Israel's Good Name

Ben Shemen Forest

In Central Israel, Israel on August 19, 2018 at 8:58 AM

The Friday after the Bar Ilan University field trip to Tel es-Safi and the Museum of Philistine Culture I went on a nice birding trip with my friend Adam Ota. He had reported to me that the Tel Hadid and Ben Shemen Forest area had some great birding potential so we set out that morning in high spirits. On the bus ride we already began to reap the rewards of our trip with a sighting of a black-shouldered kite and a golden jackal.

Ben Shemen Forest

Our bus dropped us off at the northern entrance of the park and we were surprised to see a huge number of cars disgorging cyclists all around us. Apparently there was a cycling event in the forest that day, and we just prayed that their presence wouldn’t interfere too much with the birding and nature-watching. Armed with our cameras and exploratory spirits we began our tour of the forest, deciding to start from the northeast corner and working our way southward.

Sharing the trails with cyclists

From the very start there was a member of the falcon family making appearances, yet refusing to allow us to get a good photograph. It was probably a common kestrel, but Adam had spotted a hobby nearby the previous week so we were keen to see one. Circling a field that yielded no interesting species, we ignored the plentiful Eurasian jays and entered the woods.

Pensive Eurasian jay (photo Adam Ota)

It wasn’t long after starting on a dirt trail and encountering many cyclists that we decided to go offroad a bit and try our fortune there. We had picked the perfect place to explore, for we had come across an ancient stone quarry, the clean cut marks being a clear indication of human activity. But there wasn’t just stones to look at, Adam had found a distinct-looking flight feather which once belonged to a barn owl.

Male chukar standing guard (photo Adam Ota)

While we were traipsing through the piney undergrowth we were brought to attention by the call of a male chukar, a species of partridge common to Israel. We stood stock-still and scoured our surroundings, trying to locate the sound. At last, after some silent stalking, Adam succeeded in finding the chukar, perched up on a boulder and providing us with a great sighting.

Owl fly detail (photographed with my phone)

Some songbirds, including the frequently-spotted Sardinian warbler, put up a good show and then we moved on. We next found a few Polyommatus genus butterflies and then Adam stopped our progress through the grass to take a photograph of an adult owl fly (Bubopsis andromache), a close relative of the antlion. I joined in on the party and the owl fly stood motionless on a stem as we took dozens of photos with the different photographic devices we carry.

Adam photographing the owl fly

From there we headed further south, towards the dry streambed of Nachal Gamzu, and encountered even more cyclists. Eventually we caught sight of a bird of prey passing by overhead, identified as a short-toed eagle – quite common in Israel during the summer months. Reaching the southwest corner of the forest we made our way towards Tel Gamzu, which was to offer more than just a nice view.

Agama lizard on the run

We approached the hill from the east and climbed it, the change of landscape scenery giving us new hope for interesting species. True enough, Adam caught an agama lizard that had run into an old military bunker and released it back into the wilderness after a few photos. The tel had started as an Bronze Age settlement and then, in modern times, served as a strategic point for IDF soldiers during Operation Danny in 1948.

Off-roading fun

Atop the tel we found a nice lookout over the coastal plains and sat down to lunch, a pair of common kestrels and a handful of bold mynas keeping us company. When we had finished our break we continued back down the hill, stopping to watch a group of people with their 4×4 SUVs engage in some off-road fun.

Old Arab cemetery on Tel Gamzu

Descending via the northern slope, we passed through the abandoned cemetery that belonged to the Arab village of Jimzu (which preserved the ancient name of Gamzu) and then found ourselves walking alongside olive trees. At one point, while we were poking about looking at huge funnel spider webs, Adam had a bit of a run-in with a sleeping jackal, which dashed off into the wilderness to never be seen again (by us, at least).

Yours truly photographing insects (photo Adam Ota)

Getting back on a proper trail, we passed a couple on horseback – this forest drawing humans on all forms of transportation – and then found something cool. On the side of the trail we found rock-hewn graves, each comprised of two burial chambers excavated on either sides of a coffin-shaped hole in the rock. I had seen these exact grave types nearby at the “Graves of the Maccabees” with Dr Eyal Baruch so I knew how to identify them – particularly the fact that these weren’t Jewish graves.

