Israel's Good Name

Chastellet (Jacob’s Ford)

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on April 26, 2015 at 5:16 AM

This past week I was released from the IDF after serving two and a half interesting years – but this post is not about that. Nearly a year ago I had the day off from my army duties, and to take advantage, my parents and I took a little drive over to the Jordan River, just a few minutes east of Tzfat and Rosh Pina. We pulled over just before the B’not Ya’akov (Daughters of Jacob) Bridge, a historically strategic crossing point between the Galilee and the Golan. Just a few feet before the sign welcoming drivers to the Golan, we turned onto a dirt road and parked just outside our destination: the Crusader fortress of Chastellet.

Chastellet's northwestern wall

Chastellet’s northwestern wall

At the crossing point, also known as Jacob’s Ford (Vadum Iacob in Latin), a fortress was built in 1179 by the Crusaders under King Baldwin IV, the “Leper King”, to assert power over the region – preventing a Muslim invasion and putting pressure on the Ayyubid stronghold of Damascus. With such strategic importance attached to the project, the king moved his seat of government to the building site, his men working alongside the Templars.

Chastellet from the sky (photo: Wikipedia)

Chastellet from the sky (photo: Wikipedia)

Frantic at this regional game-changer, the Muslim sultan Saladin offered a bribe of 100,000 dinars for the Christians to abandon their efforts. When his bribe was refused, and the castle was already considered complete and in the hands of the Templars, Saladin gathered up a small army and began a siege of the newly-built Chastellet. The castle’s battle-hardened garrison fiercely defended their vantage point and the siege was called off when a knight named Rénier de Maron killed one of Saladin’s leading emirs with a well-aimed arrow.

Grasshopper

Grasshopper

Several months later, having defeated the Crusaders at Marjaayoun Valley in Lebanon (just north of Nachal Iyyun), Saladin once again attacked Chastellet. Knowing that King Baldwin was camped not far away in Tiberias, Saladin decided to rush the castle, hoping to overrun it with his force superior in number. A vicious battle ensued and the Christians, numbering over 1,000, were ultimately defeated.

My mother posing at the castle's western wall

My mother posing at the castle’s western wall

While researching this castle online I came upon this reenactment of the bloody battle on the National Geographic channel: “Epic Battle”. After the victory, Saladin ordered that the walls be torn down and, to this day, the site was utterly abandoned and thereby well-preserved. Only earthquakes in 1202, 1759 and 1837 resulted in the meagre walls to be shifted in their places.

Earthquake-cracked walls

Earthquake-cracked walls

Archaeologists have uncovered full skeletons of fallen Crusaders and the castle’s water cistern is said to hold hundreds of dead Crusader corpses. When we visited we saw no skeletal hands reaching up through the dry dirt, but perhaps if we were to start digging, we would. Starting from the northwest corner we walked the rim of the castle ruins, pausing here and there to admire and photograph. When we finished looking at the castle, we headed down and had a brief staring contest with a particularly aggressive-looking cow and then walked down to the riverbank.

The Jordan River gently flowing by

The Jordan River gently flowing by

We found a nice shaded spot to sit in the river, under Chastellet, and relaxed in the Jordan’s cold, watery embrace. As I saw in the Golan Archaeological Museum in Qatsrin, part of an elephant’s remains was unearthed not far from where we were – closer to the bridge and on the Golan side of the river. With that we dried off in the hot June sun and got back into the car for the drive back home.

Old Northern Road

In Galilee, Israel on April 20, 2015 at 4:21 AM

On the third day of this Pesach’s Chol HaMoed I planned a trip for my family to a series of interesting sites along the Old Northern Road (also known as Road 899) which hugs the Israel-Lebanon border. With intentions on eating lunch somewhere along the way, we packed a nice picnic, including fruits and snacks, cold drinks, a pan of matza lasagna and even a bottle of chilled white wine. Leaving Ma’alot, we headed in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea but turned right at Kabri Junction to reach the Old Northern Road.

X marks the spots

X marks the spots

Our first stop was just up ahead, ruins at the junction of the road to Manot. The site, aptly named Manot ruins, was relatively easy to find and we only suffered a few thorn pricks and the incredible burning sensation gifted to us by a mysterious spiky plant. Walking through the wildflowers, we first came across the Crusader sugar press, carved into the bedrock, which supplied cane sugar (a great commodity at the time) to Europe, making them rich and valuable. Just beyond it we found the thick walls of the fortified farmhouse from the Roman and Byzantine periods.

