The mountains of East Africa (Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, Mt Mero, etc.) are a great place to consider how plants and animals adapt to their environment. Each of these mountains have specific life-sets that are arranged vertically from bottom to top (corresponding with temperature and rainfall). They also demonstrate mutation as one moves from mountain to mountain. The broad plains between these “sky-islands” isolate these life-sets and encourage “customization.”

Our friend and guide, Ambrose, is pictured here with a giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari). The groundsel is a perfect illustration of the principle described above. At least 17 different groundsel species have been identified in East African alpine belts, and, with few exceptions, each appears on a different mountain!*

Believe it or not, the groundsel is a member of the dandelion family with a leafy terminal rosette above and a woody stem below. Unlike back-yard varieties, however, these “mutant weeds” can grow up to thirty feet tall, have a rosette that folds at night, keep their leaves as a shaggy mane for protection from extreme cold, and possess a natural anti-freeze. They also seem to grow successfully at altitudes above 14,000 feet.

All of this sounds wonderful, but keep in mind that that that giant groundsel has a seedling survival rate of less than one percent.

I wish the same were true of the dandelions in my lawn.

For more on the giant groundsel, see our post from 2017 here.

*See D.J. Mabberly, “Evolution in the Giant Groundsels,” pp. 61-96 in Kew Bulletin 28/1 (1973).


My regular summer work with the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS) centers on Israel-Palestine. We partner with with faith-based groups and institutions to create and deliver an academic, enjoyable, and memorable experience. JCBS offers pastors, teachers, and leader the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, but without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities. Interested? Contact me at

Really tall trees

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The tallest trees in the world are often associated with the giants sequoias of the Pacific Northwest or the massive eucalyptus and gum trees of Australia. All of these species reach heights of more than 90 meters.

Late entries in this “game of the biggest” come from the rainforests of Africa; their lateness is due to inaccessibility and lack of study. In 2016 a whopping stand of Entandrophragma excelsum was discovered in a secluded gorge at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. E. excelsum belong to the mahogany (Meliaceae) family. One specimen measured 81-meters in height.* A perfect storm of fertile soil, lack of disturbance, temperature and rainfall, made these giants possible.

One wonders how many more of these trees have been lost to illegal logging in the region.

Dominating another elevated ecosystem on of the same mountain are camphor trees (Ocotea usambarensis). Some of these, as pictured above, are also old and enormous (up to 45 meters tall). Camphorwood has a distinct smell and is harvested for local medicines and timber. Like the E. excelsum, camphor trees grow very rapidly (up to 2 meters a year when young), a requirement for overcoming the rainforest’s creeping vines.

I scan the soaring canopy with my friend Mohammad. We are looking for Colobus monkeys!

*See the article by Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, “Africa’s tallest tree measuring 81m found on Mount Kilimanjaro” in the daily newsletter of NewScientist (24 November 2016). You can read it online here.

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The earth is so amazing and diverse!

We hobnobbed in Africa for the better part of July, but are home now, getting ready for fall semester classes and making plans for future study-tours in the lands of the Bible.

If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of Israel-Palestine is of interest to you, email me at or check out our list of future trips here.

Olives’ shoulder


The summer sun has done its work. Jerusalem’s landscape is now brittle brown.

I left my room early in the morning to walk the hills east of the city. Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives are less like mountains and more like long ridges with a saddle between. Both are home to many olive trees, some at least a thousand years old.

For part of my walk I followed the Jerusalem Trail, a two-day loop that circles the city.


I am between groups today, but look forward to meeting a new crew tomorrow. If you or someone you know is interested in experiencing Jerusalem personally, consider joining one of our trips scheduled for 2020 or 2021! These educational experiences operate as part of the ministry of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. Find a trip that works with your schedule by clicking the link here or contact me directly at We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.

In the mustard

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The mustard is thick these days. I’m not talking about the tasty yellow stuff that goes on your hot dog, but the wild mustard that grows in the Heartland. In the springtime it is everywhere. Here at Tell Dan it is almost as tall as a person.

The wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis)* is prolific this year due to a wet winter in the region. It stands tall now but in short time as the temperatures rise and the rainfall diminishes, it will turn brown and brittle.

Enjoy this day my friends. It is gorgeous.

Photograph by Bible Land Explorer Jessica Poettker.

