Men dressed in white and wearing ancient tarbooka drums around their necks stand on the edges of the ancient hills of the Shomron. Then, the sound of the shofar breaks the silence and with its blast a pack of runners begin their journey through the lavish orchards, aromatic vineyards and layers of voluptuous greenery that was once - and is still today - the heart of Israel.
The event is the Bible Marathon. This year, it will take place on Friday, September 28 with the same Israeli flags, balloons and loads of energy that has marked the modern version of this ancient running challenge for the past four years.
The full marathon route runs from Rosh Ha'ayin (Eben Ezra in the Bible) to Shiloh, as described in the Book of Samuel.
Shortly after the Jews entered the Land of Israel, they fought a battle against the Philistines.
"Every man fled his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers," it says in 1 Samuel in the Bible. The Ark of the Covenant was taken and the two sons of the High Priest were killed. "Now, a man of [the tribe] Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes torn and dust on his head."
This man, from the tribe of Benjamin, ran 42 km. which is also the official length of the Olympic marathon decided upon in 1908 at the London Olympic Games. According to tradition, the Benjamin man was a young King Saul (c. 1050 - 1012 B.C.E.).
"Everyone thinks the first marathon was when Pheidippides ran to Athens with the news of the great victory his people had over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C.E.," said runner Avraham Hermon, who lives in Har Bracha in Samaria. "But, in reality, it was many years earlier, in the Bible, in the Land of Israel."
Shiloh was the religious capital of Israel for 369 years, beginning after the conquest of Canaan until King David established Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish nation. Shiloh, mentioned 34 times in the Tanach, was the longest-standing Jewish capital of any city other than Jerusalem, said David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh.
In his book, "God, Israel, and Shiloh: Returning to the Land," Rubin tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of Israel's complex history, dating back to slavery in Egypt and continuing up to the present, including the period in which the Israelites occupied Shiloh as its capital.
Rubin said that Shiloh was a fitting capital for the Israelites when it was established approximately 3,500 years ago by Joshua, son of Nun, for many reasons, including that Joshua was a member of the tribe of Ephraim and Shiloh is in the heart of the Biblical portion of the land allotted to this tribe. Additionally, Shiloh is at the geographic center of the country (approximately 44 kilometers north of Jerusalem), is strategically located in the mountains and, at the time, had a strong and flowing river.
At some point during those 369 years, a permanent structure was built for the Ark of the Covenant. Rubin said it is believed that the stone foundation for the Ark can be seen still today at Tel Shiloh, an archaeological dig near the city. Visitors can stand on the spot where it is believed the Ark once stood. The Ark itself was taken into the battle described in the Book of Samuel and captured by the Philistines.
The Biblical story of Hannah, who pours her heart out in prayer for a child, takes place in Shiloh. Also, according to Judges 21, Shiloh is where the maidens would dance in the vineyards each year on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, when unmarried men would go there in search of a bride.
"Shiloh, along with most of the land of Israel, lay barren for 2,000 years, until the Jewish people started coming back," Rubin said. "Today, Shiloh is full of vineyards and olive groves."
In the early 1900s, a sportsman by the name of Yosef Yekutieli moved to Israel, then British Mandate Palestine. Yekutieli started the first organized sports competitions in Israel, including the Maccabiah Games.
Yekutieli had read the story in the Bible about the Benjamin man and his run from Eben Ezra to Shiloh and he wondered what was the distance, explained Moshe Ronsky, tourism director for the Binyamin Regional Council.
Yekutieli for years was left to wonder because the area was under Jordanian control. But, Ronsky said, as soon as Israel won the 1967 Six-day War, Yekutieli hopped into his jeep and drove the ancient and ultimately 42-kilometer Biblical path. Yekutieli re-established the Bible Marathon two years later. However, with the political turmoil and security concerns at the time, "Israel was not equipped to keep the race going." As such, the Bible Marathon died only a few years later.
"We have brought this race back to life," Ronsky said of the Bible Marathon, which relaunched in its present form in 2015.
Last year, more than 2,000 runners from over 10 countries took part in event, which included a half-marathon, 10-kilometer and 5-kilometer races, too.
Hermon of Har Bracha wrapped himself in a linen toga for the race.
"Wearing the historic garb and thinking about where I am running makes me feel a connection to the land," Hermon said.
Lukasz Wilk, a Christian Zionist who was in Israel with a tour of 100 other like-minded travelers to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot, in Hebrew), ran the marathon and won.
"I love the people of Israel," said Wilk just moments after crossing the finish line of the 2017 Bible Marathon. "Some of my friends in Poland said Israel is not a safe country and that I should not come here. I knew it was a lie. Israel is beautiful and safe."
Wilk said he is returning to Israel this year for the Feast of Tabernacles, but he will not be running the race due to injury. Nonetheless, he encouraged others to take part in the Bible Marathon.
"It was a great atmosphere," Wilk said. "Everything was perfectly prepared from the start zone to finish zone."
He said it is especially important for Christians to come to Israel and show their support of the Holy Land, even by walking the 5K.
"In the Second World War, Poland destroyed many Jews - many people and their things," he said. "But I believe that now we are restoring that past and on a better path...I am very in love with Israel and the Jewish people."
Li Weiyi from China walked the 5K with a group of around a dozen other Chinese Christian Zionists in 2017. She said they were in town for the Feast of Tabernacles and to "pray for and bless the Land of Israel."
"We are believers in the Bible," Weiyi said. "We came to the race because we wanted to walk in the path of the Bible. It was amazing and spiritual and like nothing I have ever experienced before. This land is amazing. This is the Holy Land."
Hermon said that whenever he brings people to Samaria to show them where he lives, he brings along his Bible, "This is our tour book," Hermon said.
The Bible Marathon is the next chapter in the Jewish people's thousands of years of history, and "the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy," Rubin said. "The prophecies promised that the children of Israel would return to these mountains and rebuild these Jewish cities and towns - that the children will once again be running through the streets of their Biblical homeland. That is literally what is happening today."
Find out how you can participate in this walking/running challenge through Israel's Biblical heartland by clicking here