Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Northwest Negev II

In Israel, Negev on May 22, 2018 at 1:15 PM

The day following our trip to Tel Gezer and other sites, we took another Bar Ilan University field trip, this time to the northwest Negev region. Leading us was Dr Shawn Zelig-Aster, a lecturer in Biblical history, and our destinations included a string of biblical-age settlement ruins. We departed from the campus in the morning and made our way by means of minibus to the first of the sites: Tel el-Hesi.

Approaching Tel el-Hesi

Famous for being the first site to be excavated using the concept of chronological stratigraphy, pioneered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Tel el-Hesi in 1890 on behalf of the PEF (as can be seen HERE). According to this method, the understanding of differing levels excavated point directly to different time periods in chronological sequence. Under the belief that Tel el-Hesi was the Biblical city of Lachish, Petrie, and later American archaeologist FJ Bliss, excavated with the use of local Arab laborers to define Levantine archaeological sequences in the most scientific manner yet.

Cereal grain detail

We disembarked from our minibus on an access road off Road 40 in a slightly less scientific manner, gathering around beside a golden wheat field to hear from Dr Zelig-Aster. Being that it’s spring and a different part of the country than I’m usually in, I was eager to find new and interesting birds, as is to be expected. But that had to wait, as there were only a few collared doves and a jackdaw in the nearby vicinity. Properly briefed on the geographical aspect of the land, we began along the dirt road toward Tel el-Hesi, shaded by a row of trees planted alongside the road.

Scenic view

We reached Nachal Shikma, with its flour mill ruins, and continued until we reached a harvested field that gave us the first look at the small tel. As we stood there, learning about the tel and its importance in history, I noticed that the birds flying around above us looked a little peculiar. Maxing out my camera’s 21x optical zoom, I was able to see that these were very colourful European bee-eaters – my first time seeing them.

Beetles on a thistle

Leaving the field to approach the tel from the north, we continued after seeing a nice step buzzard pass overhead. Next, we found a picturesque field with some of spring’s blossoms still dotting the green grass, and stopped to take a group photo.

Group photo

We approached and then climbed the tel via the dirt road, and as I walked, I noticed a flock of white storks coming from the west and a few black kites mixed in too. At nearly the top of the tel, a small flock of small birds took flight, frightened off by us. Later, I identified them as red-throated pipits – again a first for me.

Poppies growing beside the trail

Atop the tel we realised that the bee-eaters were nesting in the red earth banks, and as there wasn’t much to see anymore, we made our way back down after a few minutes, allowing the bee-eaters to continue their breeding undisturbed. From the tel’s vantage point I was afforded a sighting of a masked shrike and this season’s first roller for me – a lovely blue bird that I had only previously seen at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig in the summer.

Horned poppy flower

Heading back down the tel, we continued on the dirt road northwest toward the next site on the list: Tel Sheqef. Along the way we found a horned poppy with its orange blossoms growing right in the middle of the road, saw a few more rollers, and nearly had a altercation with some Bedouin shepherd dogs. Two kilometres later we climbed the small hill that is Tel Sheqef.

Tel Sheqef

Without too much visible architecture, the tel was largely covered with earth and dry grass, and made a nice place to stand on. As we stood in a circle, my eyes drifted off to scan the surroundings but my attention was eventually caught by one of the members of our party. We had discovered a couple crude white mosaic stones, similar to those that I found in the Jerusalem aqueduct archaeological dig, and then a couple more. Within minutes we realised that we were surrounded by dozens of these stones and were properly impressed by the implications of a ruined mosaic floor.

Bedouin herding his sheep

We didn’t spend long atop Tel Sheqef with its Bronze, Iron and Hellenistic age ruins, but rather elected to continue onward toward our next site. The walk to the west followed alongside agricultural fields, mostly wheat and potato, for several kilometres of heat and humidity. Off in the distance, we saw black smoke rising, probably a result of the rioting at the Gazan border that was ongoing that week. We trudged along, following the dirt roads until at last we reached a gathering of pine trees. We cut through the trees and found a small hill covered with the same dry grass that adorned the other tels.

Wheat field

Up top, we gathered around beside some fenced-off ruins that had been excavated in recent years. We were at Khirbet Summeily, just east of Tlamim, a moshav founded in 1950 by immigrants from Djerba. I became immediately distracted by a number of swallowtail butterflies who were obsessively feasting on thistles.

Swallowtail butterfly

I even shared a moment with one particular swallowtail who flew off when I got too close to its thistle. I expected the butterfly to go find a different flower, but no, instead it landed on the barbed wire nearby and waited. This gave me a great opportunity to photograph it, which I did to the best of my ability, and then I backed off. When I was a sufficient distance away, the swallowtail took flight and returned to its thistle, where it continued to feed.

