About 20 kilometers (14 miles) East of Tel Aviv, in a wooded area wedged between the Trans-Israel Highway and the ultra-Orthodox suburb of El’ad sits the only Roman-era building in Israel to have survived completely from floor to ceiling. It is a mausoleum, built for some unidentified 4th century muckety-muck and his wife. It is an impressive building, with classical Roman columns holding up the roof, the remains of the original sarcophagi cut into the floor and a side-room for raising doves, part of the cultic practice of the period.
Given the building techniques of the day, it is safe to assume that the construction of this mausoleum began while its ultimate resident was still alive. He planned this, hired an architect, engineers, stone masons, draft animals and paid for the materials that went into the project. A small fortune was invested and all for a building that the owner would reside in only after his death.
He was not alone. Human beings have always sought to defy death by building a palatial home for the afterlife. The Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (of the Terracotta Warriors) began his staggering undertaking at the age of 14. The Great Pyramid of Giza was the most massive building on the planet until the 20th century and it was built by 25,000 men over a period of 20 years. These, and other monumental undertakings, were just places to someday store one dead body. It is our hubris that makes us do this, our desperate belief that we can overcome death by building something huge to house us after our demise.
What fascinates me about this is not the investment in the building, but the fact that it is, in each case, an actual house. If you were not told otherwise by an archaeologist, you would assume that someone had lived inside. In many cases, the trappings of day to day life are there: weapons, jewelry, even furniture; in Emperor Qin’s case, 8,000 bodyguards of stone.
The reason is clear. We don’t truly believe that we are going to die. Rationally, we all know it, and deep down, so did the pharaohs, emperors and khans who built their palaces of immortality. But perhaps, goes the wishful thinking, if the building is grand enough, if the gold is shiny enough and if a large enough mass of people is put to work, we will defy the inevitable. Somehow we think we are going to live forever, and our lack of imagination apparently leads us to the conclusion that eternal life is going to look a good bit like our normal routine; A palace for a king, or a nice comfortable house in the case of our Roman nobleman.
In the southern wall of the burial chamber is a michrab, a Muslim prayer niche, pointing the direction to Mecca and making this place a mosque. At some point the mausoleum became identified by local tradition as the burial site of John the Baptist, revered in Islam as the prophet “Nabi Yahya.”
With all due respect to the local Muslim folk-custom, John the Baptist, of all people, would not have built a huge mausoleum for himself, and neither would his early followers. He of the camel hair tunic, who ate locusts and honey in the wilderness and preached redemption, would not have tried to defy eternity with stone and mortar. No, whoever was buried here was a wealthy and powerful Roman.
The anonymous Roman-era big shot did have the last laugh in a way. Here we are, 1700 years later, visiting his grave, talking about his hubris and marveling at his structure. In this way, perhaps he did live on, but only as an example of human folly.
Nevertheless, the grassy lawn next to the mausoleum is a lovely place for a picnic. So this is where I stopped with three friends to lunch on cheese and fruit as we walked along the Israel Trail, the 1,100 kilometer (680 mile) path that weaves together the best hikes in the country. We were celebrating with Eilon, a friend who was marking his 60th birthday by walking from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv along the trail. Eilon knows something about life that our anonymous Roman perhaps did not. Continuing to celebrate our connection with nature, with our lifelong companions and with our dreams is the real elixir of immortality. We cannot live forever, but we can make every moment count.
Happy Birthday Eilon.