Israel's Good Name

Tel Tzuba (Belmont)

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 13, 2019 at 7:56 AM

One month ago, in the heart of February, I went on a short hike with my girlfriend, Bracha. We had decided to explore in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and one particular site stuck out to me: the Crusader fortress of Belmont. Doing a wee bit of research, we found a way to make a delightful little hike of it and, after meeting up in Jerusalem in the morning, set out to the trail by bus.

The start of the hike

Our bus took us directly to the trailhead, marked by green and white paint, and we began at once. The hill of Tel Tzuba was visible from where we began, large painted letters shouting “agriculture will prevail” slightly marring the otherwise picturesque view. As we walked gradually uphill we paused now and again to admire the early spring wildflowers and the noisy birds all around us.

Tel Tzuba

Within a half hour we reached the first site of interest: Ein Tzuba, a rather complicated underground spring flow system beside a small vineyard. We paused at the first pool, where mostly stagnant water overgrown with algae and a dead tadpole greeted us wearily. But it was the rest that proved more interesting, with a series of walls, gated passages, reservoirs and more modern structures that tantalised with their mysterious purposes. Consulting the on-site cross-sections as well as a book on underground aqueducts, I learned that this extensive spring system was first constructed in the Iron Age, some 2,500 or so years ago.

Ein Tzuba

When we had seen all that there was to see, we continued along on the trail, seeing more songbirds, wildflowers and a wild mushroom of unknown identity. Up ahead we made out a structure partially hidden by the low trees and undergrowth. It was a double-domed sheikh’s tomb, and we entered it briefly to look around. After a short break at one of the nearby picnic tables we continued on, walking the dirt road up the tel.

Sheikh’s tomb

As we neared the top of the hill we found the first of many crusader structures that make up Belmont. The site was first constructed by an unknown Crusader source sometime in the mid-1100s, approximately fifty years after the start of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Some years after, the military order of the Hospitallers acquired the structure and built a medium-sized castle. Despite its proximity to Jerusalem, the Kingdom’s capital, the castle was constructed more for agricultural production and mission work than for critical defence, which is evident in its construction.

Branched asphodel

Archaeological excavations led by RP Harper and D Pringle in the 1980s helped establish the size and shape of the castle. The external walls, forming a polygon that accommodated the hilltop topography, enclosed a more traditional rectangular structure with a courtyard. The castle was destroyed only tens of years after it was constructed, by the Muslim leader Saladin in either 1187 or 1191, and has been only partially in use since then. In 1834 the Egyptian leader Ibrahim Pasha thoughtfully destroyed the more of the standing remnants of the Crusader castle and left the ruins for us to explore on this lovely spring day.

Entering Belmont

We entered the outer confines of the castle, typical Crusader masonry showing itself everywhere, from standing walls to fallen ashlars. The path took us from the southwest around to the northwest, where we saw fit to enter the more inner area of the ruins. Flowering Egyptian campion added a splash of colour to the green grass and the off-white stones as we surveyed our surroundings.

Belmont castle

Some of the structures were in better shape than others, and as we climbed higher, the complex’s layout became more clear. The central courtyard had a grated-over water cistern, and was surrounded by walls and fallen rocks. Windows still remained here and there, and the degrees of fanciness in the arched doorways told us more about the rooms inside.

A bed of yellow among the trees

It took us a good half hour to explore the ruined castle, and there was always the impressive view to admire from the more lofty fortress rooftops. As we were making our final loop of the castle, climbing up the overgrown ruins and returning to the western side from whence we came, we found a dead pigeon with rings on its legs – apparently a domesticated pigeon that escaped from its human master and found death on the hilltop.

Jerusalem hills

We circled the lower perimetre of Belmont and found a place to picnic with a great lookout to the east, and essentially where we had hiked on the way to the castle. Bracha had made food the night before, and so we feasted and enjoyed the relative tranquility of a springtime afternoon picnic.

Common buzzard

As we were getting ready to head back, a nice common buzzard made an appearance overhead and it flew westward in search for prey. The short hike back was similar yet quicker than the way up, and as we approached the road where it all began, we found what appears to be an ancient coin washed up by the winter’s rain. Hopefully I will have an update sometime in the nearish future.

Ancient coin

Our trip ended with a short melon break near the bus stop as we had a good while to wait. We enjoyed the fresh fruit as we gazed out at the magnificent view and the chaffinches in the nearby flowering almond trees. At last our bus came and we rode it back into Jerusalem, bringing the end to our lovely little hike.

Nachal Alexander

In Coastal Plain, Israel on March 6, 2019 at 10:45 AM

In the beginning of February I had the opportunity of visiting Nachal Alexander with the school where I work. I had been to a select area of Nachal Alexander twice before, and have even written about it (linked above), but this time I was to be exploring the length the stream and thus a blog post is most warranted.

