Perched on a cliff in the Carmel mountains, the ‘Muhraqa’ site marks one of the most spectacular events in the bible – a contest between Jehovah, the God of the Israelites, and the Pagan deity of Ba’al. Today, the site is a monastery maintained by the Carmelites, and is a popular pilgrimage destination.
History of the Muhraqa
The site is mostly associated with the biblical account of Elijah’s clash with the Ba’al prophets.
Elijah: A Prophet – and a Butcher
In the 9th century BCE King Ahab married the Phoenician princess Jezebel, and she promoted Pagan worship in Israel. In response, Elijah called Ahab to summon 450 Ba’al prophets on mount Carmel, where a bull sacrifice was prepared. Elijah than challenged the Ba’al prophets to call their god to cause a fire that will consume the sacrifice:
“Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered… 27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
In the afternoon Elijah repaired the altar, and then called to Jehovah –
Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
And indeed, God responded –
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. 39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
Triumphant, Elijah went further –
40 Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there. (1 King 18)
The 12th century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela was the first to record a building on the Carmel to commemorate the event. In 1867 The Carmelites purchased the plot and built a monastery over it. The local Arabs named it ‘Deir el-Muhraqa’ (‘Monastery of the Great Fire’), or in short ‘Muhraqa’. The site is maintained to this day by the Carmelites, and is a popular tour destination, especially among Christian pilgrimage groups.
Touring the Muhraqa
The monastic compound is open every day of the week and charges and entry fee. The church commemorating the biblical event is rather humble, but the sculpture of Elijah slaughtering a Ba’al prophet is striking. The monastery’s rooftop also provides breathtaking panoramas of both the Jezreel valley, the Galilee, and the Mediterranean coast. These biblical landscapes set a perfect stage to contemplate on glory of the Lord and the Holy Scriptures.
Elijah’s Sculpture Missing Hand
In 1914 The Carmelites placed a sculpture of Elijah in the monastery’s main courtyard. During the First World War it was vandalized by Ottoman soldiers and left without one of its hands. Local tradition than claimed that the hand was chopped off by Napoleon in 1799, or by Qawuqji in 1948. They were told they would be defeated in battle if they don’t break off Elijah’s hand. However, the sculpture was later replaced, and the new sculpture shows Elijah, slaughtering a Ba’al prophet, with both hands.