Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Judea’ Category

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).

Qumran

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.

University Trip: Tel Azeka & Khirbet Qeiyafa

In Israel, Judea on November 27, 2016 at 6:51 AM

Just over a week ago, the Land of Israel and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University launched its first “academic tour” of the semester, and I tagged along enthusiastically. Our destinations were two predominantly Biblical (Iron Age) sites in the Judean foothills: Tel Azeka and Khirbet Qeiyafa. Leaving the university campus in the morning via minibus, we took a brief pit stop at Elah Junction before continuing on to our first site, Tel Azeka located in Park Brittania.

Hellenistic palace of Tel Azeka

Hellenistic palace of Tel Azeka

Parking at the foot of Tel Azeka, we walked up the large mound from the south and crossed it to the eastern side, stopping under the Pistacia trees at the David and Goliath Lookout to enjoy the view of Emek HaElah (or, Elah Valley) where the legendary battle between David and Goliath took place.

Listening to Dr Oren Ackermann at the David & Goliath Lookout

Listening to Dr Oren Ackermann at the David & Goliath Lookout

The first order of the day was an overview of the area from a topographical perspective, delivered by Dr Oren Ackermann. With the help of field maps and a compass or two, we were instructed in the many ways of topography, navigation and geographical orientation. As we sat in the shade I kept an eye out for wildlife down below – I was rewarded with sightings of a European robin, stonechat, kestrel and a whole lot of noisy Eurasian jays at Tel Azeka alone.

Unidentified horseman

Unidentified horseman

A brief history of Tel Azeka: First inhabited some 3500 or so years ago, the site is first mentioned in Biblical sources as a city conquered by Yehoshua (Joshua) – an epic tale involving hailstones and slaughter. Later, Azeka is mentioned as being part of the Israelite fortress line defending against the Philistines from the southwest. Being as that Emek HaElah is the natural entry-point into the Judean foothills region, hilltop cities were built and fortified to repel invaders. However, these bastions didn’t stop Sennacherib and his Assyrian army from conquering the Israelite cities all the way up to Jerusalem, including Azeka. The next superpower, the Babylonians, laid siege on Azeka and conquered it shortly before laying waste to Jerusalem. With the Jewish return to the Holy Land in the Persian period, Azeka was rebuilt and resettled, undergoing a name change in the Byzantine era; from Azeka to Caper Zacaria. Sometime thereafter the city was abandoned and fell to ruins, only to be discovered by PEF surveyors and archaeologists in the late 1800s. Over one hundred years later, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University began modern excavations – the next dig season set for July 2018 (see HERE).

Listening to Dr Shawn Zelig Aster at the Assyrian siege batteries

Listening to Dr Shawn Zelig Aster at the Assyrian siege batteries

Returning to the narrative, we then stepped over the edge of the lookout to examine the unusually steep Assyrian siege batteries excavated out of the gravelly sides of the tel. From there we headed to the southern side and looked at the old city wall ruins of the Late Bronze to Iron Age period, before Israelite reign, under the shade of tall pine trees.

Late Bronze-Iron Age dated city walls to the south

Late Bronze-Iron Age city walls to the south

Looping around the west side, we then stood at the edge of another open excavation, the Hellenistic palace. And from there we headed back over to the east side to take a group photo.

Group photo on Tel Azeka

Group photo on Tel Azeka

Leaving Tel Azeka, we were then driven to the start of a dirt road not far below the tel, across Road 38, where we were to walk on foot to our next site: Khirbet Qeiyafa (debatably also known as Shaaraim, meaning “Two Gates”). Mostly disregarded by surveyors in the 19th and 20th centuries, the site was identified as an important fortified city in 1992 and 2001, and most recently excavated between 2007-2013 by the Hebrew University under Professor Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Antiquities Authority. I had the honour of digging with these fine archaeologists six or so months ago at Khirbet Arai, located some seventeen kilometres southwest of Qeiyafa.

Aerial view of Khirbet Qeiyafa looking south (photo Skyview)

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

To give an even briefer historical overview, Qeiyafa was a Biblical city, same as Azeka, perhaps the largest city in the area at the time. The findings of a second gate, facing south overlooking Emek HaElah, seemingly solidified the theory that Qeiyafa was the Biblical city of Shaaraim. In the Hellenistic period the site was fortified, with the addition of smaller fieldstones to enlarge the city walls. The Roman and Byzantine periods saw continued settlement, yet sometime afterwards the ancient city fell to disuse and was only scattered stone heaps until recent years.