My father at the Manot ruins

My father at the Manot ruins

Getting back into the car, we drove through the town of Shlomi to reach Kibbutz Hanita, where we had two destinations. We enjoyed the winding route up the mountain and parked beside a wonderful children’s park with wooden play structures. The whole family took part in the fun and only after we accidentally ventured into the kibbutz’s dining room did we regain focus and find the Tower and Stockade Museum.

Tower and Stockade Museum

Tower and Stockade Museum

Housed in a stone building which was built on the remains of a Byzantine church, and had since served a variety of purposes, the museum chronicles the founding of Hanita and the pioneering concept of “tower and stockade”. During the Arab Revolt in the late 1930’s, the Jews developed a quickly constructed way to settle down in an area otherwise overran with dangerous Arab raiding parties. And so, some fifty-seven “tower and stockade” settlements were created over a four-year period – including Shavei Tzion. Hanita was established in 1938 but at its time was a great feat, as the climb to Hanita was rather difficult and would leave them all unprotected. So the Lower Camp was created and at daybreak on March 21st, the huge procession began – protected by the Haganah and the “Notrim”. Clearly a success story, the museum displays numerous artefacts and photographs from the time, as well as some other curiosities such as a leopard skin illustrating the last known Arabian leopard in the region who was killed by a hunter in 1965 near the nearby Namer Caves. Being as though the museum was built within a historical building, it’s logical that there would be an archaeological wing as well. Most of the findings, including coins, weapons and plenty of mosaics, came from in and around Hanita including this impressive depiction of a wild boar:

Wild boar mosaic

Wild boar mosaic

Leaving Hanita, we stopped off at this replica of the tower and stockade that the kibbutz members once called home.

A tower and stockade

A tower and stockade

Now driving on the Old Northern Road, we turned into Goren Park for a nice view over Nachal Kziv and Montfort Castle as well as a place to picnic. We found a shaded spot beneath some pines and broom bushes and dined – sadly, the one thing we forgot was the corkscrew for the wine.

Montfort Castle

Montfort Castle

Taking the scenic park road back to the 899, we missed two ruins sites I had originally intended on visiting. Continuing, we then pulled over on the side of the road opposite Shomera for a little climb up a hill to see Iqrit. All that remains of an Arab village that once was is their church and cemetery.

Iqrit church with house

Iqrit church with house

The locals, seated around a picnic table, expressed their great sorrow and frustration at having been relocated to other Arab cities and villages in Israel, with only a few left behind to care for the church, living in a lean-to house with outhouses in the back. All in all, interesting little operation they have going there. After the trot back down the hill we attempted to see the Tegart fort of Matat but we found it behind the fences of a military base, so we continued on. Our final stop was just to take photos from the top of Mount Adir, a gentle mountain reaching 1,008 metres above sea level. There is a short peak trail, but we stopped just shy of the military base and looked down at Druze village of Hurfeish.

View from Mount Adir

View from Mount Adir

With that, we drove back to the 899 and then headed home leaving the Sasa-Koch stretch of the Old Northern Road for a later date.

Ein Nashut & the Golan Archaeological Museum

In Golan, Israel on April 12, 2015 at 3:24 AM

Once again continuing with my adventures in the Golan, where I seized every opportunity to explore the historical and natural riches that the grassy plateau has to offer. This time I was temporarily staying at a base across from Kidmat Tzvi, just minutes from Qatsrin, the “capital of the Golan”. I had noticed a sign on the side of the road telling of a place of antiquities called “Ein Nashut Synagogue”. So, one afternoon I took my essentials and struck a path for this place, mapping out that it was roughly a kilometre and a half away (or, a mile) if I were to directly walk there through the fields.

Bumblebee in the wildflowers

Bumblebee in the wildflowers

Leaving the base’s rear gate, my walk was going rather pleasantly until suddenly a creature leaped out of the grass beside me. I was nearly paralyzed with excitement as the beautiful mountain gazelle daintily bounced up a man-made hill and disappeared from site. I wish my camera would have been on-hand to capture the moment, but it was snug in my pocket, doing nothing constructive. Hoping to spot the gazelle on the far side of the hill, I carried on around the hill, enjoying the walk. When I reached the other side, I didn’t see the gazelle but then, I spotted approximately ten gazelles racing across the land, crossing the dirt road I had walked on earlier. Refocusing on my destination, I climbed the final hill and looked out at the rolling landscape, hoping to pinpoint the ancient synagogue ruins. I was unable, however, I was standing beside some old graves which, if they are all like the one with a discernible inscription, belong to Arabs.

