Israel's Good Name

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.

Horns of Hattin Battle Reenactment

In Galilee, Israel on December 4, 2019 at 10:49 AM

A week or so after my day’s participation at the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig I spent a few days up north in Ma’alot with my folks. Planned carefully, this visit coincided with the Horns of Hattin battle reenactment, paying homage to the famous battle that launched the medieval sultan Saladin into international fame/infamy. The battle reenactment is part of a three-day event organised by a group known as “Regnum Hierosolymitanum”, catering to history enthusiasts from around the world.

The Horns of Hattin

First, to retell the tale with photographs from the recreated battle interspersed. The year was 1187 and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in full swing, under the leadership of King Guy of Lusignan. The Crusaders had entered the Levant and had conquered Jerusalem in 1099, creating the kingdom under the early rule of Baldwin I. Generations later, after the reigns of Baldwin IV the “Leper King” and Baldwin V who died as a child, Guy of Lusignan claimed rule by being the husband of Sibylla who was next in line for the throne.

Ayyubid archer watching for the armies

On the other side, the tens of thousands of Muslim horsemen and footsoldiers were united under the banner of Sultan Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Having joined the two most powerful cities of the region, Cairo and Damascus, he reestablished the Sunni caliphate and began impressive conquests throughout the Middle East. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, occupying Islam’s third holiest city, was next on Saladin’s list and he attacked thenceforce.

Crusader forces approaching

Departing from Damascus with a formidable force, Saladin marched towards the Kingdom of Jerusalem and laid siege on Tiberias, a fortified city on the Sea of Galilee. Rushing to defend the besieged city, the Crusader armies pushed eastward from the coastal plains. What’s important to note is that the Crusader forces were composed of numerous Christain entities: The Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army, the Templar and Hospitaller Military Orders which were somewhat subservient to the Vatican, and other important noblemen.

Gerard de Ridefort, Reynald of Châtillon and King Guy of Lusignan

Upon conquering all but the citadel of Tiberias, where Eschiva the wife of Count Raymond III of Tripoli was holed up, Saladin took his army westward to meet the Crusaders near Zippori. The Crusaders had spent a few days in the area, pushing eastward under split leadership. It was the beginning of July and the heat was unbearable, punishing the armoured soldiers and weakening them with thirst.

Parrying horsemen

The armies met on the slope of the Horns of Hattin, an extinct volcano that received its “horned” appearance after an ancient volcanic eruption. The Ayyubid army outnumbered the Crusaders, and harassed them with fire, arrows and noise, surrounding them until the Christian armies broke rank. Attempts at counterattacks on the Muslim forces failed, and the Crusaders were slowly cut down. Some escaped, many were killed and the battle came to an end.

Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Templar Knights

The remaining Crusaders were captured by the Muslim army, and dealt with forthwith. King Guy of Lusignan was spared, offered to drink from the cup of Saladin, as well as Gerard de Ridefort, but others weren’t so fortunate. Reynald of Châtillon, an important nobleman who served as a vassal to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was beheaded by Saladin himself, a death sentence that was meted out to Templar and Hospitaller knights as well.

Field photographer in period dress

Saladin’s victory spelled doom for the crushed Kingdom of Jerusalem, with its king imprisoned in Damascus and its army in ruins. Only the fortified coastal city of Tyre escaped the ravishings of Saladin’s army, and ended up being a city of refuge for King Guy when he escaped. It wasn’t until 1191 that the Christians received reinforcement from abroad, with the Third Crusade. English king Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France brought considerable armies which were able to recapture lands and renew the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Saladin and his men, but Jerusalem never returned to the state it was in during the first phase of the kingdom. Thus ends the history lesson.

Attacking the huddled Christians

Getting back to the reenactment, the reenactors had begun their 30-kilometre march on July 3rd starting at the Springs of Zippori. For two days they marched in the day, and camped in the night, reliving the experiences from 1187 the best they could. Dressed in period clothing, armed with period weapons and equipment, the dozens of members made their way to the mountain.

Players and watchers

My brother Nissim and I set out the morning of Friday the 5th, aiming to intercept the march where they reach the Horns of Hattin. Quite near the site we picked up another history buff who had come to see the reenactment as well. We parked in the designated field at the foot of the mountain and joined the hundred and something spectators who were gathered about beneath shade tents.

The clashings of many swords

A single Ayyubid tent was set up in the battlezone, and single archer stood outside watching for the arrival of the armies. It took a short while but eventually they came, riding in from the west. We watched as the two sides set up the battlefield and got ready to fight. The prominent figure on the Christian side was the imposing looking Reynald of Châtillon, vassal lord of the kingdom, dressed in red robes and chain mail armour. On the Muslim side was Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan, dressed in blue robes and chain mail armour.

Nissim looks happy

The sides clashed here and there, first demonstrating cavalry charges with pounding steeds and flashing steel. Here and there a soldier fell, and the battle continued. Archers took up their bows and let arrows fly into the midst of their enemies. Shields were raised, crosses were held on high, and the sweat poured freely. Just like it was in 1187, the beginning of July was hot and sunbaked this year too.

Surrounded by Saladin’s forces

We watched from the sidelines, taking pictures when we could, and enjoying the battle before us. Eventually, after cutting down most of the Christian soldiers, the overwhelming Muslim forces captured Reynald of Châtillon and the knights, among the other prisoners-of-war. We watched as the reenactors recreated the scene of Reynald’s beheading, which was curious to say the least.

