Hallowed Ground

A first experience of the Holy Land

"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.

jerusals picture
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.

The one place in Israel that came as a complete surprise was the Galilee region: nothing had quite prepared me for its evocative appeal. If Jesus is the most prominent character in the New Testament, the second most prominent is the Sea of Galilee. Galilee also became the heart of Jewish life in Palestine after the Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70, and it was among the first areas to be settled by the Zionists earlier in this century. The sea itself is small, a freshwater body shaped like a tear seven miles across at its widest, but a large proportion of Gospel episodes take place on its surface or among the rolling hills that form its rim: the Sermon on the Mount, the story of the loaves and fishes, Jesus' walking upon water. The town of Capernaum, which Jesus made his headquarters and in whose synagogue he taught, lies on the northern shore. Mary Magdalene came from Magdala, now called Migdal, a town on the Sea of Galilee's western shore. It occurred to me, as I stood looking over the water from the hill associated with the Sermon on the Mount, that almost all the people Jesus knew well had lived within my line of sight. I was struck by how small an area this was, and how large a thing had come from it.

Not far from Migdal is Kibbutz Nof Ginosar, where a 2,000-year-old fishing boat, discovered when the Sea of Galilee's waters receded during a drought in 1986, has recently gone on display. The boat is typical of the kind that the apostles Peter and James and John would have used as they fished the lake. Our guide, looking at the boat in the porcelain basin where its timbers have been soaking up a preservative, said, "All it needs is a nameplate reading 'Zebedee & Sons.'"

THE whole of Israel is, of course, an archaeological site. My son and I visited perhaps a dozen specific locations outside Jerusalem, including what some archaeologists believe to be the world's oldest city, Jericho, whose earliest visible fortifications were built about 10,000 years ago. At the two most extraordinary archaeological sites we saw, Beth She'an and Zippori, there were hardly more than a handful of other visitors. That will change when the ambitions for these places are realized.

The ancient city of Beth She'an, now a town of 15,000, is mentioned in the Bible as the place where King Saul's headless corpse was hung from the walls after the battle at Mount Gilboa. Until recently the glory of the old city was suggested only by a tel, some twenty layers high, which dates back to biblical times, and by the excavated remains of an amphitheater built during the Roman era, when Beth She'an was known as Scythopolis. Scythopolis was the chief city in the ten-city Graeco-Roman league known as the Decapolis. Jesus probably passed through here as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Starting in 1985, under the auspices of the Antiquities Authority and Hebrew University, acre upon acre of ground at Beth She'an has been rolled back, revealing the downtown area of the most important Roman city in Palestine after Caesarea. Seeing the exposed bathhouse complex, the temples, the colonnaded streets, it is hard to imagine that only a decade ago this panorama appeared to be nothing but a grassy plain. Much of Scythopolis is now being restored, but parts are to be left exactly as they were after an earthquake destroyed the city, in the eighth century A.D. The sight is powerful: in places tall columns spear the cobbled streets at an angle, like javelins.

We climbed the tel and took in the ruins, conscious that most of the destruction below us had occurred in a few short minutes. Archaeology can provide haunting snapshots, moments of cataclysm preserved in high resolution. We had seen another example deep underneath the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem: a mansion that had been destroyed by fire when the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt in A.D. 70. From the account of Flavius Josephus we know the exact day the mansion was burned. The atmosphere of family life cruelly disrupted is impossible to escape: one can actually see that the guest rooms were in the process of being redecorated.

A second remarkable site is just outside Nazareth, in Zippori--a national park that takes its name from the Graeco-Roman city of Sepphoris, which is being excavated by teams from several Israeli and American universities. Decades of work lie ahead. What makes the city notable is the floor mosaics: the dozen examples that have been turned up so far include some of the finest ever found in Israel. After visiting perhaps one mosaic site too many, my son bore the air of a jaded connoisseur, but even he was startled into appreciation by the delicate and deftly rendered face of a beautiful woman in the floor of a Roman villa at Sepphoris. The goal ultimately is to make Zippori into an archaeological park focused on the mosaics.

