Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Jerusalem’ Category

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…

Jerusalem Bird Observatory

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 26, 2017 at 8:16 AM

A few weeks ago, before all the fun of Purim, I took another trip to Jerusalem with my friend Adam Ota, and this time his brother Daniel tagged along. We were headed for the Jerusalem Bird Observatory to watch the morning bird ringing, but unfortunately had a later start then planned. Arriving in Jerusalem, we walked into the Government complex, passing by the Supreme Court of Israel and then one of the entrances to the Knesset when we turned off-road. Right there, nestled in the trees and rose bushes, is the Jerusalem Bird Observatory with its ringing station for bird identifications and record tracking.

Jerusalem Bird Observatory

Since we arrived a tad late the ringing was over but we were shown into the centre by Sara Dudovitz, a friend of my family, where we watched a short film comprised of footage of wildlife in urban Jerusalem. Amir Balaban, the director of JBO and consummate nature videographer (see his YouTube videos HERE), made an appearance and then was off. After the short film I marveled at the minute size of a stuffed little owl and we were then given a short tour of the closed ringing station.

Springtime blossoming

Looking out the big picture windows, I spotted my first lesser whitethroat hopping about on the ground twenty or so metres away. Moments later, a Syrian woodpecker landed on a nearby tree and began examining it – followed by a great tit flitting by. Convinced that this was the place to be, I intended to settle in for some birding, but Sara knew better and took us to an even better spot – the observation room with its open windows to a small nature area with a tiny waterfall and pond.

Peering into nature

Armed with my camera and its 21x optical zoom, I joined Adam and his old Russian military monocular in scouring the outlying views of our post for birds. I was amazed at the sheer quantity of wildlife mere metres away; blackbirds, European robins, greenfinches, a white-breasted kingfisher and two Caspian turtles basking at the waters edge.

White-breasted kingfisher

As I was watching a whole bunch of sparrows, chaffinches and greenfinches feeding in the grass 2-3 metres away, I noticed that there was one who didn’t fit in. It was a bird I had never seen before, and it took me only a few seconds to realise what it must be: a female brambling. Minutes later it was joined by a male brambling, a songbird of striking plumage. My photos didn’t turn out too amazing so I was fortunate to secure a nearly identical (yet far superior) one from talented photographed Ilan Ramati who visited the JBO on the following day.

Brambling (photo Ilan Ramati)

Shortly thereafter, as the three of us continued to notice new birds appearing in our field of view, one of the women who work at the JBO went out to refill the seeds in the bird-feeders and to string fresh lines of peanuts. Keeping my camera focused on one of the bird-feeders I tried time and again to capture a great tit snatching sunflower seeds, but to no avail. I did, however, catch this Eurasian jay perched on the peanut line moment before he wrestled one off for consumption.

Eurasian jay

One of my favourite songbirds, the European robin, was only spotted in the shade to the right side of the observation deck which made it hard to photograph. I adore how despite their dumpiness and overall simpleton demeanor, their warbling song is commendable to say the least. And so we stayed in the observation deck for a couple more minutes before popping on to the living roof – the first one in Israel – and then departing via Gan Sacher, the backside of the JBO preserve.

Almond blossom

We saw an interesting thorny tree and the plentiful blossoming of anemones, Persian cyclamens and almond trees as well as a few jackdaws as we walked out of the park. We were headed for Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) where we had a lunch of pasta before heading to East Jerusalem, in search for archaeological wonders.

Lifta

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 5, 2017 at 6:27 AM

Continuing from our tour of the Ramot Forest in northern Jerusalem, where we saw gazelles and ancient winepresses, my friend Adam and I headed for the nearby ruined village of Lifta. Located just outside the main western entrance of Jerusalem, between Roads 1 and 50, the abandoned houses and buildings belong most recently to an Arab village.

Lifta from afar

Lifta from afar below modern Jerusalem

First, the village was a Jewish one by the name of Mei Neftoach during the time of the First Temple, and was subsequently destroyed by the Romans under Titus and Vespasian. During the Byzantine period settlement resumed, the village going by the name Nephtho – changing to Clepsta under Crusader rule. Lifta reached its peak in the late 1880s and since the 1950s the ruins have just been a part of the landscape, good for both tourist and research purposes.

Almond blossoms

Almond blossoms

Walking down from the Ramot area, we passed a few blossoming almond trees as well as a few startled gazelles and some songbirds. After the Tur Sinai farm we made our way across the land bridge over Road 1 with a vantage point of the stone ruins of Lifta on the opposite hillside. Winding down the backroads, we passed a playground park and then found the offroad path to Lifta, with its blue trail marker.

