Israel's Good Name

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.

University Trip: Carmel Region

In Coastal Plain, Haifa, Israel on July 1, 2018 at 10:59 AM

A month ago I joined fellow students and faculty members of my department in Bar Ilan University for a two-day trip to the Carmel region. Similar to our trip to the Wadi Qelt region, this involved the effort and participation of the whole department, with just a lot less hiking. Our trip began at the campus where we boarded our tour bus and set out on the road. The first stop of the day was Nachal Alexander to learn about the African softshell turtles with Dr Moshe Natan, as some of us had done several weeks prior on our trip to Bet Shean Valley and Agamon Hefer.

Ramat HaNadiv nature

From there we drove to see some Egyptian fruit bats and then to Ramat HaNadiv, a fancy gardens which are home to the remains of the Baron and his wife Rothschild. However, we did not enter the fancy gardens, but instead found a dirt path that led us into the wilderness. There, surrounded by interesting plants, bee-eaters and noisy cicadas, we came upon the first structure of the Horvat Eleq ruins. We sat in the shade of the vaulted structure and listened to a series of short lectures by faculty members such as Prof Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman and Dr Amit Dagan on the history of the region.

Operating the drone

Moving onward, we came across more ruins, these being a large fortified palace from the early Roman era, which were explained to us by Dr Avner Ecker. Just a short distance away we found the ancient columbarium, a circular tower from the Roman era that housed thousands of pigeons and doves. Outside the columbarium my friend Eitan found a piece of a Ottoman-age tobacco pipe, always a fun find.

Piece of an Ottoman pipe

Just below the columbarium there is a cave with an underground spring gushing forth clear water. During the Roman era an aqueduct was built to channel the water out from the cave and into a large rectangular pool. We admired the curious little aqueduct and then entered the cave, where we found ancient masonry and, towards the end, a modern metal gate blocking further progress.

Aqueduct and spring cave

Beyond the pools we found the remains of a Roman bathhouse, a rather small one in comparison to the others found in Israel. When we had satisfied ourselves with looking at the frigidarium (cold water room), the tepidarium (passage between cold and hot rooms) and the caldarium (hot water room), we had a lunch picnic in the shade of the nearby trees. Songbirds and a gently flowing stream added to the tranquility of the setting, making it hard for us to leave.

One of the smaller pools

There was still much more to see so we got up and hiked our way out of the wilderness, where our bus was waiting to take us to the next site. We drove over to Nachal Me’arot, to look at the famous Carmel Caves that contributed so much to prehistoric archaeology. Our resident prehistorian, Dr Nira Alperson-Afil, lectured us on the importance of the four caves where findings such as burials, tools and dwelling structures from a variety of prehistoric periods were made.

Carmel Caves

We hiked up the slope towards the first of the caves, the chimney-shaped Tabun Cave where levels of sediment amassed over the thousands of years, trapping prehistoric remains in the layers. Archaeological excavations began in 1927 and continue to uncover integral information of prehistoric cultures. Next we examined the Gamal Cave with its artistic representation of a prehistoric scene, complete with a model man and woman, stretched out pelts and more. The next cave was my favourite, with its long colourfully-lit tunnel. Inside, at the end, we watched a short film about life in caves during prehistoric times. Finished with the caves, we made our way back down the mountainside and onto our bus to be shuttled off to the next site.

Within the Tabun Cave

Just a short drive away, the nature reserve of Dor HaBonim encompasses a stretch of coastal land comprised of a kurkar ridge with small sandy beaches here and there, and a number of interesting things to see. Our trail began just outside of Shell Beach where I spent quite a few minutes birding. All that I could come up with was a corn bunting, some crested larks and a handful of gulls.

HaBonim Beach

Back with the group, we listened to Dr Dvir Raviv and others talk about the geology and history of the area and then we moved on. The plan was to walk along the coast from HaBonim to Dor, where we’d be spending the night. The timing was perfect, as the sun was slowly setting, and we had a couple kilometres of walking to do. In certain places, unbeknownst to us, we encountered huge swarms of mosquitoes which drank heavily from our lifeblood.

Walking seaside

As we walked we came across several interesting areas, like the Sandy Cove and the Kurkar Quarry, each with their own geological or historical story. I kept my eyes out for interesting sea-going birds but saw nothing but gulls, and not even peculiar ones at that. There were some curious flowers, wild herbs and even a thistle mantis which posed most professionally.

