Suitcase and World: Church of the Transfiguration & Bet Alfa Synagogue.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Church of the Transfiguration & Bet Alfa Synagogue.

From the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, we headed for the Church of the Transfiguration. Today, the top of Mount Tabor was not obscured by clouds so I could see the teeny weeny outline of the church, sitting high atop the hill.

We quickly left the highway and wound our way up the hill.  We passed a parking lot that had a couple of tourist buses parked in it.  I was anticipating that we would pull into the lot but we passed it by.

The flat road quickly gave way to switchbacks as we started to make our way up the mountain.   Barely after we left the parking lot behind, we saw two women walking on foot.  Knowing how far they had to go, Uri slowed down and asked them if they wanted to ride up with us.  They replied, "No" and so we continued on our way.  Wouldn't you know it but we kept passing people on foot.  We figured they must all be part of a tour group belonging to one of the buses on the lot. We also realized that the two women were bringing up the rear!

At the top of the hill, Uri turned onto a narrow road flanked on both sides by a stone wall and pine trees.  The road ended in a small parking lot.  This time of year there are plenty of free spaces so Uri was always able to park the van in the prime locations.

We headed towards the entrance of the church.  It was a quick pit stop at the rest rooms before we headed in.  Dark, gray clouds were looming overhead; it looked like it was about to pour.  I wanted to get inside before the rain.

The Church of the Transfiguration is a Franciscan church that is located on that site that is traditionally believed to be where the Transfiguration of Christ took place, an event in the Gospels in which Jesus is transfigured upon an unnamed mountain.  The transfiguration is described as when Jesus becomes radiant, speaks with Moses and Elijah, and is called "Son" by God.  The transfiguration placed Jesus above Moses and Elijah, the two preeminent figures of Judaism.

A simple entry gate.

The very simple facade.

Just outside the front entrance of the church are the ruins of a Benedictine chapel.  I would take a closer look on my way out of the church.

The current church, part of a Franciscan monastery complex, was completed in 1924 and was built on the ruins of an ancient 4th century AD Byzantine church and a 12th century AD Crusader church.

Just as I walked through the front entrance, there was a section of a floor covered with a metal grate.  The area below was filled with envelopes sent from around the world.  I'm guessing they're prayers.

The interior of the church was very simple but in some ways, I found it to be a very *elegant* looking interior. 

In the upper part of the church there is a mosaic on a gold ground representing the Transfiguration. On Aug 6th, which is the "day of the Transfiguration" in some church calendars, the sun strikes a glass plate set into the floor so that the golden mosaic is briefly illuminated.  The stairs to the upper level were blocked so I could only see the mosaic from the floor below.  Thank God for a zoom lens!

In the lower level, there was service taking place in Chinese.  My guess is that this was Christian Chinese tour group and the service was being conducted by their church minister.  How cool would it be to have your service held in one of the most revered locations in Christianity?  If I were Christian, I would push for an opportunity like this!

I'm really bad about taking video.  Not that I don't want to.  It's just that I'm so focused on taking photos that I completely forget video.  This time though I did remember.  I wanted to capture feeling of being in this space with a service going on.  Of course, Uri has to come by and ask me a question.....which I did not mind asking so you'll hear both our voices.  Unfortunately, I stopped the capture a few seconds too soon - you'll understand why when you get to the end :-(

On the side of the church was a raised platform area from where we could take in views of the surroundings.  Thankfully, it had not rained while we were inside the church.  In fact, the clouds were clearing.  It was shaping up to be another picture perfect day in the Galilee!

View looking back from the entry gate.  The ruins of the Benedictine chapel on the right.

A different view of the front facade.

The front entrance.

A closer look at the ruins of the Benedictine chapel.  No map of the layout so I have no idea what is what :-(

Cloudy when I entered, sunny when I left.  A transfiguration of sorts?

The Franciscan cross marking the church's main gate

In Israel, there is always someone reading a holy book.

It was late morning by the time we ended our visit to the Church of the Transfiguration so we squeezed in one more bit of sightseeing before lunch.

Back in the van, I did another check of the weather in DC.  I don't know why I thought that a couple of hours since my last check would make any difference.  Yeah, weather forecast was still gloomy. I decided to delay my return.  Now, I have to make the arrangements.  But first, we have a synagogue and a very special floor to see.

Beth Alfa is a sixth century synagogue,  located near Beit She'an, Israel, that is now part of a national archaeological park managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It was just a short drive from the Church of the Transfiguration.....that is once we got down from the hilltop.

 Bet Alfa was built at the end of the 5th century AD and the famed mosaic floor was laid at the beginning of the 6th century.  The dating is based on the Aramaic inscription in the mosaic floor that mentions Emperor Justinian I.

Excavations indicate that the synagogue was located in a residential neighborhood, part of the Jewish village of Bet Ilfa. The village was destroyed in an earthquake at the end of the 6th century AD.

The Beth Alfa synagogue was uncovered in 1928 by members of the nearby Kibbutz Hefzibah, who stumbled upon the synagogue’s extensive mosaic floors during irrigation construction. Excavations began in 1929 under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  A secondary round of excavations, sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1962, further explored the residential structures surrounding the synagogue.

We entered the synagogue and then inside a darkened room.  The guide turned on the lights and my jaw dropped at the beautiful mosaic floor that appeared before us.  It was of a design that I had never seen before.  For one thing, there were figures on it which is very, very atypical of Jewish art.

We stood along the perimeter of the floor and watched a short docudrama about its making.

The mosaic is divided into several panels. I had to take the photos from the side so you'll have to turn your head to make out the picture.

