Saturday, December 31, 2016
I want my country back.
No, not the fabled country of 1950's Americana or Walt Disney's Main Street, USA. Not the bigoted, misogynist country that Trump supporters supposedly want. We don't need that one back, though in too large a part it's still here. It's the parts that have gone away that I mourn the loss of.
I want the country where George Washington told us to "avoid attachments and entanglements in foreign affairs." The one where we no longer must "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex" and it is no longer true that "War is a racket." The one where the White House does not believe that "(w)e're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
The one where the corruption of a major political party is more newsworthy than unsubstantiated allegations about "foreign influence." See also here. I would like to see all the "foreign influence" done by my country at the tip of a spear cease. I want it replaced by diplomacy. You know. That other thing besides dropping bombs?
The one where education is valued and deserves it. Where there is money for healthy lunches and none for metal detectors. Where we are taught to think for ourselves instead of being manipulated by psychology. The one where journalists aren't owned by six corporations, most with connections to the mat of corrosive crust that has grown at the top of our society.
I know. I know. All countries are corrupt. Ours no different. And the Military Industrial Complex at the time of the Civil War profited richly by selling goods to the government, sometimes to both sides. But there was a time when the military was called the War Dept. The Pentagon was supposed to be a temporary structure. When wars became unavoidable, you assembled an army, paid through the nose for shoddy equipment made by shysters and con artists, battled your enemies and won. Or lost. When the war was done, somebody won, somebody lost, everybody went back home. The war profiteers waited.
But it grew, like a cancer, into the Defense Dept. This meant the ungodly bleeding could persist. The Cold War was the Eisenhower's Military Industrial Complex's Nirvana! Limitless gouging with no definition of when it ends! There was no success so there could be no failure! And the public bought it! We really do make our own reality. Dive into the trough, fellow piggies!
Well, as with any cancer, it ends when the host dies. Fair enough. At the very end it'll be: All guns, no butter! All swords, no plowshares! What a way to go!
I want my butter and my plowshares back.
Monday, December 26, 2016
The eastern Mediterranean is an interesting place for many reasons. I'm thinking of geology right now. Once it was all under water. Life teamed in the water above the future Levant and, where there is life, there is death. They go together. Living things in the seas died and sank to the bottom where they accumulated and built up and were compressed under the tremendous weight of sand, sea, and salt above.
The calcium carbonate of the sea shells of the formerly living things gradually turned to rock. Limestone, chalk, and marble. We are all familiar with the Calabria marble Michelangelo so coveted for his statues. There was none of that here. Just a layer of chalk with a cap of hard limestone on top. This is the geology west of Jerusalem and down to the Philistine Plane. Most things in Israel are built of the rose colored limestone.
The Romans found it useful. The Romans found a use for everything. They were the Swiss Army knives of engineering. In this case, they dug down through the limestone and into the soft chalk. That is what they were after. They quarried the chalk for cement. They delved through the harder limestone and into the soft chalk. They hollowed out caverns and pulled the chalk up through narrow chimneys. And abandoned them when they were done. Chalk rooms. Chalk tunnels. Chalk catacombs. And chalk Christians.
First century Christians fled here for refuge from persecution in Jerusalem. They lived in the rooms. Carved them out even further. Created chapels. Churches. Alters. Places of worship. Dormitories. Kitchens. A first century commune.
Funny, that. For a first century refugee camp of Christians there were no crucifixes. No crosses. The first century symbol of Christianity was the fish. I saw fish symbols carved in the rock above alters, but no crosses. Fish. Icthus. In Greek, Jesus Christ God's Son Savior. An anagram.
No one focused on his death. But his life. Christianity as a cult of death came later. When the Romans found a use for it, too.
It's hard to write about Masada. It's such a tourist trap. When I was there you could get on top of the fortress via a ski lift built in Switzerland. Masada. A fortress built on an elongated teardrop mesa on the west side of the southern Dead Sea. In the Negev. The wilderness of southern Judea. The desert. Why would anybody want to build a ski lift there?
Not a nice place. I swam in the Dead Sea. People go there for the mineral baths. People will bathe in any old stink hole if someone says it's therapeutic. It's like being a fleshy cork. The water really wants to push you up. It has no time for blobs of flesh and bone bobbing on its surface. And so it pushes you up, as if to say, I have enough to deal with with all this salt in my water. Every day the sun dries up some more of the water and what do I get? More salt! I don't need anything else!
