Israel's Good Name

Beit ‘Itab

In Israel, Judea on November 30, 2021 at 4:08 PM

In the beginning of October, I embarked on yet another Crusader ruins-themed adventure with my friend Avner Touitou, this particular trip highlighting the lesser-known fortified manor called Beit ‘Itab located in the mountains between Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. The name itself actually belongs to the village that existed before, during and after the fortress, as the estate’s name was not preserved (to the best of my knowledge). It was believed to have belonged to Crusader knight Johannes Gothman, who owned nice properties in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and who was later captured and had his land sold by his wife to pay for his ransom. Avner and I had encountered this Johannes when researching manuscripts, and his name had rung a bell because he was believed to have owned the fortified manor of Khirbet Luza, a site we had visited back in December of 2019.

The ruins of Beit 'Itab

The ruins of Beit ‘Itab

Our journey to Beit ‘Itab began in the early morning with a drive out of the urban centre of the country and into the scenic mountain roads which brought us to oddly-named USA Independence Park, where we found a little lot to leave the car. Leaving the shade of the Greek strawberry tree, we started down the Beit ‘Itab trail with its picturesque mountain views and signage that pointed us in the right direction.

Setting out on the scenic trail

Setting out on the scenic trail

We passed a few vineyards along the rocky terra rossa road, seeing not much other than one or two shrikes. Suddenly, I stopped Avner in his tracks and took some quick photos of a beautiful female semi-collared flycatcher which we had caught unawares. She flew up and we continued down to the natural spring system of Ein Hod, which marks the lower end of the archaeologically interesting part of our adventure.

Semi-collared flycatcher on a gnarly fence wire

Semi-collared flycatcher on a gnarly fence wire

Shaded from the morning sun by oaks and a particularly gnarly fig tree, we examined the constructed spring pool and channel, built sometime in antiquity. We were far too excited to see the fortress ruins, so we hurriedly continued on the trail, pausing only briefly as a cacophony of throaty bird calls were heard, followed by a sleek sparrowhawk which apparently failed a sneak attack on some unsuspecting prey-to-be. The trail up the slope was rough and flanked with loads of cactus plants, threatening to puncture us as we plodded upwards. At last, the fortress came into view as we approached it from the northeast.

The springs of Ein Hod

The springs of Ein Hod

There was a dry moat of sorts which prevented us from entering the ruins willy-nilly, so we continued on the trail to the southern side where the official entrance is. Great views of the coastal region made it immediately clear to us why one would build on such a hill, although lugging water up the slope must have been exhausting work. The manor of Beit ‘Itab was renovated and added to during the later Ottoman period, so it was a bit of a challenge for us discerning what belonged to our period of interest, and what was “modern”.

Looking into the vaulted chamber

Looking into the vaulted chamber

Upon entry we embarked on a circular tour of the site, starting with a crudely built vaulted chamber of unknown purposes. The fortified manor was, in essence, a rectangular enclosure of buildings that ultimately formed a secure courtyard. We exited via the other side of the vaulted chamber and began walking along the semi-ruined western walls in the direction of the Ottoman building which was erected in the middle of the courtyard. We could plainly see that there were different stages of development in many sections of the ruins, and even the materials and quarrying efforts varied from here to there.

Admiring the arches

Admiring the arches

As we attempted to unravel some of these mysteries, we enjoyed the simple pleasures of appreciating the architecture and craftsmanship that went into building this remote fortress. A narrow staircase on the northern end of the ruins excited us temporarily, as we were also looking for the upper semi-collapsed entrance of an enigmatic escape tunnel that was carved through the mountain side, ending in a columbarium near the springs below. Alas, it was not the tunnel, and we continued on, treading carefully along the overgrown walls flanked by sumac and palm trees.

Sneaking into the columbarium cave

Sneaking into the columbarium cave

The eastern side proved to be the least interesting, and we made it back to the southern gate without having spotted the tunnel entrance – perhaps it was overgrown with vegetation. We had our final looks at the ruins from atop the vaulted chamber’s roof and then began the hike back down the slope in search of the lower tunnel entrance. This too proved to be a difficult task, and time was ticking away rapidly. We found a tiny cave, but not the right cave, yet it was the thread that unraveled into the proverbial ball of yarn. Scrambling uphill, we then found a promising looking cave with a warning sign outside. We had found the lower entrance, so we quickly nipped inside.

The joy of finding the secret tunnel

The joy of finding the secret tunnel

The cave itself was small, and was used at some point as a sparsely-populated columbarium, relegated now to the usage of wild animals. A pile of fresh porcupine droppings intrigued us, yet no porcupine was to be seen. There was no time to actually enter the tunnel, no matter how much we wanted to, so we gathered ourselves and scooted back out. We hiked back to the car quickly, pleased with what we had found, yet full of wonder as to the lore of this once-majestic manor which had commanded the local village and surrounding lands.

NB I have opened a new blog – Israel’s Good Bird – dedicated just to my birding trips. These posts are written more as a cursory summary with additional important information, as well as obligatory pictures. Feel free to check it out, and subscribe if it interests you!

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.