Israel's Good Name

Nachal El Al

In Israel, Golan on June 25, 2017 at 10:37 AM

This is the first of three posts that took place on three consecutive days in early June when I was fulfilling my capacity of instructor at a school where I work. A few other instructors and I were accompanying the 9th graders on their annual tiyul shnati (a multi-day trip), this time to the Golan and Upper Galilee. The first day started off with a long bus ride from Givat Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, to the first hike of the trip, Nachal El Al in the lower Golan. The buses took us to a staging ground behind the moshav of Avnei Eitan and we promptly began our hike along the red-marked trail, descending into the ravine.

Descending into Nachal El Al

From the very beginning both flora and fauna showed promise, as I photographed a crested lark, a red and black leaf beetle, globethistle, bugloss and oleander which grows plentifully along the streambed. It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the two waterfalls that this hike is famous for, the Black Waterfall. Named such because of the black basalt stones that are so typical of the Golan’s geology, the second fall is called the White Waterfall due to its white chalk setting.

The Black Waterfall

As I was looking over the edge of the cliff beside the pool drama hit. First there was the sound of rumbling and something falling, then confused shouts and through the gaps between the leaves I was witness to a terrible accident. A young schoolgirl from another group, also on her annual trip, was victim to a fallen rock which smashed her thigh, breaking the bone badly, and as she fell, her head hit rock. Their accompanying paramedics, as well as ours, rushed to her aid and the atmosphere was grim. She had lost consciousness and her thigh was bent unnaturally, swollen and discoloured. Climbing back up to regain cellular service, emergency calls were made and it was decided that they were going to wait for Unit 669, an elite IDF commando unit, to rescue her via helicopter.

Unit 669 helicopter to the rescue

We stayed for some time at the Black Waterfall, some of the students frolicking in the pool, and I spotted a Levant green frog escaping human presence. When we left the Black Waterfall the poor girl was still awaiting extraction and so we paused further ahead along the trail and prayed together for her health and well-being. As we continued southwest we heard the distinct noise of a chopper incoming, and we got to spectate the rescue until the adjacent hilltop obscured our view (she was since rescued successfully and taken to Rambam Hospital in Haifa).

Closer look at the helicopter

Hiking along, we passed a neat wildflower named annual pink as well as a handful of goldfinches flying amongst the waving reeds, with alpine swifts and a lone short-toed eagle patrolling the skies above us. I took care to photograph as many craggy cliff holes as I could, hoping that maybe I’d catch a little or eagle owl on my display screen – both of which have eluded me thus far – but with no success.

The kiss of goldfinches

We had passed a neat pool down below, with metal handles affixed in the rock wall to facilitate access to the continuation of the trail which was lined with thick reeds. Next we came upon an area where the water flow slowed down as it caressed the smooth white rock, reminding me of the natural waterworks at Nachal Kziv. This calm water would presently spill over the side of a cliff to form the White Waterfall, a 14-metre drop of cold mountain water. I waited for a while at the spillover spot, letting the sun progress over the adjacent mountain to give me more favourable lighting for photography.

The White Waterfall

It’s on the crest of that mountain to the west that ancient ruins can be found. Marked on the map as Qasr Bardwil, which, according to what I have found online, can either be an Arabic name giving tribute to Crusader king Baldwin who conquered the Golan area, or “bardwil” which may be Arabic for cattails. Either way, the site dates to the early Bronze Era and is composed of great walls of small stones at the edge of the cliff overlooking the stream. When the children were goaded out of the waterfall pool I made my pilgrimage down to properly document the falls, and then I continued on the trails.

Late afternoon over the Golan

From this point onward it was all dry, the trail running along the side of the eastern slope with only lone trees here and there to shield us from the scorching sun. But I found distraction in spotting a noisy katydid in the dead vegetation, a fan-fingered gecko and my very first woodchat shrike, also called a butcher bird for their barbaric feeding methodology.

Noisy katydid

At last, I reached the end of the trail and spotted a mother rock hyrax with two of her young on a nearby rock. Over the next half hour or so the entire class made their way to the end where the buses waited, and during this wait we watched the entertaining aeronautics of a kestrel avoiding a mobbing hooded crow. When the buses were loaded with our sweaty and tired bodies we were taken to Kibbutz Keshet where we, the staff, were introduced to our rooms and then had dinner in the dining room. The day had come to an end, but the trip was only one third of the way done…

Yavne

In Central Israel, Israel on June 18, 2017 at 10:37 AM

The Friday after our wonderful Ramla adventure, Adam Ota and I were joined by more friends, Ben Yablon and Efrat Guli, to take a trip to the Yavne area. I had never been to Yavne so I enjoyed searching for interesting places to visit in advance using the remarkably useful Amud Anan map. Adam, Ben and I boarded an early bus out of Givat Shmuel and met up with Efrat and her car in Rehovot. We popped over to a local bakery to grab some baked goods for breakfast and from there drove to Yavne, a few minutes away to the southwest. On the road we made note of the first site of interest – the old Yavne train station – and before long we were at Tel Yavne located at the southern end of the city.

