Israel's Good Name

Israel Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on May 1, 2016 at 5:55 AM

Several weeks ago I took the opportunity to visit the famed Israel Museum in Jerusalem, for the very first time. Not to be confused with the similarly-named Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the Israel Museum is considered Israel’s national museum and is highly regarded worldwide. I bypassed a large group of soldiers and paid the necessary fee to gain entrance to the museum, excited to see what all of the fuss is about.

Anthropoid coffin lid

Anthropoid coffin lid

Slightly confused with the layout, I first inspected an extensive, ancient mosaic floor from Bet Shean before heading to the archaeology wing. Beginning with Egyptian-influenced anthropoid coffins I took a self-guided, and very disorganised, tour of the section. If I were to relay a play-by-play review of my visit this blog post would be far too long and tedious, therefore, I shall simply list some of the items and exhibits that I found most interesting – highlights of my trip.

Burial of a woman and dog (cast) from the Hula Valley

Burial of a woman and dog (cast) from the Hula Valley

Within the archaeology wing I found a small exhibition dedicated to ancient glassware, where I learned about iridescence in ancient glass, simple deterioration resulting in what is known as silver weathering. Moving along, I came upon a collection of painted clay ossuaries (burial chests) dating back thousands of years discovered in caves around Peki’in, just minutes from my house in Ma’alot. A copper crown and sceptre from the Cave of the Treasure in the Judean Desert caught my attention next, likely used in cultic ceremonies thousands of years ago.

Tahunian mask from the Judean Hills

Tahunian mask from the Judean Hills

A collection of flint arrowheads from all over the country piqued my interest, as I am currently taking a class in technology and typology of flint tools. Next, a selection of ancient Tahunian masks made of limestone or chalk, believed to be the oldest masks in the world. Recalling my trip to the Ohalo site as mentioned in my first Kinneret post, preserved grains of wheat and barley as well as the reconstructed hut was on display in the same room. I then came across remains of ancient fauna, including hippopotamus, deer, tiger and ape bones and a set of horns belonging to an ancient bull. A full elephant tusk and molar brought back memories of the Golan Archaeological Museum where I had first learned about elephants roaming the Holy Land so long ago.

Bronze cuirassed statue of Hadrian from the Bet Shean Valley

Bronze cuirassed statue of Hadrian from the Bet Shean Valley

I entered a temporary exhibition on the Roman emperor Hadrian, and then found myself in another room looking at ceremonial dress of birth and death in different Jewish societies. I photographed a painted wood Torah scroll case from Maharashtra, India and then a wood and felt burial carriage from Hungary before continuing on to the next exhibit. Browsing the magnificent items on display from various foreign empires and cultures of antiquity I was surprised to see that the Israel Museum has such a rich collection of foreign artefacts, including a Akkadian bronze sword from Iran, a limestone relief featuring Iddin-Sin, King of Simurrun from Iraq, and ancient Egyptian funerary figurines of painted wood and stone – to name but a few of the fascinating items. But the local artefacts were also of great interest, including a stone inscription by Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent commemorating the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 1535-38, the same walls seen today surrounding the Old City.

Mosaic of Greek goddess Tyche from Bet Shean

Mosaic of Greek goddess Tyche from Bet Shean

Entering a section dedicated to relics of the Crusader period, I found some wonderful things: a marble slab with the coat of arms of Sir Hugh Wake discovered in Ashkelon and a lithographic stone for stamping leather featuring the arms of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order which was found in my favourite Crusader ruins, Montfort Castle. Articles of warfare from Tiberias and Akko were also on display, as well as a section of a Christian wall painting of plaster and pigment from a Crusader abbey in Jerusalem.

Greco-Roman remnants in the Holy Land

Greco-Roman remnants in the Holy Land

It was at this point that my camera battery died and I was forced to continue documenting my trip with my phone camera, arguably better in terms of photo quality yet lacking any real zoom (which worked out okay for museum photos). I entered a two-storey room with idolatrous statues, painted tombstones and funerary busts from the Greco-Roman period on the top floor. Descending, I spotted a familiar mosaic on the wall above me – the mosaic from the ancient synagogue at Wadi Hamam that I visited not long before – visible, albeit blurry, in the above photo.

Aramean idolatry

Aramean idolatry

With exhibits on Samaritan artefacts and ruins, ancient Jewish synagogue mosaics, the floor of a Roman dining room in Shechem (Nablus) and even the birth of coinage, there’s simply too much to write about and so I will continue on with the next selection of antiquities, including weapons of war from numerous empires, and the scatterings of pagan idols and idolatrous devices, such as an Edomite shrine found in the Negev. In the photo above, a carved basalt slab featuring one of two pagan gods was found just north of the Kinneret at the ruins of an Aramean city gate. Another object of interest was a silver goblet featuring an artistic mythological design that was found at Ein Samia, a site in the Shomron that I had visited just two days prior.

