Israel's Good Name

Poleg Marshes

In Central Israel, Coastal Plain, Israel on October 27, 2022 at 4:11 PM

At times, updates on this travel blog become a rarity, usually when life gets busy, keeping me otherwise occupied. This past lull in posts is no different. After nine long months, on September 10th, my dear wife Bracha gave birth to our precious firstborn son, Amir. He is a handsome young fella who keeps his parents busy during the days, and sometimes awake during the nights. I’m sure that sometime soon he, too, will join in on some memorable and, perhaps even bloggable, adventures.

Our first sight of the Poleg marshes

Our first sight of the Poleg marshes

However, not writing blog posts as of late is certainly not for want of what to write. Harkening back to the end of January, when the winter’s plentiful rains had essentially flooded the country, fellow adventurer Adam and I decided it was time to visit some seasonal wetlands. There had been much commotion about one particular site which began to attract birders in the preceding months, and we felt an uncontrollable urge to explore the site as well. Located just south of Netanya is the open wetlands of the Poleg Marshes.

Resting waterfowl

Resting waterfowl

Still vehicular-less back then, we bussed to a nearby junction and walked our way to nature. It wasn’t long before we crossed a bridge into the natural area, and noticed a sign announcing Poleg Forest, surrounded by a whole slew of peeling eucalyptus trees. Yonder, just beyond the so-called forest was the first body of water – a large flooded area that formed a picturesque pond.

The marsh backdropped by Netanya

The marsh backdropped by Netanya

Scanning the water and waterline with both binoculars and camera, we were not disappointed. A good number of ducks were both traversing the pond, and dabbling along the edges. We identified a few species, including gadwalls, pintails, wigeons, shovelers, mallards and teals. A lone common buzzard sat pensively on some denuded branches, and a variety of songbirds flitted about here and there.

A hooded crow terrorising a marsh harrier

A hooded crow terrorising a marsh harrier

We continued down the muddy trail, dodging puddles and cyclists as we kept our eyes and ears peeled for signs of wildlife. A marsh harrier materialised overhead, as did a flock of rooks and a valiant robin, singing from the low trees. Up ahead was a large flooded field, hosting a variety of birdlife including waders such as northern lapwings, wood sandpipers and a black-tailed godwit.

The tranquil flooded field

The tranquil flooded field

It was tranquil watching the birds dip and dab in the shallow waters, largely ignoring our presence from the safe distance that we were. The only disturbances were trains that came thundering by, blowing their ear-piercing whistles in hopes to keep us off the tracks. These very tracks, built on an elevated ridge, split the marshland in twain, the water joined by culverts, underground aquifers and, most naturally, Nachal Poleg.

Walking along the train line ridge looking southwest

Walking along the train line ridge looking southwest

After seeing a small flock of skylarks feeding in the lush, wet grass, we crossed over the tracks to see the other – eastern – side of the marsh. Lo and behold, our efforts and wet feet were rewarded by a number of raptors, both perched and flying, before us. First, a greater spotted eagle swung by, and then a few more marsh harriers. A peregrine falcon whizzed by too, far too fast for me to photograph successfully.

Greater spotted eagle

Greater spotted eagle

Back on the western side, Adam decided to take a long look at the marsh water, hoping he could find some interesting molluscs or aquatic insects. I took the opportunity to wander off on a dirt road that traversed the flooded field.

Some old Israeli coin

Some old Israeli coin

Upon finding an old, oxidised Israeli coin, I felt inspired to keep walking. Much to my excitement, I chanced upon a female kestrel catching a mouse – if only I was able to get some proper photographs of the moment.

Friends at play

Friends at play

Some time passed before we crossed over once again to the eastern side, and so we enjoyed watching the wildlife carrying on before us. The herons squabbled in the channel, some Spanish sparrows clung nonchalantly to waving reeds, and some black-headed gulls passed overhead. Then, a shrike popped into view and revealed itself to be a moderately rare isabelline shrike – one which had been previously reported upon in local birding circles.

The isabelline shrike

The isabelline shrike

Looping back, walking back from whence we came, we crossed back over Nachal Poleg and made our way to the first flooded area we had seen. From there we followed a trail going north, and passed by a small nut grove, where handfuls of chaffinches were milling about. The trail continued westward, encircling the pond from the north. A few ferruginous ducks, spotted in gaps between the bushes, were an excellent addition to the day’s figurative checklist.

Muddy Nachal Poleg

Muddy Nachal Poleg

We scampered around the sludgy flooded bits, exploring the marsh’s northern extents. There wasn’t too much to see, but it was adventurous and that is what mattered most. When we had sufficiently wet our boots, we turned back around and began the hike back to a bus stop, this time choosing one further along the road to the north.

