Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Toron des Chevaliers & Nabi Samuel

In Central Israel, Israel on July 9, 2017 at 7:34 AM

The day following my three-day trip to the Golan and Galilee had me up and active early in the morning, on a Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department trip to some Crusader sites in the Jerusalem area. Obvious sites would be Aqua Bella (Ein Hemed) or Castel, of which I have visited neither to date, but we were specifically going to more obscure ruins. The first on our list was the Crusader castle at Latrun, known as Toron des Chevaliers (French for “Castle of the Knights”), and our bus brought us to it with no delay.

Toron des Chevaliers (Latrun)

We sat outside the modern Latrun Monastery (built in 1890) while our guide, Dr Jonathan Rubin, gave us the necessary background material to accompany the tour. While we were sitting I noticed a curious monument dedicated to three medieval characters from the three Abrahamic religions: the Jewish sage Rashi, the Christian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux and Muslim sultan Saladin. From there we started on the short trail to the ruins, fire-fighting planes and a pair of falcons flying overhead, the morning view spread out before us as we climbed the gradual hill. We took our first stop at a standing structure that was reworked with concrete sometime during the last century, an outpost of the Jordanian army.

Great Hall of Toron des Chevaliers

Walking among the golden-dead vegetation we identified a handful of the original Crusader ruins, occupied by the Templar knights and eventually surrendered to the aforementioned Saladin who had the castle razed to the ground. Unfortunately, after the destruction of 1191 the castle was never rebuilt and many of the building stones were removed as spolia (or re-purposing stones for later construction). Armed with fragmented plans we retraced the overgrown ruins, the highlight being the above arched wall and the vaulted great room – the sunlight streaming in made for an ethereal scene.

Light filtering in

While exploring I spotted a Sardinian warbler on a dry plant, but nothing else interesting in terms of fauna. Circling around the southern edge of the ruins, we stamped our way through the thorny undergrowth on our way out for we had other ruins to see that day. Whilst waiting for all at the bus, one of the esteemed members of our group gave us a brief lecture on capers, which he found growing along the trail. I have made the mistake of confusing the caper blossom with that of a passiflora (ie passionfruit), and when researching them both online, I found that even their fruits look quite similar. Boarding the buses we were then driven to the next site on our list, the Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh, held within the confines of the Benedictine Monastery.

Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh

While Abu Ghosh is perhaps most famous for its hummus, the Crusader ruins (restored in the early 1900s) were quite impressive. The monastery grounds were quiet and well-kept, and the few Trappist abbots walking to and fro in their spotless white robes. As we settled in a secluded corner to learn about the site from Dr Rubin, I had plenty of distractions with a healthy number of songbirds flitting about, filling the air with their sweet song.

Greenfinch eating from a pinecone

The building’s origins date to the Roman times when a large cistern was constructed over an underground spring, an eared tablet citing the Tenth Legion (which was camped in the area outside Jerusalem) still visible in the wall. A thousand or so years later a Frankish church was built over the cistern, which was subsequently turned into the crypt, and extravagant frescoes were illustrated on the walls. Controlled by the Hospitallers, a fellow Order of the Templars, the church was conquered by Saladin but not destroyed. Since restored, the church has been instilled with new life, with visitors of all religions visiting to see the original Crusader-era frescoes on the walls in the Gothic-vaulted chapel. Leaving the dominion of the church, we passed the old mosque of Abu Ghosh and then rode our tour bus out of the village, passing the expansive Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque – Israel’s second-largest mosque, a $10 million project largely funded by the controversial ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Our next stop was Nabi Samuel located on a hilltop just north of Jerusalem, not far from Ramot Forest.