Inside the Fine Arts wing

Inside the Fine Arts wing

I then ventured across the main hall and entered a temporary exhibit titled “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story”, which I found quite interesting. Having visited a large handful of ancient sites throughout Israel I have noticed traces of Egyptian rule, something which isn’t always addressed when it comes to the standard “who’s who” in Holy Land chronology. There is no denying the influence brought about by the Ancient Egyptian culture and, to further cement in their historical importance, compelling relics were put on display (including a reconstructed sandstone gateway façade of a fortress of Ramesses II in Yafo, or Jaffa). For fear of being too long-winded, I shall end the archaeological report here and focus on the other wings of the museum, starting with the Fine Arts wing where I found some agreeable works by Hodler, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro and Corot. I browsed the Arnold Maremont Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art (of which I had seen I very similar collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts several months prior), and then the exhibit “Costume and Jewelry: A Matter of Identity” which covers traditional dress of Jews the world over.

The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue, Paramaribo, Suriname

The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue, Paramaribo, Suriname

Entering the Wing for Jewish Art and Life, I was blown away at the incredibly rich and extensive collection of all things Judaica. It’d be quite a difficult undertaking to even list the highlights of the exhibit so I shall simply cover my favourite section, “The Synagogue Route”. Featuring four reconstructed synagogues, each to a different degree of restoration, the section really interested me from a religious and cultural, as well as architectural, standpoint. I first entered the sandy-floored Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue from Suriname, a small Caribbean country in South America just north of Brazil. Built in 1736 by Portuguese Jews who lived in the Netherlands before starting a new life in the New World, the synagogue has influences from both European cultures. Next I visited the Kadavumbagam Synagogue from Cochin, India, with its large carved wood aron (holy ark) and balcony. In terms of opulence, it was the small yet grand Vittorio Veneto Synagogue from Italy which was completed in 1700 that took the proverbial cake – a masterpiece of Italian Baroque style, reminiscent of an aristocratic palace. The final synagogue is the Horb Synagogue from Germany, which sadly didn’t stand the test of time since being built in the early 1700’s. All that remains are the walls and elaborately painted wooden ceiling, dating 1735 by Jewish Galician artist Eliezer Sussman, which is the last surviving synagogue artwork of its kind.

Detail from the Horb Synagogue's painted wood ceiling

Detail from the Horb Synagogue’s painted wood ceiling

Leaving the phenomenal Judaica department, I walked, and at times nearly ran, through the ghastly contemporary art wing – only a mere few pieces holding any redeeming value in my critical opinion. I dashed for the exit and passed some sculptures in the Art Garden outside as I made my way to the Holyland Model of Jerusalem, a 1:50 scale-model of what Jerusalem might have looked like during the Second Temple Period.

Holyland Model of Jerusalem

Holyland Model of Jerusalem

At last I reached the most iconic feature of the Israel Museum, the Shrine of the Book containing the Dead Sea Scrolls under a meringue-looking white dome. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden within the building and so I have nothing to show for, other than my [written] word itself. And so, after enjoying a look at the famous scrolls found in caves in and around Qumran, I bid farewell to the famous museum and rushed back to Bar Ilan University for a computers class…

University Trip: Sites in Southeast Shomron

In Israel, Samaria on April 24, 2016 at 5:35 AM

Shortly after the Bar Ilan University department trip to the Kinneret I signed up for yet another trip, this time to some rather obscure sites in the southeastern corner of the Shomron (Samaria) not far from Jerusalem. I joined my group in Jerusalem and away we drove in a bus with plexiglass windows out of the capital and into the wilderness via Hizme Checkpoint. We drove past Tel Aswan and up the mountain to Mitzpe Dani for a 360° lookout and introductory lecture on the location by our guide Dr Dvir Raviv, a lecturer at BIU.

Dr Dvir Raviv giving the 360° tour at Mitzpe Dani

Dr Dvir Raviv giving the 360° tour at Mitzpe Dani

Spinning in a circle at the observation deck, Dvir pointed out on the horizon the various areas of Jerusalem, the desert fortress of Herodian and, to my amazement, the twin Jordan Gate Towers in Amman, Jordan just barely visible in the haze. As we were located in the semi-arid mountains of the southeastern Shomron, not far from the Judean Desert, we had a brief explanatory run-down on the different topographical and historical borders of this particular region. Regrouping in the bus we drove due north on Road 548 to our next destination, Ein Samia.

