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Beit Guvrin: Crusader Castle

In Israel, Judea on September 24, 2017 at 6:20 AM

Whilst participating in Hebrew University’s excavation of Horvat Midras in early August, I took a short trip to the Crusader fortress that I had missed in my previous trips to Beit Guvrin. Since I was staying at the nearby Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, I did not have far to go and set out on my excursion in the late afternoon of my second dig day. On my way out of the kibbutz I stopped to examine the display of ancient millstones and columns that adorn the entrance and then made my merry way to the main road.

Beit Guvrin’s Crusader ruins

Seeing the alluring ruins on the right of me, I looked despairingly at the fence barring my way and walked along Road 35 until I saw a place to slip in. Because the road divides this part of Beit Guvrin from the more expansive national park that includes Tel Maresha, this part has no entry fees. As I entered, I noticed that the Roman amphitheatre was decorated for a concert that evening, and two young Arab men were standing watch. They hollered at me and a curious discourse followed in which I was threatened with my life and then allowed entry–an interesting episode, to say the least. Passing the amphitheatre, which I had already visited twice, I made my way towards the complex that awaited my visit for years.

The castle from above

Just to give a brief overview of this part of Beit Guvrin: I was visiting the Roman and Crusader ruins which include a bathhouse, a fortress, and even the remnants of a mosque from the Muslim period. Sometime around the year 200 CE the Romans gave a Greek name to the city, calling it Eleutheropolis (meaning “City of Free Men”). Later, when the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, they built the Bethgibelin castle atop Roman ruins. The church, built on the south side of the fortress, was converted into a mosque when the Mamluks overthrew the Christian rule in the 1200s.

Regal banners

First passing a small agricultural installation I found myself at the columned and vaulted entrance to the fortress area, the aforementioned church/mosque. Standing beneath the tall vaults I noticed the mihrab (Muslim prayer niche) in the southern wall and gazed upwards to admire the Gothic architecture that the Crusaders introduced to the Holy Land.

Looking up at the Gothic construction

Spotting a narrow staircase built into the fortifications, I made my way up to the roof of the ruined fortress where I had a great lookout over the site. When I had my fill of sweeping vistas I returned to ground level, entering the fortress. Because the site is still being excavated and restored, I basically roamed around freely, examining and photographing as I saw fit. One interesting feature that caught my eye was an etched version of the game Nine Men’s Morris, which has been popular since before Roman times. After very briefly researching this particular specimen, it appears as though this game was scratched into the stone by individuals of the Crusader inclination. I find this glimpse into the past to be very interesting.

Nine Men’s Morris

I noted the clay piping, reminding me of Montfort Castle up near my home in the Galilee, as well as many stone creations that I have yet to learn to identify. I circled the inside of the ruined castle, and wondered what a particular gap in the construction was, a veritable hole in the ground. I naturally assumed it was a water reservoir, as is common with fortifications. But I soon found that I was wrong, as there were stairs leading down to a Roman bathhouse. Within its dark, vaulted chambres I found my answer, and gazed up at the sunlight streaming in through the very hole I questioned. Illuminating my path with my cellphone’s flashlight I toured the underground ruins, having a brief run-in with a startled pigeon.

Section of the bathhouse

Leaving the bathhouse, I exited the castle and stumbled into the workplace of the current excavation. I found crates and crates of interesting pottery, and, poking around a wee bit, got myself excited at the possibilities of discovery, for I hope one day to uncover some nifty Crusader finds. With the sun sinking into the horizon, I returned to the path from which I came walking alongside the moat, and exited the park with a wave goodbye to the men-at-watch still camped out at the amphitheatre.

A happy explorer

Before returning to the kibbutz I nipped across the road and explored a long stone building mostly overgrown with vegetation. Inside I found a singular, tunnel-like room with a small mihrab and a lonely minbar (stepped pulpit). I read that this building was later used to store cotton for feeding livestock, but today it’s surely empty, save a mountain of guano in one corner. At last I retraced my steps back to the kibbutz and headed straight for dinner in the delightful blue-framed stone building. My short excursion was over but I had yet another day of adventurous digging at Horvat Midras.


