Ten Must-Visit Christian Sites in Israel: A Pilgrim’s Guide

If you’re a Christian, one of the most meaningful journeys you could ever hope to make would be to the Holy Land. In fact – for many, it really is the trip of a lifetime – one that brings the words of the Bible to life.

Be transported back in time as you walk in the footsteps of Jesus, pray in the churches related to his life and death, gaze out at the Galilee where he performed miracles, and be baptized in the Jordan River, as he was himself. With such spiritual experience, n wonder so many people take organized Israel Christian tours, to make sure they won’t miss a thing.

The country is packed full of Christian places worth exploring but if you’re looking for a ‘top ten’ list, then here’s one we think includes the most important and meaningful sites.

1. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Without a doubt this is the top attraction for any Christian pilgrim visiting the Holy Land.  Located in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, which dates back thousands of years, the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine, after his mother Helena journeyed to the Holy Land and identified this site as the place where Jesus both died and was resurrected.

Today it is the most sacred church in the world for Christians to visit and is under the joint control of different denominations – including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches.  Inside, pilgrims can visit the ‘Place of the Crucifixion’ (where Cavalry was), the Stone of the Unction (on which Jesus’ body was presumably prepared for burial), and the Aedicule )the Tomb of Christ, which leads into the chapel containing his burial cave).

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open year-round but particularly worth a visit over Easter Week (culminating in Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday) and Christmas.

Reader’s tip: look for the thousands of stone crosses carved into the church walls – they were made by Crusaders who had journeyed to the Holy Land for Europe, thousands of years ago!

2. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

One of the oldest churches in the world, the Church of the Nativity is located in Bethlehem, just a few kilometers from Jerusalem and famous as the birthplace of Jesus.  According to Christian tradition, it was here that Joseph and a heavily-pregnant Mary arrived to be registered for a census but because there was no room in the nearby inn, they came to a cave where Jesus was born in a manger.

Dedicated in 339 CE, its beautiful interior has walls covered in gold mosaics, along with 44 painted columns.  The church has an original mosaic floor, exposed wooden rafters and an octagonal baptismal font (which would have once stood near the High Altar).

3. Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Nazareth, in northern Israel, is home to the Basilica of the Annunciation – the largest church in the Middle East – and marks the site where Mary, the mother of Jesus, was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who told her she would give birth to the Son of God.

Modern in its architectural style, the basilica was completed in 1969 and inside contains two churches, one built above the other, and a beautiful cupola, designed to look like a lily opening its petals to the shrine below and below the ground floor is a sunken grotto, containing the ‘cave’ of the Virgin Mary.

The spiral stairway at the entrance leads to the upper church (used by the Catholic community in Nazareth) and the outside courtyard is full of beautiful icons of Mary, in different languages (donated by churches from around the globe).

4. St. Peter’s Church, Capernaum, Galilee

Situated at an archaeological site in Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, lies St. Peter’s Church, part of a Franciscan monastery.

Once a frontier point and a fish market, Capernaum was where Jesus spent much of his adult life.  It was also the place where he recruited his first disciples, taught in the synagogue and performed many of his miracles.

Today, the Church of St. Peter (a very modern structure) sits over the site of what historians believe was once Peter’s house and the place where Jesus stayed.  Excavations by archaeologists show that one room from centuries ago even had graffiti on the walls, in Greek, stating ‘Jesus is Lord,’  In the fifth century, an octagonal church was built around this holy room and the church you will see today has been designed in the same shape.

5. Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem

At the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, overlooking the Kidron Valley lies the lush and pastoral Garden of Gethsemane where, according to the Christian Bible, Jesus prayed on the night before his arrest, before being betrayed by Judas Iscariot and handed over to the Romans for crucifixion.

The Garden of Gethsemane is visited by thousands of Christian pilgrims each year, and is filled with olive trees (historians believe that at the time of the Second Temple, there was an olive press here).  Alongside the garden is the Franciscan Church of All Nations, designed by the famous Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi.  Built ove the rock where Jesus is supposed to have prayed on that fateful night, it has a typically Roman basilica with a triangular mosaic at the top of its facade.

6. Qasr al Yehud, Jericho

One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the site where Joshua fought a great battle, Jericho sits in the Judea desert, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, and is home to the site of Qasr al Yahud, on the Jordan River.

It is here that Christ was baptised by John the Baptist and it is also here where Joshua led the Israelites across the River Jordan into the Promised Land.  The Prophet Elijah is also said to have ascended into heaven from Qasr al Yehyd, so it really is worth a visit, particularly for pilgrims who are looking to be baptised.

7. The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor

Situated in the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee, the Church of the Transfiguration is the place where Christians believe the transfiguration of Christ took place – that is where Jesus’s appearance/form changed completely, into a spiritual state and where he spoke to the Prophets Moses and Elijah.

This church sits to the east of Nazareth, upon Mount Tabor (which is 450 metres above the plain) and is overseen by the Franciscans.  Like the Church of all Nations, in Jerusalem, this Basilica was designed by the architect Antonio Barluzzi and completed in 1924.

Inside are three grottoes, and in the upper part is a gold mosaic depicting the transfiguration.  With a beautiful interior and incredibly tranquil surroundings, it’s a wonderful place for meditation and contemplation.

8. St, George’s Monastery, Wadi Qelt, Judean Desert

In Psalm 23 of the Hebrew Bible, there is a reference to the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and it is quite possible that this is a reference to Wadi Qelt, a scenic gorge on the northwestern slopes of the Judean desert.  The wadi (dry river bed) also lies parallel to the old Roman road that led to Jericho, which set the scene for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

Carved into the rock lies an isolated Greek monastery by the name of St. George.  Founded in the 5th century, tradition also states that the Prophet Elijah also visited this cave after fleeing Jezebel, whose false prophets – Baal and Ashera – he had killed.

Today you can visit this astonishing site and see how it was built – on three levels, with two churches within the complex.  Both are full of icons, mosaics and paintings – look out for the mosaic with a double-headed eagle as well as the old 12th century doors.  Look down on Roman aqueducts and then follow the stairs down into the Cave of Elijah.

9. Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross), Jerusalem

Retracing Jesus’ last journey on earth, through the streets of Jerusalem, is an incredibly meaningful act for Christian pilgrims, and on any given day in the Old City, if you walk through the ancient streets you will see pilgrims stopping at various points.

These are the ‘stations of the cross’ on the Via Dolorosa – which means ‘the Road of Tears’ and all in all they number 14.  Many visitors retrace this processional route, stopping at every station – all of which are connected to events related to Christian tradition.

The route begins close to the Lion’s Gate (where Jesus was condemned by Pontius Pilate), winds through busy streets denoting places where Jesus fell, had the sweat wiped from his brow, and was finally nailed to the cross (inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), retracing this entire journey is an incredibly moving experience for any pilgrim.

10. Church of the Multiplication, Taghba, Galilee

On the western shore of the Galilee lies the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes, denoting the spot where Jesus performed one of his most famous miracles – turning two small fish and five loaves of bread into food sufficient to feed five thousand.  Interestingly, it is also the site where Jesus appeared for the fourth time after his resurrection.

Originally built in Tagba in the 5th century, the great highlight of this church is a beautiful Byzantine mosaic, which survived the destruction of the church in 685.   It depicts two fish on either side of a basket of loaves, and other lovely features including lotus flowers and oleander vines, and a variety of animals including peacocks, doves, cranes, herons, and a flamingo.  Look through the glass panel to see the foundations of the original church and in the courtyard look out for a stone font, ancient olive press, and a statue of St. Peter himself.

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