Israel's Good Name

Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

Juchader

In Golan, Israel on March 23, 2015 at 6:01 AM

A few weeks ago I transferred from the Shomron to the Golan, where I plan to finish off my army service. One night, during that first week, I had a drive and saw a beech marten for the first time in my life, albeit briefly, as it dashed across the headlight-illuminated country road directly before me. The next day I drove some more and had the opportunity to visit a collection of curiosities known as Juchader (or Orcha, in Hebrew) along Road 98, not very far from the amazing megalithic site of Gilgal Refa’im.

Khan Juchader

Khan Juchader

Parking at the side of the lonely road just two kilometres from the first Israel-Syria border, I exited my Safaron and immediately spotted tawny creatures moving in the distance. Scrunching up my face in effort to see better, I verified to myself that I had spotted two mountain gazelles – I just love spotting unique wildlife! Leaving my parked Safaron behind, I began my explorations at the dirt road between the visible ruins of Khan Juchader and Tel Juchader. The name “Juchader” originates from a Mamluk honourific title for the “holder of the polo sticks”, presumably of the Sultan’s. Opening a makeshift gate, I walked alongside a narrow minefield (clearly marked and fenced off) until I reached the first of the khan’s structures, built of local basalt.

The khan's many rooms

The khan’s many rooms

A khan, also known as a caravanserai, is an inn for both humans and their beasts of burden. Some khans are large and impressive, such as the Khan El-Omdan in Akko‘s Old City with its large granite pillars, and others are a simple affair tending to the base needs of weary travelers, such as this khan. Built in the 1300’s during the Mamluk period, this particular khan was built along a historically important road, going back to the Roman era, connecting the cities of the Holy Land with Damascus and other important cities in Syria and further east. Today, the TAP Line (Trans-Arabian Pipeline) for the transferring of crude oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon runs just past Juchader. Built between the years 1947-1950, it was the longest pipeline in the world (1,214 kilometres or 754 miles long) at the time but today the section that runs through the Golan is no longer in use.

Tel Juchader

Tel Juchader

As I swished through the tall grass, inspecting the grey walls of basalt and pausing to photograph insects here and there, I kept leery of unsuspecting wild beasts in the grass or structures. With the warmth of spring upon us, snakes are also a bit of a worry – particularly as the Golan is the second most snake-populated regions in Israel. I admired the fine archwork, surprisingly intact, along the southern external wall of the rectangular complex and then rounded the corner. With the grass nearly waist-high and scattered with silky caterpillar nests, I cautiously stepped forward, being careful not to slip on hidden rocks underfoot. Approaching a particularly pleasing-looking arched room with a living roof, I caught a fleeting glance of a long reptilian shape slither into the cracks between the stones – a snake or perhaps a glass lizard.

Home of the reptile

Home of the reptile

Inspecting the wall I could find no trace and carried on, walking along the central courtyard of the khan. When I finished exploring the northern and eastern sides of the khan, both inside and out, I felt ready to press onwards. As I left the complex, shutting the makeshift gate behind me, I spotted the bleached pelvic bone and spine of a long-dead cow in the grass. Shortly afterwards, I came across this puddle teeming with tadpoles – I hope they finish developing before the puddle dries.

Tadpoles in a puddle

Tadpoles in a puddle

Crossing the road, I stood at the foot of Tel Juchader, a volcanic formation, and imagined the view from the watchtower looking out at Syria. On the tel are scattered remains of settlements from the usual periods of Holy Land history, most notably the Romans whose village was destroyed in the 300’s, either by earthquake or Jewish revolt. Bedouins built houses in the late 1800’s, using cut stones from the earlier ruins, but the village was abandoned after the Six Day War. During the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians conquered the area and the tel was recaptured by IDF tanks, but not without fatalities. I stopped at the memorial built for Yonatan Guberman, a reservist tank officer who fell in battle recapturing Tel Juchader. His memorial is one of many in the area, dedicated to both individuals and units who paid the ultimate price in the wars for freedom. Returning to the Safaron, we then drove to the Juchader Pool on the northern side of the tel. Hidden in a small grove of eucalyptus trees, the pool is a hotspot for hikers and soldiers alike.

