Israel's Good Name

Hai Bar Carmel

In Haifa, Israel on September 13, 2021 at 10:35 AM

A few weeks ago, in the middle of August, Bracha and I enjoyed a nice trip to the Hai Bar Carmel nature reserve, located on Mount Carmel. A part of the overall Mount Carmel national park, this small reserve is notable for its breeding and rehabilitation program that helps repopulate the country’s vulture and deer populations. Even though I had been to various parts of Mount Carmel – and certainly Haifa itself – I had not yet stepped foot into the famous Hai Bar. Thankfully, while making extended weekend plans up north at my folks’ place, the idea to visit came up and we made it happen.

Taking in our scenic surroundings

Taking in our scenic surroundings

Getting to the park was relatively simple on paper, and it was just a single bus ride from the nearest Haifa train station. We had packed smartly, with just two backpacks, and disembarked just outside of Haifa University ready to conquer any trail in our path. But before any conquering could be done, we stared out at the sweeping view of the tree-covered mountain that tapers off into the cool Mediterranean Sea. We could see roads and trails snaking down the slope below us, but we did not know quite where to go. Navigating with the help of Google Maps, we set off on a rural road that took us on a long, winding route all the way to the Hai Bar reserve.

Bracha taking in the view

Bracha taking in the view

There were a few highlights along the way, deserving of mention, before we reached the reserve’s open gates. First, the largest Schneider’s skink I had ever seen appeared in front of us and slithered under a large boulder. I was desperate to catch it with my camera so I crouched down and snapped some shots, catching only a bit of its tail with my extended lens. Upon examining the photos later, I noticed that there were shed snakeskins, ghostly remains of a snake that once found shelter during its moulting session. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed it while we were there and, although I tried my best, experts informed me that there was no definite way to identify what snake species left behind that papery memento.

T93 making a pass overhead

T93 making a pass overhead

As we trotted down the gradient road, chatting softly into the wind, Bracha excitedly pointed to a large bird of prey slowly rising from the woodlands before us. It was a griffon vulture – the first of the day – and one of the largest raptors found in Israel. Our trot picked up in speed as we made our way towards the soaring vulture, and before we knew it, we were passing through the park’s reception-office. Immediately outside the office-gift shop is a large wooden balcony overlooking the same majestic view that we had been enjoying ever since we had gotten off our bus.

The balcony

The balcony

Next, we found a small theatre of sorts where a short nature film about the reserve and its unique role was playing. As mentioned before, the reserve runs breeding and rehabilitation programs for vultures and deer. Vultures in the wild face the ever-present danger of poisoning, where ranchers, or perhaps other parties, poison carcasses in efforts to curb predatory attacks on their flocks and herds. This can potentially be a death blow to a large chunk of the ecosystem, as many animals – big and small – feed from carrion. The lives of many vultures in Israel have been lost due to this senseless approach, but that’s not the only danger they face.

The vulture cage

The vulture cage

Another big one, which affects eagles and other large raptors as well, are unprotected power pylons which can electrocute the birds instantaneously should they accidentally make contact with two sections simultaneously. In efforts to curtail the damages done by poisoning, the National Parks Authority operates several feeding stations where “safe” carcasses are deposited as an easy buffet for carrion-loving creatures. The electrocution issue remains to this very day, with only some of the deadly pylons suitably refitted with protective shields by the Israel Electric Company.

Persian fallow deer in the enclosure

Persian fallow deer in the enclosure

In regards to deer, the main issue had historically been over-hunting, and it was a well-thought out plan to reintroduce deer species that had since disappeared from the wild in Israel. One such species was the Persian fallow deer, whose new population partly originated in an elaborate smuggling operation bringing a handful of female does via the last El Al flight out of Tehran before the Islamic Revolution which soured diplomatic relations. I warmly recall seeing one of the released descendants of these deer in Nachal Kziv, one of the Mediterranean habitats chosen to host renewed deer populations. Another example is the roe deer, a species which once populated the Carmel region and whose repopulation project was launched in 1996. Sadly, I have no warm memories of any roe deer of any kind, but that might change one day.