*Luke 13:18-19 reports the parable of the mustard seed. It suggests that big things come from small packages. The scientific name for the mustard sinapis is pulled into Latin from the Greek σίναπι. However, it should be noted that the Greek family of words also includes the verb, “to sting” or “hurt” causing some to believe that the sinapis of the New Testament may refer to the nettle. That casts a different angle on the text doesn’t it?


The residency program of Johnson University leads to a Master of Strategic Ministry degree. It involves a collaborative relationship between Johnson University and local churches. This accredited program equips students for effective, strategic Christian leadership and includes a study-tour to Israel/Palestine.

To learn more about residencies, see the link here.

Sense of scents


A visit to Nazareth is incomplete without a stop at the Elbabour Mill. This stop is a delight to the eye, nose, and heart. The eye is excited by the colors. The nose is captured by the aroma of the earth’s natural flavors. The heart is warmed by the hospitality of our dear friends Tony and Jarjura.

The mill is located in the center of Nazareth’s old market, not far from the community well. It has serviced the agricultural needs of the village since the Late Ottoman period. Its name, el babour, is a Arabic corruption of the phrase “the vapor” and refers to the steam engine that originally powered the mill.

Photo by Bible Land Explorer Jessica Poettker.

Tony Kanaza (far right) never fails to delight with stories of the mill, his latest culinary adventure, and his father. Read about this unique place in Nazareth’s history linked here.

Interested in crafting an adventure of your own in the Land of the Bible? We work with church pastors, administrators, and college professors to customize trips to meet specific educational/ministerial needs. Shoot me a note at to discuss possibilities or join one of the excursions listed here.

Near "Olive Town"

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One portion of the Jesus Trail loops around the Jewish village of Kfar Zeitim. It is a lovely stretch of rural landscape that is—unsurprisingly—filled with olive trees. Kfar is an old semitic term for “village”; zeitim is the masculine plural for “olive.” One would expect such a scene when passing through the vicinity of “olive town.”

Olive trees are gnarly and stubby. They are heavily pruned over the course of decades (and even centuries!) in order to maintain the canopy, eliminate dead wood, and maximize the production of fruit.

Their grey-green leaves shimmer in the wind and offer contrast to the yellow-green grassy carpet.

The hills of Lower Galilee rise in the distance.

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Our next experience in the land of the Bible is slated for March 12-23, 2019. We’ll be doing a study-tour with Master’s-level students in Johnson University’s residency program. Student trips are always fast-paced, high-energy, and full of great conversation.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.

A river of life

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As a whole, the country of Spain is old, dusty, and crackled. Average rainfall across the peninsula measures about 25 inches annually, comparable to the state of Nebraska. Of course, proximity to the sea, elevation, and other factors fudge the numbers and create local variations of temperature and precipitation.

Water from the sky must be augmented with irrigation efforts in order to meet modern agricultural demands. For this reason, canal systems to transport/distribute this life-giving moisture are common. In the Meseta, Spain’s inner plateau, these systems crisscross the surface of this baked anvil.

While walking alone on the Camino de Santiago the trinkling sound of the water makes for pleasant company. I snapped this image near the village of Villavante. 

Buen caminó!


Our next adventure in the land of the Bible is slated for March 12-23, 2019. We’ll be doing a study-tour with Master’s-level students in Johnson University’s residency program. I’m already excited. Student trips are always fast-paced, high-energy, and full of great conversation.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at for more details.

Through the wood

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Approaching Sepphoris through the wood.

East-West ridges are dominant trends in Lower Galilee. These ridges are formed of soft chalky rocks, that at one point in time, were swathed in trees and topsoil. Today, much of that topsoil has been relocated in valley floors and apart from reforestation efforts (as shown), the trees are gone.

Environmental scientists tell us that the area of central Lower Galilee (as pictured here in the shaded trail between Nazareth and Sepphoris) is home to maquis forest.* Maquis is a technical term used to describe a distinctly Mediterranean biome where summers a long and dry and winters are short and wet. Indigenous trees include the carob, mastic, and a variety of evergreens, with oaks at elevation.

Photo by Bible Land Explorer Susan Ruth.

*See for example, Zvi Gal’s work on Lower Galilee during the Iron Age (ASOR, 1992).