And off I go and to my towel and dry off and feel the crust of salt on my body. So be it. It's therapeutic, I hear.
To the north is Jericho, of Joshua fame. You can still see the ruins of Iron Age walls, maybe those same walls Joshua brought down with shouts, drums, and the wail of horns. Or just Iron Age walls. It's not like they don't have a lot of them.
Inland, to the west and a little ways up into the Judean hills, but still within sight of the Dead Sea, are caves. Caves in the limestone hills where shepherd boys once found millennia old jars containing scrolls of ancient texts, some of leather, some of copper. The Dead Sea scrolls. Some of the oldest writing in the world. At least the oldest writing in Judeo-Christian texts. These ended up in antiquities shops in east Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which were not Israeli territory yet. Someone spotted them and realized what they were. Catholic scholars got them. They conducted excavations on the plain below the caves and found ruins of some kind. Being monastic Catholic types, they decided that they were celibate monasteries which spent their days in prayer, discipline, and copying sacred texts. After all, if all you have is a hammer. They were puzzled to find the skeletal remains of women in the cemetery. What were they doing there?
And back further south, along the west side of the Dead Sea, along the mud flats, and salt flats, and stinking and evaporating mineral pools, there is Masada.
What's Masada? Well, to know that you must know about King Herod. Herod the Great, that is. Of Biblical fame. He's mostly known for his part in the Nativity story. How he heard from the wise men the Messiah, the King of the Jews, had been born and a star led them to Jerusalem. The wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia and divined the birth of a great leader and savior to the west. They followed the astrological sign to Jerusalem and naturally visited the greatest person there, Herod. The king.
Well, Herod was nothing if he wasn't devious. "Follow this star," he said. "And let me know that I might worship him as well."
We know the outcome. Herod killed all the young children of Bethlehem. He had a bad habit of eliminating competition. But he also had bad spin.
Yes, Herod was a monster. He killed his own wives and children. He ruled ruthlessly. He also was a great builder. He built Caesarea Philippi, a city to the north. And Caesarea on the Mediterranean, a completely new city where one had not been before. It had market places, an amphitheater, and a port built where one had never been before. That meant engineering and innovation, lots of it. Usually ports are built in natural harbors. They take advantage of the coastline, the rivers, and the sea's ebb and flow. Here there was nothing. Just straight coast and sea. The currents in the eastern Mediterranean flow from south to north. From Egypt below to Asia Minor above. So the port was built as a wall shooting away from the coast and then turning north and almost pinching another wall at a gap for passage on the north end. It limited silting up from the sand flowing up from the Nile. Two statues guarded it. Mind the gap. The walls were made of stone and hydraulic concrete. It hardened under water. Like I said, engineering.
Both Caesareas were built in honor of his patron, Caesar of Rome. It doesn't hurt to suck up to your benefactor. Rome didn't care what Herod did, built, or how many babies, wives, or children get killed. As long as there was no trouble and taxes flowed. Though one emperor is reported to have said he'd rather be Herod's pig than his son. Ouch.
And so we come back to Masada. Masada was Herod's insurance against trouble. Herod was not a Jew, after all. Oh, he built a lavish temple for them in Jerusalem, the third temple. Or second, depending on whom you ask. A marvel of engineering. But they still hated him as a cursed Idumean, the usurper placed over their heads by the monster, Rome. Herod, like all despot strongmen, was inches from insurrection. Spin left, a monster. Spin right, a builder. Either way, in peril.
Masada was built as a fortress palace that Herod could flee to in the event of a revolt by his subjects, an overthrow by his enemies, or betrayal by his Roman overlords. He had a lot to worry about. Spin.
Masada was perfect. It was on a road down from Jerusalem and to the south. It was a convenient stopping place, and eminently defensible, and had been used as one already. It was a mesa with sheer cliffs on all sides. You needed ropes to get up the last 90 feet. So Herod got his Roman trained engineers to build a fortress there. On top of a mesa. Over a desert plain. By a sea of salt. With no water sources for miles. Perfect.