Double wall circling Qeiyafa

Double wall circling Qeiyafa

And so it was that our group of academics and students alike sat under the shade of an olive tree to hear about the recent excavations. Getting back up on our feet, we examined the four-chambered western gate and then took a slow loop within the city perimetre, pausing here and there for educational purposes. I was gazing about at the ruins around me when I saw the briefest of glimpses of a bird that I’ve never seen before. All I needed was that glimpse to identify a male blue rock thrush from the bird guide I carry around everywhere – an exciting spotting for me, even if I was unable to photographically capture the moment.

Dusty acorns

Dusty acorns

Finishing up where we started – the western gate – I found a bitter almond tree and tried to feed my friends cyanide-rich nutmeat, but they all refused. We boarded the minibus and drove through intermittent traffic back to the university, successfully culminating the first archaeology trip of the semester.

Khirbet Arai Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Judea on May 29, 2016 at 11:45 AM

During Chol HaMoed Pesach, several weeks ago, I was told by my friend Itamar about the Khirbet Arai archaeological dig in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Kiryat Gat. I traveled down to Beit Shemesh the day prior and we went out to see The Jungle Book in theatres the evening before the dig – a great film. The day of the dig arrived and we were driven to the site, passing historical sites such as Tel Beit Shemesh and Emek HaElah where the iconic battle between David and Goliath took place.

Aerial view of the dig site (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Aerial view of the dig site (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Now, the mound seen in the aerial photo above in the entire dig site but I only ended up working in the squares to the back left of the hillock, just along the tree line (click on the photo to enlarge). While the excavation site was being set up for the day and the camping volunteers were getting up, I wandered off a bit to explore my surroundings, photographing some jackdaws as well as the view of the Judean foothills.  To fully paint the scene, the weather was dry and very hot with gusts of hot wind blowing in from the southeast, perfect for a day outdoors. Looping back round to the dig site I found this crooked warning sign:

Beware of the archaeologists up ahead!

Beware of the archaeologists up ahead!

The Khirbet Arai Expedition is run by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, under the watchful eye of Professor Yosef Garfinkel, one of Israel’s premier experts in Biblical Age archaeology. Fortunately, Professor Avraham Faust from Bar Ilan University – my boss in the lab where I work – came to visit and I was able to tag along with him and Saar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority to hear a pretty extensive review of the excavations and findings.

Professor Yosef Garfinkel

Professor Yosef Garfinkel

I began the day’s work by helping with labeling cleaned potsherds for future vessel reconstruction, something I have plenty of practice in working in the Tel ‘Eton Archaeological Lab back in BIU.

Philistine pottery found on-site (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Philistine pottery found on-site (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Once we finished with the pottery bits we had lunch and then got back to work, this time I joined the diggers working in a particular square uncovering walls from either the 9th Century BCE or the 12th Century BCE, I cannot recall which was which. The periods are Late Bronze, Early Iron and Iron II – if I am using the terms correctly (I’m still a student) – which are the Judges and Kings periods of Israelite rule.

A square similar to the one I worked in (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

A square similar to the one I worked in (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Prof Garfinkel has already done extensive excavations in nearby Lachish and Qeiyafa, larger sites from the same period which guarded over the Nachal Lachish, an important road in the region. As Khirbet Arai has only been subjected to test and minor digs thus far, we were glad to make headway into the areas we were uncovering. Due to the sensitive nature of new reveals in both the academic and tourism world, I was forbidden to take photos of key findings and of the dig site itself but was graciously given permission to use released photos courtesy of the Khirbet Arai Expediton.

Bone that I dug out of the ground

Bone that I dug out of the ground

As I scraped around in the dirt between two emerging stone walls, I kept count of the potsherds I was finding – but lost track after thirty or so. All in all I estimate that I personally unearthed some 40-50 pottery pieces as well as what looks like a broken rib bone and some burnt brick material with small amount of concentrated carbon. It’s assumed that there must have been a raging fire which left burnt traces in the pottery and the brick, possibly fires of destruction and ruin – oh how I wish I had a time machine!