You are not going to find many bananas between Sepphoris and Nazareth (gotta go down into the Jordan Valley for that kind of heat), but you might find an occasional Jesus Trail hiker.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at for more details.


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Heavy rains in recent days have made for difficult trekking in Galilee. As I post this note it is coming down in sheets and thunder is rattling the windows (I’ve retired for the night. My wet clothes are hanging from every knob and bracket in the room.).

Streams that cut through the Plain of Gennesaret are swollen. Navigating the area on foot requires care. The shot above is the Tsalmon stream pouring over a low water bridge. The name, Tsalmon, ironically, means something like “calmness.”

Gennesaret is a small fertile plain located on the west side of the Sea of Galilee between Migdal and Capernaum. Josephus calls it the most fertile place in the entire country (War 3:516-521).


Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine soon. We plan to investigate the region of Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.

Ugly Italian beauties

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Italy’s Amalfi coast is famous for lemons. One cannot walk down the street in Sorrento without catching the whiff. Fragrant fruits—the size of softballs—are grown in citrus orchards and sold for juices, jams, liqueurs, soaps, dressings, garnishes, gelatos, or as treats by themselves. You can eat them right out of the skin!

The history of these ugly Italian beauties goes back at least to the Roman period. Lemons and lemon trees are pictured in paintings preserved on the walls of Pompeii. They were likely brought to the region from the Middle East. Some claim the Jews were responsible, as the citron (etrog, in Hebrew) had ceremonial use.*

Pliny the Elder, a local Roman historian who died in the eruption of Vesuvius, hints at one source, calling the lemon “a Median Apple” (Natural History 12.7, see text here.). Media is an area of modern Iran.

The limone femminello is the oldest variety. It has celebrity status on the Amalfi coast.

And you thought the only lemon to come out of Italy was the Fiat.

*"Four species” of plants are mentioned in Leviticus 23:40 and associated with the Feast of Booths (sukkot). Rabbinic Judaism connected one of these species with the etrog or citron.

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We have several travel experiences planned for 2019 (see list here). These are organized on behalf of educational institutions or church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at

Poppy pods

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Bob and I came across a large poppy field while hiking through the La Rioja region of Spain. We saw no cameras.

The poppy belongs to the Papaveraceae family, a group of plants known for the production of a milky latex.

Poppies are most often found in dryer corners of Europe and Asia. Australia is a notable exception. Many genera are prized for their flowers.

However, one species, Papaver somniferum, has been engineered specifically for its production of latex. I don't know if the plants we found in this field belong to this species, but I do know that alkaloids obtained from its latex are opiate; they have deep physiological effects on humans and other animals. Seed pods are scratched, the latex drips out and dries. Collected and processed, we call this residue by names like morphine or codeine or heroin.

Use of opiates in the Mediterranean basin goes back a long way. It is well-documented in the Hellenistic period, centuries before the time of Christ (see the interesting article here).

Spain is the second largest producer of opiates in the world. The government keeps a close eye on the fields. See the article here for more on this Spanish industry.

Buen caminó!


Want to start 2019 in a unique way? Join us for a walk across Galilee! Hike the Jesus Trail and do some additional sightseeing in Israel-Palestine. This trip is facilitated by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and is priced at $2,588 from New York. Dates are Jan 8-16, 2019. For more details click here or contact me at

Vineyards as far as the eye can see


The trail into Villafranca del Bierzo, Spain, passes through some of the most stunning country on the Camino Francés. Rolling hills are draped with vineyards and distant mountains are crowned with trees.

The mountains are a part of a range known as the Sierra de los Ancares. The Ancares, while not huge, are formidable enough to have isolated the small Galician villages that dot the region. It was not until the roadbuilding of the mid-20th century that these isolated villages became more widely accessible. To this day the Ancares represent rural Spain at its best.

The Romans came to Villafranca to mine gold from the mountains. They stayed to raise grapes. Much later, in 1070, a monastery was founded to continue the agricultural art. A Frankish community gathered around it, hence the name "Frank-ville."

Buen caminó!


We are hiking another beautiful area in 2019. Jan 8-16 will be spent walking in Galilee, Israel! You are invited to join us. The Jesus Trail passes from Nazareth to Capernaum and stops at sites like the one pictured here: Magdala. This trip is facilitated by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and is a bargain at only $2,588 from New York. For more details click here or contact me at

Miles and miles of cereal


It was a wet start as we hiked out of Grañón, but the day turned lovely by midmorning. We are nearly finished with the rolling hills of the province of La Rioja and should descend to Burgos and Spain's central plateau (and heat!) tomorrow.

