Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Samaria’ Category

University Trip: Tel Aroma & Mount Gerizim

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

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

Making our way to Tel Aroma – the central peak

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

Chewed and crystalised almond on a stick

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

Wild boars

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

Ben climbing Tel Aroma

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

Tel Aroma from above (photo Biblewalks.com)

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

Hasmonean fortress ruin

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

Within the immense cistern

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

Lovely little spring

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

Cicada

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

Hellenistic ruins of Mount Gerizim overlooking Shechem

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

Byzantine monastery and sheikh’s tomb

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

Mount Gerizim ruins with Luza in the background

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

University Trip: Sites in Southeast Shomron

In Israel, Samaria on April 24, 2016 at 5:35 AM

Shortly after the Bar Ilan University department trip to the Kinneret I signed up for yet another trip, this time to some rather obscure sites in the southeastern corner of the Shomron (Samaria) not far from Jerusalem. I joined my group in Jerusalem and away we drove in a bus with plexiglass windows out of the capital and into the wilderness via Hizme Checkpoint. We drove past Tel Aswan and up the mountain to Mitzpe Dani for a 360° lookout and introductory lecture on the location by our guide Dr Dvir Raviv, a lecturer at BIU.

Dr Dvir Raviv giving the 360° tour at Mitzpe Dani

Dr Dvir Raviv giving the 360° tour at Mitzpe Dani

Spinning in a circle at the observation deck, Dvir pointed out on the horizon the various areas of Jerusalem, the desert fortress of Herodian and, to my amazement, the twin Jordan Gate Towers in Amman, Jordan just barely visible in the haze. As we were located in the semi-arid mountains of the southeastern Shomron, not far from the Judean Desert, we had a brief explanatory run-down on the different topographical and historical borders of this particular region. Regrouping in the bus we drove due north on Road 548 to our next destination, Ein Samia.

Military jeep and Bedouin herd crossing paths

Military jeep and Bedouin herd crossing paths

It was at this point that our trip became a hiking adventure. Our bus left us in the company of an army jeep and a Bedouin goatherd with his four-legged host, all of whom disappeared within mere minutes. We climbed up to a flat rock where a round shaft pit was dug into the stone, an ancient burial chamber excavated by nomads. Walking around the area we saw dozens of these nearly perfectly round shaft graves, some reaching the impressive depth of 7 metres (23 feet), a local oddity of which there are thousands.

Nomadic shaft grave

Nomadic shaft grave

We continued on along the dirt road towards Ein Samia, crossing the old cement dam at the modern pumping station. From there we climbed up into the rocky mountainside of Wadi Auja heading for a very interesting site, Namerim Cave (translated as Leopards Cave).

Climbing the cliff edge at Wadi Auja

Climbing the cliff edge at Wadi Auja

We heard the very unusual calls of the common raven as a pair of them patrolled the cliff edges. I nearly stepped on a tortoise and then took photos of a bizarre praying mantis (Empusa fasciata) and a bush cricket (Isophya savignyi).

Bush cricket (Isophya savignyi)

Bush cricket (Isophya savignyi)

As we finally reached Namerim Cave, having climbed precariously along the cliff side, we sat down at the double-mouthed entrance to hear an entrancing story about the cave’s name – while overhead some crag martins flew.

Approaching Namerim Cave from Wadi Auja

Approaching Namerim Cave from Wadi Auja

If I remember the story correctly, several decades ago there were local goatsherds who complained of a pair of leopards living somewhere in the wadi, venturing out to kill goats and even puppies of their guard dogs. The shepherds followed one of the leopards back to its lair, the cave in the cliff side, and trapped it inside. When the authorities came, answering the call, they reopened the cave and two angry and frightened leopards burst out, running away.

Lecture within Namerim Cave

Lecture within Namerim Cave

We entered the cave from the left mouth and heard about the rich archaeological finds discovered within the multi-roomed grotto, including pottery from many periods. While the academic findings and research have yet to be published (consider this a sneak peek), Namerim Cave is believed to have been a place of refuge during the Hasmonean and Bar Kochba times, perhaps also used by the Samaritans who suffered persecution as well. Inside the cave I found a bone laying in the silty dirt, giving cause to all sorts of fantastic thoughts revolving around the fearsome leopards. Some of our party slithered further into the cave, entering subsequent chambers and even finding indicative potsherds, while I hung back and attempted to photograph a small bat that I was unable to identify.