This panel depicts the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22: 1-18).

From Wikipedia:

"To the right, Abraham is depicted dangling Isaac over the fiery altar as he raises his hand to perform the sacrifice. In the center, God, symbolized by the small fire- encircled hand appearing in the upper center, instructs Abraham to sacrifice a nearby ram instead of Isaac. In the lower center of the composition, immediately below the hand of God, the ram that served as Isaac’s substitute is positioned standing sideways, trapped in the nearby thicket. The odd positioning of the ram may perhaps be a convention the artists used to convey the distance that the Bible says separated Abraham and Isaac, from the two servant boys (Genesis 22:5), who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey, and are depicted standing to the left. All the figures in the scene, except for the two servants, are identified with Hebrew labels."

The central panel features a Jewish adaptation of the Greco-Roman zodiac.

From Wikipedia:
"The zodiac consists of two concentric circles, with the twelve zodiac signs appearing in the outer circle, and Helios, the Greco-Roman sun god, appearing in the inner circle. The outer circle consists of twelve panels, each of which correspond to one of the twelve months of the year and contain the appropriate Greco-Roman zodiac sign. Female busts symbolizing the four seasons appear in the four corners immediately outside the zodiac. In the center, Helios appears with his signature Greco-Roman iconographic elements such as the fiery crown of rays adorning his head and the highly stylized quadriga or four-horse drawn chariot. The background is decorated with a crescent shaped moon and stars. As in the “Binding of Isaac” panel, the zodiac symbols and seasonal busts are labeled with their corresponding Hebrew names."
The last panel, which was laid before the synagogue’s Torah Shrine, is a liturgically oriented scene that emphasizes the centrality of the Torah Shrine.

From Wikipedia:

"The Torah Shrine stands at the center of the composition and is depicted with a gabled roof. The Torah Shrine is decorated with ornamented panels featuring diamonds and squares. The floating conch shell seen in the center of the roof, is a stylized representation of the Torah Shrine’s inset arch. A hanging lamp is suspended from the gable of the roof. As a symbolic marker of its importance, the lower register of the Torah Shrine is flanked by two roaring lions and is surrounded by Jewish ritual objects such as the lulav, etrog, shofar, and incense shovel. Two birds flank the gabled roof in the upper register of the Torah Shrine."

A final shot as the movie credits roll.

Very cool floor.  I've been amazed at all the mosaics there are in Israel.

Our next decision was a no brainer. Lunch now or lunch later? The gang voted for now so we took a short walk to the kibbutz's restaurant. Yesterday, Uri had planned to take us to lunch here as according to him, the serve very good fish here and the plan for today was to have lunch in Jericho but change in plans as we're running a bit behind schedule at this point.

While the others sat at the table and had their appetizers, I excused myself and went out to the restaurant's guarden to call United Airlines and get my flight rescheduled. I was on my Blackberry and it seemed like an eternity before the agent could get my flight rebooked. I'm anticipating a big charge on my phone bill but what to do? Luckily for me, a) there were seats available on the next day's flights and b) United had waived the change fee. I think they did that in anticipation of flood of flight changes that would be coming in the next day or so. I think I beat the crowd though as I did get rebooked without any problems.....exact same flights just a day later. Until I got the email confirmation, I was anxious. Once the email arrived, I relaxed and ate my lunch which was a very tasty filet of tilapia served with vegetables. It was also the first time we had bread and butter which I thoroughly enjoyed. Israelis do bake good tasting bread and looking back on the trip, I had very little of it except for pita.

After lunch,  our tour was over.   Uri would be taking each of us back to our respective hotels.  I had one last night at the Renaissance in Tel Aviv.  I was just going to stay at the Renaissance for the extra night until I found out that it cost $465 for the night!  Yikes!  Too much for my budget.  Thankfully, with the help of Uri and the agent at Diesenhaus, I was able to get a room at the Leonardo Basel Hotel which Uri confirmed is located across the street from the Renaissance so switching rooms will be easy for me.  At $150 a night, it's still expensive in my book but under the circumstances, I'm willing to pay for it.

On the way back to Tel Aviv, I shared some really good laughs with Uri.  It all started with the Chinese Zodiac.  He's born in 1966 - Year of the Snake.  I Googled and read him all his characteristics.  It was hysterical how he actually had some of the traits described.  We then matched him against his wife who was born in the Year of the Dog.  Of course, I had to tell him that the Pig is his mortal enemy and that I just so happen to have been born in that year!

Before we could dry our eyes, we were back in town. First we dropped off Gary and Georgie.  Then, it was my turn.  It was bittersweet to say goodbye to Uri.  I do have his card though so on the next trip, I will just make arrangements through him.  After all, he does have 20 years of guiding experience under his belt so he does know his country!  It will be a very different trip shopping!!

As I shook Uri's hand, I gave him the rest of his tip and headed inside to check in.  By now, it was late afternoon. This time, I had a north facing window but the view of the beach was still spectacular.

I decided I wanted to watch the setting sun from the beach so I headed down and out. I watched a small group of paddle boarders riding the waves as the sun set.

I found a spot to watch the volleyball players go at it.

I stayed out til the sun dropped over the horizon.  It's really nice to be back in Tel Aviv. I only wish I had planned for more time here.  Next visit :-)

Back in  my room, it was a quiet evening of TV and blogging.  A final check of the weather in DC was still showing that it would be slammed by a huge snowstorm.  I hope everyone is well prepared and stays safe.  I emailed my parents and reminded them to plug in the phone that I gave them as I would be calling them tomorrow to check in on them.

Good night from Tel Aviv!