Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Nachal El Al

In Israel, Golan 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 annual tiyul shnati (a multi-day 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 Kibbutz 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…


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!


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

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

White Tower of Ramla

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

View of ruins and modern Ramla

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

The Pool of Arches

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

Paddling underground

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

Ramla’s Great Mosque

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

Ramla city shuk

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

Within the Ramla Museum

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

Hoard of gold coins

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

Open House Tel Aviv

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

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

Night heron with fish

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

Jaffa Port

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

Tour at the port

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

Overlooking the Mediterranean

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

The Sadeh living room

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

General Sadeh’s mobile HQ

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

Saraya great room

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

Jean Holmes of the Maine Friendship House

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

Jaffa German Colony as seen inside the Immanuel House

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

House in the American-German Colony

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

University Trip: “Moshavot” of the Mercaz

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

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

Rishon’s Old Well

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

Anthropomorphic shutter clasp

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

”HaTikva” apartment building

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

Nachalat Reuven well and installations

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

Moshava Museum

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

Great Synagogue of Mazkeret Batya

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

University Trip: Qumran

In Israel, Judea on May 14, 2017 at 8:45 AM

Some weeks back I attended a Bar Ilan University Archaeology trip led by Prof Eyal Regev to the area of Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The story of the first scrolls’ discovery in 1947 is well-known: the Bedouin shepherd lad who threw a stone into a cave and, hearing something shatter, entered to investigate and found tall ceramic jugs with rolled scrolls inside. Removing some of the scrolls, the artefacts were passed along a chain of individuals until archaeologists confirmed that there was great religious and historic importance to the scrolls, and salvage efforts were undertaken with the help of the British and Jordanians, which eventually led to their exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The discovery of a nearby city, with a room of tables or benches that appears to be used for writing – a scriptorium, led to assumptions that the scrolls were written in this very city, and stored away in dry desert caves for safekeeping.

Approaching Cave 11

However, in light of new evidence and understandings, many researchers believe that these scrolls may have come from different places altogether, including Jerusalem. Our professor persists with the belief that the scrolls were written in Qumran due to the correlation between the actions of the dwellers and the words written (with an emphasis on communal dining hall rules). While our trip was dedicated to the city of Qumran, we gained special permission to visit Cave 11 – ordinarily off-limits to the public. Unfortunately, there were concerns of us disturbing the bat population so we were instructed to remain at the cave’s entrance – and here I’d have liked to see both the cave’s mysterious interior as well as the bats.

From within Cave 11

After enjoying the view of from Cave 11, and noting the persistent presence of noisy orange-winged Tristam’s starlings – with the occasional brown-necked raven and several migrating black storks – we made our way back down to the bus to be ferried over to Qumran’s visitor centre.

Desert lark

We gained entrance and waited around for the audio-visual presentation to begin, taking multiple trips to the tourist-aimed gift shop where some items were even priced in dollars instead of shekels. At last the doors opened and we watched a curious video about the people who lived in Qumran during the Roman era, originally thought to be a sect of Jews called the Essenes. But in recent times the picture becomes more complicated and we were taught that, at least according to Prof Regev, the inhabitants of Qumran were two groups: one known as Yahad and the other as Damascus Treaty (my translation).


At the end of the video the middle screen lifted up and we entered a small exhibition of displayed replicas and even a few artefacts, such as a comb and the remains of both a basket and a sandal. After some brief lecturing we exited the dim, air-conditioned building and braved our way through the bright daylight and dry heat, approaching the city ruins.

Qumran tower

We began at the tower and paused now and again to learn more about the city and the people who lived inside it, of which the professor is very knowledgeable about. We passed rooms, cisterns and a number of mikvaot (ritual baths) as we combed our way through the ruins. Seated in the shaded section of the dining hall, we learned about complicated research manners such as “access analysis” and more in order to establish who lived in Qumran during the time of the Second Temple, and likewise, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Supposed Scriptorium

It was sometime around then that a rock martin whizzed right by my face, and I spotted an unidentified falcon or kestrel attempting to snatch one of the many passerines in the vicinity of the city – both of which I wasn’t fast enough to photograph. Leaving Qumran’s ruins, we walked across the desert landscape towards the edge of the cliff overlooking Road 90 and the Dead Sea. With a large scattering of large rocks, it was revealed that this was a cemetery that had fallen prey to the ravages of time. Archaeological evidence gleaned from the cemetery helps, or complicates, the various claims as to who lived in Qumran – but the view’s nice too.

