Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Mount Hevron Area

In Israel, Judea on December 9, 2018 at 6:31 AM

The other week I participated in the annual two-day hiking trip (known as the “Campushetach”) provided by my Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University. Geared towards relatively fit hikers, this trip takes a rugged approach to geography, history and archaeology and is offered to both students and staff of the department. Last year we spent two days in the Wadi Qelt area (posts I and II), and this year we spent the two days in two different places: the first day in the Mount Hevron area, and the second day at Nachal Kina in the Negev.

Starting off the trip with a grand view

The first day began at BIU where the majority of us boarded a tour bus to be taken to the Mount Hevron area, making a few stops on the way to pick up the other trip members. We drove through the Judean Lowlands, spotting some gazelles on the side of the road, and then entered Judea. We passed by Hevron and had our first real stop at a site called Nabi Yakin, home to a burial cave and Muslim maqam (shrine), as Dr Dvir Raviv gave us the trip’s introductory talk.

Maqam of Nabi Yakin

The maqam, known as Nabi Yakin, was built to house a pair of “footprints” in the bedrock, which, according to Muslim belief, belong to the patriarch Abraham. Outside the maqam, surrounded by stones, is another pair of “footprints” that are associated with Lot. A quick visit inside the burial cave revealed a whole lot of collapsed rock and a lone Sinai fan-fingered gecko that was hiding out near the painted gate. Back outside, blossoming Steven’s meadow saffrons dotted the ground here and there.

Steven’s meadow saffron

Our next stop was to the yishuv Ma’ale Hever where we enjoyed the lookout and had breakfast. F-16 fighter jets screamed in the skies overhead, dropping flares as they engaged in exercise maneuvers. From the yishuv we drove over to Tel Zif, where we had a short walk to some recently excavated Roman ruins.

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise

There was also some interesting wildlife to be seen, including some ravens flying in the distance, a flock of woodlarks, a baby tortoise and my very first Ameles heldreichi praying mantis. In addition, a nice bunch of Crocus pallasii was flowering and providing nectar for a hungry honeybee.

Crocus pallasii

The ruins at Tel Zif are quite fascinating, with the Classical architecture of fine masonry with a fancy tiled floor and carven columns. Heading back to the bus after some final photographs, we were then driven to the access road to Tel Ma’on. We disembarked and began the walk to the tel, where we were to enjoy the views and the site of an ancient synagogue dated to the Roman era.

Ruins at Tel Zif

Accompanied by a trio of soldiers, we entered the Arab settlements and passed plowed fields and ancient water cisterns. One of the cisterns we passed is still in-use, with a couple local children standing over it and the nearby sign of rehabilitation on behalf of the Canadian government. At one point up the slope, someone noticed an interesting flower – identified as a Tuvia’s autumn crocus, and then my friend Adam captured my attention.

Common northern raven chasing a long-legged buzzard

Off to the east there were two large shapes flying through the air. Seeing the rear one relatively clearly, I assumed the other to be the same species – a common northern raven. Only with the help of my camera’s 83x zoom was I able to get a series of photos which showed me that the raven was chasing (or mobbing, as it is known) a long-legged buzzard. Up at the lookout atop the tel there were more interesting birds, including a male black redstart who lingered in the nearby trees, giving us quite the show.

Judean landcape from Tel Ma’on

On the north side of the tel, just below the top, we came across the ruins of the ancient synagogue. There wasn’t too much to see but the remains of a few walls and a partially collapsed escape tunnel/chamber dug out of the bedrock. Continuing back down the slope via the western side, we amassed a large number of curious local Arab children who began to follow us on our way out. Another set of ruins, this time larger walls of well-dressed ashlars, intrigued us, but unfortunately we were on a tight schedule and didn’t stop.