Thai pagoda

Moving on, we next encountered a fenced-off ornate pagoda built by the government of Thailand in honour of Israel and Thailand’s King Bhumibol the Great, who died two years ago. Impressed by the structure we took our leave and headed for the park’s entrance, near where we had entered several hours ago. We found a lookout tower and took a short break before heading off to the bus stop, stopping along the way to buy freshly squeezed juice to revitalise us, thus bringing an end to our nice tour of Ben Shemen Forest.

University Trip: Tel es-Safi & Museum of Philistine Culture

In Israel, Judea on August 12, 2018 at 7:56 AM

Back in June, before the bustle of the summer months began, I took part in another field trip offered by my Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University. The destinations were Philistine-oriented: the ancient city of Gath, which is known today as Tel es-Safi (where I excavated this summer) and the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod, another city once occupied by the Philistines. We left the campus in the morning with our guide, Dr Amit Dagan, and made our way to the tel.

Tel es-Safi (Biblical Gath)

Approaching the tel from the north, I was immediately filled with nostalgic memories of the previous summer when we had so much fun excavating in Area J. I looked out at the familiar hill and wondered to myself where I’d be excavating in a few weeks when the 2018 season would begin. We disembarked at the Ottoman-era antilia well just beside the dry streambed of Nahal Elah and began the tour. Dr Amit Dagan started lecturing about the site and I found myself wandering off in eager anticipation to check up on the excavated areas left untouched since last summer. Since the winter is the wet season here in Israel, the rains ravage the carefully excavated squares all winter long leaving Area D in a surprisingly shoddy condition.

Some of Area D

Area D is the large excavated area at the northern foot of the tel where the lower city’s walls and possible gate are being exposed. The famous two-horned altar that was discovered several years ago was found in Area D and is now exhibited in the Philistine museum that we’d visited later that day. While I was walking around the area, I noticed a large number of insects flying and hopping about me. Upon closer examination I discovered that there were loads of adult antlions in the tall grasses. Juvenile antlions are one of the insect species I’ve come to know very well.

Adult antlion

After a thorough tour of Area D, Dr Amit Dagan sat us down beneath the shade of a large jujube tree and I found myself distracted once again, this time by birds. A large number of noisy jackdaws were congregating on and around the power lines not far from the streambed. But then I heard a bird call that struck me as odd. It was coming from the direction of the tel, yet I couldn’t find the culprit, even with the aid of my megazoom camera. The call was repeated several times, and I racked my train trying to identify it. Even using the renowned Collins Bird Guide app on my phone – with its featured bird call recordings – I was unable to identify this mystery bird.

Beneath the jujube tree

At last, just as we were getting up to leave, I saw a medium-sized bird fly out of a nearby tree. My camera was focused on it in an instant, and I captured a photograph of it as it made a short flight to another tree near the streambed. A couple more photos of it perched and I felt sure that I’d be able to identify the bird on my camera display screen. Sure enough, the mystery bird was a juvenile great spotted cuckoo – a species I had only seen once before, just a few kilometres away from the tel the previous year. Excited by this sighting, I was in good spirits as we got into our bus and began the drive to our next destination: the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod.

It’s always so sunny at the tel

An even more exciting sighting was about to happen, and I was completely caught off guard. We were slowly driving down the access road and I looked idly out the window at the scenery passing before me. Suddenly, I noticed a dog-like figure at the edge of a field, backdropped by some untamed shrubbery. There wasn’t enough time to grab my camera or my binoculars; I had only mere seconds to make an identification and time was of the utmost essence. I had been stricken by a feeling that I was looking at a very elusive and exciting member of the Carnivora order, but I needed to be sure before I dared utter its name. I was unable to make a definite identification but I’m quite sure that I had seen a striped hyena, an apex predator that I had only seen once before (and at night).

Museum of Philistine Culture

From that exciting sighting, I was all worked up by the time we reached the museum in Ashdod. Thankfully, the museum was exciting and captivated our attention from the moment we entered the well-decorated interior. Having opened in 1990, the museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the Philistines, a group of sea-faring people from Europe who settled in the Levant in the Iron Age (over 3000 years ago).

Museum exhibitions

Inside we walked about, looking at the displayed artefacts and keeping an eye out for pieces found at Tel es-Safi, our Bar Ilan site. We examined the ceramic vessels, especially the ornate painted Philistine pottery that we’ve come to know firsthand. Having taken some ceramics classes this year, I was keen on identifying the displayed vessels on my own, excited to find parallels to the typologies we learned in class.

