Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Tel Azeka & Khirbet Qeiyafa

In Israel, Judea on November 27, 2016 at 6:51 AM

Just over a week ago, the Land of Israel and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University launched its first “academic tour” of the semester, and I tagged along enthusiastically. Our destinations were two predominantly Biblical (Iron Age) sites in the Judean foothills: Tel Azeka and Khirbet Qeiyafa. Leaving the university campus in the morning via minibus, we took a brief pit stop at Elah Junction before continuing on to our first site, Tel Azeka located in Park Brittania.

Hellenistic palace of Tel Azeka

Hellenistic palace of Tel Azeka

Parking at the foot of Tel Azeka, we walked up the large mound from the south and crossed it to the eastern side, stopping under the Pistacia trees at the David and Goliath Lookout to enjoy the view of Emek HaElah (or, Elah Valley) where the legendary battle between David and Goliath took place.

Listening to Dr Oren Ackermann at the David & Goliath Lookout

Listening to Dr Oren Ackermann at the David & Goliath Lookout

The first order of the day was an overview of the area from a topographical perspective, delivered by Dr Oren Ackermann. With the help of field maps and a compass or two, we were instructed in the many ways of topography, navigation and geographical orientation. As we sat in the shade I kept an eye out for wildlife down below – I was rewarded with sightings of a European robin, stonechat, kestrel and a whole lot of noisy Eurasian jays at Tel Azeka alone.

Unidentified horseman

Unidentified horseman

A brief history of Tel Azeka: First inhabited some 3500 or so years ago, the site is first mentioned in Biblical sources as a city conquered by Yehoshua (Joshua) – an epic tale involving hailstones and slaughter. Later, Azeka is mentioned as being part of the Israelite fortress line defending against the Philistines from the southwest. Being as that Emek HaElah is the natural entry-point into the Judean foothills region, hilltop cities were built and fortified to repel invaders. However, these bastions didn’t stop Sennacherib and his Assyrian army from conquering the Israelite cities all the way up to Jerusalem, including Azeka. The next superpower, the Babylonians, laid siege on Azeka and conquered it shortly before laying waste to Jerusalem. With the Jewish return to the Holy Land in the Persian period, Azeka was rebuilt and resettled, undergoing a name change in the Byzantine era; from Azeka to Caper Zacaria. Sometime thereafter the city was abandoned and fell to ruins, only to be discovered by PEF surveyors and archaeologists in the late 1800s. Over one hundred years later, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University began modern excavations – the next dig season set for July 2018 (see HERE).

Listening to Dr Shawn Zelig Aster at the Assyrian siege batteries

Listening to Dr Shawn Zelig Aster at the Assyrian siege batteries

Returning to the narrative, we then stepped over the edge of the lookout to examine the unusually steep Assyrian siege batteries excavated out of the gravelly sides of the tel. From there we headed to the southern side and looked at the old city wall ruins of the Late Bronze to Iron Age period, before Israelite reign, under the shade of tall pine trees.

Late Bronze-Iron Age dated city walls to the south

Late Bronze-Iron Age city walls to the south

Looping around the west side, we then stood at the edge of another open excavation, the Hellenistic palace. And from there we headed back over to the east side to take a group photo.

Group photo on Tel Azeka

Group photo on Tel Azeka

Leaving Tel Azeka, we were then driven to the start of a dirt road not far below the tel, across Road 38, where we were to walk on foot to our next site: Khirbet Qeiyafa (debatably also known as Shaaraim, meaning “Two Gates”). Mostly disregarded by surveyors in the 19th and 20th centuries, the site was identified as an important fortified city in 1992 and 2001, and most recently excavated between 2007-2013 by the Hebrew University under Professor Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Antiquities Authority. I had the honour of digging with these fine archaeologists six or so months ago at Khirbet Arai, located some seventeen kilometres southwest of Qeiyafa.

Aerial view of Khirbet Qeiyafa looking south (photo Skyview)

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

To give an even briefer historical overview, Qeiyafa was a Biblical city, same as Azeka, perhaps the largest city in the area at the time. The findings of a second gate, facing south overlooking Emek HaElah, seemingly solidified the theory that Qeiyafa was the Biblical city of Shaaraim. In the Hellenistic period the site was fortified, with the addition of smaller fieldstones to enlarge the city walls. The Roman and Byzantine periods saw continued settlement, yet sometime afterwards the ancient city fell to disuse and was only scattered stone heaps until recent years.

Double wall circling Qeiyafa

Double wall circling Qeiyafa

And so it was that our group of academics and students alike sat under the shade of an olive tree to hear about the recent excavations. Getting back up on our feet, we examined the four-chambered western gate and then took a slow loop within the city perimetre, pausing here and there for educational purposes. I was gazing about at the ruins around me when I saw the briefest of glimpses of a bird that I’ve never seen before. All I needed was that glimpse to identify a male blue rock thrush from the bird guide I carry around everywhere – an exciting spotting for me, even if I was unable to photographically capture the moment.

