Israel's Good Name

Jerusalem Aqueduct Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 12, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Several weeks ago, the day before my birthday, I had a day off from classes which had begun with the new semester mid-October and decided to participate in an ongoing excavation led by the Israel Antiquities Authority. My friend Ben joined in on the fun and we made our way to Jerusalem in the morning, heading for the dig located in the southern part of the city, below the Armon Hanatziv Promenade.

Approaching the dig site

Heavy rainclouds loomed overhead as we approached the construction site where our dig was taking place, where remains of the Greco-Roman aqueduct was found and a salvage excavation was opened up. We passed the hard-hatted workers and construction vehicles as we made our way to the black-tented excavation area. Meeting Yaakov Billig, the IAA director of the dig, we were briefed on the historical and archaeological situation of the aqueduct.

Jerusalem aqueduct archaeological dig

In short, during the late Hellenistic or Roman times an aqueduct was constructed to bring fresh water from reservoirs near Bethlehem to the Old City of Jerusalem. Many attribute the construction to Herod, as he was responsible for a huge building boom, but others prefer to credit the Hasmonean dynasty. Known as the Upper Aqueduct, the elevated structure sloped ever so gently down towards Jerusalem – important for identifying the intermittent sections found between the reservoirs and the capital. I don’t recall the exact height from the briefing, but according to various online maps I think that we were at 778 metres above sea level. Regardless, mapping the slow drop in elevation is crucial for correctly identifying remains of the same aqueduct.

Western meanders of the channel

In addition to the remains of the aqueduct, there was also what seems to be a large building and then a serpentine plaster water channel running perpendicular to the stone aqueduct. When our briefing ended, Yaakov handed us over to Rivka, the supervisor for the plaster channel area, and we were put to work on the far end. Our task was to further define the channel which had already been crudely exposed by a bulldozer. We armed ourselves with pickaxes, hoes and black plastic buckets and got to work. Just a few metres away was a small group of schoolchildren who provided us with fun music and conversation to which we worked.

Working alongside the schoolchildren

We picked, cleared and defined, moving slowly west down the channel, working gingerly around the delicate plaster. There wasn’t much in terms of artefacts, not even any interesting potsherds at first. Eventually we found some Roman-age ceramic roof tile pieces, but even more interesting was a rim piece of an ancient glass vessel, curled upon itself in a delicate manner.

Interesting piece of glass

At around 10:00 am we took a short break to examine the other areas of the dig, to eat and to do a little birding in the nearby grasses. I found a few stonechats, pied wagtails and jackdaws along with the regular Israeli city birds, and I rejoined Ben for some breakfast. The group of schoolchildren left shortly thereafter and we were relocated to a different part of the plaster channel. With the connection of the aforementioned building and the plaster channel still buried, we were given new instructions to define it better. I settled down with a small pick and got to work define the delicate sides while Ben wielded the big pickaxe, clearing away the area beside a bulldozed trench. Yaakov came over to chat with us, telling us that he attended Bar Ilan University as well.

East end of the channel

One of the hired Arab workers popped over to show us a rock that had broken in half, revealing a crystallised quartz interior. Then, as I cleared away the loose dirt I found myself holding a nearly perfect stone cube. Curious as to what it might be I waited for Yaakov to return, and was then told that it’s a mosaic tile – which makes sense due to the fact that on five of the six sides there was the remains of ancient cement.

Mosaic stone

The hours had passed before us and the hired workers began to pack up, another day at the dig coming to an end. We packed up as well, and said our words of farewell to Yaakov. But before we left, there was a special treat for us: a coin had been found earlier by the hired workers, and the dig’s assistant director, Rotem, took us to see it. I was surprised at how small it was, all encrusted and corroded, but it was clearly a coin with some sort of lettering that will be easier to identify after the lab finishes with it.

Yours truly

Leaving the site we headed back towards the heart of Jerusalem, specifically to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) as we were famished and waiting impatiently for some juicy burgers. We had our late lunch at Burger Market, washed down with bottles of cold alcoholic cider, before browsing the vibrant shuk.