Philistine warrior

Dr Dagan began to speak about the emergence of the Philistine culture in the Levant and the geographical importance the region of Philistia had in the ancient times. As he spoke he moved from one part of the museum to the next, the topical exhibits highlighting his mini lectures. One thing that amused us was the interactive screen featuring a brief history of Gath (or, Tel es-Safi) with a picture of our own Prof Aren Maeir sharing a moment with a zoomorphic special find during one of the excavation seasons.

Gath’s two-horned altar

Speaking with the museum guides, I was informed that there is more to see downstairs: a room of Philistine costumes mainly geared toward kids, and a temporary exhibition featuring the collections of select Ashdod area residents. I glanced about the fun room, successfully fighting the urge to dress up like a Philistine, and then began to peruse the collections exhibit.

Fun room of Philistine costumes

I found several that interested me, including collections of owl figurines, Russian nesting dolls and fancy metal pencil sharpeners. There were a lot of collections to go through, over forty in total, and I was nervous that my group would spontaneously finish upstairs and leave without me.

Collections exhibition

So, I rejoined them in admiring the Philistine culture via the museum exhibitons until we were ready to go. Friday trips are always shorter to accommodate the busy pre-Shabbat schedules, but all-in-all we had a great Philistine-filled field trip.

University Trip: Sites in the Lower Galilee

In Galilee, Israel on July 16, 2018 at 9:01 PM

A week after the two-day trip to the Carmel region, I went on yet another field trip offered by my department at Bar Ilan University. Led by Dr Shawn Zelig-Aster, a Biblical scholar, we were taken to a series of historical and archaeological sites around the Lower Galilee, all having a shared theme: the campaign of Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III. Expanding the Neo-Assyrian empire by way of conquest, the king invaded Israel from the north down the coastline until Egypt and then systematically conquered and exiled the inhabitants of the Israelite cities.

Climbing Tel Shimron

We too headed north from the campus, not far from Tel Aviv, and made our way to the Lower Galilee. Stopping to pick up a few more students in the Yokneam area, we admired the tel and a short-toed eagle from the comfort of our tour bus and continued on to our first site of the day: Tel Shimron. Located not far from Nahalal, the tel commands an impressive view of the western end of the Jezreel Valley, a prime strategic location. First settled in prehistoric times, the tel continued to be occupied during the Bronze Age, at the end of which the city’s acropolis was built. The city was mentioned in the famous El-Amarna letters found in Egypt in 1888, as well as biblically as one of the Canaanite city-states that sent an army to defeat the Israelites crossing into the land. Shimron continued to see significant human settlement throughout the Iron Age and Roman period, as well as downsizing to be an Ottoman and subsequently German Templar village in more recent years.

Piece of Islamic pottery

We arrived at the tel and climbed up, surveying our surroundings and the seasonally-uncharacteristic cloudy skies which released a small sprinkling of dirty rain. Dr Zelig-Aster then explained to us the importance of the site, owing to its strategic location overlooking the valleys – and thereby the roads – and the biblical mentionings that accompanied Shimron’s past.

Einot Zippori

We concluded by taking a short walk around the top of the tel and noting where the most recent archaeological expedition has begun work last year (see their aerial video of the site HERE). Having many more sites to visit, we got back into our bus and were driven to Nachal Zippori, where we disembarked at the side of a newly paved access road. We first came across the old British Mandate pump house, complete with the old pump still inside. We crossed into the small field, overgrown with blossoming silverleaf nightshade, and walked until we reached Einot Zippori (or Zippori Springs) where a small ancient structure stands.

Calm waters

There, water comes forth from the ground and flows away from the small, crystal-clear pool at the structure. We watched some tiny fish and a river crab as they explored their watery world. Moving along, we followed a tiny aqueduct that carries that cold spring water, and boarded our bus once again to be taken to the next site. Our next stop was Tel Hanaton, a large hill surrounded by agricultural fields and the Eshkol Reservoir. We approached from the west passing a Bedouin encampment as we climbed the tel.