The dried fire salamander breeding pool

The dried fire salamander breeding pool

As would be expected, part of the reserve is fenced off plots of land where these animals live, at least for now. We saw, in addition to the aforementioned fallow and roe deer species, a small herd of wild goats ambling about in a shaded yard. Despite their wild-sounding name, these are, in fact, domesticated goats, and as such, there are no plans to release them into the wild. It was delightful seeing all the even-toed ungulates minding their own business in their enclosures, but there were more exciting things to be seen and so we kept going. One notable feature is the fire salamander breeding pool, built to help bolster the Mount Carmel population of this incredible species – of which I have only ever seen tadpoles, when I visited the Sasa Museum several winters ago. Interestingly enough, this is the southernmost population of this species in the entire world, so this pool – dry in the summer months – must be doing a good job.

The feeding station on the opposite slope

The feeding station on the opposite slope

The highlight of this visit was undoubtedly the vultures, and as we approached the hallowed lookout, from which so many photos are taken, we could see the soaring griffons casting great shadows on the gentle slopes below. A caged white-tailed eagle distracted us temporarily, but we tore ourselves away and reached the lookout. I was agape as I took in our surroundings – from the rehabilitation cage stocked with both griffon and Egyptian vultures, to the countless soaring vultures and the eye-catching feeding station on the opposing slope.

T36 being friendly

T36 being friendly

First, we acknowledged the rather friendly griffon vulture tagged “T36”, who stood on the cage and watched us in a carefree manner. According to the experts, “T36” was born in the Hai Bar Carmel’s breeding facility and released into the wild in 2012. Another friendly griffon, tagged “T60” was also locally born and released in 2013. Other, more wild griffons soared at a safe distance – most of them without any tags or other identifiable markers. The tedious photographing of the twenty-thirty vultures provided just one other griffon that had readable tags – “T93”, who was surprisingly born and transplanted from Catalonia, and released in the Golan in 2019.

Griffon vultures at the feeding station

Griffon vultures at the feeding station

As mentioned, the feeding station across the wadi took a lot of my focus, as I attempted to photograph everything that moved at that great distance – hoping to catch some Egyptian vultures and common ravens. Only the latter made an appearance, which provided some excitement to the already exciting time we were having. Another winged creature was spotted standing atop of an old cow carcass – a lone cattle egret, perhaps mourning his namesake. It suddenly dawned on me that this is the feeding station that is live-streamed on YouTube, highlights of which I had watched here and there in recent years (see HERE for more). I quickly pulled out my phone and found the ongoing live-stream, hoping that there’d be something exciting happening on-screen. Alas, just the mopey cattle egret graced my screen, but I thought the concurrent watching of the station – both in person and online – to be too eventful not to share.

Screenshot of Vulture Feeding Station 1 courtesy of Charter Group Birdcams

Screenshot of Vulture Feeding Station 1 courtesy of Charter Group Birdcams

We watched the vultures soar, land and take off until we figured that it was time to move on with our day. I was sad that no free-flying Egyptian vultures were seen, but the sheer quantity of griffon vultures was so unexpected that I felt more than pleased with what we had seen. We made our way back out of the park, hitching a quick ride to the main road before heading over to the adjacent Haifa University to get our bus. As we began the journey back down Mount Carmel and towards our target train station, we watched the novel and not-yet-opened cable car system that looks quite enjoyable as a means of public transportation. It’s slated to open to the public in October, so we have to be patient until we can ride the great swinging orbs up and down the famed mountain of old. Thus ended our trip to the fascinating Hai Bar Carmel, where nature gets a second chance – and we get to watch.

Museum of Natural History

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on September 1, 2021 at 8:20 AM

In the beginning of July, shortly after the semester ended, Bracha and I went on a short trip to Tel Aviv to visit the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. This museum was opened just a few short years ago, and houses the country’s largest collection of flora and fauna, as well as an impressive collection of archaeological remains as part of a human history section. Ever since the iconic structure was built – shaped symbolically like Noah’s ark – I had been looking forward to a visit. Now, accompanied by Bracha, I was able to finally see the long-awaited natural treasures within the giant boat building.

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The museum is divided into some nine permanent exhibitions, of which two were my favourites – which I shall make note of in due time. Immediately upon entrance, our eyes delighted with the sight of scores of soaring birds, representing the great bird migration which takes place here in Israel biannually – in the spring and autumn seasons. These taxidermy birds dangled overhead, in a long curved line, ranked in order of size.