Horvat Midras Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Judea on September 17, 2017 at 7:05 AM

After a week-long break from digging at Tel es-Safi, I found myself volunteering at yet another archaeological excavation, that of Horvat Midras run by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Also located in the Judean lowlands, my dig experience at Horvat Midras was actually wildly different than that of Tel es-Safi. For starters, I had dug only Bronze and Iron Age sites thus far this summer whereas Midras is predominantly Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine. Other differences will become apparent later on in the post, highlighting how interesting archaeology can be.

Aerial shot of Horvat Midras’ Pyramid (photo Alexander Wiegmann & Yakov Shmidov)

Late Sunday afternoon I took a train down to Kiryat Gat where I was picked up by the dig director, Dr Orit Peleg-Barkat, and taken to the base camp of the excavation, Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. I had written twice about sites at Beit Guvrin, which can be seen HERE and HERE.

All-purpose building at the kibbutz

Disembarking at the expedition’s dining room/office building, a beautiful British Mandate structure, we went in for dinner before I settled in my own room in the dwelling building just down the street. Anticipating the next morning at the dig, to a place I’ve never been, I slept just a few hours before waking up, lacing up my new hiking boots and filling up plenty of water to drink later. I snagged a ride with one of the staff members and we pulled up to the dig site, a gentle slope in the Adulam Reserve just off Road 38. I lent a hand getting gear out of the storage container in the dirt parking lot and then waited for my briefing tour by Orit.

Walking up the hill while the moon’s still out

Taking me up the hill, Orit showed me the various areas that they had been excavating over the season, including a site which appears to be a Roman temple. I was to be joining the team at the pyramid, a 10×10 metre edifice of white ashlars, the only structure of its kind in all of Israel. Due to the presence of a burial cave directly below the pyramid, it is believed that the edifice was built as a memorial of sorts. However, it is unknown who built the pyramid, or even if there is another reason for its construction. I was introduced to the team: area supervisors Yodan and Evie from HUJI, a few volunteers from the University of Münster in Germany and a fellow Bar Ilan student of Archaeology. Itamar, my frequent digmate, would be joining us the follow day, but that will have to wait.

Different angle of the pyramid

I was directed to help clear off the dirt and vegetation from the exposed pyramid structure, while the sun was still low in the sky and we didn’t need to hide beneath the sunshade like academic cockroaches. Just as I dipped my trowel between two stones to scoop out the refuse, I struck gold. Well, not quite gold, but I did find three coins. Unfortunately, they were modern Israeli coins, the oldest minted in the 1980s and the total value adding up to a measly two shekels (approximately half of an American dollar). At least I got the opportunity to needlessly excite the supervisors before getting back to work. The joke was on me though, because shortly thereafter I was moved back down below the sunshade to chip away at a consolidation of lime that proved difficult to excavate. Thus, I wielded a pickaxe deftly as I chipped the hard lime from between the fallen ashlars of the pyramid. The work was hard and the conditions were cramped, but we needed to get past the stubborn lime to the dirt or bedrock to find the bottom of the pyramid on the northern side. Slowly but surely I worked, filling up buckets of grainy white powder to be discarded nearby. I didn’t chat too much with my German digmates that day, as I was missing my Tel es-Safi crew, but I had an overall good time being a volunteer quarryman.

Horvat Midras

Having worked up quite the appetite by the early afternoon, we drove back to the kibbutz and re-congregated in that fancy building with its blue doors and shutters. We ate lunch as we had eaten dinner the night before, all together at one long table, using shallow bowls to contain our individual portions. Excitement returned the very next morning when Itamar joined us at the site. Climbing up the hill to our trusty pyramid, we were then directed towards a new spot to work in, a chunk of bedrock that had been quarried from and then used as an agricultural installation later on.

