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Differences over an ancient religious rite still inflame passions in one of the world’s most critical pieces of real estate.

Watch Lebanon . . . the most dangerous piece of tinder
in the region . . . could trigger Armageddon

Columnist Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, Wednesday, April 10, 2002

At least two Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon
slammed into the northern Israeli city of Nahariya
on Thursday, wounding three civilians, the Israeli
army said. . . . Israel vowed . . . a severe response
to Hizbollah’s cross-border attack.

Reuters: Thursday July 13, 2006, 12:35 A.M. E.T.

“The most dangerous piece of tinder in the region,” which “could trigger Armageddon.” “The region” in question being the tinderbox of the Middle East. As rockets explode in Israel and warplanes bomb Lebanon, we see again the incendiary nature of that region. Why? What sort of fuel keeps smoldering for generations, smoldering so that the tiniest spark sets the entire region aflame?

Although petroleum fuels many economies in the region, neither Israel nor its immediate neighbors harbor significant deposits of oil or natural gas. And possession of oil does not automatically fuel conflict. Britain and Norway peaceably share the oil fields in the North Sea. Nor does coal provide the fuel for continuing conflict, for none of the parties possesses coal in significant amounts. The region produces fuel only in the form of firewood, and that in very small quantities. How much conflict can a bundle of firewood provoke? How long can it smolder?

A long time, as we shall see.

History of the region

When Rome’s legions ruled the ancient world and built the roads, it was said that “all roads lead to Rome.” But for thousands of years previous, and even in the days of the Caesars, whoever ruled the Mediterranean world sought the riches of Egypt. And all the caravan routes to and from Egypt, whether to Persia in Asia or to Greece and Rome in Europe, all those land transportation routes led through Israel and Lebanon.

Its strategic location guaranteed that armies and merchants would pass through this narrow land bridge between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the desert to the east. From the south, an accommodating coastal plain gently sweeps from Egypt northward along the Mediterranean coast until the Mount Carmel ridge blocks the passage of armies or commerce, forcing them inland, toward the Jezreel Valley and the Plain of Megiddo. All along the way, famous battlefields dot the landscape on virtually every parcel of level land big enough to hold an army.

In the north, in modern-day Lebanon, the army of Alexander the Great scraped the beach down to the bedrock to build a causeway and defeat Tyre, which at that time was located on an island. In the south, Alexander besieged and defeated the Persians at Gaza.

The Plain of Megiddo alone has been the scene of three major battles. Thutmose III brought an army of ten thousand Egyptians to quell an uprising of the Canaanites there in 1457 B.C. Seven centuries later, Josiah, King of Judah, died in 690 B.C. attempting to block the army of Pharaoh Necho II in the same area. And more recently, British General Edmund Allenby defeated the army of the Ottoman Turks here in 1918, during World War I. No wonder John the Revelator uses this blood-soaked plain as a symbol of the battle that ends the world. For Armageddon means “Mountain of Megiddo,” no doubt referring to Mount Carmel, the mountain that overlooks the plain.

Jerusalem is the key

The center of the conflict today, as in centuries past, eventually comes down to Jerusalem. Who shall control Jerusalem? The great cities of the ancient world nearly all sat on flat lands adjacent to bodies of water, either the flood plains of rivers or the coastal plains of the oceans. But Jerusalem perches on a spring-fed plateau, surrounded by deep wadies, dry stream beds where water flows only after hard rains. Its forbidding location makes Jerusalem a natural fortress—and a desirable prize. Over the centuries many powers have coveted Jerusalem.

One of the earliest mentions of the city refers to it as Jebus, home of the Jebusites. King David conquered the city, renamed it Jerusalem, or “city of Peace,” and made it his capital city. David and his heirs ruled in Jerusalem for about four centuries. Then a series of empires conquered Jerusalem.

