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University Trip: Hula Valley

In Galilee, Israel on January 7, 2018 at 9:21 AM

The other week I attended yet another academic trip provided by the Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University. However, this trip was not dedicated to history or archaeology but rather in the pursuit of wildlife, the first of several trips associated with a wildlife class that I’ll be taking next semester. Along with my friend and brewing partner Ben, we found ourselves spending two days in the lush Hula Valley region.

Hula Valley wetlands

The first day we drove from BIU up north, directly to the southern of the two Hula Valley parks. This one is part of the Israeli Parks Authority with the standard entrance fee, whilst the other belongs to JNF/KKL and is basically free, with a suggested donation of five shekels per person to help fund the crane feeding efforts in the winter. Being that I have covered both of these parks on my blog in the previous years (HERE and HERE), I shall just touch upon our activities and the unique species sighted.

Buzzard

Disembarking at the park we were immediately treated to wildlife, with a few black kites circling over the tall eucalyptus treeline and a large flock of gulls directly overhead. Our guide and course lecturer, Dr Moshe Natan, led us over to a quiet spot to introduce us to the region and its recent revival after having been dried up in the 1950s. He informed us that these two days were to be dedicated to watching the different species of wildlife around us in their natural surroundings, going about their daily lives. With an emphasis on waterfowl, I knew that there’d be interesting things to see. Plus, the Hula Valley never disappoints.

Nutria

With the sounds and sights of small flocks of common cranes flying overhead from time to time, we began our tour. Straight away we saw an interesting sight, a small waterside tree hosting perhaps a dozen or more night herons. Then, darting about with quick dives into the murky waters, a common kingfisher made a nice show. But my attention was arrested by the presence of a marsh harrier which made close flybys, searching for prey in both water and grass.

Marsh harrier hunting

I had received a pair of 7×50 binoculars from Dr Natan, which made it much easier to track and watch wildlife. However, when the opportunity arose, I picked up my camera and captured the moment in a more permanent form. Within the first half hour or so I had already seen two waterfowl species, new ones for me–a shoveler and a gadwall. One thing that I love about wildlife-rich places such as the Hula Valley is that there is always what to see, you just need to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for anything.

Watching wildlife

Next we checked a bat box, which was empty, and then the lecturer taught us about pellets, showing us samples picked off the ground. Likely belonging to a kestrel, the regurgitated pellets contained identifiable insect parts. Moving on, we spied on several species of herons and egrets and even spotted a black-shouldered kite on a tree several hundred metres to the east. My next special sighting was a little grebe, diving into the water in the company of coots and mallards.

Cormorant’s interesting wings

Moving along nicely, we entered an open area with a large muddy patch populated by waders and wagtails. There I added a few more new species, including a common snipe and Eurasian widgeon. A hefty wild boar popped out of the thickets up ahead of us, only to disappear once it saw us watching it. But the greatest sighting of the day, and of the entire year thus far if I’m to be honest, was that of a white-tailed eagle… I was scanning the horizons with my naked eyes, and spotted a dark dot atop a tree some 700 metres to the west. I got a closer look with the binoculars but that wasn’t enough – all I was able to decipher was that I was looking at a dark-coloured bird of prey. I found one of the two spotting scopes and sighted it. At this point I was torn between the likely and the unlikely: it was either a buzzard, which is very common in the winter, or a white-tailed eagle, of which there are very few in Israel, and in the world at large.

White-tailed eagle (L21)

I consulted our guide and he uttered the words I was too hesitant to say myself: white-tailed eagle. Not only an impressive and huge bird, this one had a shoulder tag marking it as L21. When I reported the sighting to the birding group on Facebook I was informed that this L21 was a female born in Ireland in 2011 and was brought to Israel as part of a rehabilitation program. She recently raised two young, one that fell out of the nest and was killed by jackals, the other fledgling successfully.

Learning about waterfowl

Needless to say, it was hard to continue on with the tour after such an incredible find. Yet we persevered and walked through the reeds to the lake blind where we were treated to the scene of hundreds of birds in and above the water. The majority were cormorants and gulls, but there was the occasional pelican and even a spoonbill. Far across the lake we spotted a water buffalo, also reintroduced to the area after local extinction following the marsh’s drying in the 1950s.

Entranced students watching a nutria eat

Looping back around the way we came, we took a few minutes to watch a nutria feeding on plant stalks. The nutria, also known as a coypu, is a large rodent species that was brought over from South America to be harvested for their fur. Eventually that program was abandoned and the nutrias made their way to the wetlands where they live happy, albeit somewhat destructive, lives.

Wooded setting of the field school

Back at the bus we boarded and were driven up to Kiryat Shmona, at the base of Tel Barom, where we were let out to buy groceries for the evening. Ben and I tried climbing the tel to see if there was anything interesting to see but the way was tricky and we abandoned our efforts. We were then driven to the Hermon Field School in Kibbutz Snir where we were to spend the night. Much to our surprise we were all alone in the big place, and Ben and I ended up splitting a small cottage, each of us getting our own room.

Our dwelling for the night

Because it was the second night of Hanukkah, we held several candle-lighting ceremonies and then we ate dinner. Afterwards, at the end of the evening lecture about the importance and purpose of vernal pools in nature, Ben announced to me that there was the Geminids meteor shower that night. Of all nights to have a meteor shower, we were in the perfect setting. Determined to catch it, we explored the compound looking for the darkest place to properly view the night sky. But then, adventure struck, and we found ourselves with a few other members of our tour hopping the fence and journeying down to Nachal Banias below. It was a fun little excursion and we ended up seeing several shooting stars, some rather impressive. After some stargazing we headed back into the compound, passing an interestingly pigmented green toad, and went to sleep.

