Mount Carmel


Mount Carmel
Carmel Cave showing collapsed area


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Archeology in Israel

By Jacqueline Schaalje


Mount Carmel, actually not a mountain but a longish mountain ridge, has a reputation as a Holy Mountain. It is certainly one of the loveliest regions in Israel; with its evergreen indigenous shrubs and colorful flora it looks like a miniature Cape Town reserve. However, talking about his place in an archeological article poses a problem, because there are not that many archeological remains left. That is, if you're not counting the main archeological site in the area, of Prehistoric man at the Carmel Caves, which is reckoned to be the main site for the study of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East. Still, a visitor who wants to follow in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah and his contest with the prophets of Baal, won't be disappointed.

The first mention of the mountain ridge is in 15th century Egyptian texts as the Holy Headland. The Greeks and Romans called it the holy mountain of Zeus. It is known that one Roman general made a sacrifice here in the first century. At one point in classical times the mountain Carmel itself was revered as a god.

Several Biblical prophets sang its praise. Its name in Hebrew, Karm El, means God's vineyard. It had significance as a place of fertility, strength and beauty. In Jeremiah 46:18 the mountain is compared to the mighty power of Nebuchadnezzar: "He will come like Carmel by the sea." In Songs 7:5 the bridegroom's full head of hair is likened to the Carmel's mountain vegetation.

There was also a strategic aspect. On one side its massive rock walls guarded the fertile Jizreel Valley, Israel's main provider of grain. Two important passes cut through the mountains: the first through Yokneam. The second one, of Nahal Iron (Wadi Ara), was the more important one, because here the trade route of the Way of the Sea moved inland to Megiddo.

The landscape looked different, because the sea level was higher due to a warmer climate, and the resulting melting of the ice sheets at the end of the Ice Age. The mouth of the river Kishon served as an Egyptian port for trading with Greece and Cyprus. Later it was conquered by the Philistines, but they did not stay there permanently. From classical times onwards there were only a handful of unimportant villages. Although Haifa, today one of Israel's largest cities, is mentioned in the Talmud, it became a city only by the end of the 19th century with the arrival of immigrant Jews.

So if there were no great cities on the Carmel during much of history, what did happen on the Carmel then? It was mostly a place of recluse; the playground of wild animals and wandering prophets. During the first Israelite period, after the land had been divided between the 12 sons of Jacob, the Carmel formed the western border of Asher's part. Things stayed quiet. That was only natural, as the events concentrate on the Israelites clashing with their neighbors the Philistines, who inhabited the southern coastal area.

The split of the Israelite kingdom into a southern and northern Kingdom changed this. The northern kings had a palace in Megiddo. So it's not surprising that the Carmel figures in one of the Bible's greatest stories, about the prophet Elijah who agitated against the immoral practices of the Northern Israelite King Ahab. He and his wife Jezebel, the queen of Phoenician Sidon, were notorious Baal worshipers. Baal was a Phoenician fertility god, whose huge popularity frequently threatened to eclipse the people's loyalty to the Hebrew God. That is not so strange if you consider the great need for fertility and rain in the - by now - dry Levant.

The story on the Carmel, related in I Kings 18, proceeds to demonstrate God's immensely greater power. To begin with, we are told that there is hunger because no rain had fallen in the last years. Elijah seeks out his enemy Ahab with the cheerful announcement that he "is going to give rain to the soil." At first Ahab accuses him of the drought, but then he's willing to listen. Elijah orders him to call the people of Israel to the mountain, and the 450 prophets of Baal in Ahab's hire, plus another 400 priests devoted to Baal's wife Asherah, the pet goddess of Jezebel.

Mount Carmel
Conceptual Construction of Altar

The way Elijah defeats the false prophets is both deeply humiliating and effective. First he challenges them to let an offering catch fire. Of course they don't succeed. The irony is that he soaks his own offering with a wasteful amount of the scarce water, yet the Lord lets it burn. At this, the mob leads the false priests to the river Kishon, where they murder them. Still, Elijah is not finished. He nonchalantly announces "a little cloud rising up from the sea like a man's hand," and this quickly builds up into the much-needed rain.


Two places have been appointed as possible site for the story about the battle against the priests of Baal. The slaughter could have taken place near the river Kishon, at the mountain base, in an amphitheater-like flat area. The site where the offering took place is traditionally placed on the mountain above Yokneam, on the road to the Druze village of Daliyat del-Karmil, where there is a monastery built in 1868 called El-Muhraqa ("the Sacrifice").

Although archeological clues are absent, it has a point in its favor because it has a spring, from which water could have been drawn to wet Elijah's offering, and secondly there is a sea view, where Elijah looked out to see the cloud announcing rain. On the other hand, in the Bible text it says that Elijah had to climb up to see the sea. There is an altar in the monastery which is claimed to be the one that Elijah built up in God's honor, but that is unlikely as it's not made of the local limestone.

