Tourists, true believers meet at Armageddon

Boston Globe, Dec 30 2000
By Charles M. Sennott

MEGIDDO, Israel - If the biblical battle of Armageddon begins here tomorrow, as some believe it will, the cost of admission will be 18 shekels (about $4). And there is plenty of parking.

The ancient hilltop known as ''Har Megiddo,'' or Mountain of Megiddo, is the place referred to in the Bible as Armageddon, which in the Book of Revelation is the final battleground between the forces of good and evil.

Today, it is a popular tourist site that features the layered archeological remains of 24 civilizations destroyed by one war after another, through thousands of years of history.

Air-conditioned tour buses idled yesterday in Armageddon's parking lot, recently expanded to handle the increase in tourists coming to the Holy Land for the millennium.

A steady stream of tour groups from Europe and America shuffled past the ticket booth then made their way up a steep hill to the rocky outcropping that is a treasure trove of archeology, and a site that tourism officials are eagerly trying to market.

The crowd was a mix: There were curious tourists armed with video cameras to record one of the most dramatic archeological sites in Israel, religious pilgrims of mainstream denominations interested in the biblical significance of the infamous hilltop, and a small minority of biblical literalists filled with expectations of ''The End of Days'' and what they believe is the coming battle to end all battles.

For this last group of Christian believers, tomorrow night's millennial turn of the calendar has sparked the belief that the ultimate battle may well be imminent.

Jim Siske, of Iredell, Texas, was walking through the vast site, which includes remants of prayer altars that date to 3000 BC, horse stables for the chariots of King Ahab from the 9th century BC, and a circular stone silo for grain storage from the same period.

''Yes, I believe in the literal interpretation of the bible,'' said Siske, a Southern Baptist who is a retired history teacher. ''So I believe this is the place where the battle that will end the world will happen. I believe there is a lot that tells us that we are very close to the time when these events will occur. Very close, a matter of days.''

But the vast majority of the roughly 200,000 yearly visitors - a number that could double over the next year - are not bracing for the end. Most are from other Christian denominations who tend to view the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, believed to have been written by the Apostle John, as a biblical drama that should be seen as a sweeping metaphor. Many say it should not be taken literally.

Jim and Florine Postel of Cincinnati toured the site yesterday, as their two young boys climbed over the rocks and ran through the ruins.

''We're on a millennial vacation,'' said Jim Postel, 41, an architect and an Episcopalian. ''We are here out of curiosity, but certainly not for any sense of interpreting the biblical prophecies. I see all of that as metaphor, a kind of poetry in scripture.''

The Rev. Valentino Cottini, a Roman Catholic priest from Verona, Italy, was leading 25 nuns from the Order of the Daughters of Charity. They were walking deep inside a tunnel that dates to 1000 BC, which was used for gathering water when the city was under siege.

In the damp, dark passageway, Cottini said, ''The Book of Revelation and the passage referring to Armageddon has to be seen as a symbol, a metaphor of the battle between good and evil. It is not to be taken literally.''

Sister Floria joked as she ascended the steep stone stairs that lead out of the tunnel, worn smooth through the ages, ''You don't have to worry about the world ending, but you should be very careful on these steps.''

About 20 miles southeast of the port city of Haifa, the hilltop of Megiddo looks out over the fertile plains of the Jezreel Valley, one of the great military theaters of history.

The valley's foothills and wheat fields have stood witness to countless bloody battles. The strategic hill - positioned along crucial trade routes from Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the north - was conquered by the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Canaanites, the Persians, and the Hebrew kings.

It is in this military context that the Book of Revelation (16:16) describes Armageddon as the final battleground between good and evil.

Historians note that it is interesting that the fortified city of Megiddo was destroyed and abandoned by the 4th century BC, yet it still resonated as a place of epic battles when John wrote about it nearly 500 years later.

In modern history, the area around Megiddo was the site of battles in World War I, when British troops overcame the Ottoman Empire, and later in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when troops of the new Jewish state defended the land against Syrians and Iraqis.

Yesterday, the site was quiet, a serene perch to view the lush fields of the nearby Kibbutz Megiddo. Nevertheless, Israeli police, for the first time, posted 10 officers on the hilltop to prevent acts of millennial violence, or perhaps suicide, over the next three days.

Badran Ismael, the Israeli Parks Department manager of the small museum at the foot of the site, said, ''We are afraid of what might happen here, and so the site will have to be guarded for the first time ever.''

The FBI's Terrorism Analysis Unit gave the name ''Project Megiddo'' to the team it created to investigate millennial threats of violence. A classified report titled ''Project Megiddo: Threat Analysis for the New Millennium,'' which was published in October, assessed security risks posed by an underground of extremist groups and cults that see themselves playing an active role in the biblical battle of Armageddon.

But the report underlined that the area of Jerusalem, where the Old City is holy ground to three major religions - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - is a more likely site for millennial violence than is Megiddo.

Still, it was to Megiddo that Vince Duran, 50, his arms covered with apocalyptic prison tatoos, came from his home in New Mexico. He was there yesterday to see the ''spiritual war,'' as he put it, that he believes will begin tomorrow night.

''You are either a child of light or a child of darkness, and we will find out tomorrow,'' he said in a rambling discourse in which he also inquired about staying at the kibbutz in exchange for work.

David Rubins, 53, was one of the kibbutz leaders politely trying to steer Duran away.

''We don't believe the world is going to end,'' said Rubins, who manages the kibbutz's beautiful gardens of bougainvillea and roses. ''In fact, we planted new roses today. You don't do that when you think the world is ending.''

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