Green toad

The next morning began quite early with praying, eating, and a short tour of “woodland” birds seen within the compound. Our first destination of the day was the fish ponds at Lahavot HaBashan, where we sat as a small, compact group to observe the nature around us. There were predominately common species, which we had seen the day before, but there were a few nice sightings including a squacco heron and a family of mongooses crossing the dirt road near us.

Yellow-legged gull

Just for kicks, Ben and I brought bottles of cold Leffe Brown with us, opening them whilst sitting on the ground watching gulls and herons. After the beers we, as a group, got up and began a short walking tour of the fish ponds. Passing along an overgrown water channel we startled both a golden jackal in its lush winter coat as well as a marsh harrier that was busy eating a fish. Other fun sightings included another black-shouldered kite, a few dead turtles and the bones and feathers of a dead pelican or two.

Empty turtleshell

Back on the bus we headed straight for the other of the Hula Valley parks, Agamon Hula operated by the JNF/KKL. Having a quick lunch first at the visitors centre, we regrouped on our bus and entered the park along the paved roads. To my delight, I noticed that the birds seemed less afraid of us and allowed us to get much closer than I would have even gotten on-foot. But, there was a drawback, and that was trying to take photographs through the dirty bus windows.

Overlooking the lake

My favourite birds to see so close-up were the common buzzards, of which there were several. At one point there were two buzzards on the banks of a water channel just alongside us, it was such a surprise that it took me a few seconds to register their presence. Some minutes later, while overlooking the main lake, we took in the sights of the many species of waterbirds, and the birds of prey providing a constant threat from the sky. On the far side of the lake, we visited a fallen tree, where eagles are known to perch. Sunset was approaching and I was able to take this photo of a greater spotted eagle in the light of “golden hour”.

Greater spotted eagle at sunset

Even with darkness incoming there were still a few things yet to see. All throughout the evening, and particularly with the onset of dusk, the tens of thousands of common cranes were making their way to the bodies of water to spend the night. The sounds of their calls filled the air, transporting us to a seemingly different world, as the sun sank over the Naftali mountains to the west.

Dusk with the cranes

At last it was dark and the cranes fell silent, but there was still more to see. Every so often we’d catch sight of a small fluttering shape against the sky, easily deciphered as bats. These were tiny microbats, feeding on the many mosquitos in the wetlands, identified as Kuhl’s pipistrelles by our guide. Bringing the tour to a close was a quick visit to a peculiar pipe protruding from the ground, which, when the valve is opened, release natural methane gas produced by the decaying organic matter beneath the surface. Standing in the darkness we were soon greeted by the gift of light when our guide ignited the tapped gas, and sufficiently illuminated, we learned about this natural resource as a theoretical energy source. With that we boarded the bus once again and off we drove, to the busy city life of the country’s centre, bringing a close to yet another fantastic trip with many memorable moments.

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Tel Goded Archaeological Survey II

In Israel, Judea on December 31, 2017 at 8:36 AM

Continuing with the four-week long archaeological survey with the academic staff and students of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, we returned once again to Tel Goded. Located in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Tel Burna, the tel hosts mountaintop settlements ranging from the Bronze Era all the way until the Byzantine times. Our mission was to conduct a surface-area survey to aid in assessing the site’s value from an archaeological standpoint.

Tel Goded survey staff members (photo Boaz Zissu)

Leading the team was Prof Boaz Zissu, Dr Amit Dagan and Shira Albaz, the latter two also staff members at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig. We arrived at the site on the third week and convened to have the weekly briefing before beginning to work. Thankfully, I was reassigned to the small cave-finding team and I set out with friends Eitan and Amichai in search of more hidden caves.

Overlooking a collapsed area

But first, a quick mentioning of some flora and fauna that were seen that morning: after a few rains, especially with that of the previous week’s, the hill experienced a change that would be even more noticeable the following week. What had first been a blanket of dead, yellow-brownish vegetation had morphed into a sea of grassy green. Small clusters of Steven’s meadow saffron dotted the hill, particularly on the summit, making for lovely photograph opportunities. In addition, I spotted a nice great grey shrike on my hike up the slope and the usual fare of robins and stonechats.

Steven’s meadow saffron

Without delay we struck out for the caves, and found what we were looking for. Inside one, we found traces of modern human and porcupine as well as curious archaeological remains. We slipped in and out of the different holes and cracks that we found on the hillside, working our way south and having a ball. At the bottom of the slope at the southern end of the hill we came across the ancient, underground water channels carved into the rock. I climbed down into one, with the aid of a pre-existing ladder, and tried to make out how far I could see underground.

Underground water channel

Continuing along, scouring the area for caves, we found another part of the underground water system as well as a broken tortoise shell. Out in the field we discussed whether or not it was likely to have been broken by an eagle, several species known for lifting tortoises high in the air and then dropping them down on a rocky surface to break into their formidable shells. However, when I asked the experts, I learned that this shell looks like it was cracked open by the powerful jaws of a striped hyena, an apex predator that roams the Holy Land.

Tortoise shell

The day was coming to an end and the three of us found ourselves near the pick-up location for our minibus, but with the rest of the team still up on the tel. We seized the opportunity to explore and returned to the Roman-age ruins that we had begun exploring the week before. We found large water cisterns and better-known burial caves, as well as more Bar Kochba bunker tunnels carved into the bedrock.