Namerim Cave map by Boaz Langford

Namerim Cave map by Boaz Langford

Reluctantly leaving the fascinating cave, we climbed up the side of the cliff we hiked along to the plateau of Khirbet Marajama, an ancient fortified Israelite city. Not too much is known about the city but the city walls are said to be historically significant.

Khirbet Marajama

Khirbet Marajama

From Khirbet Marjama we walked down the steep slope on the opposite side, facing an aqueduct, bridge and flour mill which is either Roman or Ottoman, depending who you ask. As we looped back around towards Ein Samia we interrupted some Arab looters who were pilfering the dirt in one of the excavated ruins hoping to find valuable artefacts. They scurried off and a call was made to alert authorities, a very interesting turn of events to happen so quickly.

Roman or Ottoman aqueduct and bridge

Roman or Ottoman aqueduct and bridge

Back on the bus and driving westward to the entrance of Beit El, we disembarked once again to visit the last site on our list for the day, Et-Tell. A fragmented archaeological dig covering a large area, the ruins of Et-Tell are thought to possibly be the ruins of Ai, a very significant Biblical city.

Et-Tell ruins

Et-Tell ruins

Located on a slight hill overlooking the Palestinian village of Deir Dibwan, we first came upon the ruins of a Byzantine monastery and nearby village from the Bronze, Iron and Hellenistic periods, perhaps indicating towards the importance of the site. A nearby complex of excavated structures, including many underground mikvaot (ritual baths) and olive presses, attest to a Jewish village back in Roman times.

Underground olive press cave

Underground olive press cave

Within the large underground olive press room we found small tunnels carved out of the walls, hidey-holes in times of persecution.

Emerging from the hidey-hole

Emerging from the hidey-hole

Rounding off the fantastic trip with one last lecture, alas! the hour was late and we had to head back to the bus (being Friday and all) and then back to Jerusalem… and from there back to Bar Ilan University for Shabbat with my dorm friends.

Deir Qal’a

In Israel, Samaria on March 8, 2015 at 4:36 AM

A few weeks ago I partook in a little “excitement” in the Shomron (Samarian) town of Pedu’el, not too far from Ariel. There was a Palestinian shepherd who was creating disturbances near the security fence that encloses Pedu’el and we, the army, were called in to redirect the wayward man. We disembarked near Pedu’el yeshiva and I couldn’t help but notice signs for an archaeological site called “Deir Qal’a”. While the other soldiers began their descent into the valley in search for the shepherd, I sought after the ruins. Scampering over the rough rocks that cover the landscape, I first came upon what appears to be a vat for wine with a mosaic floor, very much like the one I saw at the Crusader castle of Cafarlet.

An ancient wine vat

An ancient wine vat

Now, these ruins are obscure and there are no signs explaining where or what anything is – even researching Deir Qal’a online is proving a little difficult. From what I’ve gathered is that the site was first a Roman fortress, then a Byzantine fortified farm and then a Christian monastery. Given its great vantage points, including a clear view of the shoreline some 26 kilometres (16 miles) away, the Romans would have built the fortress to guard the ancient road from Tel Afek (Antipatris) to Sebastia in the heart of the Shomron.

Blooming anemone

Blooming anemone

A couple hundred years later, the Christians built a string of fortified monasteries along the northern border of the Christian part of the Shomron, as a defending line against the Samaritans who would often break out in violent revolts against the Byzantine Empire. The Samaritans are still around today, still based out of their “capital” on Mount Gerezim overlooking Shechem (Nablus), but they no longer participate in violent revolts. Monasteries neighbouring Deir Qal’a are Deir El-Mir to the west and Deir Simaan to the northeast – with quite similar ruins, although I have yet to explore them. Getting back to my exploration of Deir Qal’a, it wasn’t long before I reached the first walls of finely cut ashlars jutting out into the air.

Deir Qal'a

Deir Qal’a

Unfortunately, as there is no guide or comprehensive description of the ruins, I can’t really describe the series of rooms that I then saw as I drew closer. While researching this site I came across a reference to a monograph written by the late Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld titled “Deir Qala and monasteries of Western Samaria”, however the only copy I could find is in the Hebrew University’s library in Jerusalem – not too readily available, although I’m sure I could have gleaned some useful information from it. Being as that I was detouring from “operational duty” I couldn’t linger too long and missed noticing that there are tunnels connecting several of the rooms in the ruins complex. What I didn’t miss were the numerous etched Maltese Crosses (as used by the Hospitaller Knights of the Crusades) and the incomplete floor mosaics – in fact, a fully restored mosaic from Deir Qal’a is on display at the Good Samaritan Museum between Jerusalem and Jericho, not far from Nabi Musa.

