Journey to Caesarea Philippi
Summer-Autumn, 32 AD


"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:13-16).

As a result of his miracles, everyone was talking excitedly about Jesus, speculating that he was the long-promised Messiah. Others hailed him as Elijah reborn; still others spoke of John the Baptist raised from the dead. John 6:15 reports that some intended to "come and make him king by force."

Meanwhile, in his columned throne room of his palace on the acropolis above his lakeside capital of Tiberias, Herod Antipas listened with growing concern to reports of the peoples' actions with Jesus. Although he could not believe that Jesus was the expected Messiah, the fact that the people believed he was made him a dangerous rival. According to Luke, he even tried to see Jesus. Sooner or later, Herod felt, Jesus would lead a rebellion against him; no longer could he afford to let him remain free. Apparently Herod sought a way to eliminate Jesus, as he had done with John the Baptist, because, at some point we do not know when friendly Pharisees came to Jesus, saying, "Get away from here, for Herod Antipas wants to kill you." Jesus ordered them to tell "that fox" that he must first finish his work of driving out demons and healing in Galilee:

"I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!" (Luke 13:33).

However, even when Jesus was able to go home to Capernaum, he could not stay long. His only choice was to leave Antipas' territory and so, at a crucial point in his Galilean ministry, Jesus withdrew northward to the district around Caesarea Philippi, in the tetrarchy of Herod Philip. Following Jesus' example, we too move into one of the Holy Land's lushest, most well-watered areas, where the storied Jordan River originates.

In the footsteps of Jesus...

Heading north from Kursi, Road 92 skirts the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee under the steep basalt cliffs of the southern Golan Heights. Our route takes us into the heart of the territory ruled in Jesus' time by the tetrarch ("ruler of a fourth part") Herod Philip, one of the sons of Herod "the Great."

The history of this area is very long. In the Old Testament it was known as Bashan ("fruitful") and it was well-known for its rich pasture lands that supported the "rams and lambs, goats and bulls all of them fattened animals from Bashan" (Ezekiel 39:18). It was one of the first territories held by the half-tribe of Manasseh, descended from the oldest son of Joseph. They conquered it from King Og (Deuteronomy 3:11). In New Testament times it was known as Gaulanitis; today, it is known as the Golan Heights. During the Six-Day War of 1967 the Golan was taken by the Israeli Defense Forces in retaliation for Syrian attacks and an attempt to divert the Banias River, one the three principle sources of the Jordan River. On a map the Golan appears as a bulge in the northwestern corner of Israel, to which it was annexed in 1982.

Sunset on the Sea of Galilee Jordan River in the Golan Heights, with the Sea of Galilee in the distance

(Above left) Sunset on the Sea of Galilee from Road 92 between Kursi and Bethsaida; (Above right) Jordan River in the Golan Heights, with the Sea of Galilee in the distance.

At the junction with Road 87, we retrace our steps along the lakeshore past the site of Bethsaida which, we recall from our earlier visit, was home to at least three, possibly five, of Jesus' disciples.

In Mark's Gospel, the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida served as a transition from Jesus' Galilee ministry:

"They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, 'Do you see anything?' He looked up and said, 'I see people; they look like trees walking around.' Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, 'Don't go into the village'" (Mark 8:22-26).

More important, it opened the disciples' eyes to Jesus' forthcoming passion and death:

"From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 'Never, Lord!' he said. 'This shall never happen to you!' Jesus turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.' Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it'" (Matthew 16:21-25).

Excavations of homes at Tell Bethsaida Rosh Pina

(Above left) Excavations of homes at Tell Bethsaida; (Above right) Rosh Pina

From Bethsaida, we continue on Route 87 past the sites of Capernaum and Tabgha, then head north on Route 90, the continuation of the main road from Tiberias, past the turnoff for Rosh Pina and Zefat (Safed).

Rosh Pina

Rosh Pina, meaning "cornerstone," takes its name from Psalm 118:22: "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone." This verse inspired Zionist pioneers, who came from Romania in 1882, determined to build a village here on the slopes of Mount Canaan.