Let’s explore!

We entered one particularly windy one, with many turns to help defend against possible intruders, and found a hidden columbarium at the end—hidden in the sense that the upper entrance had been sealed off in antiquity and access can be gained only by crawling through a tight tunnel. I found the discovery to be most charming, even though the site is no secret from the general public.

Columbarium

At last we left our hidden columbarium, crawled back through the tight tunnel and headed downhill to the minibus. We were to be coming back to Tel Goded for the final survey day the following week and return we did. The green growth after the few rains had further transformed the hill and the surface-searching became more difficult as the bare ground disappeared beneath the vegetation.

Final day on Tel Goded

But before we got to work, we had a small breakfast laid out before us to eat, provided by the department’s patron Yehuda. Often accompanying us on extended trips and other such events, Yehuda never fails to bring food, drinks and smiles to the staff and students as he treats us when we need it most.

Yehuda bringing breakfast

Because the cave expedition was largely over with, I was reassigned to the teams searching for surface finds. Being that this was the final day of the survey, we were now tackling the lowest level of the hilltop, and each section was entrusted with a few team members. I was reunited with Itamar and Avner from the first week, and together we kicked about looking for interesting finds.

European green toad

While we didn’t find a terribly impressive amount of potsherds and other items of antiquity, we did find a broken digital camera, and when we took it back with us, we found that the photos within belonging to a schoolgirl and dated back to 2011. In addition, we found a cool blister beetle armed with a poisonous chemical for self-defense and an ocellated skink hiding under a rock. As far as potsherds go, I picked up one interesting piece that had part of a classic Byzantine cross on it, definitely an unique find surface-level.

Byzantine potsherd

Just as we were finishing up, sweeping our eyes over the last unsearched swathes of land, there was another interesting find – this time a glass Tempo bottle, covered in plastic to safeguard against accidental breakage. Even though the bottle is only thirty or so years old, it was interesting to see such an old-looking bottle, something that nearly belongs in a museum.

Moment of relaxation

At last the survey came to an end, and an idea was voiced: perhaps, in the spirit of Hanukkah, we could all pose in the shape of a hanukkiah (or what is also known as a menorah). We did the best we could to replicate the iconic shape, and here it is:

Group photo

We then packed up all the gear and prepared ourselves for the descent back down the tel. I rode with Prof Zissu, and we took a cute selfie as we navigated the jeep down the uncertain mountain path.

Jeeping selfie

It was the end of my first archaeological survey, and I had quite the experience taking part in it. Due to our efforts, we have significant insights into the historical aspects of Tel Goded, assisting further research and enabling a more accurate planning of future endeavours. Hopefully there will be more surveys in the future to accompany the many academic trips that we as a university take several times a month.

Tel Goded Archaeological Survey I

In Israel, Judea on December 24, 2017 at 8:50 AM

Having recently completed a four-week archaeological survey of Tel Goded with staff and students of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, I hereby present an accounting of the first two weeks. Despite the fact that it was a four-week survey, us archaeology students only actively surveyed one day per week, so this report is summarising two days worth of activity. We started off the first week with a mini-bus ride from the university to the site itself, located just a few kilometres northeast of Beit Guvrin-Maresha, and disembarked.

View from Tel Goded

We looked up at the hill facing us, curious what was in store, as the other members of the team gathered around to meet us beside an old fenced-off well. Prof Boaz Zissu was leading the survey with Dr Amit Dagan and his assistant Shira Albaz, the former specialising in Classical archaeology and the two latter in Bronze and Iron Ages archaeology. Without too much fanfare, the bulk of us climbed into 4×4 off-road vehicles and rode up the hill, the rest enjoying the ascent powered by their own legs.

Dr Amit Dagan and Prof Boaz Zissu

Up top, a shade tent was set up and we all gathered around for a briefing to understand what the day (and subsequent weeks) were to entail. To simplify things, and to preserve the academic findings for the forthcoming reports, I will just touch upon our work very briefly.

Canaanite flint sickle blade

The shape of the hill’s top, three plateaus descending northward, is the site of an old city which crowned the hill from the Bronze age to the Roman times. In 1900 the upper plateau, the old acropolis, was excavated by archaeologists Bliss and Macalister under the watchful eye of the Ottomans, and then covered up as per their instructions.

Anthropomorphic agricultural installation

Our survey’s goal was to examine the hilltop as best as we could, gathering up any evidence that we can find (mainly potsherds) with the addition of measurement- and elevation-takings. It was my duty that day was to scour a particular plot of land with the company of two friends, Avner and the frequently mentioned Itamar.

Surveying the acropolis

We scanned the dry ground, with its dry vegetation, and picked up a fair amount of potsherds. It was relaxing work and there were only a few nature distractions that day, the highlights being a swallowtail butterfly, a harrier of sorts and a juvenile sparrowhawk that flew past me at eye level.

Swallowtail butterfly

At the end of the day, sometime around 3pm, we all gathered together to summarise the day and to examine the finds. The most interesting finds were those of several team members that had been tasked with locating and surveying caves on the hillside. One cave, its entrance hidden by a dense bush, contained in it sleeping bags and empty food cans. This was a base camp for antiquity looters, and they had left behind a fair amount of nearly complete ceramic vessels which excited us greatly. The day ended with a jeep ride back down the tel, and we looked forward to continuing the survey.

