nazareth contain conflicting information, for example, one source said approximately 2000 people living in Nazareth at the time of Jesus, whereas, a different source states it had a population of 400. It was not until 2009 that any archaeological remains were discovered in the area dating to the time of Jesus.
Texts from the 6th century claim pilgrims began travelling to Nazareth to see the Jewish synagogue where Jesus was taught and the freshwater spring, known as Mary’s Well, where the Annunciation reputedly took place. Evidence has been found of a church built on the site believed to be Mary’s house and it is believed the town benefited from the Christian pilgrim trade. Unfortunately, anti-Christian hostility broke out when the Persians invaded in 614 AD. Many Jewish people helped the Persians to persecute and slaughter the Christians until Emperor Heraclius of the Byzantine Empire conquered the land in 630 AD. As punishment for their cruel acts, Heraclius expelled the Jews from Nazareth, turning it an all-Christian town.
As well as the church over Mary’s house, there was also a church where Joseph once lived. This, however, was destroyed during the Arab Muslim period, which lasted from 638 AD until the Crusader Period. In 1099, the Crusader Tancred made himself Prince of Galilee and used Nazareth as his capital. The town remained under Christian control until 1187 when the Muslims reclaimed it. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II managed to negotiate safe passage for Christian pilgrims, although, the Egyptians later destroyed all the Christian buildings when they invaded in 1263.
Due to all the invasions, Nazareth had become a poor village, although a few Arab Christians were determined to remain there. In the 14th century, Franciscan monks returned to Nazareth, however, were evicted in 1584 by the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, in 1730, the leader of the Galilee, Zahir al-Umar, was more sympathetic to the Christians and allowed a Franciscan Church to be built. Permitting the Greek Orthodox community to build St Gabriel’s Church, which still stands today, followed in 1767.
Nazareth has since been occupied by a variety of people and nationalities, for instance, Napoleon in 1799, Britain in 1917 and Israel in the 1950s. Today, Nazareth still belongs to Israel, however, it receives a lot of trade and visitors from many places across the world, which has helped Nazareth grow into a sizeable city.
Today, Nazareth is home to many religious buildings, the majority of which are Christian, however, there are still plenty of Muslim places of worship. Churches include the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, the Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel, the Melkite Synagogue Church, the Roman Catholic St Joseph’s Church, the Mensa Christi Church, and the Basilica of Jesus the Adolescent.
Just for fun, did you know Nazareth is twinned with these cities?
Sidon or Saida is the third-largest city in Lebanon. It lies between the city of Tyre and the Lebanese capital Beirut, which are both approximately 25 miles away. Currently, Sidon has a population of over 80,000, however, it has been inhabited since before records began. Although it is now a city, it began as a fishing town, which is what the name Sidon means in the Phoenician language. Sidon was also the name of Canaan and the grandson of Noah, therefore, it is likely the city was named after him.
When the Tribes of Israel were issued land at the end of the book of Genesis, Sidon was apportioned to the Tribe of Zebulun. “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon.” (Geneses 49:13) Being on the Mediterranean coastline, Sidon became a popular port and rapidly grew from a fishing village to a city in a commercial empire.
The Phoenicians arrived in the city in around the time of Joshua (1355-1245 BC) and Sidon quickly became one of their most important cities, potentially the oldest. Craftsmen in the city were famed for producing glass and purple dies, and women were known for the art of embroidery. Evidence for the Sidonians’ skills can be read in the Bible, for example, “You know that we have no one so skilled in felling timber as the Sidonians.” (1 Kings 5:6)
A group from Sidon spread out to colonise another city, Tyre, taking their trades with them, resulting in much competition between the two cities. In the Bible, Sidon is considered to be the “mother of Tyre” as emphasised in a prophecy against Tyre in Isaiah 23: “No more of your revelling, Virgin Daughter Sidon, now crushed!” (23:12)
Sidon was such a powerful city it oppressed Israel along with “the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines … the Amalekites and the Maonites” (Judges 10:11-12), however, it was also conquered many times before Christianity came about. Sidon’s conquerors include Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Evidence for each invasion has been found by archaeologists in the style of buildings, coins and materials from other places. There is also evidence that the Sidonians worshipped the god Ba’al.
