Israel's Good Name

Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

Gamla

In Golan, Israel on April 30, 2014 at 4:00 AM

Following our hike to Gilgal Refa’im (sometimes referred to as “Stonehenge of the Levant”), we got back into the car and drove over to the Gamla Nature Reserve, just across the road. Passing dolmens along the access road, we parked and began the little loop which Gamla is most famous for: the Vulture Trail. But, on the way to see the vultures we passed by some ruins:

Deir Qeruh ruins

Deir Qeruh ruins

Walking along the trail, I noticed that there was more than just a wall to be seen – there was the ruins of Deir Qeruh, a Byzantine village. Something I hadn’t known before our trip, the name “Deir” signifies a Christian settlement (“deir” meaning monastery in Arabic), which carries over to today where we have villages such as Deir Hanna in the Galilee. I examined the ruins, photographed and then we continued on to the Vulture Lookout.

More Deir Qeruh ruins

More Deir Qeruh ruins

But before we reached the vultures there was the Gamla Lookout, with views of the ancient city ruins down below on the ridge. Gamla, the city, was built as a walled city dating from the times of Joshua, who led the Jewish People into the Holy Land. After capture the ruins were abandoned and then rebuilt during the Greek era. Due to the unique location of the city, being built on a ridge with only one entrance, it was named Gamla after “gamal” (camel in Hebrew), resembling the humped back, or so said Josephus. During the revolt against the Romans two thousand years ago the city was besieged by Herod Agrippa II who, subsequent to the failure of the siege, retreated.

The ridge of ancient Gamla

The ridge of ancient Gamla

As a follow-up, Roman Emperor Vespasian brought an army over from Judea and laid another siege. After a month they breached the walls of Gamla but were defeated in battle. Several days later, however, the Romans succeeded in conquering the city; killing the survivors and laying Gamla to waste. The city ruins were only discovered in 1968 and despite how interesting it looked, we decided against hiking down the steep mountain path to the ruins, and continued on to see the vultures.

Depiction of the Roman siege on Gamla

Depiction of the Roman siege on Gamla

Standing at the Vulture Lookout I watched an enormous Griffon vulture wheel overhead, and then two or three smaller Egyptian vultures on the far cliff face. The reason Gamla is known for its vultures is because the largest nesting colony of raptors is held on the rocky cliffs just north of the Gamla ridge. The Griffon vulture is truly a magnificent bird, with an enormous wingspan of up to 9 feet (2.8 metres) long. Although the population in Israel is quite low, just 25 pairs counted this year at Gamla so far, they are mentioned in the Bible some 28 times. I attempted to photograph both the Griffon and Egyptian vultures but my results weren’t too good so I turned to an expert, an ornithologist named Yoav Perlman who happens to take great bird photos; check out his birding blog here.

Griffon vultures at Gamla (photo: Yoav Perlman)

Griffon vultures at Gamla (photo: Yoav Perlman)

With the vulture sightings at a low, we looped back to the end of the Vulture Trail and plotted our next destination: the Gamla Waterfall.

Choosing our paths

Choosing our paths

Instead of hugging the cliff edge, as would seem most reasonable, we were taken on a longer path via a field – to protect the nesting raptors. At the start of this field walk we happened upon a fence which claimed to be electrified. I had a hard time believing they’d electrify a fence that didn’t seem to have any need. Touching it, I felt a friendly little zap – it’s always good to follow your instincts. After the electric fence, there was a large dolmen on the side of the trail. Dolmens are these weird rock tables, made up of one stone laid laterally upon two standing stones. Also known as portal graves, dolmens are assumed to be gravestones of sorts, however nobody really knows. What we do know is that they can be found all over the Old World; from Korea to Israel, from Somalia to France – they are truly all over.

A dolmen

A dolmen

Soon we were headed for the cliff edge and the sound of running water filled the air. Here we were standing on a little wooden bridge over the calm upper Gamla Stream before it continued over the cliff edge:

Standing above the Gamla Waterfall

Standing above the Gamla Waterfall

We reached the observation point and looked down at the waterfall. The Gamla Waterfall is the tallest waterfall in Israel, at the height of approximately 170 feet (51 metres).

The Gamla Waterfall

The Gamla Waterfall

It would have been nice to descend and to stand beneath the crushing water, but that is forbidden so we turned back the way we came. With a nice sunburn coming on we headed back to the car and headed home, but I still plan on revisiting Gamla to explore the ancient city ruins to write another blog post: Gamla II.