This shot was taken near the village of Tosantos.

Buen caminó!

Join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean experience in October, 2018. We'll be cruising aboard the luxurious Celebrity Reflection. See the link here for details. Onboard lectures will provide focus as we visit the ports of Malta, Rhodes, Santorini, and Athens among others. An optional add-on visit to Rome is possible on either end of the trip.

Elijah's view before takeoff

The Jordan River snakes along the floor of the valley. It carries moisture to vegetation that can tolerate sweltering heat and salty soil. 

A fellow with exceptional taste

My dear friend Tony Kanaza is quick to share a smile, a laugh, a recipe, or a cup of Turkish coffee. You may find him at the El Babour Mill in Old Nazareth. The antique site still houses a 19th century steam mill once described as "babour" or "vapor" powered. If you sit and chat, Tony will tell you happy stories of growing up in this family business. Today, he and his brother Jarjure continue this agricultural focus, growing their own flowers, fruits, spices, and vegetables. For them, life is best spent close the ground, tending traditional technologies, stories, and hospitality.

The El Babour Mill needs to be on the "must visit" list for foodies everywhere or just regular tourists who need a break from the dreariness of life-as-usual.


While it may sound like cuss-word, shittim is merely the plural of shittah, a Hebrew term for a kind of desert tree (Isa 41:19, see here). Many identify this tree with the Acacia family, a genus with more than a thousand species.

In the desert areas of the biblical heartland, one can find the Acacia tortillis or the Umbrella thorn. These trees are short and twisted with a characteristic flat top. Thorns and tiny leaves grace its branches.

According to texts like Exo 25:10-13 (see here) or Deut 10:3 (see here) the furniture produced for Israel's tabernacle (including the Ark of the Covenant) was made from shittim wood. Only a skilled artisan could work in this medium!


Particularly lovely

The Atlas Range of North Africa spills across the border of Algeria and into Tunisia. It tumbles downward, angling northeast toward Cap Bon. On the northern side of this range one discovers a beautiful and fertile countryside. The Medjerda Basin (where flows the ancient Bagrada River*) is particularly lovely. Water from this steam made life possible and enabled the flourishing of settlements such as Bulla Regia, Utica, and Carthage.

Such scenes challenge stereotypical views of North Africa as one big sandbox and underline the Roman view that this area was a "breadbasket."**

*See notes 8 and 9 from the text of Pliny the Elder's Natural History here.

**Consider the post by Steve Theodore linked here.

Stuff in the Bible that no one told you about

Colorful fruit dangle from this date palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera). Dates have been a staple for food and fuel for the imagination in Bible Lands for thousands of years. This tree in this photograph is growing in the Palestinian oasis of Jericho, a place nicknamed "the city of date-palms" (Deut 34:3).

A vocabulary family for this species is found in the Hebrew Bible. It includes tamar, a personal name and the general word for a date-palm tree. 'Eskol or sansinnah suggests fruit or a fruit-cluster. A kippah may refer to a palm frond.

My mind drifts back to a snippet from that romantic poem hidden deep in the Old Testament, The Song of Songs (or as we call it in the classroom, "The Very Best Song"!).

Mah yaphit umah-na'amt 'ahavah bta'anugim; Zot komatek damtah l'tamar, veshadayik l'ashkoloth; 'Amarti e'eleh v'tamar 'ohazah b'sansinnav.

"What beauty and how pleasant, O Love for delights! You tower like a palm tree, your breasts are clusters. I say, 'Let me climb up the palm tree and seize its fruit!'" (Song 7:7-8).


To learn more about the archaeobotany of the date palm, see Margareta Tengberg's article on "Fruit Growing" in Vol. 1 of A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. D.T. Potts, ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012): 181-200.


The "Watermelon Field" dig

Matt Adams offers an orientation to the team at the start of the 2011 "Megiddo East" excavations. I'll forever associate the experience with the smell of rotting watermelons, as these were pitched to the edge of the dig site. They burst, of course, and cooked under the summer sun. Note the deep trench cut into Tell al-Mutesellim (Megiddo) rising on the left.