Israel's Good Name

Gilgal Refa’im

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2014 at 4:59 AM

This past Sunday my father and I took a little trip out to the Golan, to visit two sites side-by-side, one of them quite obscure and unknown. This post, the first half of our trip, is about a place called Gilgal Refa’im in Hebrew (or Rujm el-Hiri in Arabic). The literal translation of the site’s Hebrew name is “Wheel of Ghosts”, the word “refa’im” means “ghosts” in Hebrew. These circles of stones, sometimes referred to as the “Stonehenge of the Levant”, can be better appreciated via this aerial photo that I found on Flickr:

Gilgal Refa'im from above (photo IsraelTourism on Flickr)

Gilgal Refa’im from above (photo: IsraelTourism on Flickr)

An obscure site at least a kilometre away from any paved road, this ancient megalithic monument has been in our sights for years. The last time we searched for it was a few years back and we basically got lost out in the plains of the Golan. This time we planned in advance and, thanks to Google Maps, we knew exactly where to go. We left the house nice and early in the morning and reached the Golan in good time, climbing the elevation via the Bnot Yaakov Bridge, the main crossing point of the upper Jordan River throughout history. Driving on Road 808 south, we skipped the entrance to Gamla National Park (the second half of our trip) and pulled over at a little dirt road. We parked and began the hike to the Gilgal Refa’im, noting the most beautiful spring scenery.

A tree in the Golan

A tree in the Golan

The first thing we noticed while walking was the incredible amount of little rock walls scattered all over. Here is one example, with wildflowers mixed in:

Little stone wall

Little stone wall

After a little while walking on the dirt road, stopping over and over to film and take pictures, we came upon a “hidden” trench-like spot lined with stones and currently filled with water. We surmised that it must be a place to hide tanks, from when the Syrians were entrenched in the area. And, to further solidify this theory, there was an old Syrian bunker just a little ways further.

Possible tank trench

Possible tank trench

Beside this “tank trench” I spotted the most magnificent thistle flower, and on it was a bee and a weird bee-like beetle. The visibility of the pollen was amazing, feast your eyes!

Thistle and bee

Thistle and bee

And, as I mentioned before, there was the Syrian bunker, made up of basalt rocks encaged in wire fencing. We walked up the trail and entered the old bunker.

Old Syrian bunker

Old Syrian bunker

Inside, after descending the sunlit entrance tunnel, it was really dark and so I turned on my phone flashlight to illuminate the gloom. What happened next surprised me. There was a flurry of wings and a little bat flew at my face, and then did an about-turn and flew back into the gloom. Then, again it flew at me, and then turned back. It kept up this back-and-forth so I called for the camera and opened the flash hoping to get a good shot as he approached. It didn’t come out terrible well, but there is no mistaking that little bat flying at the camera (click to enlarge):

The horseshoe bat in the tunnel

The horseshoe bat in the tunnel

We followed the bat into the darkness, using only the phone flashlight to see. I felt like this was a scene from a grim fairytale where we were being led into the dark and foreboding cave, similar to a scene in one of my favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth, where Ofelia is led by a fairy into the labyrinth. Regardless, we followed the bat blindly through the old tunnels until we came to an exit and then it flew away. Researching Israeli bats I have decided that it was definitely a horseshoe bat, perhaps the Mediterranean specie. Here is a grainy shot of him hanging before disappearing:

Horseshoe bat at the bunker exit

Horseshoe bat at the bunker exit

Emerging from the bunker at the upper level, where the rooftop trenches and gun turrets are, I once again marveled at the sweeping beauty of the area:

View from the bunker

View from the bunker

Descending from the bunker roof we hit the dirt road again and began to see signs warning soldiers not to shoot at the antiquities. And then, a turnoff and we were approaching the site. Not so visible from eye-level, we crossed the Daliyot Stream and found ourselves, at last, at the outer circle of Gilgal Refa’im. I climbed up to get a shot of the alternating stone walls and wildflowers that ringed the central mound.

Circles of walls and flowers

Circles of walls and flowers

As we climbed the eight-foot high outer wall, and then the next wall, and the next, I noticed that the rocks were particularly ornamented by lichen, a great amount.

Interesting lichen

Interesting lichen

At last we reached the fifteen-foot high central mound and noticed a pit in the stone pile, but we kept walking around the top, taking pictures of the cool circles which ringed us. According to an Oxford archaeological guide, there are 42,000 stones that make up the entire site. My father suddenly had the idea to step into the pit, and when he did so exclaimed that there was a cave down there.

