Elias and I rose early and tried the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Needless to say there was no bacon on the menu, but the array of options was truly odd to our palate: yoghurt and fruit, plenty of Middle Eastern vegetables, eggs, fish, cheese and salad. Outside of Denmark I don’t know where I’ve ever been offered pickled herring for breakfast.
We got up early because I had reserved a visit to Banias National Park and Nature Reserve. Banias is a good hour’s drive up into the Golan Heights northeast of the Sea of Galilee. It is the site of Caesarea Philippi–where Jesus said, “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” This is a super important location for Catholics and to visit it puts the famous passage from Matthew into context.
Caesarea Philippi was a town built by Herod the Great to honor his patron, Augustus Caesar and his son Philip Herod. The town is built at the foot of a great escarpment of rock which features a large cave. Out of this cave in ancient time a great spring gushed out which fed into the river Jordan and from thence to the Sea of Galilee. The site was sacred in Old Testament times and the god Baal would be worshipped there. In Greek times a temple was built to the god Pan–the god of the forests and shepherds. Herod the great built a temple there in honor of Augustus Caesar and a picture showing the way the site looked in Jesus’ time is on my twitter feed.
Why is this site important? For multiple reasons. Firstly, it was a famous site not only of the worship of foreign gods–Baal and Pan, but also many other gods. The cave was considered to be one of the gateways to the underworld. Remember in primitive religions caves are the underworld–the region of death, demons and all that is dark. Archeologists have discovered the bones of animals that were thrown into the cave as offerings to the gods of the underworld. Jesus looked at the outcrop of Rock, then to Peter (the Rock) and said instead of a pagan temple to Pan and the emperor Augustus (who was considered a god) Jesus would build his church. This symbolic language is powerful on another level—not only will Jesus replace the temples to the pagan gods with his church, but the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Furthermore the springs under the temple of Augustus are the source of the River Jordan–the picture of baptism. Finally, the outcrop of rock shows what Jesus really thought of Peter–and therefore the papacy. Some Protestants say that the “rock” in Matthew 16 is just a “little pebble” because of the Greek word that is used. They use this detail to downplay the importance of Peter. However, when you visit Caesarea Philippi you realize the Rock is a huge cliff face.
The location today is a wonderful archeological site at which you can see the ruins of the temple of Pan, the location of the cave and the surrounding site holds the ruins of Herod Agrippa’s palace and the water still flows there in abundance making it a place of outstanding beauty.
We wound our way back to the Sea of Galilee taking a scenic route through the Golan Heights, then visited Tabgha–the site of the Feeding of the 5000 and the Church of the Primacy of Peter.