It is just a ruin now. The columns that once held the arching roof today lie flat on the bare limestone floor, thorns and thistles crowding around them. Limestone blocks form low walls that once stood firm and tall. Around the sanctuary they still stand several courses high, the apse pointing the way north-east to Jerusalem. Large holes in the sanctuary floor expose the crypt that once held the bones of saints. The bones have long gone, carried off by wild animals as the church fell into disrepair, maybe desecrated as the old faith died or buried in another place by the last faithful. Today the stories of the saints are forgotten, their witness in this land only hinted at by crumbling limestone blocks and burried mosaics.
The small church at Abu Hof is such a reminder. It once stood at the centre of a thriving community. Archaeologists have uncovered some of the houses. Many of the cisterns that dot the hill needed no careful excavation. Maybe it is exactly their crumbling walls that have opened them up and made them visible. Here and there around the hill are caves with ancient entrance arches. Once they were cellars and stables next to houses. In later centuries they were still used to house animals enclosed by pens built from the stones of ancient walls. Today only pigeons and the odd jackal occupy the caves.
It is a lonely place – a grassy hill rising amidst the forest. But from here the eye looks across a plain that shows the marks of a busy life. Cars race along highways; grain silos stand high; a factory building sits among fields, and towns sprawl over the plain. And somewhere beyond the haze the Mediterranean meets the shores of Gaza. To the north and south forest and bare hills continue the sense of isolation.
That afternoon a shepherd leads his flock across the hill of Abu Hof. He sits down near the summit and watches his flock graze in the dry grass. Egrets hop among the sheep, sitting on the back of the animals to pick out nits. A stork glides over the ruins, passes the flock and settles some distance away. The shepherd notices a sheep that has strayed away from the flock. A well-aimed stone brings it back to the others. Maybe the shepherd is a descendant of the people that once lived here during the Roman-Byzantine period (400 – 700AD). More likely his forefathers have come from the desert, bedouin warriors that have given up their wanderings and settled here in recent decades. His is a different faith, the creed proclaimed in the Arabian desert by the prophet Mohammed. And yet, he lives in a country that is now dominated by a people that trace their roots back to ancient settlements in these highlands where they lived in covenant with the Lord, their God. During the time when plainsong chants still rang through the church of Abu Hof, this people studied their scriptures in the synagogue of Rimmon, only several kilometres away. Like the church of Abu Hof, the synagogue of Horvat Rimmon is now in ruins, carved columns and a menorah engraved on the limestone floor reminding us of the flourishing Jewish community in Roman-Byzantine times.
The shepherd looks into the distance as the sound of a locomotive hauling its heavy ore train up the gradient stands out above the constant drone of noise. He turns his eyes back to the sheep. Suddenly he notices movement in the forest as a man steps out of the trees. The stranger makes his way along the ridge to Abu Hof. As I get closer to the shepherd I wave to him and then make may way down to the ruins of the church. I continue on to brush away the sand protecting tesserae (mosaic) of an ancient villa. Covering them again with sand I stroll among the caves and cisterns. Soon it’s time to walk back to Kibbutz Lahav several kilometres to the north.