Nabi Samuel

Disembarking outside, we gained entrance to the national park and began our tour by breezing through the northeast corner – the “high place” composed of structures for hosting pilgrims and more. According to all three Abrahamic faiths, the biblical prophet Shmuel/Samuel/Samwil was buried on this hilltop and thus there are aspects of all three religions at the site. Sitting underneath olive trees at the edge of the site, Dr Rubin gave forth the necessary information for us to continue exploring the site – focusing on the unique architecture (especially the Crusader church of St Samuel being cross-shaped) and the importance of the site throughout the Middle Ages for all three faiths. In class, Dr Rubin told us about a Renaissance Jew by the name of Meshullam from Volterra visiting Nabi Samuel in the 1480s, and of course, the famous Medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Nabi Samuel as well.

Vaulted Crusader ruins

Continuing back around through the ruins, under the glaring Friday noon sun, we explored the large “parking area” of flat bedrock where pilgrims could camp out and the waterworks to support them, with channels, cisterns and more. We swung around the the west side of Nabi Samuel to admire the vaulted ruins of the Crusader fortress which once encompassed the church. There, behind the hewn rock of the quarry – which is unusually close to the building site – we examined the restoration of fallen arches.

Hellenistic and Roman ruins

From there we continued along to the exposed layers of ruins dating from the Hellenistic and Roman (Second Temple) eras until we reached the point where we started. With the exterior loop completed we turned our attention inward and crossed the modern bridge over the hewn dry moat, connected to the flat area where the pilgrims would camp. We approached the central building of Nabi Samuel which was built by the Muslims after banishing the Christians, keeping, for the most part, the cross-shaped layout. We entered the structure, making note of the characteristic Islamic-green door and window frames and shutters, as well as the Arabic plaque over the doorway.

Muslims to the left and Jews to the right

Inside, standing in a tall domed chamber of Gothic construction, we surveyed our surroundings which included Muslim features such as shelves for shoes, green glass in the windows, a mihrab (prayer niche) at the southern wall facing Mecca and a hard-to-see flag of the Islamic Waqf for the mosque. Straight ahead was the door to the Muslim shrine, where worshipers were in various stage of prayer facing a Mamluk-themed mihrab of green and white ablaq. To the right there was a small door which took us to the Jewish site, the kever of Shmuel, located in a small underground crypt. Standing in reverence, I took out a Tehillim (Book of Psalms) and opened to a random page, as is my personal tradition, intending on saying whatever chapter I come across. More times than not the chapter I randomly select mentions either something going on in my life at that time, or something that was mentioned to me or by me or in my head in recent times. Sure enough, I reached a verse with the word “abirim” which is Hebrew for knights (ie Crusaders). However, the actual translation of this verse is different, the word “knights” becoming “bulls” due to a literary rule that my Hebrew-language major roommate explained to me: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalms 50:13).

View from the roof of Nabi Samuel

Leaving the Jewish section, we regrouped at the entrance and made a quick loop around the exterior of the structure, where Dr Rubin pointed out interesting features such as mason marks and blocked up doorways. To put a final flourish on our trip we re-entered the building and took the narrow stone staircase to the roof where we stood beside the minaret and roof domes admiring the views of the surrounding areas both near and far. Descending back down the stairs, we made our way back to our bus and then back to Bar Ilan where we said farewell to one another, wishing a peaceful Shabbat for all.

Nachal Kedesh & Metzudat Koach

In Galilee, Israel on July 2, 2017 at 8:14 AM

Wrapping up a trio of posts stemming from a three-day trip to the Galilee and Golan with 9th graders belonging to the school where I work, we awoke mosquito-bitten and hot at Tzemach Beach at the southern tip of the Kinneret. We went through the morning routine and before long we were ready for the first activity of the day, lunches packed away for later. Due to the heat, the powers that be adapted our schedule to reduce heat stroke among the masses and our hike was to be a shaded one, in the wooded ravine of Nachal Kedesh in the Upper Galilee, not far from Tel Kedesh. But first we stopped at the kever (grave) of Choni HaMa’agal, a Jewish sage from the Roman era, in Hazor next to Rosh Pina. Continuing on to the hike, the buses deposited us at the trailhead near Yesha Junction where our guide gave us a short talk on geography and off we went into the ravine.

