Israel's Good Name

Archive for May, 2017|Monthly archive page

University Trip: “Moshavot” of the Mercaz

In Central Israel, Israel on May 28, 2017 at 10:42 AM

Several weeks ago, after visiting the desert city of Qumran near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, I joined a Bar Ilan University Archaeology trip to a handful of cities near the campus. We set out to visit remains of the “Moshavot” (early settlements) from the First and Second Aliyahs, when Jews began to immigrate to the Holy Land en masse. Our first stop of these settlements in the Mercaz (or centre of the country) was Rishon L’Tzion, a city founded with the financial help of Baron de Rothschild, in 1882 – today Israel’s fourth-largest city. Parking at the old Carmel Winery building of fantastic red brickwork, we continued on foot though the city park until we reached the old well where we stopped to speak about Rishon’s history.

Rishon’s Old Well

As the lecturer talked, I popped off to explore the peripheral – the middle of the main street, Rothschild, where stalls were set up to create a quaint market of sorts, and the Village Well museum. But there was little time for museums, and before I knew it we were walking along Rothschild examining the original elements of the settlement from the late 1800s. First the community hall, then two old houses and then an interesting element of shutter design: little heads that protrude from the exterior wall to fasten wooden shutters. Ever since this tour, I’ve taken notice to these same shutter clasps in other places (such as the Ottoman mansion in Nitzan, built in 1917) but with different faces each time.

Anthropomorphic shutter clasp

Walking eastward we passed the city’s archives, a cute replica of a street vendor’s booth selling refreshments, the Rishon L’Tzion Museum and at the end of the street, the Great Synagogue with its stained glass windows. Turning right, heading south, we passed a very interesting building marked “Hotel & Pension ‘London'” and the country’s first Hebrew school. Pausing just briefly here and there, we then examined a standard-looking apartment building with a clever aspect hidden in plain sight. On the metal bars of each apartment’s sliding door/window are music notes, which, read correctly as from a music sheet, sound out a segment of Israel’s anthem “HaTikva”.

”HaTikva” apartment building

From there we continued onwards passing Baron Rothschild’s old administrative centre, an old house awaiting preservation and then back to the red-brick Carmel Winery where our black minibus picked us up. We were done with Rishon and had our eyes set on the next “Moshava” city, Ness Ziona. Just south of Rishon L’Tzion, Ness Ziona was founded in 1883 by a single man by the name of Reuven Lehrer and his dream to start a new settlement on land that he had purchased from a German Templer. He founded a homestead along a small stream, a tributary of Nachal Soreq, and advertised for people to join him. One of those who accepted his request was the ancestor of our local guide, On Boxer, and it was in Nachalat Reuven that On told us the history of early Ness Ziona. One thing that I found particularly interesting was the fact that due to the development of beekeeping, Ness Ziona became the country’s leader in honey production at the time.

Nachalat Reuven well and installations

Leaving the fenced Nachalat Reuven and its mulberry trees, On took us to other sites of interest just a few minutes walk away – the Co-operative House, Rueven Lehrer’s house and the site where the first modern Jewish flag was raised in 1891. And then, because the clock was ever ticking and we had much more to see, we thanked and bid farewell to our local guide and boarded our minibus for the next site, Rehovot. Founded in 1890, Rehovot is home to the Weizmann Institute of Science which I had the pleasure of exploring back in 2014. As we were pressed for time, we did not stop in Rehovot, but rather the lecturer told us something about the city’s past as we drove down on one the streets parallel to Herzl, the main drag. With that we zipped over to the final destination of this Friday tour of early “moshavot”, Mazkeret Batya. Founded in 1883 on land purchased by Baron Rothschild, the settlement was renamed to Mazkeret Batya (translated to Batya Memorial) to honour the deceased mother of the Baron.

Moshava Museum

We drove up the cobbled street and disembarked outside the Moshava Museum, where we were to begin our tour of the quaint town. The museum is housed in one of the first buildings constructed in the settlement, with interesting accessories outside including a bright red British phonebooth, rickety metal dovecote and a what looks to be a cypress tree that has since become a roosting site for a great number of cattle egret. Inside the museum we met our local guide Yonina, and it was there that began to inform us all that we needed to know about the early settlement and life back then. From the museum we went across the street and visited various houses and workshops built by the early settlers. Highlights included an exhibition of French ceramic roof tiles, interesting wall insulation and the healthy growth of wild fennel outside an old cowshed.

