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Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on August 20, 2017 at 7:12 AM

The Monday following my trip to the City of David I found myself back home in Ma’alot and excited for a day at the Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig. My own month-long dig at Tel es-Safi was to start the following week, classes were ending – the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Being that Tel Kabri is just a few minutes from the Mediterranean Sea along Road 89, it was just a few minutes away by car and, even with getting lost and confused, my brother Nissim and I arrived at the dig site unscathed and ready for adventure.

Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig (photo Griffin Aerial Imaging Ltd Skyview Photography Ltd.)

We were greeted by Prof Eric H Cline of George Washington University and other members of the staff and were then introduced to the site. First settled in prehistoric times, the city’s original name is still unknown and eventually became known as Rechov (perhaps one of two cities in the region with that name) under Canaanite rule. The Tel Kabri palace, which was recently discovered, dates to the Middle Bronze era and is the largest of its kind in Israel. Two things that are particularly interesting are the Minoan-style fresco fragments (which indicate cultural influence at such an early age) as well as the vast wine cellar that was found a few years ago. Fast-forward to the Roman era and the city became known as Kabrita which then became el-Kabira in the Early Arab period, names becoming naturally corrupted over time. El-Kabira morphed into al-Kabri, and, in 1949, an Israeli kibbutz by the name of Kabri was founded nearby.

Excavation underway

Today the Canaanite palace and surrounding ruins that have yet to be excavated are surrounded by an avocado plantation. To the northwest is Achziv and Rosh HaNikra and to the southwest is the magnificent port city of Akko and Haifa, all fascinating sites. Finished with our little tour of the dig area, we were introduced to Jim, our to-be square supervisor. He provided us with the necessary tools to work – pickaxes, hoes and trowels – and we settled in the far northwestern corner of the dig site which is named Area D-west Square 1.

Nissim digging away

Our task was a simple one that day, to deepen the square so that it was as deep as the adjacent one. In archaeology it’s important to work on a level plane, so that everything is potentially uncovered at the same time instead of random pits here and there. Due to the fact that the dig site is located in an avocado plantation, the ground is damp from the irrigation and the digging was more or less pleasant.

Scraping away at the baulk for the potsherd

We found small amounts of pottery which went into the specially-marked pottery bucket, as well as a bone fragment, which was placed in Jim’s “schwarma bag” – a cute name for the small paper bags obtained at Israeli street food joints. The bag was properly labeled and in went the bone. Similar procedures were taken to secure flint and shell fragments found in the dirt.

Bag o’ bones

Apparently, on the very first day of the season, an Ottoman coin was found in an adjacent square but unfortunately we found no coins that day. Our square partners, McKay, MJ and Russell, helped pass the time making the labour fun with interesting discussions and funny jokes. The general atmosphere at the dig was very jovial and humourous despite the humid heat, with trance music playing in the background for our enjoyment. Then, when least expected, the call for the bucket brigade would sound out and diggers would form lines outside the dig area bringing full buckets with them. When the buckets of dirt to be discarded became overwhelmingly numerous it was deemed that having a unified effort to dispose of them would be best for morale and efficiency. Thus, the bucket brigade would form and full buckets of dirt would be thrown down the assembly line of diggers until it reached the large dirt hill where the dirt was dispensed.

Awaiting the bucket brigade

Breakfast came and went, as did the fruit break and a surprising moment when staff members appeared out of the trees armed with waterguns and sprayed the sweaty dig crew to liven them up. I was left unsprayed, but my own sweat kept me lively enough. I made contact with the small group of Israelis, led by Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University, and spoke to them for a bit about matters of academia and archaeology. Other dig members proved to be interesting as well, and the time flew by. It wasn’t long before the dig day was coming to an end and we cleared away all the tools.

Nissim within the square

While we hadn’t found anything too exciting that day, we succeeded in taking the square’s height down a wee bit which would be of help in the following days. We packed up our bags and bid farewell to Eric, Assaf, Matt (our area supervisor), Jim and the others, driving back out of the avocado plantation.

Avocado

The sun was still high in the sky and I still had energy for more adventure so we turned into a small collection of interesting sites just across Road 70. Parking the car under some eucalyptus trees, we got out into the heat and made our way to the ruins of an old flour mill, powered by water channeled in via a small aqueduct which is still preserved.

