Israel's Good Name

Basalt Ruins of Nafakh

In Golan, Israel on April 1, 2015 at 4:15 AM

With my last post covering my spontaneous adventure to Juchader – from the khan to the tel to the spring pool – this post is about a planned exploration of the basalt ruins of Nafakh. Noticing the site on the map, and seeing the ruins from the road, I decided that this nearby site would make a great Friday afternoon trip. So, properly packed with gun, phone, camera and water, I set off to walk the kilometre and a half from Sa’ar, the base I was in. Nestled in a grove of eucalyptus trees near HaShiryon Junction on Road 91 in the centre of the Golan, the Nafakh ruins are the remains of a Syrian village built on the remains of a Roman era, and later a Byzantine era, village – a chronological layering of human settlement.

Nafakh's levels of ruins

Nafakh’s levels of ruins

With the spring wildflowers in full bloom, and the snowy peak of Mount Hermon partially visible, the walk was rather refreshing. Before long, I left the road and reached a makeshift gate with some ominous bones dangling from the fence post. I opened the gate and stepped into the thick grass, already seeing some house-like structures up ahead. Similar to the situation at Juchader, the grass was absolutely filled with silky caterpillar nests – and the caterpillars littered the grass. I reached the first house complex and entered the courtyard, heading straight for the dark first floor rooms.

Interior construction

Interior construction

Slightly fearful of encountering a foul beast in the darkness, I proceeded slowly, using my camera flash to illuminate my path. Relieved that the only trace of beast were the few scattered porcupine quills laying about, I left darkness’ cool embrace and headed up the steps to the clearly newer section of the house. With the local Arabs living in this village up until 1967, there are a few modern sections of concrete and metal, however it was the old hewn basalt blocks that interested me more.

Gecko

Gecko

Standing up on the second floor, I surveyed my immediate surroundings and mapped out a logical route. Feeling like a kid in a candy shop, I explored the ruins, house after house, enjoying the peace and solitude. Surveying from on high, swishing through the tall grass down below, I made my way through the western side of the village rather quickly.

Panoramic view of Nafakh

Panoramic view of just a part of Nafakh

Then, after exploring a single house at the northwest corner, I heard several loud crashing sounds in succession – the sounds of a large beast breaking dry sticks. Consumed with adventurous curiosity I crept forwards towards the brush from whence the noise originated, always mindful of my retreat path if said beast were to materialise in the shape of an angry boar. I wondered to myself about what it would like being chased and then treed by a foul pig with deadly tusks, and if I’d be able to shoot my way to safety before it was too late. Tenaciously advancing, past the point of a safe retreat, I circled the brush which partially concealed a walled courtyard, and, not seeing anything, climbed up onto a wall to look down at the brush. Nothing. Slowly my heart returned to its normal tempo and I begrudgingly returned to exploring, still unsure where the noisemaker disappeared to. Beginning a whole row of old houses connected one to the next, I came to another courtyard. Peering into a dark room, I noticed a shedded snakeskin draped against the rock wall.

Discarded snakeskin

Discarded snakeskin

With the feeling that this village exploration might not end before Shabbat were to start, I put a pep in my step and hurried on to the next set of houses, spending less time peering into dark windows. Hearing a strange sound, I spotted a rock hyrax running along a walltop. I pressed on heading east, reaching a structure that didn’t look quite residential. Beyond it, some three kilometres away, Mount Shipon – an extinct volcano – was visible, and below it, a more modern structure. It was then that I noticed the large basalt bunker in between the trees.

Mount Shipon

Mount Shipon

I made a beeline for the warlike building, wondering if I’d see any bats inside. I crossed Nachal Gilbon, a small stream, but found myself greeted with coils of rusty razor wire which impeded my process. I then thought back on what I had read earlier that week about a battle during the Yom Kippur War where a team from Sayeret Matkal, under the command of Yoni Netanyahu, were brought in to resist an air-dropped Syrian commando attack on the base Nafakh (just across the road). It was for this battle that Netanyhu received the Medal of Distinguished Service for his valiant efforts in protecting the Golan.

Posing among the ruins

Posing among the ruins

Walking along the razor wire I saw no gaps and decided to turn away and save the bunker for another visit. Heading back to the ruins I came upon a little pool and then more recent ruins of concrete. Making a full circle, and fairly certain that I had covered all, or at least most, of the ruined village, I took a few more pictures and began to head back, enjoying the sounds of songbirds flitting about. It was when I was just about to open the gate that I spotted this interesting display of insect bravado – who will be king of the flower?

