Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Central Israel’ Category

North Tel Aviv Coast

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on October 29, 2017 at 6:50 AM

The week after my trip to Shiloh I rejoined my adventurous friend Adam for yet another adventure. This time it was for some early morning birding and more along the coast just north of Tel Aviv. We took a very early bus because we wanted to be out in the dunes by the time the birds start to stir. With just a tiny busing miscalculation we reached the fields just inland from HaTzuk Beach, roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Herzliya.

Starting with sunrise

The sun was just peeking over the horizon as we entered the scrub fields, walking along sandy paths that crisscrossed the area. Almost immediately we had an incredible sighting. A quail burst up from underfoot as we stood scanning the vegetation, its characteristic flight giving away its identity as it disappeared rapidly. This was my first time seeing a quail in the wild, and it was something that has piqued my interest for a while now. In addition, a sparrowhawk was spotted flying high up near one of the several hotels in the area and shortly thereafter we started seeing shrikes, whinchats and wheatears flying from bush to bush, presenting themselves nicely in the early morning light.

Scanning the area

We continued walking south, passing through the vegetation in relative silence, keeping a keen eye for wildlife of all varieties. We came across some interesting plants as well, from the sea squill to the sea daffodil, and later, blooming beach evening primrose growing directly in the sand itself on the dunes.

Sea squill

But it wasn’t just birds and flowers, Adam, more knowledgeable of bugs than I am, caught and showed me a queen ant that had lost her wings. There were also some antlion larva pits in the sand, dug to trip up unsuspecting walking insects on the loose grains.

Queen carpenter ant

We pushed southward, the terrain becoming nicer and nicer as we walked, with songbirds showing themselves all over the place. Occasionally we’d take different parallel paths, scouring the land from two different angles. A hoopoe, our national bird, walked along several paces in front of me, poking around in the sand for insects to eat.

Two harriers and a crow

Then, as we stood there, we spotted three bigger birds up in the sky coming in from the north. Activating my convenient 21x zoom, I was able to distinguish two birds of prey and a crow, the flagship mobbing bird, always annoying other species. Making note of the long and narrow wings, with the narrow tail, I knew we were looking at harriers even before they passed right over our heads. This was my first time seeing a Montagu’s harrier, and what a sighting! The “new bird” excitement carried over to the next cool sighting. A corncrake popped out of cover just in front of us, seeking refuge towards the sea. We attempted to follow it, to get a better sighting, but we were unable to relocate it and didn’t want to waste too much time poking about all willy-nilly.

Exploring the dunes

At this point the terrain was changing from the yellowish sandy flats to proper dunes with reddish sand, at times red clay loam. The vegetation became sparser, mostly short bushy plants and the aforementioned beach evening primrose. The contrast of the reddish sand, the green plants and the blue sky made a beautiful scene for our eyes to behold. Lots of tracks crisscrossed the sand, and we made our own tracks as we walked up the highest part of the dunes. We looked out over the Mediterranean Sea, taking in the views as we took out our breakfast. Eating as we kept an eye out for seabirds, we talked about how beautiful and remote this place was, even so close to such urban areas. To highlight the proximity, military aircrafts passed us both before and after breakfast: a C-130 Hercules cargo plane and a Blackhawk helicopter, both with camo paint-jobs.

Tracks

Just after breakfast, heading back down the dunes but still making our way southward, Adam spotted a common kestrel on a nearby clump of loam backdropped by the gentle waves. We watched it, taking pictures as we creeped forward. Unfortunately we ended up scaring it away but that gave us the opportunity to press onwards, heading towards an even taller hill: Tel el-Rekkeit.

Beach evening primrose

Crowned by an abandoned IDF military base, the tel once was the host of prehistoric settlement. Seemingly nobody bothered to use the hill until WWI when the Ottoman army established an artillery base to shell British troops approaching from the south. Once the Ottoman base was conquered, it was converted into a British base, and subsequently an Israeli base. We climbed the hill and looped around the western side of the base fence, arriving at the entrance with the access road. Finding the site to be completely abandoned we ventured in, wondering if we’d find drug addicts or something similarly unpleasant.

Abandoned army base

We stepped gingerly over the large amounts of garbage and building supplies that covered the ground, including terracotta roof tiles imported from France. We poked our heads into the different buildings, not seeing anything interesting, until I heard rustling in the bushes up against the eastern fence. Motioning to Adam, I crept closer and spotted two foxes making a quick getaway through a gap in the foliage. There wasn’t much else to see within the base so we headed back out, attempting to find the old Arab graves that are on the eastern slope. Instead we found a tiny cliff which didn’t afford passage, and the decayed remains of a dog or jackal.

Red-backed shrike

We continued south along the dunes, seeing a lot of ice plants covering the sandy slopes, and some thorny bushes – the preferred hangouts for shrikes. One beautiful red-backed shrike, singing from his perch on the thorns, posed for me quite close by. It was a lovely experience, and I was sad to see him fly off.

Tel Baruch Beach

Shortly thereafter, on the final stretch of the dunes area I found a ₪10 coin (worth $2.85 USD at the current exchange rate), and then we made our way down to the Tel Baruch beach. Having planned for this, we packed swimwear and towels and changed into our beach garb. We headed for end of the tiny artificial bay, up against the rocks of the breakers, and entered the warm waters. Nearly immediately I felt sharp little bites on my feet and remembered hearing about the sargo fish who have been a bit of a terror to beachgoers this summer. Then, I realised that a common kingfisher was perched on a pole right in front of me, watching the water for small fish to nab for lunch.

Common kingfisher

Thankfully Adam brought his mask with him and we took turns peering into the underwater world, admiring the sargos and other little fish swimming around us in the shallows. Having brought his fishing rod, Adam was looking forward to fish and so we also scrounged around for some “natural” bait, namely little crabs and limpets which we harvested from the rocks. Factoring in the mask, we decided to try fishing from within the water, head underwater to see where to dangle the hook. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much success. Well, no success at all.