Interesting trail marker

Interesting trail marker

We stopped every so often to take photographs of the beautiful blossoming almond trees dotting the hillside. Shortly we were walking below the houses and buildings of the northern end of Lifta, yet we continued on until we found a better place to climb up.

Lifta

Lifta

We started with a house and then the olive mill – unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a straightforward source to identify what the different structures are, although some are obvious. In my searches for site identifications I found a really interesting collection of 3D scans of a handful of Lifta’s structures (see HERE).

Inside the olive mill

Inside the olive mill

Standing at the northern end of the old village’s nucleus, we were surrounded by stone walls, almond trees, cacti and an abundance of green grass growing everywhere. Within the village we explored the lower street heading north, so overgrown that we passed over, around and even through houses to progress further.

Exploring the ruins

Exploring the ruins

Pausing every now and then to marvel at the magnificence of the ruins, as well as the spotting of a black redstart perched on a nearby tree, we eventually made it to the end of the lower street area and climbed up to the upper street area, where a formidable building with ornate lintel inscriptions commanded our attention. If I’ve understood the Israel Antiquities Authority’s report correctly, the building is Ottoman era built on more ancient wall foundations, perhaps Crusader.

Looking out the windows

Looking out the windows

Entering the upper floor of the building we found the encampment of a homeless, but no homeless in sight. One of the things that we noticed in many of the two-floored structures was a large hole in the ceiling/floor – probably intentional to discourage potential dwellers. Reading antiquity reports, I learned that most of the two-floored houses in Lifta were of the “traditional rural house” design: the bottom floor for storage and livestock, the upper floor for the human residents.

The view from Lifta looking west

The view from Lifta looking west

Making our way back to the village nucleus along the upper street, we explored the various structures and then headed for the other half of the northern end of village. We looked down at one particularly interesting building with a grassy roof, which may have been the village’s mosque. With so many more impressive buildings it seems unusual that this would be a mosque, but the village mosque is described as a one-story structure with a walled courtyard, such as this one. We didn’t venture inside, so I wasn’t able to confirm with the presence of a mihrab (prayer niche).

Interestingly overgrown building

Interestingly overgrown building

Bearing in mind that it was Friday afternoon and we still had to get back to Givat Shmuel before Shabbat, we decided to put some pep in our step and breezed past many interesting – and curiously impressive looking – structures.

Too sunny for proper smiles

Too sunny for proper smiles

At one point I commented that it felt like we were walking through a medieval village, just without the people, the noise and the most likely offensive smell. One grassy set of stairs going uphill really found favour in my eyes.

Grassy stairs

Grassy stairs

Before long the dirt trail turned into one of stone tiles and we noticed water gurgling to the right of us. Up ahead we set eyes on the famous Lifta spring, with its two pools. The outer pool was covered in a green layer of duckweed, with floating trash here and there. The inner pool was relatively clean with a small stream of water emanating from a walled spring, where some youth were preparing to swim.

Spring of Lifta

Spring of Lifta

We didn’t have enough time to explore the western side of the village, but thankfully the bulk of the interesting sites were where we were. From the spring we took the road up to Jerusalem, climbing at a rather steep angle to reach the road. Feeling a mite peckish, we then walked to the Central Bus Station and got schwarma wraps before catching the absurdly packed bus back to Givat Shmuel an hour of so before Shabbat began. Stay tuned for our next Jerusalem adventure!

Jerusalem: Ramot Forest

In Israel, Jerusalem on February 19, 2017 at 7:02 AM

The other week, on the Friday before Tu B’Shvat, I went on a nice guided tour of the Ramot Forest in northwest Jerusalem with my friend Adam Ota. Provided by Ramot for the Environment, a group dedicated to preserving the natural areas outside the Ramot neighbourhoods, this trip was under the guidance of Hilary Herzberger, a local resident and activist, and Shmulik Yedvab, a zoologist from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (or, SPNI).

Ramot Forest with Ramot in the background

Ramot Forest with Ramot in the background

We gathered that morning at an interesting hedgehog-themed childrens park and then had an introductory talk before setting off into the urban-surrounded wilderness. We were all expecting to get a glimpse of the seventy or so mountain gazelles that call the park home, yet there was much more to be seen. We started off with glimpses of Eurasian jays, Persian cyclamens and then the upturned dirt mounds of an subterranean mole-rat in the area wooded with pine trees.