View of Tel Yavne

Parking not far from the House of Arches, which was the house of the local sheikh in the 1930s, we looped around the tel to find the unmarked trail leading upwards. Pausing to examine a dirt wall rich in potsherds and other archaeological treats, we found ourselves greatly distracted in the pursuit of antiquated trinkets. Other than some pottery vessel handles and bases, some of us pulled out ancient glass shards, the age indicated by the silver weathering which leaves an iridescent coating – something I had learned about at a special glass exhibition at the Israel Museum. Browsing the Antiquities Authority’s reports, I found that the glass samples found at Tel Yavne during a salvage excavation in 2008 were dated to the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. As we reached the top of the hill that is Tel Yavne, we noticed the lone stone tower at the far end of the hill – a Mamluk minaret belonging to a bygone Mamluk mosque.

Mamluk minaret

But presently we were to examine the stony ruins of houses and other buildings possibly dating further back, to the times when Yavne was an important ancient city. Biblically, the city was known as Yavne’el and it was subsequently conquered by the Philistines who ruled the southern coastal area of the Holy Land, including important cities such as Ashkelon, Gaza and Gath – where, God willing, I will be excavating this summer. Fast-forward to the Roman times, when the city was known by its Hellenised name of Jamnia, the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme council) found its sanctuary upon the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Yours truly examining the ground amongst the ruins (photo Efrat Guli)

Later, during the Crusader period, Yavne/Jamnia was conquered by the Europeans and the castle built thenceforth was named Ibelin, the name synonymous with one of the most powerful Christian families in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Mamluks, in their pursuit of conquest of the eastern Mediterranean lands, converted the Ibelin church into a mosque and a minaret was constructed. Interestingly enough, most of the sites of interest that we were to explore that day date to the Mamluk period.

Purported Crusader ruins

However, the aforementioned old train station, and a concrete pillbox located beside the train tracks, were constructed during the British Mandate period. Alas, despite the Antiquities Authority reports and other source materials online, I am unable to provide exact dating to the stone ruins located on the hilltop and so we move on. Passing the large swathes of bone-dry milk thistle and blooming wild carrot, we approached the minaret and made notice of a fine Arabic inscription which dates the construction to 1337.

Climbing back down the tower

Ben, an intrepid member of our small party, decided to climb the ruined wall and check whether or not we’d be able to explore the inside of the tower. Finding the small green gate open, we took turns climbing up and subsequently mounting the circular staircase to the roof, quite reminiscent of the Mamluk-built White Tower in Ramla that Adam and I had visited shortly before. Breaking through to daylight, we surveyed our surroundings from the safety of the tower and I borrowed Efrat’s DSLR camera to try and capture swifts in flight overhead.

Common swift flying overhead

Climbing back down the tower, and then back down the hill, we came upon a delightful scene of red-rumped swallows gathering mud for nest building. As I was creeping forward to get better shots, an unsuspecting greenfinch landed mere metres from me for a quick drink and, noticing me looming overhead, flew away in a great panic which elicited a mischievous smile on my bearded face.

Red-rumped swallows gathering mud for nest building

Leaving the tel, we drove into modern Yavne for a cold treat at the Ben & Jerry’s factory. I enjoyed three scoops of ice cream in a cup, of the following flavours: salted caramel, peanut butter cup, and my favourite flavour, chocolate chip cookie dough. When our sweet break was over we appreciated the brand-associated cow bench outside and got back into the car for a very short drive to our next destination: the kever (grave) of Rabban Gamliel, one of the leaders of the aforementioned Sanhedrin.

Kever of Rabban Gamliel

The tombstone is contained within a Mamluk period mosque commemorating the tomb of Abu Hurairah, a companion of Muhammad whose purported grave is also a hilltop in the northwest Negev (as we saw during an academic tour earlier in the school year). We were at the Yavne grave in Jewish capacity but it was interesting to note the clearly Mamluk construction with added Corinthian columns, an extensive inscription over the kever room’s doorway and a mihrab (prayer niche) on the southern wall (facing Mecca). I recently had a class that dealt with Mamluk architecture and building design which made me wish that I had paid better attention to detail in these sites when we visited.

Elaborate Arabic inscription over the door

Inside, beside the tombstone, I said a chapter of Tehilim (Psalms), as is tradition, and rejoined our party outside where we examined the rear of the mosque and then an ancient sarcophagus at the edge of the park.

Kever of Rabban Gamliel from behind (photo Efrat Guli)

From there, leaving Yavne, we passed by the arched Mamluk bridge spanning Nachal Soreq and then back to a Rehovot bus stop after we had a quick glance at an old IAI Mirage jet on display near the public library. I was pressed for time because later that Friday afternoon I was to be taking a bus to Yerucham in the Negev. As part of my job working at a school in Givat Shmuel, I was to accompany the 8th graders for the duration of Shabbat – but in the afternoon I braved the heat and sun to walk over to Yerucham Lake for some lens-less birding. Unfortunately, because I was lens-less, I missed out on possibly spotted a pink-backed pelican that was reported there the day before – a rarity in Israel, ordinarily living in southern Africa. Pelican or no pelican, great trips were had and there are many more to be had in the future!