From Rosh Pina, the road weaves and twists, rising all the way to Zefat, Israel's highest city at 3,000 feet above sea level, and one of the four holy cities of Judaism along with Tiberias, Herbron and Jerusalem.

Continuing along Route 90: Five miles from Rosh Pina, on the left (west) side of the road, is Tell Hazor, a huge mound that serves to remind us of this land's history:


Tel Hazor is the site of the ancient city of Hazor that, over a period of a thousand years, was built and rebuilt 21 times. Prominently situated on the Via Maris the all important trade route linking Egypt with Mesopotamia it was first mentioned in Mesopotamian documents of the 2nd millennium BC. It was the most important city in northern Canaan at the time of the Hebrew Conquest; the book of Joshua describes it as "the head of all these kingdoms." Joshua destroyed it in the 13 century BC, but the Israelites resettled it. Its heyday came three centuries later during the reign of Solomon. After its destruction by the invading Assyrian king Tiglath-pilesar III in the 8th century BC, the city never regained its former glory. Today, it is the largest archaeological site in Israel.

Approaching the ancient acropolis of Hazor excavations on top tell hazor

(Above left) Approaching the ancient acropolis of Hazor; (Above left) excavations on top of the tell.

Our route north from Tell Hazor takes us through the the green landscape of the Hula Valley. Five miles later, we pass the turnoff for the Hula Nature Reserve, one of the last vestiges of Israel's wilderness.

Hula Valley and Mount Hermon

This wide flatland area, under an immense sky, lies in a rift basin between the the steep hills of Naftali to the west and the Golan Heights to the east. When viewed from the hills at its margins the Hula Valley (below) is a glorious site. Along the now channelized Jordan River are a number of small lakes, the most southerly of which is Lake Hula. The name of this small (2 miles wide; 3 miles long), triangular basin, with its base to the north, is misleading, for there is no Hula River, nor is it a valley. More often it is called in Hebrew "Emek Hula," literally the Hula Plain. After the 1948 War of Independence this swampy area referred to as the "Waters of Merom" in the Bible (see Joshua 11:5) was drained and dredged repeatedly until it was discovered that these "improvements" actually did grave and irreversible damage to the area's ecology. In 1970 a reconstruction project was begun to restore the Hula Valley to more or less its natural state. Once again it is alive with herons, ducks, wild boar, water buffalo and other wildlife that died or went elsewhere after the swaps were drained. The valley is a migration stop for birds coming from as far away as Scandinavia, Russia and India. Also, abundant papyrus reeds grow here nowhere else in the world do they grow this far north.

Dominating the view north from the Hula Valley is the massive summit of Mount Hermon (below right), the tallest peak in Israel at 9,232 feet above sea level.

Mount HermonMount Hermon ("devoted mountain") has three summits, about 1/4 mile from the other. Its huge mass some 5 miles wide and 16 to 20 miles from north to south is visible for miles around. The upper slopes remain snowcapped virtually all year, as indicated by the Amorite name for the mountain, Senir (or Shenir), meaning "snow mountain." It was known as 'Sirion' among the Phoenicians and the Arabs call it Jebel el-Sheikh, the "grey haired mountain," or Jebel el-Thalj, the "mountain of the snow." Its Hebrew name, "Chermown" ("sanctuary"), may allude to the fact that since ancient times it has been a sacred mountain. The mountain was also called "Baal-Hermon" (Judges 3:3) in the time of Joshua and the Judges, indicating a local Baal was worshiped there (as was the case with many high places). The dew of Hermon was a sign of blessing:

"It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore" (Psalm 133:3).

In biblical times, the mountain was the home of lions and leopards:

"Come with me from Lebanon, my bride, come with me from Lebanon. Descend from the crest of Amana, from the top of Senir, the summit of Hermon, from the lions' dens and the mountain haunts of the leopards" (Song of Songs 4:8).

