Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Coastal Plain’ Category

University Trip: Caesarea & Nachal Taninim

In Coastal Plain, Israel on July 10, 2016 at 6:57 AM

Two months or so ago I joined fellow archaeology students on a tour of Caesarea and the further ends of its iconic aqueduct. Boarding the bus at Bar Ilan University we drove up north to the national park and began our tour overlooking the surf in relatively comfortable morning weather. After a fantastic video (reminiscent of my favourite childhood computer game, Civilization III) summarised the historical successions of the ancient Roman city, we popped on over to the aqueduct remains on the coast.

Caesarea's iconic aqueduct by the sea

Caesarea’s iconic aqueduct by the sea

In one of my courses we spent a class or two learning about this particular aqueduct, of which there are actually three subsequent water systems – Roman construction by both Herod and Hadrian built side-by-side and then Crusader on top. Bringing water in from springs near Zichron Ya’akov, the aqueduct supplied the Roman city Herod built in the name of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, his sovereign leader.

Aqueduct feeds

Aqueduct feeds

Examining the varied constructions from an academic standpoint, we then walked along the beach to see the engraved plaque stones marking the building and dedication of the aqueduct. We then walked to the lesser known smaller aqueduct, built during the Byzantine times, which brought water from the marshes several kilometres north – a project that was abandoned before it finished.

Within the smaller, Byzantine aqueduct

Within the smaller, Byzantine aqueduct

We climbed up into the aqueduct and crouch-walked our way a bit through the water tunnel before continuing on southward towards the ancient city ruins of Caesarea. The walk was a bit of a doozy but along the way I found the base of an amphora washed up ashore, one of many pottery finds.

Amphora base and a footprint in the sand

Amphora base and a footprint in the sand

We stopped just before the northern city wall from the Roman era and listened to a brief lecture looking over the surf.

Lecture over the surf

Lecture over the surf

As we stood in the hot sun listening I noticed a few pied kingfishers hovering above the surf, a bird I love watching.

Pied kingfisher

Pied kingfisher

Once through the northern gate we passed ruins and a small sampling of a mosaic floor, one of many in Caesarea. Crossing the Crusader-era moat and sloped city wall, we shortly entered the heavily-commercialised city centre – transformed into a tourist trap with restaurants and shops. We took a break from walking and had lunch just outside of the Roman nymphaeum – a public fountain with its statue of a Roman goddess.

Crusader harbour from the higher Herodian port

Crusader harbour from the higher Herodian port

Walking over to the Crusader port, we passed temples and various administrative buildings and climbed the Roman citadel to look down on the ancient harbour, watching another fabulous animated film about the harbour area. In one of the local buildings we came across the exhibit for the gold coin trove that was discovered in the spring of 2015 by scuba divers underwater – the largest hoard of gold coins found yet in Israel.

Fatimid coins of pure gold found underwater

Fatimid coins of pure gold found underwater

Heading inland we watched some ongoing archaeological dig and restoration work of the Herodian harbour vaults while looking down at the Crusader citadel and neighbouring Bosnian mosque minaret. Continuing ever southwards we entered the Roman bathhouse complex and marveled at the marble pillars and extensive tiled floors.

Within the Roman bathhouse complex

Within the Roman bathhouse complex

Looping back a bit, we entered the long dirt-floored hippodrome, a Grecian stadium for horse races. Passing the Mithraeum and other public buildings we reached the far end of the hippodrome and ventured over to see the meagre remains of Herod’s palace, built jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea.

Meagre remains of Herod's seaside palace in Caesarea

Meagre remains of Herod’s seaside palace in Caesarea

From there we headed straight for the Roman theatre which, as wonderfully preserved and lovingly reconstructed as it is, continues to provide entertainment for the populus as a premier location for concerts. I took the liberty of snapping a photograph of myself sitting on the stage.

Caesarea's Roman theatre and I

Caesarea’s Roman theatre and I

Despite the length of our tour thus far, we were nowhere near finished. Boarding the bus we were then driven to Nachal Taninim, the marsh area which supplied the water for the smaller of the two aqueducts entering Caesarea from the north.

Manmade water channel carved out of the bedrock

Manmade water channel carved out of the bedrock

The name Nachal Taninim, which literally means Stream of Crocodiles, originates from the now-extinct population of crocodiles that lived in the stream and marsh’s brackish water. Thought to have been originally imported for entertainment by the Romans from nearby Egypt, the last crocodile was killed by the British approximately 100 years ago. In the 300s CE, a city was established on the banks of the stream under the name Crocodopolis – my favourite ancient city name.

