At the end of the promenade, past Herod’s, over a rainbow bridge, the swanky stores of Eilat’s hotel strip abruptly vanish. All along the beach front, high rise heavens with angled windows and palm-ringed swimming pools gaze down an arm of ocean that reaches out to them from the Arabian Sea. Only the plebian strip of the promenade’s fast-food stands and street vendors remind four and five-star vacationers that the luxury they enjoy is tenuous and temporary. The gaudiest tower of them all is the faux-palace that bears the name of the ancient east’s greatest manipulator, madman, and master builder. Its rococo extravagance, all arches framed by columns and crowned by moon-bright domes, would have deeply offended the easily-offended king’s classical sensibilities. Herod’s (“Where the Legend Comes Alive”) is a temple of earthly delights that offers “everything included” vacations of endless meals, celebrity shows, and classy boutiques. It would have enraged the great king so much that he’d have murdered yet another of his sons. It’s not my kind of place. I’m staying at the youth hostel way down past the other end of the promenade, across the street from where the shoreline turns south towards Egypt and Africa.
But the epicurean paradise ends at Herod’s eastern wall. Beyond it is a placid, silent canal spanned by an unlit convex bridge. On it, a few middle-aged fishermen cast their lines out from the bridge into a sea canal, observed by their wives and by a silent, hungry cat. When I step off the bridge, the planet’s natural terrain appears. The elements rule the October night. Sand, sea, stone and sky—the loneliness in which God resides. Thousands of stars suppressed by the brash promenade street lamps reappear; the Dolphin and the Water Carrier hover to my right, over the sea; Polaris, low on my left, marks Route 90, the northward path of the two-week trip that I began on Sunday. The beach is sandy and largely deserted, except for a couple of cars and a clapboard shack, which emits some light and the lilt of songs with Hebrew lyrics and Arab melodies.
I stand at the landfall of a great rift valley, a crack in the earth’s crust that begins where the Indian Ocean’s waters mix with those of the Gulf of Aden. It heads west by northwest, turns more sharply to the northwest, and at the Straits of Tiran, where the Sinai peninsula comes to a point, it takes another turn and heads nearly due north before ending in the mountains of Anatolia. This rift is one of globe’s largest features, clearly visible from space, and I live on its edge. It forms an intricate landscape that makes the human soul turn end over end in wonder, even in people who are sure they have no organ by that name. One would have to be an automaton not to stand in awe of the God who designed it. Or so I felt when I first viewed the rift three decades ago.
In fact, we needn’t call upon God to explain either the lay of the landscape or its origin. The rift is a geological fact, the product of enormous forces operating inside the globe, and it would exist even if there were no humans to observe it. Yet humans have been part of it nearly since there were humans; the section I will travel, from the Red Sea north to the mountains of Syria, served as a corridor through which prehistoric humankind passed on its way out of Africa to colonize Asia and Europe. From that time on, they have left their mark on the valley, and it has marked their minds.
Now, even in satellite photographs, the rift cannot be seen pristinely. The light and heat emitted by Eilat and its Jordanian sister city, Aqaba, by Jerusalem, and by Tiberias on the shore of Lake Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee—stain the landscape as seen from outer space. Tiny Quaroun Lake in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley has a ruler-straight southern bank that nature could not fashion. It marks a dam, and shows that the lake, which I rode past time and again when I served as an occupying soldier in Lebanon in the early 1980s, is manmade.
Here on earth, with my own eyes, I can only see the valley from its edge or within. Like a worker ant climbing a blade of grass to get a better view of the hollow in which she will spend her brief life, I can only use my mind as a ladder, in an attempt to grasp this great geological object. But even this is no simple matter, for humankind has overlaid the geology not just with cities, dams, fields, and roads, but also with history and biography and meanings.
I have lived, traveled, and soldiered up and down the Israeli side of the rift valley in the 27 years since this country became my home. For many of my fellow-citizens, the greater part of the valley is a border that seems natural. But the location and nature of that border have been challenged by peace efforts and the winds of war alike. As I write, Israel’s government is seeking to redraw the country’s boundaries in the Gaza Strip. Israelis who live in the Jordan Valley fear that a revision of the border along which they live is not long to follow. October of the year 2004 is thus an opportune time for me to travel my part of the rift and to see it as it is, but also as it means. Along my way I will meet geologists, biologists, and archaeologists who study the physical facts of the rift valley. I will speak to people who live and work in the valley and for whom it represents the fulfillment, or disappointment, of an ideal. And I will encounter others who see the rift through the fun-house mirror of myth, in which stories skip over the landscape and where human beings themselves are mysteries.