Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Nachal Kina

In Israel, Negev on December 16, 2018 at 2:31 PM

Continuing with the tale of the second annual “Campushetach” trip offered by my department at Bar Ilan University, we begin in a communal tent in the yishuv of Susiya. A group of students and faculty alike, we had spent the previous day being shuttled around the Mount Hevron area, seeing sights and then hiking down Mount Amasa. We were awoken the following chilly morning and hurried along to pack everything up on the waiting bus. The first and only stop of the day was to a parking lot of sorts located on the far side of a Bedouin village of e-Dahabshe, where we were to disembark and spend the day hiking. Arriving just as the local gaudily-dressed Bedouin children were making their way to school, we got out of our tour bus and sleepily looked around.

Beginning the day’s hike

Thankfully, there was quite a lot of songbirds chirping and flitting about, and I was immediately awakened. Adam and I huddled together as we struggled to make out different species, some of which were ones that we had never yet seen. No matter where we looked, there were little birds moving about, feeding in the early morning light. Highlights included desert finches, linnets and a bunch of desert larks. It was only the necessity to stick with our group that made us continue on, leaving behind an unlikely birding paradise.

Breakfast

It wasn’t a far walk to the first stop of the hiking trip, Horvat Uza, where the department patron Yehuda Mizrachi was setting breakfast up. Always with crowd-pleasing tricks up his sleeve, this time he brought a gas taboun to make fresh pitas on. Breakfast was quite the feast, and when we had all eaten our fill, the lectures and hiking continued.

Horvat Uza

Dr Shawn Zelig-Aster lectured from the eastern side of Horvat Uza, as we sat on the ruined walls and stones of the ancient fortress. Surveyed in the 1950s, Horvat Uza has been identified as an Israelite fortress dating back to the Iron Age, built of a curious blend of limestone and flint. The dark, rich colours of the semi-translucent flint blocks made for quite an interesting sight, especially when gazing upon rows upon rows of ruined walls.

Mourning wheatear

As expected, my attention was shortly arrested by the appearance of little birds popping in and out of sight. Sitting at the edge of the slope, I was able to spot and photograph a whole slew of songbird species, including: blue rock thrush, blackstart, black redstart, desert lark and mourning wheatear.

Trail to the valley below

When we finished at Horvat Uza, and had properly examined the multiple rooms, we continued along the trail and began a quick descent. To the east a parade of camels, trailed by a donkey-riding Bedouin and a dog, came into view, the first of many camels to be seen that day. Climbing back up the opposing slope, we began the slope-side trail over the dry streambed, enjoying the narrow, rocky path and the vast, rocky desert view.

Encounter with a camel

This hiking carried on for an hour, with camels, a faraway fox and more birds, until about noon when we dropped down into the predominantly dry Nachal Kina. Due to the previous week’s rains, there were sporadic pools of water dotting the rocky streambed, brown from the large amounts of dirt.

Descending into the dry Nachal Kina

We continued along the trail, heading upstream, enjoying the loud calls of the Tristam’s starling and the occasional presence of a rock martin or two flying overhead. Somewhere along the way we encountered a Bedouin man on a donkey with a small herd of goats and a couple dogs. He was enamoured by our presence and followed us faithfully from the slope, playing trance music on a portable speaker to enhance our hiking experience. It was quite interesting and most unexpected.

The Bedouin keeping an eye on us

An hour and a half later we arrived at the dry waterfall, where a deep pool of water awaited us. Most of us just gazed at the murky waters and found a comfortable place to sit down, but not Dr Avi Picard – he casted off his outer clothes and dove into the water. As he splashed about, and the rest of us enjoyed the break, a few bold blackstarts and the trance-playing, donkey-riding Bedouin came to join us.

Inquisitive blackstart

Next, this other Bedouin guy named Suliman came down from the ridge and began filling up his coffee pot with the dirty pool water. When we talked to him we learned that he actually came to this pool to gather water to take back home, because he believed that the water was better than what he’d get ordinarily. Needless to say, it was a very interesting experience beside that muddy pool.

Having a rest at the waterfall

Climbing out from the base of the dry waterfall, we walked the upper area of Nachal Kina, which was even drier and contained less rainpools. We walked and walked, enjoying conversation as we made our way to the base of the mountain where we had stopped for breakfast. On approach, we stopped briefly to examine three curious water cisterns, one of which is still in use today. Several ravens passed overhead as we climbed back up the slope towards Horvat Uza, where I paused to examine some thorny saltwort growing beside a large rock.

Posing with the fellas

When we arrived at the curious flint fortress we found Yehuda Mizrachi with food spread out for lunch. We sat our weary selves down and feasted on breads, salads, cheeses and more, while fresh hot pitas and calzones came off the taboun. At the end of the meal, Prof Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, the department head, gave closing remarks and we began the short hike back to the waiting tour bus.

Sunset

The sun was beginning to set as we head out, bringing a close to a very successful and fun field trip. But it wasn’t completely over, as Adam, Ben and I were to meet some friends back at the university for pizza, and only then bring an end to the very long day.

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.