Israel's Good Name

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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.

University Trip: Doq & the Good Samaritan Museum

In Israel, Jordan River Valley, Judea on January 26, 2022 at 10:20 AM

Riding on the coattails of my excursion to some fascinating sites around Nachal Tirza, I embarked on another trip with my university department at the very end of December. This was to be the first of three sequential field trips to the Judean Desert with Dr Dvir Raviv, each of the days dealing in turn with the northern, central and southern regions of the desert.

Looking out over Tariq Abu George

Looking out over Tariq Abu George

Being as this was the first day, our first destination was a small hillock overlooking Tariq Abu George, an important road that was paved by the Jordanians on the remains of an old Roman road. It was named after British army officer Edwin G. Bryant, previous superintendent of the Akko prison, who was nicknamed “Abu George” by his Arab admirers.

Golden eagle being mobbed by a common raven

Golden eagle being mobbed by a common raven

The reason we were visiting this hillock was to take note of the geographical divide between the southern end of Samaria, and the subsequent start of the Judean Desert. While we surveyed our arid surroundings, I made note of some bird activity around me. First, I spotted a pair of buzzards far off over a ridge to the west, and then a small flock of alpine swifts. Next, much to my surprise, I noticed two somewhat rare golden eagles being mobbed by a few gregarious northern ravens. I had only ever seen golden eagles twice before – and both of those had also been on field trips with Dr Raviv (HERE and HERE)!

Hiking in the direction of Doq

Hiking in the direction of Doq

Hiking back down the hill to our bus, we then headed for our first real destination of the day, the Hasmonean fortress of Doq. However, getting there was no small challenge, and our bus took a meandering route that led us through a Magav (Israel’s gendarmerie) training base and subsequent firing zones. As we drove I looked out the windows and noticed quite a nice amount of great grey shrikes, black redstarts and other birds. At last, our bus reached the vicinity of Doq and we all got out for a nice hike.

Under the watchful gaze of the Arabian green bee-eater

Under the watchful gaze of the Arabian green bee-eater

Overlooking the ancient city of Jericho, Doq was built during the Hasmonean period, and served as a fortress commanding the region. According to the Book of Maccabees, it was built by Ptolemy son of Abubus, the local governor appointed by Antiochus VII Euergetes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire some thirty years after the story of Hannukah. While the land was still in conflict between the different regional players, Doq was depicted as being the site of treachery against the Hasmoneans during a power struggle over Jerusalem.

Making our way to Doq

Making our way to Doq

Our visit to Doq (also referred to as Dagon by Josephus) began alongside the dry Wadi el-Mefjer, where an Umayyad-built dam once stood to keep the seasonal flooding from destroying the crops down in the vicinity of Jericho. We hiked up and down the rocky slopes of the Qarantal ridge as we approached the first lookout, where we were able to survey our surroundings.

Approaching Doq from the southwest

Approaching Doq from the southwest

From the lookout we pressed onward, climbing the zigzagging path that leads to Doq. Along the way we could see the restored Qarantal Monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Temptation, which was built on the cliffside overlooking Jericho. The monastery was initially built during the Byzantine period, when monasticism swept through the arid regions of the Holy Land, and then rebuilt in 1895 by the Greek Orthodox Church.

The more recent ruins atop Doq

The more recent ruins atop Doq

At last we reached the peak and we entered the ruins of Doq via a small, yet enchanting doorway that provided a break in the long western wall. However, these ruins were not of the original Doq, but rather also part of a revival attempt by the Greek Orthodox Church in the late 1800s.

Corinthian capstone from the original Doq

Corinthian capstone from the original Doq

Within, we saw that there was a large rectangular area, marked by a cross-shaped collection of low walls, and a series of arched rooms along the southern wall. We climbed to the roof of the rooms and took in the magnificent view that spread out before us of Jericho and the Qarantal beside us.

Dr Dvir Raviv backdropped by ancient Jericho

Dr Dvir Raviv backdropped by ancient Tel Jericho

Dr Raviv then gave us an geological survey of the surrounding area, and pointed out the various archaeological landmarks in the city, including the original Tel Jericho, the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue, the Herodian hippodrome, an Early Islamic sugar mill and other sites.

The large cave complex of the Qarantal

The large cave complex of the Qarantal

Turning to the Qarantal ridge, he then pointed out a series of caves marking the craggy cliffside. These were the Caves of the Spies, where it is believed the Israelite spies of the biblical story of Jericho had fled to, as well as other caves that were used in antiquity.

