MUHRAQA

Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Muhraqa - Israel

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MAP of MUHRAQA

El-Muhraqa

   By Fr. Elias Fridman

   A place of worship

   The summit of Mount Carmel, which rises to a height of 482 meters, is called in Arabic el-Muhraqa. It forms a balcony opening onto the plain of Jezreel. On clear days it gives views of Megiddo, Mt. Gelboe and Nazareth and of the rounded peak of Mount Tabor. Below runs a line of greenery which marks the course of the brook Kishon which flows around the base of the Tell Qassis before turning towards the Mediterranean Sea. Traditionally el-Muhraqa has been identified as the site of the dramatic episode in which Elijah, in the presence of King Ahab and the people of Israel, challenged the prophets of Baal to demonstrate who was the true God and called down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice.
   From time immemorial the peak of el-Muhraqa has been considered as a place of worship. In ages closer to our own historical sources report two buildings of worship constructed on the site, a megalithic monument and a Muslim oratory.
   The megalithic monument was formed of twelve stones arranged in a circle. Their number recalls the altar rebuilt by Elijah from twelve stones. The monument was described by several visitors to the site between the 12th and 19th centuries. One testimony comes from Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela who visited Haifa around the year 1165 leaving this report. "On the summit of the mountain one can see the time of Ahab. The place of the altar is circular measuring around four cubits and the river Kishon flows at the foot of the mountain". This is the earliest extant report concerning the existence of the monument. It also shows that Elijah was venerated by the Jews at a date earlier than the rise of the Carmelites. Over the following centuries other visitors have referred to the monument in their accounts of their travels. The Discalced Carmelite John Baptist of St Alexis in 1767 witnesses to the existence of Christian worship on the site. "We found on the top of the highest hill a small hill a small portico, which served as an oratory for the Christians, in front of which stood twelve stones in the form of an altar, around which the Jews come to pray, for they too have the tradition that, in this same place or nearby, the holy prophet Elijah, while in prayer, made fire come from heaven to consume his sacrifice". After this account we have no further reports concerning the monument.
   The first account of a Muslim oratory on the summit of Mount Carmel is given by Rabbi James of Paris who visited el-Muhraqa in 1235. He described the altar of Elijah beside which stood " a building where the Ishmaelites (the Muslims) light candles as a sign of reverence for the holiness of the place." By the 17th century the building had been abandoned. C.W.M. van de Velde, who published the observations he had made during travels around Syria and Palestine, saw the ruins of the oratory and left a sketch. This sketch shows a square building, partly in ruins, surrounded by trees, in front of which there was a clearing which could hold a large number of people. From the stonework he believed the building to date from a period to the Crusades.


   The building of the hermitage

   On 30th August 1840, the Discalced Carmelite John Baptist Casini, the architect responsible for the construction of the monastery on the promontory, expressed in a letter his wish to construct a chapel on the site of the "Sacrifice" of Elijah on Mount Carmel.
   Due to a lack of documentation we do not know precisely when the summit of Mount Carmel came into the ownership of the Discalced Carmelites. Florencio of the Infant Jesus, who spent several years on Mount Carmel associated the purchase of el-Muhraqa with the acquisition of the villa of Pasha Abdallah on the promontory of Carmel which took place in 1846. The Carmelites sought to prevent the Greek –Orthodox Church from gaining property on the mountain.
   According to the records of the conventual chapter the decision to begin construction at el-Muhraqa was taken on 10th March, 1858. In the preceding year on 22nd August during a canonical visitation the General, Fr Natale of St Anne, had ordered the building of a chapel with adjoining accommodation for visitors. The money required to begin the work, 10,000 francs, was donated by the Spanish Discalced Carmelite, Gregory of Christ.
   Shortly after having taken his religious vows Gregory was expelled from his priory following the proclamation of the laws of exclaustration in 1835. After finding refuge in Mexico he then asked hospitality from the friars on Mount Carmel. Later he became a member of their community but living as a hermit at the Sacrifice. He died on Mount Carmel on the 23rd June, 1868 at the age of 75.
   The records of the conventual chapter dated 15th September, 1858 show that the initial construction now required a further 8,333 francs to be completed. It seems that the builders had not been able to proceed as quickly as had been hoped due to other projects being undertaken at the same time, one of which was the building of the priory and church in Haifa. By 1867 a chapel and several adjoining rooms had been on the hill. It can be supposed that Fr Gregory went to live there as soon as a cell was ready for him to occupy.
   The Carmelite Thomas Gabato in 1867 was able to visit the chapel and small priory in which no community had then been established he was able to celebrate Mass there several times but had to bring with him the necessary vestments and sacred vessels. He wrote that the Carmelites wished to build a church and a guest house on the site but that opposition from the Turkish authorities had necessitated the postponement of the project until a more opportune time.
   A difficulty arose when the Carmelites were asked to demonstrate their legal ownership of the property. According to the records of the conventual chapter of 2nd January, 1868 an official of the Turkish government was examining the legal documentation of ownership in different places and he had informed the priory that, following a payment of 500 piastres, they would be provided with the documentation declaring them to be the legal owners of the property. The Vicar consulted the community and it was decided that the money should be paid. The incident repeated three years later.
   The problem was definitively resolved at the end of the First World War before a British commission of enquiry. Fr Francis Lamb, who had been nominated as Vicar of Mount Carmel in 1919, passing through Rome on his way to his new home, had collected all the documentation relating to the ownership of the property. He wrote, "The documentation of ownership of the Carmelite Order for the Sacrifice, el-Muhraqa, has been presented and inspectors have been sent to examine our claim. All has been found to be in order and we have marked the confines of our property with iron posts".