Thistle mantis

Two hours after we began our tour of the coast we at last reached Tel Dor, famous in part for being the southern end of Phoenicia. There, standing near the excavated ruins of the ancient city, we listened to Prof Aren Maeir speak. At this point the sun was nearly set and we traipsed through the sands of Dor towards a distant restaurant where we’d be eating dinner that night, a rather delicious dinner at that.

Interesting beach

After dinner we were shown to our rooms, which were actually small domed structures that held a divided room, kitchenette and bathroom with shower in each. I shared my dome with two friends and woke up the next morning extra early to do some sea- and shorebird watching. Again, not much success as I mostly saw the standard Israeli gulls. After praying at the nearby synagogue I rejoined the group for breakfast at that same restaurant, a very satisfying experience.

Curious place to spend the night

The day’s tours began at the nearby Mizgaga Museum where we heard about the museum’s origin story and the history of the area from Dr Kobi Cohen-Hattab and Dr Avi Picard. With that we boarded our bus and were driven up Mount Carmel to pay a visit to the memorial for those killed in the terrible wildfire that ravaged the mountain in 2010. There, in the shade of the twisted metal structure, we heard from Dr Tamir Goren, another of the department’s experts in the modern era. We were then shuttled over to the trailhead of the Little Switzerland area trail, where we struck out at brisk pace through the mountainous woods. We stopped here and there along the way and eventually had a nice long break in the curve of a geological formation on the mountainside.

Trail through Mount Carmel’s forests

This time there were birds to be seen, and interesting ones at that, such as a pair of short-toed eagles calling to each other in flight, an Egyptian vulture and a Griffon vulture that stayed overhead long enough for the majority of the group to get a look. It wasn’t just birds that captured my attention, a pair of dung beetles were making their way down the trail, rolling a small ball of dung with them – something that I’ve never seen in person. Eventually, after about an hour and a half of humid hiking, we got back onto the air-conditioned bus to be taken to the nearby Druze village of Daliyat al-Carmel. There, feeling like a giant group of tourists, we scattered for some free time to shop, browse, eat and enjoy the sights. I was even able to get a few bites of kosher-certified baklawa from the best shop in town (or so they say), courtesy of Dr Amit Dagan.

View from the Louis Promenade

Reconvening, we walked through the Old City and listened to some short lectures outside of the Yad L’Banim building. Then, it was back to the bus and over to the heart of Haifa, to the Bahai Gardens themselves. We sat back and relaxed on stone steps after taking in the incredible panoramic view of the city, the bay and all that the eye can see of the Western Galilee. A couple more short lectures were given, including one by Prof Eyal Regev, and then the trip came to a close. It was hard to believe that this long and exciting trip would ever end, but it was getting late and people had to be places. So, we began the journey back to Bar Ilan University, feeling happily overwhelmed and satisfied with yet another incredible trip offered by our dear department.

University Trip: Northern Golan

In Golan, Israel on June 24, 2018 at 7:26 AM

A week after my two-day trip to the Golan, Bet Shean Valley and Agamon Hefer I took yet another university trip to the Golan. With so many Golan posts coming out in relative succession, it can be slightly confusing as to which is which. This post is the counterpart to the Southern Golan post, a further look at the geology and topography of the Golan as a region. Our guide was Mr Moty Rubinstein, an octogenarian lecturer in my department, and together we set out in the morning from the Bar Ilan University campus.

Group photo

We took a brief stop along Road 6, where members of our party sampled from the fruits of a ficus tree, inspiring an Indian tourist to follow suit much to our amusement. As we progressed further north, we began to see interesting birds from the tour bus windows. The frequently-mentioned Adam was present, so I had who to bird-talk with as we pointed out white storks and kestrels. Climbing into the Golan, via Road 91 towards the old customs house, we noticed several buzzards sitting on the boulders that dot the grassy land.

Otniel Shamir Memorial

Pulling into the tourist area of Katzrin, the so-called capital of the Golan, we learned about the basalt formations in nearby Nachal Meshushim, where hexagonal pillars of rock line a nicely sized pool – a popular destination for hikers. From there we drove a few minutes away to a memorial site outside of Moshav Kidmat Tzvi, dedicated to the memory of Captain Otniel Shamir, a fighter pilot who was shot down by the Syrians during the Six Day War.