The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem twice, leaving it in ruins the second time. When the Persians conquered Babylon, they took authority over the ruins, and Cyrus authorized the city’s rebuilding. Alexander the Great defeated Persia. When he died without an heir, his four generals divided up his empire. Jerusalem sat near the border between the lands of Ptolemy, in Egypt, and those of Seleucus, who ruled in Syria. While their heirs feuded, the Romans, gaining strength in the west, aided the Jews as they threw off the remnants of Alexander’s empire in the Maccabean revolution. Then the Romans, as they did elsewhere, took over and for several centuries ruled with an iron fist. The fall of Rome, and the end of empires, did not result in peace for “the city of peace.”

In 638, six years after the death of Mohammed, Caliph Omar took over the city. In 1099, Godfrey de Bouillon, part of the First Crusade, conquered the city. Saladin, the great Kurdish general, retook Jerusalem in 1187. The next seven centuries saw a succession of Muslim rulers, first the Mameluks of Egypt and later the Ottoman Turks. For the first half of the twentieth century, the entire region was a British mandate. In 1948, Israel and Jordan divided the city. After centuries in the control of others, Israel finally took control of all of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Strategic location explains the continual warfare in ancient times. But why do wars still rend the region today? Modern nations all around the world hold their breath, still wondering whether fighting in this tiny cockpit will spark a final cataclysm, named after the plain of Megiddo. Why?

The role of religion

Certainly, religion plays a part. Solomon built his magnificent temple here. Jewish prophets and kings walked these very streets. Jews still look for the Messiah to establish His kingdom—and theirs—in Jerusalem.

The central events in Christianity took place here as well. Jesus entered the city in triumph on Palm Sunday, taught in the temple, ate the Last Supper with His disciples in an upper room, prayed on the Mount of Olives, endured trials by three authorities at different palaces, died on Calvary, and rose from the dead just outside the city.

Although history records no visit of Mohammed to Jerusalem, Sura 17 of the Koran tells of a mystical night journey in which the prophet was carried from the sacred temple in Mecca to the “temple that is most remote.” Muslim tradition holds that, on this journey, Mohammed, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel, stopped at Sinai, Bethlehem, and finally Jerusalem. To commemorate this journey, Caliph Omar built a mosque where the Jewish temple had stood and declared it to be “the farthest mosque.”

So, three religions have varying interests in Jerusalem. But what fuels the endless feud over Jerusalem goes even deeper than religion—it hinges on identity. The identity of both Jews and Muslims revolves around events from long before Jerusalem had been built on the plateau.

Where it all started

Four men started out before dawn. One of them had a heavy heart, for he knew their mission. Abraham, the leader of the expedition, cut a bundle of firewood and secured it on a donkey, and they set out.

Although the great trade routes follow the coastal plain, their destination lay inland, away from the sea. As they moved northward, the rocky slopes of Mount Moriah—and future site of the temple—loomed above them on the third day. At this point, instructing the servants to remain and tend the pack animal, Abraham and his son set off on the final ascent, the younger man carrying the firewood.

Upon reaching their destination, they built a stone altar and covered it with the firewood. Curious, the younger man asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “The Lord will provide,” unable to give voice to the awful truth that he had brought his son to this place to be sacrificed. You know the story. At the last moment, God restrained Abraham. They found a ram tangled in a thicket, which they sacrificed instead.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims all accept the story. But they differ on one detail, the one detail that goes to their very identity as a people: Which son lay on that bundle of firewood, ready to be offered? Jews claim it was their ancestor Isaac, and Christians agree. Muslims, on the other hand, claim that the sacrificial son was Ishmael, father of the Arabs. That’s why that single bundle of firewood still smolders and sparks, threatening to set the region aflame. For both Muslims and Jews, giving up Jerusalem means giving up their very identity. This question of identity, both physical and spiritual, still burns on Mount Moriah, still burns in Jerusalem.

And that makes the whole region a tinderbox.

Ed Dickerson writes from Garrison, Iowa.

Why the Middle East Is Such a Tinderbox

by Ed Dickerson
From the October 2006 Signs