Qumran cemetery

We were shadowed by a park ranger, who as it turned out studied archaeology at BIU as well, from the cemetery to the lookout over Cave 4. There we settled back down in the comfort of the shade and learned more about Qumran.

Cave 4

As we sat there, I noticed an interesting-looking bird perched on the wire fence a ways away. Activating my camera, I attempted to identify said bird with the aid of both optical and digital zoom. The photos weren’t turning out as helpful as I wanted, but I was nearly certain that I had spotted a bee-eater, which I was hoping to see. Leaving the group, I made my way over to the perched bird, even warding off another photographer who was oblivious to my intentions. At last I reached close enough to get some photos good enough to make an official identification: my first green bee-eater.

Spotting a green bee-eater

It was then and there that the tour ended and we made our way back to the bus. While waiting outside the bus, while some of our party busied themselves with lunch, I took the opportunity to photograph some visiting ibexes. Interestingly enough, whilst researching for the blog post, I came upon a fun fact that DNA research on some of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the parchment used originated from ibex skin.

Ibex nursing her young

With that we departed for BIU and our respective homes, and to end this account I share a nice image I found of the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947, which can be found HERE.

Pigeon Cave & Betzet Reserve

In Galilee, Israel on May 7, 2017 at 10:42 AM

I spent the holiday Pesach (also known as Passover) with my family in Ma’alot and managed to go on three short trips whilst up north. The first was to the tidal pools just north of Achziv, where I saw my first sea slug (or sea hare, I am not sure which). The next day we stopped off for a short hike to Pigeon Cave, located between Karmiel and Akko, on our way to Ahihud for an annual barbecue. Parking with the aid of GPS in a gravel lot somewhat near the cave, we disembarked and began the short hike.

Above Pigeon Cave

Almost immediately I spotted an interesting bird – my first wheatear, and then a few minutes later my first short-toed eagle made a lengthy appearance, hovering overhead scanning for his favourite prey, snakes. At first the trail was a simple gravel-and-grass path with red painted trail markers, but that was soon to change. In order to reach the cave, and to continue on the trail towards the opposing Mount Gamal, the trail took a perilous turn along the steep cliff side. Thankfully, the shoes I was wearing that day – loafers not meant for hiking in any way – found sure footing on the craggy rock with their “sticky” rubber soles. I nimbly made my way down and around towards the mouth of the cave, passing interesting wildlife and wildflowers.

Broad-leaved stonecrop

We found Pigeon Cave fenced off with visible archaeological-work inside, so we continued to the adjacent cave which was open to visitors, with a handful of rock-climbers scaling the cliff wall with ropes nearby.

Pigeon Cave

Pigeon Cave is the site of important prehistoric findings, as I learned about in two of my Archaeology classes at BIU. In one class we learned about the large amount of limestone with the cave, with remains of prehistoric buildings – some of which covered graves – which leads researchers to think the structures were cultic is purpose. Just outside the open cave I noticed something unusual looking on the ground among the rocks and vegetation – what appears to be the spout of a Byzantine vessel, according to a friend of mine.


We entered the empty cave and glanced about, noticing the large hole in the ceiling and the general bell-shape, defining the type of cave it is. Leaving the cave, we watched the climbers for a bit then headed back up the craggy trail and back to the car to drive to Ahihud.

Nissim within the cave

A few days later my father and I took a short hiking trip in Betzet Reserve along the Old Northern Road near the border with Lebanon. Unfortunately, even though the site we had chosen to visit is relatively obscure, there were masses of families with picnics and yelling child which invariably scared off all wildlife for miles. But, there was still a healthy amount of flora and as we walked along the gentle trail to see the Daniela ruins we feasted our eyes on hyacinth squill, lupin, mallow and some sort of wild pea.

Daniela ruins

The Daniela ruins (also spelled De’ne’ilah) is a collection of Roman-Byzantine fortified farmhouses with olivepress installations, as is typical of the Galilee region with its historical olive oil industry.