Tel Ma’on ruins

Back on and then off the bus, we stopped at the yishuv Susiya for lunch and a break, and then back to the bus to be driven to Mount Amasa. For the past year or so I’ve wanted to visit Mount Amasa, largely due to a video I saw of it filmed by Amir Balaban (see HERE). Last winter a Persian wheatear, a rare bird for Israel, had been spotted and scores of birders sojourned to Mount Amasa to see it. This year it returned, and while the excitement has died down, I thought it’d be fun to spot it. Alas, no Persian wheatear was spotted, but a great number of other interesting birds were.

Group photo on Mount Amasa

From the very moment we stepped onto the trail, part of an ancient Roman road, Adam and I saw birds everywhere. There were stonechats, wheatears, chukars and crested larks galore, and it was hard to keep up with the group’s unconcerned progress. At the peak of Mount Amasa, a very gently-sloped mountain, we were gifted with an incredible view of the Arad Valley below us.

Walking the Mount Amasa trail at sunset

After hearing from a couple of the lecturers we began the long and slow descent towards Nachal Dragot. The sun began to sink behind the nearby ridge and the 6 kilometre long walk seemed to go on forever – which, in some ways was most excellent. It was a lovely hike and I look forward to returning one day and possibly even camping somewhere on the mountain.

Dusk at the quarry

Passing an enormous quarry on the western side of the slope, we at last reached the near bottom and then cut across to find our bus waiting faithfully for us on the access road. We boarded and made our way to Susiya, where we were to spend the night in a large, separated communal tent. Dinner was pizza and fresh soup made by the department’s patron Yehuda Mizrahi, and then we all enjoyed some relaxed social time. Friends Ben and Adam joined me on a small walk around the yishuv (where we saw a fox) and then got a bonfire going back at our home-base. Staying up a wee later than we should have, we eventually got into our sleeping bags and passed out, only to be woken up a few hours later for the second half of the annual “Campushetach”.

University Trip: Tel Megiddo & Tel Hazor

In Galilee, Israel on November 12, 2018 at 11:24 AM

Just over a week ago I took my first field trip of the year, offered by the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University where I am a student. This time we traveled to two ancient cities that were especially important during the Bronze and Iron eras: Tel Megiddo and Tel Hazor. Our guide for the day was Prof Aren Maeir, lecturer and director of the Tel es-Safi excavations.

Jezreel Valley east of Tel Megiddo

We set out early in the morning, with a busful of students including the frequently-featured Adam Ota and Ben Yablon, and arrived at Tel Megiddo in good time. Since I had already visited Tel Megiddo back in 2013 when I was in the army, I shall gloss over the background information about the important site. However, since my last visit was on a day of particularly hazy and unpleasant weather, I shall spruce this post up with some lovely new photographs.

Learning about Megiddo

Entering via the gift shop, we began the tour with a series of photographs, maps, and an interactive model that gave the proper historical background and geographical importance to ancient Megiddo. Moving on outside, Adam and I kept a sharp eye out for interesting birds, as we knew that there was great birding opportunity. We were immediately rewarded for our efforts, with some redstarts and a juvenile marsh harrier soaring overhead. Nearly immediately thereafter, as we congregated at the Canaanite city gate, a handful of black kites appeared above us.

Black kite above me

As we toured the northern side of the tel, we saw a handful of common cranes, more black kites and a lesser spotted eagle. We moved from the Israelite gate to the palace and then on to the temple area with the famous round altar. Far off in the distance, near the Megiddo Airport, Ben found a flock of grazing cranes with the aid of my new 83x zoom camera. Heading on our way from the silo to the southern palace and stables, we heard more from Prof Maeir but were promptly distracted by an aerial dogfight happening overhead between a pair of common kestrels and a black kite.

Black kite and common kestrel in an aerial dogfight

That distraction, coupled with more birds in the air including a trio of cranes, allowed our fellow students to enjoy the natural world as well as the mysteries of the past. From the stables we headed to the underground water system, excavated to tap into a freshwater source to provide access to the city without needing to leave the safety of the walls. Within the damp tunnel we learned more about the water system, and then climbed out the far end to make our way to our waiting bus.

