Israel's Good Name

Archive for January, 2017|Monthly archive page

University Trip: Arava III

In Israel, Negev on January 29, 2017 at 11:40 AM

Wrapping up our two-day trip to the Arava (I & II) under the behest of Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department, we found ourselves leaving the gorgeous Timna Park and headed for our next destination: Tamar. A slightly obscure site that still found itself maintaining importance for thousands of years, Tamar is located alongside the kibbutz-cum-settlement of Ir Ovot in the northern part of the Arava (20km from the Dead Sea). Arriving sleepily at Tamar after the bus ride, we disembarked and prepared ourselves for a long tour of the site. We started at the northern corner, a corner tower of the ancient Israelite fortress.

Tamar the desert fortress

Tamar the desert fortress

Just to give a quick historical summary: Tamar was first established as an fortress by the Israelites, becoming a site of regional importance due to its strategic location and control over the freshwater spring. Tamar was expanded from fortress to fortified city over the following two hundred years or so. The city was abandoned after the Babylonian conquest of the Holy Land, to be taken control of by the Nabatean hundreds of years later, using it as a fortified stop on their Incense Route. In the 200-300s CE the Romans built their own fortress and bathhouse on the site, among other buildings.

Prof Aren Maeir speaking from within the ruins

Prof Aren Maeir speaking from within the ruins

There was then a period of general disuse and eventually the site became the location for a British Mandate police station; a drinking trough built to water their horses coming in from dry desert rides. In modern times, a group came to settle the south and built a small community next to the expansive ruins, naming it Ir Ovot. An organisation named Blossoming Rose, a non-profit based out of the USA, has undertaken restoration and conservation efforts to make the site the pleasant place it is to visit today.

Yours truly exploring the ruins (photo Yehushua Lavy)

Yours truly exploring the ruins (photo Yehushua Lavy)

Leaving my group to explore on my lonesome, I walked from the northern corner to the western corner, under the waving Israeli and American flags. On the way, I entered the modern military bunker, with explanatory photographs and maps on the walls in the simple underground room. From the western corner I swung southeast along the excavated city walls. I paused briefly to photograph a small drab bird that was flitting about a tree – a streaked scrub warbler. Dropping down a level I found myself looking at a large, impressive jujube tree.

Ancient jujube tree

Ancient jujube tree

Despite the popular rumours that this particular tree is over 2,000 years old, the tree is indeed old, but a more logical 500 or so years old, or so I believe. Skirting the decked trunk, I walked out the see the Roman bath ruins, reminding me of the intricate ruins at Bet Shean and Caesaria that I’d seen the previous years.

Roman bathhouse floor

Roman bathhouse floor

From the Roman ruins I walked over to a model version of the Israelite mishkan (temporary temple before the First Temple), a tribute to the possibility that the mishkan once stood at this very site (biblically known as Ovot). From the mishkan model I found myself approaching the British Mandate concrete drinking trough with its engraved Arabic graffiti; water being fed in via a duct stemming from the large well metres from the jujube tree.

Water for the British horses

Water for the British horses

Passing the through fortress ruins I spent a few futile minutes trying to photograph sunbirds feeding on a flowering bush with the blurred backdrop of the tour company.

Waiting for sunbirds...

Waiting for sunbirds…

Walking back out to the site’s perimeter, I retraced the steps of my colleagues and entered the main gate of the Israelite fortress. From the Israelite fortress I examined the ruins of a Roman cistern and interesting building strata. Rejoined with the group at the British police station, I enjoyed their company until we ended the tour, heading back to the buses for a quick drive over to the final stop on our two-day trip: the Vidor visitor centre at Moshav Hatzeva.

Vidor visitor centre

Vidor visitor centre

Being that the Arava is an unlikely yet highly successful agricultural centre in Israel, a visitor centre was opened to educated the general public as to the techniques and tribulations of desert agriculture. We learned that these days Russia is the biggest importer of Arava-grown citrus fruits, which are interestingly sweeter due to the slightly salty water pumped from desert wells (a form of compensation of sorts). At the culmination of the slide-show lecture we were taken outside to the greenhouses to be taught more, with demonstrations of flower genders and talks of pollination.

Learning about blossoms at dusk

Learning about blossoms at dusk

Unfortunately, the sun was slowly sinking over the horizon and it was hard to get many decent photos of the greenhouse fun that we had. With the classic desert night chill setting in, the Archaeology department’s volunteer hero swooped in with hot drinks and soups to both warm and nourish us before our long drive back to the Tel Aviv area, the end of yet another successful educational trip provided for us by Bar Ilan University.

