Destroying Armageddon: The Apocalypse as a Tourism Attraction

Snags to creating a park starring Tell Megiddo, a proto-church, a unique Roman legion camp and much more, include a pesky prison smack in the middle and the billion-shekel bill to move it – and the plan to expand a highway

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Night falls on Tell Megiddo
Night falls on Tell MegiddoCredit: Ariel David
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Downhill from Armageddon stands a prison. In its grounds, archaeologists – assisted by inmates – have found a proto-church from so long ago that churches didn’t even exist yet. The prison, which was built on the remains of the ancient village of Othnay, lies just a few hundred meters from Tell Megiddo, aka Armageddon, the hilltop where Christian tradition believes Good and Evil will engage in their final battle.

Between Tell Megiddo and the prison stretches a wheat field. The field conceals a vast ancient Roman legionary camp named Legio, and part of the ancient village of Caporcotani (Kefar Othnay), which would be replaced in time by the Byzantine town of Maximianopolis. That in turn would be replaced by an Arab village named Lajjun, derived from “Legio,” which has become Kibbutz Megiddo. The area is watered by springs and the Qeni, a stream that features lovely walks and along which the Ottomans built seven flour mills.

And there is a dream: to create a unique tourism experience, from prehistory through to a British Mandate-era army camp, all within walking distance. Or at least electric cart distance.

Even leaving avenging angels out of it, there are a few snags to creating an “Armageddon Experience” park: budget; disagreements between the ministries and government bodies and environmental agencies and local representatives on priorities for the development of the area; and Highway 66.

Highway 66 runs below the tell and alongside the Roman camp, then intersects with Highway 65 about a kilometer from the kibbutz. It is a nightmare and a revamp of that section of roadway is planned. Drivers may be thrilled, but environmentalists are not and archaeologists are appalled.

Megiddo PrisonCredit: Itzik Ben-Malki
Mosaics from very early Christian house of worship, remains from Jewish village of Otnay discovered at Megiddo Prison.Credit: Yotam Tepper

Depending where exactly the new section of Highway 66 runs, the roadworks could destroy part of the Roman camp, the only one of its kind in the East, archaeologists fret.

Actually, there seems to be a dispute over the status of the plan to relocate this segment of Israel’s route 66. Asked if it’s been finalized or not, Megiddo Regional Council leader Itzik Holavsky tells Haaretz that it has been and the camp won’t be touched.

In any case, one shouldn’t count chickens before they’re hatched: this chicken isn’t even an egg yet, except on paper, and the archaeologists remain skeptical. They certainly hope the authorities can reach accord on preserving, conserving and exhibiting this particular Roman bastion. But optimism may not be warranted, based on a reportedly approved plan for the route. The camp would decidedly not be untouched, and that is a shame, archaeologists say.

“The permanent camps of the Roman army in the west are known, but none had been found in the east until now,” says archaeologist Dr. Guy Stiebel of Tel Aviv University, explaining the site’s uniqueness.

Actually, Legio X Fretensis (the 10th Roman Legion Fretensis), was known to have camped in Jerusalem. Some claim to have identified the location of its camp, but there’s no consensus. “The smoking gun hasn’t been found,” Stiebel says. But the smoking spear of the VI Ferrata Legion is right there just below the surface at Megiddo, reburied for the sake of its protection, though the wheat farming on top is doing the ruins no favors.

Apocalypse not now

If the road relocation destroys the Roman legionary base, commuters’ daily gain of a few minutes would decimate a singular archaeological site. Megiddo and its surroundings reflect a cultural uniqueness that exceeds the boundaries of time and place, with a Roman Legion base unparalleled in Israel, the neighboring countries and perhaps all of the Levant. This in turn would affect the stellar opportunity to turn the whole area of Armageddon into a huge attraction, says Dr. Yotam Tepper, who works with both the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority, the regulatory body in charge of archaeological exploration, preservation and sacrifice for roadworks in Israel.

Tell MegiddoCredit: Moshe Gilad
Tell Megiddo, looking from the Legio legionary base.Credit: Yotam Tepper

The Armageddon Experience isn’t Tepper’s name for this concept of creating a visitors’ center based on the starting point of the future apocalypse. But it’s a vision he keenly advocates.

For the religious, the tour would feature Tell Megiddo, which alone among these archaeological treasures is open to visitors (COVID lockdown allowing); the proto-church (which actually predates churches per se by a good hundred years) in Kefar Othnay; the Roman army camp, after some restoration, explains Holavsky; and the Ottoman-period flour mills.