Persian cyclamens

Persian cyclamens

Leaving the pine trees, we ventured onto a dirt trail skirting the terraced land with planted olive tree saplings. Recently I learned that a large portion of the land surrounding Jerusalem is terraced for agricultural purposes, hard work done throughout history. Shmulik informed us that he had scouted ahead and found a small herd of gazelles, which we were heading to see, but paused along the way to show us elongated heart-shaped tracks in the soft orange-brown dirt.

Shmulik Yedvab showing us gazelle tracks

Shmulik Yedvab showing us gazelle tracks

We learned about a project that Shmulik was involved in with the setting up of trail cams in this area to document local fauna, with an infrared option for nighttime documentation. What surprised the researchers the most was the discovery of wild boars, which is interesting because wild boars are quite common is many parts of the country, yet hadn’t been spotted in this area before the trail cam footage reveal.

Branched asphodel

Branched asphodel

It was shortly after this that I pieced together who he was, and that I’ve been seeing his posts on the Israel wild mammals Facebook group for a good while now. Only three days before this trip, Shmulik posted a trail cam video clip with footage of a Blanford’s fox – an extremely elusive fox species that was only discovered in Israel in 1981, somewhere out in the Negev wilderness (see HERE). Speaking of videos, there’s a beautiful nature video of this very area from two winters ago, filmed by the talented Amir Balaban, naturalist and founder of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (see the video HERE).

Our group of wildlife enthusiasts

Our group of wildlife enthusiasts

It was along this trail that Hilary pointed out the parasitic mistletoe adorned some of the trees. There was a bush fire a year or two before and, as a result, many of the trees were burnt and mistletoe seized the opportunity to flourish. Despite being Tu B’Shvat, and the plethora of blossoming seen all around the country, most of the almond trees that we saw were burnt beyond repair, some with burnt almonds adorning their blackened branches. Approaching the terraces on the right, with pine trees on the left, we spotted the small herd of gazelles grazing – with the dominant male on guard.

Gazelles on the move

Gazelles on the move

We learned about the importance of staying on the trails with these skittish creatures – and a tragic incident when a photographer ventured too close and scared off a male gazelle which “escaped” into the territory of a different male, and thereby met his death. We didn’t scare off any gazelles right then and there, but I did notice a fine looking male chaffinch in the pine trees.

Male chaffinch among the pinecones

Male chaffinch among the pine cones

Continuing around to skirt the Neftuach lookout, we passed a few chukars, fennel plants and other interesting flora before reaching the end of the trail, with a view of the new rail bridge for the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line, passing over Nachal Soreq.

Flushed chukar

Flushed chukar

To the right of the bridge in the Arab village of Beit Iksa, which we learned may have been named after the Roman Tenth Legion (or, Legio X in the original Latin) – the name meaning “House of Iksa” in Arabic, and “Iksa” meaning “X”.

New rail bridge entering Jerusalem

New rail bridge entering Jerusalem

It was there that we said farewell to Shmulik and Hilary, and were taken over by another guide to see ancient ruins in the so-called Biblical Garden, in the pine forest area. We started with the first of six winepresses that date to the First Temple period – approximately 2,500 years ago. To make matters even more exciting, a Hasmonean coin was found in this particular winepress when rock-clearing was done to clean up the site.

Winepress

Winepress

The group settled down to hear more about the site, but Adam and I were still itching to get our adventure on. So we asked for directions and parted from our group to hike on over to the next site: the abandoned village of Lifta. But, before that, we owe a great thanks to Ramot for the Environment for providing us with a great morning trip full of wildlife sightings and information – we wish them much success in their ongoing battle with housing development projects in keeping the park a wildlife sanctuary, like the way it is now.

Israel Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on May 1, 2016 at 5:55 AM

Several weeks ago I took the opportunity to visit the famed Israel Museum in Jerusalem, for the very first time. Not to be confused with the similarly-named Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the Israel Museum is considered Israel’s national museum and is highly regarded worldwide. I bypassed a large group of soldiers and paid the necessary fee to gain entrance to the museum, excited to see what all of the fuss is about.

Anthropoid coffin lid

Anthropoid coffin lid

Slightly confused with the layout, I first inspected an extensive, ancient mosaic floor from Bet Shean before heading to the archaeology wing. Beginning with Egyptian-influenced anthropoid coffins I took a self-guided, and very disorganised, tour of the section. If I were to relay a play-by-play review of my visit this blog post would be far too long and tedious, therefore, I shall simply list some of the items and exhibits that I found most interesting – highlights of my trip.