Bits of carbon from an ancient fire

Bits of carbon from an ancient fire

Noam, our square supervisor, was fun to work with and he showed us a broken flint tool and other oddities that he found on his side of the square, as well as answering the many questions that I had. Unfortunately, I blundered in my mission and was told by the Professor that I had committed an “archaeological disaster” by digging too deep alongside the wall stones, perhaps breaking the floor strata. We learn from our mistakes and at least now I know what not to do on my next dig.

Itamar and I after a long day at the dig

Itamar and I after a long day at the dig

Towards the end of the day we closed the dig site and worked on washing some pottery, another thing I have experience in, while the washed potsherds from the day before went to the pottery reading to determine their value and usage, the rest of which was dumped alongside the dirt and stones removed from the site. I sat beside Prof Garfinkel and discussed the site with him, learning of Luke Chandler’s blog where more photos and more information can be found (see post ONE and post TWO). Another interesting fact that I gleaned was that ancient sites from this particular time period are often identified by the animal remains found. Philistine sites have been documented as containing up to 20% swine of the bones found while Jewish sites have 0% swine bones, as the pig is not a kosher animal and thus ignored by the Israelites. Finished with the pottery washing, I got a ride partway home, washing and freshening up in Netanya’s train station, before making it the rest of the way home for a good night’s sleep.

University Trip: Beit Guvrin – Maresha

In Israel, Judea on May 22, 2016 at 5:41 AM

A month or so ago I received an invitation to attend a special farewell ceremony for Professor Emeritus Amos Kloner of Bar Ilan University. Already in his mid-seventies, Prof Kloner finished his lecturing last semester and was being honoured for his work at one of the most famous places he helped bring to life: Beit Guvrin – Maresha.

Beit Guvrin's iconic Bell Caves

Beit Guvrin’s iconic Bell Caves

I had visited Beit Guvrin – Maresha on my 12th grade graduation trip to Israel and haven’t been back to explore since, aside from a short visit to the Roman amphitheatre located nearby (HERE). And so it was on a pleasant Thursday afternoon that I boarded a bus with other university members and we made our way to the national park. Because of Prof Kloner’s renown, the event was co-hosted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in conjunction with BIU. Within the park we followed the evening’s mapped itinerary, starting with the fascinating ancient underground columbarium, or dovecote, with its capacity for thousands of  pigeons or doves.

Inside the columbarium

Inside the columbarium

Due to the region’s soft, chalky bedrock, there are hundreds and hundreds of caves – some natural and the others man-made. To give a brief synopsis of the local history, a fortified city by the name of Maresha is Biblically mentioned as a Jewish city until the times of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II who exiled its inhabitants. Abandoned Maresha was then occupied by the Edomites until the time of Alexander the Great when the city became the home of retired Greek soldiers. Enter the Maccabean Revolt, Pompey, Julius Caesar and then Herod and the city was destroyed in the power struggle.

Uncovered ruins at the edge of Tel Maresha

Uncovered ruins at the edge of Tel Maresha

Still in the Roman period, the small Jewish settlement of Beit Guvrin nearby became a regional replacement of Maresha and was named Eleutheropolis by the Romans after being conquered by Vespasian. Uncharacteristic of Holy Land cities, the ancient history ends with the Romans, save a few scattered instances of settlement throughout the following two millennia. As we climbed out of the columbarium I bumped into future tour guide Haike Winter and her friend – always fun to see familiar faces in unlikely places.

Lecture within the olive press cave

Lecture within the olive press cave

The next site on the map was the water cistern and olive press, both carved into the soft rock underground, where we heard a brief lecture on theories regarding Greek influence and involvement during the time of Alexander the Great. Climbing out, we continued on to mount Tel Maresha, where a guest lecturer hailing from Caesarea came to speak. There we stood gazing at the lay of the land, listening to the pastoral sounds of a flock of sheep passing down below.

Lecture on Tel Maresha

Lecture on Tel Maresha

The next place we visited was the famous Sidonian burial cave with its imaginative paintings, known as the Apollophanes Cave, a place I remember from my trip in 2008.

Sidonian burial cave

Sidonian burial cave

I was overjoyed to see the painting of a wild boar alongside other wild animals such as antelopes, giraffes, elephants and more. Ever since my run-ins with the ferocious and savage swine in both Nachal Kziv and Nachal Ga’aton I have been excited to see inanimate representations in ancient art.