Old flour mill

We then walked along the aqueduct until we reached the old local Muslim cemetery where painted vehicle hulls are displayed. In 1948, during the War of Independence, the members of Kibbutz Yehiam were holed up and surrounded by Arab forces, in desperate need of support. Supplies and reinforcements were scheduled to be driven in from the Haifa area – yet disaster loomed. Arab forces were waiting in ambush at this cemetery and opened fire on the incoming convoy, effectively stopping it and killing forty-seven Haganah members. We examined the vehicles, even entering one, and then returned to our car to drive back home. Nissim ended up returning to the dig for the remainder of the season, having the time of his life, but I headed back to Givat Shmuel and then to my own university’s excavation, the Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig. Additional information about the dig and participation options can be found on the Tel Kabri website, found HERE.

University Trip: City of David

In Israel, Jerusalem on August 13, 2017 at 7:29 AM

The day following our Bar Ilan University academic tour to “Moshavot” of the Galilee took us on another tour, this time of the famous City of David in Jerusalem – where we all had to meet at the given time. But, my morning was wrought with strange inconveniences, for when I disembarked at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and attempted to then board the light rail, I discovered that my RavKav public transportation pass had disappeared – stolen or dropped. It was an hour or so after the prearranged start time for the tour when I was issued a new RavKav and so I made my way to the City of David in hopes of salvaging what I could of the tour. Located just outside the Old City’s walls on the southern side, I elected to walk through the Old City – a pleasant walk. Making my way through the Armenian Quarter, I then passed the small and obscure archaeological park called Gan HaTekuma and I exited the Old City via the Dung Gate next to the Kotel (Western Wall). Turning east, I laid eyes upon the Givati Parking Lot Excavation site for the first time and then continued to the City of David.

Givati Parking Lot excavations

Entering the national park for the first time since 2008, I passed myriads of tourists and approached the ticket counter to explain my predicament that I was part of a group which had already entered. Believing my story, I was given a stamped ticket and allowed into the park – but it took a few minutes of confused wandering before I located my group in the excavation area of the “Large Stone Structure” (suggested to be King David’s palace) beneath the floor of park’s entrance area. I caught myself up as best as I could perusing the signs concerning the important finds uncovered thus far after which I focused my attention on our guide for the day, Dr Eyal Meiron, an expert on the City of David. We briefly inspected the Royal Quarter (Area G), a complex dating to the First Temple period, and then made our way to a nice lookout spot where we stood/sat beneath a sun umbrella to learn more about the city. The city is built on a mountain ridge in a mountainous area with the Arab village of Silwan on the adjacent ridge and the Mount of Olives slightly further away to the northeast.

Lookout towards Silwan and the Mount of Olives

To give a brief summary of the City of David, the excavated region was the original city of Jerusalem before it slowly expanded outward, from the revolutionary expansions of King Hezekiah in the 7th century BCE to its famous city walls of today, built in the mid 1500s by the Ottomans. It is believed that the first walled city was built during the Middle Bronze age, and then passed ownership a few times until King David conquered it in the Iron Age, approximately 3,000 years ago. King Solomon, the son of David, expanded the city and built the First Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. A couple hundred years later, after the Jewish kingdoms split, the Assyrians attempted to conquer ancient Jerusalem but failed. The Babylonians, however, succeeded and razed the city to the ground, destroying the Temple as well. In the Hasmonean and Roman times the city experienced a rebirth of sorts, until it was once again destroyed (along with the Second Temple) by the Romans in response to the Great Revolt. Eventually the city limits changed and the City of David, which found itself outside of Jerusalem, was largely forgotten about. Excavations in the late 1800s revealed the forgotten city and since then the City of David has been one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel.

Ottoman wall of the Old City

We left our lookout area to go underground to the Warren’s Shaft System, a carven well in the rock which was believed to be used to draw water from the Gihon Spring. An important part of every city, fresh water was readily available to the inhabitants of the City of David gushing from the Gihon Spring, yet due to its low setting the defensive walls were built excluding the spring. The issue of providing water under times of siege during the Canaanite times was answered first by the Warren’s Shaft System and later by a tunnel and fortified pool which jutted out from the city walls. While we were stopped at the top of the shaft it was curious to note how many of the passing tour guides both knew and admired our guide, who had apparently educated many of them in matters concerning the site.