Hatch brews

Our last stop was to the newly opened Hatch taproom, where a fun selection of fresh beers are available, in addition to creative sausages. After some samples I settled on a hoppy IPA, very similar to the popular NEIPA, and Ben had a Scottish ale. In added celebration of my birthday, Ben went ahead and ordered us one of the sausages, topped with a mango chutney and chopped onions. It was surprisingly tasty and we had a grand time eating, drinking and talking to the owner, Ephraim Greenblatt, about beers and brewing. At last, we said farewell and took a crowded bus back to Givat Shmuel bringing an end to a very fun and interesting day.

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North Tel Aviv Coast

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on October 29, 2017 at 6:50 AM

The week after my trip to Shiloh I rejoined my adventurous friend Adam for yet another adventure. This time it was for some early morning birding and more along the coast just north of Tel Aviv. We took a very early bus because we wanted to be out in the dunes by the time the birds start to stir. With just a tiny busing miscalculation we reached the fields just inland from HaTzuk Beach, roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Herzliya.

Starting with sunrise

The sun was just peeking over the horizon as we entered the scrub fields, walking along sandy paths that crisscrossed the area. Almost immediately we had an incredible sighting. A quail burst up from underfoot as we stood scanning the vegetation, its characteristic flight giving away its identity as it disappeared rapidly. This was my first time seeing a quail in the wild, and it was something that has piqued my interest for a while now. In addition, a sparrowhawk was spotted flying high up near one of the several hotels in the area and shortly thereafter we started seeing shrikes, whinchats and wheatears flying from bush to bush, presenting themselves nicely in the early morning light.

Scanning the area

We continued walking south, passing through the vegetation in relative silence, keeping a keen eye for wildlife of all varieties. We came across some interesting plants as well, from the sea squill to the sea daffodil, and later, blooming beach evening primrose growing directly in the sand itself on the dunes.

Sea squill

But it wasn’t just birds and flowers, Adam, more knowledgeable of bugs than I am, caught and showed me a queen ant that had lost her wings. There were also some antlion larva pits in the sand, dug to trip up unsuspecting walking insects on the loose grains.

Queen carpenter ant

We pushed southward, the terrain becoming nicer and nicer as we walked, with songbirds showing themselves all over the place. Occasionally we’d take different parallel paths, scouring the land from two different angles. A hoopoe, our national bird, walked along several paces in front of me, poking around in the sand for insects to eat.

Two harriers and a crow

Then, as we stood there, we spotted three bigger birds up in the sky coming in from the north. Activating my convenient 21x zoom, I was able to distinguish two birds of prey and a crow, the flagship mobbing bird, always annoying other species. Making note of the long and narrow wings, with the narrow tail, I knew we were looking at harriers even before they passed right over our heads. This was my first time seeing a Montagu’s harrier, and what a sighting! The “new bird” excitement carried over to the next cool sighting. A corncrake popped out of cover just in front of us, seeking refuge towards the sea. We attempted to follow it, to get a better sighting, but we were unable to relocate it and didn’t want to waste too much time poking about all willy-nilly.

Exploring the dunes

At this point the terrain was changing from the yellowish sandy flats to proper dunes with reddish sand, at times red clay loam. The vegetation became sparser, mostly short bushy plants and the aforementioned beach evening primrose. The contrast of the reddish sand, the green plants and the blue sky made a beautiful scene for our eyes to behold. Lots of tracks crisscrossed the sand, and we made our own tracks as we walked up the highest part of the dunes. We looked out over the Mediterranean Sea, taking in the views as we took out our breakfast. Eating as we kept an eye out for seabirds, we talked about how beautiful and remote this place was, even so close to such urban areas. To highlight the proximity, military aircrafts passed us both before and after breakfast: a C-130 Hercules cargo plane and a Blackhawk helicopter, both with camo paint-jobs.

