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An Unexpected Meeting

Caesaria Photo credit: Samir Smier of Pixabay. View of Caesarea

Gila was on lunchbreak when she glanced down at her watch. "Mmm… still some time … before the next group arrives."

A divorcee in her late 50s, she never imagined herself in this kind of work, leading tour groups through a 2000-year-old water tunnel called Mei Kedem, in the southern hills of the Carmel Range, near the town of Binyamina in present-day Israel.

After more than 2 years of guiding, she had given up trying to count the number of times she had led groups of visitors through a 280-meter section of the tunnel that was open to the public although its length in total was 6 kms.

Every time felt like a first as she and her charges waded ankle-deep through the water flowing along the tunnel floor. Guiding tour groups through its system always felt as though she was on an adventure through the millennia and she enjoyed making history come alive, not to mention a lot of fun. Using her flashlight, she would point out evidence of the deep gouges and chisel marks dating back over 2000 years, carved into the limestone rock by workers using simple, hand-held tools such as chisels and hammers to pulverize the rock. In the dim shadows, she drew her visitors' attention to the recesses cut into the sides of the walls to hold oil lamps that provided a bit of light as they toiled in the darkness.

Such was her familiarity with the route that she knew exactly when to give prior warning in sections where the water rose to knee or even thigh level. It was thrilling for her to highlight its unique features such as the domed roof, rising high above their heads, making it comfortable to walk upright rather than having to crouch and squeeze through a narrow, cramped space. On the other hand, she often wondered about the conditions which the workers who had built this remarkable feat of engineering had to endure. Who were they exactly? Despite her best efforts to research and discover more about the actual people involved with the tunnel's construction, there was little information and it remained a mystery to her.

She knew this much, however, that the mastermind behind it all was the great King Herod when he decided to make Caesarea the jewel in his crown. While all of his building projects were impressive, from Masada, which was the location of his summer palace, to the widening of the Temple Mount platform with its retaining walls, including the Kotel (Western Wall) which still stands today, Caesarea was intended to outdo them all. However, he knew that the success of his most grandiose design yet was dependent upon a reliable water system to supply the vast quantities needed to sustain what he envisioned as the Las Vegas of the Ancient World.

Her thoughts returned to the workers as she imagined the difficult and dangerous conditions in which they toiled to carve a water channel whose sources were several springs in the surrounding area. She was always careful to point out the flights of stone steps that had been carved into the limestone rock as access points into the tunnel. It never failed to impress her that she was walking down the same stone steps that had been made by others over 2000 years ago.

Bringing herself back into the present, Gila looked at her watch again. She decided to take advantage of the sunshine in what remained of her time. The sun was at its apex in a clear blue sky and she wanted to soak up as much of its warmth as possible before her subterranean retreat down those same stone steps into the tunnel.

Stretching out on the grass, her musings wandered to a paradox that she hadn't given much thought. "If it wasn't for Herod's ego then, I wouldn't have this job now. Thanks to his schemes which, somehow, this hidden tunnel was an integral part of, I wouldn't be here doing this." She marveled at the idea that she played a key role in which the past met the present at a unique junction in Jewish history. "So old and yet so new," she considered as she began drifting off and fell asleep.

"Hi, there!" a voice suddenly spoke.

"Who are you?" Gila asked.

"My name is Oren. I was among the thousands of young, able-bodied men who helped build this tunnel."

'Really!' she said, completely taken by surprise. "Can you tell me about it?"

"Sure!" Oren seemed eager to explain. "But, first, let me say one thing. You don't see me but I watch you guide groups through the tunnel all day. It always surprises me how much you enjoy it because it makes me smile at the irony of it. Let's just say, building it wasn't a laughing matter. In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined that some 2000 years later, it is still in existence as a tourist attraction."

Gila felt overcome with emotion. "Wow!" she said, "it's such an honor to meet you."

Oren smiled. Her warm acceptance of him made him want to continue. "Herod subjugated the local population with crushing taxes to pay for his new 'playground' Caesarea, as well as conscripted labor to build it. Going back many generations, my family had lived in a small village, near the Ein Tzabarin springs just down the road in this very Alona valley. My father was a shepherd and as a young boy, after school, I would help him tend our sheep and goats. He shared with me his cherished knowledge, gathered over a lifetime's worth of living and walking these foothills."

Oren paused as Gila waited. It was obvious he was getting into uncomfortable territory with his story.

Then he continued, "Life was good…. until Herod came along. We lived a simple, rural life away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, not to mention their strife. Ours was a close family and any surplus crops and sheep were traded for items we needed. Judaism was the glue that held us together. The synagogue with its bet midrash (study hall) was the cornerstone of our village where we learned Torah and observed our festivals and traditions.

"Herod's arrival changed all that. He ruled with an iron fist and local villages were forced to contribute their quota of youth for his Caesarea project. I was among those separated from their families and made to live in a squalid garrison on the outskirts of the city. We were marched in gangs into the hill country and just as you explain to your visitors as you guide them through the tunnel, all we had to work with were some basic tools, a mere hammer and a chisel. Our gang leaders were hard taskmasters, the work was backbreaking and we were given little food."

"What gave you the strength to keep going?" Gila enquired.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know," Oren replied. "Perhaps it was the belief that the sooner we got it done, the quicker we could return home to our villages to pick up our lives again."

"Did that happen?" Gila asked.

"Yes, some two years later, the tunnel was built, and Herod released us from our obligation. It was a homecoming like no other. Life settled down for a while but with the arrival of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 130 CE, so began another period of misery and tyranny under the Romans for the Jewish people..."

"Gila, wake up," called Esti, one of her work colleagues in a loud voice. "Your group has arrived." She continued in her attempts to rouse Gila from a deep sleep.

"What do you mean?" Gila asked, in a daze. "Where was I? I thought I was speaking to Oren."

Esti looked puzzled. "You must have been dreaming."

"I guess so," agreed Gila as she slowly rose to her feet and shook herself off. "Time to get back to work."

Gila pulled herself into the present and with a big smile, greeted the group waiting for her at the entrance to the tunnel. "Apologies for the delay! It was something unexpected and I just couldn't get away," she explained.

"Please, come this way," she beckoned.The tour party followed her like a group of eager, obedient school children. This time her guiding was a little different. She knew Oren was with her and every time she went through the tunnel, she thought about him. Was she carrying him on her shoulders or was she standing on his? she wondered.

"No matter," she reflected. "The main thing is the tunnel has become part of both our lives, albeit in different ways and times. More significantly, it allows us to enter the river of Jewish history and ride the currents that continue, still, to flow and unfold." 

Masada National Park

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Monday, 30 January 2023

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