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.
Locating the Site of the Miracle
The site of the Miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish is not mentioned by name in the New Testament. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) only state the event happened in a place of “Solitude”. John adds that it happened “on a hill” (John 6;3).
Although the site of “Tabgha” is really in a valley, the tradition of identifying the place of the miracle here 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 abandoned. Eventually 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 two German scholars, when the land was under Ottoman rule. The work was done without a required permit (Firman), and so they 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 studied. The archaeological expedition completely discovered the tri-apsidal church from the Byzantine period.
The most significant discovery was a small size depiction in the mosaic floor behind a rock under the apse. It presented two fish flanking a basket full of loaves of bread. There is no doubt this was a graphic image of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
Beneath the church a small size chapel was also recorded, dating to the mid 4th century. Indeed, 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 a “grassy field which has sufficient hay and many palm trees and nearby seven springs..”. The site around the church looks quite similar, to this day.
Images of the Nile?
Besides the mosaic around the altar, the excavations of the church revealed many other fragments of mosaics floors. The subjects are a combination of geometric designs, various birds, and one detailed image of the wildlife of the Nile. This subject was very popular in the Roman and Byzantine period, and symbolized prosperity. Indeed, the Nilotic scene included a nilometer, a device used to measure the height of the Nile and so predict the prosperity for Egypt.
Rebuilding the Byzantine Church
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.
Points of Interest in the Area
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).
The hillside behind Tabgha was venerated in the Byzantine Period as the site of the Sermon on the Mount. In modern times the event is marked by the Roman Catholic church on a higher spot, at the Mount of Beatitutes.
2 miles east of Tabgha is Capernaum, where Jesus lived for atleast 3 years. Further east, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River is Bethsaidah, hometown on three of the Disciples of Jesus.
South of Tabgha is Magdala, hometown of Mary Magdelene. Near it, in Kibbutz Ginnosar, a 2,000 year old fishing vessel is on display. It was discovered by chance in 1986, when the water level of the Sea of Galilee was exceptionally low. Fishing boats like this were used in the time of Jesus, and perhaps this very boat was used by them as well.
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