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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Blood on the Rocks
January 12, 2000

Ceasarea

Map
The sun rises behind me. I watch a kingfisher hover, wings flapping, over the sea called the Mediterranean. It dives suddenly, plucks a small fish from the water, then eats it in mid air.

Ever since I was forged, from salt and sand, I have watched this sea, and I will sit here and watch it 'til the end of time. Though the sea has many faces, it is the only thing here that will never truly change. Even I, a rock, am slowly eroding away. In this town you call Ceasarea, in this country you call Israel, the names, the people, the languages all change around me. Even the counting of days and the naming of years is not fixed. Some humans like you (and in ancient times the Romans) base their calendars on cycles of the sun, while others, from primeval Jews to modern-day Muslims use the moon. And everyone uses a different year to start his or her count!

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Caption

From right here on this shore, I've watched you humans develop from Neolithic cave dwellers. Canaanites passed through from the North. Phoenician traders built the first city here, called Straton's Tower, centuries before the current era. Hebrew and Greek were spoken here, and the Jewish God was worshipped alongside the pagan ones.

Vocabulary

Levantine - the lands bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and their inhabitants
Phoenicians - inhabitants of an ancient kingdom on the Mediterranean, in the region of modern Syria, Lebanon and Israel
theology - the science or study of divine things or religious truth; divinity

A man who was called Herod the Great once built a marvelous city on this stretch of beach. I suppose, to you mortal beings, he may have seemed 'great.' To me, he was just another passing distraction. Twelve short years were spent, from 22-10 BCE, building an impressive white stone city. It did look beautiful, glowing in the Levantine sun by the blue ocean. There were luxurious bath houses, stunning palaces, and a huge amphitheater. An aqueduct brought water from a nearby river. But the most amazing feat for these humans was the construction of two harbors, dug deep into the sandstone bedrock. Herod named this new city Ceasarea, after the Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar.

Rome then made the region known as Judea, the seat of the government. So when that famous Jewish teacher said, 'You render to Caesar the things that are Caesars', he was really telling them to send their tax money here!

I have watched Jews, pagans, and Samaritans live here together, fairly peacefully. But I have also seen great horrors. I have seen humans commit unspeakable acts of hatred and violence. I was watching when the Jewish people of Ceasarea revolted against Roman rule in 66 CE, and witnessed their heartless slaughter. Herod's once beautiful amphitheater became a grotesque horror venue, as over 2,500 Jews were fed to lions, burned alive, or forced to fight each other to the death, all for the entertainment of the crowd. Many times I have overheard people refer to these acts as 'inhuman.' I, however, have observed this world for centuries, and have found that only humans have shown themselves capable of committing such atrocities.

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Caption
Herod was long dead before Ceasarea achieved its wealth. Boatloads of Christian pilgrims passed through my port after 331 CE. It was then that a woman named Helen converted to Christianity. Her son, Constantine, established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Schools of Christian and Judaic theology brought some of the greatest minds of the time to live within these walls, where they stayed until the Muslim armies arrived in the year 642. Scholars were replaced by garrisons of the 'Jihad' engaged in territorial warfare in the name of the Christian God they had adopted some three hundred years earlier. I have heard the prayers of the prophets of both religions; from what I have heard, both preach that humans are supposed to love one another.

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Caption

A lizard suns itself on my head as I watch sailboats cross this harbor, one that has been conquered and re-conquered throughout the ages. Many long, dry summers have passed when I've longed for the rain to come and wash the centuries of blood from my stone face. The blood of Romans, the blood of Persians, the blood of Jews, of Christians and of Muslims. For all the differences they claim to have, their blood is the same.

Baldwin I was the first crusader to conquer Ceasarea, in 1101. I can't remember the number of times this city has changed its allegiance since. In an attempt to recall, I would think: "Did the morning dawn to church hymns or to the call of the muezzin? Are the people around me speaking Arabic or some European Language?" Salah al-Din, the great leader from Egypt, lost the city to the crusader Richard the Lionhearted. The French king Louis IX built a fortress that still stands today. But despite its huge stone walls, the mercenary warrior-kings from Egypt, the Mamluks gained control in 1265.

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Though violence rages elsewhere in the world, my shores have recently become a refuge. Muslim refugees under the Ottoman Empire came here to escape persecution in Bosnia. They converted the old fortress into a new home. Jews too have returned to this land, fleeing persecution in Europe since the early twentieth century.

As the sun warms my face, the lizard scurries away, frightened off by a young woman. She sits on my head, and together, we watch the ocean. From our vantage point, we can see the part of the city where merchants once lived. Archeologists are reconstructing the walls, but cannot reconstruct the glory of the ancient city from the rubble that remains.

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larger view
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Where great marble statues once stood in homage to the Greek gods and goddesses, there are now modern bronze statues, forged locally, next to the archeologists, in a small art studio. The Israelis, as the Jews have resumed calling themselves, have made this their living memorial, a blend of the old and the new. As they rebuild Herod's temple, they also decorate the site with modern artwork. There fancy restaurants built near the citadel, and fishermen line the harbor. Modern performers like Eric Clapton and the Bolshoi ballet have played here in recent years.

This old city, left in ruins for so many years, is beginning its new life, one that I like very much. Neither traders nor warriors control this land now. The land is open for the curious to see. I hope, through seeing, they will learn. Perhaps they will remember history, and will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The woman, still sitting on me, opens her bag and pulls out a strange gray box. She opens it, and pushes a small button, causing it to beep and grind. In all of my centuries at the shore, I have never seen anything like it. The inside of the lid flashes words and pictures, and the bottom is covered with buttons and keys, labeled with the numbers and symbols of the letters used in Western European languages. Suddenly, she becomes absorbed, tapping away at the buttons. I hear her speaking softly in the English of those new British colonies, far off across the ocean. She is telling a story. She is telling MY story. I wonder, can she save it in that box for the world to know?

Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...abejahummel@bigfoot.com
 

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