Looking at Megiddo’s temple area

An hour or so later we arrived at Tel Hazor, located in the Hula Valley region way up north. I had visited the site back in my first years of living in Israel, before starting this blog, and then tried to visit again back when I was in the army. Unfortunately, in a freakish turn of events, that trip ended in disaster when I was attacked by two dogs belonging to the mustachioed park ranger who was manning the front office. I managed to get bitten only once, on the back of my right thigh, and to this day I still have a welt there. Definitely an interesting story to tell over, even if reminiscing with that park ranger didn’t happen on this trip (I had found out that he recently retired).

Ruins of Hazor

Our group entered the national park and began the tour after a short break for lunch. Despite being a shorter tel than Tel Megiddo and commanding a slightly less impressive view, there was something quite pleasing about the hilly terrain around us and its colour gradations of green and brown. Joining us from a safe distance were a handful of song birds including white wagtails, stonechats and a lone redstart. Prof Maeir began the lecturing at the meeting point between the upper and lower cities, educating us about Hazor’s layout over the millenia.

The ”Lower City” of Hazor

Biblically famous as being the defeated Canaanite capital city during the period when the Israelites entered the Holy Land, Hazor was already an important city hundreds of years prior. Hundreds of years later Hazor made another biblical appearance, and destroyed once again. Under Israelite control the city continued to flourish and expand, yet was prey to the ravages of several foreign conquerors, including Assyrian kings Shalmaneser III and Tiglath-Pileser III, as well as Aramean king Hazael. Abandoned over two thousand years ago, parts of Tel Hazor have since been excavated over and over beginning in 1875.

Hazor’s water system

We entered the city ruins by way of the chambered Israelite gate, and sat down in the covered Canaanite palace. There were more birds to be seen, including black kites and a sparrowhawk, but under the palace’s modern roof we were relieved of nature’s distractions. Continuing westward, we examined more of the excavated ruins including a storage house and an olive press until we reached the Israelite citadel at the western end of the tel. There we enjoyed the view and the breeze in the company of a large rusted metal warrior, and made our way back towards the centre of the city.

Standing guard

Our final stop of the day was to the water system, yet another fascinating engineering feat to supply fresh water to the city’s inhabitants. When we were done learning about the system we climbed back out of the deep tunnel and pit and made our way to our waiting bus. Leaving Tel Hazor I had just a short ride to the city of Hazor where I took public buses home to Ma’alot for the weekend while the rest of the group continued on south back to Bar Ilan University. Thus ended the first of hopefully many field trips of this final year of my BA degree.

Tel Dor Archaeological Dig

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 4, 2018 at 9:37 AM

Harkening back to the warmer days of summer, this post chronologically follows the one-post summary of the month-long excavation season at Tel es-Safi. Finished with the Bar Ilan University dig, the members parted ways – some to see each other again next year, and some not. I was beginning the period of summer exams at BIU, which is always a dreary two months, so when the opportunity to attend the Tel Dor Archaeological Dig presented itself, I was quite excited to join.

Tel Dor (photo Department of Archeology at the University of Haifa)

My brother Nissim had excavated the previous year at Tel Kabri, and this year found himself attached to the Tel Dor crew, so I had yet another reason to attend. Joining me on this day of volunteering was Rebecca Zami, a two-year veteran of Tel es-Safi, who had just finished up a week of lab research at BIU. We set out in the early morning from Givat Shmuel and made our way north by way of public transportation. Nissim and a staff member found us at the junction closest to Tel Dor, and we made a quick stop at the Mizgaga Museum for some supplies before heading to the tel.

Ancient temple beside the dig site

I had already visited Tel Dor a couple time before, but each time I’m taken aback by the great beauty of the ancient site. To see the excavated ruins on the hilly ground overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea is delightful. As such, I was eager to get more acquainted with the city, and the ongoing archaeological excavations. Rebecca and I presented ourselves to Alex and the rest of the on-site senior staff, a blend of representatives from Hebrew University, Haifa University and Boston University. During breakfast, we received from field supervisor Alex of BU a quick overview of the site, the area we were to be digging in and the people involved.

