Israel's Good Name

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.

Shoham Park

In Central Israel, Israel on February 6, 2022 at 9:43 AM

Taking a hiatus from a string of BIU field trips, the day after my trip to Doq and the Good Samaritan Museum I went on a nice little adventure with Adam Ota to the relatively nearby Shoham Park. It was the very beginning of January and a fair amount of rain had fallen as of late, resulting in renewed growth throughout the country. The seam between the coastal plains and the Shomron was no different, and we found ourselves getting off our bus at Nablat Junction with intentions to explore as far north as we had time for.

Looking down at the field beside Nachal Beit Arif (photo Adam Ota)

Looking down at the field beside Nachal Beit Arif (photo Adam Ota)

Once we had successfully navigated the busy roads and entered the so-called natural land just north of Nachal Beit Arif, we were amazed at how lush and green everything was. There was a cool crispness in the air as we slowly made our way up the cactus-dotted hill, having passed through a defunct military shooting range where we chanced upon our first of many wild asparagus shoots of the day.

In pursuit of wild asparagus shoots

In pursuit of wild asparagus shoots

The vibrant green around us was complemented by dying leaves in multiple shades of orange, yellow and lavender blossoms, and of course the rich brown mud. We followed the marked trail up the hill, merging onto the Israel National Trail and seeing a nice amount of chaffinches and meadow pipits along with the flora. Adam paused here and there to look for stick insects, something that has eluded him for a great number of years here.

Photographing the lush nature (photo Adam Ota)

Photographing the lush nature (photo Adam Ota)

We spotted some tiny caves among the hewn bedrock, but nothing of any particular interest, except for copious amounts of wild asparagus. It wasn’t until we reached the top of the hill that we saw something of note. Carved into the bedroom were a series of cup marks and larger indentations. According to the sign there, this was part of a cultic site where a small idol was placed and then tiny sacrifices were offered in these tiny hewn cups. The larger depressions served as mortars for grinding the sacrifice prior to offering. There also seemed to be a small olive oil press similarly hewn into the bedrock, perhaps related to the cultic affairs.

Cultic cupmarks from a time long past

Cultic cupmarks from a time long past

Heading down the northern slope, we left the rocky garrigue habitat and entered a small pine tree forest. In a clearing, we found a much larger agricultural installation – this time a winepress, also hewn into the grey bedrock. It was full of water after the rains, and no matter how much Adam peered into the murky depths, he couldn’t find any interesting lifeforms.

Peering into the watery winepress

Peering into the watery winepress

Right beyond the winepress was the remains of an ancient lime kiln, hardly recognisable in its current state of affairs. But it was the next site in the clearing that really excited me – the ornate ruins of the Church of St Bacchus with its stunning mosaic floor. Built sometime in the 400s CE, during the Byzantine period, the church was only discovered in 1986, and later excavated in 1995. It was then that the mosaic floor, with an inscription dedicating it to St Bacchus (who was quite popular during that era), was revealed and restored.

The Church of St Bacchus

The Church of St Bacchus

Built outside of the settlement confines, this is what is known as a field church – see an artistic reconstruction HERE. During the course of the excavations, a small broken marble medallion of goddess Tyche/Fortuna was found. According to the inscription encircling the figure, the medallion dates to the year 582-3 CE, during the reign of Byzantine emperors Tiberius II Constantine or Maurice.

Remains of the olive oil press beside the field church

Remains of the olive oil press beside the field church

Adjacent to the church is a large olive oil press, with some of its sections also featuring a modest mosaic floor. Just beyond the press is a large rock-cut pool which was used to store water, after having served as an on-site quarry for the construction projects there. All of these ruins, predominantly harkening back to the Byzantine period, are all affiliated with the nearby Horvat Tinshemet (or Khirbet Sheikh ‘Ali Malikina) which has been identified as Betomelgezis, a site that appears on the famous Madaba Map.

What appears to be Horvat Tinshemet

What appears to be part of Horvat Tinshemet

As we progressed to the vicinity of Horvat Tinshemet, we realised that this site – having never been excavated before – did not have much to look at, at surface value, of course. We found a series of low stone walls and what looks like a cairn of sorts, but nothing distinctly archaeological other than a few surface potsherds. Regardless, we enjoyed poking about in the company of some warblers and chaffinches, and a handful of flustered chukars.

Avoiding the forbidden zone

Avoiding the forbidden zone

From there our next destination was the Bareket vernal pool, which was located on the far side of the Shoham industrial park that was sprawled out before us. Instead of simply walking down the convenient paved road, we decided to go the route less traveled and climbed up a steep hill to circumnavigate from the eastern side. It was a steep walk and required a short break at the peak, which allowed us to appreciate the views that we had of both the ongoing construction and Road 6 that was behind us.

Looking back from whence we came

Looking back from whence we came

Heading back down the northern slope, we found an usual little orchard and then an insurmountable construction site which made us take the paved road afterall. Looping around, we found the Bareket vernal pool looking rather neglected, yet brimming with water and tiny lifeforms. Adam immediately squatted at the water’s edge, trying to find some interesting waterbugs – and, of course, triops.

The Bareket vernal pool

The Bareket vernal pool

The Bareket vernal pool is the result of ancient quarrying, similar to what we had seen throughout the day, forming a nice body of water quite like a swimming pool with the hewn steps. Despite the searches, it was simply too early in the rainy season to find anything too interesting and we were consigned to just enjoying the deep pool for what it was.

Using the hewn steps to get closer to the water

Using the hewn steps to get closer to the water

There are a number of interesting sites located just north of the vernal pool, but it was getting a wee bit late and we were tired from the long hike, so we called it a day. We had successfully explored most of what Shoham Park has to offer, and each of us had a bountiful wild asparagus harvest – perhaps the best we’d ever had. The rest of the attractions will simply wait for another day, whenever that may be.