Great Synagogue of Mazkeret Batya

We ended our tour outside the Great Synagogue with a story about the early Jewish settlers and their interactions with their Arab neighbours, with the revelation that notorious Hamas terrorist Mohammed Deif is a descendant of those same Arab neighbours. With that cheery tale we thanked Yonina and awaited our minibus to take us back to BIU.

University Trip: Qumran

In Israel, Judea on May 14, 2017 at 8:45 AM

Some weeks back I attended a Bar Ilan University Archaeology trip led by Prof Eyal Regev to the area of Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The story of the first scrolls’ discovery in 1947 is well-known: the Bedouin shepherd lad who threw a stone into a cave and, hearing something shatter, entered to investigate and found tall ceramic jugs with rolled scrolls inside. Removing some of the scrolls, the artefacts were passed along a chain of individuals until archaeologists confirmed that there was great religious and historic importance to the scrolls, and salvage efforts were undertaken with the help of the British and Jordanians, which eventually led to their exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The discovery of a nearby city, with a room of tables or benches that appears to be used for writing – a scriptorium, led to assumptions that the scrolls were written in this very city, and stored away in dry desert caves for safekeeping.

Approaching Cave 11

However, in light of new evidence and understandings, many researchers believe that these scrolls may have come from different places altogether, including Jerusalem. Our professor persists with the belief that the scrolls were written in Qumran due to the correlation between the actions of the dwellers and the words written (with an emphasis on communal dining hall rules). While our trip was dedicated to the city of Qumran, we gained special permission to visit Cave 11 – ordinarily off-limits to the public. Unfortunately, there were concerns of us disturbing the bat population so we were instructed to remain at the cave’s entrance – and here I’d have liked to see both the cave’s mysterious interior as well as the bats.

From within Cave 11

After enjoying the view of from Cave 11, and noting the persistent presence of noisy orange-winged Tristam’s starlings – with the occasional brown-necked raven and several migrating black storks – we made our way back down to the bus to be ferried over to Qumran’s visitor centre.

Desert lark

We gained entrance and waited around for the audio-visual presentation to begin, taking multiple trips to the tourist-aimed gift shop where some items were even priced in dollars instead of shekels. At last the doors opened and we watched a curious video about the people who lived in Qumran during the Roman era, originally thought to be a sect of Jews called the Essenes. But in recent times the picture becomes more complicated and we were taught that, at least according to Prof Regev, the inhabitants of Qumran were two groups: one known as Yahad and the other as Damascus Treaty (my translation).


At the end of the video the middle screen lifted up and we entered a small exhibition of displayed replicas and even a few artefacts, such as a comb and the remains of both a basket and a sandal. After some brief lecturing we exited the dim, air-conditioned building and braved our way through the bright daylight and dry heat, approaching the city ruins.

Qumran tower

We began at the tower and paused now and again to learn more about the city and the people who lived inside it, of which the professor is very knowledgeable about. We passed rooms, cisterns and a number of mikvaot (ritual baths) as we combed our way through the ruins. Seated in the shaded section of the dining hall, we learned about complicated research manners such as “access analysis” and more in order to establish who lived in Qumran during the time of the Second Temple, and likewise, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Supposed Scriptorium

It was sometime around then that a rock martin whizzed right by my face, and I spotted an unidentified falcon or kestrel attempting to snatch one of the many passerines in the vicinity of the city – both of which I wasn’t fast enough to photograph. Leaving Qumran’s ruins, we walked across the desert landscape towards the edge of the cliff overlooking Road 90 and the Dead Sea. With a large scattering of large rocks, it was revealed that this was a cemetery that had fallen prey to the ravages of time. Archaeological evidence gleaned from the cemetery helps, or complicates, the various claims as to who lived in Qumran – but the view’s nice too.

Qumran cemetery

We were shadowed by a park ranger, who as it turned out studied archaeology at BIU as well, from the cemetery to the lookout over Cave 4. There we settled back down in the comfort of the shade and learned more about Qumran.

Cave 4

As we sat there, I noticed an interesting-looking bird perched on the wire fence a ways away. Activating my camera, I attempted to identify said bird with the aid of both optical and digital zoom. The photos weren’t turning out as helpful as I wanted, but I was nearly certain that I had spotted a bee-eater, which I was hoping to see. Leaving the group, I made my way over to the perched bird, even warding off another photographer who was oblivious to my intentions. At last I reached close enough to get some photos good enough to make an official identification: my first green bee-eater.

