Israel's Good Name

Jerusalem: Patches of Nature

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 11, 2018 at 10:15 AM

Continuing with a series of Friday trips, this post covers a trip to a number of nature parks within the city limits of Jerusalem. I was joined by two friends, both of whom have been featured numerous times in the blog: Adam and Itamar. Our plan was to start at the Wohl Rose Park, just outside the Knesset building, and then make our way south, visiting more sites along the way. Busing our way from Givat Shmuel, Adam and I took another bus within Jerusalem and began at the aforementioned rose garden.

Rose garden pond

Our mission first and foremost was to birdwatch. Although we knew that this garden is known for its birding opportunities, there were even more than expected, and birds such as starlings, Syrian woodpeckers and chaffinches filled our wide eyes. We were equipped with high-zoom digital cameras: myself with my 21x optical zoom and Adam rocking his hefty 40x optical zoom.

Song thrush

As we walked the park’s paved trails, we kept our birding focus and spotted birds everywhere around us. One bold specimen, a song thrush, perched itself on a branch right next to us and posed pleasantly. All in all, some fifteen or more species were sighted within the half hour or so that we spent there. Moving past the rose bushes, we found a small pond with a small waterfall, and behind it, a Japanese-themed garden. There we found Algerian irises blossoming and ornate Japanese pieces donated by a Japanese businessman that Adam met a few years ago whilst doing translation work.

Japanese garden

Moving onward, we saw groups of people practicing various arts in the grass, including one young man practicing Kenjutsu, one engaging in Japanese swordsmanship. Leaving the garden, we crossed a small street and entered the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Having covered this place in a previous post, just a short summary of our actions there will suffice.

Chiffchaff in the hands of a ringer (photo Itamar Berko)

Bird ringing was being shown to a visiting group and we were greeted by the staff, which include a friend of mine from BIU named Nesia. They informed us that a water rail could be seen from the blind. So Adam and I took up spots in the dark wooden blind and watched the water rail walk along the water’s edge at the tiny pond, hunting for tasty things to eat. Out of the forty pictures I took of this water rail, here is the one I like best:

Water rail

Itamar met up with us while we watched the rail, and surprised us by pulling out from his bag a camera with a whopping 65x optical zoom. It was a delight to see the results on the screen and I feel tempted to get one for myself. Taking photographs of a perched European robin with both mine and his camera really gave me perspective on how much better my photographs can be.

European robin (photo Itamar Berko)

Leaving the observatory, we began our walk southward by way of Gan Sacher. Itamar pointed out what looks to be an ancient burial cave along the path just outside of the observatory, something that was either covered up or missed the last two times Adam and I were there. In addition, the spring blossoms provided a lovely distraction for us, as you can see here:

Almond blossoms

The next site on our list was historical rather than birding-oriented but since birds can be found everywhere, we kept our eyes open. We were to visit the Monastery of the Cross, a large heavily-built structure in the aptly-named Valley of the Cross. The name originates from the belief that the tree from which the cross of crucifixion was made grew there and thus, in the Byzantine period, a monastery was built at this very spot.

Monastery of the Cross

Following destruction in the Persian period, the monastery was rebuilt by a Georgian monk around the time of the Crusaders and the site flourished. Post-Crusader Muslim rule saw attempts to change the monastery into a mosque but with limited success. Eventually in the late 1600s, the ownership of the monastery was transferred to the Greek Orthodox church, to whom it remains to this very day. We approached the fortress-like building from the north, pausing to scan the valley for birds, and then examining the monastery from up close. Above the doorway of the complex we found a Greek inscription, which I tried my best to read. We peered into the inner courtyard where a solemn monk was washing the floors and then continued on to enjoy the view from the southern end. Inside the old monastery are all sorts of interesting things to see, including an ancient mosaic floor, but we continued onwards and enjoyed the company of a spur-thighed tortoise outside.

Photographing the blossoming almond tree

From there we took a bit of a convoluted route southward through the city until we reached a grocery store, where we shopped for nourishment. Revitalised delicious pastries, we made our way to the Gazelle Valley, an urban park famous for its local population of mountain gazelles. I had heard about the park for years, since it opened up in 2015, so it was nice to finally visit.

Gazelle Valley pond

Nearly immediately, we spotted a chukar and several gazelles far off on the opposite end of the park. Bordered by highways and houses, the park is a large triangle of green that provides refuge to a large variety of wildlife. Looking at the site’s map, we saw that there was a stream with a series of ponds that effectively filter the water of pollutants, a really cool method in curbing ecological damage.

Grazing gazelle (photo Itamar Berko)

We lingered around the first two ponds, watching a sparrowhawk fly overhead and a group of moorhens splash around in the water. Perhaps it’s the season, perhaps it’s the heat of the day, but we didn’t see too many species of birds so we prepared to move on.

