zaterdag 27 juni 2015

The Eye of God




With all good things in life the rule goes: the longer you put off doing them, the more you regret not doing it earlier. There is a subject that I’ve contemplated writing about for a long time now and I feel the time has come to write about it properly. Perhaps it is also a bit of a confession. This blogpost is all about the Sea of Galilee.

Let’s begin by saving you, dear reader, the trouble of going through a Wikipedia article. The Sea of Galilee is situated in the northern Galilee and lies roughly 210 metres below sea level. This makes it both the lowest freshwater lake on earth and the second lowest lake in general, ceding that place to the Dead Sea in the Judea desert. This immediately creates a big problem: the lake is prone low water levels. The general shape of the Galilee and the high temperatures mean that water can evaporate quickly and it is common for the lake to be covered in a haze during the morning hours. Besides this, the lake supplies a large amount of Israel’s drinking water. All these factors conspire to threaten the Sea of Galilee constantly with high fluctuations in its water level, bringing the close to – and sometimes even over – dangerously low water levels. Despite these concerns, the lake is a very popular tourist attraction. The region has been connected with many passages of the New Testament and consequently the Galilee sees its fair share of both religious tourists as well as pilgrims. Historically the region lies on the crossroads of several trade routes, giving rise to prosperous towns and cities. One of the last stands of the Hasmonean revolt in the first century CE was made on Mount Arbel, which looks out over the Sea of Galilee. In 1187, the Battle of Hattin was fought and Crusader army of Guy de Lusignan was defeated by Salāh ad-Dīn’s forces (the key to victory was denying the Crusaders access to the fresh water supply around the Sea of Galilee). All these events make for an archaeologically interesting region, which brings both archaeologists from all over the world to excavate the ancient remains, as well as visitors to these remains once they are excavated. The lake itself is a popular destination for water sports – in particular windsurfing – due its relatively predictable wind conditions. With many different cultures ebbing back and forth in the region, the Sea of Galilee has gone – and still goes – by a variety of names. Besides the common Sea of Galilee, the area is also known as Kinneret (coming from the Hebrew ‘kinnor’ which is a harp or lyre and refers to the shape of the lake). Another name comes from the Gospel of Luke, who writes about the ‘Sea of Gennesaret’. Flavius Josephus calls it the ‘Sea of Ginnosar’ in reference to the plain of Ginnosar, which Josephus notes for being as close to the Garden of Eden as one can get on earth. Lake Tiberias is a direct reference to the greatest population centre in the region. From the Ummayad to the Mamluk period the lake was known as Bahr-al-Minya, lending its name to the Khirbet-al-Minya site that is next door to our guest house. But its most poetic name (and for the life of me I cannot find the source where it is mentioned anymore) the lake was also known as the ‘Eye of God’, which I think is the most appropriate name of all.
The view from the dig site at dawn.

I have travelled and seen quite a bit of the world, but the Sea of Galilee is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Seeing the lake in the morning light, with the sun rising over the Golan Heights is a sight I will not forget until my dying day. Seeing the sunrise on the dig makes one appreciate just how old this geographic feature is. But perhaps better than seeing the sunrise over the sea, is seeing the stars shine on the lake. The best time to swim in the Sea of Galilee is at night. Period. Due to the warm air rising at night, any artificial lights you can see appear to flicker, as if they were candles. The main source of all light is the city of Tiberias that is built up against the hills, but there are many tiny candles dotted all along the Galilean hills and the Golan. Combine this with a cloudless night full of stars and a sickle moon can turn patches of the lake into a silvery blanket and what you end up with is a truly magical atmosphere that makes for some of the most memorable nights you will ever experience. There is simply nothing quite like the sheer feeling of awe one gets from coming back the Kinneret Regional Project and seeing this great blue Eye of God emerge from between the Galilean hills. 

Many volunteers and staff members alike cannot resist going for a refreshing dip in the lake after coming back covered in dust and sweat of the morning’s digging. Similarly, a night swim and a cold beer make for a truly irresistible prospect to look forward to when dusk sets in. To me, swimming in the Sea of Galilee is a bit like trying to talk to your crush: for some people it is just a matter of walking up and jumping straight in. Others just need to be with a group of friends to get off their butt and go. For some, it is a matter or shyness and thinking that waiting for the right moment will make all the difference in the world. The risk then lies in postponing for so long that you miss out on having the time of your life. As of last night, I’ve realised that I have spent nine full days of missing out. By putting off swimming in the lake for so long to wait for a cloudless night on which I still have energy to swim, I’ve forgotten that sometimes all you need to do in life is just float in the water and not give a damn about anything else in the world. 

The Sea of Galilee at Night. Photo by Jaakko Haapanen
It is difficult to truly express in words just how much the Sea of Galilee means to me. It invokes feelings of passion and longing you can only feel for your beloved and in many ways the sheer awe-inspiring beauty and sense of fragility of its existence are reminiscent of being in love. She (yes the Sea is a she) is a beauty unparalleled both when the surface of the water is calm and stormy. She’s always in for having fun and fooling around, but also there for you when you need to find peace of mind and collect your thoughts. She soothes with the soft sound of water rippling against the shore and the sight of white herons flying low over the water, contrasting starkly with the wonderful blue and tan of the water and the Golan. One cannot bear to part from this wonderful feeling and can never forget feeling of setting eyes upon her. This weekend, I’m diving in to see the lights of the world around me quiver like candles in the breeze and witness the starlight shine upon the Eye of God once more.


Time to sign off and get my swim shorts

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