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Tabor today

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

Starting at Daburiyeh, after 5 kms of hair-pin curves, you arrive at the Gate of the Winds, Bab el-Haua in Arabic, the main gate of the fortress of el-Adel, which originally was a double gate like a forceps. While there are only meager traces of the wall by Flavius Josephus, the ruins of the Saracen battlements, considerably preserved, circle the plateau on the summit.

On the outside of the gate there is a small road that leads to the grotto of Melchizedek on the property of the Greek Orthodox monks. According to Niceforus Callistus, St Helena on Tabor erected a church where Melchizedek had blessed Abraham (PG 146, 113).

There are rather conspicuous ruins that seem to have been a monastery and are found immediately to the east of the grotto. Ancient descriptions of this complex do not exist, which at one time could have been a coenobium but the remains must still be dated. In 1974 the grotto was restored and closed with an iron gate, the key to which is kept by the Greek Orthodox priest of St Elijah.

The church of St Elijah is found at the end of this little road. The sacred building with 3 naves, reconstructed after 1858, had been decorated in 1912 by a Greek artist named Socrates, who in the apse painted the scene of the Transfiguration and on the columns the figures of Moses, Elijah, the Evangelists and other biblical personages. In the two apses you can see the courses of ancient stones and, on the floor, six panels of white tesseras discovered on the surrounding property. Only two icons of those given by Russia and noted down by Guerin in 1863 as very beautiful still remain.

The apse identified by De Vog is visible from the outside of the building to the south. In the few stones remaining, that are plastered with white stucco as a means to keep thieves at bay, a small area opens up which was originally closed by a little window. This was where the sacred vessels were stored.

From the Gate of the Wind there is a straight corridor towards the east, flanked by leafy trees. After about 300 m you find on the south side the little chapel called Descendentibus (Latin for those who were descending). It recalls the command given by Jesus to his three disciples not to speak of the Transfiguration. For this chapel too we do not have ancient witnesses. It appears that in 1921-24 Byzantine ruins had been discovered and now are incorporated into the building constructed by Barluzzi who followed the ancient perimeter. The tiny area (9m x 4) was decorated for a certain period with a painting that reminded the visitor of the Gospel episode. Today it is empty. During the month of May sometimes Mass is celebrated. To the south you find the tombs of the 1st c. and to the north another monastery called Crusader.

Once you have passed this chapel, you begin to see the magnificent basilica of the Transfiguration. The line of trees continues and ends in a plaza, closed on the east by an iron chancel beyond which you see the remains of the Benedictine complex, the kitchen, the refectory, and a small chapel. To the north of this area, a corridor with arched doors and Crusader ruins left over during later periods still have to be studied. A dedication in marble, placed on the northern lintel of the chapel door, reminds one of the ancient tradition of the apparition of the Risen Lord (Mt 28: 16-17) and a bronze bust of Paul VI on the southern lintel recalls the visit by the pontiff. The chapter hall of the Benedictine monastery can be seen along the north side of the basilica.

Continuing to the north, outside the basilica, beyond the chapter hall and the remains of the stairs that lead up to the level of the Crusader buildings, you will arrive at a small stairway that descends on the steep eastern slope of the mountain. The road is really difficult but it continues to the place where there was a hermitage that the Saracens changed into guardpost. The same path leads to a narrow tunnel, opened for practical reasons for the construction of the basilica, and whatever remains of the grotto in that place was presumably a place of worship for the Jewish Christians.

Seen from the outside, the northern and southern walls of the basilica are extremely simple, while the eastern side has an interesting group of rocks and ruins. The two side apses in a straight line flank the central apse with its semi-circular shape and are decorated on high by two rows of small columns. Under the central apse there is the apse of the crypt which in turn rests partially on the remains of the fortress of el-Adel. The structure, which from the bottom of the crypt to the point of the tympanum measures almost 25 m , is held up by pillars which go down into the Saracen wall to a depth of 10 m.