Tracks

Just after breakfast, heading back down the dunes but still making our way southward, Adam spotted a common kestrel on a nearby clump of loam backdropped by the gentle waves. We watched it, taking pictures as we creeped forward. Unfortunately we ended up scaring it away but that gave us the opportunity to press onwards, heading towards an even taller hill: Tel el-Rekkeit.

Beach evening primrose

Crowned by an abandoned IDF military base, the tel once was the host of prehistoric settlement. Seemingly nobody bothered to use the hill until WWI when the Ottoman army established an artillery base to shell British troops approaching from the south. Once the Ottoman base was conquered, it was converted into a British base, and subsequently an Israeli base. We climbed the hill and looped around the western side of the base fence, arriving at the entrance with the access road. Finding the site to be completely abandoned we ventured in, wondering if we’d find drug addicts or something similarly unpleasant.

Abandoned army base

We stepped gingerly over the large amounts of garbage and building supplies that covered the ground, including terracotta roof tiles imported from France. We poked our heads into the different buildings, not seeing anything interesting, until I heard rustling in the bushes up against the eastern fence. Motioning to Adam, I crept closer and spotted two foxes making a quick getaway through a gap in the foliage. There wasn’t much else to see within the base so we headed back out, attempting to find the old Arab graves that are on the eastern slope. Instead we found a tiny cliff which didn’t afford passage, and the decayed remains of a dog or jackal.

Red-backed shrike

We continued south along the dunes, seeing a lot of ice plants covering the sandy slopes, and some thorny bushes – the preferred hangouts for shrikes. One beautiful red-backed shrike, singing from his perch on the thorns, posed for me quite close by. It was a lovely experience, and I was sad to see him fly off.

Tel Baruch Beach

Shortly thereafter, on the final stretch of the dunes area I found a ₪10 coin (worth $2.85 USD at the current exchange rate), and then we made our way down to the Tel Baruch beach. Having planned for this, we packed swimwear and towels and changed into our beach garb. We headed for end of the tiny artificial bay, up against the rocks of the breakers, and entered the warm waters. Nearly immediately I felt sharp little bites on my feet and remembered hearing about the sargo fish who have been a bit of a terror to beachgoers this summer. Then, I realised that a common kingfisher was perched on a pole right in front of me, watching the water for small fish to nab for lunch.

Common kingfisher

Thankfully Adam brought his mask with him and we took turns peering into the underwater world, admiring the sargos and other little fish swimming around us in the shallows. Having brought his fishing rod, Adam was looking forward to fish and so we also scrounged around for some “natural” bait, namely little crabs and limpets which we harvested from the rocks. Factoring in the mask, we decided to try fishing from within the water, head underwater to see where to dangle the hook. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much success. Well, no success at all.

Adam fishing

We left the water to try fishing from the breakers and had a continued lack of success. When returning to the water, I noticed that there was a large area that seemed darker than normal. Getting a little closer, wading my way in, I realised that a huge school of sardines came by to visit us. We spent the next while swimming within the school of sardines, marveling at the up-close experience as we watched them underwater with the aid of the mask. At one point, I was underwater and the aforementioned kingfisher plunged into the water less than a metre in front me, but sadly I missed seeing it due to the fishy distractions all around me. Hours passed with us playing around in the water, exploring the sandy seafloor and identifying several types of different fish species, including a type of blenny. At last I remembered that I had to be back in Givat Shmuel later that afternoon and we packed up and left, heading the long way back via the bike trail that runs along Sde Dov Airport. We reached the Reading power plant at the Yarkon River and grabbed a bus back home, bringing an end to a very adventurous day.

Shiloh

In Israel, Samaria on October 22, 2017 at 2:57 PM

In the middle of September I took part in a nice day trip as part of my job at the high school where I work. The class I was accompanying was headed for Shiloh, a site I had yet to visit, the longtime resting place of the Jewish Mishkan (Tabernacle), the temporary Temple, in biblical times. Ready for adventure, we boarded our armoured bus to be driven to Shiloh, located in the Shomron, south of Tapuah Junction on Road 60.

