Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Qumran

In Israel, Judea on May 14, 2017 at 8:45 AM

Some weeks back I attended a Bar Ilan University Archaeology trip led by Prof Eyal Regev to the area of Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The story of the first scrolls’ discovery in 1947 is well-known: the Bedouin shepherd lad who threw a stone into a cave and, hearing something shatter, entered to investigate and found tall ceramic jugs with rolled scrolls inside. Removing some of the scrolls, the artefacts were passed along a chain of individuals until archaeologists confirmed that there was great religious and historic importance to the scrolls, and salvage efforts were undertaken with the help of the British and Jordanians, which eventually led to their exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The discovery of a nearby city, with a room of tables or benches that appears to be used for writing – a scriptorium, led to assumptions that the scrolls were written in this very city, and stored away in dry desert caves for safekeeping.

Approaching Cave 11

However, in light of new evidence and understandings, many researchers believe that these scrolls may have come from different places altogether, including Jerusalem. Our professor persists with the belief that the scrolls were written in Qumran due to the correlation between the actions of the dwellers and the words written (with an emphasis on communal dining hall rules). While our trip was dedicated to the city of Qumran, we gained special permission to visit Cave 11 – ordinarily off-limits to the public. Unfortunately, there were concerns of us disturbing the bat population so we were instructed to remain at the cave’s entrance – and here I’d have liked to see both the cave’s mysterious interior as well as the bats.

From within Cave 11

After enjoying the view of from Cave 11, and noting the persistent presence of noisy orange-winged Tristam’s starlings – with the occasional brown-necked raven and several migrating black storks – we made our way back down to the bus to be ferried over to Qumran’s visitor centre.

Desert lark

We gained entrance and waited around for the audio-visual presentation to begin, taking multiple trips to the tourist-aimed gift shop where some items were even priced in dollars instead of shekels. At last the doors opened and we watched a curious video about the people who lived in Qumran during the Roman era, originally thought to be a sect of Jews called the Essenes. But in recent times the picture becomes more complicated and we were taught that, at least according to Prof Regev, the inhabitants of Qumran were two groups: one known as Yahad and the other as Damascus Treaty (my translation).

Qumran

At the end of the video the middle screen lifted up and we entered a small exhibition of displayed replicas and even a few artefacts, such as a comb and the remains of both a basket and a sandal. After some brief lecturing we exited the dim, air-conditioned building and braved our way through the bright daylight and dry heat, approaching the city ruins.

Qumran tower

We began at the tower and paused now and again to learn more about the city and the people who lived inside it, of which the professor is very knowledgeable about. We passed rooms, cisterns and a number of mikvaot (ritual baths) as we combed our way through the ruins. Seated in the shaded section of the dining hall, we learned about complicated research manners such as “access analysis” and more in order to establish who lived in Qumran during the time of the Second Temple, and likewise, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Supposed Scriptorium

It was sometime around then that a rock martin whizzed right by my face, and I spotted an unidentified falcon or kestrel attempting to snatch one of the many passerines in the vicinity of the city – both of which I wasn’t fast enough to photograph. Leaving Qumran’s ruins, we walked across the desert landscape towards the edge of the cliff overlooking Road 90 and the Dead Sea. With a large scattering of large rocks, it was revealed that this was a cemetery that had fallen prey to the ravages of time. Archaeological evidence gleaned from the cemetery helps, or complicates, the various claims as to who lived in Qumran – but the view’s nice too.

Qumran cemetery

We were shadowed by a park ranger, who as it turned out studied archaeology at BIU as well, from the cemetery to the lookout over Cave 4. There we settled back down in the comfort of the shade and learned more about Qumran.

Cave 4

As we sat there, I noticed an interesting-looking bird perched on the wire fence a ways away. Activating my camera, I attempted to identify said bird with the aid of both optical and digital zoom. The photos weren’t turning out as helpful as I wanted, but I was nearly certain that I had spotted a bee-eater, which I was hoping to see. Leaving the group, I made my way over to the perched bird, even warding off another photographer who was oblivious to my intentions. At last I reached close enough to get some photos good enough to make an official identification: my first green bee-eater.

Spotting a green bee-eater

It was then and there that the tour ended and we made our way back to the bus. While waiting outside the bus, while some of our party busied themselves with lunch, I took the opportunity to photograph some visiting ibexes. Interestingly enough, whilst researching for the blog post, I came upon a fun fact that DNA research on some of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the parchment used originated from ibex skin.

