By Kirsten Ekstrand
“Look, guys! This is 2000 years old… and I’m touching it!” Rachel smiled at the rest of the choir and posed for a snapshot next to the stone wall at the Caesarean theater. As we walked further into the theater, I had to pinch myself to prove I wasn’t dreaming, that I was actually there in the ruins of a city built two millennia earlier. I tried to imagine the activity of the theater, the people in the seats.
For two weeks this May, I toured Israel with the Women’s Concert Choir from Moody Bible Institute, an accredited college in downtown Chicago. In the June 15 article, I reflected on our choir’s concert ministry in Israel. During this article, I will begin a focus on the tour sites we visited while in the Holy Land.
The first few days of the tours, we were in the northern part of Israel, on the coast, in the Carmel mountains, and on the Golan Heights. We spent our nights in Haifa, a modern Israeli city located on the Mediterranean Sea.
I hadn’t been outside the Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv an hour before we were at our first tour site. I think the plan was to adjust to an eight-hour time change as quickly as we could, so our first few days were packed with activity. Adjusted or not, we went.
|Kirsten poses at the ruins of Caesarea Maritima.|
IT WAS FOGGY AND hazy when we got to Caesarea, definitely a less shocking introduction to the scorching Middle Eastern heat than I had expected. Jetlagged, we wandered through our first visit to an Israeli National Park. Caesarea Maritima is an ancient port city, built by Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It lies next to the modern city of Caesarea, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Ancient Caesarea displays a large Roman influence. Built in honor of a Roman Caesar, the city possesses a large Roman theater, a hippodrome, a palace and a bathhouse. We walked through the ruins, a professor from our school explaining each of the sites to us. Caesarea is where the apostle Paul was imprisoned for two years before sailing for Rome.
Perhaps one of the most significant impressions this city left me with was the open paganism of the culture. The hippodrome was the site of countless gladiator fights. We were told that when the Romans tired of watching the gladiators fight, they brought in Jews to be fed to the lions. It was bone chilling, walking across on sand that had soaked up the innocent blood.
Caesarea was also my first introduction to the Crusader era architecture found throughout Israel. The people of Israel, Muslims and Jews alike, still remember the crusades and the violence connected with them. We were told not to wear jewelry with crosses on it while in Israel, because the cross symbolizes the crusades to Israelis. It would have hampered our ministry for them to see a visible connection to centuries of ruthless bloodshed.
THE NEXT MORNING TOOK us to Megiddo and Mt. Carmel. We were staying in Haifa, a modern city located on the northern part of the coast. I entered the day expecting to be mildly interested in Megiddo, most excited to see Mt. Carmel. To my surprise, my excitement was exactly the opposite.
Megiddo sounded obscure to me, and in some ways, it was. It appears in the Old Testament as one of three cities that Solomon fortified, a passage even the most observant Bible student might skim over. Standing there, however, we were able to see that this was a city of incredible significance at the time. Solomon fortified it because it was a crossroads, a place that controlled a key trade route. While now the city sits in ruins, archeologists maintain that it was conquered and rebuilt 25 times in its history. It was interesting, too, to learn that archeologists have found the same architecture and gates in the other cities Solomon fortified.
As fascinating as this was, Megiddo gripped me for a different reason. It sits as a hill next to the Jezreel Valley, and has long been identified as the site of the future battle of Armageddon. For me, Megiddo was where I realized that the land of Israel not only carries the history of my faith, but the future of it as well. One of our professors called the land of Israel the “center of the universe.” At Megiddo, I began to see that how this could be true.
Later that day, we traveled through the Carmel mountains, to the traditional site of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with the false prophets of Baal. A monastery was built at the site, and we climbed to the roof and looked out on the whole Jezreel Valley. Serene and peaceful, this valley is now occupied by farmers. The northern part of Israel is the most fertile, and many of the country’s crops come from the Jezreel Valley. Just this past December, the mountain range faced an enormous forest fire.
|The headwaters of the Jordan River are located at Dan.|
WE TREKKED UP TO the northernmost part of Israel the next day, visiting the remains of the Israelite city of Dan. When an ancient Israelite wanted to talk about the whole length of the country, they would say “from Dan to Beersheba,” much like we might say “from New York to L.A.” to refer to the width of the United States. At Dan are the headwaters of the Jordan River, one of Israel’s four major bodies of water, and the source of much of its modern irrigation.
Our first stop was the cultic temple, where an Israelite king set up altars and idols in direct defiance to the instructions given in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). While only the foundations of the altar are left, a stainless steel facsimile stands on top of them. I was surprised to see that an ancient altar was somewhere around 10 feet in height. This was no small mound of stones.
After seeing the temple, we visited two cities built on this site. The first was the Canaanite city of Laish, built before ancient Israel was a nation. Abraham visited this city to rescue his nephew Lot. Here, the enormous amount of history contained in the land of Israel hit me again. Not just 2000 years, but well over 4000 years of civilizations have made their home in Israel. Coming from a culture where a tenth of that time is considered old, looking at the ruins of a city that ancient was a new experience.
The actual city of Dan was our next stop. Here I was able to see city walls, to walk on an ancient road, and to stand in a city gate. I was surprised at the size of the walls, and the comparatively small size of the city. The walls were easily several feet thick, yet the whole city was smaller than Pocahontas’s Main Street.
|The pre-1967 border between Lebanon and Israel sits at the ancient city of Dan as a constant reminder that the political tensions of the land are far from resolved.|
MODERN AND ANCIENT HISTORY collided at Dan. As we hiked from site to site, we saw the 1967 border between Israel and Lebanon. Roughly constructed with metal sheeting lining a trench, this served as a reminder that the political conflict of the region is not over. From our position on a hill near Dan, we saw the modern country of Lebanon in the distance. As we had spent so much time immersed in the rich history of the land, that day was our first introduction to the modern battles they fight.
After a brief stop for lunch, we journeyed on to the Golan Heights. Our look at Israel’s modern history was continued, as we stood in the territory that Syria claims is theirs. We had a chance to tour the old military bunkers from the 60’s and 70’s, and to see an operating military base from the distance, located on a neighboring hill. As we looked out onto the Galilee region, the most fertile part of the country, it was clear to me why Israel would not surrender that region’s defense system. Suddenly it wasn’t only a question of who has the right to the land, but also of maintaining defensible borders. One can hardly blame a country for wanting to defend their farmland.
Obviously, the political situation is far from this simplistic. There are more questions to be answered, and an immediate solution is likely impossible. Still, our trip to the Golan Heights gave me a sense of empathy for the Israelis, and that empathy only increased as we continued to see the land and interact with the people over the course of the trip.
When I left, I was excited to see history from 2000 years ago, but as our tour progressed, I was amazed to see that the lessons to be learned were those spanning 4000 years, from the Canaanite city of Laish, to Solomon’s fortified Megiddo, to the modern day and the future. Not only did people live there four millennia ago, but today, the land is a real place, full of people who are eagerly waiting for peace.
It seems as though mankind hasn’t changed that much in 4000 years.
For the next installment in this series, visit R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 3.