Each time I hear the name of the infamous Herod, the Great, two things come to mind. First, his obsession with everything grand and lavish. Second, the Andrew Loyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar’s (JCS) wackiest musical number in syncopated rhythm or the ragtime style. In JCS, the musical captured Herod’s megalomaniac disposition: asking Jesus’s divinity by changing his water into wine, asking him to walk on his swimming pool, among others. The water that Herod is referring to is the water coming from the aqueduct, and the swimming pool is a reference to his bathhouse. In Israel, Herod, the Great is also linked with the ancient city of Caesarea (Caesarea Maritime), in the Sharon plain, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, now in ruins, and included in the Israel’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Tentative List.
Today, there are three important sites in the park: The Amphitheater, The Hippodrome and the Aqueduct. On the fifth day of our Holy Land Tour, we visited the aqueduct and passed by the other two sites. As a performance scholar, the amphitheater and the hippodrome are sites of interest but we lacked time – I understood since I was part of a package trip.
One word to describe the aqueduct: massive!
I could imagine the engineering that made the fresh water from the Carmel Range travel to Caesarea to fill-in the public baths, and large water tanks that would be used as drinking water of the people in the ancient city. I could imagine the length of the structure – considering the distance from the Carmel to Caesarea is about 60 kms and the distance of the massive ruin to the ancient city’s public bath is about 10 kms long. What is seen today in this archaeological complex is just a portion of the expansive aqueduct that crisscrossed and traversed the Israeli desert, mountains and valleys.
The aqueduct is facing the Mediterranean Sea. So is the entire Caesarea. Walking to the sandy shore where the ruins are currently found, I realized that I was standing in front of the gateway of Ancient Israel to the entire Roman World, and later the whole of Byzantine Empire. This was also the gateway of the Arabs and the Ottoman Muslims when they started conquering the Byzantine region during the decline of the whole Roman and Byzantine Empires. How many wars were fought on these very shores. How many people bathed with their own blood during the senseless power grabbings, which ’til now is happening – the territorial disputes between the Israelites and the Palestinians. That said, I wondered how many important ancient Roman personalities walked on the same spot I stood as I listened to the music of the sea. Our guide told us that Pontius Pilate lived in this city. He could have stepped onto the shore where I stood for a time and breathed the same breeze I smelled. Our guide told us that Pilate traveled to Jerusalem, only if needed, such as when Jesus was tried and had him crucified.
After about an hour in the complex (including the bus tour), we went strait to Ein Karem. According to our guide, we passed by Tel Aviv but because everyone was sleeping, he no longer made an effort to call the attention of everyone. It was already 4 PM when we arrived at Ein Karem.
Ein Kerem is a mountain village within the modern Jerusalem District. In the Christian and Catholic tradition, this village is the birthplace of John the Baptist. However, it should be noted that nothing in the gospels identified Ein Karem as the exact site of John the Baptist’s birth place. In the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:39), it was cited that Mary came to “a town in the hill country of Judea” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. According to our Guide, it was Queen Helena, mother of Constantine who attributed the mountain village as the birth place of John the Baptist because Helena believed that the village is the hometown of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.
As mentioned earlier, the only mention or clue about the site was that Mary, Jesus’s mother came to visit “the town in the hill country of Judea.” In relation to this, the site is also believed to be the very site of the Visitation where Mary visited her cousinElizabeth. They are both pregnant: Mary with Jesus, and Elizabeth with John the Baptist. The visit is to attend to her cousin Elizabeth, who at that time was very old.
In Luke 1: 42 – 45, the Gospel notes: And she [Elizabeth] spoke out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed are youamong women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And when is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” And in response, Mary delivered the Magnifact, one of the most popular Marian hymn in the Catholic tradition: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on His humble servant […]”
Exploring the whole village was . . . exhausting. Going to the site of the visitation from the bus stop meant walking about a kilometer towards a well, which is believed to be the source of drinking water for everyone in the village during the Ancient times. Opposite the well, now turned into a shrine or a grotto is the first of the 175 stairs leading to the Church of the Visitation, located on the top of the mountain.
Upon entering the gates of the church, we saw several ceramic plaques where the Magnificat are printed in different languages. Our tour guide immediately showed the Filipino (Tagalog) translation of the Magnificat hanging on the wall opposite the main entrance of the church. A huge stone set in a niche is known as the Stone of Hiding (I got no photos of it). According to folk narratives, the stone opened to provide a hiding place for the baby John during Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents — an event depicted in a painting on the wall.
Below the mountain is the Church of Nativity of of St. John the Baptist. I am not sure if I got it correctly but I remember our guide mentioning there are two churches in the village dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The first is a modern church that is in the town center and the other one, which we visited is the traditionally ascribed site of the birth place of Jesus’s cousin. It was also on this site where Zechariah uttered the canticle, which according the gospels, the very first words that came out of Zechariah’s mouth after John’s birth. Zechariah did not believe that her wife could still bear a child. As mentioned earlier, both were already old (Think of our retired grandparents). Because Zechariah doubted, the Almighty muted him. And when John was born, his first words were: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. He has come to His people and set them free (…). These canticles (Zechariah’s and Mary’s were still fresh in my head – they were part of our morning and evening prayers in the seminary, way back 1994 – 2002).
The church combines remnants of many periods. An early church on this site was used by Muslim villagers for their livestock before the Franciscans took over in the 17th century. The Franciscans built the present church with the help of the Spanish monarchy. A chapel beneath the porch contains two tombs. An inscription in a mosaic panel reads, in Greek, “Hail martyrs of God”. To date, no one knows who these martyrs are.
I wrote earlier that going around the village was exhausting. I realized that if a modern man like me became overwhelmingly tired, how do then am I to make sense of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth? Mary walked the walk from her hometown in Nazareth. On the other hand, my walking was not even a quarter of the distance and the time that Mary spent walking just to see her old cousin. Not to forget, Mary wanted to see Elizabeth because she was terrified that something might go wrong with her pregnancy, considering she was really old. Lest be forgotten, Mary was also pregnant. I believe this is the problem with the modern world: modernity wanted everything in an instant. What we can learn from Mary’s experience is the “journey.” We tend to forget that we cannot reach our destination, without our engagement with the journey. Along the way, there are shifts and turns. There are irregularities. There are crisis. But these shifts and turns, irregularities and crisis are opportunities and possibilities, which will eventually make the destination more fruitful and more meaningful.
I now feel embarrassed that I found myself complaining but did not realize immediately that Mary did not complain despite the distance and time she journeyed just to take care of Elizabeth. And instead of nagging her cousin because of the long journey, Mary was even grateful as manifested in her canticle.