Close-up of a crude mosaic

Close-up of a crude mosaic

I might have just seen an nondescript scattering of stone walls of varying heights and materials but Deir Qal’a contains stone terraces, rooms, cisterns, an olive press and winepress, underground tunnel, a church with an underground cave/crypt and an apse.

A mess of walls and mosaics

A mess of walls and mosaics

Once I had sufficiently explored the upper areas of the ruins I headed back towards the security fence and saw that my fellow soldiers had not yet returned, so I looped back to enjoy the views. Directly opposite Deir Qal’a to the west is the Palestinian village of Deir Balut and the ruins of Deir El-Mir, with a seasonal marsh at the entrance of the village. I read on the Amud Anan website that the water is home to triops, a type of crustacean also known as “tadpole shrimp”. Looking quite similar to horseshoe crabs, it’s believed that the eggs of the triops can last forever as they go dormant and crystalise when dry. It would definitely be interesting to see these “living fossils” – perhaps one day…

Looking across at Deir El-Mir and Deir Balut

Looking across at Deir El-Mir and Deir Balut

To the south there are the rolling hills of the Shomron with ruins abound, including the remains of Binat-Bar, Zereda, Balata and other historically rich sites, as well as Nachal Shiloh snaking its way across the land.

Historically rich hills of the Shomron - looking south

Historically rich hills of the Shomron – looking south

Someone very thoughtful had installed a swinging bench overlooking Deir Qal’a and Deir Balut and so I found myself there, rocking back and forth, enjoying every moment. At last the soldiers came back from escorting the shepherd away from the fence and we drove back to our outpost, leaving me with the need to come back and explore the other ruins another day.

Joseph’s Pit

In Israel, Samaria on January 11, 2015 at 4:30 AM

After visiting the ancient capital city of Sebastia (also known as Shomron, or Samaria), we drove north headed towards Jenin in our armoured convoy. I was participating in an educational and recreational day out for sergeant commanders of Kfir’s “Netzach Yehuda” Battalion and we were headed for the second stop of the day, Joseph’s Pit. But along the way we had a bit of excitement – entering one Palestinian village we were attacked by handfuls of Arab youth throwing huge rocks, molotov cocktails, fireworks and even small explosive charges. It was a very intense experience and kind of thrilling, mostly because I was driving a large armoured truck weighing approximately 13,000 kgs (28,660 lbs) with bulletproof windows and all. In this picture that a soldier from the command jeep in front of me took, you can see a large rock hitting the metal grate at my front windshield during the onslaught:

Driving the Safaron through a Palestinian village

Driving the Safaron through a Palestinian village

I have uploaded footage from this experience, filmed by the lieutenant in the passenger seat, onto YouTube. It’s no high-definition GoPro video but here it is: http://youtu.be/BFvL0v4XDtE (at 00:09 you can hear the explosion of the TNT charge that was thrown at my right rear tire area). After the excitement in the village we continued north on Road 60 until we came to the turn-off for Tel Dotan and Joseph’s Pit, just past the village of Araba. Driving on the incredibly bumpy dirt road, we approached the hill that is Tel Dotan.

Tel Dotan

Tel Dotan

Unfortunately, we were slightly pressed for time and weren’t able to fully visit the site. So we started with Joseph’s Pit – or shall I say, one of three possible pits – directly beside the dirt road.

Deep inside the first pit

Deep inside the first pit

To review the Biblical story, Jacob and his family had moved to the Holy Land and continued in their shepherding lifestyle. Joseph was sent by Jacob to locate his brothers who had gone out grazing from Hevron to Shechem; he found them at Dotan some twenty kilometres north of Shechem. It was there that they cast him into a pit and then sold him to Ishmaelite traders who took Joseph down to Egypt where he eventually rose in power to become a viceroy. Now, I have heard but cannot verify that there were two pits in the story and that one was filled with snakes and scorpions – the pit that Joseph spent the night in. So here and now there are three pits to choose from, although it’s possible that these aren’t the pits in question at all.