One of the ways Sidon infiltrated itself into Israel was through King Solomon who had many foreign wives. Sidon was one of the nations God had told the Israelites “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods” (1 Kings 11:2), which is exactly what happened. Solomon’s wives led him astray, convincing him to worship their gods, including Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians.
King Ahab of Israel was also guilty of being influenced by the Sidonians because he “married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.” (1 Kings 16:31) Elijah, who prophesied during Ahab’s reign, travelled to Sidon at God’s instruction: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” (1 Kings 17:9) While he was there, he performed miracles, including bringing the widow’s son back to life.
Other prophets in the Bible frequently wrote about Sidon, for example, Isaiah, who referred to the city concerning the prophecy against Tyre. Jeremiah mentioned Sidon a least three times, the final during a message about the Philistines: “For the day has come to destroy all the Philistines and to remove all survivors who could help Tyre and Sidon.” (Jeremiah 47:4) Ezekiel also mentioned Sidon during a lament over Tyre as well as a prophecy against Sidon:
“‘I am against you, Sidon,
and among you I will display my glory.
You will know that I am the Lord,
when I inflict punishment on you
and within you am proved to be holy.
I will send a plague upon you
and make blood flow in your streets.
The slain will fall within you,
with the sword against you on every side.
Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
The prophet Joel also speaks of Sidon who is judged for their actions against God’s people. Zechariah prophesies a similar judgement.
Despite these prophecies, Sidon continued to prosper as a great city, although under many different hands. At the end of the Persian era in 351 BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Artaxerxes III invaded Sidon, who was shortly followed by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. In the remains of the Necropolis of Sidon, the Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, which is now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. The tomb featured bas-relief carvings of the triumphs of Alexander the Great.
Following Alexander the Great, the city continued to prosper and, even though it eventually fell under Roman dominion, Sidon continued to mint its own silver coins. The Roman’s built a theatre and many monuments in the city and it is believed Herod the Great, who was the king of Galilee when Jesus was born, visited Sidon. Herod was not the only Bible character from the New Testament to visit the city; “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Matthew 15:21) from Jerusalem. Whilst there, Jesus healed a demon-possessed girl whose mother had such faith in him. Jesus may also have found some of his followers in Sidon as Mark records, “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” (Mark 3:7-8)
The final time Sidon is mentioned in the Bible is in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, who had been arrested, was being taken to Rome, which was a very long journey. Along the way they “landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.” (Acts 27:3)
After Biblical times, Sidon became part of the Byzantine Empire during which time many of the surrounding cities were destroyed in an earthquake. Sidon, however, continued to thrive until the Arabs conquered it in 636 AD. From then on, Sidon was continuously conquered by foreign powers, particularly during the Crusades when it changed hands between Jerusalem, Norway, Egypt and Germany until the Saracens and Mongols destroyed it. Only the walls of the original city remain visible.
Sidon was rebuilt as a fishing town and blossomed under the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, Sidon became part of the French Mandate of Lebanon, which changed hands to the British during World War Two. Following the war, hundreds of Palestinian refugees arrived in Sidon, swelling the numbers of inhabitants to over 10,000. By 2000, however, the population had risen to 65,000.
Today, the majority of Sidon’s population belong to the Sunni Muslim faith, however, there are a few thousand Christians in the city: Armenian Catholic (0.1%), Greek Melkite Catholic (3.7%), Lebanese Maronite Christians (3.3%), Greek Orthodox (0.7%), Armenian Orthodox (0.6%), Evangelicals (0.4%), Roman Latin Catholic (0.2%), Chaldean Catholic (>0%), Syriac Orthodox (>0%), Syriac Catholic (>0%), Assyrian Church of the East (>0%) and Copts (>0%).
Just for fun, here is a list of the main attractions in Sidon, should you ever find yourself in the area:
· Sidon Sea Castle, built by the Crusaders in the 13th century
· Sidon Soap Museum
· Caravanserai of the French, a 17th-century roadside inn
· Debbane Palace, soon to be opened as the History Museum of Sidon
· The Castle of Saint Louis, built by the Crusaders in the 13th century
· Eshmun Temple, dedicated to the Phoenician god of healing
Nineveh was once the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire located in Upper Mesopotamia on the Eastern bank of the River Tigris. The land on which the city once stood now belongs to Mosul, a major city in Iraq. Until 612 BC, it was the largest city in the world, however, after civil war and invasions, Nineveh was reduced to rubble.
