On a Peculiar Mountain
A “monadnock”, to use the Native American term, or “inselberg”, island mountain, in German, its isolation makes this dome-shaped hill stand prominent. To the north and east are the low hills of the Nazareth Range and to the south, extending west towards the coast is the broad sweep of the Jezreel Valley, the Plain of Esdraelon. So spherical in form, it might be a great bubble that has risen from the earth's molten core and is pushing through the crust, about to burst above the silent fields and olive groves. And how Biblical a feature in a landscape where geology and theology play together on our perceptions. Its Hebrew name, Tavor (תבור) has been regarded as etymologically connected to the Hebrew word tabbur (טבור) meaning "navel". There is no real basis for this, and that association is usually reserved in this holy landscape for Jerusalem, which on the medieval mappa mundi is the umbilicus of the world; but an anatomical and birth-related association does go hand-in-hand with the mountain’s breast-like form.
I have only been up once, a number of years ago, which is quite remarkable for it being so prominent and frequently seen from a distance. I drove with an archaeologist friend on the steep road that winds up its side like a spiralling ribbon through the pine forest. The forest itself is new, the usual reforestation of trees in orderly rows that cover a fair part of the sides and end in a straight line, as if the Zionist planters had got that far when the money ran out. In the twelfth century the slopes were dressed in cultivated trees and the pilgrim, abbot Daniel of Kiev, who came in 1105/6 wrote: "Mount Tabor is all covered with trees of every kind, figs and carobs and olives in great abundance", but by the late nineteenth century when Félix Bonfils took the above photograph all of this was gone and the mountain was bald. At the top there were only ruins of the medieval defences and remnants of the Byzantine and Frankish chapels.
In the Book of Joshua (19:22) Mount Tabor is a landmark for identifying the border of the tribes of Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali. During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66AD the summit of the mountain was fortified and defended by the military governor of the Galilee, later turncoat, Yosef ben Matityahu/Josephus Flavius, who referred to it in his Jewish War as Itabryon. It fell to Vespasian the following year. Since the third or perhaps fourth century Tabor has been identified as the Mount of Transfiguration.
As early as 1101 a Benedictine fortified abbey was built on the mountain top. It was subsequently refortified by the Franks who saw its strategic value in its prominence and in that it overlooked the Damascus road where it passed into the Jezreel Valley. William of Tyre records that during Saladin's raid into the Galilee in 1182 the Ayyubids arrived at the village of Buria, today Daburia, at the foot of Tabor, a faubourg dependant on the fortified abbey.* The unprepared villagers fled to their tower but within four hours the Muslims managed to undermine it and many of the Franks were killed. During this raid the Muslims took away five hundred prisoners of war. Saladin invaded again the following year and, as they would fatefully do again a few years later, the Frankish troops gathered at the Springs of Saphorie. On realising that the Ayyubids had taken control of the region of Beisan (Bet She'an) to the east, the Franks moved their troops via the Nazareth mountains and down into the Plain of Esdraelon. In reaction Saladin's troops broke camp and scattered about, ravaging the countryside, and some climbed Mount Tabor, but the monks and villagers who had taken refuge in the monastery managed to hold out, a tribute to the strength of the fortifications by that time.** After the Battle of Hattin, under the rule of Sultan Al-Adil the mountain was refortified with strong new walls, considerable sections of which can still be observed.
Not everyone is "transfigured" by Tabor. Mark Twain in a rather disparaging shade on his typical droll style, was unimpressed by the ruins at Tabor: "There is nothing for it now but to come back to old Tabor, though the subject is tiresome enough, and I cannot stick to it for wandering off to scenes that are pleasanter to remember." He seems to have found positive words only for the coffee he was given at the Greek convent. He saw, so he writes, nothing but "...some old grey ruins" and was dejected that he could observe "never a splinter of the true cross or bone of a hallowed saint to arrest the idle thoughts of worldlings and turn them into graver channels."*** But it was the mountain top and expectations of some remarkable remains that disappointed Twain, not the mountain itself of which he was rather more admiring, describing it as: "...symmetrical and full of grace - a prominent landmark, and one that is exceedingly pleasant to eyes surfeited with the repulsive monotony of desert Syria."
* William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, 22.14, pp. 469-70.
** Ibid., 22.26, p. 495.
*** Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, Hartford, 1869, ch. 49, pp. 520,523, 534.