Ferruginous duck floating by

Ferruginous duck floating by

One thing about the Poleg marshes which interests me so much is the fact that this area, similar to others along the coastline, is essentially a basin in the sandstone bedrock infrastructure. With the coast being hemmed by a kurkar ridge, the winter’s rainwaters and surface runoff makes its way to the sea only to be trapped by the impervious ridge. This essentially turns the land east of the ridge into a seasonal marsh, which, throughout history, had hampered settlement opportunities.

Practicing safe crossings

Practicing safe crossings

In efforts to alleviate the backed-up waters, a hole in the ridge along the course of the stream was carved out in ancient times. The Romans improved upon the structural work, and the site became known as Sha’ar Poleg in recent times. However, other neighbouring coastal regions still remained flooded. About ten kilometres to the south, in modern day Herzliya Pituach, the Byzantines had actually hewn an underground drainage passage in the ridge, thereby draining that area too.

Our final views before boarding the bus back home

Our final views before boarding the bus back home

While this trip only really focused on the marsh, I still hope one day to be able to get a closer look at both of these man made engineering feats of old. But, for now, I just have the memories from this episode and an excellent video produced by Kan (see HERE), which explained the water saturation issue that I had outlined above, as inspiration for future adventures.

University Trip: Nachal Chever & the Southern Judean Desert

In Israel, Judea on May 22, 2022 at 7:30 AM

Following my university department’s field trips to various sites in the northern and central regions of the Judean Desert, we set out in the middle of January for the final trip of the series led by Dr Dvir Raviv, destined for the desert’s southern third. It was a long sleepy bus ride from the BIU campus to our first stop of the day, some obscure location in the arid desert. Deposited at the side of the road near the Bedouin sprawl of Az-Zuweidin, we began to hike over rocky, jagged hills in the direction of Nachal Chever.

The first hike of the day

The first hike of the day

It was a nice morning hike through the arid land, passing a few Bedouin women engaged in agricultural labour and a clumping of their houses, as we made our way to the first lookout. There, perched over Nachal Chever, we learned about the geological makeup of the region, and made note of the nearby Sela Cave, a few unassuming holes on the opposing hillside.

The winding Nachal Chever

The winding Nachal Chever

We were joined by some curious Bedouins and their hounds, two of the youths sitting down alongside us on the craggy rocks. After the educational overview, we took leave of our Bedouin hosts and began the slow descent towards the winding wadi.

Curious Bedouin hounds

Curious Bedouin hounds

Our hike took an easternly direction, passing a few flushed larks and mourning wheatears as our party traversed the dried streambed with purposeful speed. The land opened up to a relatively flat plateau with a few conical peaks up ahead, and then our trail turned due southeast.

The end of the easy hiking

The end of the easy hiking

The leisurely hike became a great deal more difficult as we huffed our way up the steep dirt road in the direction of one of the nearby ridges. The ascent was challenging, but awaiting us at the top was respite at an interesting graffiti-marked hull of an old building. It was the ruins of Umm Daraj, an abandoned Jordanian military police station from the pre-1967 period, which commanded the entire region during Jordanian rule.

The ruins of Umm Daraj

The ruins of Umm Daraj

We were not there for the recent history lesson, but rather for the incredible, panoramic view of the surrounding area. It was the heat of the day, and we were all alone in the wilderness but for a few shepherds and their flock, grazing on the ridge behind us. We drank in the deep desert scenery, resting in the shade of the vanquished walls, as Dvir taught us more about the importance of our current location from a topographical standpoint.

Peering out at the vista

Peering out at the vista

Hiking our way back down and towards the waiting bus, we passed a few brown-necked ravens and desert larks, which were added to my current year list. As we drove along the rough roads, I happened to glance out of the bus window to see a rather dark little owl perched on a pipe that ran parallel to the road. It was unfazed by our rumbling presence, but seeing it filled me with an indescribable joy which can hardly be put into words.

An inquisitive mourning wheatear

An inquisitive mourning wheatear

Driving along, passing some grazing camels, the bus then brought us to Mitzpe Yair, a Jewish village nearby, where we looked out at the geological formations of the surrounding area. From there we drove down to the city of Arad, and had a small break at a gas station where I found some delightful canned honey and salt peanuts.

Mesmerising desert landscapes

Mesmerising desert landscapes

Looping back north a bit, the bus deposited us once again at the side of the road, this time at a sign announcing the Judean Desert Nature Reserve. We were headed for Givat Gorni, a flat ridge that overlooks a small valley of sorts and affords a picturesque view of the surroundings. It was getting late and Givat Gorni was just a bit too far to reach given the time that we had left before dusk, so we walked alongside an established biking path, and settled down at a spot where we could enjoy the view comfortably.

