It is literally what this country is made of. From the massive pillars of ancient Caesarea to the lofty stone cliff on which David Ben Gurion was buried, from the legendary block of a mountain on the shores of the Dead Sea called Masada to the quiet little synagogue of Capernaum where a young scholar from Nazareth first astonished the locals with his wisdom, this is the rock on top of which, and from which this ancient civilization was built.
One of the most heralded uses of this limestone was to build the city of Jerusalem. Even today an ordinance requires that every building in the capital city be faced with a particular limestone, guaranteeing that soft glow that inspired the song “Jerusalem of Gold.” Indeed, it is referred to as “Jerusalem Stone” but it covers this land from the Galilee to Eilat.
But it’s down in the Arava, where I live, that the limestone is paramount. As my geology professor once explained, the desert is a great place to learn about geology, because one’s view is not obstructed by messy things like houses and roads, plants and trees, or flowers and grass. Nothing but the bare bones of the earth, like the 3rd day of Creation. When I hike in the mountains behind Ketura, I like to look for marine fossils. Fascinating sea creatures once swam here.
Yes, sea creatures.
As any geologist can tell you, limestone is the result of ancient ocean. Millions of years ago this land was covered by the sea, and when it finally receded, what was left was layer on top of layer on top of layer of ocean floor, compressed sand, salt compounds and the remains of the animals that once lived in the sea.
I have stumbled upon fossils, large and small, of the organisms that once populated this ancient body of water. One subclass, in particular, fascinates me, the ammonites. These coiled mollusks from the Cretaceous period (60 – 100 million years ago) with long tentacles trailing behind them, were actually cephalopods, more closely related to squid or octopus than to clams and oysters. They moved around, explored their surroundings, mated and grazed on plankton, right here in this desert, when it was an ocean. The ammonite had a coiled shell with a series of chambers, but only lived in the outermost chamber. The inner chambers were filled with fluid or gas which the ammonite regulated in order to control its buoyancy and movement, much like a submarine.
Their coiled form and relatively large size (they can span up to four feet) reminded the Roman historian Pliny the Elder of ram’s horns, so he named them after the ram-headed Egyptian god Amon. If these exotic remnants of ancient creatures were a well-known thing 2,000 years ago, it is no small wonder that throughout history people believed in mythological aquatic beasts like mermaids and the hydra.
There is something very exciting about known but untouchable beings that are just beyond our reach in time or space. What was once an ammonite is lying in the desert waiting for me as a limestone rock, but long ago it was swimming just here, gliding right behind my back porch. When I find a good fossil, I take a picture and leave it in place in the desert. It seems somehow unnatural to move something that has been laying there peacefully for 80 million years.
But in my youth, I occasionally sinned and took one home. They are wonderful reminders of the incredible variety of life in this huge and ancient earth. Personally, I have always found it odd that people equate scientific explanations of fossils with atheism. Nothing testifies to the existence of a higher power better than the infinite grandeur, beauty, antiquity and complexity of nature.
It is worth sitting down with a sea creature from 80 million years ago in one hand and a Bible in the other, and reading the first chapter of the book of Genesis. It will make a believer (in something) out of even the most hardened cynic.