Adam fishing

We left the water to try fishing from the breakers and had a continued lack of success. When returning to the water, I noticed that there was a large area that seemed darker than normal. Getting a little closer, wading my way in, I realised that a huge school of sardines came by to visit us. We spent the next while swimming within the school of sardines, marveling at the up-close experience as we watched them underwater with the aid of the mask. At one point, I was underwater and the aforementioned kingfisher plunged into the water less than a metre in front me, but sadly I missed seeing it due to the fishy distractions all around me. Hours passed with us playing around in the water, exploring the sandy seafloor and identifying several types of different fish species, including a type of blenny. At last I remembered that I had to be back in Givat Shmuel later that afternoon and we packed up and left, heading the long way back via the bike trail that runs along Sde Dov Airport. We reached the Reading power plant at the Yarkon River and grabbed a bus back home, bringing an end to a very adventurous day.

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Apollonia (Arsuf)

In Central Israel, Israel on October 1, 2017 at 4:52 PM

A week after I finished volunteering at the Horvat Midras archaeological dig, where I participated in clearing Israel’s only pyramid, I took a fun trip with my friend Adam. In the morning we headed to a coastal Crusader castle Apollonia (or Arsuf) at the northern end of Herzliya, busing our way via Tel Aviv. We made our way to the park after disembarking a few blocks away, noticing a large piece of glass laying on display at the entrance, testimony of Apollonia’s ancient glass industry.

City ruins

In Apollonia’s earliest years, when the so-called Phoenicians ruled the coastal area, a small port city was founded. They called this city Arsuf after their god of war and storms, Reshef. When Hellenistic influence overrode the locals, the city’s name was changed to Apollonia, in honour of Apollo, the Greek equivalent of Reshef.

Ice plants decorating the scenery

The Roman times saw an enlargement of the city, with several different communities of inhabitants. During the Byzantine era the city became important, reaching its height of development and a sizable glass industry was created. We noticed lots of ancient glass bits littered about the path area towards the end of our visit, which brought us great excitement.

Details of the castle moat

But it was the Crusader times and ruins that intrigue me most about Apollonia, when the site was renamed to Arsuf or Arsur by the Muslim and Christian forces, respectively. Thankfully there are ruins of this period still standing for us to see, the centerpiece of the park.

Crusader castle of Arsuf

I had read a lot about the battles that took place in and around Apollonia, as well as learned about modern techniques in research to verify theories with archaeological findings. Dr Rafi Lewis of Haifa University explained to me one evening his process towards identifying the battleground location of the Battle of Arsuf between the Ayyubids under Saladin and the Franks under Richard the Lionheart, which was described as being partially fought at the edge of a forest. Unfortunately, the Ottomans cut down most of the trees in the Holy Land to fuel their impressive rail system, so the forest is no longer. However, a veritable line of medieval arrowheads was found and, using a clever method of using data gleamed from shooting recreated Ayyubid bows, the arrow flight distance was calculated. Measuring the length of the flight backwards from the arrow line gave an approximate location for the place where Ayyubid archers hid in ambush to cut down the Frankish troops. I found that to be absolutely fascinating and, since then, yearned for the day to visit Arsuf.

Path along the sea

Returning to our adventure, we entered the park and began along the paved path. We gaze upon the southern moat and wall of the Crusader city and then the excavated remains of a Roman villa as we headed in the direction of the sea. The Mediterranean looked mighty fine that day, with a scattering of wispy white clouds in the rich blue sky. Walking along the sea cliff, parallel with the beach down below, we passed Byzantine water cisterns and reservoirs.

Adam at a cistern

We continued north until we reached the Ottoman lime kiln, a stone-lined furnace, and then swung inland a tad to walk around the Crusader moat. With moats come castles and this time was no exception. We gazed upon the stony ruins, imagining a time long since passed. The castle at Apollonia was built in the mid 1200s after the city had been in and out of European rule since 1101 when it was conquered by King Baldwin I with Italian naval support. When the city was gifted to more private hands, those of a noble family, the castle was built. However, this was short-lived because the Mamluks were on their campaign from the south and, in efforts to save the region, Apollonia was given to the Hospitaller Order. But even the famous knights couldn’t stem the tide of Muslim conquest under the leadership of Baibars and the castle fell in 1265 after a forty-day siege.

Artist’s rendition of the Mamluk siege

Since then, no locals or conquering forces have made attempts to rebuild the coastal fortress and so it stands today, a bastion of ruin surrounded by a deep dry moat. We then passed the site of the original bridge, long since fallen, and crossed via the “new” land bridge on the bright, paved path.

Greetings my lords

A smartly dressed Crusader knight greeted us on approach, bidding us entrance to his home. Inside, we found ourselves in the courtyard of the fortress, surrounded by different rooms. We chose to visit the ground floor of the keep first, and to gaze out towards the sea from within the vaulted room. Continuing on in a clockwise manner, we visited the kitchen next, and then the dining hall and adjacent food-related chambres. I noticed how small the dining room was, say, in comparison to the Crusader castles at Akko and Belvoir.

Within the keep

Heading from the north end of the fortress’ interior to the south end, we entered the Burnt Room, named such after the visible burn marks from the Mamluk acts of destruction. Within the rooms at the south end we found many piles of ballista stones, which were used by the knights to counter the siege, as well as marble Corinthian column capitals.

Looking north

We climbed to the highest ruins of the keep and admired the view, looking down at the shore below to see the remains of the Crusader port. After some relaxation time in the shade we left the castle and made our way to the far northern end of the park. There we sat on a bench and talked about life’s complexities, losing a whole bunch of sandwich cookies to the sand below us. We watched the sea and its guests, and the military helicopter that flew over us. At last we took to the path once more and explored an unmarked excavation area with a simple mosaic floor.