Byzantine waterworks at Nachal Taninim

Byzantine waterworks at Nachal Taninim

The Byzantines took the large marshy area and built dams and a regulatory system to control water flow, in efforts to power mills. A park ranger took us to the dam and showed us how the reconstructed waterworks was used in ancient times – the simple power of water always amazes. We spotted crabs and frogs in the water, and several waterbirds as well, as we made our rounds through the national park. From Nachal Taninim we boarded the bus to see one last sight, the Roman aqueduct bend at Beit Hanina which includes a dedication plaque etched into stone.

Dedication words and mark of the Tenth Legion

Dedication words and mark of the Tenth Legion

We finished up the long day-trip with a wall along the top of the aqueduct, admiring the clay piping laid into the rock. From there the aqueduct continues into the modern Arab village of Jisr al-Zarka and then along the coast where we started the day.

The bend in the Herodian aqueduct

The bend in the Herodian aqueduct

We headed back to BIU sunburnt but having had a wonderful time exploring the much-discussed ruins with the professors, looking forward to the next trip.

Zichron Ya’akov

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

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

The Baron's watchful eye

The Baron’s watchful eye

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

Ohel Ya'akov synagogue

Ohel Ya’akov synagogue

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

Zichron Ya'akov's ''Midrachov''

Zichron Ya’akov’s ”Midrachov”

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

Benjamin's Pool

Benjamin’s Pool

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

The Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Atlit

The Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Atlit

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

The Monegam approaching the shore

The Monegam approaching the shore

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

The Aaronsohn House #2

The Aaronsohn House #2

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

Inside the Aaronsohn House

Inside the Aaronsohn House

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

Graves of Sarah Aaronsohn and mother Malka

Graves of Sarah Aaronsohn and mother Malka

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

Mizgaga Museum

In Coastal Plain, Israel on February 19, 2015 at 6:00 AM

This past Sunday I had to attend a little meeting at my home base just south of Haifa and then I had the day off. My father drove me down and we planned a series of little trips for the day – but we ended up going places altogether unplanned. Our first stop was the Mizgaga Museum in Kibbutz Nahsholim between Atlit and Caesarea. I had already been to neighbouring Tel Dor but didn’t visit the distinct “glasshouse “museum, despite seeing it, simply because I didn’t know it was a museum. This time I was better prepared.

Mizgaga Museum

Mizgaga Museum

The Mizgaga Museum is located in the old bottle-making factory built by Baron Rothschild in 1891 to supply the fledgling wine business started in nearby Zichron Ya’akov and Rishon L’Tzion. With a handful of Jewish workers, a French glass specialist and Meir Dizengoff (Tel Aviv‘s first mayor) as manager, the factory set out to produce glass bottles made from the sand just metres away at Dor’s beach. Due to several complications, the largest being technical difficulties which was attributed to this particular sand not producing a clear enough glass, the factory was shut down and abandoned in 1895. Baron Rothschild had sunk some 50,000 francs into this factory not only in building costs (which included imported French roof tiles), but also payments to the Ottoman Empire officials and to the local sheikhs of Tantura as well as the hiring of guards and a salary for the boat captain to transport the finished bottles once filled with wine.

Baron Rothschild's investment

Baron Rothschild’s investment

But his money did not go completely to waste. The abandoned factory was fixed up and turned into a museum as it is today, showcasing the history of the factory, glassworks in general and a nice collection of historical artefacts found in the area – both on land and at sea. Parking just outside at a resort, we walked through the small garden to the museum entrance, pausing to examine various stone anchors, a Roman milestone marker and a sarcophagus outside. Once inside, we were led to a video about the museum and about the Baron’s dreams of creating a prosperous land for his Jewish brethren. In that very room is the sole remaining (verified) glass bottle produced by the factory which was found in wastewater not far away.

The only surviving bottle

The only surviving bottle

Due to the theme being glass, a brief history of glass and glassblowing was exhibited – I learned that glass was only mentioned once in the Bible (Job 28:17) due to its rarity and value.

Glassworks exhibit

Glassworks exhibit

As we left the impressive stone vaulted rooms dealing with glass, we entered the realm of history – we started with “Napoleon at Dor”. To briefly summarise the local history, Dor (now Tel Dor) was for a long time a very important coastal city until the need for deeper ports made the city defunct. The nearby port cities of Atlit and Caesarea, with their better natural harbors, became more important and eventually Dor was abandoned. With a rich history of Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Sidonians and later Crusaders, the ancient city of Dor experienced many centuries of quiet until 1799 when Napoleon made camp there.