In the Bible, Nineveh is first mentioned in Genesis 10, which says, “From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.” (10:11-12) In this verse, “he” is Nimrod, the son of Cush, the grandson of Ham, and the great-grandson of Noah. Older translations of the Bible mention Ashur instead, the second son of Shem, however, it is now generally agreed Nimrod was the founder of Nineveh. According to tradition, Nimrod was also the leader of those who built to Tower of Babel.
Nineveh eventually became the capital of the Assyrian empire and the home of the king, Sennacherib (c.740-681 BC). “So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.” (2 Kings 19:36 and Isaiah 37:37) The king of Judah at the time was King Hezekiah (c.739-c.687 BC), during whose reign the prophets Isaiah and Micah prophesied. During Sennacherib’s reign, he aroused fear in the neighbouring kingdoms, including Judah, however, Jerusalem was delivered from Sennacherib after his sons assassinated him.
The prophet Nahum the Elkoshite predicted the destruction of Nineveh, a city with which God was angry. “From you, Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the Lord and devises wicked plans.” (Nahum 1:11) Nahum revealed God’s commands concerning the city:
“You will have no descendants to bear your name.
I will destroy the images and idols
that are in the temple of your gods.
I will prepare your grave,
for you are vile.” (Nahum 1:14)
In the second book of Nahum, the prophet described the attackers, who would cause Nineveh’s fall, including details about their red uniforms and metal chariots. In Nahum 3, the prophet foretells the city’s sad fate. “Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?” (Nahum 3:7) Nineveh’s end was sudden and tragic, going from the biggest city in the world, to desolation. “He will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.” (Zephaniah 2:13)
God, however, allowed Nineveh the opportunity to repent. The familiar story, which lacks some credibility (but that’s another story), tells of Jonah son of Amittai who God commanded to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) As we know, Jonah was afraid and attempted to flee to Tarshish by boat. Whilst he was at sea, a huge storm arose, which threatened to destroy the ship. Knowing the storm was caused by God, Jonah insisted to be thrown overboard to end the storm, where a big fish swallowed him. Jonah is eventually saved and God commanded him a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2)
Jonah obeyed God the second time and travelled to Nineveh, which was “a very large city; it took three days to go through it.” (Jonah 3:3) Jonah proclaimed to the Ninevites, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4) and they believed him, putting on sackcloth and showing their repentance by fasting. Even the king of Nineveh did the same. God, therefore, “saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)
The fourth book of Jonah tells us there were more than 120,000 people in Nineveh, all of whom were wicked until Jonah’s visit. “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32) Jesus referred to the salvation of Nineveh during his preaching, explaining that the Son of God has been sent to earth to achieve what Jonah did on a much wider scale.
Unfortunately, although the Ninevites had been saved, the physical city was still reduced to rubble in 612 BC. It is estimated the area was first inhabited as early as 6000 BC and by 3000 BC was an important religious centre for the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. It is not certain when Nineveh was established as a city, however, it was mentioned in texts relating to the reign of Shamshi-Adad I in about 1800 BC. Archaeological evidence reveals Nineveh was extensively built upon during the late 3rd and 2nd millenniums BC, however, it was not until the reign of Sennacherib that the city became truly magnificent. Sennacherib built a “palace without a rival” which was comprised of about 80 rooms. Some believe the palace contained the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon (713-669 BC) continued to develop and found new palaces and temples, as did his successor, Ashurbanipal (d.627 or 631 BC). Unfortunately, Nineveh’s status as the greatest city in the world was short-lived after Ashurbanipal’s death. Several claimants to the throne provoked a civil war and countries under Assyria’s control began to rebel, including the Babylonians and Persians. By 612 BC, Nineveh had been sacked and razed to the ground.
Excavations of the ancient city of Nineveh began in the 19th century and the young British diplomat Austen Henry Layard (1817-94) discovered the remains of the lost palace of Sennacherib in 1849. The majority of the surviving elements of the palace have been moved to museums around the world and all that remains of Nineveh is the remnants of the city walls and two mounts, one of which is known in English as “Prophet Jonah”.
