Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Tel Aroma & Mount Gerizim

In Israel, Samaria on July 30, 2017 at 3:42 PM

Towards the end of this past semester, before I was distracted by the wonderfully hectic month of archaeological digging at Tel es-Safi (biblical Gath), I took a day-trip with the legendary Dr Dvir Raviv to some cool sites in the Shomron. Another of Bar Ilan University’s Archaeological department’s academic tours, this was one that I had been looking forward to all year – especially after last year’s fascinating trip to the Southeast Shomron with the same Dr Raviv. Our tour bus departed from the university campus in the morning and we made our way to the Shomron, driving through the ever-entertaining Arab village of Hawara and then passing Shechem (Nablus) before entering Itamar where we disembarked at an army post. Gathering around and applying sunscreen, we were briefed by Dvir who told us the plan of the day. Much to our surprise, he pointed to a conical peak a ways away and announced that we were to climb it – for that is Tel Aroma.

Making our way to Tel Aroma – the central peak

We set off expeditiously, making our way down the slope of the low mountain that we were on, and reached the paved road down below in good time. This was an ancient road that crossed the mountains of the Shomron and we walked it to get to a good spot to climb up to the tel. Along the way, we saw planted olive trees, wild carrot in bloom and my first definite sparrowhawk which flew away before I could squeeze off a shot. Leaving the road, we stopped beneath a gathering of almond trees to learn more about the area. As I looked about I noticed that some of the almond shells had been chewed by one of nature’s hungry inhabitants, and upon proposing the identity question to experts, learned that the nuts were eaten by rose-ringed parakeets (an invasive species in Israel).

Chewed and crystalised almond on a stick

Sitting in the welcoming shade, the peaceful sounds of nature surrounding us, we rested, ate, drank and listened to the mini-lecture. When we rose refreshed and began our ascent of the mountain something interesting happened. The leading members of our party had startled a small sounder of wild boars – some adult females and a handful of striped youngsters. I heard my name being shouted and became aware of the wild boars making their escape, passing an old stone structure as they fled downhill.

Wild boars

With the brief excitement over we returned to the task at hand, scaling the mountain without the use of a marked trail. Dvir led the way, springing lightly up the slope, and we followed behind dutifully. The going was a little tough, but rather invigorating, and we made great time due to our youthful enthusiasm. I stopped at one point and took this great photo of my friend Ben Yablon climbing behind me.

Ben climbing Tel Aroma

At last we reached the top and we laid eyes on a hewn cistern – the first of many, which look like small caves from the outside. Around the cistern, and across the top of the tel, were large amounts of cut ashlars for monumental construction. With the mountaintop first fortified by the Canaanites, the site’s subsequent history is poorer than so many of Israel’s tels largely due to its remoteness and inaccessible nature. Biblically mentioned only once, the tel is referred to as a stronghold near Shechem and it is not until the Hasmonean period that Aroma’s importance came into play. Being in the land of the Samaritans, which we would see in the second half of the day’s tour, the Hasmoneans conquered Shechem and Mount Gerizim from them and took up fortifications at Aroma and Sartaba further to the east. It was during this time that the fortress was built and immense water reservoirs were carved out of the bedrock. The next, and final, period of importance for Aroma was during the time of Herod around 2000 years ago, when it was refortified to keep control over the Shomron roads.

Tel Aroma from above (photo Biblewalks.com)

We made our way to the southern end of the tel and admired both the view and the ruins. The blue sky around us was alive with energetic swifts (mostly common with one or two alpine thrown in), keeping us company as we explored. Suddenly a strange call was heard and fellow tour member Nesia, a more experienced birder than I, informed me that a bee-eater had flown past – of which I saw but a fast-moving blur. We settled down beneath some olive and fig trees to learn more from Dvir and I found myself promptly distracted by a bird flying about among the rocks far below. Using Nesia’s binoculars and my own camera (even with the inferior digital zoom), I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was seeing. Turning to the experts once again, I was informed that I had seen and photographed a black-eared wheatear (my first). From the same vantage point, this time heard but not seen, was the familiar drumming of a Syrian woodpecker. And lastly, some ravens above a distant mountaintop were spotted and added to the list.

Hasmonean fortress ruin

With Tel Aroma never excavated – only having been surveyed – it was sad to see that vandals had destroyed part of a Hasmonean wall that Dvir had found intact only several days prior to our trip. A photo from 2016 of Dvir standing at the wall that had just been destroyed can be seen HERE on Biblewalks, an amazing site which he collaborates with from time to time. He told us an interesting story of his encounter with a band from a nearby Arab village who demanded to know what he was doing, whereas their presence was the one which truly demanded explanations, as antiquity robbing is commonplace in such areas. Leaving the fresh ruination behind, after documentation, we made our way to the line of cisterns along the western side of the tel.