Ancient ruins of Tel Dor

Our first task, after getting our gloves on and equipping ourselves with the necessary tools for the job, was to clear away a “robber’s trench” beside a Classical column base (which the team dubbed “Colin”). Just to elaborate, a “robber’s trench” is a void in a wall where the original stones were removed from, not quite as exciting as it might have sounded. We were introduced to the junior staff member attached to this area and began the task at hand. After a month at Tel es-Safi’s Area Y, where we found barely any pottery, it was exciting to find large sherds just hiding centimetres below the visible layer of dirt.

Getting ready to excavate the robber’s trench

Rebecca and I scraped and scraped at the loose brown earth, filling up buckets of both pottery and dirt. We had even found some shell fragments and a few plain tessera (small cubed mosaic stones), but nothing too exciting. Before long some more volunteers showed up, and we were re-purposed to a more physically demanding task. There was a monumental Hellenistic wall complete with a surviving edge of thick plaster that had been built up during the Roman period. Due to the fact that the Roman addition was situationally unimportant, we were tasked to remove the stack of dirt-lined stones that composed the later wall piece.

Nissim working on the Roman wall

This job seemed more exciting, and after just a few minutes we realised that it truly was. We scraped the dirt from between the stones, loosening them as well as revealing tons of potsherds, and then extracted the stones for Nissim to carry off to a dumping pile. While potsherds are generally the most common find for archaeologists, we had gone so long without finding much that each piece found in this Roman wall was cause for excitement. To make it even better, there was even sherds of interesting typologies to be found, such as Eastern Sigilata A and black-figure attic ware.

Black-figure sherd

Working hard on the wall justified a quick trip to the other area under excavation when dig co-director Prof Assaf Yasur-Landau came by with a small group of dig members. I had met Assaf at Tel Kabri the previous year, but this year he was heading up the underwater excavations at Tel Dor – a truly exciting-sounding endeavour. We caught up with him just as he was leading his dive crew on a tour of the excavation just a couple metres to the west of us. This was the site of the Crusader fortress Merle, whose meagre remains had never been fully excavated. Due to my interest in Crusader archaeology, it was quick fascinating to see the excavated progress made on the ancient fortress – something I look forward to seeing in its published form.

Merle fortress under excavation

Rejuvenated from our little informative break with Prof Yasur-Landau, we returned to our south-facing wall and continued to work on the Roman stones. For those excited by the natural world, we found several murex shells, used for thousands of years to produce the finest dyes. To this day there are researchers (including Prof Zohar Amar of BIU) who seek to unlock all the secrets of this ancient dye methodology, and a room dedicated to it in the aforementioned Mizgaga Museum. Dor was one of the principal sites for this dye production, especially during the years of Phoenician rule (Dor was their southernmost city). Unfortunately, none of the murex shells that we found we intact enough to warrant preservation, but they were still exciting to find.

Hellenistic monumental building in the left foreground

Just after noon, when we were coming down on the stubborn lower levels of stones in the wall, we were told that it was time to quit. There were scores of dirt buckets to be emptied and loads of tools to be stowed away. It was sad not being able to finish clearing the Roman wall, but it was getting quite hot out with the midday sun beaming down upon us. We collectively emptied the buckets, stowed the tools and parted ways. My brother was leaving with the rest of the crew, so Rebecca and I took off on our own and walked the scenic way to the museum.

Yours truly

An hour or so later we started heading back to Givat Shmuel, stopping off at the southern edge of Haifa for lunch before boarding the south-bound train. It was a long day, but a very exciting one, and I’m very thankful to have gotten the opportunity to excavate such a cool site. I wonder what next year will have in store…

Rebecca pointing to the dig site as we left

For more information on the Tel Dor Archaeological Dig, check out their site HERE.