Wild boar on the wall

Wild boar on the wall

From the Sidonian burial cave we boarded the buses to visit the famous Bell Caves where the ceremonially academic evening of lectures was to take place. Food and beverages were served yet I preferred to photograph jackdaws and to then visit the Bell Caves before the crowds arrived. During my 2008 visit we neglected to visit the Bell Caves so I was duly impressed to see the huge chambres, hewn from soft chalk, to be used mainly as quarries during the Byzantine era.

Inside one of the caves

Inside one of the caves

There were a few other people wandering around the caves as well and I used them in my pictures for perspective, to gauge the height of the large bell-shaped caves. When I had completed my subterranean tour I joined the rest of our group at a nearby cave where chairs and a screen were set up for lectures. Settling down next to my friend Itamar, I listened to the speeches and took notes on what everyone spoke about. Dr Tsvika Tsuk of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority spoke about being a soldier and finding a sarcophagus, and then the story of the recent victory getting UNESCO to recognise Beit Guvrin – Maresha as a World Heritage Site.

Speeches within the cave

Speeches within the cave

Dr Ian Stern of Archaeological Seminars told us about interesting findings such as items used for magic and ancient cultist practices. Dr Adi Erlich from Haifa University showed us slideshows of clay idols or figurines found locally, putting emphasis on one particular idol of Cybele – unusual to see in the Holy Land as Cybele was an Asia Minor deity. Prof Esther Eshel from BIU provided us with knowledge on ancient documents found inscribed on clay tablets while our department head Prof Boaz Zissu gave us a general historical and archaeological overview about Maresha, showing us fascinating pictures from the early 1900’s.

Inside the Sidonian burial cave from the early 1900's (cropped photo Library of Congress)

Inside the Sidonian burial cave from the early 1900’s (cropped photo: Library of Congress)

Prof Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority told us stories of grave robbers, destruction and discoveries of graves in the necropolis and then the star of the evening, Prof Amos Kloner, got up to give his address. With that the evening concluded and we took our bus back to Bar Ilan University for a good night’s sleep.

Masada & Dead Sea

In Israel, Judea on May 15, 2016 at 8:47 AM

Just over a month ago the Mechina for Olim (a preparatory course for immigrants) in Bar Ilan University, which I am taking alongside Archaeology classes, provided us a trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. We amassed outside the university gate in the wee hours of the morning and boarded the two buses hired to take us on our trip. That particular night and morning thereafter had uncharacteristically thick fog, so dense that the driver was forced to slow down considerably.

Masada and the Dead Sea before dawn

Masada and the Dead Sea before dawn

Driving in from the west, we traversed the barren wilderness and arrived at the parking lot beside the old Roman encampments on the west side of the craggy mountain. With the first hint of morning light showing over the horizon, beyond the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan, we began our ascent for the sunrise tour. The history and archaeological work done to Masada, one of Israel’s most famous tourist attractions, is too much to cover for this post, especially due to the fact that there is so much I simply don’t know yet – I will have to endeavour to write a better post on a future visit.

Tristam's starling

Tristam’s starling

In short, Masada is the ruins of a nearly-impenetrable mountaintop fortress built by Herod during the Roman era nearly two thousand years ago. History was made at the end of the Great Revolt (or First Jewish-Roman War) as the fortress became the last standing bastion against the Roman army, after strongholds in other regions fell (such as Gush Chalav, Gamla and, of course, Jerusalem).

Aerial view of Masada from the north (photo Wikipedia)

Aerial view of Masada from the north (photo Wikipedia)

We began our ascent up the Roman siege ramp (as can be seen on the right side of the aerial photograph), an extraordinary construction feat at the time, with the path straying from the ramp every so often until we reached the top. We entered the ancient fortress via a small arched portal and surveyed the flat mountaintop.

Entering via a small arched portal

Entering via a small arched portal

The sun was creeping its way to the peaks of the Jordanian mountains to the east and we gathered around to watch the sunrise.

Sunrise on Masada

Sunrise on Masada

With the world around us bathed in a new light we began our tour of the revered stronghold, one group in Hebrew and one group in French. Just as we began, the tours came to an abrupt stop, as we had approached the ruins of the ancient synagogue. We decided that there was no better place to hold the morning prayers (Shachrit) than in the synagogue of Masada.

Looking out to the northwest

Looking out to the northwest

Unfortunately, my Hebrew-language tour carried on without me and so I ended up missing a lot of what was said. Having rejoined some half hour later, we explored the bathhouse, storehouses, administrative and residential structures on the northern end of the fortress before working our way back towards the centre of the complex.