Inside the vaulted rooms

Inside the vaulted rooms

Wandering off to explore the vaulted rooms below us, I found something that intrigued me greatly. Upon the stone walls were written the names of past visitors, many of which were either in Arabic or in plain English. Some of the English graffiti was clearly signed by British soldiers who were likely stationed in the country. One particularly legible scrawl was by one Ernie J Brice, noting his time in Mandate Palestine from 1938 until unknown.

Graffiti left inside Doq's lonely rooms

Graffiti left inside Doq’s lonely rooms

I happened to search this name and found that apparently he was the transmitter operator at the British consulate when Israel was established. His name came up in a 1948 Palestine Post write-up about Israel’s first espionage case, the fledgling government against a British citizen named Frederick William Sylvester who was spying for Israel’s enemies (see more HERE and HERE).

Hiking down to examine the water system

Hiking down to examine the water system

We then explored the remains of the to-be Greek Orthodox Church which incorporated what it believed to be a key shape in the construction, with scattered regal column capitals that bear testament to the grandeur that once was two thousand years ago. From there we left the confines of the wall and began to explore the ancient water system that joined a hewn channel with numerous cisterns.

Walking along the water channel on the eastern slope

Walking along the water channel on the eastern slope

Clinging to the craggy cliffside, we walked down the channel and examined the hard work that it took to create such an intricate system in such an arid place – only discovered in 1972. That, and the increasingly breathtaking views of Jericho spread out before us, with the aforementioned Qarantal Monastery just below.

Peering inside one of the system's cisterns

Peering inside one of the system’s cisterns

Hiking the way back was via the same channel, continuing along the northern slope until we reached the adjacent ridge where a practically indiscernible small fort crowned the peak. We stopped there to catch our breaths, looking back at Doq and the areas we had just hiked. Refreshed, we then hiked back to the bus to be shuttled to our next destination of the day.

Hiking up to the small fort

Hiking up to the small fort

Arriving at a place that I have had my eyes on for years, I was eager to get out and explore. We were at the Good Samaritan Museum, a mosaic museum housed on the ruins of a 2,000-year old wayfarers station, and later as a Byzantine-era inn from where its name originates. I had seen the museum site back in early 2018 when I had visited Castellum Rouge, a Crusader fortress built just across Road 1, and now was its time to shine.

The Good Samaritan Museum

The Good Samaritan Museum

Immediately inside the site’s gates we saw the showcased underground dwelling cave that dates back to the Second Temple period as well as a grand mosaic from the ancient synagogue at Gaza featuring a fine collection of artistic fauna. Many, if not all of the mosaics on display at the museum are those found in archaeological sites that wouldn’t otherwise be able to support the conservation on-site. Thus, when need be, the Israel Antiquities Authority systematically transplants and preserves these fragile works of art to be displayed for all.

The outdoor exhibits of the museum

The outdoor exhibits of the museum

It’d take a long time to list all of the magnificent mosaics that I saw that day, but there are some that stand out for several reasons. The mosaic that excited me most was the one found at Khirbet el-Lattatin, an interesting site just a kilometre or so away from my parents-in-law’s home in Givat Ze’ev. But there were those that impressed with their sheer beauty, such as the mosaics of the church narthex and the Roman fortress at Deir Qal’a, both stunning in their geometric patterns.

The Roman fortress floor from Deir Qal'a

The Roman fortress floor from Deir Qal’a

These were all part of the outdoor exhibits, where mosaics are incorporated among the ruins of structures from the Second Temple and Byzantine periods, as well as a water cistern from the Crusader period. I enjoyed seeing capitals from Nabi Samuel, as well as hewn sarcophagi from Shechem (Nablus), but I was also eager to see inside the museum’s central building, originally built during the Ottoman period to serve as a police station guarding the treacherous road outside.

Capitals from Nabi Samuel on display

Capitals from Nabi Samuel on display

Entering, and rejoicing in the respite from the cold winds outside, I quickly became overwhelmed at the sheer quantity of mosaics on display. The six consecutive rooms, each full of mosaics and other accompanying artefacts, was almost too much to be properly enjoyed in one brief visit. Some did stand out, especially the inscription mosaic from the aforementioned Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue in Jericho.

The eponymous mosaic from the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue of Jericho

The eponymous mosaic from the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue of Jericho

During the Byzantine period, when mosaic floors became an integral component to religious structures, the art was used by all faiths. I became impressed with the quantity and quality of the Samaritan mosaics, hailing from sites such as Mount Gerizim, El-Khirbe and Sha’alavim. However, it was the Samaritan synagogue at Khirbet Samara that took the proverbial cake, the mosaic remains showcased in a large glass-walled room.