Olivepress installations

Looping back to the parking lot on the circular trail we then located and began hiking the trail to the next destination: Sarach Cave. We passed very little wildlife, due to the large human presence, but we did see a number of interesting wildflowers including the delicately-petaled pink rock rose and red everlasting, the icon of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day). Before long we left the sunny flowered area and were hiking under the shade of the trees, walking in and along the dry streambed filled with boulders. Nachal Sarach is a short stream that begins not far from Abirim Fort, feeding winter rain runoffs into Nachal Betzet which drains to the Mediterranean Sea near Rosh HaNikra. Hiking briskly, we heard the clammer of humanity up ahead and a brief check with the GPS told me that we were approaching the cave.

Sarach Cave in Betzet Reserve

To our dismay there was actually a line in order to enter this obscure cave, and so we stood behind an young Arab family with a GoPro awaiting our turn to penetrate the darkness. Despite the presence of so many children, there were no screams of terror when two enormous cave spiders were found on the walls – a species of huntsman by the name of Heteropoda variegata found mostly in caves.

Within Sarach Cave

Slowly but surely we made our way through the interesting cave with its three entrances/exits and its neat cave growths, our journey aided by special cuts in the rock for sure footing and even metal handles like we used in Alma Cave.

My father rising from the depths

Emerging out of the upper entrance/exit of the cave, we made our way back downhill to the streambed and headed back to the car, bringing the Pesach trips to an end.

Bible Lands Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 30, 2017 at 10:38 AM

The other week, before the holiday of Pesach (Passover), I took a trip to Jerusalem with several goals in mind. The morning began at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which I had visited for the first time several weeks prior. I was determined to spectate – and maybe even participate – in the daily morning bird banding, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did I get to watch and learn about the banding, I also saw a handful of new species for me, including: nightingale, collared flycatcher and my personal highlight, a wryneck.

Wryneck in the hands of Amir Balaban

After the morning banding sessions ended, I settled in the blind to watch for birds and met some birder-photographers whose photos I’ve been seeing for a good while now on Facebook. The highlight was a lone hawfinch which landed near the water’s edge; the cameras clicking away madly as everybody attempted to get a worthy shot. When the clock struck noon I decided I was done at the observatory and made a snap decision to go visit the Bible Lands Museum, on the other side of the Knesset. Opened in 1992 by Dr Elie and Batya Borowski, this museum is the only one of its kind specifically dedicated to biblical history. When I announced myself as a student of archaeology, the girl behind the front desk told me that I was entitled to a discount and that I had come to the right place. And so I gained entrance and began my tour of the museum with the first of twenty galleries on the main floor, taking my time to examine the interesting showcased artefacts. Progressing clockwise in convenient chronical order, the first galleries were of the rise of civilisations and writing – with interesting artefacts including this bearded worshipper of limestone and lapis lazuli from Sumer, Mesopotamia:

Innocent face of the bearded worshipper

I have an affinity for the comical facial expressions interesting pieces as old as this characteristically have, so I was pleased to see next another bearded man, this time of alabaster and hailing from Mari, as well as a particularly hasidic-looking “bald bearded man with sidelock” inlaid in shell also from the Mari area. But there were more than just humourous humanoids to be examined, for some fancy necklaces of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian next caught my eye, followed by a bronze chariot of sorts being pulled by bronze bulls originating from southeastern Anatolia.

Pre-Hittite bronze chariot

Indeed, the further I advanced into the darkened recesses of the museum, the more interesting the displays were (at least for me). I marveled at a painted cedarwood coffin from Egypt and stelas from Aram city-states, those of biblical mention. At certain displays I felt a behind-the-scenes connection with the touristy representation of the artefacts, being as that I have numerous archaeology classes on the history and legacies of the listed locations.

Stones of Aram

Another feature that struck me as interesting was the model of old Jerusalem, not exactly the same land as the modern Old City. When I had visited Jerusalem last, I was on a tour with Prof Faust (one of BIU’s leading scholars on biblical archaeology) and learned a lot about the walled confines of First Temple-era Jerusalem.

Model of ancient Jerusalem

From then the galleries followed the standard Holy Land list of successive conquerors, namely the Persians, Greeks and Romans. I particularly enjoyed the model of the royal audience hall of the palace in Susa (or Shushan as mentioned in the Book of Esther), a few small gold coins from Greece and the sarcophagus of Julia Latronilla from Rome. Completing my circuit of the main floor galleries, I ventured downstairs to see the temporary exhibit on Khirbet Qeiyafa called “In the Valley of David and Goliath” passing some nice Roman mosaics on the way.