Game of light and shadow at Nachal Kedesh

Quite a shaded area, but still hot and surprisingly humid, there wasn’t much to do except for hiking which turned out to involve some scrambling and dropping off rocks to follow the winding trail. We walked along the dry and rocky streambed, our bodies drenched with sweat, but it went by quickly. Before long we emerged from the shade of the trees and we were walking along the tri-colour-marked Israel National Trail with a lovely view of the Naftali mountains.

Israel National Trail

I kept a sharp eye out for wildlife but it was simply too hot and the only thing of interest that I saw were wild carrot flowers, which I’ve been seeing everywhere these past few weeks. We approached a copse of pine trees and our trail turned south, affording a great view of the Hula Valley and the golden plateau of the Golan beyond.

View of the Hula Valley and the Golan

The trail marker turned red and there was a sign marking a grove of trees plants in memory of the soldiers that we were soon to learn about. Up ahead, just beyond the trees, was Metzudat Koach, a British-built police station that was occupied by Arab forces upon the British withdrawal in 1948. Jewish attempts at conquering the strategic fortress were costly and, despite eventual success, twenty-eight soldiers were killed. The name “Koach” means “strength” in Hebrew, as well as having the numerical value of 28 in correspondence to the soldiers who fell. As we approached this fortress we passed over an old bunker than played a part in the battle for the station. Beside the fortress we found a small museum, newly opened, which had both welcoming air-conditioning as well as a plethora of maps, explanations, antiquities and more from the birth of Israel as we know it today. HaReut Museum, which translates to “comradeship”, offers a brief yet illuminating glimpse at the history of the battles that took place.

HaReut Museum

The British, wanting to control the border, built a series of small pillboxes along the Old Northern Road, one of which is still standing today near Tel Kedesh. However, they still needed police stations so they constructed this one at what is/was called Nabi Yusha (a nearby Arab shrine to the prophet Joshua), as well as others further westward. As mentioned above, the fortress changed hands from the British to the Arabs to the Israelis and today it belongs as a Israeli Border Police base, a fitting use.

Museum’s permanent guests

When I had finished perusing the museum I opened the guestbook and inscribed a message of my own, kindly informing potential readers that I was to write a blog post about my impromptu visit. When the docent heard of my note he showed us other visitors’ messages, some laminated, which were interesting in and of themselves. I asked him when I was to expect my note to be laminated and, smiling genially, he was unable to confirm any date for me. With the group of lads outside, we at last returned to our duties and, a half hour or so later, found our way to the buses where we were to be taken to the last attraction of the three-day trip: “kayaking” or rafting on the Jordan River.

Metzudat Koach

Previously I had been rafting a few times but only at the northern end of the Jordan, where the Hermon, Snir and Dan streams combine. The rafting place we were visiting now is located just north of kibbutz Gadot, north of the historically important B’not Ya’akov bridge. Two fellow instructors and I shared a raft and we took turns splashing and fending off the boisterous 9th graders, while snatching brief moments to relax in the river’s gentle current. At one point I spotted a baby turtle that had come up for air and then, a few minutes later, we drifted right up next to a dainty grey warbler that made its way to the water’s edge for a quick drink – if only I had brought my camera along! At last, after some minor rapids, we reached the end of our alloted rafting course at the southern end of Chastellet (Jacob’s Ford), an important Crusader castle that was destroyed by Muslim sultan Saladin. From there we were taken back to the boat launch area and waited about until our buses took us back to Givat Shmuel, bringing an end to an action-packed three-day adventure. But I was not to rest too long, for I had a BIU Archaeology trip the following morning…

Nachal Hermon & Ein Tina

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on June 28, 2017 at 8:37 AM

We woke up the morning after our hike through Nachal El Al in our country lodging room in Moshav Keshet. I was joined by fellow school instructors, and the lads were camping outside. We had a leisurely morning routine, packing sandwiches for lunch later that day. A heat wave had hit the Golan and so our plans were altered to accommodate. It was decided that we’d hike a portion of Nachal Hermon, also known as Banias – but not the famous part with the picturesque falls and the Greek temple complex. It was a bit of a drive from Keshet to our hike and along the way I saw some fine looking white storks perched on rock cairns/walls in the rocky fields.