Ancient piece of glass

On and around the path we found tons of ancient glass shards, even the rim of a small bottle, as well as an adult antlion flying through the dry vegetation. With that we walked our way back to the park’s entrance and left, briefly exploring the high-tech area of Herzliya before parting ways, bringing an end to yet another successful trip.

A special thank you to the talented Rebecca Zami who has been skilfully editing my blog for the last couple months!

University Trip: Toron des Chevaliers & Nabi Samuel

In Central Israel, Israel on July 9, 2017 at 7:34 AM

The day following my three-day trip to the Golan and Galilee had me up and active early in the morning, on a Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department trip to some Crusader sites in the Jerusalem area. Obvious sites would be Aqua Bella (Ein Hemed) or Castel, of which I have visited neither to date, but we were specifically going to more obscure ruins. The first on our list was the Crusader castle at Latrun, known as Toron des Chevaliers (French for “Castle of the Knights”), and our bus brought us to it with no delay.

Toron des Chevaliers (Latrun)

We sat outside the modern Latrun Monastery (built in 1890) while our guide, Dr Jonathan Rubin, gave us the necessary background material to accompany the tour. While we were sitting I noticed a curious monument dedicated to three medieval characters from the three Abrahamic religions: the Jewish sage Rashi, the Christian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux and Muslim sultan Saladin. From there we started on the short trail to the ruins, fire-fighting planes and a pair of falcons flying overhead, the morning view spread out before us as we climbed the gradual hill. We took our first stop at a standing structure that was reworked with concrete sometime during the last century, an outpost of the Jordanian army.

Great Hall of Toron des Chevaliers

Walking among the golden-dead vegetation we identified a handful of the original Crusader ruins, occupied by the Templar knights and eventually surrendered to the aforementioned Saladin who had the castle razed to the ground. Unfortunately, after the destruction of 1191 the castle was never rebuilt and many of the building stones were removed as spolia (or re-purposing stones for later construction). Armed with fragmented plans we retraced the overgrown ruins, the highlight being the above arched wall and the vaulted great room – the sunlight streaming in made for an ethereal scene.

Light filtering in

While exploring I spotted a Sardinian warbler on a dry plant, but nothing else interesting in terms of fauna. Circling around the southern edge of the ruins, we stamped our way through the thorny undergrowth on our way out for we had other ruins to see that day. Whilst waiting for all at the bus, one of the esteemed members of our group gave us a brief lecture on capers, which he found growing along the trail. I have made the mistake of confusing the caper blossom with that of a passiflora (ie passionfruit), and when researching them both online, I found that even their fruits look quite similar. Boarding the buses we were then driven to the next site on our list, the Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh, held within the confines of the Benedictine Monastery.

Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh

While Abu Ghosh is perhaps most famous for its hummus, the Crusader ruins (restored in the early 1900s) were quite impressive. The monastery grounds were quiet and well-kept, and the few Trappist abbots walking to and fro in their spotless white robes. As we settled in a secluded corner to learn about the site from Dr Rubin, I had plenty of distractions with a healthy number of songbirds flitting about, filling the air with their sweet song.

Greenfinch eating from a pinecone

The building’s origins date to the Roman times when a large cistern was constructed over an underground spring, an eared tablet citing the Tenth Legion (which was camped in the area outside Jerusalem) still visible in the wall. A thousand or so years later a Frankish church was built over the cistern, which was subsequently turned into the crypt, and extravagant frescoes were illustrated on the walls. Controlled by the Hospitallers, a fellow Order of the Templars, the church was conquered by Saladin but not destroyed. Since restored, the church has been instilled with new life, with visitors of all religions visiting to see the original Crusader-era frescoes on the walls in the Gothic-vaulted chapel. Leaving the dominion of the church, we passed the old mosque of Abu Ghosh and then rode our tour bus out of the village, passing the expansive Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque – Israel’s second-largest mosque, a $10 million project largely funded by the controversial ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Our next stop was Nabi Samuel located on a hilltop just north of Jerusalem, not far from Ramot Forest.

Nabi Samuel

Disembarking outside, we gained entrance to the national park and began our tour by breezing through the northeast corner – the “high place” composed of structures for hosting pilgrims and more. According to all three Abrahamic faiths, the biblical prophet Shmuel/Samuel/Samwil was buried on this hilltop and thus there are aspects of all three religions at the site. Sitting underneath olive trees at the edge of the site, Dr Rubin gave forth the necessary information for us to continue exploring the site – focusing on the unique architecture (especially the Crusader church of St Samuel being cross-shaped) and the importance of the site throughout the Middle Ages for all three faiths. In class, Dr Rubin told us about a Renaissance Jew by the name of Meshullam from Volterra visiting Nabi Samuel in the 1480s, and of course, the famous Medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Nabi Samuel as well.

Vaulted Crusader ruins

Continuing back around through the ruins, under the glaring Friday noon sun, we explored the large “parking area” of flat bedrock where pilgrims could camp out and the waterworks to support them, with channels, cisterns and more. We swung around the the west side of Nabi Samuel to admire the vaulted ruins of the Crusader fortress which once encompassed the church. There, behind the hewn rock of the quarry – which is unusually close to the building site – we examined the restoration of fallen arches.

Hellenistic and Roman ruins

From there we continued along to the exposed layers of ruins dating from the Hellenistic and Roman (Second Temple) eras until we reached the point where we started. With the exterior loop completed we turned our attention inward and crossed the modern bridge over the hewn dry moat, connected to the flat area where the pilgrims would camp. We approached the central building of Nabi Samuel which was built by the Muslims after banishing the Christians, keeping, for the most part, the cross-shaped layout. We entered the structure, making note of the characteristic Islamic-green door and window frames and shutters, as well as the Arabic plaque over the doorway.

