Notebook: Searching for Armageddon? You can take a bus there from Tel Aviv

As fundamentalists rush to Israel to see in the millennium, they will not be thrilled by all they see, such as walking on water in a Galilee theme park
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The Independent Online
FOR A MAN whose patch includes Armageddon, Shmaya Ben-David is in a surprisingly relaxed frame of mind. He smilingly admits that, being Jewish, he doesn't fully understand the theology which draws thousands of Christians to this mound of ruins between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, let alone the nutty thinking of the doomsday cultists who believe the End is Nigh.

One day, or so say those who take the New Testament literally, this will be the scene of the last decisive battle between good and evil before Judgement Day. But until the final showdown begins, his task, and that of his colleagues in Israel's National Parks Authority, is to make sure the place is kept in order.

And they do it well. Today it is a picture of sunny serenity. Armageddon - or Megiddo, as it is officially called - is as quaint and neat as an English golf club. There are handy plastic-lined rubbish bins every few yards and little blue signs to make sure you don't get lost amid the rocks and palm trees. There are ramps for the disabled, a video presentation, multilingual guide books, all the paraphernalia, in fact, of sanity and civilisation. By the gate stands a concrete bus shelter; it is comforting to know that, when all hell breaks loose, you can travel to Armageddon on a Number 835 from Tel Aviv.

As the world edges nervously to the new millennium, Mr Ben-David and his staff are on the lookout for the cultists whom the FBI and Israeli police fear might commit suicide en masse as 2000 dawns or - worse - commit acts of violence in the hope of launching the final battle. "The police come every day," he says. "We are keeping our ears and eyes open."

But, for now, Megiddo is quietly producing a profit. Israel's citizens may not believe in the Armageddon part of the story - although Megiddo is of historic interest to them as the site of innumerable battles over the strategic coastal route to Egypt, and at least 20 cities, dating back 5,000 years. But that doesn't stop their government from enthusiastically selling it to the tides of Christians, many of them American fundamentalists, who arrive to dance, pray and sing at the site. This year, explains Mr Ben-David, some 180,000 people visited Megiddo; next year (if there is a next year, of course), he expects that figure to rise to a quarter of a million.

They include Lionel Swart, 44, a South African born-again Christian, who was wandering the ruins not far from Mr Ben-David's office. Not long ago he sold his house and property to go on a world tour, beginning in the Holy Land. He is, he explains, one of those people who believe the Bible "literally and figuratively" - so much so that he decided to travel via Egypt, tracing the route of Moses and the Israelites across the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land. "If the Bible says this is where Armageddon will happen, then this is the place," he says, as we together gaze at the ruins.

He is a little shaky on the details, so we sit down on a bench and together read the key passage - Revelations 16:16 - from a leather-bound Bible that he hauls out of his bright yellow rucksack. "And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon... And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great."

Mr Swart is impressed: "Wow," he remarks, with a slightly disconcerting air of relish, "God might just wipe this place out altogether, just whop it away." That fate is one that Brother Erinarchos, 34, a Greek Orthodox monk, would happily see befall the building under construction beside his small, exquisitely beautiful domed church on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, 30 miles away.

To mark the millennium, and boost tourist revenues, the same National Parks Authority is building a restaurant and quay. Although the plans are still being discussed, he says they are likely to include an underwater platform allowing visitors to walk on water, like Jesus. The project has enraged the monk whose church is visited by thousands of Orthodox pilgrims every year.

"This is like Disneyland," he said, unfurling a 25ft plan along his kitchen floor as the bulldozers rumbled busily away several hundred yards away. "The only miracle of Christ that the Israelis actually know about is when he walked on water. Why don't they make a machine for resurrecting people? That would be more fun, wouldn't it. Or a helicopter which delivers the Ten Commandments?" He points out that Greek Orthodoxy was in the Holy Land well before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and feels the millennium is being exploited by Israel to assert cultural and religious control.

That sentiment may be overblown, but the monk is far from alone in his view. The three great faiths that jostle here shoulder to shoulder rarely get on well, but the onset of the millennium is ratcheting up tensions, and aggravating deep historical grudges. The government, for example, has caused anger in Bethlehem, which is on Palestinian territory, by closing the main road used by tourist buses at least three times in the last three months, citing security reasons.

As the pilgrims pour into the town of Christ's birth - which yesterday held lavish millennium inauguration celebrations - the Israelis have begun building a big new military checkpoint, reducing parts of the key thoroughfare to rubble. There is frustration, too, over the US government's decision to issue a "travel advisory" warning its nationals to exercise caution when visiting Bethlehem because of clashes between Palestinians and the Israelis in October; the same advice has not been issued for Netanya and Tiberius in Israel, the scene of recent bombings.

Meanwhile, the Vatican is incensed by Israel's decision to allow a large mosque to be built beside the church in Nazareth on the spot where the Archangel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary.

And the list goes on. The Holy Land is smouldering with squabbles - and that is a pity for everyone, Jew, Muslim, Christian, the secular, and the devout. It is a sorry spirit in which to start the new age.