The following two places are found in the heart of the Shomron (also known as Samaria) and I had the pleasure of visiting both on the same day. Due to the fact that I often do the night shift for the Safaron driving, I took a lazy Wednesday afternoon to visit nearby archaeological ruins in the town of Yakir. The military outpost Yakir, where I usually serve, is just a few minutes walk from my destination, Mitzpe Oded.
Mitzpe Oded was founded as an outlook in memory of Oded Fink who died of illness at age 30, a man with an appreciation for the land of Israel, its beauty and heritage. The outlook provides a view of the towns of Karnei Shomron, Immanuel and Yitzhar as well as the famous Biblical twin peaks of Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal in the far distance and Nachal Kana running directly below. The second portion of this blog post, Kever Yosef, is located in the city of Shechem which is between Mounts Gerezim and Ebal, some 16 kilometres (10 miles) away as the crow flies.
The first ruin I saw as I approached the lookout was a six-foot tower rectangle of rough ashlars, as can be seen above. The sign declared the structure as a “shomera” which is the Biblical name for an agricultural watchtower and was comprised of two levels – the lower of stone blocks and the upper a wooden hut. Here is another agricultural watchtower that is unmarked and unkempt right outside the entrance of Yakir Outpost. I had been wondering what it was ever since I had first laid eyes on it, now I know.
Beside the agricultural watchtower at Mitzpe Oded is a unique textured millstone that was used for coarse wheat and barley grinding. The grain would be ground into a coarse flour used for porridge, as well as for sacrificial purposes.
To the north of the millstone there is the base of a square structure and then a confusing little trail down the slope of the mountain. I ventured down a bit, didn’t see anything fascinating and headed back to the outpost. Later on that evening I got a series of calls and found myself driving the Safaron armoured truck to Tapuach Junction for a fun (and not classified) operation. I was to be working with Border Police in Shechem (Nablus) as that night was predestined to be the night when the IDF allows Israeli visitors to Kever Yosef (Joseph’s Tomb) located in the heart of Shechem.
While today’s Kever Yosef doesn’t look quite like it did back in 1839, it’s now a white-domed structure over the tomb with a few side chambers and a yard surrounded by a tall fence. In this aerial view, the white complex of Kever Yosef is quite distinguishable:
Driving in one of many armoured military convoys, we entered the city and headed for Kever Yosef on the edge of the Balata refugee camp. I was a little surprised that we didn’t get any stones thrown at us, but figured we’d probably get stoned later on that night. I parked my large vehicle blocking the north-west access alley (see map) and with the entire plaza area locked down and secure we prepared for the busloads of visitors. This was all an eye-opening experience for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. In this panoramic of the “plaza” area just outside the tomb complex, the buses come from the street on the left side while behind me and to the right are completely secured and blockaded by soldiers and military vehicles. I was fortunate enough to partake in the inner circle of defence, so I was able to visit the site rather easily.
The first batch of buses came and the visitors streamed into the complex, eager to seize a prime praying location as close to the tombstone as possible. Eventually I made my way into the domed chamber but the sheer multitude of people discouraged me. Someone offered me a memorial candle to light, and so I did, lighting it in a niche that had crude swastikas scrawled on the concave wall. The history of Kever Yosef is pretty hairy, and despite considered a holy site for Muslims, finds itself the victim of destruction and hate crimes. I’m not sure how the situation usually is during these late-night visits, but that night was extremely quiet.
After about 90 minutes or so, the visitors were herded back onto the buses so that the second batch could come. In between groups, there was a nice quietness about the place and I was able to take a photo of the site without people being in my way.
The second busloads arrived and I was distracted by a man who fell as he made his way from the bus to the tomb and needed mild medical attention. As the paramedic bandaged him up, the injured man told us that he himself was at once the director of MADA Jerusalem (Israeli version of the Red Cross) during the Yom Kippur War before being sent down to the Sinai to treat injured soldiers. The stories that the “average Joe” on the street has are absolutely fascinating here in Israel, with its extremely short and volatile history. After the second batch of visitors were whisked away, and all the dressings and signs were taken down from the complex, I entered the tomb chamber and was pleasantly surprised to see this raw, yet fresh, look at such a rich historical tomb:
When the last of the soldiers and Border Police were aboard their armoured vehicles, we drove back out of the troubled city of Shechem, fully expecting an onslaught of rocks and worse. Again, we passed through unscathed. I’m still astounded at the fact that despite having entered many Palestinian villages and cities, I’ve never once got even as much as a stone thrown at me – what are the odds? Anyhow, such is life in Israel’s “Wild West” and I hope I get more chances to have blog-compatible experiences so that I can document them here.