Old Arab grave

Old Arab grave

Crossing a seasonal stream, reduced to oozy mud deceptively covered in grass, I shortly came upon a barbed wire fence. Undeterred, I overcame the fence and continued, now approaching huge swathes of wildflowers which painted the immediate landscape in yellow, white and purple. Here the walking got tougher, swishing through the flora which alternated between knee- and waist-deep.

Chrysanthemums underfoot

Calendulas underfoot

Pausing here and there to take pictures, the ruins then came to view. Built in the Talmudic Era sometime between 400 and 600CE, the Ein Nashut Synagogue is smaller but more beautiful from an architectural aspect than the other ancient synagogues of that time elsewhere in the Golan. The site was excavated in the 1980’s and an olive press was uncovered as well – the production of olive oil being the main industry for the Jewish villagers at the time. Although a fair amount of carved stones and pillars were left in their natural state in the ruins, the most ornate sections were transferred to the Golan Archaeological Museum which I would eventually go visit several days later.

Looking down at Ein Nashut Synagogue

Looking down at Ein Nashut Synagogue

After spending a few minutes in the ruins, I decided to go a little further, not wanting to miss anything. What I found was several tumuli or cairns of small stones piled up in a surprisingly stable manner. Perhaps over time the stones settle into one another. While walking from tumulus to tumulus I gazed at the soft green landscape across Nachal Meshushim towards the town of Qatsrin. At a small circle of rough rocks, I found a tortoise rustling through the undergrowth. Swinging back, I walked along the same small seasonal stream, heading for the barbed wire fence. Just as I reached the base, having been escorted by the chirping of birds, two chukars rose into the air with a heavy fluttering of wings. My adventure at Ein Nashut was over, but the upcoming Sunday led me to another site, the Golan Archaeological Museum in Qatsrin.

A ladybug larva on a garland chrysanthemum

A ladybug larva on a calendula flower

I was heading home and the driver who relieved me dropped me off at the centre of Qatsrin for me to catch the bus. However, I noticed the sign for the museum and figured I might as well visit the museum while I’m already in Qatsrin. And so I trudged over to the museum, bearing a heavy burden on my back – my 95L backpack. Inside, I received the excellent soldier discount and began to browse the displays of artefacts, items found all over the Golan. I was pleased to see quite a few remains brought over from the nearby Ein Nashut Synagogue – including arch stones, a part of the aron (or synagogue ark) and even a sarcophagus lid inscribed: “Shimon son of Abun 26 years old”.

Archstone from Ein Nashut Synagogue

Arch-stone from Ein Nashut Synagogue

One thing that really intrigued me was the skull, tusks and molars of an elephant found on the banks of the Jordan River at the B’not Ya’akov Bridge, a historically significant crossing site. Looking at the other animal remains, it would be interesting to see the Golan filled with lions, cheetahs, hippos and bears – some of which have only recently gone extinct in the area.

26 Tyrian shekels

26 Tyrian shekels

Browsing the rest of the displayed archaeological finds of the Golan, from ancient to more modern times, I headed into the museum’s little theatre to watch a video about the rise and fall of Gamla during the Roman era, a sad tale of valour and pride. Essentially the “Masada of the Golan”, Gamla was a heavily fortified Jewish town located on a strategic horn jutting out between two streams. During the Jewish revolts against the Roman tyranny, Gamla became a stronghold and was the subject of three Roman sieges led by Agrippa II, Vespasian and Titus. At last, with a act of Roman sabotage on a guard tower, the town slowly fell to the Roman forces. With the battle lost, some two-thousand Jewish men, women and children were slain in the ensuing carnage and some three-thousand plunged to their deaths in the surrounding ravines. With Gamla in ruins, the Romans then turned towards Jerusalem and then the final Jewish stronghold, Masada. Interestingly enough, Gamla fell in the year 67CE and was only recaptured by Jews in 1967, with the successes of the Six Day War. Just as the film ended, a tour group from Colorado filed in and I exited the building to see the gardens exhibitions, with many stone lintels, columns and other ornate building sections on display – several from Ein Nashut Synagogue.

Golan Archaeological Museum's garden exhibit

Golan Archaeological Museum’s garden exhibit

Finished with the museum, I stopped for a quick lunch before beginning the long journey back home.

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