Juchader Pool

Juchader Pool

Fed from an underground spring, the pool was recently reconstructed and improved from its previous capacity as a pool for Syrian army officers – dedicated in memory of Raziel Nagar, a teenager who was killed in 2005 by a dud artillery shell. The soldiers I was with eagerly ripped their clothing off and dove into the cold water. A minibus of religious high school girls, arriving just minutes after us, made for a socially humorous situation. I ended that day’s trip with a quick visit to the peak of Mount Avital, overlooking Mount Bental – but the Golan adventures were just beginning!

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Deir Qal’a

In Israel, Samaria on March 8, 2015 at 4:36 AM

A few weeks ago I partook in a little “excitement” in the Shomron (Samarian) town of Pedu’el, not too far from Ariel. There was a Palestinian shepherd who was creating disturbances near the security fence that encloses Pedu’el and we, the army, were called in to redirect the wayward man. We disembarked near Pedu’el yeshiva and I couldn’t help but notice signs for an archaeological site called “Deir Qal’a”. While the other soldiers began their descent into the valley in search for the shepherd, I sought after the ruins. Scampering over the rough rocks that cover the landscape, I first came upon what appears to be a vat for wine with a mosaic floor, very much like the one I saw at the Crusader castle of Cafarlet.

An ancient wine vat

An ancient wine vat

Now, these ruins are obscure and there are no signs explaining where or what anything is – even researching Deir Qal’a online is proving a little difficult. From what I’ve gathered is that the site was first a Roman fortress, then a Byzantine fortified farm and then a Christian monastery. Given its great vantage points, including a clear view of the shoreline some 26 kilometres (16 miles) away, the Romans would have built the fortress to guard the ancient road from Tel Afek (Antipatris) to Sebastia in the heart of the Shomron.

Blooming anemone

Blooming anemone

A couple hundred years later, the Christians built a string of fortified monasteries along the northern border of the Christian part of the Shomron, as a defending line against the Samaritans who would often break out in violent revolts against the Byzantine Empire. The Samaritans are still around today, still based out of their “capital” on Mount Gerezim overlooking Shechem (Nablus), but they no longer participate in violent revolts. Monasteries neighbouring Deir Qal’a are Deir El-Mir to the west and Deir Simaan to the northeast – with quite similar ruins, although I have yet to explore them. Getting back to my exploration of Deir Qal’a, it wasn’t long before I reached the first walls of finely cut ashlars jutting out into the air.

Deir Qal'a

Deir Qal’a

Unfortunately, as there is no guide or comprehensive description of the ruins, I can’t really describe the series of rooms that I then saw as I drew closer. While researching this site I came across a reference to a monograph written by the late Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld titled “Deir Qala and monasteries of Western Samaria”, however the only copy I could find is in the Hebrew University’s library in Jerusalem – not too readily available, although I’m sure I could have gleaned some useful information from it. Being as that I was detouring from “operational duty” I couldn’t linger too long and missed noticing that there are tunnels connecting several of the rooms in the ruins complex. What I didn’t miss were the numerous etched Maltese Crosses (as used by the Hospitaller Knights of the Crusades) and the incomplete floor mosaics – in fact, a fully restored mosaic from Deir Qal’a is on display at the Good Samaritan Museum between Jerusalem and Jericho, not far from Nabi Musa.

Close-up of a crude mosaic

Close-up of a crude mosaic

I might have just seen an nondescript scattering of stone walls of varying heights and materials but Deir Qal’a contains stone terraces, rooms, cisterns, an olive press and winepress, underground tunnel, a church with an underground cave/crypt and an apse.