Dr Eyal Meiron pointing beside the shaft

Continuing along underground along the Secret Tunnel, we reached a large open area which housed the remains of the Canaanite Pool and surrounding fortifications. Walking on metal walkways with the occasional glass panel to view the ruins below, we skirted the excavated area and marveled at the size. Unfortunately, due to the cramped angles and low lighting, none of the photographs that I took properly document the sights that I saw underground. I thus turned to Eyal who has been so kind as to share this illustration of how he imagines the pool and fortifications to have looked during the Canaanite era.

Canaanite pool fortifications (reconstruction: Eyal Meiron, illustration: Leonardo Gurevich)

Emerging into the sunlight for a few brief moments, we quickly headed for the Canaanite Tunnel – one of two parallel passages that cut through the karst bedrock from the Gihon Spring underground to the Shiloah (Siloam) Pool at the far southern end of the City of David. The famous Shiloah (Siloam) Inscription that was found in 1880 towards the end of the other passage, the Hezekiah Tunnel, has been kept in Turkey’s Istanbul Museum after being cut out of the rock wall despite Israel’s repeated requests for its returned ownership. The three-dimensional aspect of our tour makes it somewhat complicated to explain but in essence we were more-or-less heading south and down in elevation from the beginning of the tour till the end. Within the 115 metre long Canaanite Tunnel, we encountered tight squeezes and small amounts of flooding – which I later found out was sewage water!

Within the Canaanite Tunnel

Being as that we chose the shorter, “dry” route through the bedrock, we emerged once again into the blessed sunlight and found ourselves looking at the original walls of Jerusalem – a truly ancient construction.

Walls of ancient Jerusalem

The tour officially ended there but some of us carried on along the cobbled road towards the Shiloah Pool, passing several sites of interest along the way including the Amanah House and the Meyuhas House – some of the first modern Jewish houses outside the Ottoman walls of Jerusalem. Before long we reached the Shiloah Pool and waited there for the shuttle to take us back up to the Old City wall.

The Shiloach (Siloam) Pool

Deposited at the Dung Gate, I thanked my Arab driver and entered the Old City, making my way back along the same road toward the Jaffa Gate. Seeing the Tower of David, and feeling inspired to finally visit this long-overdue site, I quickly learned that I had come too late. Angling for just a little bit more adventure, I contemplated visiting the area where the Hospitaller Knights of Crusades were headquartered but decided against it due to the fact that it was the end of Ramadan and prayers had just let out – I didn’t want to venture off alone through the crowds.

Harpist in Jaffa Gate

Leaving the Old City, I settled with taking a quick visit to a Jerusalem beer and beer supply store where I enjoyed a cold glass of Lindemans Cassis Lambic, a naturally fermented Belgian beer flavoured with blackcurrants – quite tasty and quite refreshing! A short ride on the light rail and I was back on a bus to Givat Shmuel, ending yet another successful adventure.

University Trip: “Moshavot” of the Galilee

In Galilee, Israel on August 6, 2017 at 7:40 AM

The week after visiting Tel Aroma & Mount Gerizim in the Shomron I participated in another academic tour offered by Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department. This time we were traveling to the north of Israel with Dr Einat HaLevi Attia to examine early “Moshavot” of the Galilee, settlements established in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the first waves of immigrants to the Holy Land. We boarded a tour minibus at the university and made our way to the first site of the day, Kibbutz Merchavia, after a short rest stop in neighbouring Afula.

Merchavia

We sat outside the “Great Courtyard” and learned about Merchavia’s founding in 1911 and their distinct organisational style as being a “co-operative”. Interestingly enough, they created the first dairy in modern-day Israel. Our subsequent tour of the courtyard’s buildings included the “Big House”, the “Produce Granary”, the Haganah Radio Station and later Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s house. Getting back into the minibus, we then took a very short drive to the edge of the moshav version of Merchavia where admired a large manor built during those formative years and nicknamed the “Castle of the Jezreel Valley” due to its size and position overlooking the valley. Returning to our trusty minibus, we then drove over to where the agricultural establishment of Sejara once stood, founded in 1900. Today the remains are within a military base by the name of Chavat HaShomer (which I visited once several years ago but didn’t see the ruins).

Rose-ringed parakeet inspecting me from above

So, we stayed outside under a large tree and learned about the site before walking over to see Ilaniya, the successor of the Sejara settlement. There we were afforded up-close and plentiful views of the still-existent site – a settlement of one main street lined with agriculturally involved houses. I distracted myself trying to photograph singing goldfinches, but with limited success. Walking to a rooftop lookout, we passed farming equipment on display and then admired a large wall that was originally made with white chalk and then added to with blocks of dark grey basalt. From Ilaniya we got back into the minibus and drove to see a handful of ruined basalt buildings in Poriya, established in 1912.