Muslims to the left and Jews to the right

Inside, standing in a tall domed chamber of Gothic construction, we surveyed our surroundings which included Muslim features such as shelves for shoes, green glass in the windows, a mihrab (prayer niche) at the southern wall facing Mecca and a hard-to-see flag of the Islamic Waqf for the mosque. Straight ahead was the door to the Muslim shrine, where worshipers were in various stage of prayer facing a Mamluk-themed mihrab of green and white ablaq. To the right there was a small door which took us to the Jewish site, the kever of Shmuel, located in a small underground crypt. Standing in reverence, I took out a Tehillim (Book of Psalms) and opened to a random page, as is my personal tradition, intending on saying whatever chapter I come across. More times than not the chapter I randomly select mentions either something going on in my life at that time, or something that was mentioned to me or by me or in my head in recent times. Sure enough, I reached a verse with the word “abirim” which is Hebrew for knights (ie Crusaders). However, the actual translation of this verse is different, the word “knights” becoming “bulls” due to a literary rule that my Hebrew-language major roommate explained to me: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalms 50:13).

View from the roof of Nabi Samuel

Leaving the Jewish section, we regrouped at the entrance and made a quick loop around the exterior of the structure, where Dr Rubin pointed out interesting features such as mason marks and blocked up doorways. To put a final flourish on our trip we re-entered the building and took the narrow stone staircase to the roof where we stood beside the minaret and roof domes admiring the views of the surrounding areas both near and far. Descending back down the stairs, we made our way back to our bus and then back to Bar Ilan where we said farewell to one another, wishing a peaceful Shabbat for all.

Yavne

In Central Israel, Israel on June 18, 2017 at 10:37 AM

The Friday after our wonderful Ramla adventure, Adam Ota and I were joined by more friends, Ben Yablon and Efrat Guli, to take a trip to the Yavne area. I had never been to Yavne so I enjoyed searching for interesting places to visit in advance using the remarkably useful Amud Anan map. Adam, Ben and I boarded an early bus out of Givat Shmuel and met up with Efrat and her car in Rehovot. We popped over to a local bakery to grab some baked goods for breakfast and from there drove to Yavne, a few minutes away to the southwest. On the road we made note of the first site of interest – the old Yavne train station – and before long we were at Tel Yavne located at the southern end of the city.

View of Tel Yavne

Parking not far from the House of Arches, which was the house of the local sheikh in the 1930s, we looped around the tel to find the unmarked trail leading upwards. Pausing to examine a dirt wall rich in potsherds and other archaeological treats, we found ourselves greatly distracted in the pursuit of antiquated trinkets. Other than some pottery vessel handles and bases, some of us pulled out ancient glass shards, the age indicated by the silver weathering which leaves an iridescent coating – something I had learned about at a special glass exhibition at the Israel Museum. Browsing the Antiquities Authority’s reports, I found that the glass samples found at Tel Yavne during a salvage excavation in 2008 were dated to the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. As we reached the top of the hill that is Tel Yavne, we noticed the lone stone tower at the far end of the hill – a Mamluk minaret belonging to a bygone Mamluk mosque.

Mamluk minaret

But presently we were to examine the stony ruins of houses and other buildings possibly dating further back, to the times when Yavne was an important ancient city. Biblically, the city was known as Yavne’el and it was subsequently conquered by the Philistines who ruled the southern coastal area of the Holy Land, including important cities such as Ashkelon, Gaza and Gath – where, God willing, I will be excavating this summer. Fast-forward to the Roman times, when the city was known by its Hellenised name of Jamnia, the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme council) found its sanctuary upon the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Yours truly examining the ground amongst the ruins (photo Efrat Guli)

Later, during the Crusader period, Yavne/Jamnia was conquered by the Europeans and the castle built thenceforth was named Ibelin, the name synonymous with one of the most powerful Christian families in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Mamluks, in their pursuit of conquest of the eastern Mediterranean lands, converted the Ibelin church into a mosque and a minaret was constructed. Interestingly enough, most of the sites of interest that we were to explore that day date to the Mamluk period.

Purported Crusader ruins

However, the aforementioned old train station, and a concrete pillbox located beside the train tracks, were constructed during the British Mandate period. Alas, despite the Antiquities Authority reports and other source materials online, I am unable to provide exact dating to the stone ruins located on the hilltop and so we move on. Passing the large swathes of bone-dry milk thistle and blooming wild carrot, we approached the minaret and made notice of a fine Arabic inscription which dates the construction to 1337.

Climbing back down the tower

Ben, an intrepid member of our small party, decided to climb the ruined wall and check whether or not we’d be able to explore the inside of the tower. Finding the small green gate open, we took turns climbing up and subsequently mounting the circular staircase to the roof, quite reminiscent of the Mamluk-built White Tower in Ramla that Adam and I had visited shortly before. Breaking through to daylight, we surveyed our surroundings from the safety of the tower and I borrowed Efrat’s DSLR camera to try and capture swifts in flight overhead.

Common swift flying overhead

Climbing back down the tower, and then back down the hill, we came upon a delightful scene of red-rumped swallows gathering mud for nest building. As I was creeping forward to get better shots, an unsuspecting greenfinch landed mere metres from me for a quick drink and, noticing me looming overhead, flew away in a great panic which elicited a mischievous smile on my bearded face.

Red-rumped swallows gathering mud for nest building

Leaving the tel, we drove into modern Yavne for a cold treat at the Ben & Jerry’s factory. I enjoyed three scoops of ice cream in a cup, of the following flavours: salted caramel, peanut butter cup, and my favourite flavour, chocolate chip cookie dough. When our sweet break was over we appreciated the brand-associated cow bench outside and got back into the car for a very short drive to our next destination: the kever (grave) of Rabban Gamliel, one of the leaders of the aforementioned Sanhedrin.

