Israel's Good Name

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Tel Megiddo

In Galilee, Israel on December 29, 2013 at 10:08 AM

During Chanukah, while I was home, several members of my family and I took a little drive down to Tel Megiddo, in the Jezreel Valley area not far from Haifa. Herein lies the story of our adventure to the ancient city conquered and reconquered over twenty times, a city whose Greek name is Armageddon (a corruption of Har Megiddo, or Mount Megiddo).

Tel Megiddo

Tel Megiddo

The day we visited happened to have been overcast and, despite the faint sunshine sneaking through the clouds, there wasn’t much to be done to improve the photographic element. Thus, my photos are rather lackluster and so I often used the many date palm trees on premise to liven up the scene, as seen here:

Tel Megiddo ruins and a date palm

Tel Megiddo ruins and a date palm

We began with watching a short video on the history of Megiddo and the important archaeological site it has become now. While the video played I noticed this great photo taken sometime between 1925 and 1939 of the Oriental Institute Expedition of the University of Chicago, funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr:

Oriental Institute Expedition at Tel Megiddo

Oriental Institute Expedition at Tel Megiddo

Later, in the 1960’s, further excavations were conducted by famed Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin for the Hebrew University. Unearthing twenty-six layers of ruins, from the Jews to the Egyptians to the Romans, the same small area was built and rebuilt time and time again over thousands of years. Some of the very interesting historical battles that took place in and around Megiddo include: the Egyptians under Pharaoh Thutmose III vs. the Canaanites of Megiddo and Kadesh (1478 BCE), the Egyptians under Pharaoh Necho II vs. the Kingdom of Judah under King Yoshiyahu (609 BCE) and more recently, the Allied Forces under General Allenby vs. the Ottoman Empire (1918).

Tel Megiddo (photo by IsraelTourism, Flickr)

Tel Megiddo (photo by IsraelTourism, Flickr)

Entering through the Solomonic gateway, the path winds to and fro with little signs explaining what certain areas are and from what period they come from. Here, amidst a vast spread of short stone walls and partially excavated ruins is more modern looking “northern palace”. Finely cut masonry, the thick walls of the “palace” were originally thought to be from the time of King Solomon, however it is now believed to be dated from the time of King Ahab:

The ''northern palace''

The ”northern palace”

One of the big discoveries was of a Canaanite altar, a large circular mound composed of smaller rocks, buried numerous layers down:

Ruins including a Canaanite altar (centre)

Ruins including a Canaanite altar (centre)

At the far eastern side of the ruins, looking over the Jezreel Valley towards Mount Tavor, the wind played a haunting tune as it whipped through the thin reed-like awning covering the lookout. There, gouged deep through the archaeological mound, many time periods can be looked upon at once – layers built up on the bedrock. Not far is the 450-cubic metre grain pit, lined with stone and straw, believed to be from the days of King Yeruvam (Jeroboam) II some 2,700 years ago. And then, on the western side of the hilltop are the stable complexes. Large to hold nearly 500 horses, the early excavators in the 1920’s and 1930’s believed the lot to be stables however more recent archaeologists suggest that the stables are actually warehouses or barracks. I personally like the stables version, and so does the Israel Parks Authority because many metal horses can be seen on premises, such as the one hiding under the date palm:

The stables

The stables

At the very western edge, where the trail seems to lead to nowhere, is the water system – an “L”-shaped shaft cut out of the bedrock to supply the city with water in time of siege. Built during the time of the Israelite kings, the 36-metre (120-foot) deep vertical shaft and the 70-metre (230-foot) long horizontal shaft hooked up to a freshwater spring emerged in a natural cave. They then blocked the cave’s other entrance, the one visible to those outside the city, and camouflaged it.

A stone etching cross-section of the water system tunnel

A stone etching cross-section of the water system tunnel

Here is the renovated tunnel, complete with electrical illumination and a safe wooden walkway:

The 70-metre long tunnel

The 70-metre long tunnel

And here, the modern stairs leading down to the spring from outside the city:

Coming up from the spring

Coming up from the spring

At the top of the staircase coming up from the dank spring, we took the long path back to the park entrance – along the extremely black asphalt road – and returned to our car. From the park we attempted to visit the Juara Museum but when we got there we discovered it was inside an army base and required reservation – maybe I’ll get to visit it one day on my army explorations. After the failed museum visit we headed into Yokneam and got dinner at a popular hummus restaurant, Hummus Eliyahu – highly recommended. Then we went home and lit the chanukiyah.