Hiking at Nachal Hermon

We began at the trail-head outside of Kibbutz Snir, our tour guide explaining how the Jordan River is fed by the waters of three streams: Dan, Snir and Hermon. Descending into the ravine, we had a very short walk before we encountered water – where the youth decided to go swimming. Due to the heat the birding was poor and I found myself perched on a rock with another instructor as we watched the rushing water, when I noticed something peculiar. Nearly fully obscured by a mass of teenage bodies, there was an overturned Syrian tank laying at the water’s edge, remnants of past wars. I waited for everyone to clear the area then took a few photos before bringing up the rear on the continuation of the hike.

Overturned Syrian tank

Having climbed back out of the ravine, we walked exposed to the roasting sun, admiring the likable Golan landscape. We switched between the red and black trails as we alternated between hillside and streambed hiking – the lads pausing to splash about in the cold mountain water at every given moment.

Nachal Hermon

Along the way I spotted a relatively common bird species, but perhaps my first of the year, the collared dove. Shortly thereafter, while taking a brief break under the welcome shade of a tree, I saw a macabre sight of ants dismantling a flesh-pink katydid. Next, after passing a citrus grove we took another long break at the banks of the Hermon. A can of peanuts was produced, reminding me of my time in the army, and then a tour guide came over to offer us some freshly made kolo, a traditional Ethiopian snack made of toasted grain.

Beware of mines

From this final water break it was just a short walk to the end where the buses were to meet us, and we rested at shaded picnic tables until we were ready to leave for the next destination of the day. Located at the foot of the Golan, beside the Hula Valley, is the mountainside spring of Ein Tina with its continual discharge of cold mountain water. From the very start of the short trail there was water to bypass, unless one was walking with water-friendly footwear. To the left, at the base of the mountains, great swathes of dead milk thistle covered the land, a sanctuary for songbirds. To the right, dodder – a parasitic plant that looks like spaghetti – covering both fence and vegetation in its messy tangles.

Greenfinch in a sea of dead milk thistle

We reached the first pool of water and Chanan, a fellow instructor, asked me if I’d like to climb up to the top of the stream. Not one to turn down adventurous opportunities, I said yes and gestured for him to lead the way. We walked uphill, atop a bed of sun-baked grey stones that covered the flow of spring water.

Ein Tina

Shortly we broke through to the tree line and climbed among reeds and trees, stepping gingerly to avoid the flowing water. At last we reached the top, where the water burst from a cement wall via two open pipes (I’m not sure why the water source has been manipulated by man, perhaps it was used for something or perhaps to regulate flow). I sat beneath a fig tree and enjoyed the view, letting the cold droplets splash me from time to time.

View from Ein Tina

A perfect vantage point, nearly invisible to those below, I was prepared to spend hours there. However, all good things must come to an end and we had yet a full evening schedule. And so we hiked back down the hill, passed the pool and down the path – where I found this little crab hiding in a small pool in the stream.

Crab

We boarded the buses and were driven down alongside the Kinneret towards the site of our night accommodations, Tzemach Beach at the southern tip of the sea/lake. Along the way, when I was distracted with text-messaging a friend, our bus hit a medium-sized bird on the long country – the driver claiming it to be a chukar. We reached the beach where we had dinner and found sleeping arrangements under a canopy of stars, fruit bats and mosquitoes. But before we retired, some of us instructors stole away to the beachfront where the schoolchildren were not allowed. There we had a leisurely night swim in the placid lake, only cutting our poor feet once or twice on sharp rocks hidden in the depths. The night passed and we awoke the next morning for yet more adventure!