Examining the overgrown ruins of Khirbet Summeily

We briefly learned about the site of Khirbet Summeily, and its lack of biblical identity, and then examined the ruins from up close. Descending the small hill, we returned to the trees and made our way toward the road.

Departing via the trees

Along the way we found countless clumpings of wool from Bedouin sheep that were shorn at the end of the winter, which was a slightly unusual scene. We found our minibus and boarded it, all hot and sweaty, and enjoyed the ride back to BIU, knowing that the next trip was just around the corner.

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University Trip: Tel Gezer & RBS Dig

In Israel, Judea on May 14, 2018 at 9:37 AM

The week following Pesach break I went back down to Givat Shmuel and resumed my studies at Bar Ilan University. That Thursday, I partook in a field trip with Prof Aren Maeir to several sites in the Judean Lowlands. The first on the list was the famous site of Tel Gezer, located nearly seven kilometres northwest of Latrun and just over nine kilometres southeast of the city of Rehovot. We left BIU in the morning and made our way directly to Tel Gezer, our tour bus driving up the run-down access road to the top of the hill. There we disembarked and set off on a counter-clockwise tour of the site. Immediately, I noticed the abundance of black-and-white butterflies fluttering about, feasting on the wildflowers.

Levantine marbled white butterfly

Whilst I was crouching in the thistles distracted by the Levantine marbled white butterflies, Prof Maeir began the site overview lecture. Gezer was first settled in prehistoric times, but an actual city wasn’t established until the Bronze Era, some 4,500 years ago. Mention of Gezer can first be found in Egyptian records, such as the famed el-Amarna letters, and that was followed up by the Bible where it is listed as an important city. Conquering the land from the local Canaanites, the Israelites moved in alongside them in the city of Gezer, unable to conquer it completely. Gezer saw decline after the Hellenistic period, and was rebuilt as a small village during the Ottoman period.

Israelite ruins of Gezer

Gezer was excavated at first in 1902 by RAS Macalister, and archaeological digs have been ongoing nearly every decade since then up until 2015. Open to the general public, with signs and everything, the tel is now open as a national park. Returning to the history of the site, we discussed the famous Gezer calendar, a limestone tablet with a list of agricultural activities corresponding to the months of the year. Dr David Elgavish, a fellow lecturer at BIU, helped with the correct reading of the ancient script, allowing us to properly enjoy the archaic calendar.

Descending into the underground water system

From there we entered the park proper, and made our way to the Canaanite ruins, starting with the ancient tower of large rectangular ashlars. Opposite the large tower, still within the ancient city limits, we found the entrance to the underground water system. We descended by way of stairs and peered into the depths of the sloped subterranean tunnel. Water could be found some forty metres below the surface hences the need for a relatively complicated method of extraction.

Prof Maeir standing at the gate

Feral pigeons adorned the insides of the tunnel, while jackdaws crowded about outside, watching us indifferently. We climbed back out of the cool tunnel, back into the sun, and made our way to the Canaanite city gate, made of stone and mud brick. A common kestrel made passes overhead, scanning the tall, dry vegetation for prey, and a crested lark could be seen singing from atop a sign.

Lecturing within the ruins

We continued along the dirt path until we reached the Israelite ruins, and the wildflowers that edged the walkway to it. A relatively large area to be excavated, the ruins clearly showed a residential area of the ancient Iron Age city. A large blue-purple wildflower captured my attention, later to be identified as Syrian catnip.

Syrian catnip at Tel Gezer

Prof Maeir lectured first from the vantage point looking over the ruins, and then we descended to see the ancient architecture from up close. Once below, we examined the gate of the casemate wall, comprised of a number of chambres. The gate is associated with the reign of King Solomon, following the biblical passage listing the fortifications at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.

Monolithic stones

Looping around the east side of the tel, we made our way to the ten monolithic stones standing upright in a line. Large, raw columns, these stones seem to have served as features of a shrine, accompanied with a stone basin of sorts. Quite an unusual sight, which was improved by the presence of viper’s bugloss, one of my favourite wildflowers.

Judean viper’s-bugloss

From there we completed our circuit of the tel, passing a demarcated sheikh’s tomb, and then left the hill by means of our tour bus. Our next stop was some fifteen kilometres to the southeast, on land plotted out for one of Bet Shemesh’s planned neighbourhoods. A somewhat controversial topic with lovers of nature and archaeology, the city’s expansion plan calls for the work of salvage excavations by the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It was one of these digs to which we were headed.