Picking out my favourite raptor

Picking out my favourite raptor

I must confess, it was a tad challenging identifying some of the birds as they were far closer than I’d even see them in the wild – and occasionally, taxidermists inadvertently manipulate the appearance of the model, distorting the natural look. That being said, it was a charming game trying to distinguish between the various eagles, buzzards and honey buzzards.

Habitat dioramas

Habitat dioramas

Another exhibition which was visible in the entrance hall was named “Israel’s Landscapes”, and consisted of a series of dioramas of different Israeli ecosystems. This exhibit was one of my two favourites, and I marveled at examining each and every preserved mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and bug that found themselves representing their brethren out there in the wild. Having explored a great deal of different ecosystems in Israel, it was exciting to see which animals were represented – and like the exhibit before, we played the identification game. Bracha was able to show off her knowledge as she named a good number of animals and birds that she has grown acquainted with in recent years.

Desert habitat diorama

Desert habitat diorama

We progressed to the next floor, where we found the large “Form and Function” exhibit, showcasing the different skeletal forms of various animals. As one might suspect, each animal has a skeletal structure that allows it to perform its best in its given environment, while meeting its specific needs. One taxidermy model which really entertained us was a stuffed caracal leaping up, as they do, to catch a fleeing black francolin. Other exciting specimens included a dolphin skeleton, a stuffed albatross, and a stuffed bee-eater, one of Bracha’s favourite birds – and rightly so.

The caracal's eternal leap

The caracal’s eternal leap

The next room was a step forward in modernity, with a state-of-the-art model of Israel with designated interactive sensor pads that begged to be pressed. Giving in to our curiosity, we moved around the giant table, activating the sensors to receive artistically-delivered information. With each palm-print, a different section of the country – representing different ecosystems – transitioned from the pristine nature to what could be if the human footprint is unchecked.

Interactive map of Israel

Interactive map of Israel

We watched as the area of Nachal Taninim, once a lush wetlands populated by Nile crocodiles, slowly morphed into the place that it is today. Likewise, the whole Tel Aviv region, the deserts, forests and seas, each adversely affected by the presence of man.

A glimpse into the past

A glimpse into the past

After that reflective moment, we gazed deep into the glassy eyes of two species that have since gone extinct in Israel – the lion, and the Syrian brown bear. Interestingly enough, it was during the Crusader period – the time period of my academic pursuits – that the lion was locally hunted into extinction. Perched behind the stuffed bear were two avian species with disapproval stamped on their faces – the bearded vulture (or lammergeier) and the brown fish owl. The owl was reported centuries ago in Nachal Kziv and in other water sources in the north, while the vulture has been reduced from a breeding local to a rare visitor.

Syrian brown bear

Syrian brown bear

From there we moved on towards a series of multimedia exhibitions about our human footprint on the nature around us, and then on to a more wholesome display. This featured an acacia tree, native of the arid desert, and an array of animals that live in and around this low tree. As to be expected, there were a nice handful of mammals and birds – such as the Arabian wolf, gazelle, Arabian babbler, bee-eater and more. I really appreciated seeing the impressive lappet-faced vulture represented in the diorama, especially since one was found in the desert back in April, perched atop what could very well be an acacia tree (see photos HERE).

Life around the acacia tree

Life around the acacia tree

Moving along, the next bit was about nature’s scavengers which included the vulture species in Israel – the Griffon, Egyptian and occasional black, or cinereous vultures – as well as striped hyenas and ravens. There’s something so exciting about scavengers, rank odours aside, so I really appreciated being able to see stuffed versions from such a close, and intimate distance. One day it would be a real treat to be able to visit the desert feeding station near Sde Boker where the National Parks Authority provides safe carrion for these magnificent creatures (see some astounding footage HERE).

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

The next exhibition was another of my favourites, titled “Treasures of the Collections”, including the historical taxidermy collection of zoologist Ernst Johann Schmitz who moved to the Holy Land in 1908. This assortment of stuffed animals, presented in a well-appointed, if ludicrously overfilled, red-painted study amazed me to no end. Thankfully, there was a small interactive screen where more in-depth information could be accessed about specific specimens. The leopard on display was collected in 1910 in Beit Horon, not far from where Bracha’s folks live, and was, in fact, the last wild leopard to be hunted in the mountains of the Jerusalem area.

