January 10, 2019
Wow did we see a lot today! I’m doing my best to capture as much as possible, but we cover so much ground in so little time that there is no doubt that I am missing quite a bit. Remember, this is my journal, so I’m writing about as much as I can remember, quite possibly more than you want to read, so there are no hard feelings if you want to skim and skip freely.
Our first stop today was Caesarea Maritima (not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi. Lots of cities were named for Caesar). The history of Caesarea Maritima began with Herod the Great (the same King Herod who wanted the Magi to report back to him the location of Jesus). Herod wanted to create a great port city to serve the region he ruled, and so he chose a location that had essentially nothing, and commissioned the building of a harbor with two manmade seawalls able to withstand the waves on the Mediterranean. In the city he built a palace for himself, a racetrack, and a theater (and probably more). In order to make the city viable, he also built a 15 mile aqueduct. The dry season in Israel stretches five months with no rain, so an active fresh water supply is a critical part of any development. And so that little bit of coastland went from being wilderness to being a bustling port city with accommodations and entertainment fit for a king, just like that.
Caesarea was conquered, destroyed, and resettled multiple times, and each time that happens the new city is built on top of the ruins of the previous one, which gradually raises the level of the city itself. That process is multiplied by the wind and waves of the Mediterranean, which quickly cover everything near the coast with sand and seashells, and so much of what once was there can be buried and forgotten, due to both natural and manmade forces. In addition, the stones of old buildings are often the most convenient building material with which to make new buildings, and so before some of these sites were recognized as historically significant and protected, the ruins can be even more ruined.
As a result, much of what we saw were foundations or recreations, but they were impressive nonetheless. We passed by the theater, because that was (in the words of Ikey), 1% original and 99% recreation. But much of the horse race track was there and had been excavated. There were still rows and rows of seats that had survived since Herod’s day, and the track itself was easily visible (we walked right across it). When they first excavated the walls, they discovered that they had been painted to look like they were made of marble, but once excavated, the exposure quickly stripped away the ancient paint.
Ikey told us that up until relatively recently, the racetrack had actually been covered by a parking lot, which sat on top of fifteen or so feet of ground that hundreds of years had deposited. In one place, as they excavated they had left the house that had been built on top of the racetrack during a later era, so we could see the interplay between the different eras of Caesarea’s history. It is intriguing to wonder how much more of the city still lays buried.
Caesarea Maritima is a good example of the way that history layers itself. The city was built and prospered under the Roman and Byzantine empires, but was swapped back and forth with the Muslims and conquered for good in the 600s, and then largely abandoned. When the Crusaders came, they took Caesarea and fortified it, and so some of the ruins that we were looking at were “only” eight hundred years old, like the house built on top of the stands for the racetrack. The city was swapped back and forth with the Muslims a couple more times, and then conquered again by the Muslims and destroyed completely, and pretty much lost to history until excavations began uncovering everything Herod had built.
In case you can’t remember, Caesarea Maritima is significant in the scriptures for a couple of reasons. It is the city where Cornelius lived, who was the first Gentile Christian (Acts 10). Cornelius is the Roman Centurion who was visited by Peter after God gave Peter the vision of unclean food and declared, “Don’t call anything unclean that I have called clean.” This is also the city where Paul was on trial and appealed to Caesar (Acts 23-26), and we read that text while standing in what we think was probably the room where Paul stood, saying the very words that I was reading.
That was within the palace Herod had built, the footprint of which was plainly visible, both the official “working” area through which we could walk, and the private area, complete with an impressive freshwater pool built just feet from the shoreline of the Mediterranean. Both the palace and the racetrack were right up against the Sea, almost jutting out into it. The harbor is still being excavated, so there wasn’t much to see there, but originally, that was probably the most impressive of the engineering feet, with the massive breakwaters they created. If it weren’t for the fact that he was paranoid and incredibly violent, Herod the Great would be, well, great.