Mustachioed dolphins mosaic

Mustachioed dolphins mosaic

Local Arabs had created a fishing village just south of the ruins of Dor, under the name Tantura (which is believed to be an Arabic corruption of the Greek Dora), and they appeared sympathetic to the French army. Having battled his way up the coast from Egypt and conquering Gaza, Jaffa and Haifa, Napoleon reached failure at Akko after an ineffective siege of the strongly fortified coastal city held by the Turks and resupplied by the British. Fleeing south with his army, Napoleon made his final camp at Dor/Tantura before ditching cannons and muskets into the sea to lighten his army’s load on their final stretch back to Egypt. In the room dedicated to Dor’s Napoleonic period, there is a cannon, a mortar and light weaponry on display.

''Napoleon at Dor''

”Napoleon at Dor”

The cannon was Turkish in origin, captured at Jaffa and the mortar was Spanish, made in Seville in 1793 from Peruvian copper, captured from one of the wars with Spain. The next room we visited was “Christian Dor”, largely focusing on Dor’s Crusader period. Home to the Merle Castle, belonging at first to the noble French De Merle family, Dor was one of many Crusader strongholds along the coast. In the late 1100s, the castle was handed over to the Templar Knights after being briefly captured by Saladin and his army. Although there is no record of it, it’s assumed that the Crusaders evacuated Merle around the same time they evacuated Atlit, the last Frankish capital in the Holy Land. While Merle Castle has been reduced to a few broken stones, many artefacts from the Christian periods have been found including part of an ivory sceptre once belonging to a bishop, knights’ swords and more.

Cheery Crusader artwork

Cheery Crusader artwork

The next room was about underwater excavations and salvages, showcasing a dive operation in 1982 of a Byzantine shipwreck. With a video of underwater footage and some of the finds displayed in the room, it made this field of expertise quite fun looking. Being that this wooden ship was a mere 3.5 metres offshore and at only 2.5 metres deep, I wonder how many more similar shipwrecks there are to be found. I just saw in the news that the largest hoard of gold coins discovered in Israel was just found underwater near Caesarea – sign me up! Continuing on with the museum exhibitions, we came upon a room of excavated artefacts including a collection of clay vessels from a variety of locations: Chios, Athens, Kos, Cyprus and more.

Collection of Mediterranean pottery

Collection of Mediterranean pottery

What we saw next came to me as a bit of a surprise… a room dedicated to the famous Biblical colour of “techelet” – a specific shade of blue. Although there are Jews nowadays who wear “techelet” in their “tzitzit”, the secret production process was lost generations ago and the ancient colouring disappeared from the world markets.

Tzitzit and techelet

Tzitzit and techelet

Today it is generally agreed upon that the colour comes from the Murex trunculus snail, which produces a clear secretion with the addition of oxygen turns purple-red which can then be turned blue with sun exposure. I’ve also read that wool that has been treated with an alkaline substance can be dyed blue with the chemical bonding of the snail secretion and additional oxygenation. I’m sure that the workshops held there at the museum can shed further light on this most interesting topic, especially as the sea snail can be found just offshore. Heading out of the museum, we took a minute to peer up at the expansive factory’s untouched upper floor where the furnaces for glass-making were held. Just behind the building is an ancient burial cave, and, after seeing it, my father suggested we head over to the beach. With overcast weather nearly identical to the day I first visited Tel Dor, I was disappointed from a photographic aspect. We walked along low tide’s lapping waves, looking down at the shells and sea glass that had washed ashore. We climbed up on a rough outcropping and marveled at the unique physical makeup of the reef-like rock.

Intricate coastal stone

Intricate coastal stone

We looked around at the small fishing boats and the small islands, which are actually a protected “park” area, and then noticed an old arched structure further along the beach heading south.

Fishing boat off the coast

Fishing boat off the coast

What we found was the remains of the Arab khan (caravanserai) for travelers built several hundred years ago. With that we headed back to the car, leaving behind the modern Dor and Nahsholim with their Greek and Turkish Jewish immigrants and their industries of banana, avocado, cotton and fish farming. We were headed for Zichron Ya’akov, founded by the very same Baron Rothschild who built the Mizgaga.

Tishbi Winery

In Coastal Plain, Israel on September 7, 2014 at 3:49 AM

A few weeks back I went on a private wine tour, visiting four different wineries, with my friends Joel and Les from Australia. Taking an early morning train, I met up with them in Tel Aviv and we started the day with coffee and breakfast at the hotel. After being picked up from the hotel by our tour guide Yakov Feder from Israel Wine Journeys, our first stop was the Tishbi Winery located between Zichron Yaakov and Binyamina just south of the Mount Carmel.