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

While the Schmitz collection did keep me occupied for a while, there were also other fine taxidermised specimens to be examined. We walked around the open displays, eyeing a wide range of animals from deer and large cats all the way to beetles and butterflies. It would take an exceptionally long time to retell all of the goodness that is this fascinating exhibit, so just a few select bits – those that caught my eye – shall be represented here. Firstly, I was enthralled by the simple, yet relatable, display of chukar partridges, portraying the subtle plumage differences between chukars found in the desert areas, to those found in the more wooded Mediterranean areas.

Fossilised ostrich egg

Fossilised ostrich egg

Next, an approximately 5,000 year old ostrich egg, fossilised over time and found in archaeological excavations at Tel Baruch. Lastly, a spotlight on the endemic Yarkon bream, a species of freshwater fish that nearly went extinct. It was the researchers involved in this museum which ran the breeding and reintroduction program to repopulate the Yarkon River and other streams in the area. I remember reading about the fish when I visited the Yarkon National Park, so here was an exciting window into the background of this fishy success story.

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

It was at the end of this exhibition that we took the chance to step out onto the balcony, a nice patio that overlooks Tel Aviv and, in the foreground, its Zoological Research Institute. We relaxed in the shade of the ark’s upper floors and happened to see a nice sprinkling of birds fly past, including ibises, egrets and a lone sparrowhawk. Back inside, we took the elevator up to the fourth floor where we embarked on a tour of what makes us human. It began with an eye-pleasing depiction of human diversity, a photographic project titled “Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass. In this clever depiction of humanity, she matched the solid background of each snapshot with the precise colour palette shade of the subject’s skin.

''Humanæ'' by artist Angelica Dass

”Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass

The transition of humanity and the era of early tools were subjects familiar to me from several classes on prehistory and flint tools. I was pleased to see that the museum portrayed the knapped stone hand tools in such an artistic way, which helped me enjoy what I’d ordinarily say is the least interesting time period of archaeology. Bracha then found a fun game to play where one spins a wooden dowel faster and faster in order to create a successful fire on the screen. This mimicry of fire-starting the old-fashioned way was fun, and a whole lot easier than doing it in real life.

Tools of the early humans

Tools of the early humans

Another game featured symbolism and what we, as the visitor-player, interprets each to be (i.e. the dove as a symbol of peace). Yet another version of this game, focusing on human facial expressions, was also fun and we scored similarly (545 vs 518). Moving along, we marveled at ancient chickpeas and other fun grains, before examining some interesting human bones that were displayed to show how anthropologic researchers learn more about individuals and societies of the past.

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

Finished with the museum, we headed downstairs and had a brief peek at the gift shop before continuing outside for some fresh air and chuckles at the animal-themed caricature exhibition outside. There we found witty cartoons of the animal world, some of which really tickled our fancy. It was with a smile that we bid farewell to the mighty ark and boarded a bus for central Tel Aviv.

Sunset at the beach

Sunset at the beach

We had a nice dinner at La Lasagna, a popular lasagna restaurant on Dizengoff street, before heading over to the beach to watch the sunset. The sinking sun painted the sky in the most vibrant shades of red before plunging our world into relative darkness. In true Anthropocene form, it was the intense wattage of Tel Aviv – the concurrent human footprint in the otherwise stark nychthemeron pattern – that illuminated our surroundings and made us extra mindful of our presence on this planet that we call home.

Qaqun

In Coastal Plain, Israel on August 24, 2021 at 2:41 PM

In the beginning of June I was fortunate to embark on yet another adventure with my friend Avner Touitou, fellow Medievalist and MA student at BIU. Following our theme of visiting lesser-known Crusader sites, such as Khirbet Luza, Ashdod Sea Fortress, Le Destroit and others, this trip focused on the old Crusader ruins of Qaqun. Yet, after Avner picked me up from a pre-designated junction, we had a few places to visit before we made our way to the ruined castle.

Qaqun fortress

Qaqun fortress

Our first destination was Nachal Alexander, which I already visited in 2018 and 2019, but this was Avner’s first time. We took a temporarily redirected route along the Israel National Trail from the mouth of the stream towards 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. From there we continued on to Mikhmoret, a coastal moshav, where we enjoyed the warm waters of the Mediterranean. From there we headed to get lunch at the chic Haoeh Bacafe café, in Kfar Haroeh, a moshav named after the late Rabbi Kook of religious-Zionist fame.

