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Geography and History of Mount Carmel
From the Catholic Encyclopedia

A sacred mountain ridge in Palestine, usually called in the Hebrew Bible Hakkarmel  or "the garden" or "the garden-land." In the fourth century B.C. the neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblicus, speaks of Mt. Carmel as "sacred above all mountains and forbidden of access to the vulgar"

A well-known mountain ridge in Palestine, usually called in the Hebrew Bible Hakkarmel (with the definite article), "the garden" or "the garden-land." In later Hebrew it is known simply as Karmel, and in modern Arabic as Kurmul, or more commonly as Jebel Mar Elias (Mountain of St. Elias).

At its extremity, near the sea, Mount Carmel looks like a bold promontory which all but runs into the waves of the Mediterranean. This northwestern end of Carmel is about nine miles southwest of Acre, and in 32°50' N. lat. And 35° E. long. From this point, the ridge gradually retires from the coast and stretches southeast, ascending for about ten miles to its highest point and then sinking for nearly three miles more.

Like its northern, its southern end is marked by a bold bluff above Wady el-Milh. This is the range of mountains which is usually designated under the name of Mount Carmel. The name is also applied at times to the lower hills which, for another twelve or thirteen miles, form the prolongation of the main range and extend to the southeast as far as the neighbourhood of Jenin.

These lower hills, however, are of a softer formation than the main range of Carmel, and really separate it from the Hill Country, or central longitudinal section of Western Palestine. Hence they should rather be considered as forming a chain of heights distinct from Carmel, and be simply spoken of as hills of Samaria.

The three principal summits of the main range of Carmel are far inferior in altitude to those of the mountains of either Galilee or Judea. Its highest peak, a little to the south of the Druse village of Esfiyeh, is only 1810 feet. Next in altitude comes the southeastern summit of Carmel, near the ruins called El Mahraka, and some 1700 feet high; and last, the northwestern promontory or cape of Carmel, where the Carmelite monastery is situated 560 feet above the sea.

The general shape of the range is that of a triangle, the apex of which is near the Mediterranean, while the sides, to the east and west, look very different from each other. The western side sinks slowly by long ridges and dales upon that part of the sea-coast which is known as the plain of Saron. The eastern side, on the contrary, is abrupt above the plains of Haifa and Esdrelon, and in many places descends almost by precipices to the River Cison, which flows at the foot of the mountain and is generally parallel to its axis.

Its geological structure is no other than that of the central longitudinal section of Palestine, west of the Jordan. It is made up of the same hard limestone. In it there are numerous caves, and it abounds in flints, geodes, and fossils. On the northeast, igneous rocks break out from a basalt formation which runs through the plain of Esdrelon and extends to the Sea of Galilee.

As nearly the whole range of Carmel is covered with abundant and rich vegetable earth, it has still much of that appearance which no doubt was the origin of its name: "the garden" or "the garden land." Most of the ridge is covered with thickets of evergreens. Besides the pine, its most common trees are the prickly oak, myrtle, lentisk, carob and olive. Carmel is also remarkable for its profusion of aromatic plants and wild flowers.

Its woody heights are tenanted chiefly by the roebuck, leopard, and wild cat. In various places of the range, ancient wine presses can still be pointed out; but the vine is almost entirely extinct except in the neighbourood of Esfiyeh and of the German colony which was established in 1869 near Haifa. Of its former numerous villages but a few are at present inhabited, and only small patches of land around these and near the sea-coast are now cultivated. Besides Esfiyeh, its principal extant villages are Et Tireh, Daliet El Kurmul, and Um Ez Zeinat. Most of the villagers are Druses and Christians. In the present day, Carmel belongs to the pashalic of Acre.

Mt. Carmel is never mentioned in the New Testament; but it is oftentimes spoken of in the Old Covenant. Its conquest is referred to the time of Josue (xii, 22), and its territory is given as forming the southern boundary of the tribe of Aser (xix, 26). Its luxuriant verdure, chiefly caused by the vicinity of the Mediterranean Sea and by abundant dew, was regarded as singularly beautiful; hence the poetical comparison, "thy head is like Carmel", found in the Canticle of Canticles (vii, 5; Heb., vii, 6), and the distinct reference to the "beauty of Carmel" in Isaias (xxxv, 2).

