Israel's Good Name

Eilat: Spring Birding

In Eilat, Israel on May 13, 2019 at 8:55 AM

Back in the end of February, during semester break, I took a two day trip to the south with my friend Adam Ota. This post covers the first day, which was spent nearly entirely in the resort city of Eilat. Our primary objective was to engage in birding, all over Eilat and the southern end of the Arava. February isn’t the best time to go birding in that region, but it was the only window we had factoring in classes and work, so we made the most of it.

Azrieli Towers of Tel Aviv

Our journey began several hours after Shabbat ended, Saturday night, and we made our way to the train station in Tel Aviv. We had some food, did some shopping for food supplies and waited for our train to Beer Sheva. Several hours later we were in Beer Sheva’s central bus station, settling in for the long wait for our bus to Eilat. Again, several hours later, we were en route to Eilat, driving through the moonlit desert on a long, lonely road.

On the road with Eilat behind me

We arrived at our bus stop outside Kibbutz Eilot at 4:30am and immediately began mapping our way to the nearby International Birdwatching and Research Center of Eilat, also known as IBRCE. Our plan was to spend the first hours of the early morning there, so it made sense to get there as soon as possible. We crossed Road 90 and made our way through the dark desert landscape until we reached a drainage canal, which we followed all the way to the IBRCE.

Daybreak over the mountains of Jordan

Strangers in a strange land, we sat in the dark on a bench within the park’s confines and enjoyed cookies and a can of stuffed grape leaves. The sounds of the marsh and the calls of the muezzin in neighbouring Aqaba, Jordan were the only things that broke the silence until shortly before daybreak. Cars approached and staff members and volunteers of the IBRCE arrived to get the day started.

Redshank perched on a handrail

Sunlight painted the skies over the Jordanian mountain to the east and the birds started stirring. Adam and I moved from blind to blind, trying to see what early risers we could find. Various waders started moving about in the salt pools just south of the IBRCE, including redshanks, black-winged stilts and great flamingos. Before long there were birds all over, including our very first Indian house crow and a juvenile marsh harrier trying to eat some carrion. Over at Lake Anita, the centre of the IBRCE, there were handful of great cormorants, sedge warblers and a single gull-billed tern all getting into action.

Grey heron in Lake Anita

It’d take hours to write about all the birds we saw, so to put it short we spent the next couple hours of the morning basking in the joys of oasis birding. We moved all around the park’s nucleus, spending time at the different blinds and taking it all in. Some of the highlights were: our first penduline tits in the reeds, scores of house martins circling over the lake and of course the flamingos.

Flamingos and a redshank

We had received excellent instructions where and when to bird locally from IBRCE’s director Noam Weiss, and some expert field guidance by local staffer Rei Segali, when we encountered a pair of Swiss birders on the canal banks outside. We made birding chit chat with Michael and Martin and then settled in for a joint mission, to spot a crested honey buzzard. There were a few of these locally rare birds spending the winter in and around Eilat, and we wanted to see one too. It took a while, but at least we spotted one of them flying over the date palm trees at the Israel-Jordan border. Not the best sighting, but at least we saw one!

IBRCE from afar

Feeling a bit antsy to explore Eilat a bit more, we gathered up our belongs and walked on over to Holland Park, located at the northern end of Eilat. Unfortunately, it was already getting pretty hot out and we had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Looping around the northern end of the IBRCE, we spotted a little green bee-eater and a few Egyptian mastigures sunbathing on the rocky ground.

Relaxing Egyptian mastigure

We arrived at Holland Park and began walking the western trail, somewhat seeking shade and somewhat seeking birds. At last we found both: blackstarts, warblers and a passing long-legged buzzard as we sat in the partial shade of an African thorn tree.

Within Holland Park

Even with the handful of birds, we felt like better birding could be found elsewhere and made our way back to the IBRCE. Coming from the southwest corner of the park, we approached the salt pools slowly, spotting more and more waders – mostly redshanks, but including a ringed plover and more flamingos.

Hard-to-see brine shrimp in the shallows

At the first blind along the way we examined the salt water closer to find that there are millions, if not billions, of tiny brine shrimp swimming around. This explained the large numbers of waders feeding in the seemingly hostile-to-life pools. Adam scooped up a bit of the sand, which contains brine shrimp eggs, and to this day he has a small colony of shrimp in a glass jar. Sample stowed safely away, we tucked ourselves into the wooden booth-blind and rested a bit on the benches inside.

Photographing flamingos in the salt pools

I spent much of the time leisurely trying to get the best photographs and video footage I could, and felt relatively pleased with the fruits of my efforts. However, we still had more to do and we needed to rouse ourselves out of our comfortable booth.

Depth of field at the IBRCE

Our next destination was Eilat’s North Beach, and we intended to walk along the drainage canal as per Noam Weiss’ recommendation. We said goodbye to the IBRCE and began the walk on the eastern side of the canal.

