Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Galilee’ Category

Tel Kedesh Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on November 1, 2016 at 12:51 PM

Exactly two weeks ago, during Chol HaMoed of Sukkot, I took my brother Nissim to an archaeological dig at the nearby Tel Kedesh. Located on the Old Northern Road north of Tzfat in the Naftali Mountains of the Upper Galilee, Tel Kedesh is just approximately 700 metres from the Lebanese border. I had visited half of the site two-and-a-half years ago with my sister (blog post linked in the first sentence).

The view to the east

The view to the east

But this time I was to explore the half I hadn’t known about at that time, and to contribute to an excavation under the auspices of Dr Uri Davidovich, Ido Wachtel and Roi Sabar of the Hebrew University. This was to be my second archaeological dig, the previous one also under the behest of the Hebrew University at Khirbet Arai near the city of Kiryat Gat.

RTK surveyor under the bitter almond tree

RTK surveyor under the bitter almond tree

I had emailed the team in advance and so when we arrived on-site in the morning, they already knew that I was a student of Archaeology at Bar Ilan University. Our group of archaeologists, students and volunteers gathered in the Tel Kedesh park parking lot and received our briefing before taking the necessary equipment up to the dig site on the northern mound of the hill. On my second trip up, I stopped to watch Asaf Ben Haim uncover what looks to be a architrave and/or frieze of an important Roman building, located on the path to the dig site.

Asaf uncovering Roman ruins

Asaf uncovering Roman ruins

As I watched him tear up the dry earth I saw what looked to be a tarantula near his hand – but no, this was a camel spider, not a true spider but a true fright! Pelicans soars in unison overhead as the sun climbed, the site slowly being turned into an archaeological excavation. As it was the very first day of the dig, in a place never excavated before, there was a lot of surveying, plotting and photo-taking to be done. At last three “squares” were decided upon – one inside the ruins of a building and two adjacent to the eastern wall of that building. The leaning column and large ashlars (Roman-looking) made this site a good place to start.

Ruins amongst the dead vegetation

Ruins amongst the dead vegetation

To give a brief synopsis of Tel Kedesh’s history: Originally a fortified Canaanite city, the Israelites took it over and eventually made it a “City of Refuge” (alongside Shechem and Hevron on this side of the Jordan River). Later, the Assyrians captured and destroyed Kedesh along with other keys cities in the Galilee, perhaps most notably, Hazor. The Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, took up occupation renaming the city Cades. Excavations of a Hellenistic administrative building on the southern mound were done recently by the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. An Arab village named Kadas was established, built upon the Roman remains, and was abandoned in 1948. Remains of British rule include two pillboxes along the road to the west and a Tegart fort under the name Yusha or Metzudat Koach to the east. The Hebrew University archaeological team has its eyes set on Roman ruins so we had to clear away the dry/dead vegetation and fallen stones.

Clearing away the fallen rocks

Clearing away the fallen rocks

Whilst clearing vegetation I found a bone in the dirt and took it to be examined – it seems to be a scorched sheep knee bone. It was the first find of the day, stashed away in a bucket soon to be filled with more bones, lots of potsherds and even a Roman metal clothespin of sorts.

What appears to be a scorched sheep knee-bone

What appears to be a scorched sheep knee-bone

Even while at an archaeological dig I cannot help but be curious as to the flora and fauna to be seen. I spotted what looked to me like a good ten or so black kites wheeling overhead, the droppings of a porcupine (which I have yet to see in Israel), two clay capsules holding wasps in their late stages of development and my first sighting of a few Sardinian warblers popping in and out of the dry undergrowth.

A potter wasp Inside its development clay capsule

A potter wasp inside its development clay capsule

When lunch break came around I sat under a bitter almond tree and decided to have a taste. I don’t recall ever eating a bitter almond; the taste is just like amaretto albeit much more bitter, hence the name. Bitter almonds have forty-two times the amount of cyanide than the normal sweet variety which means that fifty or so bitter almonds can provide a lethal dose of cyanide poisoning.

Cracking open some bitter almonds

Cracking open some bitter almonds

After the lunch break I left the square of rock clearing and joined my brother under the field shade-tent in his square. He was wielding a small pick, clearing dirt and small rocks from alongside the base of a wall. I grasped a larger pick and we went to town on the earth and rocks of the square, clearing out a nice corner.

Nissim digging in his square

Nissim digging in his square

With the sun slowly slipping off to the western horizon the productive workday came to an end and after making our way back down the hill, we took a quick look at the ruins at the eastern mound.

Ruins of a Roman temple

Ruins of a Roman temple

Getting back into the car we drove back home, tired but happy to have been among the first to break ground on a new excavation site. If anything is ever found in that part of Tel Kedesh, we’ll be able to boast that we were there the very first day.

Alma Cave

In Galilee, Israel on October 9, 2016 at 5:46 AM

A year and a half ago, while home after my several military adventures in the Golan, I went on an “extreme” trip with my old army friend Nechemya. As we share an interest in caves, I had selected a certain cave to be the subject of our adventure – Alma Cave. Located just north of Tzfat (Safed) beside the Jewish community of Alma and opposite the Circassian village of Rehanyia, the cave is a short hike from the main road. Parking the car near some cow-sheds, we gathered up all our necessary gear in two backpacks and struck out for the trail.

Nechemya taking some pictures

Nechemya taking some pictures

With a general lack of trees in the area, it was relatively straightforward where we needed to go, especially with a satellite picture to guide us. Flanked by Hatzor Stream and the mountain ridge above it, we traversed a marshy seasonal stream and climbed to higher ground. What amazed me was the quantity of cow bones, mostly bleached white from sun exposure – however there was one particularly grotesque sheep carcass in early to mid stages of decomposition.

Humble exterior of Alma Cave

Humble exterior of Alma Cave

After the short walk we descended a bit to the large rocky karst patch of land where the cave’s mouth was hidden. Finding the slow descent into the opening cavern, we used the metal handles and fig branches to navigate downwards.

From within the first small cave

From within the first small cave

Passing a small side cave beautifully adorned with dry speleothems, we reached the cave’s impressive entrance cavern.

