Of course I took my walking boots to Israel. It is a land where you are either removing your shoes in the presence of holiness, or scaling a scorched mountain ridge.
I had more surreal experiences in the Holy Land than anywhere else I have wandered and I will not even try to set them all down, but they will live with me forever, as they have all these years. It is a place where texts which were becoming bland through familiarity leap into life, so that they can never lie flat in the book again. Beyond that are the people living in the land and living the land and all that lies beneath it. That mound at the edge of town; that was a city in King David’s day. The writing carved in that stone; it names Omri King of Israel. That well in the quarter beyond the valley – there a blind man waited for an angel to stir the waters, until Jesus gave him sight.
Somewhere outside Jericho, in the Judean desert, I got lost on the wrong mountain – I needed a better map – and found a monastery where after a brief exchange in Greek an elderly nun explained I was on the Mount of Ill Counsel, several miles from where I thought, and so I climbed down and rested in the timeless landscape, my radio playing Elvis Presley from the Kol Yisrael transmitter above, so maybe not so timeless. This was one of my more normal days.
Back to the centenary; yes, the date is heavy on my mind. One hundred years ago the guns fell silent and the smoke cleared to show an unfamiliar world. We think of the trenches, but there where I sat in the desert the war had swept through too. General Allenby advanced from Egypt through the Holy Land to dislodge the Ottoman Empire. He took Jericho and the desert where I sat; in 1917 he entered Jerusalem, dismounted to walk like a pilgrim, a walk I also took. Then he advanced north.
Another day I walked along the olive-clad summit of Mount Carmel. At its southern end is the ancient fortress of Megiddo, and the reason for it is clear; as I stood on the ramparts before me stretched the broad, fertile plain that is the valley of Jezreel, a rich farmland and a gathering place for armies. I looked out on a place where battles have been fought since time out of mind – Egyptians and Canaanites clashed here, and later Israelites and Midianites, Philistines and all the great empires which swept through. A hundred years ago, in 1918, Allenby came here too. Like the Egyptians, Israelites, Philistines, Assyrians and others lost to memory, he struck beneath the fortress of Megiddo, and was the final great victory which forced the Ottoman Empire to surrender.
At the foot of the mountain where it reaches the sea, in Haifa, is a war cemetery, with 305 burials of soldiers of the British Empire in the Great War, and 36 of the Second World War. There are no poppies here on the bleached hillside, but like those in Flanders’ fields, they shall grown not old as we that are left grow old.