Basalt ruins of Poriya

From there we took a short break at a strip mall where I purchased a bottle of semi-sweet hard cider for Shabbat and then on to the next site on our list: the Kinneret Courtyard just south of the ruins of Bet Yerach. A rectangular collection of well-kept basalt buildings, the courtyard was founded in 1908 as a defensible frontier close to the Sea of Galilee. We were greeted by our local guide, Asaf, who gave us a hurried yet sincere overview on the early history of the settlement and the difficulties that encumbered the settlers in those times. Inside the exhibits room of the courtyard, located within the old khan (roadside inn), we inspected items that belonged to that era, as well as signs depicting the important figures who played roles in the sites formation.

Kinneret Courtyard

Taking leave of the courtyard, with some noisy kestrels passing overhead, we got back into the minibus to be taken to Degania, which I had already visited in 2012. We met up with our next local guide, witty Moshe, who took us on an interesting tour, including the following site which I had not known about beforehand. Driving alongside the agricultural date groves at the edge of the kibbutz, we reached the place where the first building was constructed in 1909 – at a place once known as Umm Juni. This structure was featured in the famous photo of the settlement members in mostly Arab garb posing that can be seen HERE.

Original structure of Degania

Beyond the structure is a wildly windy lookout overlooking fields and the dry wilderness beyond. Directly below the gentle Jordan River flows, nimble swallows (both barn and red-rumped) darting back and forth in the hot air overhead. I stalked a bird along the basalt rocks only to discover that it was a crested lark, nothing to get too excited over.

Picturesque view from Umm Juni

From there we went to the regular part of Degania, where the courtyard (a common theme this trip) beckons, with its basalt stone structures. Overhead we got glimpses of cormorants flying to and from the Kinneret’s banks, and the occasional goldfinch snacking in a pine tree. We entered the small museum just outside the courtyard’s domain and examined the collection of photographs taken over the years, including a particularly interesting aerial shot with the shadow of the German airplane that took it. I signed the guestbook, plugging my blog shamelessly, and we bid farewell to both Degania and our guide Moshe.

Cemetery beside the Kinneret

We had one last place to visit – a cemetery overlooking the peaceful blue Kinneret. Having discussed so much of the early years, it was time, at last, to see what has become of the valiant members of such noble efforts. We were there to pay our respects, and to have one or two last things to reflect upon before we returned to the urban sprawl of the centre of the country. Leaving the cemetery, we ritually washed our hands and boarded the minibus for the long drive back, another interesting trip under our belts.

University Trip: Tel Aroma & Mount Gerizim

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

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

Making our way to Tel Aroma – the central peak

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

Chewed and crystalised almond on a stick

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

Wild boars

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

Ben climbing Tel Aroma

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

Tel Aroma from above (photo Biblewalks.com)

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

Hasmonean fortress ruin

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

Within the immense cistern

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

Lovely little spring

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

Cicada

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

Hellenistic ruins of Mount Gerizim overlooking Shechem

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

Byzantine monastery and sheikh’s tomb

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

Mount Gerizim ruins with Luza in the background

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

University Trip: Toron des Chevaliers & Nabi Samuel

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

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

Toron des Chevaliers (Latrun)

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

Great Hall of Toron des Chevaliers

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

Light filtering in

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

Church of the Crusaders in Abu Ghosh

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

Greenfinch eating from a pinecone

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

Nabi Samuel

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

Vaulted Crusader ruins

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

Hellenistic and Roman ruins

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

Muslims to the left and Jews to the right

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

View from the roof of Nabi Samuel

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

Nachal Kedesh & Metzudat Koach

In Galilee, Israel on July 2, 2017 at 8:14 AM

Wrapping up a trio of posts stemming from a three-day trip to the Galilee and Golan with 9th graders belonging to the school where I work, we awoke mosquito-bitten and hot at Tzemach Beach at the southern tip of the Kinneret. We went through the morning routine and before long we were ready for the first activity of the day, lunches packed away for later. Due to the heat, the powers that be adapted our schedule to reduce heat stroke among the masses and our hike was to be a shaded one, in the wooded ravine of Nachal Kedesh in the Upper Galilee, not far from Tel Kedesh. But first we stopped at the kever (grave) of Choni HaMa’agal, a Jewish sage from the Roman era, in Hazor next to Rosh Pina. Continuing on to the hike, the buses deposited us at the trailhead near Yesha Junction where our guide gave us a short talk on geography and off we went into the ravine.