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University Trip: Arava II

In Israel, Negev on January 22, 2017 at 11:45 AM

Continuing with Day 2 of the Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University’s annual two-day trip to the Arava, we awoke in the desert just after dawn. I set my alarm clock a tad earlier than everyone else in my room to snatch some early morning birding. And the birding inside Kibbutz Elifaz didn’t disappoint – I spotted a good twelve species, including some highlights: red blackstart, blackstart, chiffchaff and a whole bunch of Spanish sparrows.

Spanish sparrow

Spanish sparrow

After morning prayers and breakfast (and chancing upon the kibbutz’s Druze members) we boarded the tour buses to start a long day of desert touring. Our first stop was mere minutes away, Timna Park, with its breathtaking landscape and intriguing historical remains.

Timna views

Timna views

Entering the park we parked outside the copper mines area, where I saw a bold white-crowned wheatear and a desert lark.

White-crowned wheatear

White-crowned wheatear

What caught my eye next was beautifully compelling; oxidised copper residue streaking through the erosion-sculpted yellow and pink sandstone. All over I’d find these eye-popping green traces, sometimes in the form of grainy pebbles.

Oxidised copper in the stone

Oxidised copper in the stone

Walking along the trail, I marveled at the ancient mining shafts that were pointed out to us, remains of some of the world’s oldest mines. Originally these mines were thought to belong to King Solomon, and were named as such, but recent developments shed light on evidence that the mines were, in fact, Egyptian, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.  In the vertical shafts, hand and footholds were scraped out of the grainy rock walls, enabling miners to safely descend tens of metres into the rock strata to reach the veins of copper. Baskets were lowered into the mine shafts to remove both copper ore and waste materials.

Horizonatal mineshaft

Horizonatal mineshaft

Hiking up, down and around the irregular landscape, we then arrived at what is known as the Miners Cave. A natural cave with a mine shaft excavated within the cave itself, we settled down to listen to Dr Uzi Avner.

From within the Miners Cave

From within the Miners Cave

One of the mine shafts at the cave, located just outside the entrance, was filled in for likely religious reasons – to pacify the Egyptian gods (perhaps Geb, god of the Earth). Climbing the opposite hill, we were soon to see many filled-in shafts, identifiable by their plate-like appearance on the otherwise grainy, gravel-strewn ground. There are thousands of these mine shafts, mostly filled in, in the Timna area – an impressive operation.

Timna's screw-like Spiral Hill

Timna’s screw-like Spiral Hill

Spotting a brown-necked raven perched on a ridge far away, I reluctantly abandoned the bird to follow the group towards the next site of interest: a complication of mines from various periods located around a wadi. Seizing adventure where I could, I entered and exited each of the caves and mine shafts that I deemed worthy of exploring, before we headed back to the buses.

Mushroom and Smelting Camp

Mushroom and Smelting Camp

No, our tour at Timna wasn’t over yet – in fact, it was just beginning. We were then driven to a site known as the Smelting Camp and nearby geological oddity, the Mushroom (seen in the centre of the background in the above photo). Standing on the lookout over these two sites, we heard more from Dr Avner, watched sunbirds frolic in the sparse desert flora and then got back into the buses to be taken to the next location: Solomon’s Pillars.

Solomon's Pillars by Hathor's Temple

Solomon’s Pillars by Hathor’s Temple

Now, the area of Solomon’s Pillars was jaw-droppingly awesome; the smooth, reddish-pink sandstone cliff edge of Mount Timna. Stricken by the natural beauty, I walked quickly across the sandy ground towards the cliff base, where an ancient Egyptian (and later, Midianite) temple was excavated. Called Hathor’s Temple, or the Miners’ Temple, this house of worship was built by Egyptian mining expeditions to service the goddess of miners, Hathor.

Hathor's Temple

Hathor’s Temple

Climbing up the cliff with the aid of carven stairs in the pink sandstone, my eyes were beset by a glorious desert view and then the curious ancient Egyptian wall engraving. Scratched into the rock, the engraving is from the 12th century BCE featuring Ramses III (left) making an offering to the goddess Hathor with an inscription below in hieroglyphics that reads: “The Royal Butler the Justified Ramessempre”. Because the detail is hard to see in the photo below, here is an illustration of the engraving from the Biblewalks website: see HERE.

Egyptian wall engraving

Egyptian wall engraving

This compelling rock engraving reminds me of the the life-size Roman soldier in regalia carved into the cliff wall at Nachal Kziv – something not many people know about (which can be seen HERE). Leaving the heights with its incredible view I looped back around the bottom of the cliff to rejoin the group, and then off to photograph a wee bit of free-climbing.