Within the immense cistern

We entered the first of the immense cisterns, lined with plaster to retain water, and marveled at the size. Measuring some 20+ metres long by approximately 10 metres both wide and tall, the cistern was designed to hold a maximum of some 2,500 cubic metres – quite a lot of water! Within the cool dampness of the cistern we learned more about the water system of this and other Hasmonean sites, with comparisons to Sartaba and Herodian Masada (which has even bigger cisterns). Exiting the cistern, we emerged blinking in the bright sun and made our way past the succession of similar cisterns until we reached the northern end, where the barely distinguishable remains of an aqueduct can be seen. At that time a gorgeous swallowtail butterfly floated past me and I spent a few minutes trying to get a good shot but to no avail. We then trotted back down the mountain, heading for the point where we started, but from a different angle. We passed a truly peculiar sight as we walked – a field disturbingly littered with plastic bags, with a fresh delivery drifting over with each fresh gust of wind over a distant garbage pile. Someone said that they spotted a fox but I saw nothing note-worthy until we reached a cool spring with its algae-filled pool.

Lovely little spring

We spent a few minutes at the spring and then carried onward downhill – where I took pause to photograph a very calm cicada that tried deafening me with his calls (cicadas being one of the loudest insects, producing sounds of up to 12o decibels – the same as the report of a shotgun). Note the light-sensing eyes that look like tiny red dots on his forehead between his normal eyes.

Cicada

Dashing our way up the mountain towards Itamar, we boarded the bus hot and breathless, gulping down large quantities of water. But the day was far from over – we had another large site to visit: the ruins on Mount Gerizim overlooking Shechem. Driving back past the southern entrance to Shechem, we drove up Mount Gerizim and turned towards the Samaritan village of Luza – all familiar sights from when I was a soldier stationed in the region. The Samaritans were a sect of Jews that splintered off in antiquity and created their own form of Judaism, replacing several of Judaism’s core foundations with those of their own and naming Mount Gerizim as their holy city in place of Jerusalem. Samaritans have had a history of persecution and intermarriage with the local Arab populations which make them a very interesting portion of today’s Israeli demographic.

Hellenistic ruins of Mount Gerizim overlooking Shechem

Located on the southern of the twin peaks Gerizim and Ebal, as biblically mentioned, our tour was mostly that of the national park that has recently been established to preserve the ruins (aerial photograph can be seen HERE). Passing through Luza, we entered the park and disembarked to begin our trip. We began by breezing past the plentiful Hellenistic age ruins as we made for the lookout over Shechem and the Byzantine monastery complex. It was rather enjoyable pointing out the various sites of interest far below, including Kever Yosef and several houses of Christian and Muslim worship.

Byzantine monastery and sheikh’s tomb

Sitting in the shade beneath the walls of the Byzantine monastery, we learned more about the site from Dvir who prepared us for what we were to see while in the comfort of the shade. Skirting the meagre Persian period ruins, we climbed up into the church complex and gazed about at the Byzantine ruins, with the octagonal church remains in the centre and the sheikh’s tomb built into the northeast corner tower. We admired the fallen architectural details, including Corinthian columns and floor mosaics, as we circled the site. Due to the length of the Tel Aroma part of the trip we were slightly pressed for time and weren’t able to explore too finely all the ruins that were laid out before us.

Mount Gerizim ruins with Luza in the background

It was when we were looking out at the Hellenistic ruins of a mansion that I noticed one of my favourite birds hopping about on the rocks – a male blue rock thrush. Glancing at the rest of the ruins, including some Samaritan holy sites, we headed back for the bus because the park was closing. Thus ended another long but exciting trips to the Shomron with Dr Dvir Raviv, I look forward to next year’s with bated breath!

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  1. It’s amazing to thinks of the work involved in constructing that cistern. PS: Without making too much work out of it I’m always picking up plastic bags, etc. Never will get it all but try to leave the place better than I found it.

    • Ancient construction always amazes me – it must have been so much work to do even the simplest masonry.
      You do good work out there gathering up trash, we should all be like you. In our group there were a few who gathered up litter, but a field of plastic bags needs a whole cleanup crew. One day…

  2. […] week after visiting Tel Aroma & Mount Gerizim in the Shomron I participated in another academic tour offered by Bar Ilan University’s […]

  3. It must be amazing to live in an area where almost any rock that you trip over could be related to something or some one from history!

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