Kever of Rabban Gamliel

The tombstone is contained within a Mamluk period mosque commemorating the tomb of Abu Hurairah, a companion of Muhammad whose purported grave is also a hilltop in the northwest Negev (as we saw during an academic tour earlier in the school year). We were at the Yavne grave in Jewish capacity but it was interesting to note the clearly Mamluk construction with added Corinthian columns, an extensive inscription over the kever room’s doorway and a mihrab (prayer niche) on the southern wall (facing Mecca). I recently had a class that dealt with Mamluk architecture and building design which made me wish that I had paid better attention to detail in these sites when we visited.

Elaborate Arabic inscription over the door

Inside, beside the tombstone, I said a chapter of Tehilim (Psalms), as is tradition, and rejoined our party outside where we examined the rear of the mosque and then an ancient sarcophagus at the edge of the park.

Kever of Rabban Gamliel from behind (photo Efrat Guli)

From there, leaving Yavne, we passed by the arched Mamluk bridge spanning Nachal Soreq and then back to a Rehovot bus stop after we had a quick glance at an old IAI Mirage jet on display near the public library. I was pressed for time because later that Friday afternoon I was to be taking a bus to Yerucham in the Negev. As part of my job working at a school in Givat Shmuel, I was to accompany the 8th graders for the duration of Shabbat – but in the afternoon I braved the heat and sun to walk over to Yerucham Lake for some lens-less birding. Unfortunately, because I was lens-less, I missed out on possibly spotted a pink-backed pelican that was reported there the day before – a rarity in Israel, ordinarily living in southern Africa. Pelican or no pelican, great trips were had and there are many more to be had in the future!

Ramla

In Central Israel, Israel on June 11, 2017 at 8:30 AM

This past Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), commemorating the reunification of the capital city at the culmination of the Six Day War, I debated whether to go to Jerusalem or perhaps somewhere else less crowded. In the end I decided to visit Ramla, an oft neglected city in Central Israel neighbouring Lod and Rehovot, and I invited my friend Adam Ota to once again join me on the adventures-to-be. It was late morning when we boarded the bus for Ramla with a vague understanding of several sites that I mapped out in advance. Disembarking in the middle of the city, we first examined a sculpture park including a depiction of General Yitzhak Sadeh, whose house and mobile HQ we had visited the week prior on our trip to Yafo (Jaffa) for the Open House Tel Aviv event. From there we walked down a side street to the first site on our list, the famous White Tower, passing an ancient Arab cemetery and an old parked Studebaker on the way.

White Tower of Ramla

Greeted by a custodian, we paid for multi-pass tickets to include the other sites on our list and gained entrance to the site. Standing lonesome in a plaza, the White Tower loomed over us as we first previewed the archaeological ruins of the White Mosque and intricate water system of cisterns and aqueducts. These ruins date back to the early 700s when Ramla was first built, by the Umayyad Caliphate – in fact, the first Arab-built city in the Holy Land. The 30-metre tower is a minaret, which was added to the mosque at a later date (during the Mamluk period), and there is a long Arabic inscription etched into grey marble over the doorway. Entering, we climbed the 111 steps passing arrowslits and interesting windows until we reached the top where we joined a few tourists surveying the view around us.

View of ruins and modern Ramla

Enjoying the view, but knowing that there was a lot more to be seen, we took leave of the majestic tower and, passing the skull of a mole rat, we made our way to the next site. The Pool of Arches is one of the most curious sites in Israel to see photos of, and I have been wanting to visit for many years for obvious reasons. An underground cistern, the arch-roofed structure is large enough to accommodate rowboating which we did gleefully. On the way down into the cistern’s humid belly, we passed an Arabic inscription with fancy lettering carved into the rock wall.

The Pool of Arches

Getting into our rowboat, we got acquainted with the other boat drifting about and settled down to explore the cistern by boat. According to the PEF survey from the late 1800s the cistern measures approximately 25×23 metres and a schematic can be seen HERE. After a good amount of paddling to and fro, crashing gently into the thick columns every few minutes, we returned our rowboat and departed from the site our faces likely flushed with excitement.

Paddling underground

Boarding a bus to take us to the southeast end of the city, we got off at the shuk (open market) area where the famous weekly Wednesday shuk was closing up in the dusty area beside the Great Mosque. We passed through, inspecting briefly the huge amounts of items for sale and their unique salesmen. With the mosque in the background the scene looked decidedly Arabian. Interestingly enough, the Great Mosque was originally a church built by the Crusaders – Ramla being the first Holy Land city conquered on their quest for Jerusalem. In 1266 Ramla was reconquered by the Mamluks and the church was converted into a mosque, but retaining some of its Frankish architectural characteristics such as the Gothic doorway.

Ramla’s Great Mosque

From the Great Mosque we made our way to the regular Ramla shuk where stalls and open-fronted  shops lined a long covered alleyway hawking goods, but largely fresh produce and food. Adam paused at one street food restaurant to get a quick Turkish borekas – a heavy filled pastry sliced open and filled with hardboiled egg and served with a spicy sauce.

Ramla city shuk

We then continued until we had seen the entirety of the shuk and found ourselves in search of a very small tourist attraction, a British Mandate post box painted bright red with the letters GR clearly visible (standing for Georgious Rex, or King George). Missing it, we ended up exploring a neglected, yet curious, area near Emile Zola street full of rubble, broken buildings, old churches, stray dogs and a barn swallow perched on an electrical line. Seeking help from the locals, we were directed to the post box and, upon having set our gaze upon it, we left the shuk area.

Within the Ramla Museum

Next up was the Ramla Museum located inside of an old British administrative building. Inside we found an orderly description of the city’s chronology as well as an exhibition of old coins found in and around the city. Ending at the museum just minutes before closing time we decided to walk a bit along the main street of Ramla in hopes of chancing upon something interesting.