Eilat’s salt production

Keeping an eye out for crested honey buzzards, Dead Sea sparrows and other fun birds, we walked and walked, seeing a variety of birds but none of the above mentioned species. Interestingly enough, the two most interesting things we saw on the walk were not birds at all. The first was a squished and dried Schokari sand racer on the path, only identified with the help of experts. The second was the constant flow of pure, white salt pouring out of the machinery at the salt factory nestled among the salt pools.

Adam scanning for seabirds at North Beach

We reached the North Beach and sat down at the water’s edge, the gentle waves lapping at the sand in front of us. We kept an eye out for interesting seabirds, and ended up seeing just black-headed and slender-billed gulls. The sun settled over the mountains of Egypt as we gazed out over the Red Sea, enjoying the international view that I loved when I last visited in 2014. When the sun was hidden behind the mountains we got up and made our way through the touristy hotel area and towards the airport.

Fiery sunset over the mountains of Egypt

Having planned our trip carefully, we were scheduled to pick up a rental car at 6:00pm and made our way there with alacrity. When we arrived we were greeted with a smile and the keys to a free upgrade – a sporty Audi A1. After the necessary paperwork and photographs we zipped out and headed over to a grocery store to pick up supplies for the evening. Eilat doesn’t have the national VAT tax that the rest of the country does, so the prices are lower and shopping gets weirdly tempting. We stocked up on supplies and drove out of Eilat and into the Arava, heading for the fields of Yotvata where Pharaoh eagle owls are known to live. Driving along the dark roads made for great fun, but when we scoured the field area – going as far as we deemed logical – we found no trace of the owls.

Looking for owls in the Yotvata fields

Abandoning the mission, we got back into the car and drove on to Kibbutz Ketura where we spent the night. Adam used to work on the kibbutz, after his army service, and so he had the necessary connections to arrange a room for us. In the end we received a small house, which more than suited our minimalist needs, and we enjoyed a lovely barbecue outdoors for dinner. Thus ended the first extremely long day of our trip to Eilat, and we slept knowing that we’d be waking up early the next day for round two – this time seeing sites all over the southern Arava with the help of the zippy little Audi.

University Trip: Herodium Survey & Tour

In Israel, Judea on April 18, 2019 at 9:35 AM

This post harkens back to the late fall and winter months, when I participated in a series of archaeological explorations with Prof Boaz Zissu and other students. These explorations were part of my “Survey Basics” class with the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University, taught by Prof Zissu (see also HERE). The first and third tours, having taken place back in October and December, were to Khirbet ‘Arak Hala. Located just north of Beit Guvrin, this site is largely comprised of a flattened enclosure, bathhouse and ancient settlement – all dated to the Roman period.

SUV of happiness at Khirbet ‘Arak Hala

The second survey, back in November, was to Khirbet Amudim, located in an active military firing zone, in the Judean foothills. Our duty that day was primarily to locate and map out caves and underground expanses, and it was very rewarding with fascinating caves and many interesting species of wildlife, including horseshoe bats and hungry cave ticks.

Ben, Nohar and myself surveying at Khirbet Amudim

However, this post is about the fourth survey day, to Herodium – or more precisely, to the hilltop adjacent to the mountain-top fortress. It was Dec 27th, and there was rain in the forecast for most of the country, but being that Herodium is located in the Judean Desert where rainfall is less common, it was decided that the survey day will continue as planned. Thus, our tour bus transported us first thing in the morning to Herodium where the rest of the team was waiting patiently.

Herodium

The very first thing that we noticed was the biting cold wind which penetrated our clothing and chilled us to the bone. We found shelter within the visitors centre, and were briefed on the history and archaeology of Herodium by both Prof Zissu and the site’s resident archaeologist, Roi Porat.

Winter skies over Judea

Properly briefed, we then headed outside and made our way to the hilltop northeast of Herodium. It was chilly, with rain clouds in the distance, but a full rainbow appeared before us and life was looking great. We were divided into two teams, each tasked with scanning a particular area for potsherds and other archaeological evidences.

Itamar Berko gathering surface finds

Within a half hour, as the teams were gathering the many scattered potsherds, a cold biting rain began. Blown by powerful gusts of mountain wind, the freezing rain made surveying quite difficult. We continued the best we could, but then, as we were finishing up, the rain intensified. We beat a hasty retreat to the visitors centre, but the downpour was quicker than we were and we returned soaking and cold.

Rainbow preceding the rain

After laying out some of our clothes to dry in a heated room, we gathered around to take stock of the potsherds we had found. The bags were spilled out and divided up, the indicative pieces (such as rims and handles) analysed and identified. We made an estimation of the typologies, factoring in the age of the sherds, and developed a rough picture of the site’s age. When we were finished, we had a debrief, and then ventured out into the park to explore Herodium’s ruins.

Examining the ceramics

Herodium, the iconic mountaintop fortress, was constructed by Herod the Great before the turn of the millenium during the Roman period. The site is divided into three main areas: the fortress, the slopes and the lower region. The fortress was designed to have four towers, the eastern one being most prominent, and the interior of the palace complete with a courtyard nestled within. Towards the end of the construction, dirt was added to the outer walls of the round fortress, giving the appearance of a luxuriously-filled volcano. When Herod died, in the year 4 BCE, he was buried on the slopes of Herodium, in a monumental structure built in his honour.