The next location that we would like to find is Elijah's cave. For this we need to travel to Haifa. Before you reach the city's center on Road no. 4, a right turn into Allenby Road leads to a public garden. A few steps up, a modern building gives access to the cave. Note, the fence that guards it is only open on weekdays. This cave is called the cave of Elijah, or el-Khader (the Muslim name for the prophet), or is alternatively called the School of the Prophets.

It is an ancient site of worship, but for many centuries it was devoted to Baal. The tradition that associates it with Elijah dates to the 3rd century CE. Although we cannot find this in the Bible text, it is said that Elijah stayed here before the battle with the Baal priests. It seems rather far away, because it is 20 km as the crow flies in very rocky terrain. On the other hand, Elijah walked enormous distances in his life, at one point reaching Beersheva. Another tradition says that Elijah established his religious school in this cave, where he taught Elisha, among others. The walls have Jewish and Christian graffiti dating from the 5th and 6th centuries.

Mount Carmel
Statue of Eliyahu, the Prophet

There is another cave associated with Elijah further up the hill behind the lighthouse. It is possible to reach it by car, and turning right into Stella Maris Road; or on foot, following a steep climb through a luscious park with a spectacular sea view. The second cave belongs to the monastery of Stella Maris, owned by a religious order that was established in the 12th century by French Crusaders. By the way, the Druze community worships Elijah's tomb at Kfar Yasif, north of Acco in the Galilee, but according to the Bible he ascended to heaven in a storm (II Kings 2:11).

Other Carmel Sites

There were several Jewish villages in the vicinity of Daliyat el-Karmil, parts of which were excavated in the past. The Druze village of Isfiya is built on top of the 5th century Jewish-Byzantine village of Husifah. Here, a hoard of 4,560 silver coins were found, dating from before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. Some say that these coins formed the tax collection that was kept in the Temple. The village also had a 6th century synagogue with a mosaic floor representing the zodiac and an inscription "Peace upon Israel", but nothing is left of it today.

The second Jewish village, by the name of Sumaq, lies to the west of the Muhraqa monastery. Its 3rd century synagogue was destroyed around the year 500. The village had workshops for crafts, wine and oil presses and burial caves.

Early Humankind

The other attraction that is worth seeing in the Carmel are the Nahal Mearot caves where skeletons and artifacts of early man have been found. Whatever your beliefs or thoughts about the connection between evolutionary science and the Bible, the notion that our predecessors lived in caves and only slowly made the progression to agriculture does not cease to fascinate.

The caves are conveniently located along the old road no. 4 to Haifa (halfway between Kerem Mararal and Ein Hod). A guide from the National Parks Authority leads the climb up the mountain to the caves. Sadly there's little to cheer you up about the basic explanations and the dreadful caveman movie; and the displays of dolls and copied artifacts look dusty and worn. It's mostly nice if you have kids to bring.

Three stages of habitation have been found in the Carmel Caves: from the earliest Stone Age until the beginning of the historic periods. As the sea level was much higher than it is today, the entrance to the caves was at the foot of the mountain. Mount Carmel, by the way, is itself formed by the sea: its limestone is fossilized sediments of sea molluscs, shells and silt. The land was also much more fertile. The Mearot River, now mostly dry, was a perennial sweet water source.

The excavations make it possible to trace the (very slow) development of prehistoric cultures, who hunted the manifold wild animals of Israel's forests with sharpened stone weapons. The earliest inhabitants came from Africa (recent DNA research proved that we all descend from a single female called Eve), and belonged to the species of homo erectus. This is one of the human races that, together with the more advanced Neanderthal people from Europe, who also peopled the Carmel caves, died out and were completely overshadowed by the sophisticated homo sapiens, the race to which all of modern humankind belongs. Their origin is Africa once more. They followed the Nile northward, settled in Israel and the Middle East, and from there spread to the whole world.

The last cave, Nahal, was inhabited by the Natufian people in the last Prehistoric period. Interestingly, the waters that until then had reached to the caves' height, began to subside. Simultaneously, civilization made a leap forward; if you think about it, this puts the Bible's story of Noah in an interesting light.

The Natufians, who also settled in other places in Israel, were the first to move out of the caves. They established a village in front of it. But their greatest achievement was the domestication of animals and plants, for instance wheat for baking bread. The animals they reared were dogs, sheep, goats and pigs.

The Natufians were also the first to produce art. Among the finds were a sculpture of a human head, a string of shells, and a deer head carved out of bone. Some remains can be seen outside the last cave: besides part of a wall, a copy of a burial next to round holes in the ground shows how the Natufians buried their dead. The body was placed in a sitting position with arms and legs folded.


from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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