Ibex nursing her young

With that we departed for BIU and our respective homes, and to end this account I share a nice image I found of the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947, which can be found HERE.

Pigeon Cave & Betzet Reserve

In Galilee, Israel on May 7, 2017 at 10:42 AM

I spent the holiday Pesach (also known as Passover) with my family in Ma’alot and managed to go on three short trips whilst up north. The first was to the tidal pools just north of Achziv, where I saw my first sea slug (or sea hare, I am not sure which). The next day we stopped off for a short hike to Pigeon Cave, located between Karmiel and Akko, on our way to Ahihud for an annual barbecue. Parking with the aid of GPS in a gravel lot somewhat near the cave, we disembarked and began the short hike.

Above Pigeon Cave

Almost immediately I spotted an interesting bird – my first wheatear, and then a few minutes later my first short-toed eagle made a lengthy appearance, hovering overhead scanning for his favourite prey, snakes. At first the trail was a simple gravel-and-grass path with red painted trail markers, but that was soon to change. In order to reach the cave, and to continue on the trail towards the opposing Mount Gamal, the trail took a perilous turn along the steep cliff side. Thankfully, the shoes I was wearing that day – loafers not meant for hiking in any way – found sure footing on the craggy rock with their “sticky” rubber soles. I nimbly made my way down and around towards the mouth of the cave, passing interesting wildlife and wildflowers.

Broad-leaved stonecrop

We found Pigeon Cave fenced off with visible archaeological-work inside, so we continued to the adjacent cave which was open to visitors, with a handful of rock-climbers scaling the cliff wall with ropes nearby.

Pigeon Cave

Pigeon Cave is the site of important prehistoric findings, as I learned about in two of my Archaeology classes at BIU. In one class we learned about the large amount of limestone with the cave, with remains of prehistoric buildings – some of which covered graves – which leads researchers to think the structures were cultic is purpose. Just outside the open cave I noticed something unusual looking on the ground among the rocks and vegetation – what appears to be the spout of a Byzantine vessel, according to a friend of mine.

Artefact

We entered the empty cave and glanced about, noticing the large hole in the ceiling and the general bell-shape, defining the type of cave it is. Leaving the cave, we watched the climbers for a bit then headed back up the craggy trail and back to the car to drive to Ahihud.

Nissim within the cave

A few days later my father and I took a short hiking trip in Betzet Reserve along the Old Northern Road near the border with Lebanon. Unfortunately, even though the site we had chosen to visit is relatively obscure, there were masses of families with picnics and yelling child which invariably scared off all wildlife for miles. But, there was still a healthy amount of flora and as we walked along the gentle trail to see the Daniela ruins we feasted our eyes on hyacinth squill, lupin, mallow and some sort of wild pea.

Daniela ruins

The Daniela ruins (also spelled De’ne’ilah) is a collection of Roman-Byzantine fortified farmhouses with olivepress installations, as is typical of the Galilee region with its historical olive oil industry.

Olivepress installations

Looping back to the parking lot on the circular trail we then located and began hiking the trail to the next destination: Sarach Cave. We passed very little wildlife, due to the large human presence, but we did see a number of interesting wildflowers including the delicately-petaled pink rock rose and red everlasting, the icon of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day). Before long we left the sunny flowered area and were hiking under the shade of the trees, walking in and along the dry streambed filled with boulders. Nachal Sarach is a short stream that begins not far from Abirim Fort, feeding winter rain runoffs into Nachal Betzet which drains to the Mediterranean Sea near Rosh HaNikra. Hiking briskly, we heard the clammer of humanity up ahead and a brief check with the GPS told me that we were approaching the cave.

Sarach Cave in Betzet Reserve

To our dismay there was actually a line in order to enter this obscure cave, and so we stood behind an young Arab family with a GoPro awaiting our turn to penetrate the darkness. Despite the presence of so many children, there were no screams of terror when two enormous cave spiders were found on the walls – a species of huntsman by the name of Heteropoda variegata found mostly in caves.

Within Sarach Cave

Slowly but surely we made our way through the interesting cave with its three entrances/exits and its neat cave growths, our journey aided by special cuts in the rock for sure footing and even metal handles like we used in Alma Cave.

My father rising from the depths

Emerging out of the upper entrance/exit of the cave, we made our way back downhill to the streambed and headed back to the car, bringing the Pesach trips to an end.