The second pit

The second pit

We had all gathered around these two pits and it was announced that we were waiting for the battalion commander to swing by with his command jeep to give a few words. Seizing this opportunity, as I’m not really involved in their command pyramid, I decided to go check out the third pit alone. Located inside an old stone house of sorts, the third pit is a the furthest from the dirt road, not far from the base of the tel.

The house containing the third pit

The house containing the third pit

I entered the old structure, seeing traditional vaulted rooms, arched doorways and the lone stone staircase built on strong arches. I wonder about the site’s history, but haven’t found anything online about it, especially because according to the Muslims (and agreed upon by the Crusaders), the site of Joseph’s Pit is in the Galilee next to Kibbutz Amiad just a few kilometres north of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The Muslim version is known as Jubb Yussef and a small kahn was built at the site somewhere between the 1200’s and the 1500’s to host pilgrims and passing travelers.

Inside the house

Inside the house

Inside the rooms, there were also more modern machinery – what looked like a pump of sorts; an assortment of pipes and a motor. I looked around for the pit, treading carefully, and then spotted light streaming in from a breach in the wall. Peering into the light, I looked down to see the third pit.

Peering into the third pit

Peering into the third pit

To recap, one of these pits are believed to have taken part in the famous Biblical story although it’s not certain to be any of them. After my look around I headed back to the group and we said goodbye to Jabo our tour guide as he got into the battalion commander’s jeep and headed out. We boarded and departed from the site in our convoy formation, heading back to the outpost of Mevo Dotan – a Jewish town built and named after the ancient region of Dotan – for a continuation of the day’s events. Hopefully one day I’ll have the opportunity to visit Tel Dotan, but as it is located in Palestinian controlled land, only time will tell.

Sebastia

In Israel, Samaria on January 4, 2015 at 5:49 AM

Two weeks ago I found myself in Netanya’s Central Bus Station and had a while to wait for my bus to Outpost 105, bordering Tul Karm, where I was to drive a Safaron. Not familiar with Netanya in the slightest, I glanced at a map and saw that some archaeological ruins were in walking distance. Trudging along, with my heavy backpack and gun, I walked over to what was labeled as “Umm Khalid”, passing an ancient sycamore tree (estimated to be around 1,000 years old). The ruins I came upon is the Crusader Castle of Roger the Lombard, located on top of a little hill looking out over the surrounding cityscape.

Ruins in Netanya

Castle of Roger the Lombard in Netanya

Catching the bus, I made it to Outpost 105 and began driving the Safaron with Kfir’s “Netzach Yehuda” Battalion (and later, Artillery’s “Sky Rider” Unit – which operates surveillance drones). Several days later I participated in an early morning educational and recreational drive with the battalion’s sergeant commanders in the Palestinian area southwest of Jenin. It was early morning when our armoured convoy reached our first destination, the ancient ruins of Sebastia, approaching from the Roman Colonnade with its remains of some 600 monolithic columns flanking us. A soldier in the command jeep in front of my Safaron took this photo and sent it to me:

Safaron driving past the pillars of Sebastia

My Safaron driving past the Roman Colonnade of Sebastia

Also known as the city of Shomron, or Samaria, the ruins are from an array of eras starting with the Kingdom of Israel some 2,900 years ago. Located just a few miles away from Shechem (Nablus), King Omri moved his capital from Tirzah (in the mountains of the Jordan River Valley) to a safer area inland, property which he purchased from a man named Shemer (the origins of the name Shomron). When we parked at the graveled expanse beside the Roman Forum and Basilica, we were introduced to our mustachioed tour guide Jabo and then we began morning prayers. After breakfast we all gathered around Jabo as he gave us an introduction of the site and opened up a Bible to read us passages about ancient Shomron.

Jabo reading ancient texts

Jabo reading ancient texts

We started with the Roman ruins directly before our eyes, noting the Forum, the Basilica and the Tribunal where court cases were held. Unfortunately, although Sebastia is an official national park, the land is mostly controlled by the Palestinians and thus maintenance is at a minimum – resulting in a ridiculous amount of litter including countless Alfa Cola bottles. Additionally, Israeli (and Jewish) visitors can only safely visit by making arrangements which are coordinated with the army, who accompany the scheduled tour. Thankfully, we are the army so we had no issues with scheduling visits, we just drove up.