Sitting in the entrance cavern

Sitting in the entrance cavern

With the cave located on a geological line between the Dalton and Alma plateaus, the gathering water seeps down and erodes the soft rock, creating the labyrinth of cracks, fissures, tunnels and underground chambers.

Alma Cave's vertical survey

Alma Cave’s vertical survey

While we marveled at the size of the entrance hall, we had a quick bite to eat and prepped our gear. In addition to the mandatory headlamps, we brought helmets, an emergency flashlight and extra batteries as well as a whole bunch of climbing rope in case we needed to rappel deeper into the bowels of the cave.

Ready to descend

Ready to descend

But, perhaps most excitingly, Nechemya brought a GoPro camera and affixed it to the top of his helmet to properly document the spelunking. Zipped up warm and ready to go, we used the metal handles planted in the rocks to drop down into the cave’s dark continuation. We turned around in the darkness, illuminating an underground world with our headlamps. Following the white reflective markers, we began the approximate 500 metre journey to the bottom of the cave. The deeper we got, the damper it got and we were dripped on by the cave’s mineral-rich water deposits.

A cave drop

A cave drop

Sticking to the marked route, we passed many side chambers and tunnels which filled us with intrigue. Legends run wild with Alma Cave –  stories of hundreds of thousands of graves, an endless interior and more – in fact, the cave is also known as the Babylonian Cave and the Abyss Cave.

Cave growths

Cave growths

Plunging even deeper into the ground, the rocks we stepped on were found to be slick with mud, hazardous in their own right. After an hour or so of descent we finally reached the blue sign marking the end of the line, but we were not going to let that stop us. We slid down a wet slope, beside a rather large cave growth, and found the little underground spring of crystal-clear water.

Underground spring

Underground spring

At this point we were some 105 metres (345 feet) below the surface but we saw that there was still room to go further. And so we did, sliding down another couple metres before deciding to turn out the lights and sit in the cool darkness for a spell.

Sitting at the near bottom of the cave

Sitting at the near bottom of the cave

Once the chill set in, as we were rather far underground, we decided it was time to leave the cold clammy embrace of the cave’s lowest marked chamber and to strike for the surface. The way up was far faster and easier than the descent, and we spend more time peering into side chambers and tunnels, wondering where they led to.

Looking down a pit - a GoPro screenshot

Looking down a pit – a GoPro screenshot

It was only on the ascent that we successfully got GoPro footage, although unfortunately it came out rather “tunnel-vision-like” with the sole headlamp on Nechemya’s helmet providing light. So I went through the approximate 43 minutes of underground footage, which was a sizable 3.76 GB, and decided that I couldn’t be bothered trying to make a video of it. When we at last reached the surface, we repacked our equipment and belongings, to the sounds of the cooing and flapping of pigeons in the background. Equipment stowed, we climbed out of the entrance cavern and sprawled on the soft green grass to enjoy the warmth of the sun on our cold bodies. I was laying on my back with a jacket sleeve over most of my eyes when I saw a furry beast trot by just metres in front of me. I lurched up with a cry as I watched the unsuspecting jackal run for cover. Leaping up with Nechemya’s camera in my hand I pursued the jackal, seeing the rest of his pack converge to the north. Watching their movements, I raced across the top of the hill to cut them off to the northeast. Just as I suspected, five or six jackals ran by and I was able to get this semi-decent photo of one in my ambush.

Jackal running by

Jackal running by

I soon lost track of the jackals and returned to Nechemya where we had a quick bite to eat in the quickly setting sun. Walking back the way we came, I nabbed the two bleached cow skulls that we had passed earlier and we got back to car at dusk.

Leaving Alma Cave at sunset

Leaving Alma Cave at sunset

Driving the road back to Tzfat I dropped Nechemya off and got his photos and GoPro footage for my blog, so yes, many of the photos are accredited to him. Looking forward to more adventures…

Korazim

In Galilee, Israel on September 11, 2016 at 6:32 AM

About a month ago or so I visited the ancient city of Korazim, located just north of the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee). It was a scorching day yet we persevered and toured the black basalt ruins, taking shelter under the scattered trees as we passed from site to site. We started on the paved trail passing the ruins of houses and then the ancient mikva (ritual bath) on the right-hand side with more ruined houses on the left. Shortly we reached the central attraction of the park, the ancient synagogue.

Peeking inside the ancient synagogue

Peeking inside the ancient synagogue

Korazim was founded in the 1st or 2nd century CE, around the time that most Galilean synagogues are dated (following the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus and his Roman legions). Jewish sources note Korazim as a place with good wheat while Christian sources mention the city as cursed, destined to be destroyed – which it was by an earthquake.

Multiple arches

Multiple arches

Most of Korazim’s ruins date to the 3rd and 4th centuries CE and the town was slowly restored in the following centuries. Settlement was resumed towards the end of the Crusader period, although on a much smaller scale. Archaeological excavations of Korazim began in 1905 and were taken up again intermittently throughout the century, the last taking place in 1983 before the park was opened to the public.

Classic Galilean-style synagogue

Classic Galilean-style synagogue

I had a university class about the late Roman and Byzantine eras and ancient synagogues were discussed. I learned the identifying characteristics of a Galilean synagogue and was pleased to be able to point them out as I explored Korazim’s ancient house of prayer. Some interesting features were the carved ornamentations in the building’s interior, the large basalt columns and a replica of the “Seat of Moses”, the original being held in the Israel Museum.

Broken conch decorative piece

Broken conch decorative piece

Leaving the ancient synagogue we took a short break under a nearby tree, refreshing ourselves with a water bottle. As we sat on a stone wall, nature resumed around us. Agamas scrambled around on the tree branches and various small songbirds flitted about; warblers and graceful prinias. In the skies beyond the tree’s foliage I identified a little swift for the first time, and then shortly thereafter what looked to be a flycatcher of sorts flying low over the basalt ruins.

Basalt ruins of Korazim

Basalt ruins of Korazim

Excited with my birding finds we continued along the path to the western quarter of the city, to the ancient oil press. Korazim might have been known for its wheat production but all ancient Galilean cities partook in the production of olive oil as well. This particular oil press is built of basalt, as is the rest of the city.