   New buildings

   On the 25th July, 1879 the community of Mount Carmel was again called upon to discuss the priory at the Sacrifice. " Fr Vicar explained to the Fathers that the present construction, in addition to being out of keeping with the place, also threatened imminent collapse; because we cannot and must not abandon the sanctuary, he asked the chapter Fathers if they were in favor of the present building being demolished and its being replaced by something more suitable to the site. A secret ballot resulted in eight votes favoring the proposal and one against".
   Fr Vicar therefore presented a proposal for the construction of a chapel with four adjoining rooms at a coast of 12,000 francs. In the following discussion some expressed the opinion that the project was too modest while others felt that it was necessary first to establish a community on the site so as to be able to make a more informed decision at a future date based on their experience.
   The original project was therefore approved by the community. Lawrence Oliphant, a sharp critic of the Carmelites, who visited the Sacrifice in August 1882 reported that, "The Carmelites are building a church using stones from a nearby ruin with no concern about their possible antiquity". His wife Alice, who lived with him at Daliyat Karmel, close to el-Muhraqa, has left a sketch of the finished chapel. The direction of the work was entrusted to the lay brother Antonio of Jesus who was already occupied with construction in the parish of Haifa. He was assisted in his work by Br Corrado of Baghdad.
   The chapel and small priory were completed in 1883. Fr Marie-Joseph, the bursar of the monastery, was charged with the construction of a road which would rise the plain of Esdraelon to the rocky summit of el-Muhraqa. Druse labourers from surrounding villages were employed for the task. Maintenance work on the new building was assured by François Keller, a professional builder who lived close to the priory. The maintenance of the road presented problems however as it was some distance from the priory. One Carmelite at the time described the road as "an uneven path".
   It was a custom of the Mount Carmel community to organize an outing for the friars once or twice every year. In the last century the outing always consisted of a visit to the Sacrifice which was reached by traveling in carriages via the Plain of Esdraelon. The journey as far as Tell el-Qassis, which is situated below el-Muhraqa, lasted for four hours but a further hour was necessary to travel the remaining stretch of road leading to the chapel. From the peak a marvelous panoramic view can be enjoyed.
   The fathers would stay for two nights at the Sacrifice celebrating Mass in the chapel. Above the altar and on the walls were designs in marble depicting scenes from the biblical account of Elijah's sacrifice.