Roman Basilica

Roman Basilica

To the southern end of the pillared area Jabo pointed out the excavated wall and gate from the original Kingdom of Israel. Stopping abruptly, Jabo called out greeting to an older Arab man opening up his shop. Their Arabic exchange was short and we continued on, passing over partially uncovered length of metal which Jabo explained was part of the old Hedjaz Railway (in fact, the local station is just down the hill). We walked along a bend in the short trail, taking in the views of the Samarian countryside.

Refreshing views

Refreshing views

We regrouped at the Byzantine Church built some 1,600 years ago and then restored in the Crusader era and dedicated to John the Baptist following his beheading. In the main room there is an underground crypt where relics were once stored. A much larger church built by the Crusaders at John the Baptist’s grave, located in the bordering village of Sebaste, was eventually partially destroyed and turned into a mosque.

Byzantine church's southern narthex

Byzantine church’s southern narthex

Passing three semi-recent Christian graves, we reached the excavated ruins of the ancient palaces of the Israelite Kings Omri and Ahab. Seeing the mass of uncovered stone walls reminded me at once of Tel Dan, with its rich Canaanite and Israelite Kingdom history. Archaeologists found scores of ceramic pieces with ancient Hebrew writing on them, Phoenician ivory and other important artefacts which help tell the tale of the palace that once was.

Ruins of the Israelite palace

Ruins of the Israelite palace

We climbed the mound in the above picture’s background and looked down on the Temple of Augustus built by Herod in honour of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Emperor, born Gaius Octavius, was the heir to Julius Caesar and was referred to as Augustus/Sebastos (Latin/Greek for the Roman imperial title meaning “majestic”, respectively). So, during the Roman era the name “Shomron” was changed to “Sebastia” in honour of the Roman Emperor. The temple was a grand building with a huge staircase and immense columns and statues, but it wasn’t enough so Herod built another temple at Banias and another at Caesarea.

Roman Temple of Augustus

Roman Temple of Augustus

Atop the mound we scoured the horizons as Jabo pointed out innumerable interesting features and sites. One that struck me as fascinating was the placement of the surrounding Arab villages. They are all at the same altitude, roughly, having been built partially up the hill. Jabo explained that this was due to the underground water tables and their placement, something I didn’t fully understand. However, just southeast of Sebastia there is a little village called al-Nakura which bears a strange similarity to Israel’s Rosh HaNikra with its soft white rock and grottos. This al-Nakura is home to an 85-metre (280-foot) deep tunnel which was dug by Herod to provide water for Sebastia, as the city had no fresh water source of its own. Also, there is a house visible on a hill to the east which was built by a Crusader named Stephan. Fascinating stuff, I say! Continuing on, we came across the mess of Israelite fortress walls and a Hellenistic tower, built in Macedonian fashion.

Fortress walls and Hellenistic tower

Fortress walls and Hellenistic tower

Below these walls, and slightly northwest, is the Roman theatre built some 1,800 years ago comprised of 24 rows and has an external circumference of 65-metres (215-feet). The sergeant commanders and their officers posed with Jabo as I took their photo seated in the theatre:

Commanders from

Commanders from “Netzach Yehuda” Battalion

We hurried back to the armoured vehicles and took off in a convoy to our next destination, Joseph’s Pit, but there were complications along the way…

Mitzpe Oded & Kever Yosef

In Israel, Samaria on November 24, 2014 at 4:59 AM

The following two places are found in the heart of the Shomron (also known as Samaria) and I had the pleasure of visiting both on the same day. Due to the fact that I often do the night shift for the Safaron driving, I took a lazy Wednesday afternoon to visit nearby archaeological ruins in the town of Yakir. The military outpost Yakir, where I usually serve, is just a few minutes walk from my destination, Mitzpe Oded.

Sunny at Mitzpe Oded

Sunny at Mitzpe Oded

Mitzpe Oded was founded as an outlook in memory of Oded Fink who died of illness at age 30, a man with an appreciation for the land of Israel, its beauty and heritage. The outlook provides a view of the towns of Karnei Shomron, Immanuel and Yitzhar as well as the famous Biblical twin peaks of Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal in the far distance and Nachal Kana running directly below. The second portion of this blog post, Kever Yosef, is located in the city of Shechem which is between Mounts Gerezim and Ebal, some 16 kilometres (10 miles) away as the crow flies.

