Last week began with a drive down to Ashkelon where I spent four days in an FIDF-sponsored army resort with a handful of fellows from my base and a whole mob of Border Policemen, Armoured Corp and Intelligence soldiers and some from the Navy as well (blog post here). The resort is located at the southern end of Ashkelon, kind of close to the Gaza border, and pretty much borders the Ashkelon National Park (the subject of this blog post). Due to the fact that this R&R (Rest and Recreation) was held on an army-operated site, we weren’t allowed to wander off and explore. While waiting for the bus back home Thursday morning I recalled seeing the proximity of the park on a map and decided that, since I am so close, it would be a waste not to have a little adventure. And so I walked on over in my dress uniform and carrying my heavy backpack, bought a special soldier year-pass to all national parks and reserves for a nominal ₪50 (~$14) and headed on into the park.
An interesting piece of trivia I read was that scallions, cousins of the onions, were named after Ashkelon, perhaps they were initially farmed here. Back to the park, the first historical segment I came across was the Crusader moat wall built right next to the Canaanite gate, said to be the oldest gate in existence.
From along that wall, through the gate and onto the large sandy hill that was the northernmost section of ancient Ashkelon, a great view of the sea and modern Ashkelon – including the R&R centre – was to be seen:
Heading south to the main parking lot, I made my way by numerous outdoor water faucets which I presume are linked to the many natural wells located on-site. From the wells I descended to the beach and seeing that the real sites were further south, looped back and swung by the Basilica, built by the Romans.
And nearby the pillars of the Basilica further excavations have been done, revealing more as to the nature of the Roman site. The excavations were originally started in 1815 by Lady Hester Stanhope in search for an alleged gold hoard buried under a mosque but when their efforts bore no golden fruit they abandoned the site. Later, in 1921, real archaeology came to the area and the British made headway into ancient Ashkelon’s past – the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Crusaders and, of course, the Jews, all living in Ashkelon at one point or another.
After the Basilica I headed to the outer edge of the park to walk the aptly named “Wall Walk” – a trail along the old wall winding around towards the sea. The wall in question was built by the Fatimid Caliphate and only scattered pieces are intact today. Built on a natural sandy ridge, the wall walk is elevated over the park, providing excellent views. However, the walk itself was sun-baked and slow, each step in the thick sand a burden with my boots and heavy backpack on my shoulders.
At one point I stopped in the shade of a wall segment and watched some crows fight each other mid-air over scraps of food. With the lush park and the gentle sea as a backdrop, the aerial dogfights happening nearly eye-level yet so close. I imagined Leonardo Da Vinci would have greatly appreciated watching nature’s testament to the power of flight with me, had he been present. Towards the end of the walk, I photographed myself being your tour guide… showing you where north is:
Looking down at the sea, I spotted some people swimming down below frolicking amongst the ruins of ancient Ashkelon. As I took one of the photos a kestrel happened to have flown by, within the camera’s sights, but the bird was blurred so here is a regular photo:
I then made my way down to the water, where I was told one can see the ruins quite well. I was told correctly, ruins greeted me with every turn. How this park is not more famous beats me, one can even swim among the Roman ruins (similar to the famous underwater Greek ruins in Greece). Here a column and wall chunk have been partially buried in the sand:
Photos do not do this place justice, the ruins on the brink of the water, the ruins within the water, all is too much to be captured on film. Perhaps an aerial shot taken from a helicopter might better illustrate the true magnificence. The ruined city must be seen in person.
As I walked along the water, keeping close to the lapping waves where the sand is firmest, I found myself mesmerised by a tinkling sound. It was the sound of gentle waves nudging the mounds of pastel seashells, each shell softly clinking against the next.
Then I noticed a little crab scuttling about and seeing that he had small pinchers, too small to ward me off, I tried to catch him. I was unsuccessful in my attempts.
I climbed the stairs out of the beach and headed for the exit, filling up my water bottle and drinking heavily. As I neared the gate a park worker asked me if I’ve been drinking enough water. I replied in the affirmative and he correctly guessed which base I hailed from. Continuing further, I exchanged some words at the park entrance (including my water consumption) and witnessed something unusual. A man in a small pickup approached and said he has a delivery, some eagles. I peered into the truck and saw some vicious talons and some patterned wing feathers emerging from a sack – interesting cargo, to say the least. With that I bid them farewell and headed off to the bus where I was to begin my 5+ hour journey back home.