Ruins of buildings

Ruins of buildings

Several hours had passed and, although still morning, the harsh desert heat was beginning to pick up intensely. I wrapped my head in a white t-shirt and we began the descent down the famous Snake Path. Winding in the most serpentine manner down the east side of the craggy mountainside, the Snake Path is known to be the tough route up/down (especially when the third option is the cablecar).

Making our way down the Snake Path

Making our way down the Snake Path

Along the way I spotted an interesting flowering plant and paused to photograph it. Upon future investigation I learned that it was a Sodom apple with toxic sap in their fruit. The fibres attached to the seeds of this plant were once used to make wicks and are explicitly mentioned in the listing of what materials are forbidden to make Shabbat candle wicks from.

Sodom apple flower

Sodom apple flower

Eventually we reached the bottom and began our walk to the Masada Guest House where we were to have breakfast. I dug into a plate of salad, canned apricots and a potato boreka whilst enjoying a nice cup of coffee. Lounging around the hostel after breakfast, we waited for our buses to return to take us to the second half of our trip, the Dead Sea.

The touristy shore of the Dead Sea

The touristy shore of the Dead Sea

Now, oddly enough, I had never been to the Dead Sea and, rather unfortunately, I had no bathing suit readily available to pack and I didn’t bother to procure one – I’m sure the opportunity to float weightlessly will come again. Without going into too much depth about the place, the Dead Sea’s water is 9.6 times as salty as standard ocean water, resulting in an unusual level of buoyancy. Additionally, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth and incredibly hot all year round.

Another view of the Dead Sea

Another view of the Dead Sea

Still wrapped in the white t-shirt I disembarked with my friends and colleagues at whatever resort area we arrived at (it might have been in Ein Bokek) and we made our way to the sea. Like newborn sea turtles we scampered our way across the hot sand to the inviting waters ahead. Some went in, some sunbathed at the water’s edge but I decided to inspect the curious salt growths, accompanied by two friends.

Fascinating salt crystal growth underwater

Fascinating salt crystal growth underwater

We noted that ladybugs seems to be drawn to the salty sand, as well as a weevil which I caught on my finger. We fished out an interesting rock that was encrusted with salt crystals, as well as a twig that suffered a similar fate in the inhospitable waters.

Salt-encrusted rock

Salt-encrusted rock

I’ve seen many pictures online of the most magnificent salt crystal formations in the Dead Sea yet we were on a touristy beach which continuously disturbed by the hands and feet of man. Baking in our clothes from the relentless heat, we turned back towards the resort and found shelter with comfortable padded chairs and couches. We relaxed and chatted in the shade, a pair of nesting crag martins keeping us company.

Nesting crag martin

Nesting crag martin

After a lunch of sandwiches and fruit we boarded the buses and began the long journey back to Bar Ilan University, tired but happy with such a day of leisure and fun.

Jordan River Valley

In Israel, Jordan River Valley, Judea on October 21, 2014 at 6:44 AM

This past Sunday, my father and I drove down to Bet Shemesh and Ashdod for shipping-related work, hoping to have a little fun as well. Leaving early in the morning in the rain, we chose the desert route – border-hugging Road 90 from Tzfat down to Jericho and then Road 1 through Jerusalem. Stopping momentarily in Bet Shean we had a large flock of pelicans pass overhead; the bird migrations in full force this time of year.

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Our first stop was intended to be the mountaintop fortress of Sartaba (Alexandion) just before Road 505’s junction and after a wrong turn into a town, we were directed to a single-lane road that took us winding up the adjacent mountain. There, after parking, we found a desolate army outpost and a trail leading out to a rocky horn that I assumed was Sartaba.

Rocky horn - not Sartaba

Rocky horn – not Sartaba

Up on the horn, gazing out at the Jordan River Valley, I activated my phone’s GPS and discovered that the actual site was a few kilometres west from where we were standing. As you can see here, the dirt road snaking up the mountainside leads to Sartaba, looking down from where we were beside the army outpost.