Hoard of gold coins

We passed the Tegart fort police station and a few churches, including the Franciscan Terra Sancta church which was built in 1902 after hundreds of years of Franciscan presence in the city – in fact, stemming from the purges of the local populace due to the Black Plague in 1347. With that we agreed that our adventure was to come to an end, but not without murmurs of yet another adventure ere long.

Open House Tel Aviv

In Central Israel, Israel on June 4, 2017 at 10:39 AM

Some Fridays ago my friend Adam and I took part in the annual Open House event in the sprawling metropolis of Tel Aviv. The concept of Open House is to make available houses and buildings that are generally closed to the public, and I knew I had to seize the opportunity. And so, I mapped out a feasible day-trip incorporating a handful of interesting sites all located in the Yafo (Jaffa) area, more or less. Leaving Givat Shmuel early in the morning, we arrived by bus at Jaffa Port for the first item on our list – a guided tour of the port. Having arrived early we were free to explore the area before the tour began, so we watched a night heron fiddle with a fish he had caught while a jealous little egret and an opportunistic hooded crow attempted to steal his catch.

Night heron with fish

After some exploring, we joined the tour gathered together beside Hangar 2 and we began the day in its official capacity. The guide proceeded to give us explanations of the port, its location and its historical importance – being one of the oldest cities in the world. Unfortunately, I had already visited and researched Jaffa Port, as seen HERE, so there wasn’t too much insight for me.

Jaffa Port

But I still found great interest in wooden downers built on the flat-faced seaside buildings, something that makes me think of 18th century Commonwealth towns and pirates. Also, when peering over the edge of the seawall I managed to get a nasty fishing hook embedded in the sole of my shoe – which was removed by the deft hand of Adam. The final thing that intrigued me was the old British national height point, from which they measured elevation for the rest of the country when engaging in cartography and other sciences involving such specifications.

Tour at the port

Leaving the tour shortly before it ended, Adam and I headed for a nearby street in the neighbourhood of Ajami to catch a bus to a location somewhat further south within Yafo. We were headed for the French Ambassador’s Residence, however, when we approached the walled villa we were dismayed to see that there was a ridiculously long line waiting to gain entrance. The patrolling gendarmerie did not seem to wish to slip us inside so we gave up and headed for the next site on our list – even further south within Yafo.

Overlooking the Mediterranean

Disembarking from the bus we popped into a curious Arab mini-market with an array of interesting imported products, such as Fayrouz Pineapple, a non-alcoholic fruit beer from Saudi Arabia and Sultan Cola from Austria, with a special halal certification mark on the bottle. Continuing along, we arrived at the old house of General Yitzhak Sadeh, the old commander of the Palmach and one of the founders of the IDF.

The Sadeh living room

There was a small crowd forming outside the house’s gate and after some drama the homeowners flung open the gate and gave us a special tour of the house and grounds. We began with an introductory speech by son Yoram Sadeh in the front garden and then moved inside to see select rooms in the carefully preserved house. Outside again we toured the cliff garden overlooking the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, and visited Gen Sadeh’s old wartime caravan which served as his mobile headquarters.

General Sadeh’s mobile HQ

Bidding farewell to the Sadehs, we headed back for the bus and made our way back to the northern part of Yafo where there were still several locations to visit. First up was the Saraya, the Ottoman house of government – of which there are several scattered throughout the Holy Land. The Saraya was built in 1880, blown up by Lehi operatives in 1948, restored and now open to the public thanks to Turkish government who reclaimed ownership in recent years. It was enjoyable to sit in the luxuriously appointed great room with the Turkish flag hanging limply beside the wall.

Saraya great room

Leaving the Saraya we paused to admire the famous clocktower (of which there are several scattered throughout the Holy Land), the main post office (built in 1934) and then found a nice Tripolitan restaurant by the name of Gueta where we had delicious plates of savoury Libyan food for lunch. Sated and ready for more adventure, we then headed for the next sites in the American-German Colony. First up was the Maine Friendship House, one of the original pre-fab wooden houses brought over from Maine in 1866 by a group of Christian would-be colonist settlers.

Jean Holmes of the Maine Friendship House

Heading first downstairs, we watched a short video about the trials and tribulations that this group had once disembarking off the Nellie Chapin on the coast of Tel Aviv. What was left of the American colony was eventually sold to a wave of German Templers who added new houses and public buildings to create the German colony. The British deported most of the German colonists with the events of the First and Second World Wars and the colony fell to disrepair. The house we were visiting was purchased, restored and renamed by Jean Holmes and her late husband, Dr Reed. It was Jean herself who took us on the tour of the house and gave us a glimpse of a history that few know.

Jaffa German Colony as seen inside the Immanuel House

From the Maine Friendship House we walked across the street to examine the archives room in the Immanuel House, a building that was once a luxury hotel, a hospital and now a missionary guest house. From there we passed the neo-gothic Immanuel Church and other historical buildings from the American and German colony periods.

House in the American-German Colony

Despite being in the heart of the city, these few streets were charmingly hushed and seemingly detached from the urban symphony of the big city. Leaving the area we boarded a bus to take us back to Givat Shmuel, bringing an end to our Open House adventure.

University Trip: “Moshavot” of the Mercaz

In Central Israel, Israel on May 28, 2017 at 10:42 AM

Several weeks ago, after visiting the desert city of Qumran near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, I joined a Bar Ilan University Archaeology trip to a handful of cities near the campus. We set out to visit remains of the “Moshavot” (early settlements) from the First and Second Aliyahs, when Jews began to immigrate to the Holy Land en masse. Our first stop of these settlements in the Mercaz (or centre of the country) was Rishon L’Tzion, a city founded with the financial help of Baron de Rothschild, in 1882 – today Israel’s fourth-largest city. Parking at the old Carmel Winery building of fantastic red brickwork, we continued on foot though the city park until we reached the old well where we stopped to speak about Rishon’s history.

