Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Old City of Jerusalem and Ramat Rachel

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 9, 2017 at 5:46 AM

A few weeks ago, after visiting the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and some archaeological sites in and under the Old City, I went on a university trip to Jerusalem, the nation’s capital. Prof Faust, of Bar Ilan University’s Tel ‘Eton archaeological dig, led the trip to some important Bronze and Iron Age remnants found in Jerusalem. Riding in a minibus, we entered the capital from the north and made our way to Jaffa Gate where we continued on-foot to the first site of interest: the Broad Wall in the Jewish Quarter. Built over 2,600 years ago, this wall is indeed broad – seven metres wide in the excavated area – and likely served as part of the northern wall of ancient Jerusalem in the First Temple period. The Old City of Jerusalem as we know it today is surrounded by an Ottoman wall built in the mid 1500s, as the city limits shifted north from its original extent.

Jerusalem’s Broad Wall

Then the professor pointed out something that I never noticed; in some sections of the Old City there are red and black tiled stripes on the stone floor. These red and black stripes depict a suggested continuation of respective First and Second Temple Period walls found far below the strata of construction. Nearby, alongside the Cardo (the north-south street in Ancient Roman cities), we gazed down glass-covered shafts to see remains of both First and Second Temple walls.

Windows to another world

From these shafts we walked over to an open excavated area with more ruins from the Temple Periods, and then we made our way to the Israelite Tower. In the map of the Jewish Quarter (click HERE), the Israelite Tower can be found just north of the Broad Wall. Built in the First Temple period, the tower would have been a typical four-chambered bastion of the aforementioned Broad Wall protecting Jerusalem’s northern border. Usually closed to visitors, we as a group of budding archaeologists were allowed in to the locked area underground.

The Israelite Tower

Within, we looked at the merge between the First and Second Period walls of the tower, the earlier wall suffering damage from the campaign of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. I rather enjoyed the spectacular photographs of the excavations in the 70s and 80s, Jerusalem looked quite different even back then. Leaving the Israelite Tower, and closing the gate behind us, we retraced our way back through the Cardo and witnessed a Bar Mitzva procession to the recently rebuilt Hurva Synagogue – the lad playing what looked like a clarinet à la the Pied Piper.

Bar Mitzva at the Hurva Synagogue

We then made our way through the Jewish Quarter until we reached the Kotel Plaza area and the Dung Gate, there we gained entrance to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park (which I visited last post with friends). But, Prof Faust was only intending on showing us Bronze and Iron Age ruins, so we breezed through the majority of the park.

Spring flowers at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park

We stopped at the Ophel area, a complex of fortifications including walls, towers, cisterns and rooms. The discovery of what appears to be another four-chambered gate, Jewish construction characteristic of the First Temple Period, was the highlight of the recent excavations, perhaps having been built by King Solomon himself. Another neat discovery was that of twelve large clay jugs known as pithoi, one with a Hebrew inscription, which are dated to the destruction of Jerusalem by the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

Inspecting the Ophel ruins

While listening to the professor, with the incessant sermonising of the Al-Aqsa mosque imam going on in the background, I was keeping a sharp eye out for interesting birds hoping that I’d spot the blue rock thrush again. Though I did not it again, my eye caught a smallish black bird flying about one of the ancient windows of the Temple Mount walls. Using my 21x zoom, and then zooming in the picture, I noticed the orange patch on the wing identifying the bird as a Tristam’s starling – a bird I had only ever seen in the Masada and Dead Sea areas.

A mess of stone ruins

Hurrying back out of the park, we rushed to the minibus parked near the Dung Gate because it was Friday afternoon and we still had two more sites to visit. The next site on the list was the ruins of Ramat Rachel just south of Jerusalem, including remains of a Roman and Byzantine village with ruins such as a columbarium and mikvaot (ritual baths) dating from the Second Temple Period. In addition, many agricultural elements were discovered such as both olive and wine-presses from various periods of antiquity, some with mosaic floors.

Ramat Rachel excavations

Passing the agricultural section, we took a quick look at the Byzantine church area before moving on to the Roman villa and Byzantine village. Lastly, we examined the Ancient Tower Lookout and then headed to the edge of the hill where we enjoyed the view of southern Jerusalem and the nearby Mar Elias Monastery (built in the 6th century). In 1956, while a group of some 500 conference participants gathered at the newly excavated Ramat Rachel dig, Jordanian troops opened fire from the outposts near the monastery killing four and wounding seventeen.

Mar Elias Monastery

Interestingly enough, one of the most recent discoveries at Ramat Rachel was the uncovering of a skeleton wearing a helmet – presumed to be a Jordanian soldier. There was a pleasant presence of nesting jackdaws and an abundance of wildflowers such as lupin, hairy vetch and prickly alkanet as well as blossoming Judas trees which brought joy to us all. But the clock was ticking and it was time to venture on over to our final destination, Rogem Site.