Saladin beheading Reynald of Châtillon

With the battle over, the players allowed the crowd to mingle with them and we made our way back to the car. It was getting a wee bit late and we had to drive back to Ma’alot for Shabbat. It was a lovely outing though, and rather fun to take photos of – of which I have many. For more information about the “Regnum Hierosolymitanum” group see HERE and HERE; for the Facebook event page see HERE.

Mount Zion Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 6, 2019 at 2:22 PM

Way back in the end of June, at the start of the busy summer months, I had the pleasure of taking part in yet another exciting archaeological dig. Being that I have just begun my MA degree this autumn semester, I’ve been involving myself in the Crusader period more and more. This led me to meeting up with Dr Rafi Lewis, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig, at his excavation site just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Beneath the Old City walls

Referencing from the expedition’s website, the ongoing mission of the excavation is to expose and preserve the many layers of civilisation found on Mount Zion, going back thousands of years. As with nearly everywhere in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, the veritable footprint of humanity is profound in both magnitude and multitude. Just glancing about the dig site at Mount Zion, one can see a plethora of different architectural elements seemingly stacked upon one another in a dizzyingly fashion.

Dr Rafi Lewis & Dr Shimon Gibson

Dr Rafi Lewis of Haifa University joined Drs Shimon Gibson and James Tabor, both of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who had been excavating at Mount Zion since 2007. Whereas Drs Gibson and Tabor have their primary foci on the Roman era and the parallel rise of Christianity, Dr Lewis focuses on the Medieval period, and even more interestingly, Crusader battlefield archaeology.

Looking around the dig site

I had scheduled a day to join the dig in advance and made my way to the Old City of Jerusalem that early Wednesday morning. Arriving at the site shortly after 7am, I found a fenced off area just below Zion Gate – outside the impressive Ottoman wall of the Old City. Entering, I found Dr Lewis and made introductions before we set out on a little tour of the site. I found the range of excavated sites to be quite fascinating, and very unlike older sites such as Tel es-Safi where I excavated only Bronze and Iron age layers. Here there was so many different levels, belonging to such a varied group of historical peoples, that the very concept garnered interest.

Looking up at the nondescript tower structure

It’s certainly hard to recall which pit belonged to which era, and which wall was built by which reigning group, but the overall picture was that there was plenty to go around for everyone will all their preferred historical periods. Dr Lewis led me over to a rectangle of brushed earth, bordered by earthen ledges and stone architectural features. He then explained that this was the floor of a Ayyubid structure, believed to have been a tower, and that we were now going to explore what lies below – presumably Fatimid ruins.

Ornate pottery piece

While there were dozens of people milling about the general Mount Zion dig area, there were only a handful in and around this Arab structure. We made introductions and settled down to start working, armed with the usual archaeological hand tools. Our first task was to take up the next couple inches of soil, looking out for the usual archaeological artefacts. Every so often someone would come over with a metal detector to check for coins, jewelry and other metal objects.

Some fancy glass

I was amazed at the amount of nice pottery, far nicer than the generally rough sherds I have found in the Bronze and Iron age sites I’ve traditionally excavated at. Likewise, glass was more plentiful and came in all sorts of degenerated colourations. What surprised me most, however, was a weirdly shaped hard organic item that eluded even my wildest guesses. When I asked the experts, I was informed that it was none other than the tooth of a parrotfish – imagine that!

Ancient parrotfish tooth

Every now and again a coin would be found – never by me, unfortunately. However, I did find a nice piece of a mould-made oil lamp with an ornate pattern that looks like bent palm trees forming arches, encircling the pouring hole. Shortly thereafter, once the excitement had died down, another two pieces were found – one being a match, and one from a different lamp.

Posing with the lamp sherd

Another fun aspect was the high number of tesserae (mosaic stones) that were interspersed quite like cookie dough chunks in my favourite ice cream flavour. Handfuls of cubed stones were gathered up and chucked into the tesserae bucket, to be bagged, registered and dealt with at a later date.

Scores of tesserae

At 9:30am we paused for breakfast, and gathered around the serving tables at the higher end of the dig site. I feasted on plums and halva, somewhat limited in what I’d eat due to the expedition’s unkosher status. It was then that I observed a familiar face working beside an excavated pit below me. This face’s owner, Ido Zangen, is comparable to the charming character Waldo in that he appears at every archaeological excavation – you simply have to search for him to find him!

Finding Ido!

After breakfast we got back to work, and we had a new manager in our Ayyubid/Fatimid tower floor: Dr Rona Avissar Lewis, the wife of Rafi Lewis. Rona had previously been a staff member at the Tel es-Safi excavation, years before my stint there. Delving back into our work, we cleared away a nice sized layer of soil, uncovering the usual ceramics, tesserae, small finds and more.

Rona and Gray clearing out the dirt

As the hour got later the sun’s rays began to punish us through the mesh shade net above us, and I sought shelter to rest. The work day was almost over, so when I was done resting and rehydrating I rejoined my digmates to do the finishing touches. I don’t know how much dirt we moved that day, but it was very exciting working on a medieval tower and I look forward to doing more.

A last look at the curious oil lamp

Before I left I bid farewell to my digmates Gray, Mel and an older couple from Chicago; staff member John (a spitting image of Captain Flint in “Black Sails”); and the dig co-directors Rafi and Shimon. Feeling a wee bit peckish, I got a nice schnitzel baguette at the Central Bus Station and continued on with the rest of my day.