Nachal Alexander spilling into the sea

Being that it was a school trip, and that the school is a relatively large one with approximately 1,000 lads, the experience was going to be a bit different than ordinary, and I naturally anticipated seeing less wildlife. However, when the buses dropped us off near the mouth of the stream I could immediately see a handful of gulls as well as songbirds and knew it’d be interesting nonetheless.

Pied kingfisher

The educational staff and the lads lined the streambanks near where it reached the sea, and I took this opportunity to wander off a wee bit to see if I could find any waders. I did quite well, and found a greenshank, a common sandpiper, a little stint and a beautiful slender-billed gull standing on a ridge of washed-up seashells.

Slender-billed gull

A few more birds and then it was off to the trail with a handful of straggling lads and other staff members. We walked alongside the stream and as soon as I had the opportunity to break free from the noises of the group I did, and was rewarded for my efforts by an interesting sighting. Two cattle egrets were prowling the trail ahead of me, and within minutes of each other, each of the caught poisonous centipedes and wolfed them down with great gusto.

Nachal Alexander

Dozens of greater cormorants came to view, some flying overhead and some in the stream’s languid waters, as well as a few moorhen. A brief break in a wooded area provided me sightings of a chiffchaff, black redstart and a reclusive-yet-noisy European robin.

Khirbet Samara

Before long I had reached the ruins of Khirbet Samara, a house built in the end of the 19th century by the Samara family of Tulkarem in order to oversee their watermelon fields in the nearby land. Climbing up the kurkar ridge to the ruins provided a closer look at the cut-stone house and its arched buttresses. Up top I was able to enjoy the view of the surrounding area, and of Nachal Alexander down below.

Holy hawksbeard growing on a buttress

Taking a set of stairs down the opposite side of the ridge brought me to a field of wildflowers, harbingers of spring. I was most excited to see clumps of coastal iris, a particularly dark flower that attracts photographers more than bees. I wanted to spend more time with the irises, as I find it particularly challenging to photograph wildflowers, but I knew that I was the very last one in our group and I had to catch up with the others.

Coastal iris

I continued along the stream, following the Israel National Trail as I encountered small flocks of cormorants perched high up on eucalyptus trees. I walked and walked, not letting myself get too distracted, until I reached train tracks. Continuing on with the trail, I then saw a peculiar sight: a Boeing-Stearman biplane painted blue and yellow passed overhead. I attempted to look up the plane’s N-number, the international registration number, but my search attempts on the FAA’s website turned up empty.

Boeing-Stearman biplane

Eventually, after seeing some corn buntings – also harbingers of spring – I arrived at the famous bridge where the African softshell turtles congregate. Since I’ve already written about this experience before, I shall resume with the continuation of the trail alongside the sluggish stream.

Early spring colours

We walked and walked, passing countless eucalyptus trees, plentiful cormorants and a few handfuls of black-headed gulls flying high up in the sky. Every so often there would be a sign informing us of our progress, and of the stream’s rehabilitation efforts over the years. An hour or so after we left the bridge we arrived at another bridge, and then to the grand feast put out by the school kitchen staff.

The final stretch

The next hour or two was dedicated to feasting on chicken skewers, fries, mini baguettes, salad and more as the entire school trickled into the feasting field slowly. Just as the last people were receiving their portions the skies opened up and rain began to pitter-patter on heads and shoulders. Thankfully the buses had arrived and, after cleaning up our trash, we piled in to be taking to Kfar HaRoeh for the rest of the day’s activities.

University Trip: Wadi Dalia & Sartaba

In Israel, Jordan River Valley on February 26, 2019 at 9:01 AM

Following our trip to Nachal Rash’ash, the members of Dr Dvir Raviv’s field class on the geography, geology and archaeology of the Shomron reconvened for a second day in the field. This time we had two destinations: Wadi Dalia and the fortress-peaked mountain of Sartaba. Departing in the morning from Bar Ilan University, and picking up members along the way, our trip officially began at the western side of Kibbutz Gilgal in the Jordan River Valley.

Outside Kibbutz Gilgal

Immediately upon leaving the tour bus my eyes settled upon a curious pair of birds perched on a wire a dozen or so metres away: green bee-eaters. With the birding aspect of the trip starting off on such a high, birding-friend Adam and I were quite eager to see what we could find. Just a quick scan around the perimetre, while the first of the hikers started off, we managed to see a handful of birds, including a black kite, some Tristram’s starlings and a small flock of Spanish sparrows.