Tishbi Winery visitor centre

Tishbi Winery visitor centre

The Tishbi Winery is the largest and most commercialised of the four wineries we toured – the sixth largest in the country – and their history is by far the richest. With the founding family’s move in 1882 from Lithuania to Zichron Yaakov, the family patriarch Michael was commissioned by the Baron Rothschild to produce wine. Fast-forward to 2014 and the Tishbi family is still hands-on in the wine industry, running their Tishbi Winery since it opened in 1984.

Wines and chocolates

Wines and chocolates

We entered the winery’s visitor centre and sat down at the bar, our tour guide arranging the wine and chocolate tasting tour for us. Omer was our server and he prepared six Valrhona chocolates to compliment the six red wines we’d be tasting. First we opened up with the Pinot Noir and the Organic Syrah, trying dark chocolate samples with each glass. Next we had the Merlot and the Ruby Cabernet, one of these came with an interesting chocolate from Madagascar. In retrospect, if I remember correctly, the chocolates went from west to east as we tried them (from South America to Oceania).

Omer pouring us a taster

Omer pouring us a taster

Up next was the Ruby Cabernet and then, finishing with the Estate collection, my favourite, the Barbera Zinfandel. Tishbi’s version of port, this wine was sweet with a fortification of brandy, bringing the alcohol up to 18%. Aged in oak barrels for 18 months, this particular vintage was 2006 – the oldest wine of the tour, I believe.

The winery's cheese counter

The winery’s cheese counter

A little about the Valrhona chocolates we tasted, the original Chocolaterie du Vivarais was opened in 1922 in France and to this day, imports cocoa beans from the world over to produce its chocolates. Similar to Valrhona but on a smaller scale, Tishbi uses grapes from all over Israel to make their wines – from the Negev to the Golan. When we finished our six chocolates and six wines, I tried a white chocolate and then we headed over to the adjacent winery restaurant for a gourmet cheese platter.

The cheese platter

The cheese platter

Not one to revel in fancy cheeses, I tried just the soft cheese in the centre of the platter, spreading it onto the artisan bread baked on-site. After the cheese platter lunch we got back into our tour guide’s car and drove to the Jezreel Valley to visit the next winery: Jezreel Valley Winery

Army Trip: Mount Carmel & Shefayim Waterpark

In Coastal Plain, Haifa, Israel on September 2, 2014 at 5:04 AM

Back in June, the day after Shavuot our entire battalion went on a little trip, visiting two places: Mount Carmel and the Shefayim waterpark. Loading up on buses in the morning, we drove up the mountain not far from the base and parked at the first site, the memorial for the Carmel Fire – the enormous forest fire in 2010 that claimed 44 lives.

Carmel Fire Memorial

Carmel Fire Memorial

The greatest Israeli natural disaster in modern times, the Carmel Fire spread at an alarming rate and as various security forces and firefighters converged on the site, one Prison Service bus got caught in the blaze and 37 cadets and commanders were tragically killed. The fire spread over the next few days and destroyed all in its path. More than 17,000 people were evacuated and nearly 10,000 acres of forest was burnt. The blaze even came close to my base, at the western foot of Mount Carmel. In this aerial photo I found on Wikipedia, my base is obscured by the fire’s smoke (also visible from space and additionally photographed by NASA):

The smoke from the fire in 2010

The smoke from the fire in 2010

We all gathered at the memorial and the battalion commanders spoke, outlining the plan of the day and informing us that several SPNI guides were to be taking the Mount Carmel hike with us (SPNI – Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel). After respecting the dead and photographing the memorial site, we head out on our mountainous hike – each company starting a few minutes after the previous one. Not much of a herd follower, I meandered around and took my time, the groups passing me by.

Misty mountain scenery

Misty mountain scenery

What I had imagined would be a simple, rather symbolic, hike was actually a legitimate mountain hike with craggy footholds and sheer cliff edges. One thing that I found interesting was the fact that many of the blackened trees stand exactly as they had several years back. We walked and walked, and then I came upon one of the SPNI guides giving some background on the region’s fauna. When that came to end, I hurried on ahead and climbed the trail’s rocky path, passing too many littered water bottles.

Up we go!

Up we go!

Eventually, with the howling masses at my heels, I finished the hike sweaty and invigorated. I enjoyed a quick snack and then ditched my M16 with the special vehicle and crew tasked with the job. Sitting beside a friend, we set off for our next destination, the Shefayim Waterpark. As this was my first waterpark, I was excited to have the new experience but rather apprehensive at having the experience with an entire battalion. Within an hour we pulled up at the waterpark, just north of Herzaliya, and we disembarked. Slipping into something a little more comfortable, we had lunch and then headed for the water. With so many choices, but so many lines, I first plunged into the main swimming pool. Then a different pool, and then an interesting tube ride. It was on that tube ride that we capsised at the end and lost track of our other friend.