Grasshopper on a lupine pod

After spending some time at the memorial, and learning more about the story behind it, we moved on, passing the ruins of Nafakh, and pulled over on the side of the road near the access road to Quneitra, a border city in the UNDOF Zone between Israel and Syria. These interesting roads are familiar to me from when I was a Safaron driver in the army; those were very interesting times. We disembarked at the side of the golden grassland and examined our topographical surroundings.

Golan landscape

From there we drove down Road 98 for a few minutes just to look at the giant wind turbines atop Mount Bnei Rasan, the object of contention between green energy activists and those focusing on the countless avian deaths caused by the spinning blades. Our guide pointed out the small hills dotting the relatively flat landscape, with several large ones making quite the change in topography.

Golan Volcanic Park

Turning back around, we headed up north a wee bit and stopped off at the Golan Volcanic Park at the foot of Mount Avital. There, we immediately saw some European rollers, their bright blue and orange plumage making them unmistakeable as they flew back and forth in front of us. Within minutes we realised that they are nesting in tunnels carved out of the porous volcanic rock walls. As we toured the site, examining the different types of volcanic rock and learning more about volcanic activity and its role in shaping the land around us, I got slightly distracted with the birds. First, some kestrels lured me away from my group and then a very vocal common whitethroat, a type of warbler, entranced me with his melodious song as he flew from bush to bush. Then, satisfied with my whitethroat experience, I noticed a pair of woodchat shrikes perched on a nearby fence, chasing away anything that approached, including a surprised Eurasian jay which made quite a hasty escape.

Mount Avital

When we finished with the park we drove up to Mount Avital and parked at a spot where we could get out and see the volcanic crater caused when the extinct volcano erupted ages ago. The green slopes were dotted with small trees and shrubs and the basin was occupied by a vineyard, whose story was related to us by our knowledgeable guide. The distinct call of the corn bunting filled our ears and another roller passed by overhead, nearly allowing me to get a decent photo.

View of Mount Avital from Mount Bental

Getting back into the bus we drove over to the neighbouring mountain to the north, Mount Bental. Famous for its bunkers, observation points and uniquely-named cafe, the mountain draws a large amount of tourists, so much so that there are actually signs on the peak written in Chinese. We stood at a nice vantage point next to the parking lot, looking out at Mount Avital and a destroyed rusty tank down below. After briefly looking out over the western side we made out way to the summit, 1165 metres above sea level. I bypassed the famous Coffee Anan, named after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and made my way to the observation point where tourists were gathered looking out over Syria.

Within the military bunkers

Having seen this sight a number of times over the past few years, I moved onto into the underground bunker complex, hoping in the offchance that there was an interesting bat or two not scared off by the visitors. All I found was a fly, but I took its picture as if it was the coolest thing in the world. Reemerging into daylight I found myself looking at two blue-capped UN officers. Recalling my times in the army, I decided it’d be fun to strike up a conversation.

UN observation post

The two officers, one Irish and one Australian, told me all about their service and their origins, enriching my knowledge. Adam joined me, grilled the officers with some of his own questions, and then we moved on. Our group was heading back down the mountain to the next site: the Big Joba.

View of Syria

Located in the Odom Forest just several kilometres north of Mount Bental, the Big Joba is the largest of a series of local geological features in the form of a concave dome. Hard to capture photographically, unless photographed aerially, the pit is 250 metres across and sixty metres deep. We walked a short paved trail through the trees until we reached the joba.

Looking at the Big Joba

Again, I had hoped to find some wildlife, but birding in the woods in quite challenging with all the trees and leaves, so I was prepared to give up after seeing just one interesting lizard. But then, as we were sitting at the edge of the joba, Adam motioned to me to look at the treeline above the crater. Sure enough, a steppe buzzard was wheeling his way upwards into the thermals and we were fortunate to catch him before he disappeared.

Birkat Ram

Getting back into our tour bus, we drove further north until we arrived at the Druze village of Mas’ade (not to be confused with the ruins of Masada) and Birkat Ram, a crater lake fed by an underwater spring and rainwater. We stood in a parking lot overlooking the nice blue lake and then something special caught my eye. Among the barn swallows perched on the nearby power lines were a handful of house martins – my first time seeing them!

House martin (photo Adam Ota)

Ending the trip on that high, at the foot of Mount Hermon, we got back into our bus for the long drive back to the university tired but happy and looking forward to the next adventurous trip.