Recently I had the good fortune to tour Israel with a group of Presbyterians. Pastor Whit Malone of First Church, Hickory led a flock of 30 for eight days of sightseeing, Bible referencing and exploring from the Negev Desert to Mount Hermon.
In America we consider something built in 1920 as “old.” Over there the word takes on new meaning. Ancient sites are layered by as many as 24 cultures. Wars and earthquakes leave buildings to fall into decay only to be eventually leveled and rebuilt. For example, Jesus’ “layer” in Roman times is roughly one story below street level—relatively new in this ancient world.
In Israel I was amazed at the human tendency to reuse and repurpose over the millennia. Buildings and entire cities rise from compressed layers of their former selves. Most everywhere is evidence of former powers—Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and medieval Crusaders.
Crusaders were Christian zealots who marched off to the Holy Land too rid the territory of Muslims. Over five centuries, from 1095 to the 1500s, they did a major number on the population of the Holy Land, not to mention the landscape. Ancient buildings sprouted European towers, walls and rebuilt gates.
Consider the South Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. A magnificent Herodian arch was cut in half by clunky Crusader wall. Someone obviously thought it would be a good idea to split that entrance for their 12th-century addition. Go figure.
Got a Holy Site? Build a church over it. Make it more acceptable to Westerners.
Such buildings do shield what’s beneath and they do draw attention to holy sites. But there’s something about stained glass, brass and carved marble that distracts me from the lowly cave where Jesus was born. The place has been refashioned into the image the church wants to project, not what was there in 6 BC.
To reach the actual “stable”—or grotto–visitors descend steps of a basilica built during the 6th century. The reputed place of birth is marked with a large silver star attached to a marble slab.
A bit like the 1970s, I thought. I know, that’s a weird observation to make during a fantastic tour of the Holy Land, but the Crusader’s remolding of the Holy Land has been repeated to this day. Consider the Muslims who recently built homes over ancient Jewish tombs in Jerusalem.
Speaking of poor taste, I’m still recovering from the Decade that Taste Forgot that gave us the AMC Gremlin, leisure suits and split-foyer houses decorated in avocado green.
Like the Crusaders’ disregard for authenticity, ‘70s aesthetics bulldozed the world as it was. Attach sheet metal to Victorian storefronts to make the building “new.” Hang paneling over plaster walls to “fix” the cracks. Lay Astroturf on the patio to suggest you live on a golf course.
Consider Downtown Hickory. How often I’ve heard long-timers lament urban renewal of the 1970s—the implosion of Hotel Hickory or the effort took to demolish a tough old bank building on Union Square.
Tear town and rebuilt is an age-old story and what we lose can never be fully recovered. I thought of this as we visited ancient Capernaum—the fishing village where Jesus preached and St. Peter lived. It was abandoned long before the Crusaders arrived to make their mark.
But never fear, the renovators eventually showed up. The foundations of Peter’s house can be seen today beneath an ultra-modern church on stilts. This architectural abomination arrived in 1990, when church officials decided a 2,000-year-old site would be best appreciated beneath a structure straight out of “The Jetsons.”
St. Peter’s house with a flying saucer over it? I rest my case.