Inside the olive oil press

A relatively small national park, we then headed past the southern quarter of houses and looped around the central quarter of housing with a paved courtyard. From there it was the path back to the parking lot. Driving out, we saw the scant ruins of more Korazim houses on the hillside opposite the road – the northern quarter. Continuing on Road 8277 we then reached the Kinneret and turned onto Road 87 passing Capernaum before turning onto Road 90 – Israel’s longest road. Our next destination was the Yigal Alon Centre in Kibbutz Ginosar.

The Yigal Alon Centre

The Yigal Alon Centre

Inside the Yigal Alon Centre is the house of the Man in the Galilee museum and the Ancient Galilee Boat, also known as the Jesus Boat. We gained entrance and began by looking at the preserved 2,000-year-old fishing boat on display. In 1986 the Kinneret suffered a drought and the waterline receded, allowing the wooden boat to be found buried in the mud. A great restoration process was undertaken and the boat was chemically treated to extend its longevity, then presented to the public years later.

The Ancient Galilee Boat

The Ancient Galilee Boat

One of the things I found most interesting about this fishing boat with unknown origins was the breakdown of woods used in its construction. The bulk of it was made of Tabor oak and cedar with the addition of these following woods, to mention a few: carob, Aleppo pine, sycamore, willow and Atlantic terebinth. From the darkened room that holds the boat we then explored the Man in the Galilee museum. With just a few actual antiques on display I found the museum to be underwhelming but enjoyed riding up the Nechushtan-Schindler elevator and seeing the view of the Kinneret from the centre’s roof.

A view of the Kinneret

A view of the Kinneret

Wrapping up at the museum we ended the day of adventures, ticking these two sites off my to-see list.

University Trip: Kinneret III

In Galilee, Israel on April 17, 2016 at 5:09 AM

Following parts I and II of Bar Ilan University’s two-day trip to the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) area, our two buses drove from the scenic ruins of Wadi Hamam to the newly excavated ruins of Migdal (or Magdala). When I was visiting friends and family in Michigan a few months ago, I stumbled upon a free copy of Smithsonian magazine (Jan-Feb 2016 issue) which featured the findings of Magdala as their cover story, which I brought back home with me (see HERE). And now, on this trip, I was able to visit the much-discussed site and to hear the discovery story from the archaeologist and IAA official mentioned in the article, Arfan Najar and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, respectively.

Magdala (or Migdal)

Magdala (or Migdal)

First gawking at the ridiculous souvenirs for the myriads of religious tourists, such as tiny vials of “synagogue sand” or “Sea of Galilee water” (each for $1 apiece), we settled down for an introductory lecture on the site. At the culmination of said lecture we all stood up and walked over to the start of the archaeological park tour, showcasing the structural finds previously hidden underground.

Examining the remains of houses

Examining the remains of houses

We discussed the unique findings of household mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) in some of the houses, with the Kinneret just minutes away by foot – evidence of wealth in the village. Onwards we walked around the complex of uncovered walls until we reached the paramount discovery of the dig, a 2,000 year old synagogue with some rather interesting features. One such detail was a short, squat, ornately carved stone table which was presumed to be used for communal Torah scroll readings, a debatable assumption. A replica of the altar-like table can be seen in the photograph below, resting on the dirt partially obscured by a broken column.

Magdala's ancient synagogue

Migdal’s ancient synagogue

Continuing onward with the extensive ruins, we walked alongside the unfinished Magdala Resort and I took the opportunity to wander off in the direction of the richly blue-coloured Kinneret. I noticed a dark basalt complex not far south and found Najar to identify it for me; an Ottoman-era homestead with an adjacent pump house was his answer. With a multitude of thanks to the guest speakers we wrapped up our Magdala visit and returned to the buses, driving north to a site I hadn’t known about: Horvat Minya.

Aerial view of Horvat Minya (photo Yaniv Darvasi)

Aerial view of Horvat Minya (photo Yaniv Darvasi)

Pulling up right outside the ruins, we were greeted by a formidable limestone wall and an open main gate flanked by half-round towers. Horvat Minya is a the remains of an Islamic palace from the Umayyad period, built by Hisham, the same caliph attributed to the construction of the Islamic palace outside Jericho (the cleverly named Hisham’s Palace).

Inside the Islamic palace

Inside the Islamic palace

Upon entering the ruined palace I was immediately swept over by a feeling of exotic adventure, like I was following in the footsteps of the lovable titular character of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Everything about the colonnaded courtyard and the atypical grass-covered floors of the rooms in the northeast quadrant of the palace felt so foreign, and I reveled in the feeling.

Snaking our way through the ruins

Snaking our way through the ruins

Passing a room with a collapsed vaulted ceiling, we snaked our way through the overgrown spring vegetation and dismantled masonry. We found Persian and/or Islamic potsherds with the characteristic green glaze as well as a large stash of broken white marble of high quality. In one room, under a sturdy staircase, we found what seems to be holes made by looters, hoping to find hidden treasure troves. Rejoining the group, we visited the remains of the on-site mosque, kitchen and numerous other rooms, paying special attention to the anchoring holes on the southern wall, used to affix marble plates in efforts to beautify the room. Despite the fact that we could have stayed a lot longer, the sun was setting and there was still one more site to visit: Tel Kinnorot.

Prof Aren Maeir lecturing from the ruined walls of Tel Kinnorot

Prof Aren Maeir lecturing from the ruined walls of Tel Kinnorot

We disembarked just off the road not far from Capernaum Junction and climbed up the hill overlooking the Kinneret, reaching the excavated ruins partway up. An ancient settlement that has been used in research to showcase early urbanisation, Tel Kinnorot was mentioned in the Bible as a fortified city in two separate accounts. A fragment from an Egyptian stella with hieroglyphic markings was found in 1928 and a very thorough and well composed article was written up in recent years which can be seen HERE (I especially liked the fish bit). But we stopped to visit just the gate and storage houses, if I recall correctly, where we had a lecture as the sun slipped over the slope of the tel.