Crowning the hill that Sepphoris occupies is a citadel built originally by the Crusaders on Byzantine foundations and then rebuilt by the Turks. A close look at the base reveals that many of the building blocks are in fact empty Roman sarcophagi. The past has never gone unused for long in this part of the world, which is both its fascination and its problem.

THE travel literature on Israel, old and new, is abundant and often of high quality; I made frequent use of the text-heavy Fodor's guidebook, of the elegantly illustrated Insight Guide: Israel, and of Sarah Kaminker's oft-reprinted Footloose in Jerusalem, which plots a series of walking tours. Also, specific queries about many Israel-related subjects can be answered by the Israel Government Tourist Information Center (800-596-1199). To the information provided by these sources I would add a few observations.

There is the matter of security. It is impossible not to be aware of what Israelis I have spoken with refer to as "the situation." At the airport, at the gates to the Old City and the entrances to the Temple Mount, at highway checkpoints--here and elsewhere you will encounter obvious defensive measures. The sight of uniformed (and sometimes civilian) Israelis strolling about with machine guns is common; my son, who kept a count of such people, recorded a one-day high of ninety-seven. What came as a surprise, though, was that despite all this, the predominant sensation in the areas I visited is of lives being led more or less peacefully. (Granted, I had no intention of going to known trouble spots.) Even an unruly demonstration that I chanced upon while on my way to meet someone at a restaurant failed to disturb the underlying atmosphere on my visit. The demonstration--by Israeli rightists protesting the implementation of the peace accords --was a significant one, and was met with armored cars and water cannons; it was the lead story in the Jerusalem Post the next day. But no more than a block away from the demonstration city life went on as normal.

Don't be shy about seeking professional help. If on a first trip to Israel you are not traveling with an organized group, then make arrangements to hire a guide for all or part of your visit (the cost of a guide with a car runs to about $300 a day for up to seven people), or to take guided day trips. Ireland, England, Italy, Canada--these are countries you can simply drop into. In Israel, with its complex political and religious terrain, it is an advantage to have someone who can provide continual orientation, at least at the outset. I'll probably conduct my next trip to Israel on my own, but on this first trip Mike Rogoff saved us enormous amounts of time and helped us bypass likely occasions of confusion. Israel is careful when it comes to guides. They have to be licensed by the government, and to obtain their licenses must have undergone a two-year training program.

Bring along a Bible--an obvious enough piece of advice, I suppose, but this is something I nearly failed to do in my haste to depart. My own choice was The HarperCollins Study Bible, which contains not only the full text of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament but also extensive footnotes and historical commentary. I also brought The Oxford Companion to the Bible. These are bulky volumes, not suitable for hauling around in a knapsack. I kept them in the hotel room and at night consulted them with reference to whatever route we planned to follow the next day. This geography-driven approach to Bible reading might be frowned on by theological purists, but it is at once a purposeful and an eclectic way to renew acquaintance with all that wonderful language.

There is no substitute for high-quality maps. The Israeli Government Land Survey Department produces excellent ones at scales of 1:250,000 and 1:100,000, with legends that indicate almost every conceivable topographic and archaeological feature in the country in addition to roads, cities, and towns. You can buy these maps in Israel at many outlets of the bookstore chain Steimatzky's, and you can also order them in the United States through a company called Map Link (805-965-4402).

Finally, try to do a little bit less than you might. Israel's size makes it possible--and therefore tempting--to pack as many activities into, say, a week as would require three weeks somewhere else. I haven't even brought up swimming in the Dead Sea, poring over the Dead Sea Scrolls, exploring the summit of Masada, touring abandoned Syrian bunkers in the Golan Heights, or standing under cool waterfalls among the ibexes in the desert-locked and improbably lush nature reserve at Ein Gedi--all of which, and more, we did. In retrospect I wish that Jack and I had had a few more empty hours just to walk the streets of Jerusalem or to sip cold drinks at an outdoor table in the souk or to spend an evening with friends.

Fortunately, there was one day when we did have time for some of these things. There is much to be said for the sabbath.

Link to Corby Kummer's article "Tel Aviv: Secular City" (December Atlantic)

Photography by Richard Nowitz/ASAP

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Hallowed Ground; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 54-60.