Looking down on Lower Herodium

Later, during the Jewish revolts against the Romans, Herodium was occupied by the rebels and refuge tunnels were dug beneath the fortress. After the final tunnels were burned out in battle, Herodium laid waste until Christian monasteries was built during the Byzantine times. From the Arab conquest onward, dating back some 1,400 years, Herodium laid in ruins with just a few local Bedouins keeping the site company. Following surveys starting in 1873, archaeological work began in 1962 and have been continuing on-and-off since then.

Entering the fortress

We climbed the hill via the footpath, and entered the fortress complex from the western side, passing various archaeological features and the view of Lower Herodium along the way. The palace remains came into sight as we crested the slope’s top, entering into the ancient courtyard. Raindrops had begun to fall, and we were ushered into the belly of the palace-fortress, entering chambers generally off-limits to the public until the restorative work in complete. Roi Porat led us down a perilous staircase, and into a quaint vaulted room where we set down our bags and got comfortable.

Inside the vaulted room

Some of the team joined the department’s patron, Yehuda Mizrahi, in preparing a hearty lunch while the rest of us gathered around to hear more about the ongoing excavations. After an overview, we set out to see the emptied storage rooms that once housed the Jewish rebels during the Roman era. Fallen stones, blackened ceilings and bone-dry logs illustrated the scene frozen in time, as the tunnels were set aflame to burn out the trapped Roman soldiers.

Exploring the scorched chambers

We spent a good half hour in the tunnel-like chambers, discussing archaeological technique and theories with Prof Zissu and Roi Porat. When we had had our fill, a concept that was hard to imagine, we headed back outside, via the vaulted room, for another gander now that the sun had come back out.

Herodium’s ancient synagogue

With so much to see, from the curved internal walls to the many columns and other architectural features, it’s hard to fully relate the true wonder of the site. I passed from the southern portico to the reception hall and ancient synagogue, and then from the weapons foundry and the Byzantine chapel to the bathhouse and northern exedra.

Bathhouse ceiling

Throughout the fortress’ interior, signs delineated both the Herodian-era ruins and the later ruins, often times occupying the same space. I spent time in each spot, taking pictures and admiring the construction before moving on.

Northern portico

Minutes later, when I entered the underground tunnel system, I was truly blown away. The white tunnels, carved from the soft rock, seemed endless and I descended deeper and deeper into the mountain.

Entering the tunnel system

I passed water shafts and retaining walls, keeping to the main path as I pressed onward. Several of the side passages were fenced off, accessible only to the site excavators, but I was happy enough with the prepared tunnels. Deeper and deeper the tunnel went, until at last it leveled out and I found myself headed towards one of the exits not far from the elegant theatre and Herod’s tomb.

Deep inside the tunnels

Breaking down the underground system, the cisterns date to the Herodian period, where as the tunnels date both to the Jewish War and the Bar Kochba Revolt several dozen years later. I emerged from the tunnel via a large room, and made my way around the slope ruins. Not wanting to miss lunch, I headed back into the bowels of the mountain and back up into the fortress courtyard to rejoin my group in the quaint vaulted room.

Final chamber

Everyone had reconvened from their exploration ventures and lunch was being served from the makeshift kitchen. We sat down to hot soup, freshly made pitas, breads, salads and preserved meat. It was a kingly feast, and we felt downright special eating it in the quaint stone room. As lunch winded down, we sat around about swapping amusing stories until it was time to clean up and head back out into the cold wind.

Freshly made soup and pita

We exited via the tunnels and began to explore the slope ruins, but first, a Finsch’s wheatear popped into view and I snapped a handful of sub-par pictures before it flew off. Walking the slope path, we came upon the theatre which once hosted great entertainment during the Herodian period. Next, the two sets of ancient steps that head up the slope towards the peak, each built in a different time period.

Underground retaining walls

From there we continued on to the area of the royal tomb, where Herod was buried. During the Jewish War, some of the Jewish population didn’t take too kindly to his burial place and proceeded to tear it down. Today, foundations, architectural elements and many of the ashlars have been found – signs of a monumental structure – but that’s about it. Citing physical and historical evidence, a miniature version of the ornate tomb was reconstructed, and provided us an idea of what the original structure looked like.

Rain-splattered staircase

As we enjoyed the views from the slope, the rain and bitterly cold winds picked up again. The walk back to the visitors centre wasn’t necessarily far, but with the rain and cold it was quite the trek. I particularly enjoyed seeing the falling raindrops flying upwards at my face as the wind changed the standards of gravity. Eventually we made it back to the visitor centre and prepared ourselves to head back to Bar Ilan University.

Model of Herod’s tomb

This was the final survey day of the survey class, but due to the relative success of the adjacent hilltop’s surface find collection, another survey day was immediately scheduled. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the second day, but I heard that it was absolutely delightful. Having finished my survey requirements for my BA, I hope that maybe next year I’ll be able to take part in a survey as part of my MA – time will tell.

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.