Burial of a woman and dog (cast) from the Hula Valley

Burial of a woman and dog (cast) from the Hula Valley

Within the archaeology wing I found a small exhibition dedicated to ancient glassware, where I learned about iridescence in ancient glass, simple deterioration resulting in what is known as silver weathering. Moving along, I came upon a collection of painted clay ossuaries (burial chests) dating back thousands of years discovered in caves around Peki’in, just minutes from my house in Ma’alot. A copper crown and sceptre from the Cave of the Treasure in the Judean Desert caught my attention next, likely used in cultic ceremonies thousands of years ago.

Tahunian mask from the Judean Hills

Tahunian mask from the Judean Hills

A collection of flint arrowheads from all over the country piqued my interest, as I am currently taking a class in technology and typology of flint tools. Next, a selection of ancient Tahunian masks made of limestone or chalk, believed to be the oldest masks in the world. Recalling my trip to the Ohalo site as mentioned in my first Kinneret post, preserved grains of wheat and barley as well as the reconstructed hut was on display in the same room. I then came across remains of ancient fauna, including hippopotamus, deer, tiger and ape bones and a set of horns belonging to an ancient bull. A full elephant tusk and molar brought back memories of the Golan Archaeological Museum where I had first learned about elephants roaming the Holy Land so long ago.

Bronze cuirassed statue of Hadrian from the Bet Shean Valley

Bronze cuirassed statue of Hadrian from the Bet Shean Valley

I entered a temporary exhibition on the Roman emperor Hadrian, and then found myself in another room looking at ceremonial dress of birth and death in different Jewish societies. I photographed a painted wood Torah scroll case from Maharashtra, India and then a wood and felt burial carriage from Hungary before continuing on to the next exhibit. Browsing the magnificent items on display from various foreign empires and cultures of antiquity I was surprised to see that the Israel Museum has such a rich collection of foreign artefacts, including a Akkadian bronze sword from Iran, a limestone relief featuring Iddin-Sin, King of Simurrun from Iraq, and ancient Egyptian funerary figurines of painted wood and stone – to name but a few of the fascinating items. But the local artefacts were also of great interest, including a stone inscription by Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent commemorating the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 1535-38, the same walls seen today surrounding the Old City.

Mosaic of Greek goddess Tyche from Bet Shean

Mosaic of Greek goddess Tyche from Bet Shean

Entering a section dedicated to relics of the Crusader period, I found some wonderful things: a marble slab with the coat of arms of Sir Hugh Wake discovered in Ashkelon and a lithographic stone for stamping leather featuring the arms of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order which was found in my favourite Crusader ruins, Montfort Castle. Articles of warfare from Tiberias and Akko were also on display, as well as a section of a Christian wall painting of plaster and pigment from a Crusader abbey in Jerusalem.

Greco-Roman remnants in the Holy Land

Greco-Roman remnants in the Holy Land

It was at this point that my camera battery died and I was forced to continue documenting my trip with my phone camera, arguably better in terms of photo quality yet lacking any real zoom (which worked out okay for museum photos). I entered a two-storey room with idolatrous statues, painted tombstones and funerary busts from the Greco-Roman period on the top floor. Descending, I spotted a familiar mosaic on the wall above me – the mosaic from the ancient synagogue at Wadi Hamam that I visited not long before – visible, albeit blurry, in the above photo.

Aramean idolatry

Aramean idolatry

With exhibits on Samaritan artefacts and ruins, ancient Jewish synagogue mosaics, the floor of a Roman dining room in Shechem (Nablus) and even the birth of coinage, there’s simply too much to write about and so I will continue on with the next selection of antiquities, including weapons of war from numerous empires, and the scatterings of pagan idols and idolatrous devices, such as an Edomite shrine found in the Negev. In the photo above, a carved basalt slab featuring one of two pagan gods was found just north of the Kinneret at the ruins of an Aramean city gate. Another object of interest was a silver goblet featuring an artistic mythological design that was found at Ein Samia, a site in the Shomron that I had visited just two days prior.