Game of light and shadow at Nachal Kedesh

Quite a shaded area, but still hot and surprisingly humid, there wasn’t much to do except for hiking which turned out to involve some scrambling and dropping off rocks to follow the winding trail. We walked along the dry and rocky streambed, our bodies drenched with sweat, but it went by quickly. Before long we emerged from the shade of the trees and we were walking along the tri-colour-marked Israel National Trail with a lovely view of the Naftali mountains.

Israel National Trail

I kept a sharp eye out for wildlife but it was simply too hot and the only thing of interest that I saw were wild carrot flowers, which I’ve been seeing everywhere these past few weeks. We approached a copse of pine trees and our trail turned south, affording a great view of the Hula Valley and the golden plateau of the Golan beyond.

View of the Hula Valley and the Golan

The trail marker turned red and there was a sign marking a grove of trees plants in memory of the soldiers that we were soon to learn about. Up ahead, just beyond the trees, was Metzudat Koach, a British-built police station that was occupied by Arab forces upon the British withdrawal in 1948. Jewish attempts at conquering the strategic fortress were costly and, despite eventual success, twenty-eight soldiers were killed. The name “Koach” means “strength” in Hebrew, as well as having the numerical value of 28 in correspondence to the soldiers who fell. As we approached this fortress we passed over an old bunker than played a part in the battle for the station. Beside the fortress we found a small museum, newly opened, which had both welcoming air-conditioning as well as a plethora of maps, explanations, antiquities and more from the birth of Israel as we know it today. HaReut Museum, which translates to “comradeship”, offers a brief yet illuminating glimpse at the history of the battles that took place.

HaReut Museum

The British, wanting to control the border, built a series of small pillboxes along the Old Northern Road, one of which is still standing today near Tel Kedesh. However, they still needed police stations so they constructed this one at what is/was called Nabi Yusha (a nearby Arab shrine to the prophet Joshua), as well as others further westward. As mentioned above, the fortress changed hands from the British to the Arabs to the Israelis and today it belongs as a Israeli Border Police base, a fitting use.

Museum’s permanent guests

When I had finished perusing the museum I opened the guestbook and inscribed a message of my own, kindly informing potential readers that I was to write a blog post about my impromptu visit. When the docent heard of my note he showed us other visitors’ messages, some laminated, which were interesting in and of themselves. I asked him when I was to expect my note to be laminated and, smiling genially, he was unable to confirm any date for me. With the group of lads outside, we at last returned to our duties and, a half hour or so later, found our way to the buses where we were to be taken to the last attraction of the three-day trip: “kayaking” or rafting on the Jordan River.

Metzudat Koach

Previously I had been rafting a few times but only at the northern end of the Jordan, where the Hermon, Snir and Dan streams combine. The rafting place we were visiting now is located just north of kibbutz Gadot, north of the historically important B’not Ya’akov bridge. Two fellow instructors and I shared a raft and we took turns splashing and fending off the boisterous 9th graders, while snatching brief moments to relax in the river’s gentle current. At one point I spotted a baby turtle that had come up for air and then, a few minutes later, we drifted right up next to a dainty grey warbler that made its way to the water’s edge for a quick drink – if only I had brought my camera along! At last, after some minor rapids, we reached the end of our alloted rafting course at the southern end of Chastellet (Jacob’s Ford), an important Crusader castle that was destroyed by Muslim sultan Saladin. From there we were taken back to the boat launch area and waited about until our buses took us back to Givat Shmuel, bringing an end to an action-packed three-day adventure. But I was not to rest too long, for I had a BIU Archaeology trip the following morning…

Nachal Hermon & Ein Tina

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on June 28, 2017 at 8:37 AM

We woke up the morning after our hike through Nachal El Al in our country lodging room in Moshav Keshet. I was joined by fellow school instructors, and the lads were camping outside. We had a leisurely morning routine, packing sandwiches for lunch later that day. A heat wave had hit the Golan and so our plans were altered to accommodate. It was decided that we’d hike a portion of Nachal Hermon, also known as Banias – but not the famous part with the picturesque falls and the Greek temple complex. It was a bit of a drive from Keshet to our hike and along the way I saw some fine looking white storks perched on rock cairns/walls in the rocky fields.