A bit of free-climbing

A bit of free-climbing

Across from Solomon’s Pillars is a small butte of sorts by the name of Slaves’ Hill, where archaeological work was done. On the short hike over, some of our party quenched their thirst on the sweet juice of pomelos gifted to us by the kibbutz; one of their agricultural exports. We climbed the hill to take in the views, and to watch ravens patrolling the adjacent cliff edge. Remains of what seems to be a gate and walls were uncovered, as well as organic materials – including an ancient grape seed that was found by Uri, a prominent member of our party.

Ancient grape seed

Ancient grape seed

As interesting as a preserved grape seed is, there was something even more interesting – a littering of slag (copper ore waste, in this case) covering the ground from the smelting actions done thousands of years ago.

Slaves' Hill lecture

Slaves’ Hill lecture

Descending from Slaves’ Hill, we made the trek back to the buses. But first, a posed photo of me:

Posing at Solomon's Pillars

Posing at Solomon’s Pillars

We were to leave Timna, sadly, without having seen all the magnificent sights as we had to head to the next site on the list: Tamar.

University Trip: Arava I

In Israel, Negev on January 15, 2017 at 11:45 AM

Not too long ago Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department hosted its annual two-day trip to a specific region for some intense tours mixed with informative lectures both on-site and off. Last year we took a grand tour of the Kinneret area (posts I, II and III), and this year we headed south, not unlike a migratory bird. Starting early Wednesday morning, our two buses drove southbound passing Yerucham Fortress (a Roman Era stronghold) and the Lost City before reaching the rest stop under the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. As incredible place as Avdat is, we were quickly back on the road heading for the Arava, a particularly dry stretch of the Negev. Entering Mitzpe Ramon, we dropped down into the breathtaking Ramon Crater and persisted southward for another hour of so until we reached our first destination – a lookout at the desert settlement of Shacharut.

Lookout at Shacharut

Lookout at Shacharut

Disembarking, we marveled at the view of the eastern Negev and the red mountains of neighbouring Jordan. We were then introduced to our primary guide for the trip, Dr Uzi Avner, a veteran archaeologist who began his acquaintance with the desert in 1969 as a Field School guide.

Our guide Dr Uzi Avner

Dr Uzi Avner

Whilst walking around taking pictures I noticed an interesting item among the jagged sand-coloured rocks – a crafted flint tool with nicked serrations. Depending on who you ask, this very well might have been a knife used thousands of years ago!

A possible flint knife

A possible flint knife

It was at this lookout that we learned of the first of many desert temples or sites of worship, Dr Avner’s expertise. Continuing on, we were then driven to our next series of destinations in a valley running parallel with Uvda Airbase along the Israel National Trail. Minutes before disembarking once again, we spotted a fox in its grey winter fur running away from the approaching buses.

Gathered at an ancient temple

Gathered at an ancient temple

What we saw next were various remains of numerous ancient, likely prehistoric, desert cultic sites and temples, some with interesting rock carvings decorating what are believed to be ritual altars. I prefer more substantial ruins from more recent periods (especially Crusader) but alas, there was just one building.

Nabatean ruins

Nabatean ruins

This structure was Nabatean, belonging to a group Arab traders who built cities and fortresses in the desert along the ancient Incense Route, including the iconic Petra in Jordan and the aforementioned Avdat. These Nabateans ended up converting to Christianity during the Byzantine era, leaving behind magnificent desert edifices.

Cultic stone carvings

Cultic stone carvings

But we didn’t only learn about ancient religious sites, Professor Ehud Weiss (BIU’s archaeobotanist) showed us an interesting plant called a rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This plant is a resurrection plant, meaning that after the rainy season it curls and dries up to hibernate, dead-like, protecting the seeds inside for years until the next rainy season. When that happens the plant that comes back to life, releasing the seeds and then begins the process anew.

Rose of Jericho

Rose of Jericho

Another interesting plant, which I somehow missed out on, was a wild watermelon found in deserts, tiny and practically inedible due to its bitterness. One thing that I didn’t miss out on, and continued to fascinate me throughout the trip, was the never-ending supply of interesting rocks and potsherds scattered all over the place. In between all these interesting sights and moments were the roaring aerial acrobatics of Air Force pilots from the airbase beside us, a fun distraction for some.