Sunset over the tel

Sunset over the tel

Afterwards we enjoyed snacks and beverages both hot and cold before walking back down to the parked buses. I was dropped off at Migdal where my parents picked me up for the drive back home, ending a very long but very enjoyable trip with Bar Ilan University, hopefully the first of many…

University Trip: Kinneret II

In Galilee, Israel on April 10, 2016 at 8:42 AM

Continuing with my first ever university trip, a two-day affair in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) region, I awoke in my country lodging bed in Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov early in the morning to first pray and then eat breakfast in the antiques-decorated dining room. We prepared sandwiches for later and boarded the buses, eager to begin the adventures of the day. Our first stop was just minutes away, the restored Samakh (or Tzemach) train station from the Ottoman period.

Restored station building of Samakh (Tzemach)

Restored station building of Samakh (Tzemach)

Samakh was the last station this side of the Yarmouk gorge before heading to Damascus and the Hedjaz region of modern day Saudi Arabia, where Mecca and Medina can be found. In order to advance both commercial and passenger transportation from the Holy Land coastline inland, the Ottoman Empire built their first station in the port city of Haifa (see post). Subsequently building stations across the land via the Jezreel Valley, the railway reached the considerable dip in elevation of the Great Rift Valley and a great undertaking was in order – the Ottomans’ largest construction feat (see map). But even with a topic as interesting as the old Hejaz Railway, time was of the essence and we were hustled back onto the buses and driven to the next site on the list, Berko Archaeological Park in Tiberias (also known as Tverya).

Roman theatre and the Kinneret

Roman theatre and the Kinneret

Skipping the history of Tiberias, which can be found in the above-linked post, we headed straight for the Roman theatre at the base of Mount Berniki – a large venue for live performances with some 6,000 seats. We had fragmented lectures given at different vantage points around the sizable theatre and then we moved on to the next ruins just a few minutes away, the remnants of the drainage canal built to direct the mountain runoff during the rainy season away from the vulnerable city.

Roman theatre and Mount Berniki

Roman theatre and Mount Berniki

Running alongside the drainage canal are the ruins of the ancient Roman city gate and Byzantine southern city walls. It was at this gate that ancient Tiberias’ cardo (main street) began, stretching northwards into the city which, in the 500’s CE, was fortified by the Byzantine Caesar Justinian. Having skipped some of the initial public buildings, including a bathhouse and a basilica, we returned to the buses for a nice drive to the picturesque Wadi Hamam.

Roman gate and Byzantine wall outside the drainage canal

Roman gate and Byzantine wall outside the drainage canal

Passing modern Tiberias we turned off Road 90 under the shadow of Mount Arbel, an impressive cliff edge that claims a 110 metre (360 foot) drop. Disembarking across from the colourful Arab village of Wadi Hamam we started our way uphill on an unmarked trail, heading for the archaeological dig of Horvat Veradim, better known as the ruins of Wadi Hamam.

Climbing the base of Mount Nitai

Climbing the base of Mount Nitai

We passed large swathes of wild mustard, dotted with the occasional scarlet pimpernel while barn swallows swooped gracefully overhead, feeding off the bugs attracted by the cows and the flowers. The weather was beautiful and the hike itself was pleasant and short; before long we arrived at a flat stretch with the walled remnants of an ancient synagogue, complete with broken columns. Perching on stone steps I settled down to hear a lecture about the significance of this synagogue, as well as the unique mosaic floors uncovered (of which I saw one just recently in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem).

Wadi Hamam aerial view (photo Dr Uzi Leibner)

Wadi Hamam aerial view (photo Dr Uzi Leibner)

During this address I was handed two small bits of broken glass which sparkled in the most delightful way. Having visited the Israel Museum last week I learned that the beauty of the sparkle is actually just iridescence caused by the glass’ deterioration, also known as silver weathering. I was unable to secure any guesstimation as to the glass’ age or maker, due to the fact that the bits are not indicative pieces are thereby essentially worthless.

Ancient glass bits

Ancient glass bits

Briefly interrupted by the village’s prerecorded muezzin call to prayer, the lecture carried on for a while during which I found an interesting piece of flint. When our brains were sufficiently filled with knowledge about Wadi Hamam’s synagogue we walked over to the other ruins which seem to have been public buildings of sorts. Descending the slope we noticed a millstone laying among some ordinary stones, evidence of ancient industry – most likely the production of olive oil. Here is my favourite photo of the two-day trip, and there is a short video clip I filmed in glorious 4K resolution when the muezzin was calling that can be seen HERE:

Lecture at Wadi Hamam

Lecture at Wadi Hamam

With that we reassembled ourselves on the buses and took off for the next site, just at the end of the road on the banks of the Kinneret – ancient Migdal (or Magdala).

University Trip: Kinneret I

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on April 3, 2016 at 7:13 AM

The week before last I attended my very first university trip, having just started studying Archaeology in Bar Ilan University. This trip was to be a two-day adventure around the Kinneret area, hopping from site to site to explore and to hear brief lectures from the various resident academics as well as special guests. We left the Bar Ilan campus in the morning, our buses taking Road 6 and then passing Megiddo, Afula and Kfar Tavor before entering the beautiful green valley of Yavne’el. Our first stop was just minutes later, at the Hod Lookout beside a monument dedicated to the early androcentric settlement of Beitanya.

Sea level at the Hod Lookout near Beitanya

Sea level at the Hod Lookout near Beitanya

Next we drove to a site that I’ve read much about, yet never really seen – Karnei Hittim (or, the Horns of Hattin). Known for the famous battle between the Crusaders and the Ayyubids under the leadership of Saladin, this extinct volcano was the battlegrounds that held testament to the Christians’ first major defeat back in 1187. Following the lead of Dr Rafi Lewis we skirted the east side of the gentle slope and made our way through a brief rainshower to the obscure ruins of Kankuzah.

Karnei Hittim as seen from the ruins of Kankuzah

Karnei Hittim as seen from the ruins of Kankuzah

Rafi, an archaeologist specialising in battlefields, proceeded to tell us all about the deciding battle that was fought to the west of us, and how he conducted numerous light digs of the general area finding all sorts of military artefacts. At one point he held up a printed version of the picture embedded below, a photograph from the 1890s listed in the Library of Congress as the Mount of Beatitudes (Capernaum) which has since been “historically relocated” to the area where the Jordan River spills into the Kinneret.