Shefayim waterpark

Shefayim waterpark

Waterparks being waterparks, I don’t know what more to say – rumour is that the army is taking us to yet another waterpark, thanking us for our hard work during Operation Protective Edge.

Cafarlet

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

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

Just a glimpse of the quarry remains

Just a glimpse of the quarry remains

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

Cafarlet from the eastern side

Cafarlet from the eastern side

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

A burial cave

A burial cave

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

Ancient tiled winepress

Ancient tiled winepress

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

Interesting castle construction

Interesting castle construction

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

Cafarlet's grand entrance

Cafarlet’s grand entrance

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

Rubble-filled chamber

Rubble-filled chamber

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

Beautiful but overcrowded interior

Beautiful but overcrowded interior

A closer look at the partially submerged walls:

Partially submerged walls

Partially submerged walls

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

Arched room

Arched room

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

A POV shot of Crusader danger

A POV shot of Crusader danger

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

Within another arched chamber

Within another arched chamber

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

The northwest corner

The northwest corner

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

Tel Dor

In Coastal Plain, Israel on March 30, 2014 at 3:35 AM

Following my visit to the Carmel Caves at the Nachal Me’arot National Park, I got on a bus heading south and ended up – quite accidentally – at Tel Dor. I had intended to find my way to Cafarlet, an impressive Crusader castle on the side of the Coastal Road (Road 4) but, alas, I overshot and found myself looking at the hilltop ruins of Tel Dor from across a picturesque little bay some 30 kilometres south of Haifa.

Tel Dor from across the bay

Tel Dor from across the bay

Set in such a beautiful place, nestled between tall coastal grass and the relatively calm Mediterranean Sea, the sun played a frustrating game of hide-and-seek as I toured the archaeological site. Climbing up the tel, I came upon the hilltop remains of the storehouses and public buildings which serviced the port, and the acropolis.

Tel Dor ruins

Tel Dor ruins

Continuing to the end of the small peninsula, I came upon the meagre remains of a small Crusader stronghold, the Merle Castle, built and owned by the de Merle family of French nobility. In 1187, Merle Castle was conquered by Saladin and by the end of the century, the Templars took command of the stronghold.

Merle Castle remains

Merle Castle remains

While the castle ruins are few and far between, there are fascinating rock-cuttings in the bedrock near sea level. Here, a chamber is carved into the porous rock, with several curious entry points:

A chamber cut into the rock

A chamber cut into the rock

And at the far end, where rock and water clash in the harbour area, there are numerous interesting cuttings made, some underwater even. Deep troughs, large squares and more gouged out of the rock, used perhaps by the Athenians as their important port city in the Levant.

Cut rock in the harbour area

Cut rock in the harbour area

After a little snack I turned back to the ruins, looking down at the remains of a large Roman temple which sat at the water’s edge. The Romans built up Dor, or Dora as they called the place (i.e. Doric columns), by Pompey’s lieutenant Gabinus, creating an autonomous port city similar to Gaza and Yafo (Joppa) in those times.

The Roman temple

The Roman temple

When rule was transferred over to King Herod some 2,050 years ago, Dor became overshadowed by neighbouring Caesarea whose harbour was deeper and thereby a better choice for a port. By then Dor became a less important regional city and, excluding the Crusader stronghold and the site of French emperor Napoleon’s camp after retreating from their 30-day siege on Akko in 1799, became a place of the past.

Cool little island flocked with seabirds

Shetafit Island flocked with seabirds

Walking along the coast, the ruins quite literally fallen into the water similar to the ruins of Ashkelon, I passed by the docks and the continuation of public buildings (such as a bathhouse). At the northern end of the site, climbing back up the tel, I retraced my steps and then walked south-east towards the scattered remains of the residential areas of Tel Dor.

Climbing back up the tel

Climbing back up the tel

Here is one section of residential area, perhaps from the Roman period:

Residential area

Residential area

Leaving the tel and pressing onwards, heading northbound for the Crusader fortress Cafarlet, or HaBonim. Walking through an abandoned basketball court adorned with graffiti I looked back at Tel Dor and noticed yet another residential area overgrown with vegetation.

Another residential area

Another residential area

Consulting Google Maps on my phone I attempted to navigate my way towards the railway tracks, and then the Coastal Road. However, after getting distracted by marsh-loving birds I found myself on the banks of a fish pond, a small lake. Wandering around the fish ponds and the semi-abandoned agricultural farms of Kibbutz Nachsholim, stopping to bond with some friendly donkeys, I eventually reached the railroad.