Encroaching buildings of Bet Shemesh

Lead by Benyamin Storchan, a BIU graduate with whom I shared a class or two, the salvage excavation was launched to verify that nothing landmark was going to be built over. We met Benyamin under the tarp beside the washed pottery and sat down to hear about the site. He began with a summary of the Bet Shemesh expansion, showing us our location on a detailed satellite image map.

Ramat Bet Shemesh dig squares

After ten minutes or so we left the shade and headed over to examine the dig site. A tractor was working uphill and the dozen or so Arab workers paused to watch us parade by. We began with the lower section, where Benyamin produced a top plan and went over the architectural findings thus far. From there we moved uphill and examined the area currently under excavation.

Benyamin Storchan explaining the architecture

We naturally had some questions about the interesting dig, and hopefully one day the entirety of the excavation results will be published for all of us to enjoy. In the meantime, we headed back down the slope towards the pottery washing station where we examined the findings, including simple mosaic stones, painted potsherds and even a section of what looks to be the neck of a jug with a branch relief.

Jackdaw at the dig

Leaving the dig site having said our thanks and goodbyes, we boarded the tour bus again for a drive over to Tel Azeka. Since I’ve already visited and wrote about Tel Azeka last year, I’ll just give a brief summary of what non-archaeological sightings that were of interest. First, the birds: one or more black kites, steppe buzzards and lesser spotted eagles (and a possible juvenile imperial eagle) flew by overhead, giving me a special joy that comes with neck pain, as I had to crane my neck precariously to watch them high up above me. Several species of butterflies fluttered about here and there, and Judean viper’s-bugloss made a lovely appearance on the top of the tel.

Short-toed eagle

Leaving Tel Azeka after two hours, we attempted to visit the iconic Khirbet Qeiyafa, which I have covered more than once, but unfortunately our bus got slightly stuck in the ruts of the dirt access road. While we waited outside for the bus and driver to sort themselves out, a short-toed eagle appeared just above the trees that were beside us. I think this is my best picture of this species to date. The bus issue was sorted but time had run out, so the trip was called to a premature ending. We enjoyed the drive back to Bar Ilan, some of us already looking forward to the following day’s field trip to the northwest Negev region, the subject of my next blog post.

Gamla II

In Golan, Israel on May 6, 2018 at 9:03 AM

Leaving Nachal Metzar and Ein Pik, my friend Adam and I drove along Roads 98 and 808 until we reached the access road to the next stop on our list: Gamla. As we approached we noticed several large birds of prey in the skies above us, and tried our best to identify them with maintaining the necessary safety to survive the experience mid-drive. At last, after identifying at least one short-toed eagle we pulled into Gamla National Park and parked the car. To my surprise, just in front of the car, perched on a rock, was my very first ortolan bunting just waiting for us to take its picture.

Ortolan bunting (photo Adam Ota)

Already filled with excitement, we headed straight for the Vulture Lookout where we knew there’d be interesting sightings. Perched at the eastern side of the deep ravine accentuated by Nachal Gamla, the cliff sides have been the nesting sites for many species for years. When I had visited last, on a trip with my father to both Gilgal Refa’im and Gamla, we had spent a few minutes at the lookout and then headed towards the dolmen and the Gamla Waterfall.

View from the Vulture Lookout

This time Adam and I were dedicated to the birding potential and so we decided to dedicate as much time as possible to spot as many interesting species as possible. With that mindset we planted ourselves at the lookout’s edge and began to watch. Nearly immediately, a few of the park’s iconic Griffon vultures soared out from the sanctuary of the cliff edges, provided us with satisfaction.

Griffon vulture patrolling the slopes (photo Adam Ota)

But there wasn’t just the immense Griffon vultures to be seen, more short-toed eagles and a lesser spotted eagle soared over from the west. We stood there patiently, watching as the large birds of prey passed by, entranced by the richness of the region. Next up, a Bonelli’s eagle emerged from the cliffs, its rounded wings and pale abdomen giving away its identity. I was excited to see my first-ever Bonelli’s eagle, but there was no time to waste because more birds were emerging.

Bonelli’s eagle (photo Adam Ota)

Overhead, we managed to spot a large number of specks in the sky and, with the aid of our zoom lenses, we identified them as a flock of white storks. Mixed in with the storks, but at a slightly different altitude, we spotted a dozen or so black kites. Returning to the cliffs, an Egyptian vulture made an appearance, followed by another Griffon vulture. Together they soared, patrolling the cliff-sides as we watched and took pictures.

