As we enter the monastery courtyard we are greeted by a stone sculpture of the Prophet Elijah, who is depicted holding a sword in his hand while his foot stamps upon the head of a man. This portrayal represents the climax of Elijah’s struggle against the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal, which, according to tradition, took place at the site where the monastery now stands.
According to the Biblical account, after years of drought, Elijah competed against four hundred of Baal’s prophets, all servants of King Ahab, to see who could make it rain (1 Kings, 18): whichever of them could persuade “his” god to send down rain would be recognized as a true prophet. The contest was organized as follows: each of the two participants built an altar, sacrificed a bullock and prayed to his god to send down fire from heaven and consume the sacrificial animal. Baal’s prophets called upon their god every day, but no response was forthcoming. After they had given up in despair, Elijah poured water on the altar and began to pray. Fire descended from the sky and consumed the sacrifice. Elijah and his followers pursued the prophets of Baal and killed large numbers of them. Before long the sky clouded over and rain descended in torrents.
The tradition that identifies the Horn of Carmel as the scene of the struggle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is a very old one. In the 14th century, when an anonymous pupil of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman) visited the Land of Israel, he described the site as the altar of the Prophet Elijah. Its Arabic name, Al-Muhraka, derives from the verb haraq, which means “to burn,” and thus also hints at the descent of fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice.
Deir al-Muhraka belongs to the Carmelite order of monks. Three sculptures in relief, adjacent to the stairs that ascend to the monastery roof portray the events of the Biblical story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Climbing up to the roof involves a token fee, but the experience should not be missed: the magnificent landscapes of the Jezreel Valley lie below and there are views towards the Galilean Hills and the peak of Mount Hermon.