Rishon’s Old Well

As the lecturer talked, I popped off to explore the peripheral – the middle of the main street, Rothschild, where stalls were set up to create a quaint market of sorts, and the Village Well museum. But there was little time for museums, and before I knew it we were walking along Rothschild examining the original elements of the settlement from the late 1800s. First the community hall, then two old houses and then an interesting element of shutter design: little heads that protrude from the exterior wall to fasten wooden shutters. Ever since this tour, I’ve taken notice to these same shutter clasps in other places (such as the Ottoman mansion in Nitzan, built in 1917) but with different faces each time.

Anthropomorphic shutter clasp

Walking eastward we passed the city’s archives, a cute replica of a street vendor’s booth selling refreshments, the Rishon L’Tzion Museum and at the end of the street, the Great Synagogue with its stained glass windows. Turning right, heading south, we passed a very interesting building marked “Hotel & Pension ‘London'” and the country’s first Hebrew school. Pausing just briefly here and there, we then examined a standard-looking apartment building with a clever aspect hidden in plain sight. On the metal bars of each apartment’s sliding door/window are music notes, which, read correctly as from a music sheet, sound out a segment of Israel’s anthem “HaTikva”.

”HaTikva” apartment building

From there we continued onwards passing Baron Rothschild’s old administrative centre, an old house awaiting preservation and then back to the red-brick Carmel Winery where our black minibus picked us up. We were done with Rishon and had our eyes set on the next “Moshava” city, Ness Ziona. Just south of Rishon L’Tzion, Ness Ziona was founded in 1883 by a single man by the name of Reuven Lehrer and his dream to start a new settlement on land that he had purchased from a German Templer. He founded a homestead along a small stream, a tributary of Nachal Soreq, and advertised for people to join him. One of those who accepted his request was the ancestor of our local guide, On Boxer, and it was in Nachalat Reuven that On told us the history of early Ness Ziona. One thing that I found particularly interesting was the fact that due to the development of beekeeping, Ness Ziona became the country’s leader in honey production at the time.

Nachalat Reuven well and installations

Leaving the fenced Nachalat Reuven and its mulberry trees, On took us to other sites of interest just a few minutes walk away – the Co-operative House, Rueven Lehrer’s house and the site where the first modern Jewish flag was raised in 1891. And then, because the clock was ever ticking and we had much more to see, we thanked and bid farewell to our local guide and boarded our minibus for the next site, Rehovot. Founded in 1890, Rehovot is home to the Weizmann Institute of Science which I had the pleasure of exploring back in 2014. As we were pressed for time, we did not stop in Rehovot, but rather the lecturer told us something about the city’s past as we drove down on one the streets parallel to Herzl, the main drag. With that we zipped over to the final destination of this Friday tour of early “moshavot”, Mazkeret Batya. Founded in 1883 on land purchased by Baron Rothschild, the settlement was renamed to Mazkeret Batya (translated to Batya Memorial) to honour the deceased mother of the Baron.

Moshava Museum

We drove up the cobbled street and disembarked outside the Moshava Museum, where we were to begin our tour of the quaint town. The museum is housed in one of the first buildings constructed in the settlement, with interesting accessories outside including a bright red British phonebooth, rickety metal dovecote and a what looks to be a cypress tree that has since become a roosting site for a great number of cattle egret. Inside the museum we met our local guide Yonina, and it was there that began to inform us all that we needed to know about the early settlement and life back then. From the museum we went across the street and visited various houses and workshops built by the early settlers. Highlights included an exhibition of French ceramic roof tiles, interesting wall insulation and the healthy growth of wild fennel outside an old cowshed.

Great Synagogue of Mazkeret Batya

We ended our tour outside the Great Synagogue with a story about the early Jewish settlers and their interactions with their Arab neighbours, with the revelation that notorious Hamas terrorist Mohammed Deif is a descendant of those same Arab neighbours. With that cheery tale we thanked Yonina and awaited our minibus to take us back to BIU.

BIU Campus Birding Tour

In Central Israel, Israel on February 5, 2017 at 9:06 AM

The week before last, Bar Ilan University’s campus chapter of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) offered a free birding tour. Naturally, I went along, and experienced the unexpected, much to my satisfaction. Being that BIU’s campus is situated in a very urban area, tucked between Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and more, I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than what I see on a semi-frequent basis walking around. In due time we were introduced to our birder tour guide, Shuki Cheled, and we set off to explore the campus, with its overcast skies.

Birding outside the Psychology building

Birding outside the Psychology building

While some of us were equipped with cameras and binoculars, Shuki used just his eyes and ears to identify birds in the vicinity. At first pickings were poor, with common and invasive species such as hooded crows, laughing doves, house sparrows and common mynas. But then, a few stonechats were spotted, posing as they do, and then an uncharacteristically-bold hoopoe – Israel’s national bird.

Hoopoe & Chaffinch

Hoopoe & Chaffinch

Pausing at the Brain Research Centre, we spotted an unusual species perched on a rock some ten or so metres away. Shuki seized binoculars and I ventured into risky digital zoom to discover what was determined to be a dunnock (or hedge warbler, as I’ve heard from my Hula Valley Birding Tour experience). Flitting restlessly overhead was a chiffchaff, a tiny bird weighing only about seven grams (or .30 oz). I was able to catch him taking a tiny break on the trunk of a palm tree:

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Entering the Dahan park, with its fruit trees and flowing water, we were greeted by a number of bird species. Highlights included chaffinches, greenfinches, monk parakeets and small flocks of starlings – a seemingly simple bird, but with stunning plumage up-close. While the group exchanged birding thoughts and observations I nipped over to an orange tree and picked a juicy orb, which turned out being exceedingly tart.

Monk parakeets

Monk parakeets

With the tour reaching its hour-long time limit, the official tour ended and only a few stayed on with Shuki, including your truly. But first, an amazing photo capturing a wide range of activities and emotions by Faith Baginsky.