Mount Hermon in the distance (photo Adam Ota)

We couldn’t tire of watching these large birds of prey from such a short distance, but there were other birds also capturing our attention. Tons of little swifts zipped by overhead, eating airborne insects, and male blue rock thrushes in their brilliant summer plumage called noisily from the rocks, trying to attract mates.

Blue rock thrush (photo Adam Ota)

We enjoyed lunch while we birdwatched, and exchanged words with the other visitors to the lookout, but eventually it was time to move on. We headed over to the Gamla Lookout, passing by some of the basalt ruins of Deir Qeruh, and took a moment to enjoy the view of the ruined city below.

Ruins of Deir Qeruh

Ancient Gamla was built on a triangular rock wedge that juts out between two streams far below, and is thereby a greatly strategic location for an ancient walled city. First occupied in the Early Bronze Age, the site became most famous for its time as a Jewish city under Roman siege. As described by Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius, the city was attacked by Roman forces first under Agrippa II and then under Vespasian, the latter succeeding in conquering the city despite heavy losses.

Gamla (photo Adam Ota)

We made our way down the winding path towards the entrance of the city, walking gingerly over the stone steps as we continued our search for new and interesting birds. Towards the bottom we spotted a sparrowhawk passing quickly overhead, always a nice addition to a day’s birding.

Ancient city of Gamla

Outside the entrance of the city we found a reconstructed Roman weapons of siege, and then we passed through the breach in the wall where we found the ruins of residential structures and a synagogue. Because Gamla was never rebuilt after the destruction, the remains have largely been left as is, other than disturbances by natural causes.

Gamla’s ancient synagogue

We decided to take the long trail, even though the sun was relentlessly beating down on us, and continued along the slope towards the peak, reaching the oil press and flour mill at the end of the trail. Along the way we spotted a couple of interesting birds, including chukars and a common nightingale. In addition, Adam spotted and caught a bright yellow jewel beetle of the Julodis rothi species.

Julodis rothi jewel beetle

We climbed up from the western quarter, as it is called, and made our way to the peak. Just below the massive rock piling, we sat in the shade of a small tree and surveyed our surroundings. Adam scanned the neighbouring slope with his monocular and I became distracted by the calls of a male common cuckoo, so very distinct that even a clock was designed and named after it.

Atop the peak

I made my way over to the northern slope, pulled up a video of cuckoo calls on YouTube and tried to lure it into my point of view. However, this cuckoo was a wily one; every time I’d appear anywhere near where he’d be, he’d hush up and I would have to slink away to try again. No matter how sneaky I tried to be, he’d always see me coming and I was left disappointed, failing in catching a glimpse of this amazing bird.

Within the Round Tower

After a good while on the peak, we at last picked ourselves up and made our way back through the ancient ruined city, this time from the ridge trail. At the end, we found the Round Tower and stood in it looking out over the surrounding land as one of the defending soldiers would have done some two thousand years ago.

Egyptian vulture passing by

As we were in the tower we were following one of the Egyptian vultures who, curiously enough, landed on the access road where we crossed into the city ruins. When it took flight, Adam snapped a few pictures of it and we saw that it had food in its mouth, which it seemed to have taken back to its nest.

Only the head visible…

That filled us with curiosity so we made our way out of the city and watched as it returned, landing in the same place just out of sight. Seeing us, the vulture took off and we were able to see that there was a dead chicken carcass on the road. Hoping to see some feeding, we settled under a nearby tree, where we’d have an okay vantage point, and waited.

Swarm of white storks in the thermals (photo Adam Ota)

The vulture circled again and again, yet refused to land. Blue rock thrushes, chukars and rock hyraxes provided entertainment in the interim, each engaged in their own pursuit of happiness. Birds of prey overhead also brought us joy, especially a lesser spotted eagle and a juvenile short-toed eagle. But the vulture refused to land.

Short-toed eagle

As always with nature, unexpected surprises are just waiting to happen. We were lounging under the tree when suddenly the vulture landed on a boulder some 15-20 metres from us, and began to drink from a hidden puddle. We watched, nearly slack-jawed, as it drank calmly, allowing Adam to film it.

With that we surmised that it was time that we head on, as the park was closing shortly and we were the last visitors in the area. We climbed back up to the lookout and made our way to the park exit, bringing an end to a truly amazing day trip.

Woodchat shrike (photo Adam Ota)

By the time we returned to my house we were already scheming of more trips to take, because one can never take enough trips in this beautiful land of topographical variety. As to be expected, I took two interesting trips to the Judean Lowlands and Negev the very next week.