Aerial view of Khirbet Qeiyafa looking south (photo: Skyview)

Having been to Khirbet Qeiyafa, and having dug with Prof Garfinkal (albeit at Khirbet Arai), I felt a connection of sorts whilst perusing the displayed finds and watching the short video about the excavations and subsequent research developments. Debatably associated with the biblical city Shaaraim, based on the fact that two gates were excavated, the region was the buffer zone between the Jews and the Philistines during the Iron Age. It was in the valley below the fortified city, known as Emek HaElah, that the iconic battle between David and Goliath took place. I inspected the inscribed ostracon (broken pottery with inscriptions) and the miniature temple-esque building, among the artefacts, and then settled down to examine some of the academic books written about the place. Browsing through the bibliography I found several of BIU’s archaeologists, and when that satisfied my curiosity, I continued over to the last two temporary exhibitions: “The Classic Court” of Etruscan, Greek and Roman art; and “Gods, Heroes and Mortals” of Ancient Greek pottery.

Snake detail on an Ancient Greek gold armlet

When finished I refilled my water bottle and headed over to the bus stop where I was to be taken to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) to meet an old friend, and then off to the Jerusalem Craft Beer Festival – where we sold our first bottle of beer as homebrewers, a 500ml bottle of Arx Meles Stoutus I.

University Trip: Old City of Jerusalem and Ramat Rachel

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 9, 2017 at 5:46 AM

A few weeks ago, after visiting the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and some archaeological sites in and under the Old City, I went on a university trip to Jerusalem, the nation’s capital. Prof Faust, of Bar Ilan University’s Tel ‘Eton archaeological dig, led the trip to some important Bronze and Iron Age remnants found in Jerusalem. Riding in a minibus, we entered the capital from the north and made our way to Jaffa Gate where we continued on-foot to the first site of interest: the Broad Wall in the Jewish Quarter. Built over 2,600 years ago, this wall is indeed broad – seven metres wide in the excavated area – and likely served as part of the northern wall of ancient Jerusalem in the First Temple period. The Old City of Jerusalem as we know it today is surrounded by an Ottoman wall built in the mid 1500s, as the city limits shifted north from its original extent.

Jerusalem’s Broad Wall

Then the professor pointed out something that I never noticed; in some sections of the Old City there are red and black tiled stripes on the stone floor. These red and black stripes depict a suggested continuation of respective First and Second Temple Period walls found far below the strata of construction. Nearby, alongside the Cardo (the north-south street in Ancient Roman cities), we gazed down glass-covered shafts to see remains of both First and Second Temple walls.

Windows to another world

From these shafts we walked over to an open excavated area with more ruins from the Temple Periods, and then we made our way to the Israelite Tower. In the map of the Jewish Quarter (click HERE), the Israelite Tower can be found just north of the Broad Wall. Built in the First Temple period, the tower would have been a typical four-chambered bastion of the aforementioned Broad Wall protecting Jerusalem’s northern border. Usually closed to visitors, we as a group of budding archaeologists were allowed in to the locked area underground.

The Israelite Tower

Within, we looked at the merge between the First and Second Period walls of the tower, the earlier wall suffering damage from the campaign of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. I rather enjoyed the spectacular photographs of the excavations in the 70s and 80s, Jerusalem looked quite different even back then. Leaving the Israelite Tower, and closing the gate behind us, we retraced our way back through the Cardo and witnessed a Bar Mitzva procession to the recently rebuilt Hurva Synagogue – the lad playing what looked like a clarinet à la the Pied Piper.

Bar Mitzva at the Hurva Synagogue

We then made our way through the Jewish Quarter until we reached the Kotel Plaza area and the Dung Gate, there we gained entrance to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park (which I visited last post with friends). But, Prof Faust was only intending on showing us Bronze and Iron Age ruins, so we breezed through the majority of the park.

Spring flowers at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park

We stopped at the Ophel area, a complex of fortifications including walls, towers, cisterns and rooms. The discovery of what appears to be another four-chambered gate, Jewish construction characteristic of the First Temple Period, was the highlight of the recent excavations, perhaps having been built by King Solomon himself. Another neat discovery was that of twelve large clay jugs known as pithoi, one with a Hebrew inscription, which are dated to the destruction of Jerusalem by the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

Inspecting the Ophel ruins

While listening to the professor, with the incessant sermonising of the Al-Aqsa mosque imam going on in the background, I was keeping a sharp eye out for interesting birds hoping that I’d spot the blue rock thrush again. Though I did not it again, my eye caught a smallish black bird flying about one of the ancient windows of the Temple Mount walls. Using my 21x zoom, and then zooming in the picture, I noticed the orange patch on the wing identifying the bird as a Tristam’s starling – a bird I had only ever seen in the Masada and Dead Sea areas.

