Two miles west of Capernaum lies a site known in Arabic as “Tabgha”. The name is a distortion of the ancient name of the place in Greek “Heptapegon” or “Seven springs”. Indeed a set of springs emerge in this area, attracting fish, and fishermen, throughout the centuries. Yet today the site is far more known than a popular fishing area. Here, according to Christian tradition, Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying loaves and fish in order to feed to multitudes that followed him. The site is not mentioned by the name “Tabgha” or even “Heptapegon” in the New Testament. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) state the event happened in a place of “Solitude”. John adds that it happened “on a hill”(John 6;3).
Although the site is really in a valley, the tradition of identifying the place of the miracle in Tabgha seems to be at least 1500 years old. A church marking the pilgrimage site attracted Christians through the Byzantine period. Yet after the Arab conquest of the land, (7th century CE) the church was destroyed, and later even the location of the site was forgotten. It was only by modern archaeological work that the site was identified again. The first excavations at the site were conducted by German scholars, when the land was under Turkish rule. The work was done without a Turkish permit (Firman), and so the Germans had to cover their finds, and keep the site a secret. It was only after the British take over of the Holy Land (1917) that the site could have been properly exposed and identified, and this was done mostly in 1932, by archaeologists Madder and Schnieder. They completely discovered the church from the Byzantine period. Near the altar a mosaic floor depicted two fish, flanking a basket full of loaves of bread. No doubt this was a graphic depiction of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the loaves and fishes, which is attested in all the Gospels:“When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.’ He replied, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They answered, ‘We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.’ (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, ‘Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” (Luke 9:10-17).
Although the church dates to the fifth century CE, the site was venerated even earlier. In 385 AD, a Spanish nun named Egeria describes the site as following: “Not far from there (i.e. Capernaum) are the stone steps on which the lord stood. In the same place by the sea is a grassy field which has sufficient hay and many palm trees and near by seven springs, each of which pours out abundant water, and in this field, the Lord fed the people five loaves and two fishes. Indeed the stone on which the Lord put the bread has been made an altar.” Indeed in front of the mosaic is a natural rock scrap, just the as Egeria mentioned!
Besides the area around the altar, the excavations of the site revealed many other fragments of mosaics floors. Most of them bore geometric decorations, yet one, almost entirely intact, presented a very beautiful and detailed image of wildlife – along the Nile. This subject was very popular in the Roman and Byzantine period.
For many years the ancient church with its mosaic floors was kept under a sulky looking asbestos building. Only in 1982 a new church was constructed at the site, combining the ancient church with a modern one. Indeed a visit to the church creates a unique feeling of admiration to the local tradition.
Peter’s Primacy church
Right around the corner from Tabgha church is another site of Christian importance – Peter’s Primacy Church. According to the Christian tradition, it is here where Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, offered them grilled fish, and stated to Peter – “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). A single-room chapel sanctifies the stone on which Jesus supposedly prepared the fish for his disciples (“Menza Christi” – “the table of Christ”).
On the southern side of the chapel are some stone steps, sanctified as the steps on which Jesus stood when he blessed the disciples and so their nets were so full of fish, that “they were unable to haul the net” (John 21:6).
The shore next to it provides a scenic and quite view point, perfect place to contemplate on the glory of the Lord.