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Mitzpe Ramon

In Israel, Negev on December 22, 2013 at 4:26 AM

Returning to the desert trilogy of blog posts… After visiting Sde Boker, Midreshet Ben Gurion and the ancient ruins of Avdat I pushed southwards and stopped at Mitzpe Ramon. A town on the northern ledge of Ramon Crater, Mitzpe Ramon is where the Parks Authority office is, as well as other sites of interest.

Mitzpe Ramon Visitors Centre on the rim of the Ramon Crater

Mitzpe Ramon Visitors Centre on the rim of the Ramon Crater

After parking the truck I headed into the Visitors Centre and found out that I had missed the last opening of the day, that I’d have to come back another day but that I was free to look around outside. Here is the view of the northern ledge of the Ramon Crater that I photographed that day:

The crater edge

The crater edge

Not left with many options, the sun gradually sinking over the horizon, I called it a day and made up my mind to try to come back. Two days later, after a nice night in the desert where I had a near run-in with a dangerous little yellow scorpion, I found myself with plenty of free time and so popped on a bus to Mitzpe Ramon.

Nubian ibex

Nubian ibex

The first thing I noticed was the abundance of Nubian ibex wandering around the town. I overheard someone comparing ibex in Mitzpe Ramon to cats in the rest of Israel, that they are all over the streets. It’s true. Next I entered the Visitors Centre and booked myself for an afternoon tour. With some time to kill, and the spirit of adventure coursing through my veins, I visited Bio Ramon. A side attraction attached to the Ramon Crater (also known as Makhtesh Ramon), Bio Ramon is a small “desert zoo” hosting both wildlife and flora. Here is a horned viper (Cerastes cerastes), found in the Ramon Crater as well as other areas of the Negev:

A horned viper in Bio Ramon

A horned viper in Bio Ramon

After a partially-guided tour of Bio Ramon I had lunch and then eventually, as the hour of my Visitors Centre appointment approached, I made my way to the edge of the crater. The Ramon Crater is a whopping 38 kilometres long, 4-10 kilometres wide – the largest of Israel’s erosion craters. Along with the Small Crater and Large Crater to the north and two mini-craters at Mount Arif, the Ramon Crater joins two Egyptian craters in the Sinai Peninsula as being the only erosion craters on Earth.

Ramon Crater

Ramon Crater

Shaped like an elongated heart, the Ramon Crater has interesting rockforms, and a great variety of wildlife that come out mostly at night. Animals of interest include ibex, wild asses, gazelles, foxes, wolves, striped hyenas and even leopards. While the wildlife are hard to spot, the natural beauty is not, and from this balcony lookout, one can look straight down at the crater floor:

''Balcony lookout''

”Balcony lookout”

I had someone take my picture while I stood on the wooden planks separating me from the crater floor way down below; here it is:

Defying death

Defying death

At last I was admitted into the Visitors Centre and the tour began with Israeli hero Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and Israel’s first astronaut. I remember reading in the papers shortly after I moved to Israel about the death of Ilan’s son, Asaf Ramon, who was killed in a plane crash – himself an IAF pilot as well.

Ilan Ramon as an IAF fighter pilot

Ilan Ramon as an IAF fighter pilot

Ilan Ramon was a crew member of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle and was killed tragically, to the world’s horror, as the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003 just sixteen minutes before their scheduled landing. I never thought much about the story, nor the man involved, but I must say, the Visitors Centre did a great job at opening a window into the life of Ilan Ramon. But before Ilan became an astronaut, he was a fighter pilot in the IAF and was the youngest of the eight pilots to take part in Operation Opera – the daring bombing of Iraq’s unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981.

Operation Opera in the video

Operation Opera in the video

The film that led us into the life of Ilan Ramon came to a close with his death, showing footage from both the shuttle and NASA’s “Houston” space centre. Concluding with a connection of the Ramon Crater and space (Israel’s research telescopes are stationed on the rim of the crater), the curtains opened up and bright desert light filled the room, the vast crater directly before us:

The curtains open to reveal the crater

The curtains open to reveal the crater

After an exhibition on the creation of the erosion crater, including hands-on activities and a great flexible rubber model of the crater area, we headed on up to the roof for an even better view of the Ramon Crater.

The crater edge from higher up

The crater edge from higher up

And last but not least, a panoramic of the Ramon Crater:

Panoramic of the Ramon Crater

Panoramic of the Ramon Crater

And so ended my adventurous week in the desert.