Mount Hermon has been described as a giant sponge with many scattered cavities (dolinas) that collect huge volumes of snow. They are the last areas to melt in the spring and they emerge at the base of the mountain in a series of abundant springs that form the three main sources of the Jordan River. These springs also feed the Litani River as well as the Oasis of Damascus. In clear weather, Mount Hermon is visible from great distances. It dominates the landscape. From the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan Valley, the snow-capped mass forms the one permanent feature on the northern horizon of Israel. In biblical times the slopes were apparently covered in thick forests. While in exile, David reflected on the depths of the Jordan and the heights of Hermon. They were for him symbols of the source and extent of God's blessing, His love and protection (Psalm 42:5-11; Psalm 133:3).

Somewhat further on we drive through Kiryat Shmona (population 19,900) the only urban center in the Upper Hula Valley, after which we head northeast on Road 99 for 9 miles to Tell Dan Nature Reserve.


Tel Dan, some 26 miles north of the Sea of Galilee on the Israel-Lebanon border, is noted for it natural beauty. The Dan (or Leddan) River, which emerges at the foot of the mound, is the largest and most important of the three principal sources of the Jordan River. In Old Testament times this was the site of the city of Dan, often mentioned in the Bible as the northern limit of the Promised Land, as in Judges 20:1: "Then all the Israelites from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came out as one man and assembled before the Lord.

Situated at the northern end of, and overlooking, the fertile Hula basin several hundred feet below, it guarded an important trade route linking Tyre and Damascus. In the early days the city was called Leshem (meaning "precious stone;" see Joshua 19:47) or Laish (meaning "lion;" see Judges 18:29). About 1100 BC it was conquered by the Hebrew tribe of Dan, who renamed after their forefather, Dan, one of the sons of Jacob (Israel). Unfortunately, Dan became a noted cultic site where "the Danites set up for themselves the idols" (Judges 18:30) and, later, King Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom of Israel established a "high place" (Hebrew bama), complete with a golden calf, as an alternative to worship in Jerusalem. As stated in 1 Kings 12:29-30: "And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship.

restoration of the "high place" as Dan Dan River at Tell Dan

(Above left) restoration of the "high place" as Dan; (Above right) Dan River at Tell Dan

Two miles further east of Tell Dan, we arrive at the focus of this day's tour, the Hermon River (Banias) Nature Reserve the site of the New Testament city of Caesara Philippi, which at the time of Jesus, was largely a Gentile frontier town. Spectacularly beautiful, the Banias Reserve is probably the most popular spot in the Upper-Galilee-Golan region. Here, in this enchanting area, dubbed the "Syrian Tivoli," we will spend some time hiking and studying one of the more significant episodes in Jesus' ministry, as told in Matthew and Mark (also in Luke, although no location is mentioned)

In Matthew (16:13), Jesus "came to the region of Caesarea Philippi," after performing three great miracles: the feeding of the 5,000, walking on the water, and the healing of a Phoenician woman's child. In Mark, he first spends some time in the regions of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis, with their largely Gentile populations, then (in Mark 8:27) he "went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi." Neither Gospel, tells us that Jesus actually entered Caesarea Philippi itself, a classically pagan center full of temples, Greek theaters and statues

Caesarea Philippi

The city called Caesarea Philippi in the New Testament was located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was beautifully situated on a slender, triangular terrace, 1,150 feet above sea level, on the southwest slope of Mount Hermon. The area is one of striking scenery, lush groves of trees, grassy fields and an abundance of water, that literally gushes from the ground.