The city walls were once 12km in length and contained several gateways. Archaeologists have explored only five to any extent and a little information has been revealed about their purpose. Just for fun, here is a snippet of what they have discovered:
To learn more about the fall of Nineveh read the blog I Am Ashurbanipal
Ephesus was an ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia, which is now part of modern-day turkey. It was built in around the 10thcentury BC, however, it is only mentioned in the New Testament. The city was famous as the location of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ephesus was also one of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:11)
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:1-7)
It is thought the Gospel of John may have been written in Ephesus, however, it is never mentioned in the book. The first time the city appears in the Bible is in the Book of Acts shortly after Paul has left Corinth. Paul was travelling with two people named Priscilla and Aquilla, who he left in Ephesus whilst he continued to Syria. “When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus.” (Acts 18:20-21)
As promised, Paul returned to Ephesus where he met up with some of the disciples and spoke to them about the Holy Spirit. The disciples, however, had never heard of the Holy Spirit and confessed they had only be baptised by John the Baptist, which Paul referred to as a “baptism of repentance.” Following this, the disciples, twelve men in total, were baptised in the name of Jesus and began to speak in tongues.
Whilst in Ephesus, Paul conducted many miracles, which put the fear of the Lord into the Jews and Greeks in the city, many of whom confessed of their sins and changed their wicked ways. Unfortunately, a man named Demetrius despised Paul and tried to convince the citizens to ignore his claims. Demetrius declared, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28) This sparked a riot amongst those who had heard Demetrius’ cry, which was quickly joined by hundreds of other people, many of whom had no idea what was going on but had been caught up in the moment.
Paul was frustrated with the stubbornness of the Jewish synagogue in Ephesus and decided to move on to Macedonia, leaving the disciples to attempt to spread the word in the city. It has been suggested Paul had stayed four years in Ephesus (53-57 AD) during which time he wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul tells the Corinthians that he will come to them after visiting Macedonia “But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” (1 Corinthians 16:8-9) As Acts 19 states, however, the disciples discouraged Paul from challenging Demetrius’ beliefs and he left the city without having won over all the citizens.
Later, around 62 AD, Paul wrote to the Ephesians from where he was imprisoned in Rome. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 1:1-2) Paul wrote specifically to those who he had successfully converted before he left the city. In his letter, Paul provided the Ephesians with instructions for Christian living and households.
Paul also wrote a couple of letters to his disciple Timothy, who he urged to “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.” (1 Timothy 1:3-4) According to the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, Timothy was the first bishop of Ephesus.
Whilst these accounts tell us about the challenge of spreading Christianity to Ephesus, they reveal little about the geography and history of the city. Recent excavations suggest the land was inhabited from as early as 6000 BC; however, the city of Ephesus was not founded until the 10th century BC by an Attic-Ionian colony. According to legend, a prince of Athens who had to leave his country after the death of his father founded the city. The prince drove out most of the natives and gave the land to his people. He was a successful warrior and the city began to flourish under his reign.
In 650 BC, Cimmerians, a nomadic tribe, attacked Ephesus, burning it to the ground. This attack also destroyed the temple of Artemis. The city was rebuilt but faced several invasions over the coming centuries until it became a part of the Roman Republic in 129 BC. The Romans temporarily lost Ephesus to the Mithridates but had regained the city by 86 BC. It is recorded that King Ptolemy XII Auletes of Egypt retired to Ephesus in 57 BC, where he spent most of his time at the newly built Temple of Artemis. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra were also welcomed to Ephesus in 33 BC.
When Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC, he made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia and the city entered a period of prosperity. Ephesus was second in importance and size to Rome. This was the state of the city when Paul visited in the 1st century AD. Unfortunately, the Goths destroyed the city in 263 AD and, although Constantine the Great rebuilt Ephesus, adding in new public baths, the city never regained its former splendour.
Ephesus remained a fairly important city during the 5thand 6thcentury and Justinian I erected the basilica of St John over the location they believed to be the burial place of John the Baptist. Yet, the city began to rapidly decline after an earthquake in 614 AD and sackings by the Arabs between 654 and 716 AD. By 1090 when Turks conquered Ephesus, it was little more than a village. By the 15th century, the place had been abandoned.