Clearing out the quarry and agricultural installation

Tasked with clearing the dirt from the rock, we got straight to work and found very little of interest – save for buckets and buckets of earth. Every so often we’d find a small piece of pottery or perhaps a bullet casing (the area had been used for army training in recent history); the lone French volunteer often patrolled from area to area with the metal detector, shouting “boullet! boullet!” whenever he’d find a buried cartridge. Meanwhile, over at the pyramid, help came in the form of a mini jackhammer powered by a portable generator set up nearby to help break up the solidified lime. The staff worked tirelessly on the lime, the noise of power tools filling our ears.

Bringing out the power tools

The day passed by pleasantly, as I had Itamar with me, and when, at last, we wrapped up our efforts for the day, I knew I still had more adventure in me. And so, after lunch I took a short nap and then gathered up what I needed for an excursion to the nearby ruins of Beit Guvrin, beside the Roman amphitheatre, an adventure that I will cover in my next post. Returning to matters concerning Horvat Midras, I returned to the site the following morning for my third and final dig day.

Itamar and I at the pyramid

I continued clearing the quarried agricultural installation and then, at the supervisor’s request, moved over to the dirt area beside the lime buildup. I stood alongside my German digmates and joked as we moved dozens and dozens of dirt away from the pyramid area. We had a grand time, especially when we talked about beer – a shared interest. Another thing that interested me, and perhaps just me, was a blind worm snake that was saved from the ravages of our picks and hoes.

Rescued blind worm snake

Perfect for my scheduling, this third day had a special treat after breakfast, a quick tour of two interesting parts of Horvat Midras that were not under excavation. We followed Asaf Ben Haim, a staff member hailing from HUJI with whom I worked at the Tel Kedesh excavations, as he led us across the hillside to the remains of a Byzantine church.

Asaf Ben Haim showing us the Byzantine church ruins

Next, we headed underground to a special tunnel system that was dug out of the soft rock and used by Jews hiding from the Roman soldiers during the Bar Kochba rebellion around the years 132-135 CE. It turns out that I had actually visited this very tunnel cave back in 2008 when I visited Israel with my Floridian high school, and had assumed that it was actually part of Beit Guvrin’s trove of unique caves. When our short tour ended, I popped on over to two more interesting marked sites along this same hillside: a columbarium cave and a very unique burial cave. The columbarium, a dovecote, is one of many in the region that date back to the Hellenistic and Roman times, but this one has very pleasing niches for holding cute, little doves.

Ancient columbarium

The Roman-era burial cave was even more exciting, with a fascinating “rolling rock” to seal off the tomb’s entrance. Reminiscent of both the awesome necropolis of Bet She’arim and the fantastic adventures of Indiana Jones, I took a few hurried photos before slipping inside to explore the tomb’s interior. Unfortunately, the cave was vandalised some years back and the inner glory is since lost. I did salvage some sense of daring adventure as I climbed out of a different exit from inside the cave, emerging between some bushes a few metres away.

Burial cave with a rolling rock door

With that I returned to the pyramid to continue working and stayed there for the duration of the workday. When we got back to the kibbutz I joined the crew for one last meal and then packed my bags for a bus and then train back to Tel Aviv, bringing yet another exciting archaeological adventure to an end. More information about the dig can be obtained on the Horvat Midras site, found HERE. Coming up next, the short excursion to the Roman and Crusader ruins of Beit Guvrin…

Stalactites Cave & Tel Burna

In Israel, Judea on September 10, 2017 at 1:56 PM

Having already posted about the four weeks at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig (see parts I and II), this post is dedicated to the two field trips that I took as part of the program. The first trip was at the end of the first week, to a site that I’ve been wishing to visit for quite a number of years, the Stalactite Cave (or, Soreq Cave) near Bet Shemesh.

Outside the Stalactites Cave (photo Rebecca Zami)

Leaving shortly after lunch on Thursday afternoon, the two buses drove the lot of us from our base camp at Neve Shalom to the cave. I was joined by several members of the Area J crew: Itamar, Rebecca, Meredith and Moshe. We disembarked and congregated at the entrance of the national park, and then made our way down the paved mountainside trail towards the cave opening. Stopping at the cave’s entrance, which is basically a door at the end of a short concrete chute underneath the cliff face, we listened to Prof Aren Maeir’s words of explanation about the cave and its discovery.