A mess of stone ruins

Hurrying back out of the park, we rushed to the minibus parked near the Dung Gate because it was Friday afternoon and we still had two more sites to visit. The next site on the list was the ruins of Ramat Rachel just south of Jerusalem, including remains of a Roman and Byzantine village with ruins such as a columbarium and mikvaot (ritual baths) dating from the Second Temple Period. In addition, many agricultural elements were discovered such as both olive and wine-presses from various periods of antiquity, some with mosaic floors.

Ramat Rachel excavations

Passing the agricultural section, we took a quick look at the Byzantine church area before moving on to the Roman villa and Byzantine village. Lastly, we examined the Ancient Tower Lookout and then headed to the edge of the hill where we enjoyed the view of southern Jerusalem and the nearby Mar Elias Monastery (built in the 6th century). In 1956, while a group of some 500 conference participants gathered at the newly excavated Ramat Rachel dig, Jordanian troops opened fire from the outposts near the monastery killing four and wounding seventeen.

Mar Elias Monastery

Interestingly enough, one of the most recent discoveries at Ramat Rachel was the uncovering of a skeleton wearing a helmet – presumed to be a Jordanian soldier. There was a pleasant presence of nesting jackdaws and an abundance of wildflowers such as lupin, hairy vetch and prickly alkanet as well as blossoming Judas trees which brought joy to us all. But the clock was ticking and it was time to venture on over to our final destination, Rogem Site.

Nesting jackdaw

One of a series of mysterious tumuli (or mounds possibly covering graves) in the Jerusalem area, this Rogem Site is the biggest of them all. Surrounded by rock-hewn caves and agricultural installations, this mound can be found in the neighbourhood of Ganim Bet and is covered with some really great wildflowers including scarlet pimpernel and stolonous gold-crocus. While climbing the hill I noticed a particularly beautiful called barbary nut which were all shut – however, in the half hour or so that we were on the hilltop, all the flowers opened wide. This explained the common name in Hebrew for the flower: afternoon iris.

Barbary nut

The professor told us about a theory that these mounds were built to host cultist bonfires, if I understood correctly, but there is much skepticism. Leaving the wildflower-spotted hill and back in the minibus, we had a merry conversation about the hallucinogenic ergot fungi, which one of our party members found on a stalk of wild grain. Within a short while we were pulling up at Bar Ilan University and everybody disembarked to head their separate ways, bidding each other a “Shabbat shalom!”

Jerusalem: Quarries and Archaeological Park

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 2, 2017 at 8:38 AM

Carrying on with the Jerusalem trip I took with friends Adam and Daniel Ota, we had first visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and then the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market). Our next destination was intended to be the Rockefeller Museum, an archaeology museum in East Jerusalem. However, we dallied along the way, pausing to admire the historical buildings of Jerusalem. One particularly interesting building was the Italian Hospital, an impressive Renaissance-style building completed in 1919. Upon reaching the walls of the Old City, we were making our way into East Jerusalem after passing the ornate Damascus Gate when we spotted something intriguing at the base of the wall.

King Solomon’s Quarries

An opening of a cave, with a sign stating “King Solomon’s Quarries (Zedekiah’s Cave)” – and with a name like that we just had to investigate. The moody guard attending the entrance post admitted us after we paid the nominal student fee and our explorations began. At first we imagined that the maw-like chamber was the whole extent of the cave but as we walked further and further along the lit path, we realised that this was quite an impressive cave.

O’ glorious cave

The cave was originally a natural cave and was enlarged into a large subterranean quarry approximately 2,000 years ago – around the time of the Second Temple. According to the report by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a ceremonial stone mallet with Freemason markings and the words “King Solomon” was found, in addition to pottery and coins from various periods. Stone blocks hewn from the cave were used to build houses and buildings in Jerusalem and, with the Old City built over it, the cave was forgotten and the entrance covered up. One wintery day in 1854, an American scholar named Dr James Turner Barclay accidentally discovered the cave while walking his dog and secretly surveyed the cave, announcing his discovery shortly thereafter. Deeper and deeper we walked, the air becoming damp while the occasional drops of water falling around us from the cave ceiling. We next passed through a large cavern named “the Freemasons Hall”, where Freemason ceremonies took place in the years after the cave’s discovery.