Walking through the reeds

Walking through the reeds

Climbing all over the rocky hill where the Coastal Road slices through towards Haifa, not entirely sure where I was to find the fortress, I kept walking and walking… Up next, Cafarlet.

Carmel Caves

In Coastal Plain, Israel on March 23, 2014 at 4:32 AM

Just two days after the day trip to the Upper Galilee with my sister, I arrived on base and was told that I can have the day off. A tad dismayed that I had to travel two hours to get the news, I decided to salvage the day by going on a little adventure along the coast between Atlit and Caesarea – close by and chock-full of interesting sites. The first place I decided to visit was the Carmel Caves, part of a national park I’ve been wanting to see for years and one that I’ve passed by literally hundreds of times. I got a ride from a friend to Atlit Junction and then took a bus the rest of the way. When I reached the Nachal Me’arot (River of Caves) park I could already see the raw cliff sides over the banana fields.

Cliff wall at Nachal Me'arot

Cliff wall at Nachal Me’arot

I entered the park and inquired as to the length of the cave route. To my surprise, the lady behind the counter told me it would take about 45 minutes in total, maximum. To the base of the cliff chunk I went, looking up at this distant section of Mount Carmel. Essentially a large triangle jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, Mount Carmel is a small mountain range containing several national parks including Nachal Me’arot which slices through the mountain. Climbing up the stairs to the caves, passing by a strange sign warning visitors not to linger on the steps, I reached the first cave, the Tanur Cave.

The tall Tanur Cave

The tall Tanur Cave

A tall, shallow cavern, the Tanur Cave has been excavated and marked off in levels of historical periods. Essentially a chimney cave (“tanur” meaning “oven” in Hebrew), early man settled within its confines to find shelter. The next cave, right beside the Tanur Cave, is the Gamal Cave. Named “camel” in Hebrew, this cave is bell-shaped and has been decorated with plastic cavemen and their few belongings. Outside the cave I noticed a rock with numerous fossils of invertebrates in a large chalky rock, alluding to the flooding presence of water in the region:

Fossils

Fossils

Continuing on along the cliff edge, I headed for the largest of the caves, the Nachal Cave. Here is looking back at the Gamal Cave:

Looking back at the Gamal Cave

Looking back at the Gamal Cave

Entering the Nachal Cave, a 70 metre (230 foot) long tunnel paved and lined with speleothems, better known as cave formation such as stalagmites and stalactites. An audio-only and then audio-visual show played within the cave and the colour theme for illuminating the cave was quite groovy. Here is a little section of cave wall lit up bright red:

Illuminated cave formations

Illuminated cave formations

At the far end of the cave, nearly cut off from the light of day, I sat down to watch the short projected film about the early humans living in the cave. The way they filmed the cavemen, the way the story unraveled reminded me of an interesting 80’s movie called Quest for Fire, a film adaptation of a Belgian novel about three cavemen who travel in search for fire. After the presentation I took this somewhat blurry photo of the way back through the cave – the groovy lights showing us the fascinating interior:

From within the Nachal Cave

From within the Nachal Cave

I think as far as caves in Israel go, my favourite is still the watery tunnel at Nachal Kziv. However, this cave delivered more in regards to stalagmites and stalactites. I have yet to see the Soreq Cave near Bet Guvrin… Upon leaving the Nachal Cave I crossed the dry stream-bed of which the park is named after and approached the opposite cliff wall – the “Finger” Cliff.

The ''Finger'' Cliff

The ”Finger” Cliff

The “Finger” Cliff, as well as some sections of the aforementioned cliff face, are made up of fossilised reefs. Looking up at this jagged rock column I noticed a small cave, visible in the above photo in the cliff wall to the right of the central tree. I climbed up the grippy rocks, similar to walking on the coastline, and entered the little cave. Here is looking out from inside the grotto:

Looking out from the small grotto

Looking out from the small grotto

Not wanting to go on any extended hiking trip at the moment, partly because I was wearing my uniform and partly because I had a day full of sites to visit, I left the park and then took a bus to my next destination, which quite honestly was an accidental find. Up next, the coastal ruins of Tel Dor.

Ashkelon

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 10, 2013 at 7:25 AM

Last week began with a drive down to Ashkelon where I spent four days in an FIDF-sponsored army resort with a handful of fellows from my base and a whole mob of Border Policemen, Armoured Corp and Intelligence soldiers and some from the Navy as well (blog post here). The resort is located at the southern end of Ashkelon, kind of close to the Gaza border, and pretty much borders the Ashkelon National Park (the subject of this blog post). Due to the fact that this R&R (Rest and Recreation) was held on an army-operated site, we weren’t allowed to wander off and explore. While waiting for the bus back home Thursday morning I recalled seeing the proximity of the park on a map and decided that, since I am so close, it would be a waste not to have a little adventure. And so I walked on over in my dress uniform and carrying my heavy backpack, bought a special soldier year-pass to all national parks and reserves for a nominal ₪50 (~$14) and headed on into the park.