The western side, the facade of the basilica, mirrors faithfully the Roman-Syrian style chosen by Barluzzi, a style which, because of the two towers in the front, allowed him to include in the body of the church the remains of the Byzantine-Crusader chapels[1]

The towers, although massive in appearance, are relieved by two rows of windows with alabaster glass and by a third row of open windows. Internal stairs lead up to two small choirs corresponding to the side naves of the church and to a larger central choir for the friars. On the top level of the southern tower are the bells, founded by Bassano del Grappa, that have a deep, harmonious sound.

The towers are connected on the western side by an arch of sculptured stone and their mass is united vertically to the facade itself. This middle section of the facade which like the towers ends in a tympanum is also made more gracious by three rather large windows. The bases of the towers and the facade mark off the external narthex and on its sides the Crusader stones are visible. There are three bronze doors that open on to the narthex, designed by Tonnini, with simple panels in them. The two side doors open into the ground floor of the towers. The central door opens into the church.

The southern chapel, dedicated to Elijah, is noteworthy above all for its Byzantine mosaic floor with white, black and red tesseras, which was restored once in the Crusader period and which has been taken up and recomposed partially in a new location. The curve of the apse is decorated with a painting that shows Elijah between the burning holocaust and a large piece of unburnt meat (cf I Kgs 18: 21-40). On the south side there is a Crusader funerary monument represented by an arch.

The northern chapel, dedicated to Moses, is a little more spacious than the other and has the modern mosaic floor a little more elevated than the other. Here too there is a painting in the curve of the apse: Moses, noble and persuasive, holds the tablets of the law in his left hand; behind him there is Sinai and on the sides a large burning bush and a rock with water flowing from it (cf Ex 17:6).

The interior of the church is divided into three rectangular naves with strong, large columns, linked by wide arches. The central nave covers on its western side one part of the Crusader crypt. The ancient stairway that goes down to it is protected by an iron grating in the floor near the church entrance. In the floor of the nave there are two glass windows to give light into the underground section.

The central apse has two levels. The lower one, to which you descend by fourteen steps, includes the eastern part of the crypt. Here are conserved the courses of stones found from the Byzantine-Crusader apse; the altar is Crusader and the beginnings of the northern and southern walls of the crypt are also Crusader. The altar is dedicated to the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration.

The floor of the crypt has been made of wood in order to preserve the original situation as fully as possible. There are two trap-doors in the floor: under the left one you can see the rock whereas under the right you see the inner part of the ancient grotto which has not been filled up.

On the upper level of the central apse there is the main altar dedicated to the Transfiguration.

The side naves are narrower than the central one and like it end in an elevated apse. In the north apseon the altar dedicated to the >Immaculate Virgin the Blessed Sacrament is kept. In the south apse the altar is consecrated to St Francis. The two bronze statues with the sanctuary lamps and the candlesticks are the work of Tonnini. A few stone steps connect the side naves to their apses above and these two link on the upper level with the central apse.

The ornamentation of the basilica is very simple. On the walls of the central nave there are two friezes, one of stone engraving that follows the line of the arches and the other in a straight line of mosaic under the windows. The side walls of the crypt are covered by mosaic panels with a recurring theme. In all of them three angels appear with aureolas, large wings and long, white tunics. The symbols used in the panels change the meaning of each picture. A child resting in a manger holds in his hands a globe surmounted by the cross: the Nativity, the descent of the Christ to become man. The chalice and the host: the Eucharist, the transformation of Christ into food and drink for human beings. The lamb: the blood of Christ poured out for the redemption of humankind. The open tomb: the Resurrection and the Ascension, the return of Christ to the eternal glory of the Father. On the roof of the crypt, a large rosette in the center which includes the so-called monogram of Constantine[2] plus the letters "alfa" and "omega"; this is surmounted by a cross with rays of light.

In the curve of the apse on the upper level there is the scene of the Transfiguration. Against a background of gold the central figure of Jesus stands out with very white clothing. On one side there are Moses and Peter; on the other, Elijah and the other two apostles. Golden rays descend from the center.

The mosaics and the paintings in the chapels are by Villani; the sculptures, such as the capitals, are by Piroli.