Within the Freemason Hall

Leaving the cavern we heard the noise of running water and found a crack in the cave wall dripping water into a small pool, a site named “Zedekiah’s Tears”. On the other side of the cave we found a chained-off area with a sign claiming that the area ahead was a “challenging trail”, but, being the explorer that I am, I naturally ignored the pesky chain and explored the damp darkness. What I found was a hole in the cave floor with what looked to be a passage below – I did not venture any further. Heading back out of the cave, pausing to comment on the charcoal graffiti dating 1889, we expressed our marvel of this virtually unknown place of interest. Just to express the cave’s size, the maximum length measures out to about 230 metres, with the width reaching over 100 metres at the widest point. All-in-all the cave is 9,000 square metres with the average height of fifteen metres throughout – an illustration over the satellite image of the Old City demonstrating the underground reaches can be seen HERE. Rain was drizzling down when we left the muggy comfort of the cave and we made our way to Rockefeller Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day twenty minutes prior.

Iconic tombs in the Kidron Valley

And so, to salvage the rest of the hours of daylight, we decided to loop around the eastern side of the Old City and found ourselves looking across at the Mount of Olives and down at Kidron Valley with its masses of Jewish graves including the iconic Yad Avshalom and the so-called Tomb of Zechariah. Our view then turned to the Arab village of Silwan and then we made our way to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, just inside the Dung Gate.

Jewish ‘graves’ and Silwan

We paid the discounted student entrance fee and began with the Davidson Centre where we breezed past descriptions and explanations of Jerusalem’s rich yet turbid past. Leaving the visitors centre, we first feasted our eyes on the gardens of the Umayyad palace before crossing over into the Ophel Walls area with it numerous strata of construction. Houses, communal structures, ritual baths and cisterns all build one atop the other; the archaeological work must have been dizzying.

Strata of ancient construction

Unfortunately, while the rain had stopped minutes earlier, the skies were still gloomily overcast. With sunset approaching, we hurried through the ruins and I spotted two fun birds with colourful names: a black redstart and a blue rock thrush (my second one ever). Here is an interesting Byzantine mosaic floor that reads “Happy are the inhabitants of this house” in Greek:

Byzantine mosaic floor

One thing that I find difficult with sites such as this (and also Bet Shean, for example) is the sheer quantity of things to see. When one sees a singular ancient building or the ruins of a small complex it is easier to process, but when confronted with the huge amount of ruins and artefacts to examine… some of us get a little overwhelmed.

Cloudy sunset over the Old City

We made our way to the staircase of the Hulda Gates, entrances to the Temple Mount that were sealed up many years ago. There is a Latin inscription visible above the western Hulda Gate, dating to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian, and a façade from the Umayyad period.

Looking up at the façade and inscription

Walking along the southern wall of the Temple Mount, we reached and climbed the remains of the Crusader tower (the famous Templars were based out of the Temple Mount, thus the name) and enjoyed the view. Above us, beside the dull silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, there is a Muslim archaeology museum of sorts – sadly off-limits to us.

Crusader tower behind the tree

Leaving the tower, we continued along the impressive wall and reached the corner where an interesting inscription is on display as well as multitudes of enormous broken blocks from the Roman destruction of the Temple nearly 2,000 years ago. There, the famous Robinson’s Arch was discovered fallen, with small stores at the opposing base.

Robinson’s Arch

Darkness settling in, we hurried through the last section of the ruins and then popped over to the Kotel (or Western Wall) for a quick visit.

Posing at the Kotel

Despite the gloomy, grey skies that the day offered, twilight was actually quite beautiful and I was able to take a rather pleasing photo of the Kotel:

Kotel at twilight

Leaving the Kotel, we boarded a bus back to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station where we had dinner (schnitzel in a baguette for me) and then boarded a bus back to Givat Shmuel to bring an end to a very long but very adventurous day. Little did I know that I was to revisit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park a mere two week later with fellow Archaeology students in the form of an academic tour – coming up next…