Today, Ephesus is one of the largest Roman archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. Remains and foundations of buildings are still recognisable, including the Temple of Artemis, which once contained over 100 marble pillars. The façade of the Library of Celsus, which was built in 125 AD, has been carefully reconstructed from original pieces. It is believed nearly 12,000 scrolls were once kept in the building.
Just for fun, here is a list of notable people that once lived in Ephesus. We might not recognise many of their names but they have played a large part in history:
Philippi was a major city in Greece on the Aegean Sea at the foot of Mount Lekani. Originally called Crenides, the city was renamed by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BC. Today, Philippi lies in ruins in the region of Filippoi, which now belongs to East Macedonia and Thrace. Since 2016, the ancient ruins have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the New Testament, Paul’s letters to the church at Philippi are recorded in the Epistle to the Philippians. The apostle first visited the city with Silas and possibly Luke, the Gospel writer, in either AD 49 or 50 during his second missionary journey. “From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.” (Acts 16:12) Whilst there, Paul met a woman who dealt in cloth named Lydia who converted to Christianity after hearing Paul’s message.
Philippi had become a Roman city in 42 BC, two years after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus escaped from Italy to Greece where Caesar’s heirs Mark Antony and Octavian eventually defeated them at the Battle of Philippi. Following this, veteran soldiers were released from Antony and Octavian’s armies and encouraged to colonise city. When Octavian became the Roman Emperor Augustus in 27 BC, he continued to encourage the colonisation, renaming the city Colonia Augusta Iulia Philippensis.
By the time Paul reached Philippi, the city was likened to a “miniature Rome” under the municipal law of the Romans. Philippi is thought to be the first European location visited by Paul and, therefore, could be the first introduction of Christianity to the continent.
“Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only.” (Philippians 4:15) In his letter, Paul includes a short thank you note to the Philippians regarding their hospitality and the gifts they had subsequently sent to him. This, however, goes slightly against Paul’s claim in his letter to the Thessalonians in which he declares “We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi” (Thessalonians 2:2). Nonetheless, a small church was erected in Philippi and named the Basilica of Paul after the prophet.
Although it had the oldest congregation in Europe, Philippi did not become a bishopric until the 4th century. Over the following two centuries, many ecclesiastical buildings were erected, including seven churches. At the end of the 5th century, a cathedral took the place of the original Basilica of Paul, which is said to have rivalled the churches of Constantinople.
Philippi was a heavily fortified city, which helped it survive Slavic invasions during the 6th century, however, a pandemic in 547 known as the Plague of Justinian significantly weakened the city’s population. An earthquake in 619 almost flattened the city and, although people remained in the area, it was no bigger than a village by the end of the 7th century. It is thought the Byzantine Empire used the village as a garrison, however, the area was captured by the Bulgarians in 838. By the 900s, the Byzantine Empire had reclaimed the former city and Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas rebuilt the fortifications. Philippi began to grow and prosper once more, becoming a centre of business and wine production by 1150.
After the fourth Crusade, Philippi was captured by the Serbs but continued to thrive. What happened after this, however, is not certain. Whether gradual or sudden, the city was abandoned and by the 1540s, all that remained were ruins.
Philippi is now a graveyard of once splendid buildings; a sorry end for one of the first Christian European cities. Still standing is the entrance to an Ancient Greek-style theatre and relief decorations by Philip II (4th century BC). Many of the columns forming the Roman forum still stand, however, whatever they supported has crumbled away. Roman gravestones can still be deciphered in places and a floor mosaic containing the name of St Paul indicates where the basilica once stood.
It is a shame there is not much left of the city, however, Philippi will be eternally remembered through Paul’s letters to the Philippians.
“Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:13) This is the only time the village of Emmaus is mentioned in the Bible and yet it is the location of an important part of Jesus’ life and resurrection. “They” are two disciples, one who is called Cleopas, who did not believe Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James when they revealed Jesus had risen from the dead. The two disciples were discussing the events of the past three days when they encountered a stranger on the road who accompanied them to Emmaus. When there, Cleopas and his friend urged this stranger to stay with them for the evening but whilst they were dining, the stranger took the bread, gave thanks and broke it before giving it to the pair. Reminded of the Last Supper, the disciples realised it was not a stranger but Jesus, who immediately disappeared from their sight.
