Mt. Tabor sits at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, 11 miles (17 km) west of the Sea of Galilee. Its elevation at the summit is 1,843 feet (575 m) high. It is used in Scripture as a symbol of majesty. (Jeremiah 46:18, Ps 89:12).
One translation of Tabor in Arabic is ‘the belly button’. If you take your belly button to be the centre of a map then Moses was camped in the South West on Mount Nebo and Elijah was on Mount Carmel in the North West and in the centre was Mt Tabor where Jesus meets both of them on the Mount of Transfiguration . The law represented by Moses, meeting the prophets, represented by Elijah. Even though Moses did not see the promised land in his life time, he did stand in it on the day of the Transfiguration.
Mt. Tabor is probably not the location for the Transfiguration for scripture tells us that Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi just prior to the Transfiguration. This is most likely a traditional site as the Gospel accounts are silent as to the location of the Mountain of Transfiguration
In the 2nd millennium BC there was a Canaanite shrine, a “high place,” on Mount Tabor, as there was on other hills like Mount Carmel and Mount Hermon. The god worshipped here was Baal, whose cult spread in the 2nd millennium, as a result of trading links, to the island of Rhodes, where he was worshipped on Mount Atabyrion (1,215 meters) under the name of Zeus Atabyrios. (Atabyrion was also the Greek name for Mount Tabor).
In the time of the Judges (12th century BC) the Israelite tribes gathered on Mount Tabor in the days of Deborah and her general Barak . The Canaanites were assembled at Harosheth Haggoyim (likely on the opposite side of the Jezreel Valley) and Barak led the Israelite charge of 10,000 men against Sisera’s army. It seems that the Lord’s intervention on behalf of the Israelites was in the form of a rainstorm, such that the Kishon River flooded and made chariot travel for the Canaanites impossible (Judges 4,12-16 and chapter 5)
The significance of Mount Tabor in the history of Christianity began in the 4th century, when it became identified with the “high mountain” which Christ went with his disciples Peter, James, and John “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him” (Matthew 17; Mark 9, 2-13; Luke 9, 28-36).
To get to the top you need to book a space in a minivan and boy do these guys go up hair pin bends in a jiffy. When you reach the summit, the road to the right leads you to the Franciscan Monastery. You will now enter a walled courtyard between the ruins of an older church on the left and the monastery garden on the right and a path that takes you up to the Church of the Transfiguration
Built of limestone, the Church of the Transfiguration harks back to the style of church building, which developed in Syria between the 4th and 6th centuries and which focused not merely with lavish interiors but also meaningful exteriors. This Syrian tradition is reflected, for example, in the facade, with its two projecting towers between which a round-headed arch surmounted by a pediment frames the entrance to the church, and in the volute-like framing of the windows.
Inside the Church the nave is separated from the aisles by wide-spanned arches. The church contains three grottoes, which were described by Jonas Korte in 1751 as “three chapels, with a small altar; they are called tabernacles, and they are said to represent the three huts which Peter desired to build, one for his Master, the other two for Moses and Elias”.
To enter the Grotto of Christ take the steps leading down to a lower level with a sanctuary enclosed by walls belonging to a Crusader church and roofed with a modern barrel vault. In the vaulting of the apse in the upper part of the church is a mosaic in gold representing the Transfiguration .
There are two other chapels in the towers on the west front: in the south tower, the Chapel of Elija and in the north tower (the one to your left if you’re facing the Church), the Chapel of Moses, with a mosaic pavement incorporating crosses in the design. This means that the mosaic must date from before 422, when the Emperor Theodosius II prohibited the representation of crosses in mosaic pavements so that this sacred symbol should not be trodden underfoot.
Antonio Berluzzi also added a little treat for pilgrims who come here on the 6th of August, on the feast of the transfiguration. On this day the sun light falls on the windows of the façade and the light illuminates the Golden apse inside. Don’t miss the elevated platform to the right of the Church with a beautiful view of the Jezreel valley and a cast image of the architect Antonio Barluzzi on the wall to the left outside the Church. Pope (now saint)Paul VI visited this place in January 1964 and a bust o him stands in the garden.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.