Tel Hanaton

Seeing the start of habitation in the Early Bronze Age, and then becoming a heavily fortified city in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, this city was mentioned as well in the El-Amarna letters. In the Iron Age Hanaton was apparently conquered by the aforementioned Tiglath-Pileser III and the city was thereby relocated to the bottom of the hill in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. During the Crusader period a fortified farmhouse was constructed atop the tel, and near it a khan was built in the subsequent Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

View from Tel Hanaton

We sat at the top of the tel and studied ancient texts citing Hanaton, while crested larks and swallows entertained us with their presence. We passed by the Crusader ruins, noting a passage into the buried rooms, but did not enter. Our tour continued along the circular tel trail, as to enjoy and properly understand the tel’s geographical and topographical setting, and we headed back to our bus.

Entrance to the Crusader-era ruins

Enjoying our lunch in Ya’ad, a small moshav near Karmiel, we refueled ourselves for the final two destinations of the day. Our bus shuttled us over to the area of Horvat Rosh Zayit, and we walked the rest of the way alongside Road 805 and the region’s elegant pine trees. At last we arrived at a sign that announced the presence of a Phoenician fortress, which we were excited to see.

Horvat Rosh Zayit’s Phoenician fortress

Our excitement paid off, for a few minutes later we were standing within the ancient stone walls of the fortress, examining the architectural layout and learning more about the historical associations of ancient kings Solomon, Hiram and Tiglath-Pileser III. While the others were caught up in discussion, I found myself distracted by a robber fly holding a small butterfly in its grasp. I crept up to it as close as I could, even warding off an unsuspecting party member’s shoe, and managed to take this photograph with my phone camera.

Robber fly preying on a butterfly

When we had seen and discussed enough at the fortress we moved on to the next set of ruins, just a short walk away. These were much smaller, comprised of just a singular, reconstructed room and believed to have served a cultic purpose, due to the findings including figurine fragments, also dated to the Iron Age.

More of Horvat Rosh Zayit

The final set of ruins was just a few paces downhill, a multi-room structure with olive oil installations. In fact, there were other ancient agricultural installations to be found in the area around the ruins, which is always interesting to see. We walked around a bit more, enjoying the area and the view, and then made our way back to the bus.

Group photo

The next, and final, stop of the day was the nearby Tel Keisan, a large hill located about halfway from Horvat Rosh Zayit and the Mediterranean Sea. We drove the narrow access roads until we were just a couple hundred metres from the tel and from there we continued on foot, taking note of the cattle egrets hunting in the fields beside us. We reached the foot of the tel and began the ascent, taking the path that divides the hill into two.

Tel Keisan

We gathered beneath some olive trees, taking refuge from the sun and our guide began to teach us about the site’s historical and geographical importance. First settled in prehistoric times, the site saw large growth in the Middle Bronze Age and then became a large Phoenician city during the Iron Age. The identity of the tel is a debate, with the choices being either one of two possible names mentioned in the Bible: Achsaf or Kabul. In later periods, such as the Hellenistic and Persian, the city was expanded even more and, subsequently, a paved Roman road passed by to the west. Interested as I am in Crusader history and archaeology, I was fascinated to learn that this hilltop is where the famous Ayyubid ruler Saladin encamped when he laid siege on the Crusaders besieging the Muslim-held port city of Akko. The Crusader force, led by King Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II on Akko, eventually succeeded in conquering the city and the battle arena moved further south as the Franks continued on to Jerusalem. Perhaps equally interesting, this is where the ring of the Ramban, a medieval Jewish sage who hailed from Spain, was found, apparently lost on the slopes of the tel.

Black-shouldered kite

Fascinating as history is, I couldn’t help but be distracted by a quite unexpected avian visitor. A black-shouldered kite had appeared over the thistle field that covers the eastern side of the tel. I watched enraptured, alternating between my binoculars and my camera, as I attempted to make the most out of this fun sighting. Unfortunately the bird flew away after making a number of unsuccessful hunting attempts and we enjoyed some watermelon, procured for us by our very own Dr Zelig-Aster.

View from Tel Keisan

Satisfied with the refreshing melon, we moved on over to the eastern edge of the tel to enjoy the view and the painted lady butterflies (and to examine discarded potsherds littering the ground) and then headed back down the tel towards our bus. It was getting late and we had seen so much already that day, and there was still quite the drive back to Givat Shmuel. But I was thankful to have been able to see so much, especially because most of these sites are rather obscure and are hard to visit if one is predominately using public transportation, as I do.