So, where was Emmaus? We know from Luke Emmaus was about seven miles (or 60 stadia) from Jerusalem, however, its geographical location is not clear. There have been several suggestions throughout history but since the Bible did not provide any specific details about the landscape, no one can be completely certain about the location. It is thought the name Emmaus came from the Semitic word hammaor hammat, meaning “warm spring”, which may be a clue about the geography of the village.
The majority of the suggested locations are around 60 stadia (an ancient Greek measurement) from Jerusalem; however, the most popular and oldest identification is around 160 stadia from the city. Emmaus Nikopolis (meaning Emmaus City of Victory) appears in the deuterocanonical bible in the first book of Maccabees under the name Emmaus during Judas of Maccabee’s wars against the Greeks. Being strategically close to Jerusalem, it became a regional administrative centre, however, was destroyed by the Romans in 4 BC. Although attempts were made to rebuild the village, an earthquake flattened it in 130 AD.
During the early 3rd century AD, a city was erected on the foundations of Emmaus, which quickly became a famous city in Palestine. In the writings of Saint Eusebius of Vercelli (283-371), it is stated, “Emmaus, whence was Cleopas who is mentioned by the Evangelist Luke. Today it is Nicopolis, a famous city of Palestine.” This is one of the earliest claims that Emmaus Nikopolis is the location of the Biblical Emmaus and after the city became a bishopric, a church complex was built on the spot believed to be the place where the apparition of the risen Christ occurred.
Due to the discrepancy between Luke’s claim that Emmaus was 60 stadia from Jerusalem and the reality that Emmaus Nikopolis was much further away, led people to doubt Saint Eusebius’ claim. In more recent years, several other places have been suggested, for example, the village of al-Qubeiba 65 stadia north of Jerusalem. Although there is no literature suggesting this is the location of Emmaus, a Roman fort that was discovered during the Crusades has been named Castellum Emmaus.
Abu Ghosh, a town approximately 83 stadia (nine miles) from Jerusalem, was originally believed to be Emmaus by the Crusaders before they accepted Emmaus Nikopolis as the location. Both towns are accessed from the same road out of Jerusalem, however, there is little else to suggest Abu Ghosh is the true location.
Between Abu Ghosh and Jerusalem is another potential location of the biblical Emmaus. Colonia, 36 stadia from Jerusalem, was a Palestinian Arab village that was destroyed by the Jewish military in 1948. Originally named Mozah, it is listed in Joshua 18 as one of the Benjamite cities. In the Jewish Talmud, Mozah was referred to as the place where people could celebrate Sukkot. Unlike Emmaus Nikopolis, which was identified as the Emmaus of Luke thousands of years ago, Mozah, or Motza as it temporarily became, was suggested as the location by William F. Birch (1840–1916) of the Palestinian Exploration Fund in 1881.
When determining the true locations of biblical cities, scholars often look at the work of Josephus Flavius, however, in this instance, his writing has proved unhelpful. In his historiographical work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus mentions a city named Emmaus in the context of the Maccabean Revolt, which has been identified as Emmaus Nikopolis. In his book The Jewish War, however, Josephus speaks of a place called Emmaus 60 stadia from Jerusalem, which corresponds with the Biblical description but paints Emmaus Nikopolis out of the picture. To make things even more confusing, historians are almost certain Josephus’ second Emmaus is Mozah, now Colonia, which is only 30 stadia from Jerusalem.
It is unlikely that the true location of Emmaus will ever be proven and some scholars have put forward the idea that the account in Luke was merely symbolic. The passage has been likened to Jacob being visited by God in his dream while sleeping on a rock in the Old Testament. Others claim it mimics the story told by Livy (64 BC – 12 AD) in which a man named Proculus, which means “proclaimer” in archaic Latin meets a stranger on the road to Rome who turns out to be the recently killed Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. When Proculus realised who the stranger is, Romulus ascended into heaven. In Luke’s Gospel, the two disciples have a similar experience but what connects the two stories further is the named disciple Cleopas, which means “proclaimer” in Greek.
Whatever the truth, Emmaus is certainly a mystery!
