By HAIM WATZMANArticle in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
Mist like plumes of smoke hangs over the eastern plain below, but mountain walls stand as sentries before hazy ambiguity. We stand at the top of the Hetzron Ascent in the clear light of a cool January morning and gaze out over the Little Makhtesh, a desert basin ringed by limestone peaks.
We climb over the foot-wide pipe laid across the trail to deny vehicles entry into this mute land. No other hikers will cross our path the entire day. I have two companions, and the smooth, unadorned golden wedding band on the ring finger of my left hand flashes in the light of the rising sun. How can I, a devotee of "The Lord of the Rings," not imagine that we are on a quest to end the war, and that this barren land encircled by mountains is Mordor, the land of evil?
The shadows of dawn still stretch over the floor of the valley, highlighting the arid furrows and folds of channels, rivulets, and outcroppings of sandstone laid down on a primeval seashore in an as yet unchanged world. But these are minor aberrations in the fundamentally flat stretch we are about to cross, from wall to wall to wall.
Unlike its two larger geological sisters in the Negev, the Little Makhtesh is small enough that it can be seen in a single gaze, as a coherent landscape. And since we can only see landscapes through the skein of our minds and experiences, I cannot help, as I pick my way over this rocky section of the Israel Trail, but see it as a reflection, or inversion, of the mythical landscapes of my youth. For when a human being sees a plain ringed by mountains, it is not just geology. It is story, too.
I read J.R.R. Tolkien's "Ring" trilogy over and over again when I was a teenager. Decades later, I can still recall in detail the names and biographies of marginal characters, words in Elvish, snatches of the ancient epics of Middle Earth. And from the map at the end of each volume, I knew the lay of that land better than I knew any other, real or fictional.
I followed a different, real map when I set out the previous evening from Jerusalem, seeking relief from the battle scenes that jumped out from every newspaper, TV screen, computer monitor, and radio receiver. Weary of worry, drained from disputations about who was right and who wrong, and to what extent, and how much, and at exactly what point, I was in desperate need of a fantasy.
We headed south, just skirting the edge of the war zone. In Beersheba, a city under fire, we stopped at the first of a row of grill-and-falafel restaurants for a dinner of chicken baguettes. The television screen on the open patio, where we sat, alternated between scenes of smoke rising over Gaza and the frightened and angry residents of Israel's southern cities gathered at the site of the latest Hamas missile attack.
We left that last reminder of the real world behind us and headed southeast into the desert. After some searching we found our campsite, not far from Metzad Tamar, the remains of a Roman fortress that once guarded the road up from the Dead Sea. The night was cold; we set out soon after first light.
The trail plunges steeply in many places; my legs strain to support my body in balance and to brake my pace. Hugging the eastern wall, we descend along the slope and reach a shoulder made out of shards of sheets of glittering stone. When we take a short detour to the shoulder, we see that the glitter comes from tiny needles of translucent rock reflecting the rising sun. I edge carefully over to the edge of the precipice to scoop up an oblong, hand-sized lump of crystal. Can this be my palantir, my seeing stone? I see nothing, but pocket it anyway.
Makhtesh literally means "crater," but the Hebrew word has been adopted universally to designate a phenomenon whose most prominent representatives are in the Negev. It's not the mouth of a huge and ancient volcano. Neither is there the telltale evidence of a meteor impact. Rather, the rocks tell us how a process of uplift, erosion, and collapse produced this enclosed valley.
In Tolkien's Middle Earth there are no rocks we can study. His geologically improbable landscape is first and foremost a narrative device for telling us about the land's history and inhabitants. The sea is the road to paradise, mountains are places of dread and danger. So the land of evil, Mordor, must necessarily be a land enclosed by mountains.
We follow the trail along the Makhtesh's eastern edge, reaching a point where we walk an earthen ridge rising over hollows on either side. A freshly painted trail marker points to the left, and we see that the straight path has been washed out by a flood. We turn, as instructed, and descend into the hollow, where we find a tiny but lush stand of trees and flowers. Then we climb a steep ascent to rejoin the original path, soon reaching the crater's mouth. This eastern egress is called the Devil's Gate, but there's nothing demonic about it. A small area, housing a low building has been fenced off; here the water flowing underground is pumped up for irrigation and drinking before it reaches the Dead Sea, which we can see below us, 15 kilometers away.
The trail then takes us straight into the heart of the crater. The mountain barriers, which felt protective on the way down, now loom over us on every side. The plain is barren except for an occasional acacia eking out a perilous existence and, here and there, a brave, seditious, low-lying plant with a provocative bloom. The sandstone also shows an occasional red or purple streak, but that only serves to emphasize the drab colorlessness of the rest of the valley floor.
When Frodo, Sam, and Gollum cross over the Mountains of Shadow into Mordor, they are approaching the climax of a quest that will decide a great war between good and evil. Escaping the clutches of orcs and a giant spider, they make their way down to the Gorgoroth plateau. The map of Middle Earth shows that the Mountains of Shadow have a strange property. There are streams on the range's west side, feeding into the Anduin River, but no water flows from the Mountains of Shadow, or the Mountains of Ash, Mordor's northern wall, into the heart of darkness. Gorgoroth is absolutely dry. Below it, to the southeast, is the plain of Nurn, in the center of which is a terminal salt sea, like the Dead Sea below us, fed by streams from these mountains' other sides. But there is no water in the center of the Dark Lord's realm.
The Little Makhtesh has a dry riverbed, Nahal Hatzera, fed by runoff from its northern and western mountain walls and flowing out through the Devil's Gate. Our trail follows the riverbed upstream and, at midday, we stop to rest. I sit down gratefully and lean against a boulder. My feet are sore and I'm hot. I'm surprised by how complete the silence is. There is not even the buzzing of insects, no flies or gnats of the kind that like to swarm around sweaty hikers when the sun is high. Even the occasional bird - one is a beautiful bright green - chooses not to sing. We spot a column of smoke rising over the western cliff. Gaza is 90 kilometers away. It couldn't possibly be from there.
Sauron chooses to build his Dark Tower in Mordor because its mountains offer both a defense against enemies and a way of keeping his slaves from escaping. Furthermore, a volcano, the Mountain of Doom, rises in the middle of Gorgoroth and serves as Sauron's forge when he fashions his ring of power.
I look around me. There is no Dark Tower, no churning lava furnace into which I can cast my ring and end the war.
When we reach the northwestern edge of the plain, we climb the Eli Ascent. The path is very steep and at places a precipice is on one side and an abyss on the other. From the top we watch the afternoon shadows stretching away from us over the crater floor.
By the time I turned 20 I had laid "The Lord of the Rings" to one side. The boxed hard-cover edition - my third, after two sets of paperbacks fell apart from overuse -retained a prominent place on my shelf. But the books did not open again until, at the age of 40, I tried to read them again. I did not get far - to the adult I had become, the prose seemed flat, the characters one-dimensional, and the fantasy landscape less impressive than the real mountains, valleys, and rivers I saw on my own treks over the earth. By that time I'd fought in wars myself, and had discovered that they were seldom waged between forces of divine light and forces of utter darkness.
And I climbed mountains and swam in many seas, and knew that mountains are not evil and dangerous in and of themselves, nor are lands by the sea necessarily way-stations to paradise. Gaza lay by the sea, and here, in the mountain-enclosed Little Makhtesh, I had found a day of peace and wonder in a dark time. â€¢
Haim Watzman is the author of 'Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel' and 'A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley.' He blogs at South Jerusalem [www.southjerusalem.com].
Article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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