Karnei Hittim from the 1890s (photo Library of Congress)

Karnei Hittim from the 1890s (photo Library of Congress)

Leaving behind the beautiful view of the Arbel Valley, we walked back to the buses passing large green fields of wheat. Next we drove back down to the Beitanya area, headed for our next destination: the Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader.

The Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader

The Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader

I had the opportunity of visiting Hamat Gader back in 2012, but then I was only able to marvel at the archaeological ruins from the plebian side of the fence. Being a university trip, even key points of interest along the way to Hamat Gader were pointed out, including the famous ruined bridge and sites along the Yarmouk River, bordering the country of Jordan. Once inside the resort, famous for its hot springs and crocodile farm, we were ushered directly to the Roman ruins. Across the Yarmouk, under Jordanian sovereignty, is the mountainside ruins of Gadara – a once important city that had close ties with the population living beside the hot springs.

Inside the Roman bathhouse

Inside the Roman bathhouse

In class the other day I learned about the Roman plumbing technology used in these bathhouses, and the small stone cubes lining the pool behind me in the photo are actually small fountains all connected by a pipe under the stonework. Iconoclasm lent to the destruction of the faces on the stone cubes, the mouths of which would spout water. Ever under the watchful eye of the head of security, our group walked carefully from room to room, taking in the classic beauty. At last we settled down in the stately Hall of the Pillars for a few brief lectures.

Lecture in the Hall of the Pillars

Lecture in the Hall of the Pillars

Wrapping up at Hamat Gader we drove up the Golan side of the Kinneret to our next point of interest, Ein Gev. One of the first kibbutzim to be established in Golan under Syrian authority, the success of Ein Gev was a powerful message to all parties involved. Leaving the buses, we walked to the grassy lakefront and sat beneath the gently swaying palm trees settling in for another lecture.

Lakefront lecture at Ein Gev

Lakefront lecture at Ein Gev

With still so much to see, we were hustled back onto the buses and driven to an ancient site on the banks of the Jordan at the southern end of the Kinneret, a site known as Tel Bet Yerach. I had tried visiting Tel Bet Yerach on my trip to Belvoir, yet couldn’t seem to find the archaeological discoveries. And so, as we crossed the Jordan after Degania I recognised exactly where we were headed yet didn’t know until that moment that the whole elevation was considered the tel of Bet Yerach. The archaeological site is quite in depth and we were given photo-copied maps of the dig to properly understand the layout.

Tel Bet Yerach

Tel Bet Yerach

Tel Bet Yerach’s name is thought to originate from the inhabitants’ worshipping of the moon, or perhaps of the pagan moon god Sin (which may be connected with the huge moon-shaped megalith Jethro’s Cairn some 30 kilometres away). With the Jordan and the Kinneret flanking the massive stone fortifications, Bet Yerach became an important and highly protected regional city. Flourishing during the Canaanite and Egyptian periods, the city was then destroyed and then rebuilt way later during the Persian era with the Greeks and Romans augmenting and improving the city in their times.

Distinct Tel Bet Yerach pottery

Distinct Tel Bet Yerach pottery

One of the lecture topics that interested me most was the unique pottery belonging to Tel Bet Yerach, a distinct black and red that is only found elsewhere in the Caucasus region. As Professor Aren Maeir spoke I scoured the ground looking for potsherds that matched the description given – the piece I found and rubbed clean was declared to be from the Early Bronze Age III (some 4,000 years old or so). With daylight waning we had one last lecture, given by Professor Ehud Weiss, on the Ohalo II site which made headlines providing rare evidence of food sources as well as early dwelling structures. Unfortunately darkness was upon us before we were able to get a good look at where the ancient site is located on the banks of the Kinneret, but the information given over was very eye-opening. Boarding the buses one more time we were driven to Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov where we were set up in quaint country lodgings for a night of trivia, academia and, of course, much needed sleep to prepare us for the next day.

Meron

In Galilee, Israel on March 20, 2016 at 9:21 AM

After visiting the various sites located around the Golani Junction as reviewed in a previous post, I drove up north and turned onto Road 866 headed for Meron. I pulled over briefly at a roadside lookout to take this panoramic picture of the gently rolling mountains to the south and the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) to the southeast.

Road 866 panorama

Road 866 panorama

Winding my way up the mountain I reached the entrance to Meron and pulled in, parking not far from the famous kever (grave) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, often referred to by his acronym Rashbi. From the parking lot I looked up at the majestic hillside ruins of Meron’s ancient synagogue, now marred by “Na Nach” graffiti.

Ancient synagogue of Meron

Ancient synagogue of Meron

Inside the recently restored remains of the once great Roman-era synagogue I admired the architecture and layout, being built up against a rock wall. Perhaps the first to be built in what has become known as “Galilean” style, the synagogue’s construction is composed of a large room with two parallel rows of columns and multiple entrances on the southern side. Built to service the large Jewish presence in the Galilee during the Roman times, the synagogue eventually fell to ruin and disuse after the military backlashes of the Great Revolt and subsequent earthquakes which collapsed most of the structure. Looking down the precipice to the north, I gazed upon ancient burial caves which I had already explored on a previous trip.

Burial caves

Burial caves

Circling around the rock tower seen on the left side of the previous photograph, I found a way to climb up and reached the top in no time, gazing down at the world around me. Below me was the ruins of the synagogue, the unseen Rashbi complex to the south and the sprawling houses of modern day Meron to the north (with the aforementioned burial caves visible in the lower left corner).

Meron

Meron

Far off in the distance in the above picture is the mixed Christian-Muslim village of Jish (or Gush Chalav), the next and final destination of my trip for that day – but first, a visit to the kever of Rashbi and his son. I had hoped to cover Rashbi’s kever in a post about Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday which is partially focused on Rashbi himself, but my last several attempts to attend had failed and so I report my ordinary daytime visit.