Inside the Fine Arts wing

Inside the Fine Arts wing

I then ventured across the main hall and entered a temporary exhibit titled “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story”, which I found quite interesting. Having visited a large handful of ancient sites throughout Israel I have noticed traces of Egyptian rule, something which isn’t always addressed when it comes to the standard “who’s who” in Holy Land chronology. There is no denying the influence brought about by the Ancient Egyptian culture and, to further cement in their historical importance, compelling relics were put on display (including a reconstructed sandstone gateway façade of a fortress of Ramesses II in Yafo, or Jaffa). For fear of being too long-winded, I shall end the archaeological report here and focus on the other wings of the museum, starting with the Fine Arts wing where I found some agreeable works by Hodler, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro and Corot. I browsed the Arnold Maremont Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art (of which I had seen I very similar collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts several months prior), and then the exhibit “Costume and Jewelry: A Matter of Identity” which covers traditional dress of Jews the world over.

The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue, Paramaribo, Suriname

The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue, Paramaribo, Suriname

Entering the Wing for Jewish Art and Life, I was blown away at the incredibly rich and extensive collection of all things Judaica. It’d be quite a difficult undertaking to even list the highlights of the exhibit so I shall simply cover my favourite section, “The Synagogue Route”. Featuring four reconstructed synagogues, each to a different degree of restoration, the section really interested me from a religious and cultural, as well as architectural, standpoint. I first entered the sandy-floored Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue from Suriname, a small Caribbean country in South America just north of Brazil. Built in 1736 by Portuguese Jews who lived in the Netherlands before starting a new life in the New World, the synagogue has influences from both European cultures. Next I visited the Kadavumbagam Synagogue from Cochin, India, with its large carved wood aron (holy ark) and balcony. In terms of opulence, it was the small yet grand Vittorio Veneto Synagogue from Italy which was completed in 1700 that took the proverbial cake – a masterpiece of Italian Baroque style, reminiscent of an aristocratic palace. The final synagogue is the Horb Synagogue from Germany, which sadly didn’t stand the test of time since being built in the early 1700’s. All that remains are the walls and elaborately painted wooden ceiling, dating 1735 by Jewish Galician artist Eliezer Sussman, which is the last surviving synagogue artwork of its kind.

Detail from the Horb Synagogue's painted wood ceiling

Detail from the Horb Synagogue’s painted wood ceiling

Leaving the phenomenal Judaica department, I walked, and at times nearly ran, through the ghastly contemporary art wing – only a mere few pieces holding any redeeming value in my critical opinion. I dashed for the exit and passed some sculptures in the Art Garden outside as I made my way to the Holyland Model of Jerusalem, a 1:50 scale-model of what Jerusalem might have looked like during the Second Temple Period.

Holyland Model of Jerusalem

Holyland Model of Jerusalem

At last I reached the most iconic feature of the Israel Museum, the Shrine of the Book containing the Dead Sea Scrolls under a meringue-looking white dome. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden within the building and so I have nothing to show for, other than my [written] word itself. And so, after enjoying a look at the famous scrolls found in caves in and around Qumran, I bid farewell to the famous museum and rushed back to Bar Ilan University for a computers class…

Jerusalem Tour

In Israel, Jerusalem on January 19, 2016 at 6:42 AM

Several weeks ago, on a Thursday, my sister and I took part in a municipality-funded trip to Jerusalem, courtesy of the neighbouring city of Nahariya. We joined the group of fellow immigrants and boarded the bus just after 7am – the start of a blustery but interesting day. Picking up our tour guide, Anat Harrel, we continued on our merry way to the capital via Road 443 – the ancient route up to Jerusalem.

Aerial photo of Jerusalem by Ron Gafni

Aerial photo of Jerusalem by Ron Gafni

Entering Jerusalem from the north, we headed for our first destination, the Supreme Court of Israel. Located in the governmental sector alongside the Knesset and several Ministry buildings, the Supreme Court was built in the early 90’s funded by the Rothschild family. The architects, Rami Karmi and Ada Karmi-Melamede, implemented many contrasts in building design and interior composition. Once we passed through security we met our courthouse guide, Nir, who began with the contrasts of old and new, lines and circles, inside and out. We walked up a large staircase to a panoramic window looking out over the city and then headed for the pyramid and library.

Looking out from the Supreme Court

Looking out from the Supreme Court

At each stop Nir explained the architectural significance of the area and we then progressed to the foyer which leads to each of the five courtrooms. Like the tourists that we were, we eyed the black-robed lawyers curiously and peppered Nir with various questions of the inquisitive mind. Nir led us into the fourth courtroom, named “Daled”, and sat us down on the harsh wooden pews. Standing below the Justices’ dais, he first explained the traditional courtroom layout – pointing out the seats belonging to the court reporter, the clerk, the lawyers from both sides, the prisoner and the press (in the case that it’s a criminal case and newsworthy, respectively). Next, the nitty-gritty of the Israeli legal system was explained including an overview of the three levels of court systems, followed by a Q&A to address more specific inquiries.