Hiking at Nachal Hermon

We began at the trail-head outside of Kibbutz Snir, our tour guide explaining how the Jordan River is fed by the waters of three streams: Dan, Snir and Hermon. Descending into the ravine, we had a very short walk before we encountered water – where the youth decided to go swimming. Due to the heat the birding was poor and I found myself perched on a rock with another instructor as we watched the rushing water, when I noticed something peculiar. Nearly fully obscured by a mass of teenage bodies, there was an overturned Syrian tank laying at the water’s edge, remnants of past wars. I waited for everyone to clear the area then took a few photos before bringing up the rear on the continuation of the hike.

Overturned Syrian tank

Having climbed back out of the ravine, we walked exposed to the roasting sun, admiring the likable Golan landscape. We switched between the red and black trails as we alternated between hillside and streambed hiking – the lads pausing to splash about in the cold mountain water at every given moment.

Nachal Hermon

Along the way I spotted a relatively common bird species, but perhaps my first of the year, the collared dove. Shortly thereafter, while taking a brief break under the welcome shade of a tree, I saw a macabre sight of ants dismantling a flesh-pink katydid. Next, after passing a citrus grove we took another long break at the banks of the Hermon. A can of peanuts was produced, reminding me of my time in the army, and then a tour guide came over to offer us some freshly made kolo, a traditional Ethiopian snack made of toasted grain.

Beware of mines

From this final water break it was just a short walk to the end where the buses were to meet us, and we rested at shaded picnic tables until we were ready to leave for the next destination of the day. Located at the foot of the Golan, beside the Hula Valley, is the mountainside spring of Ein Tina with its continual discharge of cold mountain water. From the very start of the short trail there was water to bypass, unless one was walking with water-friendly footwear. To the left, at the base of the mountains, great swathes of dead milk thistle covered the land, a sanctuary for songbirds. To the right, dodder – a parasitic plant that looks like spaghetti – covering both fence and vegetation in its messy tangles.

Greenfinch in a sea of dead milk thistle

We reached the first pool of water and Chanan, a fellow instructor, asked me if I’d like to climb up to the top of the stream. Not one to turn down adventurous opportunities, I said yes and gestured for him to lead the way. We walked uphill, atop a bed of sun-baked grey stones that covered the flow of spring water.

Ein Tina

Shortly we broke through to the tree line and climbed among reeds and trees, stepping gingerly to avoid the flowing water. At last we reached the top, where the water burst from a cement wall via two open pipes (I’m not sure why the water source has been manipulated by man, perhaps it was used for something or perhaps to regulate flow). I sat beneath a fig tree and enjoyed the view, letting the cold droplets splash me from time to time.

View from Ein Tina

A perfect vantage point, nearly invisible to those below, I was prepared to spend hours there. However, all good things must come to an end and we had yet a full evening schedule. And so we hiked back down the hill, passed the pool and down the path – where I found this little crab hiding in a small pool in the stream.

Crab

We boarded the buses and were driven down alongside the Kinneret towards the site of our night accommodations, Tzemach Beach at the southern tip of the sea/lake. Along the way, when I was distracted with text-messaging a friend, our bus hit a medium-sized bird on the long country – the driver claiming it to be a chukar. We reached the beach where we had dinner and found sleeping arrangements under a canopy of stars, fruit bats and mosquitoes. But before we retired, some of us instructors stole away to the beachfront where the schoolchildren were not allowed. There we had a leisurely night swim in the placid lake, only cutting our poor feet once or twice on sharp rocks hidden in the depths. The night passed and we awoke the next morning for yet more adventure!

Nachal El Al

In Golan, Israel on June 25, 2017 at 10:37 AM

This is the first of three posts that took place on three consecutive days in early June when I was fulfilling my capacity of instructor at a school where I work. A few other instructors and I were accompanying the 9th graders on their multi-day tiyul shnati (an annual trip), this time to the Golan and Upper Galilee. The first day started off with a long bus ride from Givat Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, to the first hike of the trip, Nachal El Al in the lower Golan. The buses took us to a staging ground behind the moshav of Avnei Eitan and we promptly began our hike along the red-marked trail, descending into the ravine.

