"YE mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings. . . ." David's famous curse after the death of King Saul came naturally to mind not long ago as I traveled the length and breadth of Israel's Jezreel Valley, in the shadow of the Gilboa Mountains. I had known in an abstract sort of way that the events associated with any square mile of Israeli soil are sufficient to provide an ample history for a medium-sized planet, but it's quite another matter actually to be there on the ground, finding resonance in every country stream and hilltop settlement.
It was in the Jezreel Valley, beneath Mount Gilboa, that King Saul fell upon his sword rather than risk capture by the Philistines. A few miles from Mount Gilboa is the Spring of Harod, where, at the Lord's insistence, the judge Gideon winnowed his army from 32,000 to 300 men before successfully attacking the Midianites. Visible to the north is Mount Tabor, below whose slopes the prophet Deborah led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites. In the middle distance lies the village of Endor, where before his final battle Saul consulted a witch (to his deep regret), and the village of Nain, where Jesus brought a widow's only son back to life. Just off the road is the mound, or tel, that harbors the remains of Jezreel, the winter capital of King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. A half dozen miles to the west, where a strategic pass opens onto the Jezreel Valley, lies Tel Megiddo, the earliest of whose twenty-five occupational layers dates back to the Bronze Age. The final battle between the forces of good and evil is supposed to take place in the shadow of Mount Megiddo--Har Meggido, that is to say, or Armageddon. The most recent battle in the area was of less apocalyptic consequence: it occurred during the First World War, in September of 1918, when Field Marshal Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby surprised and routed a Turkish army at Megiddo Pass. Elevated to the peerage a year later, Allenby would thereafter be known as 1st Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe.
Until just recently I had never visited Israel or any of the territory it currently controls, though I had long maintained an interest in biblical scholarship. The prospect of setting foot in what was referred to at my Catholic grammar school as the Holy Land has always been appealing. The appeal, however, had been diminished greatly in recent decades by almost everything shown about Israel on the evening news. Many other Americans harbor misgivings about visiting Israel for the same reason. Still, the intifada has calmed down. Though many highly charged issues remain unresolved, a peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians has at least been signed. Tourism in Israel this year has been up substantially. So when given a chance to visit Israel as a guest of the government and pursue an itinerary of my own devising, I took it. I brought along as a companion my thirteen-year-old son, Jack.
Israel's size is a military strategist's nightmare and a traveler's dream. The country is slightly smaller than Massachusetts, and yet offers widely varying terrain that is reminiscent by turns of southern Arizona and eastern Kansas, of Palm Springs and Cape Cod. I was interested not only in seeing the religious sites I had heard about all my life but also in visiting some archaeological excavations that, I was told, are well on the way to becoming major attractions.
ON European maps from the medieval period Jerusalem was usually depicted as the center of the known world, and for many in the West the city continues to occupy that position, at least emotionally. My son and I approached Jerusalem by car as evening fell; our first glimpse of the Old City came from an overlook near the King David Hotel during a late-night stroll. Spotlights played softly on the limestone walls; the moon above was bright, a day or two past full. Early the next morning, from the Mount of Olives, we found the view of Jerusalem that has become a spectacular cliché: the golden Dome of the Rock in the foreground, the Kidron Valley at our feet. Some clichés should not be avoided.
We had a guide in Israel throughout our trip--an affable and knowledgeable native of South Africa named Mike Rogoff, whose bona fides include having written the introduction, the historical survey, and the chapters on Jerusalem, Jerusalem's environs, and Lower Galilee for the 1995 edition of Fodor's Israel. I am a traveler who hates organized tours and values independence, so the following statement about having a guide in at least the Old City of Jerusalem may carry some weight: You want one. The important religious sites in the Old City--the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Al Aqsa Mosque--are well known to everyone and easily accessible, but a great deal of Jerusalem is hidden, down a forbidding alley or an unlikely staircase. Now that I've been there, I can imagine a compelling tour of Jerusalem that would take place entirely underground.
I had been prepared to concede the power of the religious sites in Jerusalem even before our arrival. Physically they are more threadbare than I had imagined, and their connection with any actual events is tenuous, but that hardly matters. What sets Jerusalem apart is the people there. Henceforward when I think of Jerusalem it will be in images of flesh and stone, flesh and stone, with the flesh periodically breaking into hymns. A convention of some 5,000 Pentecostals lent extra pungency to the scene while we were in Jerusalem, but even among ordinary tourists a demeanor of reverence toward something was apparent. The long, slow line of people waiting to enter the tiny chamber that houses the supposed tomb of Jesus, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was as polyglot and polydermic a crowd as I've ever seen--and hushed with expectation. Even the tomb's gruff Greek Orthodox gatekeeper, redolent of incense, wax, and gravy, could not spoil the mood. Inside, a wizened cleric in a white robe slapped his bare feet on the marble floor when it was time for each group of six visitors to depart. (Our group included an Ethiopian couple in native dress, a bloated German man, and a woman from Texas wearing a baseball cap from an aircraft carrier.) At the Western Wall we witnessed a moment of incongruous serenity. A military awards ceremony was taking place in the plaza, and armed Israeli soldiers stood stiffly in rows. During a brief pause one of the commanders, his Uzi slung on his back, walked over to the wall and pressed the palms of his hands against it--flesh and stone--to pray.
The sere, rocky landscape, the narrow and winding streets, the muezzin's call to prayer--those stock vignettes of the Old City all have a firm basis in reality. The market in the Arab Quarter is an odd hybrid, part kitschy tourist zone and part functioning souk. One street is devoted entirely to butchers' stalls; the carcasses and entrails lie out for inspection, gamily calling to mind the many biblical references to "fleshpots." In the dry-goods realm few transactions are straightforward. My son eventually came to relish the negotiations involved in establishing the price of even the most trivial item. Perhaps someday he will know how to buy a car.