Ramla

In Central Israel, Israel on June 11, 2017 at 8:30 AM

This past Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), commemorating the reunification of the capital city at the culmination of the Six Day War, I debated whether to go to Jerusalem or perhaps somewhere else less crowded. In the end I decided to visit Ramla, an oft neglected city in Central Israel neighbouring Lod and Rehovot, and I invited my friend Adam Ota to once again join me on the adventures-to-be. It was late morning when we boarded the bus for Ramla with a vague understanding of several sites that I mapped out in advance. Disembarking in the middle of the city, we first examined a sculpture park including a depiction of General Yitzhak Sadeh, whose house and mobile HQ we had visited the week prior on our trip to Yafo (Jaffa) for the Open House Tel Aviv event. From there we walked down a side street to the first site on our list, the famous White Tower, passing an ancient Arab cemetery and an old parked Studebaker on the way.

White Tower of Ramla

Greeted by a custodian, we paid for multi-pass tickets to include the other sites on our list and gained entrance to the site. Standing lonesome in a plaza, the White Tower loomed over us as we first previewed the archaeological ruins of the White Mosque and intricate water system of cisterns and aqueducts. These ruins date back to the early 700s when Ramla was first built, by the Umayyad Caliphate – in fact, the first Arab-built city in the Holy Land. The 30-metre tower is a minaret, which was added to the mosque at a later date (during the Mamluk period), and there is a long Arabic inscription etched into grey marble over the doorway. Entering, we climbed the 111 steps passing arrowslits and interesting windows until we reached the top where we joined a few tourists surveying the view around us.

View of ruins and modern Ramla

Enjoying the view, but knowing that there was a lot more to be seen, we took leave of the majestic tower and, passing the skull of a mole rat, we made our way to the next site. The Pool of Arches is one of the most curious sites in Israel to see photos of, and I have been wanting to visit for many years for obvious reasons. An underground cistern, the arch-roofed structure is large enough to accommodate rowboating which we did gleefully. On the way down into the cistern’s humid belly, we passed an Arabic inscription with fancy lettering carved into the rock wall.

The Pool of Arches

Getting into our rowboat, we got acquainted with the other boat drifting about and settled down to explore the cistern by boat. According to the PEF survey from the late 1800s the cistern measures approximately 25×23 metres and a schematic can be seen HERE. After a good amount of paddling to and fro, crashing gently into the thick columns every few minutes, we returned our rowboat and departed from the site our faces likely flushed with excitement.

Paddling underground

Boarding a bus to take us to the southeast end of the city, we got off at the shuk (open market) area where the famous weekly Wednesday shuk was closing up in the dusty area beside the Great Mosque. We passed through, inspecting briefly the huge amounts of items for sale and their unique salesmen. With the mosque in the background the scene looked decidedly Arabian. Interestingly enough, the Great Mosque was originally a church built by the Crusaders – Ramla being the first Holy Land city conquered on their quest for Jerusalem. In 1266 Ramla was reconquered by the Mamluks and the church was converted into a mosque, but retaining some of its Frankish architectural characteristics such as the Gothic doorway.

Ramla’s Great Mosque

From the Great Mosque we made our way to the regular Ramla shuk where stalls and open-fronted  shops lined a long covered alleyway hawking goods, but largely fresh produce and food. Adam paused at one street food restaurant to get a quick Turkish borekas – a heavy filled pastry sliced open and filled with hardboiled egg and served with a spicy sauce.

Ramla city shuk

We then continued until we had seen the entirety of the shuk and found ourselves in search of a very small tourist attraction, a British Mandate post box painted bright red with the letters GR clearly visible (standing for Georgious Rex, or King George). Missing it, we ended up exploring a neglected, yet curious, area near Emile Zola street full of rubble, broken buildings, old churches, stray dogs and a barn swallow perched on an electrical line. Seeking help from the locals, we were directed to the post box and, upon having set our gaze upon it, we left the shuk area.

Within the Ramla Museum

Next up was the Ramla Museum located inside of an old British administrative building. Inside we found an orderly description of the city’s chronology as well as an exhibition of old coins found in and around the city. Ending at the museum just minutes before closing time we decided to walk a bit along the main street of Ramla in hopes of chancing upon something interesting.

Hoard of gold coins

We passed the Tegart fort police station and a few churches, including the Franciscan Terra Sancta church which was built in 1902 after hundreds of years of Franciscan presence in the city – in fact, stemming from the purges of the local populace due to the Black Plague in 1347. With that we agreed that our adventure was to come to an end, but not without murmurs of yet another adventure ere long.