Hark! (photo Faith Baginsky)

Hark! (photo Faith Baginsky)

We next paused at the gravelly parking area in the Engineering and Technology regions, spotting a group of jackdaws (which I automatically assumed were “boring” hooded crows). Next, taking a few steps forward, I flushed out a whole bunch of stone curlews who were standing mere metres away yet completely camouflaged. Here I caught one trying to hide behind a lamppost:

Stone curlew

Stone curlew

Continuing along the campus road, we saw a whole assortment of birds I would have never noticed beforehand, despite the fact that I consider myself an amateur birder. Standing behind some tall bushes we were able to watch chaffinches (the males have really nice plumage) and hoopoes from an eye-level vantage point. Then, as the tour continuation was coming to an end we saw what seemed to be Spanish sparrows and then another invasive species from India, the vinous-breasted starling, far less prevalent than its cousin, the common myna. I was able to procure this stellar photograph of the starling perched on a barbed wire fence by fellow tour participant Ami Vardi.

Vinous-breasted starling (photo Ami Vardi)

Vinous-breasted starling (photo Ami Vardi)

The overcast skies had darkened and the first drops of rain began to fall upon us, threatening our birding equipment. Content with the twenty-something species we’d seen and identified, I bid farewell to the remaining members and set off to my next activity of the day, bottling my latest batch of beer, IPAeus I.

video

Shortly after the writing of this blog, a video of our birding tour was publicised by the Bar Ilan University Spokesman office, just click on the photo above or see the video HERE.

 

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!

Har HaTayassim & Latrun

In Central Israel, Israel on September 4, 2016 at 3:40 PM

Several months ago we celebrated Israeli Independence Day, a commemoration of the Declaration of Independence on May 14th, 1948. Two days prior to that we took a Mechina (a university preparatory program that I was attending) trip to Har HaTayassim, a memorial site located just outside of Jerusalem.

Plane crash memorial

Plane crash memorial

In the days predating the Declaration of, and subsequent War for, Independence, a tragic story happened over the Judean Hills. Unfortunately, even though our tour was guided, there were far too many attendees and thus I found it difficult to absorb all the information that was given. We walked along a dirt trail from stop to stop, accompanied by families of the fallen airmen, active-duty IAF personnel including pilots and other interested groups of individuals. We did chance upon these interesting ruins, of which I know absolutely nothing.

Ruins in the area of Har HaTayassim

Ruins in the area of Har HaTayassim

After passing a lovely lookout over the gentle, and nicely wooded, Judean foothills we reached a clearing and gather under a large tree. An elderly man, who turned out to be an old Palmach fighter, spoke of his experience in the years before and during the War for Independence.

Crowding around to hear an old Palmachnik speak

Crowding around to hear an old Palmachnik speak

From there we departed and continued to the site of the memorial (pictured above), nestled in a small lot between houses. There we heard the story from family members of one of the fallen airmen, one of the women running the Mechina among them.

Splayed cannon with flag

Splayed cannon with flag

The next day we went to Latrun in the afternoon – to Yad L’Shiryon, a memorial and museum of the Armoured Corps. In the grounds outside the museum’s gates was a multi-faceted military exhibition with weapons, vehicles, technological gadgetry and more on display, complete with uniformed soldiers to give explanations and wow children. Entering the museum, I walked up and down the rows of armoured vehicles seeing specimens such as the Renault R-35, Marmon-Harrington Mk IVF, M48A3 Patton and, of course, the Israel Merkava tanks. Looping around the perimetre, I approached the impressive Tegart fort which crowns the hilltop and climbed the stairs to the top.

View of the exhibitions from atop the Tegart fort

View of the exhibitions from atop the Tegart fort

Leaving the fort, I encountered the memorial wall with the names of all the fallen Armoured Corps soldiers. I spent a few minutes there out of respect and then turned to leave. Passing a tour group it suddenly dawned on me that the names of the soldiers who were killed in the mortar attack on our field camp during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 were probably on that wall (for the war story see HERE). I scoured the most recent names and my eyes fell upon their names listed one after the next; Meidan, Niran and Adi. A grim feeling set in which lasted the rest of the day, bringing personal meaning to the bitter purpose of Yom HaZikaron which was to start at sundown. We slowly made our way to the outdoor theatre where the large memorial ceremony was to take place and found seats next to the booths where live translations were to be given in a multitude of languages.

The ceremony begins

The ceremony begins

The evening began with a military honour guard mounting the stage in preparation for the Yom HaZikaron siren. Next, the mother of Ezra Schwartz (a American teenage volunteer who was killed by a terrorist) went up and lit the memorial torch.

Torch lighting

Torch lighting

Following that, politician and chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky gave a short speech about being a gulag prisoner in Siberia and finding hope in the story of Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the Israeli Prime Minister who was killed in a commando raid in Entebbe, Uganda. The current number of fallen IDF soldiers was then announced – 23,447. Wreathes were then laid by various dignitaries and guests and then the Yizkor prayer was said.

''Lu Yehi'' with the wreathes

”Lu Yehi” with the wreathes

The ceremony highlighted six individual stories of fallen soldiers (plus Ezra Schwartz) with speeches given by family members and then a song played by the band on stage. There was one particularly interesting story of a Sgt Yohan Zarbiv where the photo of him was the last one taken, his camera being mostly destroyed in an explosion several hours later while on duty in Lebanon. Another sad testimony was that of two brothers who both fell in battle, one in 1998 and one in 2010 – the emotionable song “Katonti” by Yonaton Razel was then played. The evening ended with a summary of the legacies of those who fell and the crowd then dispersed in relative silence, affected emotionally by the displays of bitter loss and mourning. Our group gathered around and returned to our bus for the ride back to the university, the end of a thought-provoking evening.