Kever of Rashbi and son

Kever of Rashbi and son

With an unending flow of visitors from both near and far, Rashbi’s kever dominates Meron’s renown, persuading many to list Meron as one of Judaism’s holiest sites. But there are dozens more holy graves literally scattered throughout the Galilean countryside, marked with iconic blue paint (Kabbalistically symbolic of protection against the evil eye), and I merited to give pause in reverence before getting back into my car. I had a delicious schnitzel baguette at the roadside Gallo restaurant and put the car into gear heading towards Jish (Gush Chalav). As instructed by my GPS, I parked precariously at the end of one of the nameless streets and disembarked. Gathering in my surroundings, looking around at the nonconformist houses with the sounds of Arabic “Jingle Bells” on loop floating in from the school down in the valley below, I started off on the trail to the final objective on my trip.

Trail outside Jish (Gush Halav)

Trail outside Jish (Gush Halav)

I was headed to the ancient synagogue of Gush Halav, and I was taking a marked trail that runs not far from a nearby streambed. I passed cows and goats, poked my head into a small cave to find a partially decomposed sheep carcass, and continued onwards. Entering an eerie shaded area with tall hillsides, dry gravelly ground and bare trees whose gnarled branches stretched out grotesquely, I gripped a large stick as I saw a motley pack of unkempt dogs making their way through the bizarre landscape up ahead. It was in this unlikely place that I came upon the fenced-off ruins of the ancient synagogue.

Ancient synagoge of Gush Halav

Ancient synagoge of Gush Halav

Gush Chalav was an important walled city for hundreds and hundreds of years, having served as the final Jewish stronghold in the Galilee during the Great Revolt against the Romans. Titus himself marched on Giscala (the Romanisation of Gush Chalav) after the fall of Gamla in the Golan, demanding surrender and subsequently receiving it, thereby ending Jewish resistance in the northern regions. Jewish presence has been marked throughout the hundreds of years that followed until the Ottomans conquered the area in the 1500’s and the village was inhabited by Muslims. Druze refugees from the Lebanese mountains settled in the 1600’s but, after terrible earthquakes, the village was overtaken by a mixture of Muslims and refugee Maronite Christians from Lebanon as well (most of the Christians coming from nearby Biram, as mentioned in the Bar’am post).

Inside the ancient synagogue

Inside the ancient synagogue

Gush Chalav’s synagogue was built nearly identically to the one in Meron, using the same basilica-layout that was made popular by Roman influence. With the sun setting and the long day coming to a prolonged close, I returned to the gravel trail and made my way back to the car and from there, back home.

Golani Junction

In Galilee, Israel on December 21, 2015 at 6:21 AM

The other week, before I got caught up with my sister’s wedding, I visited some interesting sites around the Golani Junction. Located between Haifa and Tiberias, the Golani Junction was and still is an important crossroads connecting various regions of the Holy Land. The junction, which is really an interchange now, has been revamped in recent years with extensive roadwork to streamline the traffic flows, costing some ₪300 million.

Golani Junction

Golani Junction

The first place I visited was the KKL-JNF nursery and neighbouring Lavi Forest where rehabilitation of Israel’s trees is done – in fact, there is a “plant-a-tree” park across Road 77 for visitors to take an active part in reforestation.

Foreign flags flying at the Tree Planting Centre

Foreign flags flying at the Tree Planting Centre

It was at one of these locations I had hoped to find an archaeological garden similar to the one at the Kabri KKL-JNF centre (see HERE) – but my search came up fruitless. At the Golani Junction itself is a place I partially visited once before while still in the army, the Golani Museum. Both a museum and a memorial, this site commemorates and sustains the ongoing legacy of the IDF’s most beloved brigade, the Golani Brigade.

The Golani Museum

The Golani Museum

Within, I walked the beautifully shaded trail learning about the battle that took place at the Golani Junction which gave it its name. With various memorials and recreated battle scenes abound, there was an atmosphere of both the valour and the struggles that accompany all things military. I peeked into the Lecture Hall before stopping at the panoramic depiction of a northern border scene with metal soldier silhouettes dispersed among the pine trees.

Border scene panorama

Border scene panorama

When I neared the arched room, two Golani soldiers who serve as guides spotted me and took me on a small tour. It amused me at times when they tried explaining some things to me as if I was a tourist when, unbeknownst to them, I have seen/done/lived these things in my own army service – firsthand knowledge. The soldier-guide reviewed the early history of the brigade, illustrating that the first Golani soldiers were farmers and thus the earthtone colours that identify the brigade helped solidify their deep connection to the land. The famous olive tree logo was drawn by one of the brigade’s early officers, denoting a deep-rooted longevity that Golani aims to emulate.

"After me!"

“After me!”

Inside one of the strangely shaped concrete bunkers that serve as exhibits for the brigade’s rich history I watched a short video spanning the years. One of the previous Golani brigade commanders, Tamir Yadi, is actually mentioned in an old blog post of mine – Hevron. Looking through old pictures and gear from 1948 onward, I examined historic battle plans and then found the Memorial Room. A small room lined with bookcases; each filled with faux leather booklets labeled with the name and ID number of each fallen Golani soldier. I searched for some of the more recent ones and saw very nice commemorations with mini biographies and personal photos. Beyond that room, back outside, is the Memorial Wall with each of those same names etched in stone. I looked over the recent names and remembered the losses we incurred as a nation last year in Gaza.

Golani Brigade's memorial walls

Golani Brigade’s memorial walls

Continuing along, I walked past the displayed military vehicles including APCs and jeeps that are parked on a ridge among fruit-laden cacti.

Armoured personnel carrier

Armoured personnel carrier

Leaving the Golani Museum I drove back towards Road 77 but stopped short and pulled onto a small dirt road where I parked among in a field of dead plants. I got out of the car and walked north, coincidentally the Gospel Trail, passing a dead cow on the way.

Dead cow on the Gospel Trail

Dead cow on the Gospel Trail

Suddenly, I caught the glimpse of a small songbird flitting about in the dead vegetation and patiently awaited his resurfacing. My patience paid off as I was able to get this photo of this particularly carefree graceful prinia:

Graceful prinia

Graceful prinia

Satisfied with my photo, I walked towards the trees – the sounds of startled grasshoppers popping into the air like popcorn filled the quiet, still air. Just beyond the first few trees I found what I was looking for – the meagre remains of an ancient Roman road. A small section of the vast road network that criss-crossed the Roman Empire, the remnants are much more distinguishable in person.