Having a bit of lunch

Having a bit of lunch (photo Avner Touitou)

After some artisanal pizza and iced coffee with ice cream we gathered ourselves up and made our way to the star destination of the day, the Crusader ruins of Qaqun. Upon parking, we made note of a large war memorial dedicated to the 1948 battle for Qaqun. The Alexandroni Brigade attacked, conquered and then held off a small army of approximately 200 local Arab troops, as well as Iraqi tanks and infantry. It was a bloody battle; it was the greatest Iraqi loss in the war, and sixteen Israeli soldiers were killed as well. We read the story as inscribed on the memorial stone, paid our respects and then began our ascent of the fortress-crowned hill.

The Battle for Qaqun monument

The Battle for Qaqun monument

The first structure we came across was what is believed to have been a mosque, a two-story stone building which was built where a church once stood. Inside, we found a nice square room complete with a mihrab, a prayer niche in the wall facing Mecca, and three smaller niches of unknown purposes. A fruit bat skeleton and a lone grasshopper – which posed beautifully for me in the dark room – were the only other life forms of interest within the structure. With the main attraction up ahead, we climbed out of the mosque ruins and made our way to the fortress just a few dozen metres away, passing a buzzing beehive tucked into a recess in the ashlar wall.

Peering into the church/mosque

Peering into the church/mosque

Aided by the excellent, if brief, overview of the fortress from Pringle’s fantastic handbook entitled Secular Buildings in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, we digested the relatively brief history of Qaqun. While remains from earlier periods have been found on-site, the Crusader fortress was first mentioned in 1123, and then referenced again in 1253 as being controlled by the lord of Caesarea. Just twelve years later it was conquered and refortified by Baibars, of Mamluk fame.

A calm grasshopper within the ruined church/mosque

A calm grasshopper within the ruined church/mosque

A subsequent attempt to recapture it by King Hugh of Cyprus and Prince Edward of England failed, and the fortress remained in Mamluk hands, becoming a regional headquarters to replace the role of nearby Caesarea. The exceptional and trustworthy BibleWalks website shed more light on the later history, stating that Qaqun was the site of a desperate battle between the defending Ottomans and the French military expedition under Napoleon in 1799, which resulted in a French victory. The fortress saw violence and destruction again in 1834 when a local uprising was quelled by the Egyptian Governor Ibrahim Pasha.

Fine Crusader masonry

Fine Crusader masonry

Most recently, the site was surveyed in 1983 by the aforementioned Pringle, and then, in 2007, the Israel Antiquities Authority (or, IAA) launched a conservation project to clean up and somewhat reconstruct the fallen ruins. Naturally, Avner and I fantasized about excavating the fortress ourselves, and we discussed where we would start and what we thought we might find where. But first, before we entered the impressive stone structure, on a wood platform that overlooked the green fields to the east, there was another sign about the 1948 battle with a more in-depth look at the fallen Israeli soldiers.

Remains of the fortress' outer walls

Remains of the fortress’ outer walls

Turning to the ruins, we entered the fortress via a narrow opening in the thick stone walls. Within, we found an overgrown “secret garden” scenario, where the ruins themselves were often hard to see. We scoured the inner chambers, and wondered out loud what lies buried deep below the surface buildup. The two-story interior had been reduced to one uneven layer, but the tops of the arched rooms below still showed, offering glimpses to hidden and long-forgotten chambers filled with decades, and even centuries, of dirt.

Within the ruined fortress

Within the ruined fortress

One notable addition to the sturdy stone construction was a ceramic pipe connecting between the two floors. According to BibleWalks, this pipe served as an archaic telephone of sorts – providing a way for people within the fortress to communicate with each other in an easier, more efficient way. I wonder if the ceramic pipes in Montfort Castle, another Crusader ruin, were installed for the same purpose. At any rate, we continued on through the interior and exited via a small staircase that took us to the outside, this time at the north side of the building. We found that the entire western side of the fortress – a series of large vaulted rooms – was a relatively inaccessible mess of displaced stone blocks and more overgrown vegetation.

The western side of the fortress

The western side of the fortress

With that our tour of Qaqun was essentially over, so we headed back down the hill to Avner’s parked car. Scouting the area around us, we briefly contemplated making a quick detour to check out the lone standing Crusader fortress wall at Khirbet Bergth (or, Bourgata), but decided not to due to the developing traffic on the main roads. So, we made our way back down to our respective homes, bringing an end to yet another successful Crusader-themed adventure with Avner Touitou.