Descending into Nachal El Al

From the very beginning both flora and fauna showed promise, as I photographed a crested lark, a red and black leaf beetle, globethistle, bugloss and oleander which grows plentifully along the streambed. It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the two waterfalls that this hike is famous for, the Black Waterfall. Named such because of the black basalt stones that are so typical of the Golan’s geology, the second fall is called the White Waterfall due to its white chalk setting.

The Black Waterfall

As I was looking over the edge of the cliff beside the pool drama hit. First there was the sound of rumbling and something falling, then confused shouts and through the gaps between the leaves I was witness to a terrible accident. A young schoolgirl from another group, also on her annual trip, was victim to a fallen rock which smashed her thigh, breaking the bone badly, and as she fell, her head hit rock. Their accompanying paramedics, as well as ours, rushed to her aid and the atmosphere was grim. She had lost consciousness and her thigh was bent unnaturally, swollen and discoloured. Climbing back up to regain cellular service, emergency calls were made and it was decided that they were going to wait for Unit 669, an elite IDF commando unit, to rescue her via helicopter.

Unit 669 helicopter to the rescue

We stayed for some time at the Black Waterfall, some of the students frolicking in the pool, and I spotted a Levant green frog escaping human presence. When we left the Black Waterfall the poor girl was still awaiting extraction and so we paused further ahead along the trail and prayed together for her health and well-being. As we continued southwest we heard the distinct noise of a chopper incoming, and we got to spectate the rescue until the adjacent hilltop obscured our view (she was since rescued successfully and taken to Rambam Hospital in Haifa).

Closer look at the helicopter

Hiking along, we passed a neat wildflower named annual pink as well as a handful of goldfinches flying amongst the waving reeds, with alpine swifts and a lone short-toed eagle patrolling the skies above us. I took care to photograph as many craggy cliff holes as I could, hoping that maybe I’d catch a little or eagle owl on my display screen – both of which have eluded me thus far – but with no success.

The kiss of goldfinches

We had passed a neat pool down below, with metal handles affixed in the rock wall to facilitate access to the continuation of the trail which was lined with thick reeds. Next we came upon an area where the water flow slowed down as it caressed the smooth white rock, reminding me of the natural waterworks at Nachal Kziv. This calm water would presently spill over the side of a cliff to form the White Waterfall, a 14-metre drop of cold mountain water. I waited for a while at the spillover spot, letting the sun progress over the adjacent mountain to give me more favourable lighting for photography.

The White Waterfall

It’s on the crest of that mountain to the west that ancient ruins can be found. Marked on the map as Qasr Bardwil, which, according to what I have found online, can either be an Arabic name giving tribute to Crusader king Baldwin who conquered the Golan area, or “bardwil” which may be Arabic for cattails. Either way, the site dates to the early Bronze Era and is composed of great walls of small stones at the edge of the cliff overlooking the stream. When the children were goaded out of the waterfall pool I made my pilgrimage down to properly document the falls, and then I continued on the trails.

Late afternoon over the Golan

From this point onward it was all dry, the trail running along the side of the eastern slope with only lone trees here and there to shield us from the scorching sun. But I found distraction in spotting a noisy katydid in the dead vegetation, a fan-fingered gecko and my very first woodchat shrike, also called a butcher bird for their barbaric feeding methodology.

Noisy katydid

At last, I reached the end of the trail and spotted a mother rock hyrax with two of her young on a nearby rock. Over the next half hour or so the entire class made their way to the end where the buses waited, and during this wait we watched the entertaining aeronautics of a kestrel avoiding a mobbing hooded crow. When the buses were loaded with our sweaty and tired bodies we were taken to Moshav Keshet where we, the staff, were introduced to our rooms and then had dinner in the dining room. The day had come to an end, but the trip was only one third of the way done…

Yavne

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

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

View of Tel Yavne

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

Mamluk minaret

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

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

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

Purported Crusader ruins

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

Climbing back down the tower

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

Common swift flying overhead

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

Red-rumped swallows gathering mud for nest building

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

Kever of Rabban Gamliel

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

Elaborate Arabic inscription over the door

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

Kever of Rabban Gamliel from behind (photo Efrat Guli)

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

Ramla

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

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

White Tower of Ramla

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

View of ruins and modern Ramla

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

The Pool of Arches

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

Paddling underground

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

Ramla’s Great Mosque

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

Ramla city shuk

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

Within the Ramla Museum

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

Hoard of gold coins

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