To be clear, the “earlier Christian prayer hall” at the Megiddo prison wasn’t a basilica or community building: it was a room in the family home of a Roman soldier where the faithful would convene, Tepper explains. Among the fearsome Roman soldiers in the ferocious Sixth Legion Ironclads were at least some Christians. (Note in the map below - the area of the Roman camp is now known to be bigger than shown; and to cross the highway, Tepper observes.)

The Armageddon Experience: Among the things a visitor could see Credit:

Armageddon, a very desirable spot

“And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth. … And he gathered them [the kings] together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon” (Revelations 16:1 … 16)

The whole region now known as Israel has been occupied since forever, and the area where the ruins of Megiddo still stand like broken teeth is a lush spot. Altogether, 24 layers of human settlement have been discovered there.

Settlement on the hill goes back at least to the Chalcolithic – i.e., the sixth millennium B.C.E. Remains of a temple dating to some centuries later show that whoever the denizens were worshipping, they were sacrificing animals to them.

The excavation at Legio, with Highway 66 in the background.Credit: Yotam Tepper
Dr. Yotam Tepper.Credit: Courtesy

By the second millennium B.C.E., the residents were Canaanites. Archaeologists have found the city gate and a stone-paved road leading to it from that time. They also found the ruins of a Canaanite-period palace.

When Egypt ruled the roost of the Levant, the Megiddonians were among those who had the gall to rebel. It did not go well. The Battle of Megiddo in ancient Egyptian annals is one of the earliest written accounts of war – and as we know, history is written by the victor. The victor says that the town surrendered to Pharaoh Thutmose III after a seven-month siege, according to the Egyptian account. He also reportedly reaped considerable booty: 924 chariots, 2,238 horses, a golden throne, as well as cattle and wheat.

The Israelites are believed to have arrived a few centuries later, in about the 12th century B.C.E. In any case, Megiddo was evidently important to the Kingdom of Israel, on the grounds that the town’s fortifications were reinforced.

In the 10th century B.C.E., it was conquered by Pharaoh Sheshonq, based on the evidence of a stele found in the mound. And then in the ninth century B.C.E., King Hazael of Aram razed the town. It was rebuilt and remained in the heart of contention; nurtured by King Ahab, it would be taken by Assyria during its conquest of the Galilee in 732 B.C.E. Later, it seems the Kingdom of Judah may have controlled Megiddo.

All in all, Megiddo is mentioned 12 times in the Old Testament, bearing witness to the town’s extraordinary status.

By the second century B.C.E., the town of Megiddo, already ancient by that time, was in decline and its name was forgotten for some time. The Jewish population in Samaria and the Galilee failed to be adequately awed by the Roman might and early in the second century, the Legio VI Ferrata was sent to Judaea to expand Roman control of the region and help crush the pests once and for all. And they built their camp on the gentle slope right below Tell Megiddo.

Itzik Hovalsky, right, explaining the plan for a visitors' center for the 'Jesus' mosaic to Yoav Karkovsky, Channel 11Credit: Courtesy of Megiddo Regional Council

The Ironclads’ view of Jezreel

Today, standing at the foot of Tell Megiddo, the unaided eye sees nothing of the Roman army’s legionary base because of Kibbutz Megiddo’s wheat fields. But walking through the field, the ploughed soil is littered with fragments of tiles, shards of patinized Roman glass, and other material bits and bobs from the army camp. Some of its stone walls lie exposed to the elements in a small wire-fenced area that Kibbutz Megiddo agreed not to cultivate. The rest has been recovered over with earth to protect it from the elements, which include unsolicited visitors.

Legio was, by all indications, a large-scale, standard Roman base from the western province in the Roman Empire. About 350 by 550 meters (1,150 by 1,800 feet) in area, it may even have been bigger than the “missing” camp in Jerusalem.

Legio housed about 5,200 soldiers and there were a few thousand more civilians around it – numbers that would be considered respectable at the time for a large planned Roman site, Tepper says.

Like the town of Megiddo itself throughout the ages, Legio’s location was both convenient for the water sources and strategic, he explains. The hill with the biblical town on top has a view of the Jezreel Valley. It had a commanding position over ancient trading routes from Egypt through to what are now Lebanon and Syria; later, the first-known Roman road to be built in the land, connecting Beit She’an and the city port of Caesarea, ran right by it too. In fact, Stiebel points out, this road featured the earliest Roman milestone found in Israel, dating to the year 68 (smack in the middle of the first revolt).

Its strategic location and the availability of water explain why the Megiddo/Legio region was coveted, beset, and conquered time and again over the ages, the archaeologists explain.