Almond blossoms galore (photo Adam Ota)

Itamar had to head out, so Adam and I boarded a nearby bus to Malha Mall where we found a trail to Ein Yael, and other sites just outside of Jerusalem. There wasn’t much time so we made our way quickly, but realised when we passed the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo that we had gone too far.

Path to an upcoming adventure

Unfortunately we needed to get back to Givat Shmuel and had to catch a bus, or else we’d be stranded in Jerusalem for Shabbat. We reluctantly abandoned our plans to visit Ein Yael and made our way to the Central Bus Station area. Our adventure wasn’t over yet: our bus began smoking whilst on Road 1 and we pulled over in middle of nowhere where we waited for a replacement bus to scoop us all up. All in all, a very eventful Friday!


North Tel Aviv Coast II

In Central Israel, Israel on March 4, 2018 at 7:22 AM

Since our first birding trip to the North Tel Aviv Coast back in October last year, my friend Adam and I had planned to revisit the coastline again, but this time heading north towards Herziliya. Being that it’s still the tail-end of winter, and not the spring migration, we weren’t sure what we’d see in terms of birds, but it’s always worth a shot. To take advantage of the morning activity, we left at first light, taking buses to Tel Aviv and then up the coast to Glilot Junction, where we got off and walked towards the open stretches of land that were waking up from the chilly night.

Early morning light (photo Adam Ota)

The morning started off with a handful of juvenile gulls flying in from the sea, but we weren’t able to identify them successfully. Merging from the paved road to one of many dirt trails that crisscross the open land, we began to scour the area around us for interesting birds. We saw tons of the regulars, such as stonechats, sunbirds and more, but nothing exciting for the first twenty minutes or so. At last we spotted a small flock of Spanish sparrows, which always excite me.

Chiffchaff (photo Adam Ota)

Another twenty minutes of scouring, whilst walking slowly northward, until we saw our next fun bird: a male blackcap. Moments later a Sardinian warbler made an appearance, and then a male common kestrel. Turning east to examine a row of tall eucalyptus trees, we came across extensive caterpillar webs, covered with innumerable drops of dew.

Dewy webs

Entering the shade of the eucalyptus we found nothing but hooded crows — a lot of hooded crows, watching us with a collective suspicious eye. Swinging ever northeasterly, we watched a chiffchaff flit about in a bush, and then something surprising happened. I was casually looking over a flat area when a large bird emerged from the verdancy. At first I thought it must be a crow, and then I saw it was a common buzzard, so I got Adam’s attention and together we watched it fly off.

Adam in action

Deciding to start heading for the coastline, we walked along a trail and spotted a flock of cormorants flying over the Mediterranean. Seeing even this common aquatic bird filled us with hope that we’d see something interesting. When we reached the cliff overlook the beach, a common tern flew by, challenging us to photograph it while it dove in and out of the surf hunting tiny fish. This was my first time seeing a common tern, so I did my very best to capture a decent record shot.

Common tern in flight

Several more common terns joined in on the fun, and we were reluctant to keep walking. Unfortunately, it was a Friday and I intended on traveling up north to Ma’alot for Shabbat, so time was an issue. We pushed onward, heading for Tel Michal just outside the Herziliya marina. Nearly immediately we were greeted by a trio of kestrels and a few crows who thought it necessary to harass the poor kestrels. A blanket of yellow wildflowers paved the way for a small vernal pool, complete with a sign explaining the importance of these pools to the ecosystem.

Tel Michal’s vernal pool

While we were distracted by the pool, peering in to see if we could find anything curious, we noticed a long stone wall atop the nearby ridge, complete with a path leading up. Needless to say, we made a beeline for this old structure, which we identified as a Roman fortress shortly thereafter with the aid of a sign. A large stone building complete with a tower, constructed on the rough kurkar ridge, served the purpose of watchpost by day and lighthouse by night. From the Roman coins found on-site, the fortress was active during the first half of the 1st Century CE, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. To date, this has been the only Roman fortress to be found on the coast.

Approaching the Roman fortress

We entered the fortress, examining what there was to be seen, and enjoying the view of the open land to the east and the marina to the west. After visiting, I read a short publication on the 1977 excavation of Tel Michal and learned that they had discovered a hoard of Ptolemaic coins, dating from the successions after the reign of Alexander the Great, as well as a grim Persian period burial featuring a child inside a ceramic jar.

Roman fortress and the modern-day marina

Overall, the tel saw occupation starting in the Middle Bronze Age, continuing into the Iron Age until being repopulated in the Persian period. Then began the Classical times, the Hellenistic and Roman period, ending off with the site being used as a military observation post during the Early Arab period.

View to the northeast

After spending a good twenty minutes or so in the fortress ruins we made our way back down the hill and headed for the closest bus stop to be taken back to civilisation as they call it, planning to go on more adventures as soon as possible.