Mount Carmel is the mountain where Elijah faced down the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). There is a monastery in the traditional spot where Elijah built the altar to Yahweh and God sent fire from heaven. The view from the mount is breathtaking, but otherwise, this was my least favorite stop. I think part of the reason is that, while many of the sites that we see confirm the scriptures, there was nothing here to point at and say, “this is evidence that Elijah was here.” I know there will be other sites like this, where the only reason for the location is tradition, but I like it better when they can tell me, “we think this might be the spot because…”
Our guide did explain an interesting theory that I had never heard before. Given the fact that Mt. Carmel is visible for many miles in all directions, it may have been that when word went out through Israel about the competition on Mt. Carmel, part of the message was, “If you see smoke in the morning, Baal is god. If you see smoke in the afternoon, Yahweh reigns.” He suggested that Elijah’s taunting and even the elaborate process of digging a trench and going the necessary distance to get water to fill it was intended to make sure that it was obvious that the smoke went up in the afternoon, so that immediately Israel would know that Yahweh was victorious. It made sense in that location, but I’m not sure I’m convinced.
We also visited the excavated remains of a fort overlooking the Plain of Megiddo, also known as Armegeddon. This was destroyed by the Romans and never rebuilt, and so, historically, it is sort of the opposite of Caesarea. The history of Megiddo ends with the Romans. The history of Caesarea began with them. What they have in common, however, is a long history of conquest, which means destruction and rebuilding. We saw gates that our guide told us were probably commissioned by King Solomon. They match the design and specifications of other cities where he built gates, but it is impossible to be certain that they weren’t built by Jeroboam, who took the northern ten tribes from Solomon’s son, or another of Israel’s later kings (Jeroboam II was specifically mentioned).
An older gate we looked at (pre-Solomon) was in a wall so thick that it would have had three separate sets of doors to pass through on your way in, to make it more secure against invaders. Our tour guide pointed out to us that the majority of the wall was built of uncut stones, meaning stones that were simply gathered and fit reasonably well together, with more stones heaped on top. So the goal in building your wall is to add rocks to make it as wide and high as possible, because an enemy attacking is going to be trying to pull down the stones and cave your wall in. Only at the gate are the stones cut into nice rectangles, so that they can be fit together nicely. That wasn’t laziness. That was because we were looking at construction from before metal tools were widely available (or known at all), and so you were as likely to have a chisel in your village as I would be to have a bulldozer in my neighborhood.
The term “high place” appears many times in the Old Testament as a place where sacrifices took place, often to other gods, but even sometimes to Yahweh, though Yahweh had forbidden such sacrifices. In the book of Kings you hear the refrain lamenting that under a particular king “the high places were not removed.” The most interesting thing I learned at Megiddo was that those high places were not just an altar on any hill that gave you some elevation, which is what I had always pictured, but rather a designated place atop the wall at the gate where people would make sacrifices before leaving or after arriving, probably as a way to seek favor with their god for their journey, or to thank their god after the journey.
We also saw mangers that had been excavated near the gate and in the stables, so that pack animals could be fed upon arrival. How could mangers survive for thousands of years, you ask? Because they are made of stone, of course, not wood. And they were shaped as simple rectangular boxes sized just about right for a newborn. You can understand why it would be a natural place to put a baby to sleep if you were staying in a stable.
There were some other intriguing ruins at Megiddo: the stable I just mentioned, an area where multiple temples had been built, one of which had a circular altar that they had found still covered with bones, an ancient stone staircase leading deep beneath the city to a tunnel that gave them an emergency water supply when besieged, and an ancient grain silo (below the earth, not above it).
We also had an amazing view of the Plain of Megiddo, which is the reason why Megiddo exists at all. Because of the sea and the desert, the Plain of Megiddo is essentially THE land route between Egypt and all of Europe, Asia, and Mesopotamia, and so when ancient empires clashed with Egypt, they came through the Plain of Megiddo, a trend that continued as recently as the days of Napoleon and even World War I. I’ve heard it claimed several times, including today, that no place on earth has experienced as much battle as that plain, and so Megiddo was built and rebuilt to serve as a fortress that could guard the Plain of Megiddo below. Battles ranging from the days of Gideon to the days of World War I brought armies through that land, so you can see why this would be a natural image for God to draw upon in the book of Revelation to describe the battle between good and evil.