My findings for the day

The following week was a rainy one, and the day of the survey was no exception. We arrived at Tel Goded and I decided that this time I’d walk up to further appreciate the site and to perhaps catch some bird or animal unawares for a nice photograph or two. I saw only chukars but, when convening to discuss the daily plan, I was told that I could join the cave-searching team–news that filled me with joy.

Winter day on the tel

I joined my friends Ogen and Eitan and together we set off down the hillside in search for caves, ignoring the occasional drizzling from the heavens. We found caves, which made us ecstatic in our findings. Ancient burial caves, broken into and looted, were found in the most unlikely places, sometimes hidden underfoot.

Searching for caves

It’s difficult to put the sheer joy of “discovering” a burial cave (albeit looted) into words, but believe our enthusiasm when I say we raced from hole to hole eager to slip inside to uncover a hidden world.

Slipping into yet another hidden cave

To make the experience even more exciting, there were some interesting animals to be seen within the caves. A Montpellier snake was spotted in one cave, and two different horseshoe bat species were found in another.

Horseshoe bat

Due to our excitement and perseverance, we ditched lunch and continued in our work, eager to keep exploring. Every minute counted, because when we found a cave we’d have to enter it to take photographs and GPS coordinates. Here’s an example of an empty burial cave that we found several of, each having a specific look or identifying feature:

Within one of the ancient burial caves

At last we had to finish up and meet the rest of the team coming down from the tel, but seeing that we were early, Eitan and I snuck off to the Roman-age ruins, a very popular site for school groups. We found classic Bar Kokhba rock-carved tunnels and a columbarium which was sealed off from the outside, accessible only via the narrow tunnel through which we crawled.

Exploring the inside of a columbarium

Leaving some more ruins to be explored next time, we met up with the rest of the survey team and heard a crazy story about them assisting the Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors in catching two young Arab looters red-handed, searching for ancient coins on the acropolis with a metal detector. After hearing the gripping tale, we took the minibus back to Bar Ilan University, looking forward to return again to this promising hill.

University Trip: Tel Lachish & Tel ‘Eton

In Israel, Judea on December 3, 2017 at 10:08 AM

Returning to the series of academic trips provided by the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University, I started off the new semester with a trip to Tel Lachish and Tel ‘Eton. Having heard so much about the findings at Tel Lachish in the past year or so, I was excited to at last see the site in person. The excitement regarding Tel ‘Eton was even more palpable due to the fact that I used to work at the Tel ‘Eton lab on-campus two years ago.

Tel Lachish

We left the campus in the morning, picked up Prof Avraham Faust along the way, and headed to the first stop of the day: Tel Lachish. We approached from the north, already seeing the steep hillsides and the reconstructed gate area from the road. Disembarking, we stood beneath the gathering of pine trees beside the unfinished visitors centre and listened to Prof Faust’s overview of the Israelite cities during the Iron Age with an emphasis on Lachish. Characteristic of me, I quickly got distracted by the birds around me: perched stonechats, clattering jackdaws, and a trio of black kites wheeling about in the thermals above me. I took photos until it was time to scale the historic hill, by way of the ancient access road to the city gates. What’s interesting about the gatehouse is that it was strategically built in a right angle, to prevent enemy horsemen from riding straight into the city.

Dragonfly

Inside the ruins of the ancient city we began our counter-clockwise tour. Just to give a very brief history review of Lachish, the site was first settled in prehistoric times and then became a fortified city under the Canaanites in the Late Bronze era, some 3200 years ago. The fortified city was destroyed by the army of Joshua, as depicted in the Bible, and laid barren for several hundred years until it was rebuilt by King Rehavam, son of King Solomon, when it became the second most important Jewish city in Judea. Destruction came again, this time by the hands of the Assyrians, and the city was razed to the ground. Illustrations of the siege and conquest were found in the wall carvings of Nineveh, including a relief of Sennacherib himself sanctioning the destruction of the large city.

Ballista stone

A hundred or so years later Lachish fell again, this time to the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The city never returned to its former glory and was eventually abandoned during the Hellenistic period, never to be rebuilt. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the tel was excavated, yet the work was abruptly stopped when the lead excavator, JL Starkey, was murdered by Arabs on his way to Jerusalem. Most recently, Prof Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University has resumed excavations and the site is to be turned into a national park sometime in the near future. An illustration of Lachish during its years of prosperity can be seen HERE, drawn by the fine folks at Biblewalks.

The palace base

Returning to the tour, we headed for a the ruins of the most prominent building on the hilltop. However, the professor was sure to enlighten us that the tall rectangular structure was just the base for the building that stood upon it – a fortified palace. Perched upon the rounded ashlar walls were two crested larks, posing nicely as I creeped forward to take pictures. Up on the palace floor, we surveyed the area and had a funny run-in with a Polish tourist who complained that he didn’t have material about the site to read. When our professor informed him that there will be a visitors centre sometime in the near future, the straight-faced tourist proclaimed that he was joking. Awkward silence hung heavy in the air and the tourist melted away, allowing us to recuperate before moving on to the next point of interest on the tel.

Overgrown Solar Shrine

From the palace we descended to a nearby ruin, that of an ancient temple known as the the Solar Shrine. This peculiar name derives from the fact that the positioning of the doorway allows the rising sun to shine straight into the structure, flooding it with warming light. Moving onwards, we headed for the northern end of the tel, looking at a series of excavations. It was there that I spotted a male common kestrel apparently eating something that it hunted moments earlier. Just below the dig, we took a brief gander at the ancient well – a peculiar thing to find on a hilltop.

