Fifteen years ago, forty-three of us from my church went on a pilgrimage to Israel, Greece, and Turkey. We visited historic and prehistoric sites, marveled at ancient engineering, and looked for the sacred in places where Jesus lived and the ancient church took root.
Preparing for an exhibit of my work (paintings, photographs, and poems) at the Indiana Interchurch Center (June and July, 2014) got me thinking again about that journey, and about the evidence of God we found along the way – not only God as we Christians conceive God, but the God of Israel, the God of Islam, the Gods of ancient Greece and Rome, and the universal Soul of all creation. To me, these are all One.
The oldest site we visited was a prehistoric hill fortress named Megiddo. It’s not really surprising that it would have become a Biblical metaphor for the site of the battle between the armies of God and the forces of evil at the end of time. Megiddo is situated where the ancient road from Egypt to Mesopotamia crossed the road from the Phoenician cities of the coast to Jerusalem and the Jordan. This route was also part of the ancient Silk Road, the trade route that stretched from China to Europe and northern Africa. Armies from Babylon, from Assyria, from Syria, from Persia, and from Egypt met and fought in the vicinity of Megiddo. Even in modern times, the area has been a route to battle; here the British defeated the Turks toward the end of World War I. The association between Megiddo and battle was a natural one for John, the recorder of Revelation, who spoke of it as Armageddon.
Excavations have revealed over two dozen layers of civilization at Megiddo, going back to the fourth millennium before Christ. Built one on top of another, they form a high hill or tel overlooking the beautiful Jezreel valley. The most interesting thing about Megiddo for a modern-day visitor is its water system, which is most likely the work of Ahab, king of Israel in the 9th century B.C.E. One hundred and eighty steps lead down from the top of the tel to a tunnel that brings water from a spring outside the fortress walls. The spring was covered over with rocks and provided a steady water source for Megiddo until earthquakes in modern times reduced it to a trickle. No enemy could cut off the water supply and force the people out of their fortress.
People – generally women – would have carried jars of water from the underground pool fed by the spring, through the tunnel, and up a long stairway to the surface. Their way would have been lit only by the oil lamps they carried or perhaps wore in some fashion. Coming back with water, they would have carried the heavy jars up the equivalent of an eight to ten story building (or perhaps more). This was an incredibly arduous way to obtain water. And equally amazing is the engineering feat that made the whole thing possible. Somehow, people managed to dig down through the tel and in from the spring and meet in the middle of the tel. A few feet out of line either way and the tunnel and the stairs would not have joined.
The preciousness of water and the astonishing achievements of engineering that bring the precious water to use are still visible in Israel today. With good reason, Israelis boast that their irrigation systems are the best in the world. All over the land, desert has been and is being claimed for cultivation. Green gardens and orchards made possible by irrigation produce some of the world’s most delicious fruits and vegetables. If Israel today is a land flowing with milk and honey, it is because of the engineering skill and the incredible determination of her people.
Unfortunately, there is a less inspiring aspect of Megiddo’s history that survives today. Israel is still a crossroads of cultures, and war is still the result. When we were there in 1999, conflict was at a low ebb, and peace seemed possible. Now, of course, the hopes of those days seem more distant than ever. The plea of the psalmist seems as urgent as it ever has: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” (Psalm 122:6-7)