Old Roman road

Old Roman road

Leaving the old road and the Gospel Trail, I returned to the Golani Junction and drove north on Road 65. I passed Mount Nimra on my right and then pulled over, entering a construction site. My next stop was the Amudim ruins which I’ve been meaning to visit for ages. With an authoritative air I parked on the gravel and strode confidently towards the ruins, not waiting for the construction workers to stop me. I entered the fenced-off archaeological site and beheld the Amudim ruins, remains of a 1,800 year old synagogue which serviced the nearby Jewish village.

Amudim ruins

Amudim ruins

Today just one pillar stands tall with many broken pillars, ornate plinths and capitals strewn about in all directions. Even beyond the fenced-off area I caught sight of a fallen pillar laying on the ground amid a great mess of stone chunks. I like to imagine how these ancient synagogues might have looked back in their time and, in this case, I took particular interest in the shape of the standing column. Instead of being traditionally round, this pillar had a concave indention, like a rounded-bottomed heart – and I wonder why the craftsmen specifically carved that fanciful shape.

Interestingly shaped pillars

Interestingly shaped pillars

When I stopped wondering and took my leave of the holy ruins, I paused and admired the Netofa Valley across the road and then hopped into the car to visit the next site on the figurative horizon, the Mimla ruins. Alas, due to roadwork I was unable to reach the site and continued on to the kever (grave) of the prophet Habakuk – which was blocked off as well. And so, deterred but not ready to call it quits, I pressed onward towards Meron…

Hula Valley: Birding Tour

In Galilee, Israel on November 22, 2015 at 5:43 AM

One thing that fascinates me about Israel’s nature is the rich diversity of birds, particularly the Old World raptors – both resident and migratory species. One Friday several weeks ago I seized the opportunity to go on a birding tour in one of the world’s best bird-watching locations, the Hula Valley.

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

Leaving the house shortly after 5am I drove the dark mountain roads heading east and saw the early stages of daybreak just after passing Tzfat. I reached Agamon Hula, a KKL park, and prayed in the parking lot before meeting up with my tour guide, Lior Kislev. A popular birder, Lior’s website has helped me several times with bird identification and it was a joy to meet him at last. We entered the park with a few of the other tour members (including Yedidya Popper, a protégé of Lior who graciously shared photos with me for this post) and, equipped with binoculars, began with the barn swallows resting on electrical wires just outside the visitors centre.

Black kite perched

Black kite perched

Nearly immediately thereafter we were launched into full-scale raptor watching with a whole bunch of greater spotted eagles, black kites, black shouldered kites, marsh harriers and others who were flying about and resting on the side-roll irrigation system frame. We walked along the trail stopping now and then to watch aerial turf battles and the occasional hooded crow mobbing. At one point, while our collective eyes were pointed skywards watching the predatory commotion, I heard a loud squeak at my feet which was identified as a social vole – hide little fella!

White-shouldered kite mobbed by a hooded crow (photo Yedidya Popper)

White-shouldered kite mobbed by a hooded crow (photo Yedidya Popper)

During all this time, and for most of the tour, there was a steady flow of large migrating birds flying overhead including white pelicans, spoonbills (which I was very excited to see) and, of course, common cranes. I had always associated Hula Valley’s migration season with the cranes that are so heavily talked about but with an experienced ornithologist at hand, I came to understand that the cranes were just a very small part in the overall bird-watching experience. We stopped for breakfast at a picnic table, frequently interrupted by raptor activity on the other side of the Jordan River or by warblers (of which we spotted four species) and a beautiful bluethroat or two flitting among the reeds.

Lior Kislev and the tour

Lior Kislev and the tour

In addition to the birds, there were several resident nutrias – an invasive rodent from South America. In terms of migratory species, also the African monarch butterfly makes its way through the Hula Valley and we saw tons of them.

African monarch butterflies (photo Yedidya Popper)

African monarch butterflies (photo Yedidya Popper)

As we walked closer to the bodies of water, someone called out “black francolin” and we watched as the elusive gamebird dashed into the undergrowth. As we walked along the water’s edge we saw a good number of passerines including red-throated pipits, whinchats, larks and some species of the predatory shrikes – a bird that has interested me since childhood. Before long we were able to peer through the reeds at the numerous species of waterfowl and waders including grey and little herons, ibises, coots, moorhens and more.

Peering through the rushes

Peering through the rushes

We arrived at the first platformed observatory where we met a Peruvian governor and his wife on a VIP tour of the nature park and then spied on something that excited me immensely – greater flamingos. Even while we watched the cormorants, common snipes, stilts, avocets and more in the shallow waters Lior would frequently direct our attention to the sky where soaring raptors circled overhead. It was during one of these sudden sightings that we saw something uncharacteristic – an immense griffon vulture was visible way out to the east. A bird with incredible range, and truly immense wings (boasting a 2.3–2.8 m (7.5–9.2 ft) wingspan), this particular vulture was likely searching for food over the nearby Golan plateau where they nest (see Gamla).

Lake Agamon observation deck

Lake Agamon observation deck

Reluctantly we left the observatory and continued on, stopping at a grassy area to lay on our backs watching the black storks, black kites and booted eagles wheeling above us while we snacked on fresh almonds and cookies. Along the trail up ahead we found two catfish that had been seized from their watery hole and were mysteriously untouched. We passed caspian turtles and a squacco heron before reaching the observatory most visitors are familiar with. Being as that we wanted to see all that there was to offer, we took the 11-km trail that loops around the lake in its entirety – not the path most traveled.

Booted eagle (photo Lior Kislev)

Booted eagle (photo Lior Kislev)

With one or two water buffalo off in the distance, we watched a small muddy pond packed with mallards, shovelers and common teals; a lone black kite circling ominously nearby. Suddenly the waterfowl exploded into the air, the sound of hundreds of wings beating, and we scoured the area for that black kite – perhaps he had succeeded in nabbing one for lunch.