According to written sources, the site was first settled in the Hellenistic period (332-37 BC). It was of great strategic importance as it guarded the fertile plains to the west. The snowmelt from Mount Hermon flowed underground and surfaced within a cave at the base of a high limestone cliff forming one of the biggest springs in the Middle East, feeding into the eastern-most of the three recognized sources of the Jordan River. In ancient times, the combination of natural features of cavern and spring gave rise to a fertility cult here to the Canaanite gods Baal-Gad, "lord of good fortune" (see Joshua 11:17), and Baal-Hermon, "lord of destruction" (see Judges 3:3)

The Ptolemaic kings of Egypt, who took control of the area following the death of Alexander the Great, continued to develop the Hellenistic (Greek) culture in the region. They regarded the area at the foot of Mount Hermon with its spring, caves, and woods as a sacred site to Pan, the Greek god of herds, shepherds, nature, trees and water. To counter the Semitic shrine at Dan, two miles to the west, they built a cult center at the site of the sacred cave and called it "Paneion" ("sanctuary of Pan"). Other versions of the name are "Panias" and "Panium." During this period, the shrine attracted pagan visitors from the immediate area, who brought offerings and ate cultic meals in the presence of their god (sacred picnics?)

Hostilities broke out between the rival Seleucid (Syria) and Ptolemaic (Egypt) kingdoms. According to the Roman historian Polivius, the Seleucid king Antiochus III won a decisive victory at Paneion/Panias/Panium over the Egyptian forces in 200 BC, giving the Seleucids control of southern Syria and the whole of Judea. At the scene of his victory Antiochus founded a Greek city, calling it Antioch after himself, but it became known as Panias after the shrine. This name has survived to the present in the form of Banias, an Arabic corruption of Panias (the Arabic language has no "P" sound)

In 20 BC, Herod the Great acquired Panias as a reward for his loyalty to Augustus Caesar. After Herod's death in 4 BC, Panias became part of the territory of his son Philip (ruled 4 BC-34 AD), who renamed it Caesarea in honor of Tiberius Caesar. It was called Caesarea Philippi (i.e. Philip's Caesarea) to distinguish it from other cities of the same name, especially his father's Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. It became the administrative capital of his large kingdom, which spread across the area north and east of the Sea of Galilee. It was strategically situated just to the west of the large basalt plateau which forms the Golan Heights. Since ancient times this was a major crossroads. Here, the Via Maris passed through a passageway between Mount Hermon and the Golan plateau on it's way to Damascus, while to the south it headed down into Galilee. Another road to the west went to the Mediterranean coast and the cities of Tyre and Sidon

From the parking lot at the Hermon River (Banias) Nature Reserve's eastern entrance, we head down a path, past walnut, lemon and fig trees, to a terrace at the foot of a cliff that was once the sacred precinct of Panias/Caesarea Philippi dedicated to the god Pan. Moving along the terrace from left to right we first note the center piece of the area, the Banias Cave, from which the source of the Jordan River once emerged. The mouth of the cave measures about 49 feet high and 65 feet wide. Before an 1837 earthquake the river emerged from the cave floor; now it emerges from a crack below the cave. Flavius Josephus, speaking of the cave, wrote:

"This is a very fine cave in a mountain, under which there is a great cavity in the earth, and the cavern is abrupt, and prodigiously deep, and frill of a still water; over it hangs a vast mountain; and under the caverns arise the springs of the river Jordan" (Antiquities of the Jews, book 15, chapter 10:3).

sacred precinct of Panias/Caesarea Philippi with the Banias Cave sacred precinct of Panias/Caesarea Philippi with temples

(Above left) sacred precinct of Panias/Caesarea Philippi with the Banias Cave, from which the source of the Jordan River (foreground) once emerged; (Above right) reconstruction of the sacred precinct at Caesarea Philippi (far left: Temple of Augustus, opposite the entrance to the sacred grotto. It had no back wall but opened onto the grotto. The temple thus functioned as a forecourt while the great cave became the inner sanctuary. Left to right from the Augustus temple: Court of Pan and the Nymphs, an open-air shrine constructed by Philip in the 1st century AD after he founded Caesarea Philippi. The back wall of the shrine was a small rock-cut cave surrounded by five cult niches that once held statues of the god Pan. Next is another temple dedicated to Zeus and Pan. Excavators believe it was erected on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city by Philip. At the end of the terrace we also note was a primitive building dubbed the "Temple of Pan and the Goats" by its excavators from the animal bones, mainly sheep and goats, discovered there in rectangular niches. It is a vivid reminder of the cult of Pan, half man, half goat, and its sacrificial practices celebrating the power and fertility of nature.