The winding road to Sartaba

The winding road to Sartaba

As we looked out at the stormy clouds and the barren mountainous landscape, my father decided to see if he could roll a rock all the way down the mountainside. After the first rock crashed down into the dry streambed below, we saw small figures running away from the single-rock avalanche. I called out to my father to look at the birds running down there, assuming they were chukars or some desert quails, and then zoomed in on them with the camera. The 25x optical zoom was not enough and so I entered the iffy realm of digital zoom. I snapped and prayed, having a hard time seeing the colour-camoflauged creatures down below. Checking the display scene, I found myself looking at not birds, but gazelles:

Gazelles down below

Gazelles down below

Returning to the car, we attempted to drive to the real Sartaba but the road was too precarious and we do not have a 4×4. So, we returned to Road 90 and tried from a different access point. More rugged terrain suitable only for a 4×4. So, in summary, any attempt to reach Sartaba either requires a 4×4 vehicle or a very long hike up and around a mountain. Continuing down Road 90, we stopped next at a site known as Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic for “Castle of the Jews”) which is a spot along the Jordan River famous for several reasons. When the Jews crossed the Jordan River entering the Holy Land thousands of years back, as documented by the Bible, they crossed “opposite Jericho” and so tradition has it that this is the very spot where the waters stood in a pillar for the Jews to cross into the Land. Later, it is believed that this is where Eliyahu (Elijah) the Prophet ascended to the heavens after crossing the Jordan with Elisha.

Qasr al-Yahud - Israel and Jordan

Qasr al-Yahud – Israel and Jordan

But today’s tourists are mostly Christians who come to Qasr al-Yahud to baptise in the waters of the Jordan, a holy site harkening back to the dawn of Christianity. As far back as the Byzantine era, churches and monasteries were built along the banks, these being the lowest churches in elevation on Earth. These monasteries often served as safe havens for Christian pilgrims during times of Arab rule. The oldest monastery is St John’s which was rebuilt during the Crusader period on ruins from a Byzantine-era church. During Ottoman rule, when there was easy access for pilgrims, many Christian orders came and built their own monasteries. Earthquakes in 1927 and 1956 severely damaged the monasteries and after the Six Day War in 1967, the area became a closed military zone.

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

In the following decades, the monasteries became refuges for terrorists crossing the border and so the IDF was forced to set mines around the partially ruined buildings.

A minefield

A minefield

Now, at times of peace with Jordan, the site is open to visitors but several of the monasteries are still minefields and fenced off. When we visited, there were two Israeli soldiers and one Jordanian soldier guarding the border – a mere thirty feet or so of muddy water, where several pilgrims were in the water in white tunics.

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

After Qasr al-Yahud we kept driving until we reached the Beit HaArava Junction. There, we turned onto a small road to see the remnants of the original settlement of Beit HaArava (1939-48). At the end of the road we saw a few ruined houses, but they were on the other side of the security fence. We also saw a sign to the first potash plant which was in operations from 1925 till 1948. Getting back to the main road, we turned onto Road 1 to Jerusalem and took a two-minute detour to photograph Nabi Musa, the Muslim shrine and mosque for what they believe is the burial place of Moshe (Moses).

Nabi Musa

Nabi Musa

Pressed for time, we abandoned plans to visit the Kotel in Jerusalem and instead had a quick visit with family friends in nearby Ma’ale Adumim and then headed for Bet Shemesh to get the work done. When we left Bet Shemesh, heading for the port of Ashdod, this magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky:

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

After dinner in Ashdod, we took the labourious drive home via Road 6 – Israel’s longest toll-road and arrived home sometime after 9pm.

Hevron

In Israel, Judea on July 16, 2014 at 3:28 AM

Taking the liberty of chronologically skipping some posts that I simply haven’t gotten around to writing and are long overdue, this is a summary of a really interesting day I had last week in Hevron (Hebron), of which I am quite eager to share. I started my day in the very Anglo town of Efrat, just south of Jerusalem, at the very start of the ongoing Operation Protective Edge. Without getting to into too much military detail, I then drove further south through Kiryat Arba and then into Hevron – quite an interesting drive. This drawing by Scotsman David Roberts does not at all depict how the drive was, but it is a nice drawing:

Hebron in 1839

Hebron in 1839

I thoroughly enjoyed driving the narrow, winding Old City streets and then passing Me’arat HaMachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) where key Biblical couples such as Adam & Eve and Abraham & Sarah are buried – a place I have not yet merited to visit. Continuing on down al-Shuhada street, we then turned up Tarpat street towards Tel Rumeida – where some antiquities and some Jews can be found. The first thing I noticed were the signs and the excavated ruins beside and beneath a housing building. Tel Rumeida is what’s left of the Biblical Hebron – a very important city in Judaism and King David’s first capital city. King David’s own father and great-grandmother, Yishai (Jesse) and Ruth, are even buried locally at Tel Rumeida. Excavations began in 1999 and the findings are remarkable: a huge wall built some 4,500 years ago, another wall from some 3,800 years ago and ruins of the ancient city with remnants from the times of the Kingdom of Judah and the Second Temple period.