Walking the plateau towards Givat Gorni

Walking the plateau towards Givat Gorni

However, it wasn’t really all that comfortable; there was a howling, bitterly cold wind that cut into us, despite our attempts to avoid it. The sun was slowly sinking towards the opposing landscape, and it was time to head back. Descending from the ridge, the hike was easier now and we moved at a fast clip, the bus waiting for us patiently down at the roadside.

Dvir lecturing in the howling winds

Dvir lecturing in the howling winds

Trotting down, we passed the last few wheatears still visible and boarded the bus for the long drive back. It was an incredible three days of intense desert hiking, and despite how tiring it was, we all had a rewarding time as we traversed the remarkable Judean Desert. From a personal perspective, I gained appreciation for the geological aspect, something that I had generally ignored in the past, and was thankful for the opportunity to see so many new places in Israel.

The end of a series

The end of a series

Delightful as this series was, there is always more to do in life and this coming summer, Dr Dvir Raviv is launching a new archaeological excavation at a yet-unexcavated biblical site, Tel Timna in the Shomron. I don’t know yet if I will be attending, but everyone is welcome to join in on the excitement – more information can be seen HERE.

University Trip: Wadi Murabba’at & Dead Sea Forts

In Israel, Judea on February 12, 2022 at 8:38 PM

Continuing with the three-part series of field trips to the Judean Desert in January, this expedition focused on sites in the central desert region. Our tour bus departed from the BIU campus in the morning and we enjoyed a long drive through the misty countryside and bustling urban areas until we reached the Dead Sea. Our first site of the day was Khirbet Mazin, a fortified anchorage on the coast, one of eight anchorages that lined the Dead Sea in antiquity. It was a hot winter day, surprisingly enough, but we settled down on an elevated ridge above the ruins to hear from our guide, Dr Dvir Raviv.

Our first stop of the day

The site of Khirbet Mazin (also known as Qasr al-Yehud, yet not to be compared to the baptismal site on the Jordan as seen HERE) originally dated back to the Iron Age, and was rebuilt during the Hasmonean and Roman periods. Due to the difficulty of transporting people and cargo by land in the craggy Dead Sea area, passage was easier over the salty waters. A system of anchorages was developed, with Khirbet Mazin being one of the more important ones. By the Hasmonean and Roman periods, the independent anchorage structure was grand and likely served as the official local shipyard. With the water levels fluctuating over the past millennia, the site was temporarily covered over with sand and gravel, only to be re-exposed and excavated in the 1960s and 1970s.

Khirbet Mazin (and our bus) at the Dead Sea

We finished our visit there, said goodbye to the Arabian green bee-eaters flying around us and got back on the bus. From there we continued down the Dead Sea coast, along the high cliffs of the Dead Sea Fault Escarpment, until we reached the road to the Dragot Cliffs and began the snaking ascent. Our loyal bus driver drove us as far as he possibly could on the rocky road, yielding only when one of his tires was no longer touching terra firma. We dutifully disembarked at that point and began hiking in the direction of Wadi Murabba’at.

Hiking to Wadi Murabba’at

Interestingly enough, the weather was cooler up atop the fault escarpment, and the hiking was pleasing as we traversed the hilly land. We turned off the main trail in the direction of the wadi, and began the slow descent to the cliff edge. I was amazed at the raw beauty of the place, surrounded by pleasantly gentle hilltops to the north and craggy cliffs to the south. As we stood overlooking the next leg of our hike, I spotted a small herd of Nubian ibexes nestled in the cliffside as they took shelter from the sun.

Watching me watching you with a Nubian ibex

As we walked down, I saw a few more fun creatures including sand partridges, a streaked scrub warbler, some white-crowned wheatears and a small-spotted lizard. Yet, when we reached the cliff descent, I had to focus on my personal safety and less on the winged wonders around me. The hike down was glorious, each step leading to an even more exciting view of the gorge below us.

Descending into Wadi Murabba’at

We climbed further down, at times aided by metal safety bars as we navigated our way to a ledge overlooking the wadi. The ledge offered relatively easy hiking, yet one false move and we’d be tumbling some twenty-five metres down into the unwelcoming arms of Wadi Murabba’at. Then we reached a sign that pointed to the caves above us, and the trail became apparent.

Hiking along the ledge to the caves

Little metal handles (or footholds) were embedded in the cliffside for us to use to reach a higher ledge. Climbly deftly, we reached the upper ledge and saw the mouths of two caves before us, cleverly named Murabba’at Cave 1 and 2. These caves hold particular interest to me in my research, and so visiting them was rather exciting. We began with Cave 2, and settled inside the spacious interior that was littered by giant slabs and blocks of fallen stone.

Climbing up to the right ledge

Situated comfortably, we then learned the importance of the cave from an archaeological perspective, after the site was explored starting in the early 1950s. Similar to the more famous caves of Qumran, over a hundred manuscripts were found, most of them dating to the Roman period. Jewish rebels, hiding from the Roman army during the rebellion, found shelter in the remote caves of Wadi Murabba’at. It was from one of these ancient manuscripts that we in modernity learned the first name of Bar Kokhba, the daring rebel leader during the eponymous Bar Kokhba Rebellion.

Outside the Wadi Murabba’at caves

A letter was written from Shimon Bar Kokhba to the rebel leader of Herodium and, once received, it was then brought to the cave – likely when the Jewish rebels fled the burning Herodium. However, it wasn’t just this letter that proved fascinating. Of the decipherable manuscripts, some turned out to be biblical and other religious texts, and others were important life documents such as marriage and divorce papers (see HERE).

Peering into the depths of Cave 2

Remains from the more recent medieval period were even more interesting to me, and I was delighted when we slipped down into the dark recesses of the cave. Aided with my phone’s flashlight, as well as light sources provided by other intrepid explorers, we crawled and slithered through the cave’s narrow passageways, encountering potsherds, bones and even a squeaking lesser mouse-tailed bat.

A lesser mouse-tailed bat within the cave

Even though the cave hasn’t been excavated for some time, I found it interesting that most of the cumbersome tools and accoutrements such as buckets and sifters had been simply stowed away in dark corners within the cave.

Exploring the cave chambers

When I had reached one of the deepest passages I decided that pressing further would just be too messy, and with my camera lens suffering from the kicked-up dust, I began my slow exit. The climb out was a mite precarious, so I had to hand my camera off to safely make the ascent without harming body or gear.

Making our way out of the cave

Leaving Cave 2, I realised that I still had the neighbouring Cave 1 to explore, yet some of our party was already hiking back via the rock ledges. So, dashing in quickly, I surveyed the interior which was a lot larger and partially covered over in pigeon droppings. This was the less exciting cave, but it had still been in human use during troubled times, so I took my time to properly appreciate the long, dark cavern.

Looking out of Cave 1

Back outside, the few stragglers that had joined me raced to keep up with the rest of our group, scuttling along the precarious cliff edge. The way up the cliff to the dirt road was arduous, and we hiked in relative silence, preserving our breath as we pushed onward. Before long we were in sight of our faithful bus, and ready to be shuttled to our next destination.

Winding Wadi Murabba’at

This next destination was the ancient synagogue section of Ein Gedi, but being as though I had already written about it, the next pertinent site was Tel Goren. Located within the confines of the national park, Tel Goren was originally an Iron Age settlement that thrived due to the lushness of the nearby springs. Also being that Ein Gedi was one of the eight Dead Sea anchorages, the settlement rose in importance during the Hasmonean period, when local crops such as balsam were capitalised upon.

Atop Tel Goren

It was during this time period that a large fortress was built on top of the tel, and was somewhat wrecked and rebuilt in the Roman period. The rebuilt fortress was then permanently destroyed during the Great Revolt, and subsequently the village itself decreased in size and importance until falling into disuse. As we approached the tel, we learned about the few lone roads in antiquity which allowed passage through the daunting landscape, another reason why sea travel would have been preferred.

Ruins of Tel Goren

Nearing the fortress ruins I spotted a few sparrow-sized birds that looked interesting, and upon taking their picture, I realised that they were striolated buntings – a species that I had never seen before. Filled with joy, I climbed the fortress ruins until we were standing beside the fortress’ western tower. To complete the scene, the sun was slowly setting over the fault escarpment, the wispy white clouds decorating the rich blue skies.

Arugot Fort

Looking in the direction of Wadi Arugot, which slices through the tall mountain ridge to the west, we laid eyes on another small ancient fortification overlooking the land. This was Arugot Fort and was likely connected to the region’s important and lucrative balsam industry. We didn’t have the time nor energy to explore it, but it was enlightening to see how much effort went into building up this remote and relatively arid area of the country in ancient times.

Enjoying my time in the desert

Heeding to the park ranger’s beckoning, we made our way back to our bus for the long drive back to the BIU campus. We had successfully explored a nice assortment of important sites in the central Judean Desert, and it was time to mentally and physically prepare for the third, and last instalment of the Judean Desert trips which was to take place in one week’s time.