Nir in Courtroom Daled

Nir in Courtroom Daled

Leaving the courtroom, we congregated in the foyer and I saw a window of opportunity open before my eyes. Robed individuals passed in and out of the third courtroom door (“Gimmel”), the largest of the five, and I decided to make my move. With my sister in tow I strode forward confidently and breached the chamber, hiding behind a column. I peered out and spectated an ongoing court case; three justices sat on the dais while standing lawyers argued fervently, protesting the words of the middle judge who was engaging them in dialogue. As I peeped from behind the pillar, clueless as to what was at stake, I was urged by my sister to return to the group lest we become abandoned. Unrelated, a week or two after this trip I attended a lecture by Deputy Attorney General (Criminal) Raz Nizri while visiting Bar Ilan University, something I found particularly interesting especially after just visiting the Supreme Court. Getting back to the tour of Jerusalem, our next stop was Ammunition Hill – a national memorial site dedicated after the Six Day War in 1967.

Anat the tour guide

Anat the tour guide

Without going into too much depth, as I have already covered this site (linked above) back in 2012, we basically went straight to the Six Day War Heritage museum, located inside a bunker-like building. Our tour guide, Anat, passed out lyric sheets and played for us the pulsating 60’s hit which commemorated and relived the Battle of Ammunition Hill – a moving moment. At the song’s finish we explored the museum and then headed over to the multimedia presentation of the Battle for Jerusalem, a phenomenal production. Afterwards we headed to the entrance lobby for a warm lunch donated to our tour group, and with lunch’s culmination we took a group photo:

Group photo

Group photo

Having visited the site where a bloody battle was fought between Israeli and Jordanian troops, the earlier notes that Anat has delineated concerning the old Israel-Jordan border made all the more sense – it seems hard to believe that there was a time when enemy snipers were a threat to unaware pedestrians. With one more stop on our list, the bus driver deposited us off at the entrance to Mount Herzl. I had also visited Mount Herzl back in the army, attending a memorial service for a soldier who was killed on the Lebanese border in 1985 in the “Safari Disaster”, which can be read about (linked above). This time we came not for the military cemetery but for the grave and museum of the mountain’s namesake, Theodore Herzl. Credited as the “Visionary of the State”, Herzl was one of the fathers of modern political Zionism and formed the World Zionist Organisation in 1897. Before we reached the plaza beside Herzl’s grave, Anat gave us a very clear picture of what modern political Zionism is and how it came about via the rise of nationalism throughout the world.

Learning more about ''Modern Zionism''

Learning more about ”Modern Zionism”

Armed with information, we crossed the plaza and spent a few minutes at the iconic gravesite, each of us in their own thoughts. While Herzl’s grave crowns the mountain, there is far more symbolism than just one burial site – on the northern slope is the military cemetery and on the western side is the famous Yad VaShem Holocaust museum (linked above under “Ammunition Hill”). The proximity of these two testaments of tragedy are not coincidental, but rather symbolic of the Jewish People’s constant fight for life and their own land, preferably both at the same time. Theodore Herzl died in 1904 and was buried in Vienna, but in 1949 he was interred in the land that he fought for, as he had requested in his will.

Herzl's grave

Herzl’s grave

With Herzl’s grave a national site, other political leaders were later buried in an adjacent cemetery dedicated to “Great Leaders of the Nation” and “Leaders of the World Zionist Organisation”. Passing through, we saw the graves of former Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin (buried alongside his wife) as well as others including Chaim Herzog and Yitzhak Navon. Turning back around we entered the new Herzl Museum, another multimedia presentation of many rooms which helps illustrate the life and struggle of Theodore Herzl.

Herzl's private office

Herzl’s private office

His study in Vienna was reconstructed and put on display, as well as many of his personal belongings mixed with gifts and awards of dignitary distinction. At the conclusion of our visit to the Herzl Museum we boarded the bus for the final time and were shuttled out of Jerusalem to be taken back from whence we came. I rather enjoyed our tour and I hope that the opportunity comes again, for I will seize it!