King of the flower

King of the flower

Next up: Ein Nashut & the Golan Archaeological Museum.

Juchader

In Golan, Israel on March 23, 2015 at 6:01 AM

A few weeks ago I transferred from the Shomron to the Golan, where I plan to finish off my army service. One night, during that first week, I had a drive and saw a beech marten for the first time in my life, albeit briefly, as it dashed across the headlight-illuminated country road directly before me. The next day I drove some more and had the opportunity to visit a collection of curiosities known as Juchader (or Orcha, in Hebrew) along Road 98, not very far from the amazing megalithic site of Gilgal Refa’im.

Khan Juchader

Khan Juchader

Parking at the side of the lonely road just two kilometres from the first Israel-Syria border, I exited my Safaron and immediately spotted tawny creatures moving in the distance. Scrunching up my face in effort to see better, I verified to myself that I had spotted two mountain gazelles – I just love spotting unique wildlife! Leaving my parked Safaron behind, I began my explorations at the dirt road between the visible ruins of Khan Juchader and Tel Juchader. The name “Juchader” originates from a Mamluk honourific title for the “holder of the polo sticks”, presumably of the Sultan’s. Opening a makeshift gate, I walked alongside a narrow minefield (clearly marked and fenced off) until I reached the first of the khan’s structures, built of local basalt.

The khan's many rooms

The khan’s many rooms

A khan, also known as a caravanserai, is an inn for both humans and their beasts of burden. Some khans are large and impressive, such as the Khan El-Omdan in Akko‘s Old City with its large granite pillars, and others are a simple affair tending to the base needs of weary travelers, such as this khan. Built in the 1300’s during the Mamluk period, this particular khan was built along a historically important road, going back to the Roman era, connecting the cities of the Holy Land with Damascus and other important cities in Syria and further east. Today, the TAP Line (Trans-Arabian Pipeline) for the transferring of crude oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon runs just past Juchader. Built between the years 1947-1950, it was the longest pipeline in the world (1,214 kilometres or 754 miles long) at the time but today the section that runs through the Golan is no longer in use.

Tel Juchader

Tel Juchader

As I swished through the tall grass, inspecting the grey walls of basalt and pausing to photograph insects here and there, I kept leery of unsuspecting wild beasts in the grass or structures. With the warmth of spring upon us, snakes are also a bit of a worry – particularly as the Golan is the second most snake-populated regions in Israel. I admired the fine archwork, surprisingly intact, along the southern external wall of the rectangular complex and then rounded the corner. With the grass nearly waist-high and scattered with silky caterpillar nests, I cautiously stepped forward, being careful not to slip on hidden rocks underfoot. Approaching a particularly pleasing-looking arched room with a living roof, I caught a fleeting glance of a long reptilian shape slither into the cracks between the stones – a snake or perhaps a glass lizard.

Home of the reptile

Home of the reptile

Inspecting the wall I could find no trace and carried on, walking along the central courtyard of the khan. When I finished exploring the northern and eastern sides of the khan, both inside and out, I felt ready to press onwards. As I left the complex, shutting the makeshift gate behind me, I spotted the bleached pelvic bone and spine of a long-dead cow in the grass. Shortly afterwards, I came across this puddle teeming with tadpoles – I hope they finish developing before the puddle dries.

Tadpoles in a puddle

Tadpoles in a puddle

Crossing the road, I stood at the foot of Tel Juchader, a volcanic formation, and imagined the view from the watchtower looking out at Syria. On the tel are scattered remains of settlements from the usual periods of Holy Land history, most notably the Romans whose village was destroyed in the 300’s, either by earthquake or Jewish revolt. Bedouins built houses in the late 1800’s, using cut stones from the earlier ruins, but the village was abandoned after the Six Day War. During the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians conquered the area and the tel was recaptured by IDF tanks, but not without fatalities. I stopped at the memorial built for Yonatan Guberman, a reservist tank officer who fell in battle recapturing Tel Juchader. His memorial is one of many in the area, dedicated to both individuals and units who paid the ultimate price in the wars for freedom. Returning to the Safaron, we then drove to the Juchader Pool on the northern side of the tel. Hidden in a small grove of eucalyptus trees, the pool is a hotspot for hikers and soldiers alike.

Juchader Pool

Juchader Pool

Fed from an underground spring, the pool was recently reconstructed and improved from its previous capacity as a pool for Syrian army officers – dedicated in memory of Raziel Nagar, a teenager who was killed in 2005 by a dud artillery shell. The soldiers I was with eagerly ripped their clothing off and dove into the cold water. A minibus of religious high school girls, arriving just minutes after us, made for a socially humorous situation. I ended that day’s trip with a quick visit to the peak of Mount Avital, overlooking Mount Bental – but the Golan adventures were just beginning!