Stone leopards at Namerim Temple

Stone leopards at Namerim Temple

Next we saw the most famous of the sites, the Namerim Temple, which was excavated by Dr Avner himself in the 1980s. Believed to be in use from the Neolithic to Bronze Age, this symbolic temple contains many stone depictions of symbolic scenes mostly involving what appear to be leopards – thus the name (namer = leopard). Dr Avner told us an interesting story about how an officer in the Armoured Corps directed tank traffic over the temple remains, crushing some of the leopard designs, and was chastised vis-à-vis his unintentional actions by our Dr Avner. This incident sparked a new interest in the officer and some years later he joined the Antiquities Authority, eventually becoming Dr Avner’s boss, of all people.

Birding in the low shrubbery

Birding in the low shrubbery

Interesting stories aside, it was at the Namerim Temple that the side activity of birding kicked in, with a grand total of three participants. We edged our way into the low, dry shrubbery flushing out streaked scrub warblers, blackstarts and a very bold bluethroat. Unfortunately all of my bird photos came out rubbish, but here’s one that fellow birder Nesia allowed me to use, an amazing shot:

Blackstart (photo Nesia Alon)

Blackstart (photo Nesia Alon)

Wrapping up at Namerim Temple, we gathered ourselves up and headed back to the buses, ready to be taken to the next site on our itinerary: Kibbutz Ketura, to take a look at Methuselah. When excavations were done at Masada in the 1960s by archaeologist Yigal Yadin, a preserved seed of a date palm was found, likely from the food stores of the besieged Jews holding out against the Roman army. This 1,950-year old preserved seed was then germinated, producing a seedling which was eventually planted in the kibbutz, dubbed Methusaleh after the longest-living Biblical character.

Prof Aren Maeir speaking at Methusaleh

Prof Aren Maeir speaking at Methusaleh

From Kibbutz Ketura we drove to our final destination of the day, Kibbutz Elifaz, where we were to spend the night. Once safely inside the kibbutz we rejoined in the dining room for dinner and then headed out for a quick star-gazing tour just outside the kibbutz, in the desert darkness. Powerful green lasers were used first for orientation and to point out celestial marvels and then, when the tour ended, faux lightsaber battles were recreated (including sound effects by the more excitable participants).

Evening in the Arava

Evening in the Arava

Back in the kibbutz we gathered once again to listen to a lecture on acacia trees, and the great effort imparted to sustain the iconic desert plant. Following the lecture was a hard game of trivia in which I went from a very brief 1st place to finish off in a shameful 14th place. Retiring to our country lodging suites, I took a short walk around the area with my friend Itamar and we spotted a barn owl flying about with some fruit bats. The barn owl gave a single “hooo!” and vanished into the night, and I was to see no more birds until the following morning after a hot shower and restful sleep.

University Trip: Ancient Modi’in

In Central Israel, Israel on January 8, 2017 at 10:55 AM

Two weeks ago, right in the middle of Chanuka, we took an Archaeology trip to the Modi’in area in search for ancient Modi’in as well as other sites of interest in the vicinity. Leaving the university by tour bus in the morning, we were driven to our first destination, a place known as Kivrei HaChashmonaim (or, Graves of the Maccabees) just off Road 443 across from the modern city of Modi’in. Disembarking, I looked around my surroundings and spotted a chukar (type of partridge) running up a large rock, stopping near the top before another bird and then flying away in the opposite direction. Due to the great distance, only when I looked at my camera screen did I notice that the other bird was a kestrel (I had assumed it was another chukar). A great way to start off a trip!

Chukar meeting a kestrel

Chukar meeting a kestrel

From there we headed down a nice trail towards Nachal Modi’im where we stood near some olive trees to hear from our tour leader, Dr Eyal Baruch, about the first possible choice of ancient Modi’in’s location. Across the stream from us, and over the security fence and patrol road (of the Green Line), was the Arab village of al-Midia.

Dr Eyal Baruch of Bar Ilan University

Dr Eyal Baruch of Bar Ilan University

One of the ways to help locate ancient sites is to examine the local traditional Arabic name (be it a village, wadi or mountain) – if the name means nothing in Arabic, there’s a fair chance that the name is just a corruption or adaptation of an earlier name. In this case, the name “al-Midia” can easily be perceived as a corruption of the name “Modi’in”. Unfortunately, from an archaeological standpoint only surveys of al-Midia were taken.

Persian cyclamens a'bloom

Persian cyclamens a’bloom

From our vantage point to al-Midia we walked back towards the bus and then down another path to our next destination: Horvat HaGardi. Along the way, I spotted something moving quite a ways off in a field. At the great distance, it was hard to make out what it was – perhaps a dog, or two large birds standing next to each other? Activating the camera, I was soon in the possession of several photographs of a particularly handsome gazelle snacking on the lush grasses.