Within the Stalactites Cave (photo Rebecca Zami)

The cave was discovered accidently amidst quarrying efforts in 1968, opening up an underground realm of fantastic cave growths, called stalactites and stalagmites, that was yet unseen by the Israeli public. Tapping into the cave was risky due to its reliance on a specific environment, and, in efforts to ensure that the cave didn’t get ruined, the authorities closed it for several years. Eventually, having installed a system to regulate humidity, the Stalactite Cave was opened for visitors who continue to flock to the nature reserve in admiration of the otherworldly speleothems (cave growths). I happen to be a great lover of caves, and relish opportunities to go below the surface whenever I can, so I was quite excited to be visiting at last.


Entering the humid, yet cool cave was incredible. I was unprepared for the size and quantity of speleothems that I was to see. With a total surface area of about 5,000 square metres, the cave was much larger than I had anticipated. An elevated pathway snakes through, affording close-up views at many of the cave’s interesting growths. Our guide gestured here and there, using imaginative names to bring the growths to life, but I prefer to enjoy the natural wonders without someone else’s interpretations. That being said, I do think that this wall of speleothems looks like a Japanese jade carving, similar in style to this one I found online (HERE):

Curious cave growth

One might wonder why the cave is illuminated in coloured lighting, as did I, and the answer couldn’t be simpler. Traditional white lighting brings out blemishes and undesirable aspects, such a the growth of algae, so the coloured lighting not only hides the bad, but brings out the good in giving pieces their own identity. Another cave that I remember being lit with coloured lighting was the Carmel Caves, and at last I know why.

Interesting lighting of orange and purple

We continued along on the elevated walkway, pausing here and there to admire the mineral magnificence. At some point, the five members from Area J gathered together and were photographed, despite the inferior lighting conditions (the use of a flash is strictly prohibited).

Group photo within the cave

Less than a half hour after we entered the cave we reached the exit and pushed our way through the heavy metal doors to the brightness outside. Congregating once again, this time overlooking the old quarry and the city of Bet Shemesh, we learned a bit more about the history of the cave and then began the climb back up towards the buses. Thus ended the first of our field trips, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the third week that I took another.

Tel Burna

This time we were headed to a nearby archaeological dig, Tel Burna, located just eight kilometres to the southeast. I hadn’t heard of Tel Burna before this summer, but I never like turning down trip opportunities. I tagged along, Ben joining me in brotherly camaraderie. We were just a single bus on this trip, and we arrived at the site to meet our guide, Dr Chris McKinny. An alumnus of Bar Ilan University, Chris is a veteran of the Tel es-Safi expedition and now the a staff member of the Tel Burna dig. Chris led us along the dirt road to climb the tel, the afternoon sun brutally assaulting us from above. Plodding along mindlessly, we tried engaging in conversation to distract ourselves from the misery we put ourselves in. But, after all lows come highs, and we found ourself with a lovely view of the surrounding area. Because Tel Burna is an active dig, there were areas where we had to lift the sunshade that had been lowered mere hours before.

Chris McKinny explaining the excavations

After giving us up-to-date information on his dig’s progress over the last few years, including discoveries of both Late Bronze and Iron Age ruins (with some pretty cool finds), Chris gave us a lesson in local geography, pointing out nearby sites of interest. Due to its location in the Judean foothills, Tel Burna would have been a fortified border city during the Iron Ages; evidence points to the fact that Tel Burna was most likely Israelite, with Tel es-Safi (or, Gath), the Philistine capital, to the northwest.

Identifying nearby sites

Casting our eyes in the direction of Tel es-Safi, some swore that they could see the distinct white chalk patches of the tel off in the distance, but I failed in finding it. Looking to the southeast, past rolling golden fields spotted with hay bales, we spotted with greater ease the iconic apse of the Church of St Anne at Beit Guvrin-Maresha less than four kilometres away. Wrapping up our tour of Tel Burna, we trekked back down the hill and boarded the bus for a long, circuitous ride back to our base camp of Neve Shalom. For those interested in learning more about Tel Burna, the link to their website can be found HERE.

Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig II

In Israel, Judea on September 3, 2017 at 10:05 AM

Continuing with the third and fourth weeks of the month-long excavating season at Tel es-Safi (see the first post HERE), we returned to Neve Shalom Sunday afternoon and settled into our rooms. My friends Ben and Shani, both from Bar Ilan University’s archaeological program, would be joining us for the week and I knew it’d be a good time. I came loaded with extra beers this week, even some bottles of recent Arx Meles productions (Stoutus III and Belgica Triplus) that Ben and I brewed some months prior. The following morning, at 5am, we boarded the bus for the tel to continue our digging in Area J.

Philistine cities around the region

We had taken down a fair amount of dirt and yet there wasn’t anything of substance in square 100A. Itamar’s square, 100C, had a bunch of rough stone architecture which earned Itamar a fun nickname – the “Stone Whisperer,” due to his quiet demeanor and knack of revealing buried walls. He and Avraham were joined by Shani, whereas Moshe, Rebecca and I gained Ben, with Dr Jill Katz overseeing us all.

Avraham excavating expertly (photo Rebecca Zami)

Once again, the humourous chemistry in our square was infectious and every day saw us doubled over repeatedly with laughter. We even invented an odd game of “Shave, Lick or Massage” (a variation of “Kiss, Marry or Kill”) with the various things that we pulled out of the ground. Related to the game, licking freshly hewn Safi chalk is quite amusing and many powdery pieces were passed around.

Ben laughing while pickaxing (photo Rebecca Zami)

When we weren’t out on the tel digging, laughing and having a good time, we were back at Neve Shalom doing a whole selection of chores. The pottery that’s brought in from the field is first washed outside with brushes, then laid out to dry. Once dry, the pottery gets “read” by various professors in the presence of area staff, and sorted and/or discarded in accordance to its value. We rather enjoyed pottery reading, and looked forward to seeing what interesting potsherds we pulled out of the ground. Once sorted, some of the pottery would be bagged and taken indoors for pottery writing, recording the reference number on the potsherds themselves with a special permanent marker. Later, back at Bar Ilan, some of the pottery gets reconstructed into the vessels that they once were. With a bunch of other tasks to perform each and every day, we never lacked for things to do.

Pottery reading outside

During the third week we were joined by nearly thirty volunteers from Yeshiva University in New York City. It was a bit of a struggle placing so many people in just two squares without having them puncture each other’s back with their pickaxes, but we figured it out. A few of them were sent some metres downhill to clear out a carven vat for pressing grapes, which can be seen here:

Uncovered grape vat (photo Jill Katz)

It was great having so many volunteers to chip in, and we really capitalised on the ability to move a lot of dirt quickly. That day went by especially fast, and the next day greeted us with squares that looked quite different than before. We worked on clearing the dirt down to a uniform level on the western side, and then defining the stone architecture that was becoming apparent on the eastern side of 100A, lining up with the excavated walls in 100C.

Shani scraping skillfully (photo Rebecca Zami)

The third week also saw a short afternoon trip to Tel Burna, another Late Bronze and Iron Age site being excavated some eight kilometres to the southeast. This trip, and the one to the Stalactite Cave near Bet Shemesh, will be covered in the next blog post. At the end of the week we, the “J Crew,” had an evening tasting of the Arx Meles brews, neither of which came out to my liking (or the crew’s liking, for that matter).

Pottery basket from 100A (photo Jill Katz)

With the week coming to an end we were sad to be losing Ben and Shani, who fit in so nicely with our group dynamics. But then, on Friday morning, while out on the tel, we decided that we’d prolong our bonding time with the two of them.

Third week group photo

We decided that we’d all have Shabbat together in Givat Shmuel, and quick phone calls were made. Although it was hastily arranged, Shabbat was a great success and we had a great time eating and bonding together. After Shabbat, while the night was still young, we walked over to Jem’s brewery in neighbouring Petach Tikva and had a few beers with some oily treats. Quite a lovely outing it was, ushering in the fourth, and final, week of the Tel es-Safi dig.

