Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
This next post is a rare acknowledgement by yours truly of the approach of a Jewish festival. The Ten Days of Penitence, beginning with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and culminating with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement ) are nearly upon us and it got me to thinking about desert landscapes.
I nearly always think of desert landscapes when any of the four main (“Mosaic”) Jewish festivals come around (Rosh Hashanah, Passover [Pesach], Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles [Succot]) as they were all – according to tradition – conceived during the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel – sometime around the 12th to 11th centuries BC.
These days most biblical historians, archaeologists and scholars dispute these wilderness origins for most, if not all of these festivals, dating them instead to reigns of the later kings of Judah – somewhere about the 8th to 7th centuries – or even as late as the Babylonian exile during the 6th to 5th centuries BC.
But whatever the exact historical origins of these celebrations they are fundamentally related to the worship of the ancient desert god Yahweh – one of the several Israelite/Hebrew components for what would gradually evolve into the eventual single Jewish God.
Having been fortunate enough to travel extensively throughout most of the “Mosaic Wildernesses” – known today as the deserts of Sinai and the Negev (or Arabah) it is not hard for me to understand how the ancients came to regard these spectacular landscapes as the domain of supernatural beings, and even gods. They have a mystery and a feeling of wonder, which in certain lights and conditions can be almost overwhelmingly sensually intense. The evening winds cascading and rebounding through the canyons of the southern Sinai mountains at dusk sounds like the angry roar of giants – or even the voice of the gods.
However, the current scholastic consensus is shifting northwards from southern Sinai to the less lofty, though equally spectacular jagged hills and psychedelic plains of the central Negev – formally known as the Wilderness of Zin – as being the true domain of the Hebrew Yahweh and even the location of his sacred mountain stronghold of Horeb.
Whatever the eventual verdict regarding the birthplace of the Jewish God will be – assuming a verdict is ever arrived at – Zin remains my favourite place on Earth. I think these images here give you a taste of the “divine” and rugged beauty of the place.
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.