Rob Christensen

The old stones of Israel

I spent the past two weeks wandering among old stones.

There were stones said to be erected by the great Jewish Kings, such as David and Herod. There were the stone remains of the first Jewish synagogues, the stones of the first Christian churches, and the stones of historic mosques. There were the stones of Roman amphitheaters, Crusader fortresses, and Ottoman walls.

Perhaps nowhere in the world is there a place so rich in history, meaning and tradition as Israel.

My wife and I joined a small group of fellow Tar Heels on a tour organized by the University of North Carolina alumni group. The draw for the tour was famed archeologist Jodi Magness, a Kenan professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has conducted 20 excavations, mainly in the Holy Lands.

A UNC star

A 58-year-old, whippet-thin woman with boundless energy, Magness does not much look like Indiana Jones. But during our travels she was stopped by people who recognized her and want their photograph taken with the archeologist. “She’s a super star,’’ gushed one Israeli tour guide when he stumbled across the professor in Jerusalem.

Magness doesn’t usually lead tours. As soon as classes ended, in Chapel Hill, she was off to Israel to continue work on her current dig, a 5th century Jewish synagogue located in the abandoned village of Huquq, located near the northeastern shore of the Sea of Gallilee. Since excavation began in 2011, she has discovered some spectacular mosaics, including a depiction of the Biblical strong man, Samson.

The National Geographic is sending a film crew this summer to record her work in Huquq.

Working at the site are some of her UNC students, such as Austin Andrews of Hamlet, who is spending his third summer working with Magness at the Huquq dig. (The students are off to the dig every morning at 4:30 a.m. to beat the Middle Eastern heat. They eat their meals at a local kibbutz.)

Magness is an expert on: Jerusalem; Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls; ancient synagogues; Masada, where Jewish rebels made their last stand against the Roman army; the Roman army; and ancient pottery.

She was a trove of information about all things ancient, including answering an email question from my News & Observer colleague, Barry Saunders, about what Jesus would have worn.

A fascinating land

I am steering clear of politics today. I have not mentioned the Green Line, the Wall, Hamas, check points or other modern day disputes. (I have previously written about a trip to Jordan.)

To travel across Israel is to enter a land that is both familiar and exotic.

Over there is Megiddo, the site of the 20 levels of habitation that is the better known as Armageddon, which according to the Book of Revelation is the site of the gathering of armies for the end of times. In another direction is Nazareth, and down the road is Jericho.

In Jerusalem, it seems, every square foot is holy to some religion – the Mount of Olives, the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Temple Mount.

The moment that stuck in my throat was standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, now the site of an Italian convent, where Jesus is believed to have said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The mount provides a spectacular view of the Sea of Galilee and such towns as Capernaum and Tabgha, where Jesus performed much of his ministry.

An earlier tourist, writer Mark Twain, also stayed near the Sea of Galilee. When he inquired about a romantic night-time cruise on the sea with his wife, he balked at the high price. Quipped Twain: “Now I know why Jesus walked.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack