Israel's Good Name

Khirbet Luza

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 29, 2020 at 8:45 AM

Continuing on with backlogged adventures, this post brings us to the mountains outside Jerusalem in the beginning of December. As part of our MA thesis project, friend and classmate Avner Touitou and I have been exploring our options. Being that we are both specialising in Crusader archaeology, we figured we’d best go out on a little adventure to hit up some lesser-known Crusader sites in the Jerusalem area.

Khirbet Luza

Avner picked me up in the morning and we drove over to our first destination, Khirbet Luza (or, al-Lawza), located not far from Moza. With a quick stop for coffee we made it to the nearest parking lot, at Arazim Valley Park, and continued on foot, all bundled up from the cold.

Join Avner on this adventure

Trying to keep pace, I scanned the nearby trees and vineyards in search of interesting birds and found a decent selection, including chaffinches, black redstarts and a whole lot of blackbirds.

Black redstart

As we walked, Avner pointed out a few gazelle on the slopes in front of us, and sure enough the trailside slopes had what to offer. It happened so quickly, and so very unexpectedly. I saw a head peering out from behind the rocky vegetation, and immediately, instinctively knew that it belonged to a striped hyena.

Striped hyena head popping up

I nearly shouted with excitement, and hurriedly took photographs as I explained to Avner where it was hiding. Sure enough, it decided to move on, giving us a few seconds of a really great wildlife encounter. I had seen only one definite hyena, at night when I was driving in the army, and then another possible sighting near Tel es-Safi, which I wrote about HERE.

…and on the move

On a high, I reluctantly carried on as we continued walking our way along the trail in the direction of Khirbet Luza. We passed hundreds of trees with beautiful autumn foliage, unmarked ruins and a sign announcing the location as being Enot Telem National Park – a collection of natural springs, which were most recently used by the British. At last, after passing Ein Luz spring, we found it, the unassuming multi-leveled ruins on the left slope of the wadi-trail.

British pumping station

Leaving the trail, we climbed up on the damp rocky soil terraces, noticing the abundance of Steven’s meadow saffron, the delicate pinkish-purple flowers popping out of the soil. We explored the lowest level of the ruins, a large square chambre with thick walls, believed to have served as a pool of sorts.

Foggy Jerusalem hills and Khirbet Luza’s pool of sorts

We climbed up to the next level, where the ruins were either partially filled in or collapsed. The atmosphere was rather foggy, as was our understanding of the site. A northern raven flew overhead, patrolling the opposing slope, and we found some decorated Crusader pottery and typically-masoned ashlars. Some other flowers, including winter saffron, added a bit of flora here and there.

Decorated Medieval pottery

The second level of the ruins consist of a rectangular open room with added residential chambres closer to the natural slope. There are also several barrel-vaulted rooms, which are for the most part partially buried. We explored the toppled ruins the best we could, being wary of potential pits among the rubble.

Examining the high wall

Khirbet Luza was a rural estate built during the Crusader-era Kingdom of Jerusalem, situated on a rural road which connected other estates and monasteries. The terraces surrounding the building would have likely supported grapevines or olive trees during the Crusader period; today, these same terraces host olive trees, perhaps descendants of the Medieval ones.

Winter saffron

We continued on over to the nearby spring, where we found a huge blackberry bush just weeks from being ripe. We nibbled on a tart berry, just for entertainment’s sake, and then turned our attention to the spring’s pool where something sparkled at us from within the clear water. It was worth probing at it, in hopes of fishing out something amazing – but alas, ‘twas nothing exciting at all.

Exploring the spring

When we had finished our exploration of Khirbet Luza we walked back to the car, passing a whole bunch of common kestrels. From there we drove over to the next destination: Khirbet el-Burj, located in Ramot, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Dead grass-covered tel

Parking the car in a totally residential area, we found the hill associated with the site and climbed accordingly, seeing a few stonechats flying about. There was an overall cover of dried grass which made seeing any possible ruins difficult, yet we persevered. Yet, we did see a bit of architectural remains which seem to have dated back to the Crusader period.

Nabi Samuel nearby

Skirting the small hill from the south-side, we climbed up to the top from the east and saw a familiar landmark to the north. Nabi Samuel, a fantastic archaeological and religious site which holds some importance to me. My wife and I had gone there for our very first date, and thus already cherished, it was then the location of my marriage proposal – up on the rooftop with its view of Jerusalem.

Not much to see here at Khirbet el-Burj

But, up on the top of Khirbet el-Burj, there wasn’t much to see. We found some exposed walls, and the meagre remains of a largish building with a tower, destroyed in 1967 according to the IAA report. With not much to see, factoring in the passage of time and neglection, as well as the dominant grassy obstruction, we decided to bring our trip to an end. But first, two meadow pipits popped into view, giving me a nice sighting. We walked back down to Avner’s car and drove out to the main road, where we parted ways. Avner headed home and I waited for Bracha so that we could journey over to Ma’ale Adumim for Shabbat.

Montfort Castle Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on March 17, 2020 at 12:07 PM

There’s been a bit of a writing lull, what with my wedding in the beginning of February and the overload of work and school-related exams, papers and activities. Now in this unreal coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I think it’s time to cover the last of this past summer’s adventures. This post took place in late August, a few days before I proposed to my then-girlfriend Bracha. Some family was visiting from Washington State and I had seen an advert about renewed excavations at Montfort Castle, quite near my hometown of Ma’alot.

Sunrise over the Galilean mountains

Setting the gears into motion, I had contacted one of the dig’s organisers, Dr Rabei Khamisy of Haifa University, and arranged our volunteering for a day. That morning arrived and we left the house at the crack of dawn, meeting up with the rest of the team at a parking lot overlooking Nachal Kziv a few minutes before 6am. To get to the fortress we took one of the winding mountain trails, which is beautiful in its own right. However, being able to bring my relatives to a grand Crusader castle (albeit in ruins) such as Montfort was quite a thrill.

Mission briefing

We explored a wee bit of the 800-year old fortress before approaching Rabei for instructions, wondering what interesting work we’d be tasked with. Thankfully, he had the perfect job for us which had us working at the foot of the Montfort’s keep (the innermost fortified section of the castle). Our mission for that day was to expose a long-lost drainage channel which was recently rediscovered in old expedition photos of the castle. The team’s lead researchers had only come across it a few days prior and desired to see it exposed once again, to be examined and photographed. We accepted our mission joyfully and set forth exposing the channel, which was predominately hewn into the bedrock floor.

Exposing a mysterious little pit

The labour was fun and we were a great crew of six: Uncle EJ, Aunt Karise, cousins Walker and Judy Rae, brother Nissim and myself. The laughs were plenty and the dirt and rocks slowly moved from the channel to dumping piles elsewhere around us. We moved part of a broken trough that was placed against the keep’s walls, adjacent to a reservoir, and cleared our way around a short tree whose roots penetrated deep into a mysterious pit, finding all sorts of small items including a spent bullet casing.

Looking towards the sea

Eventually we broke for breakfast and dined with the rest of the crew who were working elsewhere in the castle. Their group was formed mostly of volunteers from Europe and Australia, as well as some Haifa University staff members including Prof Adrian Boas, one of Israel’s lead Crusader archaeologists.

The more interesting part of the exposed channel

When we were done eating we got back to work, with Rabei checking in on us now and again, just to make sure everything was going as planned. Our timing was great and we finished our mini-excavation just as the sun was coming up over the keep. We cleaned up the exposed channel, making sure it looked presentable for any possible official photography attempts, and put our borrowed tools back.

Early migrating honey buzzard

I hadn’t taken many photographs as we were all busy working or bonding, but when I saw a few birds of prey over the opposing ridge I whipped out my camera. Lo and behold, an early-migrating honey buzzard was circling overhead, in the company of two noisy short-toed eagles.

Group selfie (photo EJ Swainson)

Finished at the dig, having spent a really productive and interesting day at this once spectacular castle, we made our way back to the cars parked up above. It was a great experience for us all, and Uncle EJ even wrote a lovely Facebook post about it when they returned home to America, which you can see HERE. To many more adventures with friends and family!

Ma’agan Michael

In Coastal Plain, Israel on January 6, 2020 at 10:54 AM

Still catching up on adventures from this past summer, this post will focus on a nice morning birding trip to the seaside kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael. I was accompanied by Adam Ota, veteran adventurer and friend, to engage in as much interesting birding as possible. There had been reports of a rare migrating red knot, a shorebird that ordinarily lives thousands of kilometres away, and my intrigue was piqued. I had never been to Ma’agan Michael, and this sounded like the perfect opportunity to scope it out.

Welcome to paradise: Ma’agan Michael

Adam and I departed from Givat Shmuel early in the morning, and bussed our way to the train in Tel Aviv. We were then taken to Binyamina, where we had a bit of a wait till the kibbutz-destined minibus would show up. Not wanting to waste valuable time, we relented to birding the nearby fields but didn’t see anything of interest save a whole bunch of Eurasian jays.

Black-crowned night heron watching us walk by

At last we arrived at the kibbutz and made our way seaward, noting that we’d be reaching the fishponds first. Ma’agan Michael boasts some 1,600 dunams of fishponds, used to raise carp, mullet and other fish for the commercial market. We passed dozens of kibbutz members, visitors, joggers and more as we neared the ponds. Knowing that there would be birds to see, we had to fight the urge to linger and pressed on towards the beach.

Common terns at surf’s edge

Along the way we saw dozens of terns, gulls, herons and egrets – the usual fishpond inhabitants. At last we reached the beach, the glorious stretch of sun-kissed sand dotted with racing shorebirds, terns, tufted ghost crabs and more. There was a small flock of common terns near the surf, so after walking southward a bit, we settled down for a bit to watch them and to take pictures.

HaYonim Island

We scanned the neighbouring HaYonim Island, where many pigeons, gulls, terns and more were congregated. There were hopes to see a curlew or a whimbrel, both of which were sighted close to our visit, but we found neither. However, we did see a nice amount of waders, such as sandpipers and plovers. Also, a slinking Egyptian mongoose passed by at the edge of the bushy vegetation that borders the sandy beach.

Sneaky Egyptian mongoose

Before long we reached a calm drainage tributary where even more waders were gathered. Hundreds of photographs were taken, and a good handful of species were seen. Some couple hundred metres further south were congregations of gulls, but with the aid of my 2000mm lens I was able to see that most, if not all, were the standard stock of Armenian and yellow-legged gulls.

Gulls and shorebirds everywhere

When the sun was starting to get to us, and we felt like it was time to head back – the long way – we turned westward and found a wooden gazebo perched at the edge of the nearest fishpond. Making our way through the brush, we reached the blessed shade and relaxed, still keeping an eye out for cool birds.

Adam on the search

Truly, a squacco heron was standing at the edge of the pond, a lovely find. Lovely as it were, what Adam pointed out next was even lovelier: a golden jackal had popped into view down below in the thick grasses alongside the nearest tributary.

Birding from the gazebo

There were ducks and songbirds, and the usual terns and gulls, but it was rather fun watching the tributary from an elevated position. Once our humanly presence was no longer in sight, there was an influx of birds that gathered at the water’s edge, and it allowed us to watch with ease.

Birding Ma’agan Michael’s fishponds

But, we couldn’t spend all day in the gazebo, so we gathered up our belongings and struck a path towards the kibbutz, walking between the fishponds. We saw more of the same, and plenty of dead, dried and disfigured fish scattered everywhere in a grotesque, foul manner. As we were leaving my camera’s battery decided that it had had enough, and fritzed out. Fortunately, I was able to capture 99% of our adventure with the camera, and to celebrate the good timing, here is probably my favourite photo from the day, a lone black-winged stilt in the company of a few ruddy turnstones:

Black-winged stilt standing guard

Back in the kibbutz, Adam and I realised that we had quite a wait for the next bus, and decided to look around a bit. We found the local mini-market, and bought popsicles to help beat the heat – I wisely chose a delicious Häagen-Dazs macadamia nut brittle ice cream bar. While waiting for the bus we schemed all about how I’d propose to my now-fiancé, Bracha Berman, which went rather well back in late August. Our bus arrived and we made our way back to the train station where we parted ways for the weekend, bringing yet another adventure to a successful close.