Having never been outside the New World, I had never seen actual ancient ruins before in person. What constitutes a “ruin” in my neck of the woods, is usually half a mud hut from 150 years ago or something (yes, I know there are ancient ruins in the Americas, but not on nearly the same scale as the Old World). In Israel, it seems you can’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting some ancient, crumbling stone building with real archaeological significance, and the rock you threw is probably an ancient relic too. But, so long as it doesn’t have an inscription on it, you can still take it home.
We saw some new (to us) ruin pretty much everyday, each one more impressive than the last. That might not sound exciting to everyone, and after a week or so even us history buffs can get a little ruin fatigue. But for the most part, each one was fascinating in its own right, made more so by our guide Roman’s extensive knowledge and knack for storytelling. These weren’t just piles of old rocks or windswept foundations. They were palaces and fortresses. Vibrant villages and houses of worship. Biblical people walked along some of these very roads, looked upon some of these very walls, entered through these very gates. Not to mention how incredible it was that these structures and tunnels were built almost entirely with only the most ancient technology: human muscle.
Our first official stop on our Holy Land tour were the ruins of Caeseria Maritima. Built by Herod the Great, the same Herod who built the Second Temple and ordered the infants of Judea killed after the birth of Jesus. He was the Roman appointed ruler of Judea but was not actually a big fan of the Judeans (Israelites). So he built himself a nice little seaside palace, harbor, and city to rule them from afar. It was a Roman town for the most part, not a lot of Israelites hanging around. It was extremely prosperous and was the largest city in Israel in the time of Jesus. It’s also the place where Herod’s grandson, Herod Agripa, would be struck down by worms after accepting adulation from his subjects when they declared him a god. Whoops.
Of archeological significance, Caesaeria Maritima is where the Pilate Stone was located. The Pilate Stone, unearthed in 1961, is a limestone block inscribed with the name of Pontius Pilate (yes, that, Pontius Pilate), and hails him as a Roman governor in those parts. This is significant because prior to its discovery there was no archeological evidence for Pilate’s existence, only the written words of the Bible and ancient Jewish historian Josephus.
It wasn’t hard to see why Herod picked the spot, with its beautiful views of the Mediterranean. He even had an aqueduct built to bring water to the city from a spring at the foot of Mt. Carmel, 20 miles away. We saw what was left of the aqueduct. Pretty impressive stuff. But perhaps most impressive were the ancient Roman…toilets. Ok, that’s a joke. The toilets themselves weren’t that impressive, it was their location. Right along the entryway to the hippodrome (stadium)! Imagine walking into AT&T Park and locking eyes with someone in full grimace doing their dirty business. I think that would hurt season ticket sales.
From Caesaeria it was on to Mt. Carmel and the possible site of Elijah’s battle against the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. From atop the mountain, which is really a very long ridge, we had a fantastic view of the Jezreel Valley below. The Jezreel Valley is a wide flat valley, used primarily for agricultural purposes these days. But over the centuries, it has been a battlefield fought on by Biblical warriors, Egyptian pharaohs, Napoleon (who called it the perfect battlefield), and, as recently as 1918, the British and the Ottoman Turks. It’s no surprise then that this will be the location of the Battle of Armageddon spoken of in the book of Revelation. The word Armageddon is derived from the nearby ancient town of Megiddo, incidentally our next stop on the tour.
Megiddo nowadays is an archeological mound, or a “tel.” A tel is a mound or hill which is not naturally occurring, but built up of layer upon layer of human civilization. One city built on the remains of another over the course of centuries, forming a little mountain. The really cool thing about Tel Megiddo is the water system. Built by King Ahab (I think) to allow the citizens to gather water from the nearby spring without leaving the city’s fortified walls, it’s a shaft and tunnel system still intact today. And we got to explore it!
Our last major stop of the day was Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus. We went to a high point near there which overlooked the Jezreel Valley from the other side for another stunning view. Then it was on to Galilee where we would spend our next few nights. You know, on the Sea of Galilee. Unreal.
Next up: Mount Arbel, the Jordan River, St. Peter’s fish, and sailing the Sea of Galilee
- You can buy wedding wine in the First Miracle Souvenir Store in Cana, the town where Jesus turned water into wine. No, seriously.
- Traffic in Nazareth is terrible. Maybe worse than in Jesus’ time.
- I saw a mongoose!
- Falafels are the Israeli fast food equivalent of cheeseburgers. And they are amazing.