Gethsemane, or Gat Shmaním, which means “oil press”, was a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The garden is only mentioned by name in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, which both describe the same scene, commonly known as the Agony in the Garden.
The Agony in the Garden took place on the night of Jesus’ arrest. After the famous Last Supper, “Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’” (Matthew 26:36) Whilst Jesus was praying, the disciples fell asleep. Three times Jesus asked his disciples to sit and pray, and each time they fell asleep. Jesus’ prayers were almost like pleas, asking God to “Take this cup from me.” Jesus knew, of course, the events to follow were part of God’s big plan. “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:36
The Mount of Olives, and therefore Gethsemane, was a place Jesus and his Disciples visited regularly. Going there to pray was nothing unusual, however, it meant Judas was able to easily find Jesus to have him arrested.
Gethsemane’s location is uncertain and there are at least four places near the foot of the mountain that claim to be the true garden. Each claim was made by a different Christian denomination: Catholic, Eastern Christianity, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox. The first claim is the garden at the Catholic Church of All Nations in Jerusalem. The church, which was consecrated in 1924, is built on the remains of a 12th-century Crusader chapel, which in turn had been erected on the site of a 4th-century Byzantine basilica. Enshrined within the church is a piece of bedrock claiming to be where Jesus prayed before his arrest.
The second location claiming to be Gethsemane is near the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary, which is where Eastern Christians believe Mary, the mother of Jesus was buried. According to tradition, Mary died a natural death and was buried in the tomb, however, was resurrected three days later. Following this, Mary was taken up to heaven in bodily form, which is known as the Assumption of Mary.
The Greek Orthodox Church has supposedly determined Gethsemane would have been on the east side of the Mount of Olives, however, has expressed no precise location. The Russian Orthodox Church, on the other hand, is certain Gethsemane is the orchard next to the Church of Mary Magdalene. The Russian architect David Grimm designed the church for Tsar Alexander III who wished to honour his mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna. A relic of the martyred saint Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, can be found in the church, alongside a relic of the nun Varvara Yakovleva who was also murdered along with the royal family. Having expressed the wish to be buried near her grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, the mother of Princess Phillip, was buried in the crypt below the church.
It is impossible to determine which, if any, of the claimants are the true location of Gethsemane, however, they are all within proximity of each other. Olive trees in the area have been determined to be the oldest known to science, however, it is uncertain whether they would have been the same trees that Jesus was familiar with. Carbon dating has placed some of the trees as far back as 1092. Since olive trees can regrow from their roots if chopped down, there is a very strong chance that these trees have been there since biblical times.
Just for fun, I have found out some facts about olives:
Capernaum, which only appears in the Gospels, was a fishing village on the northern shore of Lake Galilee. It was established during the time the Hasmoneans were the ruling dynasty of Judea between 140 and 116 BC. Today, the village lies in ruins; however, it once had a population of about 1500 people.
The village’s original name was Kfar Naḥūm, which means “Nahum’s Village” but, as far as we know, there was no connection to the Old Testament prophet. In Greek, the name was written Kαφαρναούμ (Kapharnaoúm), which over time became Capernaum.
In the Bible, Capernaum is recorded as the hometown of several of Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew 4, Jesus “went and lived in Capernaum” (4:13) where he came across “Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” (4:18) Jesus told them to follow him and they did, becoming his first disciples. Walking on from there, although presumably not far, Jesus came across, James son of Zebedee and his brother John who were also fishing. Just as he did with Simon and Andrew, Jesus called to them and they became his disciples.
In Matthew 9, “Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town” – believed to be Capernaum – where he healed a paralysed man. Following this, he came across a man called Matthew, a tax collector and, although tax collectors were generally despised, Jesus asked Matthew to follow him. Thus, Matthew became another of Jesus’ disciples.