As Nabuchodonosor towered proudly above the kings of the earth, so Carmel was prominent above the sea (Jer., xlvi, 18). Its great fertility made it the type of a country which was favoured with the Divine blessing (Jer., 1, 19; Mich., vii, 14); and its devastation was conceived as the surest sign of God's severe punishment of His people (Is., xxxiii, 9; Jer., iv, 26; Amos, I, 2; Nah., I, 4).

Its woody summits and its tortuous caverns formed a secure hiding place for a fugitive [Amos, ix, 3. See also III (A.V., I) K., xviii, 4, 13]. The sacredness of its heights was well known in ancient Israel. Apparently long before Elias' time -- how long before cannot now be made out -- an altar had been erected in honour of Yahweh on Mt. Carmel, and its ruins were repaired by that prophet as soon as this could be done with safety (III K., xviii, 30).

It was the ridge of Carmel that the same Prophet Elias chose for the assembly of the people, such assemblies being usually held at some holy place (III K., xviii, 19 sq.). Again, in IV K., iv, 23, there is a manifest allusion to the custom or resorting to Carmel for the celebration of the new moon and of the sabbath. From various passages of Holy Writ it has been inferred that this sacred mountain was the actual place of residence of both Elias and Eliseus (Cf. IV K., ii, 25; iv, 25, 27, etc.); and, as a matter of fact, Elias grotto and the cavern known as the School of the Prophets are still pointed out.

There is likewise some reason to believe that the incident tole of Elias in IV K., I, 9-15, took place on the mountain of Carmel. In this passage our English translation speaks indeed of the prophet as sitting down on "a hill", when he caused fire to come down from heaven on the two "fifties" and their respective captains who had been sent by King Ochosias to put him under arrest. But the rendering of the original Hebrew word by "a hill", which would naturally suggest a place different from the mountain range of Carmel, is very probably a defective one. The Hebrew expression rather means "the mountain" with an implicit reference to Mt. Carmel, since that expression, in connection with Elias, is used for that range only, with the exception of Sinai, which, of course, is not intended in IV K., I, 19-15.

However this may be, there is another incident in Elias' life which Holy Writ distinctly places on the ridge of Carmel, and on account of which that mountain has been, and will ever be, particularly renowned. The event is narrated in detail in III K., xviii. It was that of a public contest between Elias, the great champion of Yahweh worship, and the prophets of Baal, the Phoenician deity whose cult had lately been fully organized by the wicked Achab in the new capital of the Northern Kingdom.

For two years a severe drought, foretold by Elias, had prevailed in Israel. Yet it had not sufficed to convince the people that Yahweh, not Baal, was indeed the true God. In the third year, when the drought was about to be broken, Elias, according to the Lord's command, met King Achab, and obtained from him that all the people be gathered together with the prophets of Baal unto Mt. Carmel. There, in the presence of all, he, the only surviving prophet of the Lord, proposed that the God who would consume by fire a bullock laid upon wood and with no fire under it be alone recognized as God. The challenge was accepted. In vain did the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal call upon their sun-god till noon, nay even till the time of the evening sacrifice. It was now the turn of Elias.

Having repaired an ancient altar of Yahweh by means of twelve stones, the prophet disposed the wood, laid a bullock upon it, and got filled with water the trench which he had dug around the whole. His prayer to Yahweh was heard. The fire from heaven consumed all, to the very water in the trench, and all the people seeing this worshipped, saying: "Yahweh is God. Yahweh is God." Then followed in rapid succession, the slaying of all the prophets of Baal who had been brought down to the brook Cison; Elias' prayer on the top of Carmel for rain and his repeated bidding to his servant: "Go up and look toward the sea"; the arising of a cloud, the forerunner of a violent storm; the king's prompt departure for Jezrahel, lest he should be stopped by the rain; and lastly, Elias' swift running before Achab to the entrance of Jezrahel.

The scene marked out alike by tradition and by natural features as the place of this glorious victory of Yahweh and Elias over Baal and his prophets is the south-eastern extremity of Mt. Carmel, the part of the mountain nearest to, and most accessible from Jezrahel. The place now known as El Marahka, "the burning" or "the sacrifice", is very probably the spot on which stood the altar of Yahweh which Elias repaired.