A mess of walls and mosaics

A mess of walls and mosaics

Once I had sufficiently explored the upper areas of the ruins I headed back towards the security fence and saw that my fellow soldiers had not yet returned, so I looped back to enjoy the views. Directly opposite Deir Qal’a to the west is the Palestinian village of Deir Balut and the ruins of Deir El-Mir, with a seasonal marsh at the entrance of the village. I read on the Amud Anan website that the water is home to triops, a type of crustacean also known as “tadpole shrimp”. Looking quite similar to horseshoe crabs, it’s believed that the eggs of the triops can last forever as they go dormant and crystalise when dry. It would definitely be interesting to see these “living fossils” – perhaps one day…

Looking across at Deir El-Mir and Deir Balut

Looking across at Deir El-Mir and Deir Balut

To the south there are the rolling hills of the Shomron with ruins abound, including the remains of Binat-Bar, Zereda, Balata and other historically rich sites, as well as Nachal Shiloh snaking its way across the land.

Historically rich hills of the Shomron - looking south

Historically rich hills of the Shomron – looking south

Someone very thoughtful had installed a swinging bench overlooking Deir Qal’a and Deir Balut and so I found myself there, rocking back and forth, enjoying every moment. At last the soldiers came back from escorting the shepherd away from the fence and we drove back to our outpost, leaving me with the need to come back and explore the other ruins another day.

Zichron Ya’akov

In Coastal Plain, Israel on March 1, 2015 at 6:12 AM

Following our visit to the Mizgaga Museum and the coast of Dor, my father and I continued on towards Zichron Ya’akov, just a few minutes away. We entered the town from the north, climbing slightly in elevation – Zichron Ya’akov being at the southwestern corner of the Carmel range. Founded in 1882 by Romanian immigrants, the Baron Edmond James de Rothschild took administrative and financial charge in 1883 in building a proper town – one of the first agricultural colonies established in the Holy Land. Zichron Ya’akov translates as the “Memorial of Ya’akov”, referring to the Baron’s late father James (Ya’akov) Mayer de Rothschild, a powerful banker and the founder of the French branch of the Rothschild family.

The Baron's watchful eye

The Baron’s watchful eye

In 1885 Baron Rothschild created modern Israel’s first winery, the Carmel Winery, which we passed on drive through the town. Today there several wineries in Zichron Ya’akov and neighbouring Binyamina, including the Tishbi Winery which I had the pleasure of visiting, also opened under the patronage of the Baron. We briefly drove through the northern section of the original town before parking next to the First Aliyah Museum, which, unfortunately, is closed on Sundays. We continued on foot, heading to the heart of the old town. Filled with quaint charm, even just walking down the street feels like an adventure. Before long we came upon Bet Knesset Ohel Ya’akov (“Tent of Jacob” in English), a synagogue built in 1884 by Baron Rothschild in honour of his aforementioned father. The synagogue was locked at the time we happened upon it, so we were unable to gaze upon the beautiful white marble interior.

Ohel Ya'akov synagogue

Ohel Ya’akov synagogue

Turning the corner onto HaMiyasdim (Founders) street, we began the town’s “Midrachov” of old house, quaint shops and welcoming restaurants and cafes. This main street, pedestrians only, was designed by the Baron’s city planners and the flanking houses were built inspired by French architecture.

Zichron Ya'akov's ''Midrachov''

Zichron Ya’akov’s ”Midrachov”

Being as that some 20% of Zichron Ya’akov’s residents are “Anglos”, we heard quite a lot of English as we strolled down the street taking in the sites. There is one structure dating back to 1891 called Benjamin’s Pool, a fountain of sorts with a large arched facade complete with a small aqueduct stretching out behind it to supply drinking water for the residents. At the time of our visit we saw some restorative work being done.