The well and its pigeons

We then took the long way back, along the eastern side of the tel, and boarded our bus. It was time to visit the next site, Tel ‘Eton, located some eleven kilometres to the southeast (as the crow flies). Driving along the security wall on Road 358, we turned onto an access road approaching the site. Getting out moments later we surveyed our surroundings, admiring the mustard yellow grass blanketing the ground as far as the eye can see.

Tel ‘Eton

Mounting the hill on a scarcely visible trail, we clipped along at a good pace; I paused just briefly to photograph the pink flowers of a common leadwort bush. Atop the hill we made our way to the southernmost excavation site, Area A, and the professor began to educate us. In summary, we were going to be shown a style of Judean construction that differs somewhat from that of its neighbour Lachish. Most archaeologists associate Tel ‘Eton with the Canaanite city of Eglon which is mentioned in biblical records concerning battles between the Israelites and the local kingdoms.

Common leadwort flowers

That being said, ‘Eton/Eglon was an important fortified city during the years of Israelite rule, the focus of Faust’s research. That came to an end with the Assyrian conquest, at which point in history archaeological evidence confirms the destruction of the city. The Persian period saw a rebirth of the city, but on a smaller scale, and was completely abandoned at the start of the Hellenistic period. Other than agricultural improvements in the Byzantine times, Tel ‘Eton remains as it was over 2,000 years ago, convenient for excavations of a specific purpose such as Faust’s.

Professor Faust speaking

We walked over to the centre of the hilltop and examined other excavation areas, with minor distractions such as crested larks and dragonflies, as well as a lone porcupine quill. After pointing out the agricultural terraces to the west, the professor led us back to Area A where we gathered inside the excavated ruins.

Admiring Area B

Perhaps the highlight of the dig, the ruins of none other than those of a “four-chambered house”, typical of Israelite architecture. A stellar example, with a clear layout and some well-cut ashlars, it is believed that this was the house of an important family, perhaps even that of a local governor. This structure helped create a parallel to the finds at other sites, including the aforementioned Tel Lachish.

Within the ‘four-chambered house’

Finishing up, we headed back down the mustard-yellow hill, leaving me with a thought that it would be nice to dig at Tel ‘Eton sometime in the future, as it is one of BIU’s few active sites. Back in the bus we made our way to the last site of the trip, Khirbet Qeiyafa, which I have already written about twice before. We entered the magnificently walled city, one of my favourite Israelite sites, and briefly examined various architectural elements which helped complete the theme of the day’s lecture.

Sunset at Khirbet Qeiyafa

Because I have already been to Khirbet Qeiyafa twice before, I put a little extra focus on finding wildlife and I wasn’t disappointed. Highlights included elusive chukars, red blackstarts and a small herd of mountain gazelles making their way across the opposite hillside. The sun began to sink to the west, slowly at first but picking up speed rapidly, and before we knew it sunset was upon us. We prayed and then returned to our faithful bus to be returned to the university, bringing an end to a very long but delightful trip.

A special thank you to the talented Rebecca Zami who has editing each and every blog post for the past four months!

Jerusalem Aqueduct Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 12, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Several weeks ago, the day before my birthday, I had a day off from classes which had begun with the new semester mid-October and decided to participate in an ongoing excavation led by the Israel Antiquities Authority. My friend Ben joined in on the fun and we made our way to Jerusalem in the morning, heading for the dig located in the southern part of the city, below the Armon Hanatziv Promenade.

Approaching the dig site

Heavy rainclouds loomed overhead as we approached the construction site where our dig was taking place, where remains of the Greco-Roman aqueduct was found and a salvage excavation was opened up. We passed the hard-hatted workers and construction vehicles as we made our way to the black-tented excavation area. Meeting Yaakov Billig, the IAA director of the dig, we were briefed on the historical and archaeological situation of the aqueduct.

Jerusalem aqueduct archaeological dig

In short, during the late Hellenistic or Roman times an aqueduct was constructed to bring fresh water from reservoirs near Bethlehem to the Old City of Jerusalem. Many attribute the construction to Herod, as he was responsible for a huge building boom, but others prefer to credit the Hasmonean dynasty. Known as the Upper Aqueduct, the elevated structure sloped ever so gently down towards Jerusalem – important for identifying the intermittent sections found between the reservoirs and the capital. I don’t recall the exact height from the briefing, but according to various online maps I think that we were at 778 metres above sea level. Regardless, mapping the slow drop in elevation is crucial for correctly identifying remains of the same aqueduct.

Western meanders of the channel

In addition to the remains of the aqueduct, there was also what seems to be a large building and then a serpentine plaster water channel running perpendicular to the stone aqueduct. When our briefing ended, Yaakov handed us over to Rivka, the supervisor for the plaster channel area, and we were put to work on the far end. Our task was to further define the channel which had already been crudely exposed by a bulldozer. We armed ourselves with pickaxes, hoes and black plastic buckets and got to work. Just a few metres away was a small group of schoolchildren who provided us with fun music and conversation to which we worked.

Working alongside the schoolchildren

We picked, cleared and defined, moving slowly west down the channel, working gingerly around the delicate plaster. There wasn’t much in terms of artefacts, not even any interesting potsherds at first. Eventually we found some Roman-age ceramic roof tile pieces, but even more interesting was a rim piece of an ancient glass vessel, curled upon itself in a delicate manner.