Modern Ashkelon through the ruins of ancient Ashkelon

Modern Ashkelon through the ruins of ancient Ashkelon

An interesting piece of trivia I read was that scallions, cousins of the onions, were named after Ashkelon, perhaps they were initially farmed here. Back to the park, the first historical segment I came across was the Crusader moat wall built right next to the Canaanite gate, said to be the oldest gate in existence.

Crusader moat wall

Crusader moat wall

From along that wall, through the gate and onto the large sandy hill that was the northernmost section of ancient Ashkelon, a great view of the sea and modern Ashkelon – including the R&R centre – was to be seen:

Panoramic view of the sea and modern Ashkelon

Panoramic view of the sea and modern Ashkelon

Heading south to the main parking lot, I made my way by numerous outdoor water faucets which I presume are linked to the many natural wells located on-site. From the wells I descended to the beach and seeing that the real sites were further south, looped back and swung by the Basilica, built by the Romans.

Basilica pillars

Basilica pillars

And nearby the pillars of the Basilica further excavations have been done, revealing more as to the nature of the Roman site. The excavations were originally started in 1815 by Lady Hester Stanhope in search for an alleged gold hoard buried under a mosque but when their efforts bore no golden fruit they abandoned the site. Later, in 1921, real archaeology came to the area and the British made headway into ancient Ashkelon’s past – the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Crusaders and, of course, the Jews, all living in Ashkelon at one point or another.

Basilica excavations

Basilica excavations

After the Basilica I headed to the outer edge of the park to walk the aptly named “Wall Walk” – a trail along the old wall winding around towards the sea. The wall in question was built by the Fatimid Caliphate and only scattered pieces are intact today. Built on a natural sandy ridge, the wall walk is elevated over the park, providing excellent views. However, the walk itself was sun-baked and slow, each step in the thick sand a burden with my boots and heavy backpack on my shoulders.

Section of the outer wall

Section of the outer wall

At one point I stopped in the shade of a wall segment and watched some crows fight each other mid-air over scraps of food. With the lush park and the gentle sea as a backdrop, the aerial dogfights happening nearly eye-level yet so close. I imagined Leonardo Da Vinci would have greatly appreciated watching nature’s testament to the power of flight with me, had he been present. Towards the end of the walk, I photographed myself being your tour guide… showing you where north is:

At Ashkelon National Park

At Ashkelon National Park

Looking down at the sea, I spotted some people swimming down below frolicking amongst the ruins of ancient Ashkelon. As I took one of the photos a kestrel happened to have flown by, within the camera’s sights, but the bird was blurred so here is a regular photo:

The coast where chunks of ruins still lay today

The coast where chunks of ruins still lay today

I then made my way down to the water, where I was told one can see the ruins quite well. I was told correctly, ruins greeted me with every turn. How this park is not more famous beats me, one can even swim among the Roman ruins (similar to the famous underwater Greek ruins in Greece). Here a column and wall chunk have been partially buried in the sand:

A pillar and building chunk partially buried in the sand

A pillar and building chunk partially buried in the sand

Photos do not do this place justice, the ruins on the brink of the water, the ruins within the water, all is too much to be captured on film. Perhaps an aerial shot taken from a helicopter might better illustrate the true magnificence. The ruined city must be seen in person.

City ruins on the beach

City ruins on the beach

As I walked along the water, keeping close to the lapping waves where the sand is firmest, I found myself mesmerised by a tinkling sound. It was the sound of gentle waves nudging the mounds of pastel seashells, each shell softly clinking against the next.

The beach

The beach

Then I noticed a little crab scuttling about and seeing that he had small pinchers, too small to ward me off, I tried to catch him. I was unsuccessful in my attempts.

Fiesty little crab

Feisty little crab

I climbed the stairs out of the beach and headed for the exit, filling up my water bottle and drinking heavily. As I neared the gate a park worker asked me if I’ve been drinking enough water. I replied in the affirmative and he correctly guessed which base I hailed from. Continuing further, I exchanged some words at the park entrance (including my water consumption) and witnessed something unusual. A man in a small pickup approached and said he has a delivery, some eagles. I peered into the truck and saw some vicious talons and some patterned wing feathers emerging from a sack – interesting cargo, to say the least. With that I bid them farewell and headed off to the bus where I was to begin my 5+ hour journey back home.