Deir Qal’a

In Israel, Samaria on March 8, 2015 at 4:36 AM

A few weeks ago I partook in a little “excitement” in the Shomron (Samarian) town of Pedu’el, not too far from Ariel. There was a Palestinian shepherd who was creating disturbances near the security fence that encloses Pedu’el and we, the army, were called in to redirect the wayward man. We disembarked near Pedu’el yeshiva and I couldn’t help but notice signs for an archaeological site called “Deir Qal’a”. While the other soldiers began their descent into the valley in search for the shepherd, I sought after the ruins. Scampering over the rough rocks that cover the landscape, I first came upon what appears to be a vat for wine with a mosaic floor, very much like the one I saw at the Crusader castle of Cafarlet.

An ancient wine vat

An ancient wine vat

Now, these ruins are obscure and there are no signs explaining where or what anything is – even researching Deir Qal’a online is proving a little difficult. From what I’ve gathered is that the site was first a Roman fortress, then a Byzantine fortified farm and then a Christian monastery. Given its great vantage points, including a clear view of the shoreline some 26 kilometres (16 miles) away, the Romans would have built the fortress to guard the ancient road from Tel Afek (Antipatris) to Sebastia in the heart of the Shomron.

Blooming anemone

Blooming anemone

A couple hundred years later, the Christians built a string of fortified monasteries along the northern border of the Christian part of the Shomron, as a defending line against the Samaritans who would often break out in violent revolts against the Byzantine Empire. The Samaritans are still around today, still based out of their “capital” on Mount Gerezim overlooking Shechem (Nablus), but they no longer participate in violent revolts. Monasteries neighbouring Deir Qal’a are Deir El-Mir to the west and Deir Simaan to the northeast – with quite similar ruins, although I have yet to explore them. Getting back to my exploration of Deir Qal’a, it wasn’t long before I reached the first walls of finely cut ashlars jutting out into the air.

Deir Qal'a

Deir Qal’a

Unfortunately, as there is no guide or comprehensive description of the ruins, I can’t really describe the series of rooms that I then saw as I drew closer. While researching this site I came across a reference to a monograph written by the late Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld titled “Deir Qala and monasteries of Western Samaria”, however the only copy I could find is in the Hebrew University’s library in Jerusalem – not too readily available, although I’m sure I could have gleaned some useful information from it. Being as that I was detouring from “operational duty” I couldn’t linger too long and missed noticing that there are tunnels connecting several of the rooms in the ruins complex. What I didn’t miss were the numerous etched Maltese Crosses (as used by the Hospitaller Knights of the Crusades) and the incomplete floor mosaics – in fact, a fully restored mosaic from Deir Qal’a is on display at the Good Samaritan Museum between Jerusalem and Jericho, not far from Nabi Musa.

Close-up of a crude mosaic

Close-up of a crude mosaic

I might have just seen an nondescript scattering of stone walls of varying heights and materials but Deir Qal’a contains stone terraces, rooms, cisterns, an olive press and winepress, underground tunnel, a church with an underground cave/crypt and an apse.

A mess of walls and mosaics

A mess of walls and mosaics

Once I had sufficiently explored the upper areas of the ruins I headed back towards the security fence and saw that my fellow soldiers had not yet returned, so I looped back to enjoy the views. Directly opposite Deir Qal’a to the west is the Palestinian village of Deir Balut and the ruins of Deir El-Mir, with a seasonal marsh at the entrance of the village. I read on the Amud Anan website that the water is home to triops, a type of crustacean also known as “tadpole shrimp”. Looking quite similar to horseshoe crabs, it’s believed that the eggs of the triops can last forever as they go dormant and crystalise when dry. It would definitely be interesting to see these “living fossils” – perhaps one day…

Looking across at Deir El-Mir and Deir Balut

Looking across at Deir El-Mir and Deir Balut

To the south there are the rolling hills of the Shomron with ruins abound, including the remains of Binat-Bar, Zereda, Balata and other historically rich sites, as well as Nachal Shiloh snaking its way across the land.

Historically rich hills of the Shomron - looking south

Historically rich hills of the Shomron – looking south

Someone very thoughtful had installed a swinging bench overlooking Deir Qal’a and Deir Balut and so I found myself there, rocking back and forth, enjoying every moment. At last the soldiers came back from escorting the shepherd away from the fence and we drove back to our outpost, leaving me with the need to come back and explore the other ruins another day.

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