Interesting piece of glass

At around 10:00 am we took a short break to examine the other areas of the dig, to eat and to do a little birding in the nearby grasses. I found a few stonechats, pied wagtails and jackdaws along with the regular Israeli city birds, and I rejoined Ben for some breakfast. The group of schoolchildren left shortly thereafter and we were relocated to a different part of the plaster channel. With the connection of the aforementioned building and the plaster channel still buried, we were given new instructions to define it better. I settled down with a small pick and got to work define the delicate sides while Ben wielded the big pickaxe, clearing away the area beside a bulldozed trench. Yaakov came over to chat with us, telling us that he attended Bar Ilan University as well.

East end of the channel

One of the hired Arab workers popped over to show us a rock that had broken in half, revealing a crystallised quartz interior. Then, as I cleared away the loose dirt I found myself holding a nearly perfect stone cube. Curious as to what it might be I waited for Yaakov to return, and was then told that it’s a mosaic tile – which makes sense due to the fact that on five of the six sides there was the remains of ancient cement.

Mosaic stone

The hours had passed before us and the hired workers began to pack up, another day at the dig coming to an end. We packed up as well, and said our words of farewell to Yaakov. But before we left, there was a special treat for us: a coin had been found earlier by the hired workers, and the dig’s assistant director, Rotem, took us to see it. I was surprised at how small it was, all encrusted and corroded, but it was clearly a coin with some sort of lettering that will be easier to identify after the lab finishes with it.

Yours truly

Leaving the site we headed back towards the heart of Jerusalem, specifically to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) as we were famished and waiting impatiently for some juicy burgers. We had our late lunch at Burger Market, washed down with bottles of cold alcoholic cider, before browsing the vibrant shuk.

Hatch brews

Our last stop was to the newly opened Hatch taproom, where a fun selection of fresh beers are available, in addition to creative sausages. After some samples I settled on a hoppy IPA, very similar to the popular NEIPA, and Ben had a Scottish ale. In added celebration of my birthday, Ben went ahead and ordered us one of the sausages, topped with a mango chutney and chopped onions. It was surprisingly tasty and we had a grand time eating, drinking and talking to the owner, Ephraim Greenblatt, about beers and brewing. At last, we said farewell and took a crowded bus back to Givat Shmuel bringing an end to a very fun and interesting day.

North Tel Aviv Coast

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

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

Starting with sunrise

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

Scanning the area

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

Sea squill

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

Queen carpenter ant

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

Two harriers and a crow

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

Exploring the dunes

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

Tracks

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

Beach evening primrose

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

Abandoned army base

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

Red-backed shrike

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

Tel Baruch Beach

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

Common kingfisher

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

Adam fishing

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

Shiloh

In Israel, Samaria on October 22, 2017 at 2:57 PM

In the middle of September I took part in a nice day trip as part of my job at the high school where I work. The class I was accompanying was headed for Shiloh, a site I had yet to visit, the longtime resting place of the Jewish Mishkan (Tabernacle), the temporary Temple, in biblical times. Ready for adventure, we boarded our armoured bus to be driven to Shiloh, located in the Shomron, south of Tapuah Junction on Road 60.

Tel Shiloh

As I was passing my old army-time stomping grounds, I enjoyed driving through the Shomron and seeing the daily life just as I had left it years ago. We reached Shiloh and pulled into the small parking lot, disembarking beside a seemingly religiously-oriented Byzantine structure named the Dome of the Divine Presence. Its sloping walls made it quite curious looking, but there was little time for examination as I had school lads to tend to.

Dome of the Divine Presence structure

We gathered within the park, gazing down at a Byzantine reservoir and well, which was once outside a Crusader church, of which there are no remnants. Inside, past the gift shop, we broke into class groups with our own tour guides – ours was Eli Riskin, who exuberantly led us onto the first of the sites that we’d be seeing during our Shiloh trip.

Reconstructed Byzantine basilica

The first site was the reconstructed Byzantine basilica, a rough concrete structure built by a Danish archaeological team sometime between 1926 and 1932. What they were sheltering was an expansive mosaic floor with various designs and motifs, the two most interesting being a Star of David and an inscription in Greek by the doorstep which helped positively identify this site with biblical Shiloh.

Byzantine mosaic

Dillydallying a bit with my camera trying to get nice shots of the mosaics and ruins, I became separated from my group and continued on past a Mamluk mosque, also decorated with mosaic floors from the Byzantine era. A piece of a horned altar from the Second Temple period was found here, fueling the fervor surrounding the site’s religious importance.

Ancient olive oil production

From there I began the climb up the hill, Tel Shiloh, with the ruins of the ancient city exposed all around me. I kept walking uphill heading for HaRoeh Tower, the visitors centre where the lads had congregated. Along the way, at the lookout, I admired modern-day Shiloh and the glimpse of the Tabernacle Memorial synagogue, built to replicate the ancient Tabernacle at least from an architectural standpoint.

HaRoeh Tower

The school lads were watching a short film about Shiloh from a biblical perspective so I took the opportunity to visit the tiny museum by my lonesome. Exhibiting artefacts in a circular fashion in accordance with their timeframe, the museum houses some nice ancient vessels, weapons and coins.

Ruins of Tel Shiloh

At last we went down to the area that is believed to be the site of the Mishkan, based on geographic and topographic calculations. We passed the wall of the original Canaanite city and reached a flat area where the bedrock was hewn in sections. Sitting beneath a shade booth we listened to the tour guides as they explained the site to us, followed by praying Mincha.

Heading down to the supposed site of the Mishkan

Having reached the end of the park we made our way back, taking the scenic route around the western edge of the original city. Back at the entrance I checked out the Roman winepress installation and the hewn-rock graves, dated to the Second Temple period. After lunch of deli sandwiches we made our way to the buses, which afforded me a quick peek at the aforementioned Dome of the Divine Presence structure, and we were driven just across the road.