Pelicans flying overhead

Pelicans flying overhead

Finally on the home stretch, we walked and talked, pausing to discuss self-combusting peat which was a problem in the park several years ago. Shortly before we reached the visitors centre Lior showed us a dead young viper which looks to have been crushed – I have yet to see a living viper in the wild.

Dead viper

Dead viper

Back at the visitor centre we sat down with pen and paper to make a list of all the birds we had seen that morning. All in all, over the course of five or so hours, we succeeded in spotting 72 species of birds, far more that I would have ever imagined. I highly recommend taking this tour to all those who read this blog – it’s truly a treat!

Belvoir

In Galilee, Israel, Jordan River Valley on November 15, 2015 at 5:39 AM

Finishing off my day trip to the Gilboa and Bet Shean regions was a stopover at Israel’s best-preserved Crusader castle, Belvoir (or Kochav HaYarden, in Hebrew). Located just ten kilometres north of ancient Bet Shean, this Crusader fortress stood on an escarpment overlooking the Jordan River Valley – a seemingly impenetrable bastion. From Road 90, running parallel to the Jordan River, I drove up the single-lane access road that meandered its merry way up the mountainside.

Aerial view of Belvoir looking westward (photo Biblewalks)

Aerial view of Belvoir looking westward (photo: Biblewalks)

I entered the park and began what I thought would be a circular path to the castle, but I soon reached a closed gate with a view of the low mountains to the north and the seasonal Tavor stream. Turning around, I walked the short direct trail to the bluff’s edge passing a sculpture garden featuring the work of Yigal Tumarkin. The name Belvoir means “beautiful view” in French and they were’t lying when they named the castle – the view is phenomenal.

Lookout over the Jordan River Valley

Lookout over the Jordan River Valley

The suggested path for visitors starts at the main gate at the southeastern corner of the castle, leading past the once-heavily fortified barbican (now mostly in ruin). From there the route leads into the outer courtyard passing the corner towers and the cistern where water was stored, being as such there was no spring in the immediate vicinity. One thing that’s particularly beautiful about Belvoir is the symmetry used to build a succession of fortified structures, culminating in the small keep at the western end.

A drawing of what Belvoir might have looked like

A drawing of what Belvoir might have looked like

The history of Belvoir is rather brief beginning in 1140 as a fortified farmhouse owned by the Velos family and sold to the Knights Hospitallers in 1168 who, in turn, built the castle as we know it. In 1182-83 Belvoir was besieged by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin, the bane of the Crusaders, although the siege was a failure. Not intending to give up, Saladin returned with his army in 1187 after defeating the Crusader at the Horns of Hattin and laid siege once again. After two years the sultan’s sappers succeeded in undermining the barbican and the Hospitaller knights negotiated a truce in which they were afforded safe passage to Tyre, in modern day Lebanon. Frightened that the Crusaders would somehow return to occupy Belvoir, Saladin had it partially destroyed. The sultan’s fears were justifiable as the Crusaders did return in 1241 and, upon seeing the ruins, abandoned the castle, leaving it definitely.

Entrance to the keep

Entrance to the keep

Walking into the inner fortress, I passed through the arched gateways of the keep (also known as a donjon in French). Inside the inner fortress I found the kitchens, dining hall and refectory as well as other smaller courtyards, accented by the four corner towers. The trio of ovens are of a very interesting design and I can almost recreate a scene in my mind where the bland European foods of wild boar and coarse bread were cooked up for the great feast in the nearby dining hall.

Barrel-vaulted dining hall

Barrel-vaulted dining hall

The special laundry basin, also located in the inner fortress, has an interesting lining of broken pottery bits, reminding me of the clay piping in Montfort Castle, the Teutonic Knights’ mountaintop headquarters. Outside the keep is the west gate where a drawbridge once stood, spanning the deep dry moat that was carved out of the basalt mountaintop. Interestingly enough, the castle’s construction was completed with both the local black basalt and a yellow-white limestone that was brought in – in fact there is a carved stone from an ancient synagogue that was recycled in an arched window. Before crossing the drawbridge, I followed the suggested route down a sally port (secret exit) in the southwest corner tower.

Sally port

Sally port

Down in the moat I was able to look up and imagine myself as an invader attempting entry into a seemingly impenetrable behemoth of stacked ashlars.

From within the dry moat

From within the dry moat

I reentered the castle via another sally port located in the central western tower. Crossing over the fixed metal drawbridge, I spotted two chukars (a type of partridge) on the far end of the moat and then headed for a small visitors’ centre of sorts where several curiosities are on display. While researching Belvoir online I came across something magnificent, a Lego reconstruction of the castle created by the lauded Lego castle builder Bob Carney. If you haven’t seen his work, you should definitely check out his site where he has nearly 150 real castles built out of Lego and properly documented (I linked the full Belvoir page in the photo caption below). You can see a stop motion video of Bob’s recreation of the medieval Rhuddlan Castle in Wales on YouTube (HERE).

Lego reconstruction of Belvoir (photo Bob Carney)

Lego reconstruction of Belvoir (photo Bob Carney)

Wrapping up my visit to Belvoir, I drove back down the meandering mountain road, scouring the roadside for gazelles and hyenas (of which I saw neither), until I reached Road 90 once again. I turned north and stopped off at Old Gesher (Naharayim) where I first found an old British police station (yet another Tegart fort) which has since been pockmarked by bullets from a battle between Israeli and Iraqi forces in 1948.

Old Gesher police station

Old Gesher police station

I drove closer to the Jordan River but it was soon apparent that the site was already closed for the day and I would simply have to return another time. Heading back to Road 90 I continued north to my final stop before heading home, Tel Bet Yerach – a remarkable archaeological site which I neglected to mention when covering Jethro’s Cairn, as they both concern the same pagan deity. The tel is located on the southwestern banks of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), right at the southern mouth of the Jordan River. Unfortunately I was not completely sure where this site was so I estimated in planning and eventually realised that I was located on a plateau somewhere above it with no easy way down.

View of the Kinneret from above Tel Beit Yerach

View of the Kinneret from above Tel Beit Yerach

So I relented and just took the time to enjoy the view as the sun slowly began to set over my shoulder, content with seeing all that I had succeeded in seeing, but ever eager to explore some more.