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Gilgal Refa’im

In Golan, Israel on April 17, 2014 at 4:59 AM

This past Sunday my father and I took a little trip out to the Golan, to visit two sites side-by-side, one of them quite obscure and unknown. This post, the first half of our trip, is about a place called Gilgal Refa’im in Hebrew (or Rujm el-Hiri in Arabic). The literal translation of the site’s Hebrew name is “Wheel of Ghosts”, the word “refa’im” means “ghosts” in Hebrew. These circles of stones, sometimes referred to as the “Stonehenge of the Levant”, can be better appreciated via this aerial photo that I found on Flickr:

Gilgal Refa'im from above (photo IsraelTourism on Flickr)

Gilgal Refa’im from above (photo: IsraelTourism on Flickr)

An obscure site at least a kilometre away from any paved road, this ancient megalithic monument has been in our sights for years. The last time we searched for it was a few years back and we basically got lost out in the plains of the Golan. This time we planned in advance and, thanks to Google Maps, we knew exactly where to go. We left the house nice and early in the morning and reached the Golan in good time, climbing the elevation via the Bnot Yaakov Bridge, the main crossing point of the upper Jordan River throughout history. Driving on Road 808 south, we skipped the entrance to Gamla National Park (the second half of our trip) and pulled over at a little dirt road. We parked and began the hike to the Gilgal Refa’im, noting the most beautiful spring scenery.

A tree in the Golan

A tree in the Golan

The first thing we noticed while walking was the incredible amount of little rock walls scattered all over. Here is one example, with wildflowers mixed in:

Little stone wall

Little stone wall

After a little while walking on the dirt road, stopping over and over to film and take pictures, we came upon a “hidden” trench-like spot lined with stones and currently filled with water. We surmised that it must be a place to hide tanks, from when the Syrians were entrenched in the area. And, to further solidify this theory, there was an old Syrian bunker just a little ways further.

Possible tank trench

Possible tank trench

Beside this “tank trench” I spotted the most magnificent thistle flower, and on it was a bee and a weird bee-like beetle. The visibility of the pollen was amazing, feast your eyes!

Thistle and bee

Thistle and bee

And, as I mentioned before, there was the Syrian bunker, made up of basalt rocks encaged in wire fencing. We walked up the trail and entered the old bunker.

Old Syrian bunker

Old Syrian bunker

Inside, after descending the sunlit entrance tunnel, it was really dark and so I turned on my phone flashlight to illuminate the gloom. What happened next surprised me. There was a flurry of wings and a little bat flew at my face, and then did an about-turn and flew back into the gloom. Then, again it flew at me, and then turned back. It kept up this back-and-forth so I called for the camera and opened the flash hoping to get a good shot as he approached. It didn’t come out terrible well, but there is no mistaking that little bat flying at the camera (click to enlarge):

The horseshoe bat in the tunnel

The horseshoe bat in the tunnel

We followed the bat into the darkness, using only the phone flashlight to see. I felt like this was a scene from a grim fairytale where we were being led into the dark and foreboding cave, similar to a scene in one of my favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth, where Ofelia is led by a fairy into the labyrinth. Regardless, we followed the bat blindly through the old tunnels until we came to an exit and then it flew away. Researching Israeli bats I have decided that it was definitely a horseshoe bat, perhaps the Mediterranean specie. Here is a grainy shot of him hanging before disappearing:

Horseshoe bat at the bunker exit

Horseshoe bat at the bunker exit

Emerging from the bunker at the upper level, where the rooftop trenches and gun turrets are, I once again marveled at the sweeping beauty of the area:

View from the bunker

View from the bunker

Descending from the bunker roof we hit the dirt road again and began to see signs warning soldiers not to shoot at the antiquities. And then, a turnoff and we were approaching the site. Not so visible from eye-level, we crossed the Daliyot Stream and found ourselves, at last, at the outer circle of Gilgal Refa’im. I climbed up to get a shot of the alternating stone walls and wildflowers that ringed the central mound.

Circles of walls and flowers

Circles of walls and flowers

As we climbed the eight-foot high outer wall, and then the next wall, and the next, I noticed that the rocks were particularly ornamented by lichen, a great amount.

Interesting lichen

Interesting lichen

At last we reached the fifteen-foot high central mound and noticed a pit in the stone pile, but we kept walking around the top, taking pictures of the cool circles which ringed us. According to an Oxford archaeological guide, there are 42,000 stones that make up the entire site. My father suddenly had the idea to step into the pit, and when he did so exclaimed that there was a cave down there.

Looking down into the cave entrance

Looking down into the cave entrance

I followed him, scooting through the narrow passage, and we made ourselves comfortable in the little cave.

Within the little cave

Within the little cave

Whilst enjoying the coolness of this little cave, I figured I should probably look for more info on the site and I found this: Gilgal Refa’im is believed to be either a tomb, a stellar calender, a ritual centre, an observatory or several other theorised places perhaps even created by biblical giants. Basically, nobody knows what this site is for and that definitely adds to the intrigue of the place. If there was one thing I could see in history, if very well might be watching the biblical giants in the Golan – the terrain is just perfect to see giants thundering down the plains. At last we left the comfort of the mysterious little cave and climbed back over the numerous stone rings, heading back to our car.