Sheep and goats waiting for breakfast

Down to just six members in total, Area J was ready to be wrapped up. We needed to clean all the stones, make sure the floor surface and baulks were nice and straight, and, last but not least, clear up the surrounding area a tad in preparation for the aerial photography later in the week.

Preparing Area J

We swapped pickaxes and hoes for brooms and dustpans and set ourselves to the tasks at hand. Sweeping and cleaning, but still heavily engaging in hearty laughter, we worked Area J’s final days away. The sunshade was taken down and we saw, for the very first time, the work that we had done in direct sunlight.

Area J from above (photo Aren Maeir)

With the oppressive heat and the endless amount of dirt in the air, we toiled away until picture day. That morning we were driven, as usual, to the tel but this time we gathered at the parking area down below beside Area D and got into formation for the annual group photo, done in a unique thematic design. Last year’s was in the shape of a donkey, due to the discovery of buried donkey skeletons over in Area E, but this year’s was a beast of a different nature: a Sea People warrior. Perhaps you can spot me and my digmates in the photo.

Tel es-Safi group photo for 2017 (photo Aren Maeir)

With the drone crew moving over to the excavation areas for aerial shots, we took the hill path over to our beloved Area J to have one last look at our work before covering it with geotech cloth to preserve it. Along the way, after walking through the plentiful cactus groves, we stopped to take a selfie:

Last day on the tel

With the aerial shot done and the squares covered over nicely, we returned to Neve Shalom to put the finishing touches on our archaeological expedition. The New York members of our crew took late night flights that Thursday night after the many parties, and the farewells were sad but somewhat hopeful – some of us plan on meeting again for the 2018 season. We had grown to be quite fond of one another over the month that we spent, and it was strange going back to regular life. Friday morning it was just Itamar and I remaining, and we went our separate ways, but to meet again shortly thereafter at yet another archaeological dig…

More information about Tel es-Safi can be found at Prof Aren Maeir’s blog, found HERE.

Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig I

In Israel, Judea on August 27, 2017 at 6:20 AM

The first Sunday of July, nearly a week after my day at the Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig, I began my month-long stint at the Bar Ilan University archaeological dig at Tel es-Safi (the Biblical city of Gath) under Prof Aren Maeir. Currently there are only two active excavations, Tel es-Safi and Tel ‘Eton (the lab I worked in last year), yet this year only Tel es-Safi was offered. Since I am working on getting my archaeologist’s licence, I was slated as being the assistant of Dr Jill Katz of Yeshiva University. I was joined by fellow BIU student and friend Itamar Berko and together we served as square supervisors for Jill’s area, the newly opened Area J.

Area J pre-excavation – note the line of stones

Being that this event took place over the course of four weeks, I have decided to cover it in two long blog posts, reporting the events of the first two and last two weeks. A separate blog post will cover two fun field trips that we took, one on the first week and one on the third. But first, a quick summary of Tel es-Safi and its historical and geographical significance.

Area J from above

Located in the Judean lowlands not far from Road 6 and Tel Azeka, Tel es-Safi was once the capital of the Philistine kingdom which included cities such as Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod. At that time, in the Iron Age some 3000 years ago, the Israelites established their kingdom further inland, controlling mostly the mountainous regions. The Philistines didn’t get along so well with their neighbours and thus the Israelite Kingdom erected fortified cities (such as Azeka) along the virtual border, in hopes to stave off invasion. Goliath, the villainous giant in the famous biblical story of David and Goliath, hailed from Gath (the city later sheltering David himself at a later point). Eventually, after the Israelite kingdom was split into two, King Hazael of Aram-Damascus made his way southeast and conquered the both of them. Swinging eastward towards the Mediterranean, Hazael then conquered Gath after a siege, critical to the archaeological research of the city.