The tomb of Ruth and Yishai

The tomb of Ruth and Yishai

Before spending time at the ruins I popped up into the tiny military outpost, set up to protect the local Jewish population, and headed for the tomb of Ruth and Yishai. On the way I saw the tiniest vineyard, it made me wonder how tasty the wine would be…

A tiny vineyard

A tiny vineyard

Beside the tomb pictured above, there is the ruins of an ancient synagogue and unlike any other ruined synagogue, this one is being brought back to into use, which is smart.

Inside the ancient synagogue

Inside the ancient synagogue

Leaving the holy site, I walked down to Tarpat Junction to gain some knowledge from the soldiers guarding at the checkpoint. They began to explain to me the dangers of the city; that every night there is rioting on the other side of the checkpoint, in the Arab-only Palestinian-controlled part of Hevron. I peered through the bulletproof glass and saw the rocks littered all over – probably recycled each night. What makes Hevron so volatile is that it is the only city in Palestinian control that is also inhabited by Jews, and therefore partially in Israeli control. The Palestinian controlled section of Hevron is known as H1 (in which no Jews are allowed) and the Israeli controlled section of Hevron is known as H2 (in which Arabs are partially allowed) – a real mess. While I was learning all this a jeep pulled up and three officers strode up. I was startled to see a brigadier general approaching, later identified by myself as BG Tamir Yadi, commander of the Judea and Samaria region. He was accompanied by a colonel whose identity I don’t know, and a female lieutenant – probably his aide. The general wanted to go into H1 and so I decided to tag along…

Entering H1

Entering H1

It felt really strange entering the Palestinian controlled area, passing the sign warning that Palestinian police have authority. We walked to the next junction and stood as spectators as the senior officers talked. I peered into a grocery store, watched traffic, spied a butcher blow-torching chickens, having a very Arab experience. I felt like I was a tourist in Egypt or Syria – but with an M16 at my hip – I didn’t spot any Hebrew anywhere, nothing glaringly Israeli. Suddenly an old man in traditional Arab garb and headpiece, with a cane gripped in his right hand, walked by and stopped by the senior officers to pay respects. I heard Arabic mumblings and then the officers wished the old man a “happy Ramadan” and away he shuffled.

A glimpse of the Arab shopping area in H1

A glimpse of the Arab shopping area in H1

The general decided that he had enough spectating and we walked back to H2, where the officers got back into their jeep and drove away. I bid farewell to the guards and walked back up Tarpat street to continue exploring Tel Rumeida. I stopped at the first ruins and got a better look. This here is residential structure from about 4,500 years ago and a “Four-Room House” from the time of Hezekiah, King of Judah some 2,700 years ago:

Archaeological dig under a building

Archaeological dig under a building

I then found the lookout to Me’arat HaMachpela, in a grassy plot with some olive trees, and I gazed out at the world’s most ancient tomb – so close yet so out of reach (at the moment in my day).

Olive trees and Hevron

Olive trees and Hevron

Convinced that there was more, that I simply wasn’t looking well enough, I began to explore. First I came upon an old rusted blue Schweppes delivery truck, then someone’s wine press and so I returned to the area of the tomb and the synagogue. While there I heard someone call out, in English, “Soldier, soldier!” I turned around and saw some people standing in an elevated garden calling out to me, cameras in their hands. I asked them what they wanted and they demanded that I remove the Jewish settlers from their land. Not wanting to get into some heated argument about a plot of land I knew nothing about, I explained that this was a very interesting moment for me and that I was sorry that they felt the way they did, probably not such good footage for their usages…

Disgruntled civilians

Disgruntled civilians

Exploring from a different approach up the hill, I stumbled upon the Antiquities Authority’s latest excavation but unfortunately it was gated and locked and there was nobody there for me to sweet-talk my way in. But while I was there, walking on a dirt path towards the al-Arba’in mosque, I found myself looking down on the ancient Jewish cemetery which had been in use for hundreds and hundreds of years until 1936 when the local Jews were evacuated by the British.