Spotting a green bee-eater

It was then and there that the tour ended and we made our way back to the bus. While waiting outside the bus, while some of our party busied themselves with lunch, I took the opportunity to photograph some visiting ibexes. Interestingly enough, whilst researching for the blog post, I came upon a fun fact that DNA research on some of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the parchment used originated from ibex skin.

Ibex nursing her young

With that we departed for BIU and our respective homes, and to end this account I share a nice image I found of the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947, which can be found HERE.

Pigeon Cave & Betzet Reserve

In Galilee, Israel on May 7, 2017 at 10:42 AM

I spent the holiday Pesach (also known as Passover) with my family in Ma’alot and managed to go on three short trips whilst up north. The first was to the tidal pools just north of Achziv, where I saw my first sea slug (or sea hare, I am not sure which). The next day we stopped off for a short hike to Pigeon Cave, located between Karmiel and Akko, on our way to Ahihud for an annual barbecue. Parking with the aid of GPS in a gravel lot somewhat near the cave, we disembarked and began the short hike.

Above Pigeon Cave

Almost immediately I spotted an interesting bird – my first wheatear, and then a few minutes later my first short-toed eagle made a lengthy appearance, hovering overhead scanning for his favourite prey, snakes. At first the trail was a simple gravel-and-grass path with red painted trail markers, but that was soon to change. In order to reach the cave, and to continue on the trail towards the opposing Mount Gamal, the trail took a perilous turn along the steep cliff side. Thankfully, the shoes I was wearing that day – loafers not meant for hiking in any way – found sure footing on the craggy rock with their “sticky” rubber soles. I nimbly made my way down and around towards the mouth of the cave, passing interesting wildlife and wildflowers.

Broad-leaved stonecrop

We found Pigeon Cave fenced off with visible archaeological-work inside, so we continued to the adjacent cave which was open to visitors, with a handful of rock-climbers scaling the cliff wall with ropes nearby.

Pigeon Cave

Pigeon Cave is the site of important prehistoric findings, as I learned about in two of my Archaeology classes at BIU. In one class we learned about the large amount of limestone with the cave, with remains of prehistoric buildings – some of which covered graves – which leads researchers to think the structures were cultic is purpose. Just outside the open cave I noticed something unusual looking on the ground among the rocks and vegetation – what appears to be the spout of a Byzantine vessel, according to a friend of mine.


We entered the empty cave and glanced about, noticing the large hole in the ceiling and the general bell-shape, defining the type of cave it is. Leaving the cave, we watched the climbers for a bit then headed back up the craggy trail and back to the car to drive to Ahihud.

Nissim within the cave

A few days later my father and I took a short hiking trip in Betzet Reserve along the Old Northern Road near the border with Lebanon. Unfortunately, even though the site we had chosen to visit is relatively obscure, there were masses of families with picnics and yelling child which invariably scared off all wildlife for miles. But, there was still a healthy amount of flora and as we walked along the gentle trail to see the Daniela ruins we feasted our eyes on hyacinth squill, lupin, mallow and some sort of wild pea.

Daniela ruins

The Daniela ruins (also spelled De’ne’ilah) is a collection of Roman-Byzantine fortified farmhouses with olivepress installations, as is typical of the Galilee region with its historical olive oil industry.

Olivepress installations

Looping back to the parking lot on the circular trail we then located and began hiking the trail to the next destination: Sarach Cave. We passed very little wildlife, due to the large human presence, but we did see a number of interesting wildflowers including the delicately-petaled pink rock rose and red everlasting, the icon of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day). Before long we left the sunny flowered area and were hiking under the shade of the trees, walking in and along the dry streambed filled with boulders. Nachal Sarach is a short stream that begins not far from Abirim Fort, feeding winter rain runoffs into Nachal Betzet which drains to the Mediterranean Sea near Rosh HaNikra. Hiking briskly, we heard the clammer of humanity up ahead and a brief check with the GPS told me that we were approaching the cave.

Sarach Cave in Betzet Reserve

To our dismay there was actually a line in order to enter this obscure cave, and so we stood behind an young Arab family with a GoPro awaiting our turn to penetrate the darkness. Despite the presence of so many children, there were no screams of terror when two enormous cave spiders were found on the walls – a species of huntsman by the name of Heteropoda variegata found mostly in caves.

Within Sarach Cave

Slowly but surely we made our way through the interesting cave with its three entrances/exits and its neat cave growths, our journey aided by special cuts in the rock for sure footing and even metal handles like we used in Alma Cave.

My father rising from the depths

Emerging out of the upper entrance/exit of the cave, we made our way back downhill to the streambed and headed back to the car, bringing the Pesach trips to an end.