The land was strewn with rocks. Everything from immovable boulders to stones tumbled smooth in streams. They were every texture, color and shape. Some were unbreakable, while others were soft. As days passed I became increasingly convinced that it was the rocks that defined the country and its history.
Israel is a land of contradictions and confusion, conflict and convergence. Within its always curious and sometimes flexible boundaries resides an almost unfathomable depth of history. Though small in comparison to most countries, attempting to gain anything but the most superficial understanding of this land would take infinitely more time than what we have allotted. Even explaining a fragment of its overwhelming impact on our senses is a daunting task. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and even feel of this small portion of the globe defy precise definition. Whether expert archaeologist, historian, theologian, political scientist or casual traveler, they remain with seemingly unanswerable questions regarding this country. In a way, it is like trying to explain Parkinson's disease. It is so many things. Different for each person caught in its grip, it seems to confound each observer, be they researcher, medical practitioner, caregiver or casual acquaintance.
And so it is that I have chosen to comment on the rocks of this country, manifest not just in its geological past, but in virtually every scene of its human history and perilous present. The first night after arrival at Ben-Gurion airport found us hungry and searching for a restaurant in the general direction of Joppa, the ancient Mediterranean seaport. Immediately noticeable was the rubble that lay apparently discarded in empty lots adjacent to modern concrete buildings. But even as we walked back to our hotel through the half lit streets after an extraordinary Middle Eastern meal at Big Itzik’s Grill, the usefulness of such discarded stones became apparent in the numerous walls, cobbled walkways and decorative arches. It was as if the stones that had been carelessly tossed aside would always remain the foundation of this part of the world.
And so it was that the next few days were an endless repetition of different rock-strewn scenes. We saw seemingly barren patches of land in the Golan Heights marked off by ancient waist high walls created by Syrians, Lebanese, Israeli or itinerant farmers from some other occupying force. There were barriers built with huge boulders along the border roads, supposedly to slow the advance of any mobilized aggressors. The re-created village of Nazareth displayed terracing to create vineyards, the guard tower, the humble two-story dwelling with its two rooms no larger than a North American walk-in closet and walls for defense, all formed by strategically placed rocks. The whole system of extracting every drop of oil from the precious crops of olives was built around the use of stones; the processes of crushing, squeezing, collecting all depended on special-purpose stones. Hand-hewn cisterns were chiseled out of immovable rock slabs. While lumber was rare, and saved for special use, it was the common rocks, found in abundance that constituted the very cornerstone of this culture. Its geography, architecture and history, both current and ancient, sacred and secular, are informed by the granite and sandstone, the boulders and pebbles of this land.
We saw round slabs of stone rolled into place to cover the entryways to tombs. There were rocks tossed into the glassy waters of the Sea of Galilee. In places, huge square stones stood sentry-like at the main gates of excavated cities or formed the walls of Jewish synagogues and pagan temples. Whether stories of soldiers hidden in caves, or slingshots slaying giants, or the stone plateau of Masada that still stands for the stubborn defense of Jewish sovereignty. Granite or limestone, basalt or chalk, it is as if the rocks define the people, the place and the purpose for which they exist.
Is this what will happen with my Parkinson's disease?