Dusty acorns

Dusty acorns

Finishing up where we started – the western gate – I found a bitter almond tree and tried to feed my friends cyanide-rich nutmeat, but they all refused. We boarded the minibus and drove through intermittent traffic back to the university, successfully culminating the first archaeology trip of the semester.

Tel Kedesh Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on November 1, 2016 at 12:51 PM

Exactly two weeks ago, during Chol HaMoed of Sukkot, I took my brother Nissim to an archaeological dig at the nearby Tel Kedesh. Located on the Old Northern Road north of Tzfat in the Naftali Mountains of the Upper Galilee, Tel Kedesh is just approximately 700 metres from the Lebanese border. I had visited half of the site two-and-a-half years ago with my sister (blog post linked in the first sentence).

The view to the east

The view to the east

But this time I was to explore the half I hadn’t known about at that time, and to contribute to an excavation under the auspices of Dr Uri Davidovich, Ido Wachtel and Roi Sabar of the Hebrew University. This was to be my second archaeological dig, the previous one also under the behest of the Hebrew University at Khirbet Arai near the city of Kiryat Gat.

RTK surveyor under the bitter almond tree

RTK surveyor under the bitter almond tree

I had emailed the team in advance and so when we arrived on-site in the morning, they already knew that I was a student of Archaeology at Bar Ilan University. Our group of archaeologists, students and volunteers gathered in the Tel Kedesh park parking lot and received our briefing before taking the necessary equipment up to the dig site on the northern mound of the hill. On my second trip up, I stopped to watch Asaf Ben Haim uncover what looks to be a architrave and/or frieze of an important Roman building, located on the path to the dig site.

Asaf uncovering Roman ruins

Asaf uncovering Roman ruins

As I watched him tear up the dry earth I saw what looked to be a tarantula near his hand – but no, this was a camel spider, not a true spider but a true fright! Pelicans soars in unison overhead as the sun climbed, the site slowly being turned into an archaeological excavation. As it was the very first day of the dig, in a place never excavated before, there was a lot of surveying, plotting and photo-taking to be done. At last three “squares” were decided upon – one inside the ruins of a building and two adjacent to the eastern wall of that building. The leaning column and large ashlars (Roman-looking) made this site a good place to start.

Ruins amongst the dead vegetation

Ruins amongst the dead vegetation

To give a brief synopsis of Tel Kedesh’s history: Originally a fortified Canaanite city, the Israelites took it over and eventually made it a “City of Refuge” (alongside Shechem and Hevron on this side of the Jordan River). Later, the Assyrians captured and destroyed Kedesh along with other keys cities in the Galilee, perhaps most notably, Hazor. The Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, took up occupation renaming the city Cades. Excavations of a Hellenistic administrative building on the southern mound were done recently by the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. An Arab village named Kadas was established, built upon the Roman remains, and was abandoned in 1948. Remains of British rule include two pillboxes along the road to the west and a Tegart fort under the name Yusha or Metzudat Koach to the east. The Hebrew University archaeological team has its eyes set on Roman ruins so we had to clear away the dry/dead vegetation and fallen stones.

Clearing away the fallen rocks

Clearing away the fallen rocks

Whilst clearing vegetation I found a bone in the dirt and took it to be examined – it seems to be a scorched sheep knee bone. It was the first find of the day, stashed away in a bucket soon to be filled with more bones, lots of potsherds and even a Roman metal clothespin of sorts.

What appears to be a scorched sheep knee-bone

What appears to be a scorched sheep knee-bone

Even while at an archaeological dig I cannot help but be curious as to the flora and fauna to be seen. I spotted what looked to me like a good ten or so black kites wheeling overhead, the droppings of a porcupine (which I have yet to see in Israel), two clay capsules holding wasps in their late stages of development and my first sighting of a few Sardinian warblers popping in and out of the dry undergrowth.

A potter wasp Inside its development clay capsule

A potter wasp inside its development clay capsule

When lunch break came around I sat under a bitter almond tree and decided to have a taste. I don’t recall ever eating a bitter almond; the taste is just like amaretto albeit much more bitter, hence the name. Bitter almonds have forty-two times the amount of cyanide than the normal sweet variety which means that fifty or so bitter almonds can provide a lethal dose of cyanide poisoning.

Cracking open some bitter almonds

Cracking open some bitter almonds

After the lunch break I left the square of rock clearing and joined my brother under the field shade-tent in his square. He was wielding a small pick, clearing dirt and small rocks from alongside the base of a wall. I grasped a larger pick and we went to town on the earth and rocks of the square, clearing out a nice corner.

Nissim digging in his square

Nissim digging in his square

With the sun slowly slipping off to the western horizon the productive workday came to an end and after making our way back down the hill, we took a quick look at the ruins at the eastern mound.

Ruins of a Roman temple

Ruins of a Roman temple

Getting back into the car we drove back home, tired but happy to have been among the first to break ground on a new excavation site. If anything is ever found in that part of Tel Kedesh, we’ll be able to boast that we were there the very first day.