Tel Shiloh

As I was passing my old army-time stomping grounds, I enjoyed driving through the Shomron and seeing the daily life just as I had left it years ago. We reached Shiloh and pulled into the small parking lot, disembarking beside a seemingly religiously-oriented Byzantine structure named the Dome of the Divine Presence. Its sloping walls made it quite curious looking, but there was little time for examination as I had school lads to tend to.

Dome of the Divine Presence structure

We gathered within the park, gazing down at a Byzantine reservoir and well, which was once outside a Crusader church, of which there are no remnants. Inside, past the gift shop, we broke into class groups with our own tour guides – ours was Eli Riskin, who exuberantly led us onto the first of the sites that we’d be seeing during our Shiloh trip.

Reconstructed Byzantine basilica

The first site was the reconstructed Byzantine basilica, a rough concrete structure built by a Danish archaeological team sometime between 1926 and 1932. What they were sheltering was an expansive mosaic floor with various designs and motifs, the two most interesting being a Star of David and an inscription in Greek by the doorstep which helped positively identify this site with biblical Shiloh.

Byzantine mosaic

Dillydallying a bit with my camera trying to get nice shots of the mosaics and ruins, I became separated from my group and continued on past a Mamluk mosque, also decorated with mosaic floors from the Byzantine era. A piece of a horned altar from the Second Temple period was found here, fueling the fervor surrounding the site’s religious importance.

Ancient olive oil production

From there I began the climb up the hill, Tel Shiloh, with the ruins of the ancient city exposed all around me. I kept walking uphill heading for HaRoeh Tower, the visitors centre where the lads had congregated. Along the way, at the lookout, I admired modern-day Shiloh and the glimpse of the Tabernacle Memorial synagogue, built to replicate the ancient Tabernacle at least from an architectural standpoint.

HaRoeh Tower

The school lads were watching a short film about Shiloh from a biblical perspective so I took the opportunity to visit the tiny museum by my lonesome. Exhibiting artefacts in a circular fashion in accordance with their timeframe, the museum houses some nice ancient vessels, weapons and coins.

Ruins of Tel Shiloh

At last we went down to the area that is believed to be the site of the Mishkan, based on geographic and topographic calculations. We passed the wall of the original Canaanite city and reached a flat area where the bedrock was hewn in sections. Sitting beneath a shade booth we listened to the tour guides as they explained the site to us, followed by praying Mincha.

Heading down to the supposed site of the Mishkan

Having reached the end of the park we made our way back, taking the scenic route around the western edge of the original city. Back at the entrance I checked out the Roman winepress installation and the hewn-rock graves, dated to the Second Temple period. After lunch of deli sandwiches we made our way to the buses, which afforded me a quick peek at the aforementioned Dome of the Divine Presence structure, and we were driven just across the road.

Dusty grapes

Disembarking, we took a nice hike along Nachal Shiloh, just about four kilometres of classic wadi hiking. At first we passed the Shapiro Family Vineyards of lush, albeit dusty, grapes just waiting to be made into boutique wine. When we dipped down to the trail along the dry streambed, we followed our nimble guides as we traversed the rocks. Along the way I stopped here and there to see if I could find any cool wildlife. At one point, fast movement along the top of the ridge gave away two mountain gazelles which I barely caught with my camera. Later, I found some nice birds, namely a few blue rock thrushes and my very first red-backed shrike.

Hiking Nachal Shiloh

Unfortunately, the spring we were headed to turned out to be quite choked by algae so we kept onwards, re-emerging at the end of the trail where the buses were waiting for us. Upon returning to Givat Shmuel, I met up with my frequent travelmate Adam for a evening out to the Dancing Camel brewery for the annual release party of the acclaimed Doc’s Green Leaf Party IPA, the highest rated Israeli beer according to voters on RateBeer. So ended another successful adventure.