Looking down into the cave entrance

Looking down into the cave entrance

I followed him, scooting through the narrow passage, and we made ourselves comfortable in the little cave.

Within the little cave

Within the little cave

Whilst enjoying the coolness of this little cave, I figured I should probably look for more info on the site and I found this: Gilgal Refa’im is believed to be either a tomb, a stellar calender, a ritual centre, an observatory or several other theorised places perhaps even created by biblical giants. Basically, nobody knows what this site is for and that definitely adds to the intrigue of the place. If there was one thing I could see in history, if very well might be watching the biblical giants in the Golan – the terrain is just perfect to see giants thundering down the plains. At last we left the comfort of the mysterious little cave and climbed back over the numerous stone rings, heading back to our car.

A cow at the Daliyot Stream

A cow at the Daliyot Stream

Next site, Gamla!

Cafarlet

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2014 at 5:20 AM

Continuing with my hike from Tel Dor, heading for the Crusader castle Cafarlet (also known as HaBonim Fortress), I first came upon interesting finds while on a hill alongside Road 2, the Coastal Road. Across from some memorial sculpture atop a precipice overlooking the road. I stumbled upon partially concealed remains of an ancient quarry, separated from the rest of the large quarry nearby. I’m assuming the Crusaders must have hewed stones from this sandstone quarry to build the nearby castles.

Just a glimpse of the quarry remains

Just a glimpse of the quarry remains

Some half hour later, after crossing a little cemetery, I laid eyes on the eastern side of Cafarlet, the portion also visible to drivers on Road 2. A little history about the castle itself, Cafarlet was built in the early 1200′s by the Crusader’s Principality of Caesarea and was then given, in a deal, to the Hospitaller Knights in 1213. The other leading Military Order of that time, the Templers, then purchased Cafarlet in 1232 and it remained in their hands until the castle’s capture by the Muslims in 1265. Following recapture by the Latin Christians, Cafarlet was built up again by the Templars and then finally abandoned in 1291 when the Crusades ended and the Crusaders returned to Europe.

Cafarlet from the eastern side

Cafarlet from the eastern side

The Crusader castle, a slightly different build than the typical Latin fortress of its time, was built on the remains of an Arab fortress built in the 700′s built to protect from Byzantine invasion. Even in the time of the Crusades, the Byzantines were a regional superpower, and have been for hundreds of years. Cafarlet was built just a few kilometres from a slew of Crusaders castles (from Château Pèlerin and Le Destroit to the north to Merle and Caesarea to the south) which were strung along the coast, safeguarding the road for pilgrims in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Approaching the castle I came upon numerous remains which seem to be from an even earlier Roman/Byzantine period of occupation. Here, at the foot of the castle, is a burial cave carved into the rock. When I poked inside I discovered ten hewn crypts with their lids propped up.

A burial cave

A burial cave

Also outside the castle are the remains of Byzantine winepresses, with intricate tile work covering the floor – only visible on the lowest step in this picture:

Ancient tiled winepress

Ancient tiled winepress

Approaching the castle and turning to enter via the southern wall, I looked down to see this interesting stone “foot” at the southeast corner – atypical of the Crusade-era construction in the Holy Land:

Interesting castle construction

Interesting castle construction

And then, I saw it, the grand arched entrance, flanked by rounded bastions, and in I went.

Cafarlet's grand entrance

Cafarlet’s grand entrance

What I first noticed about the interior of Cafarlet is that it’s due for a thorough excavation. For example, on the western side I had entered an arched chamber which was partially filled in with rubble, dirt and grass:

Rubble-filled chamber

Rubble-filled chamber

Here, looking northeast towards the centre of the castle, numerous interior walls can be seen, however they are interspersed with small trees in a battle for space:

Beautiful but overcrowded interior

Beautiful but overcrowded interior

A closer look at the partially submerged walls:

Partially submerged walls

Partially submerged walls

Since the castle isn’t in the care of any government body, the site is free to enter and also mildly dangerous. There were numerous locations where I noticed sinkholes and cisterns hidden in the lush grass. Even walking on some of the walls seemed risky in fear of collapse. Crossing over to the eastern side near the arched entry, I felt inclined to explore the large arched chambers such as this one:

Arched room

Arched room

Even finding a painted ladder leaning conveniently on the inner wall of one chamber, I thought I’d have a look around. However, when I put a cautionary foot down on the top step, the rotten wood gave way and I was forced to abandon my plan, as you can see from this POV shot:

A POV shot of Crusader danger

A POV shot of Crusader danger

Deterred from the great rooms on the eastern side, I crossed back over to the western side and found a safer alternative into another arched chamber – old crooked stone steps:

Within another arched chamber

Within another arched chamber

Exploring both that and the adjacent room, I emerged and continued to the northern side of the castle. What I came upon next was surprising. Modern construction had been done and the remains of a house or two, reportedly by Arabs before 1948, are now joined with the ancient Crusader ruins. When I left the castle, and walked along the outer walls on the northern and western sides, the remnants of modern plastering and window frames can be seen. I wonder what will become of those more recent ruins…

The northwest corner

The northwest corner

With that I left the remarkable ruins of Cafarlet, crossing off yet another Crusader ruins on my to-see list and then briefly contemplated a quick visit to HaBonim Nature Reserve before deciding against it and walking the long, grueling journey to the bus stop on Road 4, putting an end to my long and interesting day of coastal exploration.

Tel Dor

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2014 at 3:35 AM

Following my visit to the Carmel Caves at the Nachal Me’arot National Park, I got on a bus heading south and ended up – quite accidentally – at Tel Dor. I had intended to find my way to Cafarlet, an impressive Crusader castle on the side of the Coastal Road (Road 4) but, alas, I overshot and found myself looking at the hilltop ruins of Tel Dor from across a picturesque little bay some 30 kilometres south of Haifa.

Tel Dor from across the bay

Tel Dor from across the bay

Set in such a beautiful place, nestled between tall coastal grass and the relatively calm Mediterranean Sea, the sun played a frustrating game of hide-and-seek as I toured the archaeological site. Climbing up the tel, I came upon the hilltop remains of the storehouses and public buildings which serviced the port, and the acropolis.

Tel Dor ruins

Tel Dor ruins

Continuing to the end of the small peninsula, I came upon the meagre remains of a small Crusader stronghold, the Merle Castle, built and owned by the de Merle family of French nobility. In 1187, Merle Castle was conquered by Saladin and by the end of the century, the Templars took command of the stronghold.

Merle Castle remains

Merle Castle remains

While the castle ruins are few and far between, there are fascinating rock-cuttings in the bedrock near sea level. Here, a chamber is carved into the porous rock, with several curious entry points:

A chamber cut into the rock

A chamber cut into the rock

And at the far end, where rock and water clash in the harbour area, there are numerous interesting cuttings made, some underwater even. Deep troughs, large squares and more gouged out of the rock, used perhaps by the Athenians as their important port city in the Levant.

Cut rock in the harbour area

Cut rock in the harbour area

After a little snack I turned back to the ruins, looking down at the remains of a large Roman temple which sat at the water’s edge. The Romans built up Dor, or Dora as they called the place (i.e. Doric columns), by Pompey’s lieutenant Gabinus, creating an autonomous port city similar to Gaza and Yafo (Joppa) in those times.

The Roman temple

The Roman temple

When rule was transferred over to King Herod some 2,050 years ago, Dor became overshadowed by neighbouring Caesarea whose harbour was deeper and thereby a better choice for a port. By then Dor became a less important regional city and, excluding the Crusader stronghold and the site of French emperor Napoleon’s camp after retreating from their 30-day siege on Akko in 1799, became a place of the past.

Cool little island flocked with seabirds

Shetafit Island flocked with seabirds

Walking along the coast, the ruins quite literally fallen into the water similar to the ruins of Ashkelon, I passed by the docks and the continuation of public buildings (such as a bathhouse). At the northern end of the site, climbing back up the tel, I retraced my steps and then walked south-east towards the scattered remains of the residential areas of Tel Dor.

Climbing back up the tel

Climbing back up the tel

Here is one section of residential area, perhaps from the Roman period:

Residential area

Residential area

Leaving the tel and pressing onwards, heading northbound for the Crusader fortress Cafarlet, or HaBonim. Walking through an abandoned basketball court adorned with graffiti I looked back at Tel Dor and noticed yet another residential area overgrown with vegetation.

Another residential area

Another residential area

Consulting Google Maps on my phone I attempted to navigate my way towards the railway tracks, and then the Coastal Road. However, after getting distracted by marsh-loving birds I found myself on the banks of a fish pond, a small lake. Wandering around the fish ponds and the semi-abandoned agricultural farms of Kibbutz Nachsholim, stopping to bond with some friendly donkeys, I eventually reached the railroad.

Walking through the reeds

Walking through the reeds

Climbing all over the rocky hill where the Coastal Road slices through towards Haifa, not entirely sure where I was to find the fortress, I kept walking and walking… Up next, Cafarlet.

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