Jerusalem: City of White Gold

In Israel, Jerusalem on December 17, 2013 at 6:45 AM

This blog post interrupts the three-part “desert adventure” (of which only Ben Gurion: Life and Death and Avdat have already been published, to date) to focus on an event which threw some of the country into shock and the media into a frenzy – the huge snowstorm that hit Jerusalem. We in Ma’alot got a little dabbling of snow over the weekend, but nothing like the two feet of snow the capital got. The snowstorm got so intense that the city was effectively shut down and isolated, the army (Homefront Command in particular) brought in and four people even died. Thousands if not more spent Shabbat without power and so, in the wake of the storm I did go, visiting “Jerusalem of White” to see it for myself.

Snow-covered train tracks in Jerusalem

Snow-covered train tracks in Jerusalem

Part of a huge storm that hit the Middle East, the Golan and Upper Galilee region were hit with even more snow (those living in Tzfat had similar troubles to those in Jerusalem) but I was already headed down south on military business. I took the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, hoping that the mountainous route would be spectacular but to my surprise there was almost no snow until we reached the Jerusalem Malcha station.

Approaching Jerusalem by train

Approaching Jerusalem by train

Waiting around to see whether or not the buses were running, I was asked by an American fellow for bus help. Then an Oriental tourist. Then an Israeli family. Pretty soon I was surrounded by a clamoring mass of cold, stranded people all looking to me for salvation. I had to explain that I was not in capacity as “helpers” like those soldiers wearing reflective orange vests from Homefront Command, and that I had no idea about the buses. I then hightailed out of the area, taking the road to the Old City on foot.

Idle Egged buses

Idle Egged buses

I noticed as I walked that the farther I penetrated the city, the deeper the snow got. I stopped along the side to mark my territory with a footprint – gotta love the feeling of untouched snow crunching underfoot.

Brill boot footprint

Brill boot footprint

I entered into the residential areas, not seeing anything familiar save the big green signs pointing me in the direction of the Old City. At one point, slipping in the snow sliced apart by slushy tire tracks, I turned around and took some pictures.

Snow in the residential areas

Snow in the residential areas

As I walked I passed by people playing in the snow. Whether children lobbing hunks of snow at one another, or rebellious youth carefully sculpting a snowman, the snow brought smiles to so many faces.

Playing in Independence Park

Playing in Independence Park

I got stopped by a US Consul guard who informed me that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of their vehicles, their guard booths or their building. I explained to the cautious man that I was an American so it should be fine. We had a laugh and I found out he was stationed in the sister-base of mine down south, although in Givati (Infantry) Special Forces. With that I smiled, wished him a joyous guard shift and continued down the road to the Old City. Before long, I entered Mamilla Mall – from there it already feels like the Old City.

Mamilla Mall with some snow

Mamilla Mall with some snow

After slipping too many times to count in the snow/slush/ice I had a very close call in Mamilla, in front of a lot of people. Thankfully, I did not capsise and continued on to Jaffa Gate with honour intact. I entered the Old City and began the maze that leads to the Kotel (Western Wall). As I walked over the slippery wet stone floor  in the narrow alleys and corridors, I realised how nice the endless Arab shuk (or shall I say, souk) looked with everything all gleaming from the melted snow – here’s what I saw:

Glistening Arab shuk

Glistening Arab shuk

At last, after over seven kilometres (approx. four miles) of somewhat laborious walking, I reached the Kotel. There I relaxed, prayed and had some European guy take my picture. I was hoping to be able to see some snow in the photo but the local workers washed it all away with huge hoses (leading to another problem: ice).

Cold at the Kotel

Cold at the Kotel

Choosing this time to walk through the Jewish Quarter, I climbed up the stairs past groups of bundled-up tourists and stopped on a particularly icy landing to take this photo of the moon coming up over the mosque dome and minaret:

Moon over mosque

Moon over mosque

Moments later, I came upon something I was hoping I’d see, a chunk of old Jerusalem ruin covered with snow. The angles offered to shoot the arches weren’t promising but I tried to capture the setting the best I can:

Snow-covered ruins in the Old City

Snow-covered ruins in the Old City

I stopped for a bite to eat as the sun went down and then continued on through the Jewish Quarter, walking down the narrow corridors to the Jaffa Gate (I still don’t really know my way around the Old City and that usually results in me blindly following people as they turn corners here and there all willy-nilly).

Narrow corridors at dusk

Narrow corridors at dusk

Once I’d exited the Jaffa Gate I seized the opportunity to photograph the last moments of light standing over the traffic on the bridge that connects Mamilla to the Old City.

Traffic and snow in the last minutes of light

Traffic and snow in the last minutes of light

I then turned northwest and headed up Jaffa street, following the tracks of the light rail – closed down due to the weather. It was a cool feeling strolling with all walks of life down the partially cleared street; there was a quiet in the air and little clouds kept coming out from each and every face.