   The Apostolic College

   On 2nd October, 1907 a minor seminary was opened, called the Apostolic College. The ceremony of inauguration was preside over by the Discalced Carmelite Mgr. Drure, Archbishop of Babylon and the Apostolic Delegate for Kurdistan, Mesopotamia and Lower Armenia, who was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land at that time. Mgr. Drur celebrated the votive Mass of St Elijah in the presence of the Vicar of Mount Carmel, the professors, students and guests invited from the local villages. In 1906, when plans for the opening of the college were being made, the Vicar of the priory had proposed the addition of an upper storey to the house. The costs were met by a gift of 5,000 francs made by Fr Fulgenzio, prior of the Milan Carmelites, in the name of the Lombardy province.
   The first pupils of the new school came from Lebanon where they had been students under Fr Joseph of our Lady of Carmel (D'Arpino) who arrived on Mount Carmel 27th April, 1907. After a brief stay at the Sacrifice he returned to Lebanon where he was appointed as Superior of the Syrian mission, at that time under the care of the Roman province. Having noticed the need to encourage native vocations he chose several young boys and began to teach them Latin and Italian. His successor, Giuseppe Maria of St Simon Stock (Fraschetti), chose three of the more promising boys and sent to Mount Carmel. They were Ibrahim Safatli, Sarkis Kastun and Antun Kechmech, all three being Maronites and Ottoman subjects. The three young men were welcomed by the German Fr Cyril of St Mary, who was at that time Vicar of Mount Carmel.
   They were to constitute in time the nucleus of the semi-province of Lebanon which was erected on the 27th August, 1970. On the 1st August, 1909 they received the habit of the Order in the basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and they took their first religious vows on 4th August, 1910. They were given the names of the three Archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. They spent their noviciate year in the monastery of Mount Carmel under the direction of Fr Marie-Bernard. At the end of July 1913 due to the increasing likelihood of war they returned to Lebanon where they were able to continue their study of philosophy and theology under the direction of Fr Giuseppe Fraschetti.


   The Province of Palestine

   In 1911 the Spaniard Fr Ezekiel of the Sacred Heart, Superior General of the Discalced Carmelites, made a canonical visitation to Mount Carmel during which he erected the small province of Palestine, thus restoring the ancient province of the Holy Land. The new province was composed of three communities; the monastery of Mount Carmel which included the philosophical college, the Latin parish of Haifa and the priory of Elijah at el-Muhraqa with its minor seminary. Fr Cyril of St Mary, Vicar of Mount Carmel, was appointed as the first Vicar-Provincial. Following the end of the war, in 1919the Englishman Fr Francis Lamb was appointed as Vicar of Mount Carmel. In a letter concerning the Sacrifice he wrote, "The priory of the Sacrifice, situated at the far side of Mount Carmel, is called in Arabic ’el-Muhraqa’, that is "the place of the fire". It has been seriously damaged by the Turks. A large part of the roof has been lost. All the doors and windows have been used as fire-wood and absolutely nothing has been left in the house. Part of the floor of the church has been taken away and only the timely arrival of the Carmelites has spared the priory from further deterioration.
   The workman's house is ruined and the large statue of St Elijah in white marble, which arrived just before the war, lies in front of the church doorway, decapitated and with one hand removed and lost. The head has been found at the bottom of a well near the priory.
   The task of restoring the priory has been given to a good carpenter. He is making great efforts to find the wood required to replace the doors, windows and the roof. With the help of some men from Daliyat Carmel the statue has been placed on a pedestal built by Br Daniel. This can be seen even from far off and serves as a reference point for the government inspectors. A small community has been created with a superior and the monastic life has been restored in this sanctuary". In 1955 a new statue of St Elijah, the work of Najib Nufi of Nazareth, was inaugurated in the presence of the Superior General, Fr Anastasio Ballestrero, later Cardinal. The interior of the chapel was renovated in the summer of 1965 with an altar built from twelve rough stones recalling the biblical story of Elijah's sacrifice.


   Recent developments

   In recent years el-Muhraqa has undergone considerable development. The first step was taken with the construction of an asphalt road, carried out by the government, which extends to the foot of the hill on which the chapel stands. The remaining section of road was covered at the expense of the Carmelite Order. With the new road completed the number of visitors to the priory has grown considerably. Many pilgrims visiting the Holy Land include el Muhraqa on their itinerary and local residents seeking a day in beautiful natural surroundings enjoy coming to the priory. The priory offers to visitors the use of the terrace which gives a spectacular view of the valley of Esdraelon and Galilee. The Discalced Carmelite Order is committed to promoting and developing el-Muhraqa. It seeks to preserve the memory of an important episode in the life of the prophet Elijah, a figure always of great significance in Carmelite tradition. Today the great influx of visitors opens up new possibilities for ministry. In spite of logistical difficulties and a shortage of personnel the Order wishes to ensure a strong presence in the sanctuary and to offer a constant welcome to our visitors.