Bible Lands Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 30, 2017 at 10:38 AM

The other week, before the holiday of Pesach (Passover), I took a trip to Jerusalem with several goals in mind. The morning began at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which I had visited for the first time several weeks prior. I was determined to spectate – and maybe even participate – in the daily morning bird banding, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did I get to watch and learn about the banding, I also saw a handful of new species for me, including: nightingale, collared flycatcher and my personal highlight, a wryneck.

Wryneck in the hands of Amir Balaban

After the morning banding sessions ended, I settled in the blind to watch for birds and met some birder-photographers whose photos I’ve been seeing for a good while now on Facebook. The highlight was a lone hawfinch which landed near the water’s edge; the cameras clicking away madly as everybody attempted to get a worthy shot. When the clock struck noon I decided I was done at the observatory and made a snap decision to go visit the Bible Lands Museum, on the other side of the Knesset. Opened in 1992 by Dr Elie and Batya Borowski, this museum is the only one of its kind specifically dedicated to biblical history. When I announced myself as a student of archaeology, the girl behind the front desk told me that I was entitled to a discount and that I had come to the right place. And so I gained entrance and began my tour of the museum with the first of twenty galleries on the main floor, taking my time to examine the interesting showcased artefacts. Progressing clockwise in convenient chronical order, the first galleries were of the rise of civilisations and writing – with interesting artefacts including this bearded worshipper of limestone and lapis lazuli from Sumer, Mesopotamia:

Innocent face of the bearded worshipper

I have an affinity for the comical facial expressions interesting pieces as old as this characteristically have, so I was pleased to see next another bearded man, this time of alabaster and hailing from Mari, as well as a particularly hasidic-looking “bald bearded man with sidelock” inlaid in shell also from the Mari area. But there were more than just humourous humanoids to be examined, for some fancy necklaces of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian next caught my eye, followed by a bronze chariot of sorts being pulled by bronze bulls originating from southeastern Anatolia.

Pre-Hittite bronze chariot

Indeed, the further I advanced into the darkened recesses of the museum, the more interesting the displays were (at least for me). I marveled at a painted cedarwood coffin from Egypt and stelas from Aram city-states, those of biblical mention. At certain displays I felt a behind-the-scenes connection with the touristy representation of the artefacts, being as that I have numerous archaeology classes on the history and legacies of the listed locations.

Stones of Aram

Another feature that struck me as interesting was the model of old Jerusalem, not exactly the same land as the modern Old City. When I had visited Jerusalem last, I was on a tour with Prof Faust (one of BIU’s leading scholars on biblical archaeology) and learned a lot about the walled confines of First Temple-era Jerusalem.

Model of ancient Jerusalem

From then the galleries followed the standard Holy Land list of successive conquerors, namely the Persians, Greeks and Romans. I particularly enjoyed the model of the royal audience hall of the palace in Susa (or Shushan as mentioned in the Book of Esther), a few small gold coins from Greece and the sarcophagus of Julia Latronilla from Rome. Completing my circuit of the main floor galleries, I ventured downstairs to see the temporary exhibit on Khirbet Qeiyafa called “In the Valley of David and Goliath” passing some nice Roman mosaics on the way.

Aerial view of Khirbet Qeiyafa looking south (photo: Skyview)

Having been to Khirbet Qeiyafa, and having dug with Prof Garfinkal (albeit at Khirbet Arai), I felt a connection of sorts whilst perusing the displayed finds and watching the short video about the excavations and subsequent research developments. Debatably associated with the biblical city Shaaraim, based on the fact that two gates were excavated, the region was the buffer zone between the Jews and the Philistines during the Iron Age. It was in the valley below the fortified city, known as Emek HaElah, that the iconic battle between David and Goliath took place. I inspected the inscribed ostracon (broken pottery with inscriptions) and the miniature temple-esque building, among the artefacts, and then settled down to examine some of the academic books written about the place. Browsing through the bibliography I found several of BIU’s archaeologists, and when that satisfied my curiosity, I continued over to the last two temporary exhibitions: “The Classic Court” of Etruscan, Greek and Roman art; and “Gods, Heroes and Mortals” of Ancient Greek pottery.

Snake detail on an Ancient Greek gold armlet

When finished I refilled my water bottle and headed over to the bus stop where I was to be taken to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) to meet an old friend, and then off to the Jerusalem Craft Beer Festival – where we sold our first bottle of beer as homebrewers, a 500ml bottle of Arx Meles Stoutus I.