Jaffa Street and an idling light rail train

Jaffa Street and an idling light rail train

At one spot I noticed a commotion going on at the side. A Breslov “Na Nach” van had gotten stuck in the snow (or something) and they had to push it free – if only they would have worked to music, like they always play.

Breslov ''Na Nachs'' having car trouble

Breslov ”Na Nachs” having car trouble

After walking some four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the Kotel to the Central Bus Station, I reached the third floor where the 480 bus to Tel Aviv departs from, to hear an announcement that due to the weather and police advice all intercity buses have been canceled. That left me with just the train, which is in the far southwest corner of the city. With no energy to walk that, especially after already walking eleven kilometres (seven miles) that day in Jerusalem alone, I kinda lingered around waiting for a local bus that headed that way. Cold and tired I waited… and waited. At last I found a bus that eventually reached near the train station. I hopped aboard, found a seat and had an interesting conversation with some local youth. An hour later I was in the train station and 8.5 hours after my return trip began I was home. What a trip!

Avdat

In Israel, Negev on December 15, 2013 at 4:41 AM

After visiting Sde Boker and Midreshet Ben Gurion, the home and burial place of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, I drove a few kilometres south to Avdat, a national park preserving an ancient mountain-top city. I had once passed this extraordinary ruins, seeing it from the road, and now I had the time and opportunity to explore it.

The mountaintop city from the road

The mountaintop city from the road

Using my handy “year park pass” I gained entrance and watched an interesting video about the site and about the Incense Route, an ancient trade route extending from the southern Arabian Peninsula (Yemen and Oman on our maps) and ending in Gaza, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Incense Route

The Incense Route

The Nabateans, a nomadic people which expanded into a powerful kingdom, ruled the area of the Incense Route some 2,200 years ago. As they became more and more organised they built fortresses and waystations for the convoys making the journey from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea. After Petra, the famous tourist destination in Jordan (also the filming location of key parts in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Avdat was one of the most important stop along the Incense Route – station #62. As such, the city was further expanded and built up by the Romans and Byzantines after the Nabateans were annexed by the Roman Empire, polytheism turning to Christianity.

Bathhouse ceiling

Bathhouse ceiling

With nothing but my gun swinging at my side, I started my journey at the Byzantine bathhouse. There I found an nearly fully intact structure with a great domed ceiling (above) and these reconstructed tile pillars arranged on the depressed floor:

The floor of the bathhouse

The floor of the bathhouse

Next I trekked up the mountain to the base of the ancient Nabatean city, which was believed to have been called Ovdat or Obodat named after the Nabatean king Obodas II. Half-way up I came across the first tier of ruins, a Byzantine house likely belonging to a middle-class citizen, perhaps a wine merchant.

Byzantine house

Byzantine house

After winding in and out of the ruins, passing through and around little caves in the bedrock, I climbed further upwards and made my way through some more Byzantine ruins up to a Nabatean temple, the pillared edge of the acropolis. Here is looking down at the aforementioned Byzantine ruins, the desert and Road 40 down below:

Looking down at the ruins

Looking down at the ruins

The main expanse, a developed plateau comprised of numerous houses of worship and more, starts with the Nabatean temple on the western edge and continues eastward to the two Byzantine churches (St. Theodoros’ Church and the “northern church”). Here are the pillared ruins of the “northern church” and then the pillars of the Nabatean temple in the background:

The ''northern church'' and the Nabatean temple behind

The ”northern church” and the Nabatean temple behind

As I passed through, crossing over from Byzantine to Nabatean and Roman, I became well-aware of the midday desert sun beating down on me. I walked in the shade of the great walls and entered the city fortress. A large open plot (just under 30,000 sq. feet), the inhabitants during the Byzantine era used the fortress for numerous purposes – a prayer chapel was even constructed on the north side. In the centre of the fortress is a cistern, fed by runoff channeled through the floor, and outside a little ways northeast is an large army camp (110,000 sq. feet). Here is the fortress and the temples/churches complex beyond the wall, as seen from the guard tower:

The city fortress

The city fortress

Having finished exploring the northern complex I moved on over to the southern complex, partially seen here:

The Byzantine Quarter

The Byzantine Quarter

I walked through the Byzantine Quarter, a residential area first built during the Roman period. Mostly fallen ruins, the neighbourhood was basically destroyed in an earthquake sometime around 630 CE. I climbed the Roman Tower, complete with Greek inscriptions, and then, after a quick drink from a faucet, headed for the Roman Villa. Seeing the acropolis from the south, I took this photo:

Avdat acropolis

Avdat acropolis

After the Roman Villa I entered the Roman burial cave, dug into the bedrock and containing more than twenty burial niches. Here is the entrance, with depictions of the sun, moon and an altar on the lintel (and a glimpse of the burial niches inside):

Roman burial cave

Roman burial cave

After leaving the cave I walked the rest of the way down the mountain and headed back for my truck. Next stop, Mitzpe Ramon!