Everything today was intriguing, sobering, and/or awe-inspiring, but the highlight for me, by far, was Nazareth. Nazereth was once a predominantly Christian city. It is now majority Muslim, but there is still a strong Christian population here, which has created “Nazareth Village”, a reenactment of life in first century Nazareth. Most of the village is reconstructed, although there were a couple of things that were original, including a winepress and the man-made terraces they used to enable farming. The terrain here is hilly and rocky, and so even navigating this village meant climbing lots of steps (often uneven), and in order to farm, they had engineered small terraces into the hillside. I say engineered, because they not only built the retaining walls to keep the soil, they had also put a layer of rock that sloped down the hill beneath the soil of each terrace, so that water would filter through the soil then drain down the rock to the next terrace as a form of natural irrigation.
Here we saw replicas of Roman armor like Paul had in mind when exhorting the Ephesians to put on the armor of God. We saw a threshing floor and the implements used in the threshing process to separate the grain from the chaff. We were able to go inside a replica of a tomb and see where niches were carved for ossuaries, and how the stone served to seal the tomb. We sat in a reconstruction of an actual 1st century synagogue that had been excavated elsewhere. We watched a carpenter working with first century tools, the most interesting of which was a bow drill that could efficiently drill through a piece of wood by means of a bit wrapped with string stretched across a bow of wood. Our guide repeated something that I had also read from Paul Meier: that the word translated ‘carpenter’ would be better translated ‘builder’, which means that Joseph and Jesus would have not just been familiar with woodworking, but even more, building with stone. That makes sense when you consider how often Jesus speaks about construction involving stone (the house built on the rock, the cornerstone, “I tell you that you are Peter (rock) and on this rock I will build my church.” We saw sheep and heard about the need to keep sheep and goats separate (Matthew 25) and the significant differentiator that sheep listen to the voice of their shepherd, and goats don’t, which explains in part why Jesus chose that metaphor for judgment. We also gained a better understanding of how a shoot could spring up from the stump of Jesse while looking at an olive tree.
My #2 highlight today was seeing how the process of pressing olives works, involving a first step that is similar to grinding grain in a mill, and then three “presses”, from the first one that takes the first and best drops of oil as a sacrifice to God without any pressure, and then two more presses that use a gigantic beam and 750 pounds of weights to put increasing (and incredible!) pressure on the olives to extract the oil. Why was that a highlight? Because our guide explained that Gethsemane means “olive press” in Hebrew, and was the location where three times Jesus experienced increasing (and incredible!) pressure, to such an extent that His sweat became like drops of blood. That was fascinating. [Edit: I looked this up in Hebrew later. Gethsemane means “olive oil” not “olive press”. The only reference to pressing olives I could find in the Old Testament was Micah 6:15, and the verb there was from darak.]
But my #1 highlight of the day was standing next to the winepress that I mentioned earlier, which is really just a shallow pit carved strategically into the ground to allow the grape juice to flow into a pit from which it can be collected. As I said, the winepress is original, and across the street they found the remains of a watchtower, which they had reconstructed within their grounds, where they had also reconstructed a wall around the area. And why was this a highlight? Because the guide had me read Mark 12:1: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.” Then he pointed to the winepress, the wall and the watchtower, and pointed out that the place where 1st century Nazareth was located was just a fifteen minute walk away. It is entirely possible that I was standing next to the winepress that Jesus was picturing in His mind when He began telling that parable. That just about gave me chills. I’m starting to get why people cross the ocean in order to walk where Jesus walked – even if we can’t be quite certain.
Alright, I’m up way too late finishing this, so I’ll skip the rest of the day, except to mention Tom and Vanessa Saleska because… well because they keep trying to find a way to get into the blog. 😉 I have had several enjoyable conversations with them, though. If you know Tom, ask him sometime why he had to go see the Dean of Students during his undergrad at River Forest.
In all seriousness, our group from Trinity has done really well. Today was some challenging terrain and more than a little walking, and everyone has been smiling, laughing, and looking forward to tomorrow.
Thanks for keeping us and our loved ones in your prayers.