Dusty grapes

Disembarking, we took a nice hike along Nachal Shiloh, just about four kilometres of classic wadi hiking. At first we passed the Shapiro Family Vineyards of lush, albeit dusty, grapes just waiting to be made into boutique wine. When we dipped down to the trail along the dry streambed, we followed our nimble guides as we traversed the rocks. Along the way I stopped here and there to see if I could find any cool wildlife. At one point, fast movement along the top of the ridge gave away two mountain gazelles which I barely caught with my camera. Later, I found some nice birds, namely a few blue rock thrushes and my very first red-backed shrike.

Hiking Nachal Shiloh

Unfortunately, the spring we were headed to turned out to be quite choked by algae so we kept onwards, re-emerging at the end of the trail where the buses were waiting for us. Upon returning to Givat Shmuel, I met up with my frequent travelmate Adam for a evening out to the Dancing Camel brewery for the annual release party of the acclaimed Doc’s Green Leaf Party IPA, the highest rated Israeli beer according to voters on RateBeer. So ended another successful adventure.

Park HaMaayanot

In Galilee, Israel on October 15, 2017 at 6:06 AM

Having left Sachne in the previous post, our merry band of explorers – Ben, Miriam, Eve and myself – entered Park HaMaayanot to find the campsite that had been decided upon after consulting a satellite image map. We were looking for a scenic site, hopefully devoid of other campers and close to water. I had plans for some early morning birding, and the fish pools just 400 metres away seemed like the perfect place to accomplish this.

View of Park HaMaayanot from the east

We followed the road through the park and arrived at the Ein Shokek, a picturesque little spring pool but, because we saw other visitors, we kept moving. We walked along the tiny stream that flows from Ein Shokek, overgrown with reeds, and found the place at which we had intended to camp – and it was as beautiful as we had hoped. A shallow pool lined with rocks and shaded by eucalyptus trees, with ruins of an old flour mill and aqueduct on the side.

Campsite pool

To maintain privacy and seclusion we decided to camp on the other side of the flour mill and found a perfect place to pitch our tents. Sunset was imminent, the sun sinking behind Mount Gilboa to the west, so we finished up the preparations that required light. With the failing light came the jackals, and we watched as they came over in small groups of two or three, spying on us from a safe distance. As interesting as jackals are, we were getting peckish and had to figure out dinner from our dwindling stock of food supplies.

Camping beside the aqueduct

We had dinner at the picnic benches near the calm pool, the full moon wowing us with its splendor. Not one for canned tuna, I decided that I would go ahead and try the classic Israeli scorched tuna method (see HERE). We sat in relative darkness, watching the cans of tuna burn brightly before us, occasionally spraying us with boiling hot oil and burning ash.

Ben preparing the flaming tuna

In jolly good moods, we joked about the jackals coming for our food in the night, and that even if we’d tie the food up in a tree, the jackal pack would come and chew the tree down. This silly thought spawned the clever term “lumberjackal” which I must accredit to Ben. Next, Eve entertained us with a brief shadow puppet show on the trunk of a nearby eucalyptus, and when the tuna was properly scorched, we had dinner and a cup of lemon ginger tea.

Full moon over the campsite

Going to sleep nice and early, the jackals didn’t interfere too much with our human encampment, nor did they turn into lumberjackals. I woke up at 5:30am to see my birding wish come true, and walked over to the fish ponds. I didn’t find anything too noteworthy at the fish ponds except for my first common sandpiper, which bobbed up and down among the waterside rocks. In addition, there was the standard stock of waterfowl such as egrets, herons and ducks as well as a nice amount of white-breasted kingfishers and barn swallows.

Grey heron silhouette

However, the views with the early morning sun were stunning, and the area just begged to be photographed. One angle that I found particularly eye-pleasing is the view of Mount Gilboa with the fish ponds in the foreground. I spent about an hour and a half at the ponds before heading back to my fellow campers, who were in the process of packing up their tents.

Fish pools and Mount Gilboa

With everything packed away nicely, we prayed alongside the eucalyptus trees and then I dipped into the shallow pond, enjoying a little foot grooming from the doctor fish and the suspicious glances of a lone catfish skulking about underfoot. At last we moved on over to Ein Shokek and were thrilled at the simple beauty of the place.

Ein Shokek’s beauty

Perfectly clear water, with different shades of rock colours decorating the floor, and the presence of so many peaceful-looking fish made us want to stay forever. We entered the water in our swimwear, giggling at the gentle persistence of the hungry doctor fish, and splashed around in the warming waters. We were alone, but not for long, as small groups of visitors came by for mere minutes at a time.

Doctor fish nibbling away

We had breakfast and tea and then made a plan for the rest of the day, eventually changing back into regular clothing. Getting golf cart rides back to the entrance of the park we set off on our short hike.

Park HaMaayanot

Crossing the park from west to east, we walked the trail along Nahal HaKibbutzim, passing some wildflowers and a few birds, including my first marsh harrier. It was a nice gentle walk, the golden hill of Tel Socha serving as a beacon up ahead. Climbing the steep hill, which has yet to be excavated despite signs of human settlements thousands of years prior, we reached the ruined watchtower.

Climbing Tel Socha

A few years after neighbouring Nir David was constructed, several kibbutz members were killed by local Arabs at the foot of this hill. So, to protect against further attacks, a watchtower was erected, named after the three who had fallen the year before. This story is where the alternate name of Sachne, Gan HaShlosha, comes from.