 

Gush Katif Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on December 21, 2014 at 4:34 AM

The day following my trip to the Weizmann Institute of Science, the opportunity to visit Jerusalem arrived. I had a morning army meeting to attend and, upon completion, headed for Machane Yehuda shuk (bazaar) in search for craft beers unavailable where I live up north. Dodging the scattered rainshowers, I successfully procured some fine stouts and meandered through the bustling shuk until reaching the light rail. Glancing at the station map, I noticed that there was a museum just around the corner – the Gush Katif Museum.

Gush Katif Museum

Gush Katif Museum

Having moved to Israel in 2009, I missed the dark chapter that gripped the nation just four years earlier. I’m referring to the Israeli disengagement of the Gaza Strip in August 2005, the disbandment of Jewish towns and their inhabitants who called Gaza their home. Gush Katif is the Hebrew name for the area in the southern part of Gaza where Jews have been living on and off since Biblical times. The first recorded mentioning of Jews in the Gaza area was about Abraham settling in the Nachal Grar area (I have previously written about this in the Be’eri Forest post). Another notable Biblical period was the time of King Solomon, when he ruled “…from Tifsach to Gaza”. And then, during the times of the Romans and Byzantines, when Israel’s largest excavated synagogue was built.

Inside the museum

Inside the museum

Fast-forward to relatively modern times and the Jews were expelled from their homes by the British following Arab rioting in 1929. It wasn’t until 1968 that Jews returned en masse and began to repopulate the area, eventually establishing 21 towns and creating a booming agricultural industry. At its peak, Gush Katif was exporting some $60 million of produce annually. Crops included lettuce, tomatoes, oranges, peanuts and potatoes, stemming from Gush Katif’s technologically advanced greenhouses. Quoting Wikipedia, “Economic consultants estimated that the closures [of the greenhouses] cost the whole agricultural sector in Gaza $450,000 a day in lost revenue.”

The Jewish towns in blue...

The Jewish towns in blue…

Once the Second Intifada began, the security situation became a bit dire, and the Jewish settlements of Gush Katif received 6,000 mortar and rocket attacks, resulting in tremendous property and psychological damage. Despite the heavy resistance (more than 60% of the general population opposed), the Sharon Administration decided to disengage from Gaza. What ensued was a period of hardship for the Israeli nation. The counter-movement to the disengagement was “The Orange Struggle” – orange representing Gush Katif. Tens of thousands of protestors – civilians, policemen, soldiers – all stood in solidarity against the disengagement, even creating a “Human Chain Demonstration” with 130,000 people stretching 100 kilometres.

Stickers and posters of the Orange Struggle

Stickers and posters of the Orange Struggle

Alas, on August 15, 2005, the forced evacuation began, and it continued throughout the towns, one by one, until the 18th, when the last town was cleared. Without getting into great detail, the evacuation had some hiccups but eventually the newly homeless Israelis were moved into temporary living places such as converted shipping containers. I once spent Shabbat in a town between Ashdod and Ashkelon called Nitzan which has a large population of Gush Katif refugees living in mobile homes. To this day, nearly ten years after the eviction, there are families still living in sub-standard housing.

A photo from Efrat Marks' "Mechila" exhibit

A photo from Efrat Marks’ “Mechila” exhibit

The Gush Katif Museum is both a memorial to what once was and a recognition of the ongoing movement in support of Jewish living not only in Gaza but in Judea and Samaria as well. Historical objects, photos and books help relay the message, one that I knew so little about. The short film about Gush Katif’s modern heyday and the tragic disengagement really brings the harsh reality to mind, but when I watched it I found myself distracted by a familiar face. I think an Armoured Corps NCO that I met during Operation Protective Edge was captured on video at a mournful synagogue scene, I’d like to ask him if I ever see him again. What a small world…

Army Trip: Jerusalem Tour

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 17, 2014 at 4:32 AM

Another break in the traditional chronological format of my blog, this past Monday I went on a unique little educational army trip to the capital city, Jerusalem. As I’m currently attending a Hebrew language crash course, or “Ulpanit”, I was accompanied by a small group of new friends: fellow classmates and teachers alike. Leaving our base near Ben Gurion Airport, we entered the Holy City and began our tour with the old neighbourhoods of Mazkeret Moshe and Zichron Moshe (if I’m not mistaken). Walking through the quiet residential areas we learned the history of these streets, and who lived on them, from our Educational and Youth Corps tour guide.