Little green bee-eater

We set off heading southwest, towards the low mountains and in the direction of Wadi Dalia, enjoying the warm air of the valley. Within fifteen minutes we reached the dry streambed of Wadi Dalia and settled down for the first of many field-lectures delivered that day by our guide, Dr Dvir Raviv. Given the necessary background information on the geographical geology, including the changes in bedrock formations from the valley to the mountains as the elevation climbs.

Wadi Dalia

From the wadi we climbed up, reaching a small plateau where we could see diagonal stripes of flint in the otherwise plain sand-coloured limestone. One of the party members found a deathstalker scorpion, the most venomous variety in Israel, and rushed over to show me. Lately I’ve been seeing more and more deathstalkers, even more than the more common species.

Lecturing on lush greenery

We climbed higher, following the trail marked in red and white paint, and saw where the recent rains washed new life into the sand-coloured slopes. With the gentle sprinkling of green came the wildflowers and, throughout the day, we saw several different species, including yellow star-of-Bethlehem and dark grape hyacinth. Although unrelated, we saw more and more black kites until the estimated count reached into the hundreds.

A swirling of black kites

The view around us became increasingly glorious as we climbed, the jagged cliff edges and the green-dusted slopes combining to make a contrastingly beautiful scene. Before long we reached a small Bedouin enclosure, with a series of caves, and sat down to hear more about one particular cave with dozens of goats milling about around us. It was then, seated in the mostly-dry streambed, that we saw a very impressive sight.

Blissful clouds

As we were listening to Dvir a large shape appeared overhead, crossing over us from the cover of the nearby cliff. Everyone looked up, and multiple voices called out at me, including Adam who was watching it approach through his binoculars. I looked up as well, and saw a large bird of prey. A mere second or two passed before I turned my camera back on, removed the lens cap and began zooming in for a photograph. I knew that I’d only get one shot, and that it would be preferable to get clarity over closeness, so I shot at a mere 260mm (instead of the potential 2000mm) and got what I got. Behold, a majestic golden eagle:

Golden eagle flyby

Amazed with what we saw, Adam and I were on birding-high and decided that we’d be more alert as we walked this arid mountain terrain. Sure enough, a few common ravens passed by overhead, as well as some more ever-present black kites. An hour later, continuing along the trail, we found a small-spotted lizard hiding among the rocks.

Small-spotted lizard peeking out

Thus we continued, hiking and hiking some more as we traversed Wadi Dalia, making our way back downhill and towards the waiting bus. It was on that home stretch that we saw hundreds of black kites, swarming in large groups over the many slopes around us. Back in the bus, we were driven to a rest stop area for lunch, where Adam and I feasted on rolls, hummus and more, and then off to the final destination of the day: Sartaba, also known as Alexandrium.

The steep climb to Sartaba

I had once attempted to visit Sartaba, a Hasmonean fortress atop a conical peak, but got confused with the access roads and abandoned the notion. So, approaching the distinct mountain gave me a feeling of long-awaited excitement, as might be expected. But, we were not to just drive to Sartaba, there was a steep mountain path to climb, and the bus was going to drop us off at the foot of it, near an empty army outpost.

Looking back mid-climb

We disembarked at the base of the trail and were immediately shocked by how cold and windy it was. Dvir gave us a few words of encouragement, including something about not getting stuck atop the mountain after dark, and then we set off. It was a steep climb, of that we were roughly prepared, but it was the incessant howling cold wind that really threw us for a loop.

An ancient coin

About halfway up we reached a small cave near an ancient water reservoir which provided rudimentary shelter from the wind as the stragglers rejoined the group. From there we looped around the northern side of the slope near the peak and then climbed the last bit from the western side.

Standing atop the fortress ruins

Impressive ruins of a large fortress greeted us, the finely-cut ashlars stacked majestically. We spread about as we all explored the ruined fortress, looking around and taking photos. Just to summarise the fortress’ identity, Sartaba was originally built by the Hasmoneans and then restored by Herod approximately two hundred years later. The fortress was then destroyed during the Great Revolt by the Romans, and has been largely abandoned since.

Exploring Sartaba

With the sun setting over the nearby mountains we gathered around Dvir to hear a short explanation on the site. We examined the work of the different archaeological excavations that had taken place over the years, and then over to the “Hearts Palace”, named such due to the number of heart-shaped columns.

Heart-shaped column

Hoping to get back to the bus before nightfall, we made our way back down the slope, which proved quite difficult at first. The strong winds, coupled with the incline’s loose gravel, made the first few paces quite challenging. Eventually we reached the regular trail and made our way down the slope at a brisk pace.

Slip-sliding our way back down

Before long we were back in our tour bus and driving back to Bar Ilan University, bringing an end to a very interesting field trip.