The fortress of Masada had a wall around it. There were fields for growing some food. Several gullies collected the scant winter rains and channeled them to underground cisterns where the water could be stored for the drying times. On the north end of the mesa was the royal section. Here there were Roman style baths with false floors, beneath which the fires burned to heat the water for the playtime of royalty. Romans liked their comfort and the barbarian hordes on their borders wanted to be like them. Until Rome couldn't deliver. And then they attacked. A good lesson for any empire. Any other empire, that is.
On the extreme northern end of the mesa was a set of steps. The natural formation dropped down the cliff, then stopped, then thrust forward again, then stopped, then dropped down then out again then down a cliff to the Dead Sea floor. It made two huge steps in the northern wall. A perfect place for a royal palace.
Two, actually. Roman engineers build massive supports to enlarge the steps to hold the weight of the platforms, floors, and the rooms of a palace or two. All in a waterless desert. It's amazing what you can do with sound engineering, pluck, and an army of slaves. Try it some time.
So Masada was built and staffed and provisioned and standing by always in ready in case the tyrant Herod needed to slink away. The time never came.
Fast forward. Past the reign of King Herod, Tyrant Builder, and through the Roman governors of Judea, like Pontius Pilate, and to the rebellion of 66 AD and the destruction of Herod's great temple in 70 AD. Titus, emperor of Rome, sacked the city and ended the revolt. Except for some rebels who fled Jerusalem along the path to the Dead Sea that justifiably paranoid king Herod had prepared, to a fortress in the wilderness: Masada. The rebels in question were zealots. Not only hostile to occupying Romans, but also to Jews who were not as extreme as they. They were beyond the political party normally known as 'Zealots' in the Bible. They were the Zealots' Zealots. Every society, religion, and country club has them.
And they had to go.
The easiest way to take care of a ragtag bunch of ill prepared rebels on top of a rock which is defensible on all sides is to turn that defensibility against them. Guard the only escape and wait for them to starve. Siege wall 101. But the Romans were in a hurry. They wanted this embarrassment to disappear. So they did what only impatient Romans do. They built a siege ramp against the lowest side of the defensible mesa, which happened to be the west side.
Romans love to have slaves build stuff. And when the ramp was done they built a siege engine. And when the siege engine was done they besieged the fortress. And when the siege was done and the walls breached they found. Nothing. The fortress, Masada, was empty.
The historian, Flavius Josephus, was captured by the Romans in another battle. He managed to escape slavery and become a court historian. Well, another kind of slave. As a court historian for a Roman court, he had to write history that agreed with the court's memory of events. He was no fool. More spin.
According to Josephus' account of the siege of Masada, they all committed mass suicide. Suicide is forbidden in Judaism so they cast lots. The heads of each family killed the rest of their families. These men then came together and the one loser of the lots killed them all. And then himself. And one person, who couldn't go through with it, hid in one of those vast cisterns, so she could tell the story of the heroic struggle and tragic end of the siege of Masada. How very convenient.
Which most certainly did not happen.
Josephus knew how to play to a crowd. And keep his head in the bargain. Reporting that the Romans had besieged a city of men, women, and children and then packed them all away into slavery wouldn't play in Peoria. Never mind that all of Roman society was supported by slavery, looting, and foreign war. It was not a nice thing to talk about in polite society. Especially with a politically charged story like this at the end of an otherwise successful campaign. The truth would never do. So Josephus borrowed a familiar story element. The noble adversary who fights well, sees defeat, and sacrifices himself to the superior forces. Well done. We can applaud your bravery and courage. The gods will welcome you. And revel in the fact that we ultimately triumphed without looking like the monsters that we are. Spin.
Who knows what actually happened on top of that treacherous strategic rock in the salt polluted flats of the Dead Sea? A war, we know that. War is what happens when nothing else is left. But not what history tells us.
The Zionists from Russia and Europe who created the state of Israel in 1948 used Masada as a symbol of the rebirth of Israel. With a rallying cry of ‘Masada shall not fall again!’ they used the ruined fortress as a call to patriotism. Soldiers in training used to hold night vigils there. It still has the power to inspire.
So now, if you go to Masada, by lift or by path, you still have to ascend the last 90 feet by steel stairs. And on to the top. The flat top of Masada. Take from it what you will.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
I look at children
Play the day away.