Nesting jackdaw

One of a series of mysterious tumuli (or mounds possibly covering graves) in the Jerusalem area, this Rogem Site is the biggest of them all. Surrounded by rock-hewn caves and agricultural installations, this mound can be found in the neighbourhood of Ganim Bet and is covered with some really great wildflowers including scarlet pimpernel and stolonous gold-crocus. While climbing the hill I noticed a particularly beautiful called barbary nut which were all shut – however, in the half hour or so that we were on the hilltop, all the flowers opened wide. This explained the common name in Hebrew for the flower: afternoon iris.

Barbary nut

The professor told us about a theory that these mounds were built to host cultist bonfires, if I understood correctly, but there is much skepticism. Leaving the wildflower-spotted hill and back in the minibus, we had a merry conversation about the hallucinogenic ergot fungi, which one of our party members found on a stalk of wild grain. Within a short while we were pulling up at Bar Ilan University and everybody disembarked to head their separate ways, bidding each other a “Shabbat shalom!”

Jerusalem: Quarries and Archaeological Park

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 2, 2017 at 8:38 AM

Carrying on with the Jerusalem trip I took with friends Adam and Daniel Ota, we had first visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and then the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market). Our next destination was intended to be the Rockefeller Museum, an archaeology museum in East Jerusalem. However, we dallied along the way, pausing to admire the historical buildings of Jerusalem. One particularly interesting building was the Italian Hospital, an impressive Renaissance-style building completed in 1919. Upon reaching the walls of the Old City, we were making our way into East Jerusalem after passing the ornate Damascus Gate when we spotted something intriguing at the base of the wall.

King Solomon’s Quarries

An opening of a cave, with a sign stating “King Solomon’s Quarries (Zedekiah’s Cave)” – and with a name like that we just had to investigate. The moody guard attending the entrance post admitted us after we paid the nominal student fee and our explorations began. At first we imagined that the maw-like chamber was the whole extent of the cave but as we walked further and further along the lit path, we realised that this was quite an impressive cave.

O’ glorious cave

The cave was originally a natural cave and was enlarged into a large subterranean quarry approximately 2,000 years ago – around the time of the Second Temple. According to the report by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a ceremonial stone mallet with Freemason markings and the words “King Solomon” was found, in addition to pottery and coins from various periods. Stone blocks hewn from the cave were used to build houses and buildings in Jerusalem and, with the Old City built over it, the cave was forgotten and the entrance covered up. One wintery day in 1854, an American scholar named Dr James Turner Barclay accidentally discovered the cave while walking his dog and secretly surveyed the cave, announcing his discovery shortly thereafter. Deeper and deeper we walked, the air becoming damp while the occasional drops of water falling around us from the cave ceiling. We next passed through a large cavern named “the Freemasons Hall”, where Freemason ceremonies took place in the years after the cave’s discovery.

Within the Freemason Hall

Leaving the cavern we heard the noise of running water and found a crack in the cave wall dripping water into a small pool, a site named “Zedekiah’s Tears”. On the other side of the cave we found a chained-off area with a sign claiming that the area ahead was a “challenging trail”, but, being the explorer that I am, I naturally ignored the pesky chain and explored the damp darkness. What I found was a hole in the cave floor with what looked to be a passage below – I did not venture any further. Heading back out of the cave, pausing to comment on the charcoal graffiti dating 1889, we expressed our marvel of this virtually unknown place of interest. Just to express the cave’s size, the maximum length measures out to about 230 metres, with the width reaching over 100 metres at the widest point. All-in-all the cave is 9,000 square metres with the average height of fifteen metres throughout – an illustration over the satellite image of the Old City demonstrating the underground reaches can be seen HERE. Rain was drizzling down when we left the muggy comfort of the cave and we made our way to Rockefeller Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day twenty minutes prior.

Iconic tombs in the Kidron Valley

And so, to salvage the rest of the hours of daylight, we decided to loop around the eastern side of the Old City and found ourselves looking across at the Mount of Olives and down at Kidron Valley with its masses of Jewish graves including the iconic Yad Avshalom and the so-called Tomb of Zechariah. Our view then turned to the Arab village of Silwan and then we made our way to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, just inside the Dung Gate.

Jewish ‘graves’ and Silwan

We paid the discounted student entrance fee and began with the Davidson Centre where we breezed past descriptions and explanations of Jerusalem’s rich yet turbid past. Leaving the visitors centre, we first feasted our eyes on the gardens of the Umayyad palace before crossing over into the Ophel Walls area with it numerous strata of construction. Houses, communal structures, ritual baths and cisterns all build one atop the other; the archaeological work must have been dizzying.

Strata of ancient construction

Unfortunately, while the rain had stopped minutes earlier, the skies were still gloomily overcast. With sunset approaching, we hurried through the ruins and I spotted two fun birds with colourful names: a black redstart and a blue rock thrush (my second one ever). Here is an interesting Byzantine mosaic floor that reads “Happy are the inhabitants of this house” in Greek:

Byzantine mosaic floor

One thing that I find difficult with sites such as this (and also Bet Shean, for example) is the sheer quantity of things to see. When one sees a singular ancient building or the ruins of a small complex it is easier to process, but when confronted with the huge amount of ruins and artefacts to examine… some of us get a little overwhelmed.