Outside Rabbi Aryeh Levin's house

Outside Rabbi Aryeh Levin’s house

We learned how these neighbourhoods were inhabited after a realisation that there simply wasn’t enough room for the Jews in the Old City. In all the times I’ve been to Jerusalem, including the eight blog posts I’ve written about this holy city thus far, I’ve never seen nor heard about these little neighbourhoods. Then again, there’s a lot I haven’t seen in Jerusalem.

A sealed well

A sealed well

Bordering these neighbourhoods to the north is the famous Machane Yehuda shuk – a large marketplace which really comes to life every Friday. We stopped there for a few minutes and I got a falafel.

Machane Yehuda shuk

Machane Yehuda shuk

Getting back into our Mercedes-Benz minibus, we headed for the Old City and disembarked near the Jaffa Gate. Outside the walls, overlooking Mamilla Mall, we posed by a globe sculpture, symbolic of our collective status as immigrants.

Class picture

Class picture

We then continued into the Old City entering via the Jaffa Gate, being told that the angled lines in the stonework below was intended to resemble the roof of a house – a story of homesickness.

Jaffa Gate wall

Jaffa Gate wall

Within the Old City, our guide took us through the Armenian Quarter, snaking our way through narrow corridors and under graceful arches.

Walking through the Armenian Quarter

Walking through the Armenian Quarter

We climbed up onto a large rooftop and I realised that I had already done this exact segment years back when I was in regular Ulpan. We were pointed out the rooftops of various religious buildings around us, including the Dome of the Rock’s golden dome. In middle of our geographical lesson we were distracted by a small group of Arab youth who were leaping about performing some form of amateur parkour before a larger group of tourists.

Arab rooftop parkour

Arab rooftop parkour

Next we found ourselves in the Cardo, the ancient main thoroughfare which was once lined with merchants and traders. Today, only some of the walls, pillars and floor can be seen – a far cry from a bygone glory.

The Cardo

The Cardo

After the Cardo, inching ever closer to the Kotel plaza, we sat down to hear about a memorial hearkening from the days of the Jerusalem’s reconquering. Throughout the raging battles for the Old City during the Six Day War, soldiers and civilians alike fell in battle but were unable to be buried due to the “siege” laid out by the surrounding Jordanian army. With no other options available, the living were forced to bury the dead temporarily within the city. After the paratroopers broke through and reclaimed Jerusalem, the bodies were transferred to cemeteries outside the Old City. A memorial replaced the grave and has remained there to this day, occupying a small corner near the Batei Machseh plaza.

Learning about the memorial

Learning about the memorial

Shortly after we ended up at the Kotel and then headed out to our minibus to be whisked off to lunch at the Israel Air Force’s Talpiot Program cafeteria at the Hebrew University. After lunch we attempted to re-enter the Old City where we ended, at the Kotel, but instead spent a while circling the Old City and driving through East Jerusalem. Eventually we disembarked and entered through the Dung Gate and then descended into the earth for a quick run at the Kotel Tunnel tour.

An excavated vault of the Great Bridge from the time of the Temple

An excavated vault of the Great Bridge from the time of the Temple

The subterranean excavations are, for want of a better word, fascinating. The incredible richness of the history of the Temple Mount can scarcely be appreciated with just a glance at the prepared archaeological findings. Every little while there is yet another deep plunge into the days of yore, the ancient stonework illuminated in a mellow yellow light.

A deep achaeological pit

A deep achaeological pit

I think I’ve done the Kotel Tunnel tour twice before this trip and yet each time feels new. Our interesting tour guide, replacing the soldier who departed earlier, led us into the long causeway that runs the length of the Western Wall – the full wall, not just the small iconic section seen above ground.

Kotel Tunnel tour

Kotel Tunnel tour

First, we were educated in the fine masonry of the Western Wall – the impeccable and vastly huge ashlars which were laid down and fit nearly perfectly one atop the other. In this picture, the guide and I stood at the two ends of the largest of the building stones which can also be seen above – a block that weighs an immense 570 tonnes (1.25 million pounds):

The length of the 570 tonne stone

The length of the 570 tonne stone

Continuing down the tunnel, hugging the Western Wall, we arrive at the place directly opposite the place where the Holy of Holies once was – a holy place, of course. With that our guide bid us farewell and encouraged us to pray while we were here. Upon prayer completion we headed out of the tunnel, back up the numerous sets of stairs and out into the Kotel plaza. There we photographed and were photographed, even providing excellent photos for a large group of schoolgirls from England. With the sun setting we got into our minibus one last time and headed back to the base. Gotta love free army trips!