Play and feel so certain
Of your life.
For life is wonder.
And never ending glory.
So play the day away.
I look at young people
Play your way today.
Play and be so sure
Of what you want, and are,
And surely will become.
For this is your day.
And be yourself today.
I look at less young people
Your children are your play.
Will take your place in play.
In them your joy relay.
I look at older people
And see myself
Or holding to the grey day
And gentle sway
Of noisesome fainting, under way,
My frame, to me, abject dismay,
Beneath my feet, less flesh, more clay.
And to the end there comes decay.
And once more.
From the advantage of extended day
I look at children
From my perch at end of day
You've got it right! Hurrah, hurray! Kallee, kallay!
Play the day away.
Take my hand
And lead the way.
I look at children,
One. One day. One day I'll be whole. One day I'll be at peace. And joy. And happiness.
One. One minute. One minute I'll be safe. And secure. And certain of myself. And my place in life.
One. One second. One second I'll be myself. No one else. Not beholding to anyone.
One. One instant. One instant I will touch God.
Christmas in Bethlehem
Christmas Eve, 1975. A group of us took the bus south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The bus stopped shy of the city. We had to walk the last mile, through an Israeli security checkpoint. We were well used to soldiers with rifles conducting routine security. That's one thing we don't see here. Be thankful.
I had been to Bethlehem, city of bread, before. Knew the Church of the Nativity. Knew that we wouldn't get anywhere near it on this night. That's OK. In Nativity Square a projector displayed the mass inside the church on a big screen. The square was mobbed.
Along a side street the vendors were all open. Bethlehem is an Arab town in the West Bank. A sleepy little town on the mountain ridge that runs from the Valley of Megiddo to the north and southward until it peters out around Eilat. Were it not for its Christian fame it would be neglected.
There was a man who owned a tourist shop there. Ed Tobasch. An Arab Christian, there was a Christian and a Muslim population in Bethlehem, as there had been for centuries. We visited him often enough that he knew us. I spoke to his father once. I wanted to buy a nativity set for my mother. They had nice olive wood items. He showed me some sets. Then Ed came out, saw what I wanted, and said, Oh, no. Don't look at those. He brought out a hand carved nativity set instead of the mass produced ones I was seeing. It was beautiful. My mother appreciated the gift and gave it back to me much later. It sits in my living room to this day.
I also remember visiting a family in Bethlehem. I don't remember the occasion. We were just there, in their house. Arabs tended to like to live in houses, even if they are close together or even joined. Jews liked apartments. I visited some in Jerusalem. I am joining several memories together now. Forty years tends to make memory a blur.
We stood in Manger Square and watched the service on the screen. It was beautiful. I remember the inside of the church. On a previous occasion when I was able to get inside. Like mist churches in the holy land, this one had a sacred place where the sacred thing happened. It was symbolic, of course, but also had a place in time and space. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has its, well, Sepulcher. A stone building over the place where Jesus was buried. With a stone alter. Where they laid him. In death. Only it wasn't. If you press the tour guides, they will tell you that the actual burial site was below this one. Under ground. In a, you know, actual tomb. Not this gaudy thing here. Real religion is messy.
So the site of the nativity was in a shrine below the alter. You walked down a set of stairs to the shrine. In this shrine was another alter. Or a holy place. I don't remember which. And by this alter, or whatever, there was a, not sure what to call it. A place. It looked almost like a fireplace. There was a blaze of gold flames erupting from the place where Jesus was born. The manger of the Nativity. This is, we are told, the stable where Joseph and Mary found shelter so she could have her baby.
The next day, Christmas day, I decided to walk to Bethlehem. I took the bus just to outside the city and continued on foot. I ventured off the road to the east and walked through the deserted outskirts. Here the terrain is uneven, drawn with wadis carved away from the ridge top and down to the Jordan Rift Valley and the Dead Sea. My way took me up and down, up and down through the wadis, occasionally coming upon herds of sheep. Like it had been for untold millennia. And will for untold more.
Bethlehem was quiet. The security checkpoints vacant. The square eerily silent. The church deserted. The shops closed. Not much to see or do. A small town deserted, much like it had been on a Christmas day long ago.
Except for the star in the sky.