Army Trip: R&R and Yom Sport

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 6, 2013 at 2:23 PM

This double-event blog post covers two separate trips taken one week after the next to the FIDF’s Rest and Recreation Centre in Ashkelon. The FIDF, which stands for Friends of the IDF (Israel Defence Force), is an organisation that pools donations together for the benefit of the Israeli soldiers. On every military base, and in every remote outpost, there are signs of the FIDF – be it a gym, mobile synagogue or “wellbeing centre.” That being said, this R&R centre in Ashkelon is another of FIDF’s endeavours to pad the rough edges of soldiering and I fully approve.

FIDF logo

FIDF logo

Part I – four days of R&R in the beach-side resort:

It started Sunday morning, a few weeks back, when a small group of eleven soldiers from my base gathered together and drove down to Ashkelon. Our group comprised of truck drivers like myself, a commander and an officer. We disembarked at the centre, ate lunch and settled into our rooms in the Jasmine bungalow.

Our Jasmine bungalow

Our Jasmine bungalow

Nestled between modern-day Ashkelon and the ruined ancient Ashkelon, a national park, the R&R centre hosts hundreds of soldiers every week (usually combat or combat-support soldiers, like my friends and I). We walked along the sun-baked paths and explored our new digs, marking out activities that we’d like to do throughout the week.

Off to the pool!

Off to the pool!

After dinner the fellas went to watch a movie in the auditorium while I, uncermoniously, went to bed early. The following day took us to the sauna and pool where we took turns roasting and drowning ourselves. There was an organised race set up and, not surprisingly, the winner was from Shayetet 3 (Flotilla 3) of the Israel Navy.

Swimming contest at the pool

Swimming contest at the pool

That night we found ourselves in the local “club” – an alcohol-free dance club with ear-piercing music thumping till 3am. There too an organised contest was held, this time dancing instead of swimming. A friend of mine participated, and while the judging was hotly contested, he was not deemed winner.

Dance contest

Dance contest

The next day some of the fellas went off to play tennis and I went off to find fellow Americans – of which there were a handful, mostly in some Foreign Affairs unit down south. As the Jewish world is incredibly small and interconnected I succeeded in finding someone who knew someone I did. Later that afternoon I sat on a sandy bench and watched the sun set over the warm Mediterranean Sea, a ship chugging away nearby.

Of ship and setting sun...

Of ship and setting sun…

Resting up well in the nights with the window open to the pleasant sea breeze and spending the days eating well, swimming, sauna-ing and enjoying the other activities on-site we burned up the week pretty quickly. The last night of R&R we all headed into the auditorium to enjoy a performance from one of Israel’s stand-up comedians, Kobi Maimon. There were some pretty funny jokes, to say the least.

Lunch with the fellas

Lunch with the fellas

The following morning, Thursday it was, we packed up our things, tidied up, had a nice breakfast and headed out. While waiting for the bus to the train, I recalled that the Ashkelon National Park was just a few minutes away. I hastily bid farewell to my friends and headed to the park, the subject of my next blog post.

Part II – Yom Sport for all three “Hovala” battalions:

After positive feedback from our small hand-picked group that enjoyed the week of R&R at the Ashkelon centre, it was decided to host the truck driving brigade’s Yom Sport (Sport Day) at the centre as well. The purpose of the day is to break the daily grind and to offer the soldiers a chance to bond and to catch up, as we don’t see much of each other in our job. The three bases, Knights of the North, Centre and South, were present, each wearing a different coloured t-shirt.

Knights of the Centre celebrating

Knights of the Centre celebrating

Sadly, I had forgotten my camera and so had to photo-document with my cell phone’s camera. From the over-bounding quantities of food to the noise of over a thousand happy people, mostly soldiers in active service, we got the day started with some opening words from the brigade commander, Colonel Gil Galron – a nice chap who originally was a naval officer. With that the day was launched into high gear, with numerous games to compete in and watch. One game that I observed was the Israeli-style dodge-ball competition between our base and the southern base. My captain participated and was, in fact, the last one standing from our team – we lost.

Dodge-ball

Dodge-ball

Later, there was enthusiastic self-propagated singing and dancing from some of my base’s ethnic groups and as the sun went down, two small concerts out on the main soccer field. The first was a finalist in a singing reality show, and I got a free CD, and the second was a heavy metal band who didn’t have quite the right crowd at hand. After belting out AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” to the joy of a select handful, they packed up their musical equipment and we all headed down to the buses, tired but grateful from a long Yom Sport at the Ashkelon R&R centre.

Note: the FIDF is a wonderful organisation doing wonders for the IDF, if you’d care to become a part and donate, details can be found on their website HERE. For more information on FIDF’s SPIRIT R&R Program, click HERE.