Panoramic view from Mitzpe Oded

Panoramic view from Mitzpe Oded

The first ruin I saw as I approached the lookout was a six-foot tower rectangle of rough ashlars, as can be seen above. The sign declared the structure as a “shomera” which is the Biblical name for an agricultural watchtower and was comprised of two levels – the lower of stone blocks and the upper a wooden hut. Here is another agricultural watchtower that is unmarked and unkempt right outside the entrance of Yakir Outpost. I had been wondering what it was ever since I had first laid eyes on it, now I know.

Ruins outside Yakir Outpost

Ruins outside Yakir Outpost

Beside the agricultural watchtower at Mitzpe Oded is a unique textured millstone that was used for coarse wheat and barley grinding. The grain would be ground into a coarse flour used for porridge, as well as for sacrificial purposes.

Unique millstone

Unique millstone

To the north of the millstone there is the base of a square structure and then a confusing little trail down the slope of the mountain. I ventured down a bit, didn’t see anything fascinating and headed back to the outpost. Later on that evening I got a series of calls and found myself driving the Safaron armoured truck to Tapuach Junction for a fun (and not classified) operation. I was to be working with Border Police in Shechem (Nablus) as that night was predestined to be the night when the IDF allows Israeli visitors to Kever Yosef (Joseph’s Tomb) located in the heart of Shechem.

“Tomb of Joseph at Shechem” (1839) by David Roberts

While today’s Kever Yosef doesn’t look quite like it did back in 1839, it’s now a white-domed structure over the tomb with a few side chambers and a yard surrounded by a tall fence. In this aerial view, the white complex of Kever Yosef is quite distinguishable:

Aerial view of Kever Yosef

Aerial view of Kever Yosef

Driving in one of many armoured military convoys, we entered the city and headed for Kever Yosef on the edge of the Balata refugee camp. I was a little surprised that we didn’t get any stones thrown at us, but figured we’d probably get stoned later on that night. I parked my large vehicle blocking the north-west access alley (see map) and with the entire plaza area locked down and secure we prepared for the busloads of visitors. This was all an eye-opening experience for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. In this panoramic of the “plaza” area just outside the tomb complex, the buses come from the street on the left side while behind me and to the right are completely secured and blockaded by soldiers and military vehicles. I was fortunate enough to partake in the inner circle of defence, so I was able to visit the site rather easily.

Panoramic of the plaza in front of the complex

Panoramic of the plaza in front of the complex

The first batch of buses came and the visitors streamed into the complex, eager to seize a prime praying location as close to the tombstone as possible. Eventually I made my way into the domed chamber but the sheer multitude of people discouraged me. Someone offered me a memorial candle to light, and so I did, lighting it in a niche that had crude swastikas scrawled on the concave wall. The history of Kever Yosef is pretty hairy, and despite considered a holy site for Muslims, finds itself the victim of destruction and hate crimes. I’m not sure how the situation usually is during these late-night visits, but that night was extremely quiet.

Memorial candles

Memorial candles

After about 90 minutes or so, the visitors were herded back onto the buses so that the second batch could come. In between groups, there was a nice quietness about the place and I was able to take a photo of the site without people being in my way.

Kever Yosef

Kever Yosef

The second busloads arrived and I was distracted by a man who fell as he made his way from the bus to the tomb and needed mild medical attention. As the paramedic bandaged him up, the injured man told us that he himself was at once the director of MADA Jerusalem (Israeli version of the Red Cross) during the Yom Kippur War before being sent down to the Sinai to treat injured soldiers. The stories that the “average Joe” on the street has are absolutely fascinating here in Israel, with its extremely short and volatile history. After the second batch of visitors were whisked away, and all the dressings and signs were taken down from the complex, I entered the tomb chamber and was pleasantly surprised to see this raw, yet fresh, look at such a rich historical tomb:

The bare tomb

The bare tomb

When the last of the soldiers and Border Police were aboard their armoured vehicles, we drove back out of the troubled city of Shechem, fully expecting an onslaught of rocks and worse. Again, we passed through unscathed. I’m still astounded at the fact that despite having entered many Palestinian villages and cities, I’ve never once got even as much as a stone thrown at me – what are the odds? Anyhow, such is life in Israel’s “Wild West” and I hope I get more chances to have blog-compatible experiences so that I can document them here.