Military jeep and Bedouin herd crossing paths

Military jeep and Bedouin herd crossing paths

It was at this point that our trip became a hiking adventure. Our bus left us in the company of an army jeep and a Bedouin goatherd with his four-legged host, all of whom disappeared within mere minutes. We climbed up to a flat rock where a round shaft pit was dug into the stone, an ancient burial chamber excavated by nomads. Walking around the area we saw dozens of these nearly perfectly round shaft graves, some reaching the impressive depth of 7 metres (23 feet), a local oddity of which there are thousands.

Nomadic shaft grave

Nomadic shaft grave

We continued on along the dirt road towards Ein Samia, crossing the old cement dam at the modern pumping station. From there we climbed up into the rocky mountainside of Wadi Auja heading for a very interesting site, Namerim Cave (translated as Leopards Cave).

Climbing the cliff edge at Wadi Auja

Climbing the cliff edge at Wadi Auja

We heard the very unusual calls of the common raven as a pair of them patrolled the cliff edges. I nearly stepped on a tortoise and then took photos of a bizarre praying mantis (Empusa fasciata) and a bush cricket (Isophya savignyi).

Bush cricket (Isophya savignyi)

Bush cricket (Isophya savignyi)

As we finally reached Namerim Cave, having climbed precariously along the cliff side, we sat down at the double-mouthed entrance to hear an entrancing story about the cave’s name – while overhead some crag martins flew.

Approaching Namerim Cave from Wadi Auja

Approaching Namerim Cave from Wadi Auja

If I remember the story correctly, several decades ago there were local goatsherds who complained of a pair of leopards living somewhere in the wadi, venturing out to kill goats and even puppies of their guard dogs. The shepherds followed one of the leopards back to its lair, the cave in the cliff side, and trapped it inside. When the authorities came, answering the call, they reopened the cave and two angry and frightened leopards burst out, running away.

Lecture within Namerim Cave

Lecture within Namerim Cave

We entered the cave from the left mouth and heard about the rich archaeological finds discovered within the multi-roomed grotto, including pottery from many periods. While the academic findings and research have yet to be published (consider this a sneak peek), Namerim Cave is believed to have been a place of refuge during the Hasmonean and Bar Kochba times, perhaps also used by the Samaritans who suffered persecution as well. Inside the cave I found a bone laying in the silty dirt, giving cause to all sorts of fantastic thoughts revolving around the fearsome leopards. Some of our party slithered further into the cave, entering subsequent chambers and even finding indicative potsherds, while I hung back and attempted to photograph a small bat that I was unable to identify.

Lecture within Namerim Cave

Lecture within Namerim Cave

Reluctantly leaving the fascinating cave, we climbed up the side of the cliff we hiked along to the plateau of Khirbet Marajama, an ancient fortified Israelite city. Not too much is known about the city but the city walls are said to be historically significant.

Khirbet Marajama

Khirbet Marajama

From Khirbet Marjama we walked down the steep slope on the opposite side, facing an aqueduct, bridge and flour mill which is either Roman or Ottoman, depending who you ask. As we looped back around towards Ein Samia we interrupted some Arab looters who were pilfering the dirt in one of the excavated ruins hoping to find valuable artefacts. They scurried off and a call was made to alert authorities, a very interesting turn of events to happen so quickly.

Roman or Ottoman aqueduct and bridge

Roman or Ottoman aqueduct and bridge

Back on the bus and driving westward to the entrance of Beit El, we disembarked once again to visit the last site on our list for the day, Et-Tell. A fragmented archaeological dig covering a large area, the ruins of Et-Tell are thought to possibly be the ruins of Ai, a very significant Biblical city.

Et-Tell ruins

Et-Tell ruins

Located on a slight hill overlooking the Palestinian village of Deir Dibwan, we first came upon the ruins of a Byzantine monastery and nearby village from the Bronze, Iron and Hellenistic periods, perhaps indicating towards the importance of the site. A nearby complex of excavated structures, including many underground mikvaot (ritual baths) and olive presses, attest to a Jewish village back in Roman times.

Underground olive press cave

Underground olive press cave

Within the large underground olive press room we found small tunnels carved out of the walls, hidey-holes in times of persecution.

Emerging from the hidey-hole

Emerging from the hidey-hole

Rounding off the fantastic trip with one last lecture, alas! the hour was late and we had to head back to the bus (being Friday and all) and then back to Jerusalem… and from there back to Bar Ilan University for Shabbat with my dorm friends.