Nachal HaKibbutzim

Hiking back down the hill, we spent a few minutes at the water of Nahal HaKibbutzim before heading for the bus stop a few minutes away. We were taken to the Bet Shean train station, and from there back to Tel Aviv, bringing an end to a lovely little camping trip with my adventurous friends.

Sachne

In Galilee, Israel on October 8, 2017 at 4:41 AM

After two weeks of not doing anything fun save studying and taking finals, I participated in a trip that was mostly planned by my friends. Ben and Miriam, friends of mine, came back from a trip up north with convincing words that we all need to go visit Sachne. Also known as Gan HaShlosha, Sachne is a national park between Beit Alpha and Bet Shean in the valley below Mount Gilboa which largely focuses on a large series of freshwater pools stemming from underground springs. It has been described as “heaven on earth” and we were excited to explore it.

The beauty of Sachne

To make our trip as rewarding as possible, it was decided that we’d have a barbecue lunch at Sachne, spending as long as we could before the park rangers kick us out. Once banished, we’d go camp somewhere nice where we’d see water and the migratory birds that had just started to make their way to Africa from Europe and Northern Asia and then return sometime in the afternoon. I borrowed a tent from a friend and brought along the necessary equipment and supplies to ensure a glorious trip. Setting out for the 6am train, we were a snazzy party of five: Ben, Miriam, Adam (who is frequently featured), Eve and myself.

Sunlit explorers

When we passed the salt pools of Atlit I was surprised to see two flocks of flamingos standing in the shallow waters. I called out and gestured for my trip-mates to share in the joy of seeing some eighty flamingos relatively close by. For the amateur birder that I am, the trip was off to a great start and I was eager to see more. I was treated to a nice sighting of a short-toed eagle flying past the train near Mount Carmel. It was my first time riding the new train line from Haifa to Bet Shean, a reconstruction of the old Ottoman line that connected to the Hedjaz Railway.

Eastern end of Sachne

We arrived at Bet Shean and, after a very long wait for a bus, eventually made it to the entrance of Sachne. We paid the entry fee and entered the park, excited to see what the fuss was all about. Because the park is long and narrow, along the lush banks of the Amal stream, Ben and Miriam took us to the southern side and together we searched for the perfect spot to claim. We found it just after the first waterfall, a picnic table beside a grill under the shade of some fig trees. Dumping all of our heavy bags at the base of one of the trees, we unpacked the necessary tools to get our barbecue going. I volunteered to stay behind and watch over our belongings whilst tending to the fire while the others went for a dip in the cerulean waters.

Lunch is served

I grilled up an eggplant and a pan of onions for the burgers we were to make next. The others came back from swimming and we continued cooking up a little feast for ourselves. We sat at the picnic table and dined, eating until we could no more. When the meal was over, and after our brief interactions with a large group of Bahais that were feasting nearby, we returned our focus to the beautiful water.

Cerulean waters of Nachal Amal

It was my turn to explore and I did just that. Walking along the paved banks, we came upon something very interesting, something I had never even heard of. Hewn in the stone are the remnants of a Roman naumachia, stepped rows of seating for spectators to watch watersports (at least that’s what the running theory is). It must have been quite entertaining to sit on the stone steps whilst munching on some dulciaria procured from the passing usher. Those who find interest in dulciaria and other Roman foods should peruse the translated version of Apicius, a delightful Roman cookbook which can be found HERE.

Roman naumachia seating

Continuing further along, we reached the old flour mill and the complex of pools, channels and structures which charmed us. We worked our way down to a particularly interesting spot where water rushes from two arched holes in a dam, spilling over a small waterfall at the end. Doctor fish greeted us, sucking and nibbling on our feet as we traversed the rocky streambed. Donning goggles we were able to get a nice view of the underwater world, as shallow and fast moving as it was. I found great joy in sitting beneath the gushing water in the dam and then being swept along at the mini-waterfall. We went down to the pool below and found that the stream continued thenceforth rather peacefully, with some lazy fish swimming about in the greenish water.

Sachne’s flour mill installation

Returning to dry land, I went off on a quick scouting expedition to see what and where the purported archaeology museum and tower and stockade site. More about the tower and stockade building approach that was popular by necessity in the 1930s can be found on my post about the Old Northern Road, but what’s extra interesting is that the one at Sachne was the second of its kind to be built, preceded only by Kfar Hittim three days prior. I found the museum to be closed for the day and didn’t venture over to the tower and stockade, returning to my friends cavorting in the picturesque waters.

Nir David’s Tower and Stockade

Taking up the goggles once again I too enjoyed the water, noticing a common kingfisher perched on a root protruding from the steep banks just below our barbecue encampment. Swimming here and there, we were eventually called from the water as the park was closing. With great sorrow we dried off and changed back to our normal clothing. Adam was leaving us to get back to the Tel Aviv area while the rest of us were just relocating. We left Sachne and headed to Park HaMaayanot (or, Park of the Springs) to camp beside a lovely pool amongst some eucalyptus trees – a site we found using the satellite map of Amud Anan, my favourite site/app for maps. The continuation of the day’s adventure will continue in the next post.

Apollonia (Arsuf)

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

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

City ruins

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

Ice plants decorating the scenery

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

Details of the castle moat

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

Crusader castle of Arsuf

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

Path along the sea

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

Adam at a cistern

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

Artist’s rendition of the Mamluk siege

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

Greetings my lords

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

Within the keep

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

Looking north

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

Ancient piece of glass

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

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