Alma Cave

In Galilee, Israel on October 9, 2016 at 5:46 AM

A year and a half ago, while home after my several military adventures in the Golan, I went on an “extreme” trip with my old army friend Nechemya. As we share an interest in caves, I had selected a certain cave to be the subject of our adventure – Alma Cave. Located just north of Tzfat (Safed) beside the Jewish community of Alma and opposite the Circassian village of Rehanyia, the cave is a short hike from the main road. Parking the car near some cow-sheds, we gathered up all our necessary gear in two backpacks and struck out for the trail.

Nechemya taking some pictures

Nechemya taking some pictures

With a general lack of trees in the area, it was relatively straightforward where we needed to go, especially with a satellite picture to guide us. Flanked by Hatzor Stream and the mountain ridge above it, we traversed a marshy seasonal stream and climbed to higher ground. What amazed me was the quantity of cow bones, mostly bleached white from sun exposure – however there was one particularly grotesque sheep carcass in early to mid stages of decomposition.

Humble exterior of Alma Cave

Humble exterior of Alma Cave

After the short walk we descended a bit to the large rocky karst patch of land where the cave’s mouth was hidden. Finding the slow descent into the opening cavern, we used the metal handles and fig branches to navigate downwards.

From within the first small cave

From within the first small cave

Passing a small side cave beautifully adorned with dry speleothems, we reached the cave’s impressive entrance cavern.

Sitting in the entrance cavern

Sitting in the entrance cavern

With the cave located on a geological line between the Dalton and Alma plateaus, the gathering water seeps down and erodes the soft rock, creating the labyrinth of cracks, fissures, tunnels and underground chambers.

Alma Cave's vertical survey

Alma Cave’s vertical survey

While we marveled at the size of the entrance hall, we had a quick bite to eat and prepped our gear. In addition to the mandatory headlamps, we brought helmets, an emergency flashlight and extra batteries as well as a whole bunch of climbing rope in case we needed to rappel deeper into the bowels of the cave.

Ready to descend

Ready to descend

But, perhaps most excitingly, Nechemya brought a GoPro camera and affixed it to the top of his helmet to properly document the spelunking. Zipped up warm and ready to go, we used the metal handles planted in the rocks to drop down into the cave’s dark continuation. We turned around in the darkness, illuminating an underground world with our headlamps. Following the white reflective markers, we began the approximate 500 metre journey to the bottom of the cave. The deeper we got, the damper it got and we were dripped on by the cave’s mineral-rich water deposits.

A cave drop

A cave drop

Sticking to the marked route, we passed many side chambers and tunnels which filled us with intrigue. Legends run wild with Alma Cave –  stories of hundreds of thousands of graves, an endless interior and more – in fact, the cave is also known as the Babylonian Cave and the Abyss Cave.

Cave growths

Cave growths

Plunging even deeper into the ground, the rocks we stepped on were found to be slick with mud, hazardous in their own right. After an hour or so of descent we finally reached the blue sign marking the end of the line, but we were not going to let that stop us. We slid down a wet slope, beside a rather large cave growth, and found the little underground spring of crystal-clear water.

Underground spring

Underground spring

At this point we were some 105 metres (345 feet) below the surface but we saw that there was still room to go further. And so we did, sliding down another couple metres before deciding to turn out the lights and sit in the cool darkness for a spell.

Sitting at the near bottom of the cave

Sitting at the near bottom of the cave

Once the chill set in, as we were rather far underground, we decided it was time to leave the cold clammy embrace of the cave’s lowest marked chamber and to strike for the surface. The way up was far faster and easier than the descent, and we spend more time peering into side chambers and tunnels, wondering where they led to.

Looking down a pit - a GoPro screenshot

Looking down a pit – a GoPro screenshot

It was only on the ascent that we successfully got GoPro footage, although unfortunately it came out rather “tunnel-vision-like” with the sole headlamp on Nechemya’s helmet providing light. So I went through the approximate 43 minutes of underground footage, which was a sizable 3.76 GB, and decided that I couldn’t be bothered trying to make a video of it. When we at last reached the surface, we repacked our equipment and belongings, to the sounds of the cooing and flapping of pigeons in the background. Equipment stowed, we climbed out of the entrance cavern and sprawled on the soft green grass to enjoy the warmth of the sun on our cold bodies. I was laying on my back with a jacket sleeve over most of my eyes when I saw a furry beast trot by just metres in front of me. I lurched up with a cry as I watched the unsuspecting jackal run for cover. Leaping up with Nechemya’s camera in my hand I pursued the jackal, seeing the rest of his pack converge to the north. Watching their movements, I raced across the top of the hill to cut them off to the northeast. Just as I suspected, five or six jackals ran by and I was able to get this semi-decent photo of one in my ambush.

Jackal running by

Jackal running by

I soon lost track of the jackals and returned to Nechemya where we had a quick bite to eat in the quickly setting sun. Walking back the way we came, I nabbed the two bleached cow skulls that we had passed earlier and we got back to car at dusk.

Leaving Alma Cave at sunset

Leaving Alma Cave at sunset

Driving the road back to Tzfat I dropped Nechemya off and got his photos and GoPro footage for my blog, so yes, many of the photos are accredited to him. Looking forward to more adventures…