Benjamin's Pool

Benjamin’s Pool

At the next corner we found Beit Aharonson (alternatively, the Aharonson House) which holds the NILI Museum. Entering the grounds, we browsed the museum’s house of artefacts and exhibitions concerning this mysterious NILI I knew nothing about. Somehow, in the annals of modern Israel’s history, the incredible tales of the NILI spy ring have been overlooked by most, but deserve more coverage. Set in WWI, the NILI espionage network relayed important information to the British, concerning Ottoman troop numbers and locations among other sensitive information. Originally known as “Organisation A” by British Intelligence, the Zichron Ya’akov-based group adopted the name NILI, the English equivalent for the Biblical acronym “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishaker” which translates as “The Eternal One of Israel shall not lie…”. Founded by locals Sarah, Aaron and Alex Aaronsohn as well as Avshalom Feinberg, the network reached some thirty secret members in its prime. Due to Aaron Aaronsohn’s position as regional agronomist and world-famous botanist, the members who worked with him on fighting ravaging locusts were allowed to travel freely and were thereby able to make detailed reports on the Turkish strategies and troop deployment – often using the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Atlit as their headquarters.

The Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Atlit

The Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Atlit

With the British closing in, coming from Egypt and Sinai, the Ottoman Empire was at risk of losing their control over the Holy Land that they’ve had since 1516. NILI used two main methods of relaying information to the British. The first was Monegam, a boat disguised as a cruise ship which approached the coast near Atlit and NILI operatives physically went to the boat to deliver.

The Monegam approaching the shore

The Monegam approaching the shore

Once this became too risky, due to the Turkish suspicions and the threat of German submarines, NILI began with their second method, carrier pigeons, which flew their Atlit – Port Said route with coded messages attached to their legs. At one point communication between NILI and the British was lost and so two key members, Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky, decided to go to Egypt themselves to reestablish contact. Disguised as Bedouins, the two ran into actual Bedouins in the desert and were attacked. Avshalom was mortally wounded and left to die while Yosef managed to escape injured, and eventually reached Egypt. Remarkably, Avshalom’s body was found in 1967 after the Six Day War. An IDF officer was told by local Bedouins that a certain lone palm tree was known as the “Jew’s Grave” and after a careful excavation Avshalom’s bones were discovered, the tree having grown from a date in his pocket fifty years back.

The Aaronsohn House #2

The Aaronsohn House #2

Shortly after Avshalom’s death, in 1917, one of the the pigeons accidentally landed in the pigeon coop of the Turkish governor of Caesarea and, after decrypting the message, one NILI member was captured and tortured. He gave up names and information which led to more arrests and more torture. Suddenly, British gold coins were found in the Ramle market and NILI began to collapse. Sarah Aaronsohn was arrested and tortured and, surprisingly, allowed to return home under armed guard where she wrote a suicide note and, taking a concealed pistol out of a secret door-frame compartment, shot herself in the bathroom. It took her four days to succumb to her wound but she persisted in taking the fall as head of NILI in hopes to spare others. With NILI disbanded, many of its members already dead, Aaron Aaronsohn met an untimely death in 1919 when his plane fell out of the sky somewhere near Boulogne, France. His body was never recovered. Despite NILI’s short-lived operation and their somewhat controversial methods, they were instrumental in securing British victories in numerous battles for the Holy Land which eventually led to the British conquest. We watched a short film about NILI and the Aaronsohn House before taking a guided tour of the two original houses on the property.

Inside the Aaronsohn House

Inside the Aaronsohn House

We saw both the secret door-frame compartment (as can be seen above) and the secret trapdoor, delightful old spy tricks. After taking leave of the residence, we continued on down the street until we reached the arched entrance of the original town and Zichron Ya’akov’s cemetery. Entering, we found the old graves of some of the NILI members including Sarah Aaronsohn which is surrounded by a little wrought iron fence.

Graves of Sarah Aaronsohn and mother Malka

Graves of Sarah Aaronsohn and mother Malka

After spending a while at the cemetery, deep in thought, we attempted to visit the Visitor Centre but we found that it was closed. We headed back up the cobbled main street and perused the restaurants along the way. Suddenly my father decided that he’d rather get hummus at the famous Hummus Eliyahu in nearby Yokneam. So, with our minds freshly stuffed with fascinating information and our legs slightly sore from all the walking, we left Zichron Ya’akov the way we came. There is still so much to be seen, so there will definitely be a sequel, but there is only so much that can be done in one day. That’s all for now.