Possibly because he lived there, or at least some of his disciples came from the village, Jesus spent a lot of time in Capernaum, therefore, it is unsurprising that many of his miracles took place in there. Jesus’ first miracle took place at a wedding in Cana, however, “After this he went down to Capernaumwith his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days” (John 2:12)
Jesus’ miracles in Capernaum are recorded throughout all four Gospels. Already mentioned is the healing of the paralysed man, which took place shortly before Matthew was called to discipleship. Whilst this miracle is recorded in both Matthew and Mark, the latter contains more detail. “A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home.They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them.” (Mark 2:1-2) Jesus’ miracles were already well known, hence the crowd of people, however, this meant not everyone could get into the building to see Jesus. Four men attempted to bring a paralysed man to Jesus, however, after seeing the crowd, they decided to lower the man through a hole in the roof rather than attempt to get through the door. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5)
Jesus was often amazed by the faith of the people who sought him out, for example, “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.’” (Matthew 8:5-6) The Centurion confessed he did not deserve Jesus to come under his roof, however, should Jesus wish to heal his servant he knew Jesus would. Amazed, Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10) Subsequently, the servant was healed.
Another physical ailment Jesus healed was blindness. Whilst he was walking through Capernaum, two blind men called out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 9:27) For their faith, Jesus restored their sight. Immediately afterwards, a mute man who was possessed by a demon was brought to Jesus. “When the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.” (Matthew 9:33)
Many of Jesus’ miracles involved driving out demons. In Mark 1, a man possessed by a demon tried to challenge Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) After a stern “Be quiet!” Jesus ordered the demon to leave the man. Later that day, “people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.” (Mark 1:32) Jesus healed the people and drove out many demons.
One of Jesus’ amazing miracles involved raising a dead girl. A synagogue leader approached Jesus saying, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matthew 9:18) Jesus followed the man to his house where he told the noisy crowd, “The girl is not dead but asleep.” (9:24) Despite being laughed at, Jesus took hold of the girl’s hand and she rose up from the bed, completely healthy. Coinciding with this miracle was the healing of a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. Her faith was so strong, she believed by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak as he passed by would heal her. She was right.
Not all the people Jesus healed were strangers. After spending the day preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus went to the home of Simon where his mother-in-law was suffering from a fever. Jesus “rebuked the fever, and it left her.” Incidentally, archaeologists believe they have found the remains of Simon’s house, or Saint Peter as he is otherwise known.
Whilst the majority of Jesus’ miracles involved healing, the disciples were witnesses to a different type. John 6 tells us of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes, which took place on the opposite side of the lake, however, when the disciples had “got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum,” (Mark 6:17) they saw Jesus walking on the water towards them. Naturally, they were frightened by this but Jesus reassured them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” (6:20)
The Gospels do not only record miracles occurring at Capernaum, but there are also the teachings of Jesus. Mark 9:37 is perhaps the most well known of these, which states, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Another well-known saying occurs in Matthew 11, which was said by Jesus while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Jesus also issued a warning to the people of Capernaum. Despite the number of miracles that occurred in the village, Capernaum would not survive the wrath of God. “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.” Although Jesus spent a lot of time preaching to the villagers, they still lacked faith. Whether related to this or not, the village now lies in ruins.
It is not certain exactly when the village was abandoned but scholars believe it was during the 11thcentury AD before the crusader conquest. The village was established during the 2nd century BC at the same time as other fishing villages around the lake. The historian Josephus described Capernaum as a fertile spring, which he stayed at for a night to recover from a riding accident.
The ruins reveal the houses in Capernaum were narrow and could be accessed by communal passages and courtyards. There was no plumbing; therefore, it can be assumed people got water from the river. Remains of fishhooks and weights confirm that Capernaum was an established fishing village and there is no evidence of an “upper class” or ruler.
One set of ruins has been identified as a synagogue from the 4th-century. Underneath this are older remains that are believed to be the foundations of the synagogue mentioned in the Bible. There are also walls belonging to houses built in the 4thor 5thcentury, which were larger than the older building, however, one excavated house from the 1stcentury was markedly different from the rest. Unlike the bare walls of the other houses, this building had been plastered, leading archaeologists to believe it was not just used as a residence. Suggestions that it may have been a religious gathering place are widely accepted, as well as the idea that the disciple Simon/Peter lived there. Graffiti on the wall mentions Peter’s name. Today, a memorial modern church has been built above the ancient house in which a glass floor allows a direct view of the ruins below.
Did you know, in 1986 on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee, a 1st-century fishing boat was discovered that gives us an idea what the Disciple’s boat looked like. Who knows, it could even be their boat!
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon