ISRAEL, the Holy Land, Land of Many Civilisations
As I write I am hearing the waves of the Sea of Galilee breaking on the rocky shores beneath my hotel room in Tiberius, a city in the north of Israel which I am visiting with an Archeological Tour group. All of this country seems to have the Bible writing its history; at least I find myself hearing names and places I heard as a child in Methodist Sunday School…Nazareth is just over that hill; Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac in this mosaic; Jesus was said to have been crucified on the rock inside the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem; these caves in Qumran held the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in the 50s but jealously held to the breasts of scholars until 1994 when an “illegal” copy was released on the Internet.
Fascinating to witness history in the flesh, or rather, in the rocks that we scramble over, under, and over again all day every day we have been here.
Jerusalem of course supplied many days of exploration—from the many ruined homes of the City of David, to climbing into underground cisterns, ancient home foundations, ritual baths and the foundations of the Western Wall that lie many meters below the present Wall, because Jerusalem, like nearly every Tel in Israel, is a city built on top of many other cities—Roman, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Crusader, Muslim.
What I imagine most intensely from our travels around Jerusalem, though, is the ancient Roman Cardo (the main North South street of all Roman towns). Here we walked on real Roman stone roads grooved by the carts that once frequented this market street and bordered by elegant Corinthian columns that once lined the porticos to shops in the time of Jesus.
Beyond the restored archeological Cardo a live Cardo thrives—it is an Arab market like souks in Morocco selling rainbows of scarfs, spices, fresh pomegranate and carrot juice, jewelry and harem pants, color everywhere. I was entranced by Bedouin coffee pots and haggled my way into buying two lovely examples. Are they authentic? Who knows? I found myself sequestered amidst piles of carpets and velvet kaftans, having Turkish coffee and looking at supposedly antique earrings and being hard-selled into a purchase I was unsure of. When the vendor failed to persuade me he harried me down the cobblestones.
Some of these shops are under makeshift covers, cardboard, reused corrugated panels and line a Cardo that at this point is barely wide enough for three people not to mention the hand carts that are run down the paths. In some places above the market, we walked on the roofs that housed yeshivas (rabbinical schools) and a warren of homes—some are Muslim apartments often with the red and green spray painted designs that signify that the family has gone on the Hajj to Mecca. And many rooms and spaces are the homes of conservative Hasidic Jewish families.
Jerusalem is filled with Hasidic ultra orthodox scholars who have huge families (10-15 children) and who are fully supported by the State. Their work is to study the Hebrew texts and to keep Judaism alive…a task the State deemed absolutely worthy after the Holocaust. Now, though, these families have multiplied and State sponsorship has become a political controversy.
Meanwhile Jerusalem seems filled with Hasidic men in big beards, traditional wringlets at the ears, big black hats worn well back on the head. They are formally dressed in suits under which the fringes of their prayer shawls hang. The streets are filled too with men wearing yamulkas. There are far fewer women than men and many women carry children and wear traditional head scarfs.
Of course the city has many Muslims as well although we have not spent much time in the Islamic Quarter; we have, though, been privileged to go up to see the beautiful Islamic tiled octagonal structure known as the Dome of the Rock, a holy site for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike as it is believed to be where Mohammed ascended to heaven on his Night Journey, where Abraham sacrificed Isaac and where the Temple of Solomon (First Temple of the Jews) stood.
What astonished me is that beyond the ancient city walls Jerusalem is a very large modern city built on many many hills—Somehow I pictured it as a tiny ancient village.
Once into the countryside Israel is a dry dry desert, a land of olive trees, wild pomegranates, vineyards and badlands. It is starkly beautiful and barren, a place where water is scarce and precious, a place so desolate one wonders why it is so desirable. We learn it is because it lies in the center of all the trade routes between Africa and Mesopotamia, between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf so whomever controls this slender strip of desert more or less controls the Middle East.
As we explore archeological sites, we are constantly bombarded by the fact that war war war has been the life of this land, no matter who has been in control and keeping track of all the tribes and rulers is mind-boggling.
Even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre bears witness to the prevalence of warh as it is a warren of chapels and altars that many different Christian sects squabble over and refuse to let each other step into. For example Greek Orthodox and Franciscan Catholics claim half of the main aisle of the main church. Meanwhile the often discriminated against Ethiopians are exiled to the roof.
It is war, of course, that builds fortresses, city walls, siege ramps and other defensive or offensive structures all over Isreal and all of the ancient world for that matter. The layout of the Roman castrum–a military base–is used throughout the Roman Empire As the basic grid layout of all Roman cities.
Visits in the south and north of Israel have included many Roman sites, filled with exquisite floor mosaics, some geometric, some with elaborate scenes like Dionysian rites, Amazon battles, and the people, fishes, Nilometer and waves of the Nile. At Bet She’an we visited a fine example of a classical Roman city complete with a theater, a forum, an elaborate bath house, a cult area (for Mithras?), a Cardo lined with Corinthian columns and a high hill (a Tel in fact) where a Temple to Zeus stood and where an earlier Egyptian temple still stands in ruins, its column drums inscribed in hieroglyphs.
There are Jewish homes and villas that have mosaics as well and a synagogue in Zippori that has the most amazing calendar mosaic with zodiac figures, the four seasons, and Helios the Sun God riding his chariot in the center medallion.
I have learned to look for evidence of the Jewish presence here in the Roman days—mitzveh ritual baths, menorahs, and images of the “Holy of Holies,” a shell roofed niche where the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament=the sacred text of the Hebrews) is kept behind a curtain.
Two sites are amazing—Herodium where Herod build a private three level residence and fortress on the prow of a cliff and Masada, a large fortress again on a steep cliff faced promontory that Herod built and that Hebrew zealots later used as a refuge in one of their revolts against the Romans.
My favorite Roman city though is Caesarea. It lies on the splendid aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean and is a port that Herod sited on a shore with no natural landing place. He and his amazing engineers created huge breakwaters by floating barges filled with concrete out from land and then adding more concrete to sink them and thus create a massive and entirely man-made harbor. Then he built palaces on the shore, the largest of which he equipped with a large sweet water swimming pool within a Corinthian colonnade , a basilica, temples, houses, a chariot racing “circus”, a theater, mosaics everywhere and an elegant aqueduct.
Besides studying ruins and learning about the complex history of Israel Palestine and Judea, I’ve eaten trout fresh from the clearest stream I’ve ever seen, been into the warm and beautiful Mediterranean in TelAviv and listened to the waves of the Sea of Galilee at a restaurant serving fresh tilapia (called St Peter’s fish after the Biblical story wherein Jesus performs a miracle by having His deciple Peter catch a fish in whose mouth would be a coin to pay a tax). But the strangest water experience was swimming or rather bobbing around crazily like an inflatable rubber duckie in the super salty Dead Sea.
My last day in Israel I spent riding a bicycle through a wild rain storm and then ending in a gloriously sunny afternoon. I rode the entire length of Tel Aviv’s beach front up to the Yarkon River park and then east for miles until I came upon a most magical sight: right in the grass by the bike trail was a big healthy jackal !!! I was astonished, thrilled to see such a beautiful wild creature within the city limits. I rode on, then doubled back hoping to see him again and was rewarded by four or five more jackals bounding through the reeds by the river.
What a splendid finale to my trip to Israel. I felt privileged and very blessed.