The lighting was planned in great detail. Three large windows over the door, nine windows above each side of the central nave, three on the northern side and one on the southern side of the lateral naves, seven small windows in the curve of the apse and the great stainedglass window in the crypt----all give a rose and golden hue to the sunlight entering the church. So much light predisposes the pilgrim to the reading of the Gospel of the Transfiguration, almost like a prologue. There was to be even more abundant light through the large, transparent marble slabs on the roof, placed above the trusses. Unfortunately it was necessary to cover the marble with metal sheets to protect the interior of the church from the infiltration of rainwater.

A door in the southern wall of the church leads to the sacristy, probably the guesthouse of the Benedictines, and also to the Byzantine baptistery. The mosaic floor of the latter is considered a good example of art from the 5-6th c. and is composed of a central panel with white, red and gray tesseras that is surrounded by a double border of tesseras of the same colors plus yellow, in curved line motifs. To the right and left of the baptistery Avi Yonah noticed the remains of mosaic floors made with white and black tesseras. These also are Byzantine.

If you follow a corridor from the baptistery to the north, you arrive at the Crusader crypt. In the floor there are four holes and different pits in the stone, which lead some scholars to believe they are the remains of a place of Canaanite worship.

To the south of the baptistery you can find the platform of the Saracen fortress where the defense weapons were installed.

As regards the archaeological findings, Gu'erin noticed that among the rubbish that covered the church and crypt they had found different large pieces of marble columns; some ruined capitals, of which one was ornamented with small lions and another with the head of a ram; a stone with a Greek cross between 2 "alfas" and 2 "omegas"; an infinity of mosaic tesseras, some of glass and others of red, white and black stone; terra-cotta lamps and fragments of glas vials. On one broken piece of marble, there remained the Greek letters: ETAM KMXPI.

Fr Meistermann found many small pillars of white marble, measuring 20 cm on the side, sculptured on two sides and with grooves on the other two sides, as well as pieces of panels of exquisite marble. Such evidence makes one think that the holy place was surrounded by besides the metal grating, also by a communion rail similar to that at Jacob's Well in the Byzantine and Crusader periods.

Fr Gassi described various capitals and pieces of capitals, some of marble, others of stone. He thought the small pillars of the chancel screen would be no later than the 6th c; they therefore would have been in the church seen by the Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza in 570 AD. Enlart thought especially intriguing the pieces of a frieze which must have been part of a great cornice, engraved with right angles entering and leaving the design. Since this pattern is common to the Byzantines and the Crusaders, its dating is uncertain. As regards the capitals, Enlart judged beautiful only those fragments of the Crusader period that maintained their coloring: "Romanesque art has not produced anything more perfect. These capitals must come from the portal with six little columns of the church of the Most Holy Savior." Enlart designed, after studying the considerable ruins, the crown for an edicule which perhaps was on the inside of the Crusader apse behind the altar.

In the Tabor Museum there are the following items:
* little metal utensils; arrow-heads, small bracelets, rings and metal crosses;
* fragments of glass and ceramic bowls; earthenware pots and various recipients; ceramic lamps, some glazed with yellow and brown;
* small borders of mosaic with various, colored tesseras;
* various capitals and bases of columns; fragments of small columns, of little pillars for the communion rail grooved on two sides, and of friezes;
* a collection of coins that are Roman, Byzantine and Byzantine with Arab, Ommayad and Mameluke markings;
* various Arab inscriptions from the time of el-Adel (originals and tracings) that are entire or in fragments;
* a hyena embalmed, the only sample of all the ferocious beasts of the past.

To the south of the plaza you will find the old Casa Nova, now recently modernized, a small clock tower and the entrance to the modern dining hall. This hall on its southern side has two large stained-glass windows. It opens out onto a terrace. From this point you can enjoy one of the more beautiful panoramas of Galilee, if not absolutely the most beautiful: the valley of Esdraelon.

_______

notes

[1] The remains of the northern chapel have not been identified. But the chronicles of the visitors mention its existence. According to them, the chapel "to the right" (southern) was dedicated to Moses and that "to the left" (northern) to Elijah. Today the names are switched.

[2] The well known monogram was formed by the two Greek letters "chi" and "rho" intertwined X&P.


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