The excavation at the site was led by Matthew J. Adams and Tepper on behalf of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research for several seasons. Among other finds during excavation seasons were the remains of a monumental stone gate, dedicatory inscriptions in Latin, and the grisly discovery of the remains of a cremated human being in a cooking pot. While that may sound disturbing based on modern mores, laying one’s charred remains to rest in a stewpot was actually quite a common practice among Roman soldiers around the Mediterranean, Tepper told Haaretz. 

Somewhat less startling discoveries at the camp include glass, remnants of Roman armor, hobnails used in their sandals, their sewage system, and walls.

Like so many things Roman, the end of Legio was planned. In the late third century, the Legio VI Ferrata was sent eastward and the camp was decommissioned and dismantled. The village by it continued to thrive for a few more decades.

Legio excavations, with Tell Megiddo in the distance.Credit: Yotam Tepper

‘God Jesus Christ’

Meanwhile, the saga of relocating Megiddo Prison for the sake of building a tourism experience isn’t over.

The British knew perfectly well they were building the prison on an ancient site, which turned out to be Kefar Othnay, a Jewish-Samaritan village mentioned in Jewish sources as existing from the first to the fourth centuries C.E., Tepper says. Upon Israel’s independence in 1948, control of the prison passed to the new authorities.

Some of the best finds within Megiddo Prison were made by inmates, who helped Tepper and the Antiquities Authority excavate from 2003 to 2008. In 2005, the archaeologists and incarcerated helpers uncovered an extraordinary mosaic, 54 square meters in size that dates to the year 230, very early in the Christian era. The mosaic bears three inscriptions in ancient Greek – one explicitly calling Jesus a deity.

“The god-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial,” the writing says, in black tesserae letters. Akeptous is thought to be the name of a woman who paid for a communion table that may have served for the Eucharist ceremony.

Remains of the British Mandate-era army camp built by the British at what was then the Arab village of Lajjun.Credit: Yotam Tepper

Following that momentous discovery, about 15 years ago the government decided to relocate the prison for the sake of a visitors’ center, says Megiddo council leader Holavsky. It never happened.

In mid-2020, the government froze the plan even though millions of shekels had already been spent on new construction, Holavsky notes. Meanwhile, the mosaic and other ruins have been reburied for the sake of their preservation.

One snag is the putative cost: just moving the prison, about a kilometer away, is estimated to cost about a billion shekels ($305 million), Holavsky tells Haaretz, qualifying that a proper itemized budget hasn’t been prepared yet.

Appalled, the Finance Ministry pressed the government to abandon the schedule and leave the plan on paper, and meanwhile reroute funding to resolve the problem of overcrowding at other prisons.

Following suspension of the prison relocation, in July 2020 the Catholic and Greek churches called on the government to pursue the plan and conserve the mosaic. The Latin Patriarchate and Greek Patriarchate wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally on the matter, according to Calcalist – noting its proximity to the site of Armageddon.

Last August, the government made a new resolution: to establish an interministerial team to examine the goals of new prison construction. Holavsky hopes the team will be amenable to budgeting a new compound for Megiddo, as planned back in 2018.

And if not? “We have to think of other ideas,” he answers: maybe building a visitors’ center within the prison grounds, isolated from the inmates, where they could see the mosaic. True, the idea had been raised before and rejected, he says. But meanwhile, prison crowding has decreased and, given the coronavirus crisis and consequent budget constraints, the notion could be resurrected.

One way or another, Holavsky is determined that the Armageddon Experience – not his name for it – happen as part of an ambitious development plan for the whole Megiddo space: for tourists, Tell Megiddo, the mosaic, the Sixth Legion’s camp, the prehistoric site while about it, and a stroll along the Qeni stream, including the Ottoman flour mills; and, for the greater good, building the new Megiddo prison as well as a commercial center and a Jewish-Arab industrial park.

If just relocating the prison could cost a billion shekels, this sounds ambitious.

“On the other hand, who knows, maybe the government will have to promote public projects in order to stimulate the economy [post-COVID],” says leading archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. “In any event, as the director of the Megiddo Expedition, let me just say that the site – which is of great importance to Judeo-Christian civilization and hence also tourism – calls for a major investment in preservation to save it from crumbling. This needs not be forgotten.”

A few weeks ago, however, national planning committees approved the plan to expand Highway 66. The plan indicates that, after all, the new route will go over part of the Legio camp and the unique archaeological remains beside it. Thus begins the destruction of Armageddon.

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