A cow at the Daliyot Stream

A cow at the Daliyot Stream

Next site, Gamla!

Cafarlet

In Coastal Plain, Israel on April 6, 2014 at 5:20 AM

Continuing with my hike from Tel Dor, heading for the Crusader castle Cafarlet (also known as HaBonim Fortress), I first came upon interesting finds while on a hill alongside Road 2, the Coastal Road. Across from some memorial sculpture atop a precipice overlooking the road. I stumbled upon partially concealed remains of an ancient quarry, separated from the rest of the large quarry nearby. I’m assuming the Crusaders must have hewed stones from this sandstone quarry to build the nearby castles.

Just a glimpse of the quarry remains

Just a glimpse of the quarry remains

Some half hour later, after crossing a little cemetery, I laid eyes on the eastern side of Cafarlet, the portion also visible to drivers on Road 2. A little history about the castle itself, Cafarlet was built in the early 1200’s by the Crusader’s Principality of Caesarea and was then given, in a deal, to the Hospitaller Knights in 1213. The other leading Military Order of that time, the Templers, then purchased Cafarlet in 1232 and it remained in their hands until the castle’s capture by the Muslims in 1265. Following recapture by the Latin Christians, Cafarlet was built up again by the Templars and then finally abandoned in 1291 when the Crusades ended and the Crusaders returned to Europe.

Cafarlet from the eastern side

Cafarlet from the eastern side

The Crusader castle, a slightly different build than the typical Latin fortress of its time, was built on the remains of an Arab fortress built in the 700’s built to protect from Byzantine invasion. Even in the time of the Crusades, the Byzantines were a regional superpower, and have been for hundreds of years. Cafarlet was built just a few kilometres from a slew of Crusaders castles (from Château Pèlerin and Le Destroit to the north to Merle and Caesarea to the south) which were strung along the coast, safeguarding the road for pilgrims in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Approaching the castle I came upon numerous remains which seem to be from an even earlier Roman/Byzantine period of occupation. Here, at the foot of the castle, is a burial cave carved into the rock. When I poked inside I discovered ten hewn crypts with their lids propped up.

A burial cave

A burial cave

Also outside the castle are the remains of Byzantine winepresses, with intricate tile work covering the floor – only visible on the lowest step in this picture:

Ancient tiled winepress

Ancient tiled winepress

Approaching the castle and turning to enter via the southern wall, I looked down to see this interesting stone “foot” at the southeast corner – atypical of the Crusade-era construction in the Holy Land:

Interesting castle construction

Interesting castle construction

And then, I saw it, the grand arched entrance, flanked by rounded bastions, and in I went.

Cafarlet's grand entrance

Cafarlet’s grand entrance

What I first noticed about the interior of Cafarlet is that it’s due for a thorough excavation. For example, on the western side I had entered an arched chamber which was partially filled in with rubble, dirt and grass:

Rubble-filled chamber

Rubble-filled chamber

Here, looking northeast towards the centre of the castle, numerous interior walls can be seen, however they are interspersed with small trees in a battle for space:

Beautiful but overcrowded interior

Beautiful but overcrowded interior

A closer look at the partially submerged walls:

Partially submerged walls

Partially submerged walls

Since the castle isn’t in the care of any government body, the site is free to enter and also mildly dangerous. There were numerous locations where I noticed sinkholes and cisterns hidden in the lush grass. Even walking on some of the walls seemed risky in fear of collapse. Crossing over to the eastern side near the arched entry, I felt inclined to explore the large arched chambers such as this one:

Arched room

Arched room

Even finding a painted ladder leaning conveniently on the inner wall of one chamber, I thought I’d have a look around. However, when I put a cautionary foot down on the top step, the rotten wood gave way and I was forced to abandon my plan, as you can see from this POV shot:

A POV shot of Crusader danger

A POV shot of Crusader danger

Deterred from the great rooms on the eastern side, I crossed back over to the western side and found a safer alternative into another arched chamber – old crooked stone steps:

Within another arched chamber

Within another arched chamber

Exploring both that and the adjacent room, I emerged and continued to the northern side of the castle. What I came upon next was surprising. Modern construction had been done and the remains of a house or two, reportedly by Arabs before 1948, are now joined with the ancient Crusader ruins. When I left the castle, and walked along the outer walls on the northern and western sides, the remnants of modern plastering and window frames can be seen. I wonder what will become of those more recent ruins…

The northwest corner

The northwest corner

With that I left the remarkable ruins of Cafarlet, crossing off yet another Crusader ruins on my to-see list and then briefly contemplated a quick visit to HaBonim Nature Reserve before deciding against it and walking the long, grueling journey to the bus stop on Road 4, putting an end to my long and interesting day of coastal exploration.