cult niches carved in the cliff-face that once held statues of the god Pan Figure of the half-man, half-goat god Pan playing his panpipes

(Above left) cult niches carved in the cliff-face that once held statues of the god Pan. Three have Greek inscriptions. One refers to Galerius, a priest of Pan, another relates to Echo, the mountain nymph and lover of Pan; yet another refers to Diopan, the god who loved music. (Above right) Figure of the half-man, half-goat god Pan playing his panpipes.

sacred precinct at Caesarea Philippi today

(Above) The sacred precinct today. All that remains of the temples of Jesus' time are the foundations.


Now...the reason for our coming to this stunning little corner of Israel...

Quite possibly here, in this lovely area watered by the cold, rushing streams, with rock cliff, sacred cave, cult niches and pagan temples as a backdrop, Jesus closely questioned his disciples as to what people thought of him and his mission, as recorded in Matthew's account:

"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of Man is?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' 'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'" (Matthew 16:13-16).

To this confession, Jesus replied:

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:17-18).

Because the Cave of Pan seemed to reach into the very depths of the earth, it came to regarded as the entrance to the underworld, the abode of Hades (or Pluto), the god of the lower regions, and home to the disembodied spirits of the dead.

Before leaving this beautiful area, there are two more stops one to view the excavations of Philip's city, the other is a surprise.

From a pool just below the terrace of the sacred precinct, a path crosses the river via a pedestrian bridge. Soon we pass a water-powered floor mill, one of hundreds used in the Holy Land in the early 19th century AD. It is the only one that is still in commercial production. The smell of freshly baked pita bread from a little bakery proves irresistible. We give in and purchase a few loaves to pass around as we continue our walk.

marketplace (agora) at Caesarea Philippi palace of Herod Agrippa II

Crossing the road to our left, we come upon the remains of Philip's 1st century AD Roman city, where excavations have uncovered a marketplace (agora) (above left) and a luxurious palace (above right). In some places marble is still attached to the walls, linking it with Herod Agrippa II, great grandson of Herod the Great, who is known to have built with marble. This was the same Agrippa who heard Paul's defense in Caesarea Maritima, recorded in Acts 26. For almost a half a century he made this land-locked Caesarea his capital (c. 53-93 AD). Other notable remains include a large basilica used for court hearings, huge round towers that protected the palace and a colonnaded street (Cardo Maximus) that bisected the city from north to south.

Continuing on a path along the Hermon/Banias River, the melting snows of Mount Hermon dash across huge limestone boulders. Cultivated trees walnut and pomegranate grow abundantly alongside native plane trees and willows. Keeping to the right at a fork in the path, we pass the so-called "Officer's Pool," built by Syrian officers stationed here prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Banias fallsWe keep a watchful eye out for "coneys," wild rabbit-like creatures, that we understand inhabit the area. The book of Proverbs (30:26) tells us they "are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags." Soon the path leads to the surprise mentioned earlier, the magnificent Banias waterfall (right) known in Hebrew as Mapal Senir. Two white cascades drop on either side of an ancient plane tree. It brings to mind Psalm 42, which could only have been inspired by this setting.

"...As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?' These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls..." (Psalm 42:1b-7).

Soon after Peter's confession in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus led Peter, James and John up a "high mountain," where he appeared with Moses and Elijah, an event known as the "Transfiguration" (dictionary definition: a "radical change of figure or appearance; a metamorphosis; to exalt or glorify).
Witness the Transfiguration.

Soon after Peter's confession in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus led Peter, James and John up a "high mountain," where he appeared with Moses and Elijah, an event known as the "Transfiguration" (dictionary definition: a "radical change of figure or appearance; a metamorphosis; to exalt or glorify).

Jesus' Life Home n The Transfiguration: Another Possible Site