Exploring Jerusalem

In Israel, Jerusalem on February 25, 2018 at 8:15 AM

At the end of January I began a currently-ongoing series of adventures with my friend Adam Ota. Being that we both like to explore, and that we are both on semester break, we decided to have some fun, starting with a Friday trip to Jerusalem. Having left early in the morning, we met up and boarded a bus under the rainbow-adorned skies of Bnei Brak. Disembarking in Jerusalem, we then boarded the light rail for the Old City of Jerusalem. Getting off near Damascus Gate, which we bypassed, we entered the walled Old City by way of the New Gate. I don’t recall ever using the New Gate so it was an experience in and of itself.

Within the Christian Quarter

Our goals were to simply explore, and we began right away. Keeping an eye out for interesting things, we passed the Latin Patriarchate and Santa’s House before making our way through the shuk (open market) of the Christian Quarter. Swinging north through the narrow stone alleys, we set out to find the site where the headquarters of the Crusader Hospitaller Order once stood. We passed a curious plaza of columns and arches, adorned with sculptures of white storks bearing fish instead of babies. Wandering around a bit, taking note of the various architectural intricacies, we found what we were looking for: a large white stone with an inscription about the medieval hospital that commanded the interior of a small fenced-off yard.

Commemoration of the Crusader Hospitaller Order

Continuing to explore, we stumbled upon the historical Aftimos Market and then the holiest Christian site in the world – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Curious as to what there is to see, we ventured through the arched gateway to the plaza and were wowed at the amount of pilgrims and tourists who were waiting to enter the site. Looking about, Adam pointed out a small ladder leaning against the window frame on the second level of the structure, telling me that there’s a story about it.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

He was right – this ladder is called the Immovable Ladder and has been there nearly consecutively since the 1700s. Since the ownership and rights are a complicated issue, every little change to the site or its possessions must be agreed upon by all five church orders who jointly share guardianship of the holy site. This issue has basically enacted a status quo situation for the ladder that was left there, albeit unintentionally, forbidding its removal. In additional, due to this same concept, archaeological work done to the site take ages to get approved, but the results usually prove to be interesting to say the least.

Wall plaque of St George slaying a dragon

Heading out with a Turkish group, we made our way back out of the Old City via the New Gate, once again. The next site on our itinerary was the Museum of the Underground Prisoners in the Russian Compound, not far from City Hall. We entered and began to explore the quiet museum, a building restored to resemble the prison that it once was. Built in 1864 by the Russian Empire, the structure served as a hostel for Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Later, the site was converted into the Central Prison by the British in 1918. Used the hold both Arab and Jewish prisoners, the prison was well-guarded. However, escapes were attempted, often with help from the outside. Eventually, the prison served as a warehouse after being cleared out during the War for Independence and was transferred to the Ministry of Defense in 1991. The building was restored to how we see it today, a remembrance for the difficult formative years of the modern Jewish country.

Within the Museum of the Underground Prisoners

We began our tour of the building with the printing and wood workshops, working our way around in a counterclockwise manner from the central hallway. Next we viewed the showers and the kitchens, reflecting upon how life must have been for the prisoners here in the not-so distant past. Appropriate background noise played in the different workshop rooms which gave it a realistic ambiance.

Printing workshop

We moved on to Room 23, a group cell where an old escape tunnel still exists from the fateful day of February 20, 1948 when twelve members of both Lehi and Etzel groups attempted to escape via this tunnel. Another interesting feature of the room are floor stones carved with words, symbols, and illustrations by the prisoners as they idled away in their collective cell. From there we moved to the prayer room, making our way around the other courtyard. A visit to the solitary confinement cells and the local gallows, was certainly sobering and so we carried on.

The warden’s office

At the far end, just before the exit, we found the office of the prison warden which we found quite interesting. Beside the fireplace inside we noticed a vintage British fire extinguisher, an interesting antique. Outside, back in the cold winter air, we watched a pair of Syrian woodpeckers in a tree and then inspected the few outdoor exhibits before carrying on to the next site on our list.

The Ticho House

Up next was the Ticho House, just a few minutes away from the downtown area. Operated by the Israel Museum, the Ticho House is the restored house of Albert and Anna Ticho, who lived there in the early and mid-1900s. It was one of the first houses to be built outside the Old City walls way back in 1864, and had transferred hands several times in the past 150 years. Today it serves as a small gallery with a balcony café, perfect for dates or adventure seekers.

Hanukiyyah collection

Inside, we began with the room on contemporary art but, as that isn’t quite our cup of tea, we moved on to the next room where some of Albert Ticho’s hanukiyyah (or, menorah) collection, that he had amassed over the period of forty years, was on display. Those and a few other interesting items on display rounded off that room and we ventured back outside. Wandering about a little to examine neighbouring houses of similar age, we eventually headed for the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) where we were to grab lunch before heading back.

Adventure is always calling

Choosing the cheap route, we got falafel and then popped over to the local taproom, Hatch, where I sampled some of the new brew offerings, and settled on a cold glass of oatmeal stout. We then headed for the bus and arrived back in Givat Shmuel with enough time to get ready for Shabbat and the feeling that more adventures were on the horizon.