University Trip: Kinneret III

In Galilee, Israel on April 17, 2016 at 5:09 AM

Following parts I and II of Bar Ilan University’s two-day trip to the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) area, our two buses drove from the scenic ruins of Wadi Hamam to the newly excavated ruins of Migdal (or Magdala). When I was visiting friends and family in Michigan a few months ago, I stumbled upon a free copy of Smithsonian magazine (Jan-Feb 2016 issue) which featured the findings of Magdala as their cover story, which I brought back home with me (see HERE). And now, on this trip, I was able to visit the much-discussed site and to hear the discovery story from the archaeologist and IAA official mentioned in the article, Arfan Najar and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, respectively.

Magdala (or Migdal)

Magdala (or Migdal)

First gawking at the ridiculous souvenirs for the myriads of religious tourists, such as tiny vials of “synagogue sand” or “Sea of Galilee water” (each for $1 apiece), we settled down for an introductory lecture on the site. At the culmination of said lecture we all stood up and walked over to the start of the archaeological park tour, showcasing the structural finds previously hidden underground.

Examining the remains of houses

Examining the remains of houses

We discussed the unique findings of household mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) in some of the houses, with the Kinneret just minutes away by foot – evidence of wealth in the village. Onwards we walked around the complex of uncovered walls until we reached the paramount discovery of the dig, a 2,000 year old synagogue with some rather interesting features. One such detail was a short, squat, ornately carved stone table which was presumed to be used for communal Torah scroll readings, a debatable assumption. A replica of the altar-like table can be seen in the photograph below, resting on the dirt partially obscured by a broken column.

Magdala's ancient synagogue

Migdal’s ancient synagogue

Continuing onward with the extensive ruins, we walked alongside the unfinished Magdala Resort and I took the opportunity to wander off in the direction of the richly blue-coloured Kinneret. I noticed a dark basalt complex not far south and found Najar to identify it for me; an Ottoman-era homestead with an adjacent pump house was his answer. With a multitude of thanks to the guest speakers we wrapped up our Magdala visit and returned to the buses, driving north to a site I hadn’t known about: Horvat Minya.

Aerial view of Horvat Minya (photo Yaniv Darvasi)

Aerial view of Horvat Minya (photo Yaniv Darvasi)

Pulling up right outside the ruins, we were greeted by a formidable limestone wall and an open main gate flanked by half-round towers. Horvat Minya is a the remains of an Islamic palace from the Umayyad period, built by Hisham, the same caliph attributed to the construction of the Islamic palace outside Jericho (the cleverly named Hisham’s Palace).

Inside the Islamic palace

Inside the Islamic palace

Upon entering the ruined palace I was immediately swept over by a feeling of exotic adventure, like I was following in the footsteps of the lovable titular character of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Everything about the colonnaded courtyard and the atypical grass-covered floors of the rooms in the northeast quadrant of the palace felt so foreign, and I reveled in the feeling.

Snaking our way through the ruins

Snaking our way through the ruins

Passing a room with a collapsed vaulted ceiling, we snaked our way through the overgrown spring vegetation and dismantled masonry. We found Persian and/or Islamic potsherds with the characteristic green glaze as well as a large stash of broken white marble of high quality. In one room, under a sturdy staircase, we found what seems to be holes made by looters, hoping to find hidden treasure troves. Rejoining the group, we visited the remains of the on-site mosque, kitchen and numerous other rooms, paying special attention to the anchoring holes on the southern wall, used to affix marble plates in efforts to beautify the room. Despite the fact that we could have stayed a lot longer, the sun was setting and there was still one more site to visit: Tel Kinnorot.

Prof Aren Maeir lecturing from the ruined walls of Tel Kinnorot

Prof Aren Maeir lecturing from the ruined walls of Tel Kinnorot

We disembarked just off the road not far from Capernaum Junction and climbed up the hill overlooking the Kinneret, reaching the excavated ruins partway up. An ancient settlement that has been used in research to showcase early urbanisation, Tel Kinnorot was mentioned in the Bible as a fortified city in two separate accounts. A fragment from an Egyptian stella with hieroglyphic markings was found in 1928 and a very thorough and well composed article was written up in recent years which can be seen HERE (I especially liked the fish bit). But we stopped to visit just the gate and storage houses, if I recall correctly, where we had a lecture as the sun slipped over the slope of the tel.

Sunset over the tel

Sunset over the tel

Afterwards we enjoyed snacks and beverages both hot and cold before walking back down to the parked buses. I was dropped off at Migdal where my parents picked me up for the drive back home, ending a very long but very enjoyable trip with Bar Ilan University, hopefully the first of many…

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