A gazelle off in the distance

A gazelle off in the distance

What I saw next intrigued me greatly – a mossy domed structure hidden amongst the pine trees. We were then informed that the site is the Tomb of Sheikh Gharbawi, despite the modern tomb markings labeling the site as the kever of Matatyahu (of Chanuka fame).

The Tomb of Sheikh Gharbawi

The Tomb of Sheikh Gharbawi

Still intrigued, I conducted a bit of research of my own, spanning the times from the late 1800s with a PEF-published “Archaeological Researches in Palestine” by French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau to a forum discussion dated 2010 on a random Haredi news-site. What sealed the deal for me that this was a Muslim building was the cemented-in mihrab (prayer niche) that can be seen over the tombstone – the mihrab being on the southern wall, pointing south to Mecca.

Kever labeled Matatyahu - note the mihrab

Kever labeled Matatyahu – note the mihrab

However, one can still argue that the structure was later built by Muslims over the pre-existing kever of Matatyahu, for ground penetrating radar and other scientific tools have revealed a cave of sorts under the domed building, extending southward beyond the building. Regardless, there is more to Horvat HaGardi than just this building – and we were still on the quest to identify the legitimate Graves of the Maccabees. French archaeologists in the late 1800s discovered ruins of a building which seemed to fit the description given in Maccabees I, the ancient book of Chanuka. Unfortunately, a mosaic floor with a glaringly obvious Christian cross was uncovered, bringing the building’s date to the Byzantine era.

Reading from Victor Guérin at the ruins of the Byzantine monastery

Reading from French archaeologist Victor Guérin at the ruins of the Byzantine monastery

And so, we continued on to the next site on our list, pausing to look at a broken piece of pottery which seems to be have been marked by the potter with three lines.

Marked pottery

Marked pottery

Up next was the modern day war memorial for fallen soldiers during the War of Independence in 1948, a memorial which pays a tribute to the Graves of the Maccabees with its seven pyramids (as described in Maccabees I). From there we passed several small sites of interest such as ancient walls and water cisterns before we reached the burial caves found on the shoulder of Road 443 during construction.

Roadside burial caves

Roadside burial caves

Within these two caves are numerous burial niches which are typical of ancient Jewish burial – see, for example, the Jewish necropolis (or “city of the dead”) at Bet She’arim, a most fascinating place! Inside, finds included ossuaries (chests for the permanent storage of human bones) etched with Jewish names such as Shimon, Sarah and Rachel. Pottery finds helps date the site from the Hasmonean period (i.e the Maccabees) until the middle of the Roman Era – seemingly a perfect fit for the Graves of the Maccabees except that it doesn’t match the textual description.

Quarry for huge stone covering-blocks

Quarry for huge stone covering-blocks

Our final possible site in the area was what is currently marked as the Graves of the Maccabees, personal and coupled burial niches carved out of the bedrock with huge stone covers. These graves were known as Qubur al-Yahud (or “Grave of the Jew”) by the local Arab population, seemingly a fitting match. However, no matter how impressive the graves are, they are unlikely to be the graves of Jews such as the Maccabees. Excavated stone crypts don’t fit the typical Jewish fashion, which means that these are most likely the burial sites of non-Jews dated to the Byzantine Era.

Within Umm al-Umdan's fern-lined mikva

Within Umm al-Umdan’s fern-lined mikva

Returning to the matter of ancient Modi’in, we hopped back on our bus and were driven to the southwestern corner of modern-day Modi’in where ruins of a Second Temple-era village were recently excavated. The site, called Umm al-Umdan, is the host of an ancient synagogue, believed to be the earliest one yet having been built long before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. We toured the synagogue, the mikva (ritual bath), the dwelling houses and winepress carved into the rock with a mosaic pressing floor. Perhaps this was the site of ancient Modi’in, or perhaps not.

Mosaic floor of Umm al-Umdan's winepress

Mosaic floor of Umm al-Umdan’s winepress

At Umm al-Umdan I didn’t forget to keep an eye out for birds and was rewarded with a multitude of sunbirds (one even ringed), a pied wagtail, stonechats, kestrels and my first chaffinch. But the best sighting was not avian but that of a juvenile conehead mantis which had wandered onto Dr Eyal Baruch’s shoulder. I took him for a quick photoshoot, which he thoroughly enjoyed!

Juvenile conehead mantis

Juvenile conehead mantis

And with that our tour of the Modi’in area was over, and we were driven back to BIU to enjoy the rest of Chanuka (and to read up on all these fascinating things).

Special thank you to Itamar Berko for paying more attention than I during the tour and helping me fill in the information gaps!