Most of the Area J team

While the Philistines may have been the most famous inhabitants of Tel es-Safi, the goal of Area J was to find the Early Bronze era city wall that encompassed the original upper city. Heavily fortified by the Canaanites, the city was quite large for its time, and it was our job to find the city wall on the eastern slope. The best clue that the Safi think tank used was a straight line of large stones partially exposed following the sensible curvature of a wall. I had gone ahead the Thursday before the dig season began with other staff members to set up the shade tent and establish the borders of our two squares. Because 2017 marks the year that the Upper City excavations will finally be closed after nearly twenty years of digging, this was to be the first and last year for Area J – a rather unusual practice in modern archaeology. Because it rested on our shoulders alone, it was pertinent that we achieve our goals before the end of the season.

Jill our fearless leader

I joined other dig members, from BIU and foreign universities, on the bus to be driven to our home for the next month, Neve Shalom, just a few minutes away from Latrun Junction (and in eyeline of the Crusader ruins of Toron des Chevaliers). Disembarking at the hotel, we mingled in the lobby with the other students and staff members as we waited to receive our room keys. I joined my roommates and we got acquainted with our new home, preparing ourselves for the dig season. Going to sleep early because dig schedule starts early (the bus leaves at 5am), we spent our first night impatiently waiting to break out the tools.

Sunrise from Area J (photo Jill Katz)

The next morning, before the sun’s rays peeked over the horizon, we boarded the bus and were driven to Tel es-Safi some forty minutes away. With dawn breaking, we examined the white chalk-paneled hill as we approached from the north, one bus stopping at the Lower City areas and our bus continuing around the eastern side of the tel to dispense us beside a Bedouin sheep and goat enclosure. From there we took the tools that we needed and walked towards our area, just downhill from Area E, run by Prof Haskel Greenfield of the University of Manitoba. A marked satellite photo of the dig sites can be seen HERE, with Area J just to the right of Area E. The very first day we were a small crew: Jill, Itamar and myself with two YU students, Meredith and Moshe, and a volunteer from South Africa, Suzanne. A third YU student, Rebecca, was en route and joined us shortly thereafter.

Rebecca with a pickaxe

The morning began with Jill’s game plan briefing and, feeling updated, we got straight to work. From setting up the total station to read and register elevation points to clearing out the two squares, we started off on the right foot. Most days started exactly the same way, and we worked efficiently knowing what was expected as we progressed in the dig. The square that I supervised was named 100A and Itamar’s was 100C, side-by-side facing eastward.

Moshe with the prism (photo Rebecca Zami)

One of the things that really excited me, especially during the first few days, was the incredible birding on the tel. I haven’t much experience exploring the Judean lowlands so I had the pleasure of getting to see some interesting birds (and reptiles) up close. I opened a note on my phone to keep track of the birds, and species that I’d never seen before, including European rollers, which have bright blue feathers, and the little owl which perched on the Bedouin fence below semi-regularly.

Photographing my first little owl

On a trip to the storage container some kilometres away I saw two more new birds: the great spotted cuckoo, which I tracked excitedly to a nearby tree to confirm identity, and a hobby, a small, dark type of falcon. Large flocks of jackdaws would fly overhead every morning and the large short-toed eagles would swing by every so often. In addition, there was a lone white-breasted kingfisher that made an appearance from time to time, and bunch of woodchat shrikes that would hunt from their perches on thorny bushes. Reptilian and amphibian sightings included a bold Schneider’s skink that lived near the breakfast shade, the dried up body of a blind worm snake and a green toad that a girl over at Area E found. All-in-all, rather exciting for a nature lover.

Short-toed eagle

The days came and went and, slowly but surely, we removed the topsoil of the upper sides of the squares, as we were working on a slope. Countless buckets were filled and poured into the trusty wheelbarrow, which, in turn, was dumped countless times over the small ridge just metres away. Every morning we delighted in watching the Bedouin feed his sheep and goats, and we learned to be wary of his attentive and protective dogs. We never failed to find amusement in listening to his donkey bray, the fun noise always ending so anti-climatically.