It is marked by shapeless ruins whither Druses of neighbouring villages come to perform a yearly sacrifice. Its position, at the south-eastern point of the ridge, easily allowed the altars thereon erected to be seen by Achab and the priests of Baal and the multitude who stood on a wide upland sweep close beneath it. Not far from it there is a well always supplied with water even in the driest seasons, from which Elias could draw the water with which he could fill the trench around his altar. On the lower declivities of the mountains is a mound called Tell El Kassis, which means "the hill of the priest", or "of the priests", which may mark the place where the prophets of Baal were put to death.

The brook Cison which runs at the foot of Carmel was no doubt absolutely dry after the two years' drought, so that the multitude could easily go across its bed to witness Yahweh's victory on Mt. Carmel, and King Achab hasten across it to Jezrahel before the threatening storm should fill it with water and render it impassable. The corpses of the slain prophets of Baal were hurled down into the Cison, and when the brook was changed by the storm into an impetuous torrent, they were carried swiftly to the Mediterranean Sea.

From the slaughter by the side of the river, the prophet of the Lord "went up" again to El Marahka, and there prayed fervently for the breaking of the drought. There, too, he naturally bade his servant to "go up and look toward the sea" for while from the place where he prayed the view of the Mediterranean is intercepted by an adjacent height, the height itself may be ascended in a few minutes and a full view of the sea be obtained from the top. Finally, both Achab and Elias having rushed down to the plain, safely crossed the Cison before the rain could interfere with them, because at this point the river is very close to Mt. Carmel.

Thus it can readily be seen that the traditional site of the public contest between Elias and the prophets of Baal fulfils all the conditions required by the sacred narrative. The last Scriptural reference to the Carmel range is found in the opening chapter of the deutero-canonical book of Judith. There we find stated that the inhabitants of Carmel were numbered among the peoples of the Western districts whom Nabuchodonosor threatened with destruction, should they venture to deny him help in his present conflict with powerful enemies (Judith, I, 8, in Vulgate and in Septuagint).

There also we are told that despite his menaces, they all, "with one mind", refused to obey his orders, whereupon the Assyrian king swore to avenge himself of them (Judith, I, 11, 12). In ancient times the sacredness of Carmel seems to have been known to other nations besides Israel. Thus in the list of places conquered by the Egyptian King Thothmes II, there is a probable reference at No. 48 to the "holy headland" of Carmel (See also Nos. 49, 96, in "Records of the Past", new series, V, 47, 50).

In the fourth century B.C. the neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblicus, in his life of Pythagoras, speaks of Mt. Carmel as "sacred above all mountains and forbidden of access to the vulgar". The great Roman historian, Tacitus, mentions an altar as erected there without temple or image: "tantum ara et reverentia"; and Suetonius, in his "Lives of the Caesars", narrates that before making war against the Jews Vespasian went to Carmel and consulted the oracle of its god.

After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (A.D. 70), the Jews did not lose sight of the mountain of Carmel and of its connection with Elias. In the twelfth century of our era Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela writes as follows in the narrative of his journey to Palestine: "Under the mountain of Carmel are many Jewish sepulchres, and near the summit is the cavern of Elias upon whom be peace. . . . On the summit of the hill, you may still trace the site of the altar which was rebuilt by Elias of blessed memory, in the time of King Achab, and the circumstances of which is about four yards".

Rabbis of the thirteenth and following centuries make similar references to Elias in connection with Mt. Carmel; and it is well known that in the eighteenth century the Jews used to join with the Mohammedans and the Christians to celebrate the feast of that holy prophet on the mountain which bears his name, "Jebel Mār Elīas".

As we have seen, the traditional site of Elias' contest is still held sacred by the Druses. But it is Christianity which, through its pilgrims and its Carmelite monks, has chiefly contributed to preserve the sacred memories of Mt. Carmel. The best positions from which to view the extensive prospect are furnished by the flat roof of the Carmelite monastery at the north-western end of the mountain, and by the platform of the chapel recently erected by the Carmelites at its south-eastern extremity.

WRIGHT, "Early Travels in Palestine" (London, 1848); ROBINSON, "Biblical Researches" (Boston, 1841), III; GUERIN, "Description de la Palestine, etc." (Paris, 1876), II; CONDER, "Tent Work in Palestine" (London, 1889); THOMSON, "The Land and the Book" (New York, 1882), II; SMITH, "Hist. Geogr. Of the Holy Land" (New York, 1906).

Transcribed by Larisa Vidmar

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III
Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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