Cloudy sunset over the Old City

We made our way to the staircase of the Hulda Gates, entrances to the Temple Mount that were sealed up many years ago. There is a Latin inscription visible above the western Hulda Gate, dating to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian, and a façade from the Umayyad period.

Looking up at the façade and inscription

Walking along the southern wall of the Temple Mount, we reached and climbed the remains of the Crusader tower (the famous Templars were based out of the Temple Mount, thus the name) and enjoyed the view. Above us, beside the dull silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, there is a Muslim archaeology museum of sorts – sadly off-limits to us.

Crusader tower behind the tree

Leaving the tower, we continued along the impressive wall and reached the corner where an interesting inscription is on display as well as multitudes of enormous broken blocks from the Roman destruction of the Temple nearly 2,000 years ago. There, the famous Robinson’s Arch was discovered fallen, with small stores at the opposing base.

Robinson’s Arch

Darkness settling in, we hurried through the last section of the ruins and then popped over to the Kotel (or Western Wall) for a quick visit.

Posing at the Kotel

Despite the gloomy, grey skies that the day offered, twilight was actually quite beautiful and I was able to take a rather pleasing photo of the Kotel:

Kotel at twilight

Leaving the Kotel, we boarded a bus back to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station where we had dinner (schnitzel in a baguette for me) and then boarded a bus back to Givat Shmuel to bring an end to a very long but very adventurous day. Little did I know that I was to revisit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park a mere two week later with fellow Archaeology students in the form of an academic tour – coming up next…

Jerusalem Bird Observatory

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 26, 2017 at 8:16 AM

A few weeks ago, before all the fun of Purim, I took another trip to Jerusalem with my friend Adam Ota, and this time his brother Daniel tagged along. We were headed for the Jerusalem Bird Observatory to watch the morning bird ringing, but unfortunately had a later start then planned. Arriving in Jerusalem, we walked into the Government complex, passing by the Supreme Court of Israel and then one of the entrances to the Knesset when we turned off-road. Right there, nestled in the trees and rose bushes, is the Jerusalem Bird Observatory with its ringing station for bird identifications and record tracking.

Jerusalem Bird Observatory

Since we arrived a tad late the ringing was over but we were shown into the centre by Sara Dudovitz, a friend of my family, where we watched a short film comprised of footage of wildlife in urban Jerusalem. Amir Balaban, the director of JBO and consummate nature videographer (see his YouTube videos HERE), made an appearance and then was off. After the short film I marveled at the minute size of a stuffed little owl and we were then given a short tour of the closed ringing station.

Springtime blossoming

Looking out the big picture windows, I spotted my first lesser whitethroat hopping about on the ground twenty or so metres away. Moments later, a Syrian woodpecker landed on a nearby tree and began examining it – followed by a great tit flitting by. Convinced that this was the place to be, I intended to settle in for some birding, but Sara knew better and took us to an even better spot – the observation room with its open windows to a small nature area with a tiny waterfall and pond.

Peering into nature

Armed with my camera and its 21x optical zoom, I joined Adam and his old Russian military monocular in scouring the outlying views of our post for birds. I was amazed at the sheer quantity of wildlife mere metres away; blackbirds, European robins, greenfinches, a white-breasted kingfisher and two Caspian turtles basking at the waters edge.

White-breasted kingfisher

As I was watching a whole bunch of sparrows, chaffinches and greenfinches feeding in the grass 2-3 metres away, I noticed that there was one who didn’t fit in. It was a bird I had never seen before, and it took me only a few seconds to realise what it must be: a female brambling. Minutes later it was joined by a male brambling, a songbird of striking plumage. My photos didn’t turn out too amazing so I was fortunate to secure a nearly identical (yet far superior) one from talented photographed Ilan Ramati who visited the JBO on the following day.

Brambling (photo Ilan Ramati)

Shortly thereafter, as the three of us continued to notice new birds appearing in our field of view, one of the women who work at the JBO went out to refill the seeds in the bird-feeders and to string fresh lines of peanuts. Keeping my camera focused on one of the bird-feeders I tried time and again to capture a great tit snatching sunflower seeds, but to no avail. I did, however, catch this Eurasian jay perched on the peanut line moment before he wrestled one off for consumption.

Eurasian jay

One of my favourite songbirds, the European robin, was only spotted in the shade to the right side of the observation deck which made it hard to photograph. I adore how despite their dumpiness and overall simpleton demeanor, their warbling song is commendable to say the least. And so we stayed in the observation deck for a couple more minutes before popping on to the living roof – the first one in Israel – and then departing via Gan Sacher, the backside of the JBO preserve.

Almond blossom

We saw an interesting thorny tree and the plentiful blossoming of anemones, Persian cyclamens and almond trees as well as a few jackdaws as we walked out of the park. We were headed for Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) where we had a lunch of pasta before heading to East Jerusalem, in search for archaeological wonders.