Ancient Jewish cemetery

Ancient Jewish cemetery

With so much more to say about Hevron, including camera-wielding Swedes and the trials and tribulations of Yusuf Aza who just couldn’t remember to bring his ID and clearance pass with him to enter the Jewish cul-de-sac, I fear for being long-winded and I shall therefore bring this adventure to a close. Hopefully one day soon I’ll get to visit the parts I couldn’t catch this time around…

Beit Guvrin Amphitheatre

In Israel, Judea on July 7, 2013 at 4:43 AM

One day last week, while on the job, I took the liberty of re-visiting a place I had last seen in early 2008. I was on a senior year of high school trip to Israel and one of the places we visited was the Beit Guvrin National Park. One of my favourite sites that we saw on our trip was a Roman amphitheatre, the likes of which I had never seen in my life. Like something out of a movie –  on our trip we re-enacted scenes from Gladiator – the amphitheater left quite an impression on me and since moving to Israel I have been eager to revisit the place. It was only about a year ago that I actually confirmed exactly where we went back in 2008 (we were so tired on our trip that we slept everytime the bus took us places, making it hard to know exactly where we were for future reference). So, you can imagine my happiness getting the chance to explore the amphitheatre once again, this time in uniform, and with a gun.

My shadow over the railing

My shadow over the railing

I must say, I did feel this sensation while I was there, this sensation of Jewish pride. Built during the time of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, the amphitheatre was intended to keep the local Roman garrison entertained and content, with bloodsports and the like. So here I was, a Jewish soldier standing on the ruins of the mighty Roman Empire, watching not bloodsports but my own shadow, hearing not screams of tortured violence but the sound of peaceful traffic. I could have stayed there a lot longer.

Amphitheatre grounds

Amphitheatre grounds

A little history about the site, the Beit Guvrin – Maresha National Park contains a whole lot more than just a Roman amphitheatre. Some of the park’s sites include ancient cemeteries, a large columbarium (dovecote), caves and ruins of all sorts – all ranging from 2,400 to 1,800 years old. The amphitheatre is actually across the road from the main park area and may be visited free of charge. The park’s boundaries incorporate the ancient cities of Maresha and Beit Guvrin. A city that has been settled by many of the ancient kingdoms, Maresha was re-conquered from the Greeks by the Hasmoneans and was finally destroyed by the Parthian Army from Northeast Iran. After that, a new Jewish city – Beit Guvrin – rose from the ruins. Some 65 years after Bar Kochba’s rebellion against the Romans, Emperor Septimus Severus had the city renamed to Eleutheropolis (“City of the Free”) and built up the city, as the Romans did best. The Jewish population moved back and the city flourished. During the Byzantine era Beit Guvrin became important to the Christians and thus churched were built. Fast-forward to the Crusader times and the city was a small fortified hub. In recent times, the Egyptian Army controlled the area until the IDF took it back in 1948 and now it is a National Park.

Amphitheatre tunnel

Amphitheatre tunnel

This post, however, is just about the Roman amphitheatre as I did not have a chance to visit the full park. According to historical researchers, the amphitheatre was used to house fights between gladiators, slaves and wild animals – the beasts being contained under the amphitheatre until “showtime.” Built to house some 3,500 spectators, I can imagine a scene on a hot summer day where a relentless gladiator, wearing dented metal armour and swinging a heavy broadsword, slashes out at a confused lion or tiger – which actually lived in Israel back then – while the crowd of rowdy Roman soldiers cheered on, goading the combatants to fight… and fight some more.

Amphitheatre side 1

Amphitheatre side 1

Amphitheatre side 2

Amphitheatre side 2

As one can see in the above photos, there is a whole complex of ruins which sadly I didn’t have the time to explore (neither did I explore them back in 2008) as I was literally “on the job.” One such piece in the ruinous jumble is a large Roman bathhouse which contained several rooms and impressive arches. After the Romans, during the Byzantine era, the amphitheatre was supposed to have been used as a market. And when the Crusaders took over, a fortress was built atop it all. But, as history has shown us time and time again, each ancient superpowers fell one-by-one and all we have left is a fun archaeological site which I’d love to visit again, whenever I get the chance.