Ben Gurion: Life and Death

In Israel, Negev on December 3, 2013 at 8:59 AM

Last week I spent a few days in the desert down south, driving my army truck around and going on adventures in my spare time. One day I was fortunate enough to have many, many hours of spare time and visited numerous interesting sites, among them two national parks. The first stop was Sde Boker, the little Negev kibbutz where David Ben Gurion – Israel’s first Prime Minister – staked his claim and settled down.

Animated David Ben Gurion

Animated David Ben Gurion

I parked outside the kibbutz and walked over to the historical site, Ben Gurion’s little house. Within the property, belonging to the kibbutz, I found a winery store and then various huts leading up to the front office. In two of these huts I found screens, and attempted to watch the animated film depicting David Ben Gurion’s life but, alas! the computer shut down mid-screening and so I temporarily abandoned the video presentations. Composed of superb animation, which reminded me of the “The Adventures of Tintin” TV show, and a richly accented English voice, I really enjoyed the video (screenshot above).

The Ben Gurion residence

The Ben Gurion residence

A brief synopsis on a pretty influential life, David Ben Gurion (originally David Grün) – often referred to as the “founding father of Israel” – was born in Poland (Czarist Russia) in 1886 and immigrated to the Holy Land in 1906 where he began working on settlements. By 1915 Ben Gurion was expelled by the reigning Ottoman Empire and made his way to the United States, there further aligning himself with Zionism. In 1918 he enlisted in the British Army’s Jewish Legion and returned to the Holy Land. In 1935 he was elected Chairman of the Jewish Agency and on May 14, 1948 announced the establishment of the State of Israel. Becoming the fledgling country’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion switched between politics and living quietly on Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the above house.

David Ben Gurion and quote

David Ben Gurion and quote

I entered the little green wooden house – left exactly as it was back then – and looked around, starting with the living room. An informational plaque on the wall explained the identity, and sometimes origin, of the various items and knick-knacks placed throughout the little room. I felt like I was in an Israeli version of Greenfield Village.

The Ben Gurion living room

The Ben Gurion living room

After inspecting the living room, bedrooms, library, kitchen, bathroom and outside yard of the Ben Gurion residence I met up with a docent, likely a member of the kibbutz. He insisted on returning my entrance fee, seeing that I came alone and I behaved myself so nicely. Despite my persistent refusal he managed to slip the coins into my pocket and so I gave up and then asked him for advice. Being a local, this man instructed me on where to go next – Ben Gurion’s burial place at Midreshet Ben Gurion. His instructions were good and sound, and I slipped my truck into a great parking spot at the national park’s entrance:

Parked truck

Parked truck

I walked through the well-designed park path and made my way to the burial spot, where my guide back in Sde Boker told me that I would see one of the best views in the Negev. Entering the plaza, I did see an incredible view – one that could easily pass for an alien planet:

View from the plaza

View from the plaza

And here is a panoramic which includes a wider shot of the intense desert view and the windy road heading down to Ein Avdat, another national park:

Panoramic view

Panoramic view

I stood and photographed for a while and then began to look around. I noticed that an army unit was getting an official tour and asked them which unit they were. The answer: “Oketz“, the IDF elite canine unit. Cool. Next. two IAF fighter jets did a screaming flyby, passing not too far over our heads and definitely capturing our attention. On their return trip, heading back to the wilderness, I tried capturing them on camera but it came out blurred.

The casual tourist

The casual tourist

David Ben Gurion died in 1973, immediately after the Yom Kippur War, and was buried with minimal fanfare and no eulogies (as requested). Here is David Ben Gurion’s gravestone, looking out over the Negev which he so loved, resting alongside his wife who passed away back in 1968:

David Ben Gurion's grave

David Ben Gurion’s grave

As I headed back down the pleasant stone and shrubbery walkway, lined with trees, I stopped and became aware of a presence. Glancing to my right I started, for I saw an ibex watching me. I’ve never come across an ibex in the “wild” and was a tad on the startled side. But then I came to my senses and began to use my camera, capturing the friendly beast for you to see – the Nubian ibex:

An ibex

An ibex

As I left the park, headed for my next destination – the national park Avdat – I took this photo of this pleasant green area, a break in the yellowish tan of the Negev desert:

Midreshet Ben Gurion

Midreshet Ben Gurion