Itamar holding a piece of a Cypriot milk bowl (photo Suzanne Myburgh)

Within a few days, while working around a stubborn stump, we hit treasure – scorpions! When Aren swung by later that morning we told him that we found scorpions and, in response, he jokingly told us that we’d get a beer if we found twenty-five. Needless to say, we surpassed that goal and he came through with a six-pack of beer, which we enjoyed one evening at a special Area J “scorpion party”.

Israeli gold scorpion

The mornings were full of hard work and intense laughter; my square’s chemistry was truly astounding as we humoured ourselves senseless daily. At breakfast, taken just up the tel beside Area A, we’d take a break from the toil and hilarity as we’d feed on the offerings brought from Neve Shalom. Just to make things interesting, Prof Louise Hitchcock would call for breakfast to end with two quotes from The Ten Commandments, telling us “dogs” and “mud turtles” to get back to work. Not long after breakfast we’d have a fruit break, which usually consisted of watermelon and cantaloupe sliced up at Area E.

Suzanne hard at work (photo Jill Katz)

The end of the first week proved interesting as we went on a tour of the Stalactites Cave near Beit Shemesh (to be covered in a different blog post) and spent the night at Ramot Shapira in Beit Meir. The next morning, while scraping the dirt away to define the dirt shelf we had made to work our way down through the topsoil, I made an interesting discovery. My trowel struck metal and, working my way carefully around it, I realised that there was a vessel of sorts laying upright on its side. Because we were still not that far down, it was the general assumption that whatever we found was either modern or old but washed downhill and therefore out of context. So, assuming that it was modern, this largely-intact vessel was removed and examined. When Aren came over he examined the vessel and got visibly excited, telling us that it looks like an bronze bowl of Assyrian or Phoenician design from the Iron Age (3000 years old or so). It got even more exciting when we added that we found a metal disk of the same or similar material with a rosette motif the day before. After the fun in-field talk of ancient metal vessels, we carefully packaged the pieces as instructed and gave them over to Aren to take to a lab in Jerusalem later that day. I recently popped into the Tel es-Safi lab on campus to see if there’s any news on the bowl but, unfortunately, no word yet.

Posing with the bronze bowl (photo Aren Maeir)

With our first week ending on such a high, we were excited to return the next Sunday and be back on the tel early Monday morning. We were joined by a new member, Avraham from Brandeis University, a Safi veteran who was eager to be put to work. Continuing with our excavation, we had other swell finds such as a finger-shaped stone with a hole at the end, a metal pin of sorts and a ceramic spinning whorl. One thing that’s really cool about where we were digging is the huge amount of pottery, a lot of it interesting – with painted Philistine sherds all over, even on the surface. Due to the fact that we were excavating on a slope and had to clear away a huge amount of dirt, there was a lot of work that was pretty ho-hum, made exciting and fun by the incredible “J Crew” (as we sometimes called ourselves).

Meredith manning the sifter (photo Rebecca Zami)

Life back at Neve Shalom usually comprised of us eating heartily, washing/reading/writing on potsherds, fraternising with the other dig members, doing the paperwork of the day’s events in-field, preparing the next day’s top plan and occasionally visiting the pool. There was also a fun activity called “heavy fractioning” which involves sitting in front of a tray of sediment and having to pick through it with tweezers to remove valuable bits such as bone, shell, organic material. During my turn at heaving fractioning, we found a cool miniscule fish jaw complete with teeth and what I believe was a tiny black bead, which I unfortunately lost when I squeezed my tweezers just a tad too much.

Weekly tel tour visitors (photo Rebecca Zami)

The rest of the second week went by quickly and, towards the end of it, we had a farewell party for Meredith and Suzanne who were leaving us. We gave them a parting gift of a discarded potsherd signed by the other “J Crew” members for them to take back to New York and South Africa, respectively. The dig was then halfway over with, but we had two new members coming for the third week and we were excited. To be continued…

University Trip: Qumran

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

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

Approaching Cave 11

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

From within Cave 11

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

Desert lark

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


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

Qumran tower

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

Supposed Scriptorium

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

Qumran cemetery

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

Cave 4

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

Spotting a green bee-eater

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

Ibex nursing her young

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

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.