Within the room dedicated to Khirbet Samara

Within the room dedicated to Khirbet Samara

I looked around until it was time to get back on the bus for one last stop. The sun was slowly sinking, and Dr Raviv had one last place he wanted us to see before bringing this first field day to an end. Thankfully, it was not far and before we knew it, we were back outside again and climbing up a short hill to an excellent observation point looking out over Wadi Qelt and the Monastery of St George.

Ending our day at the Monastery of St George lookout

Ending our day at the Monastery of St George lookout

Evening was setting over the picturesque desert, marked by a flock of alpine swifts calling overhead as they welcomed the dusk. Plus, to boost our high spirits even more, a tiny birthday celebration for one of the students was held. The enchanting calls of Tristram’s starlings echoing in the wadi was our last audible memory of the day, accompanying us as we scurried back to our bus for the long ride back home.

University Trip: Sites around Nachal Tirza

In Israel, Jordan River Valley on January 16, 2022 at 10:15 AM

It has been difficult not going on any field trips offered by my Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department in the past year and a half or so. The last one I had attended was to Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva with Prof Aren Maeir, and the time had come to once again embark on a group tour of some exciting places that I wouldn’t ordinarily be visiting on my own. This time, towards the end of December, I set out on a trip to four archaeological sites in the Nachal Tirza area with Prof Shawn Zelig Aster and Dr Dvir Raviv, the latter being one of my thesis advisors.

The region of our adventure

The region of our adventure

With our target destination being located in the Jordan River Valley area of the country, it was quite a drive to get there coming from Bar Ilan University. Although, on the way, we passed el-Jenab Cave, which I happen to be researching for my thesis and thus pleased me deeply. That, and the breathtaking views of the mountains and wadis on the eastern side of the watershed made the trip already exciting. Before we arrived at our first stop, we had a quick break at a rest stop near Pazael, where I found hundreds of black kites still resting before taking to the skies.

Roosting black kites

Roosting black kites

When we were back in the bus and headed for our first site – Khirbet el-Makhruk – we drove past staggering numbers of both black kites and starlings flying in the vicinity of local garbage dumps. I’d estimate that there were tens of thousands of each, and an additional couple hundred white storks to complete the spellbinding picture. However, this trip was about geography and archaeology and so the bus let us out near Adam Junction and we began the short hike to Khirbet el-Makhruk.

Atop the eastern fortress at Khirbet el-Makhruk

Atop the eastern fortress at Khirbet el-Makhruk

Since we had just experienced a week-long storm, even the arid Jordan River Valley region had received rainfall which was the catalyst for a very exciting event in the circle of life. After the rains, termites come out of their underground complexes and those with wings take to the skies. We swatted the drone-like termites as they flew past, one of them finding its way into my shirt, but then we noticed something incredible. When we had reached the eastern fortress of the ancient site, we saw Israeli gold scorpions running about in broad daylight, nabbing the confused termites and quite literally eating them on the go. Unfortunately, I don’t have the proper macro equipment to capture this moment the way it needs to be, but to witness it was astounding.

An Israeli gold scorpion running off with a termite

An Israeli gold scorpion running off with a termite

Khirbet el-Makhruk is a complex of small fortresses dating to the Iron Age, or when the Israelites were active, built atop the ruins of an Early Bronze Age city. Not much remains of the ruins, but back then the site was vitally important in its task of keeping the settled hinterland safe. While looking around the eastern hilltop, I found evidence of recent artefact looting, as well as a freshly broken rim of what appears to be an Iron Age jug.

Exploring the circular tower

Exploring the circular tower

We continued up to the small circular tower which effectively guarded the southern side of the complex. There, in the jumbled ruins, I found a painted sherd that either dates to the Late Bronze Age or the Mamluk period, depending on who you ask.

Late Bronze Age or Mamluk painted pottery

Late Bronze Age or Mamluk painted pottery

From there we continued on to the northern fortress which was most recently ravaged by IDF fortification trenches, although Ottoman bunkers dating to WWI can also be found in the vicinity. Here we found a recently exposed mud brick wall, beautifully intact and utterly raw evidence of the construction efforts that went into this key site.

Freshly exposed ancient mud brick wall

Freshly exposed ancient mud brick wall

We documented it fully, and began the hike back down to the waiting tour bus. Along the way, I had some pleasing birding moments, including some beautiful green bee-eaters, a flushed sand partridge and my very first Namaqua doves.

My very first Namaqua doves

My very first Namaqua doves

Our bus driver deposited us next outside a date plantation just south of Argaman, where we hiked along the wadi to our next site of interest, Bedhat esh-Sha’ab. Also referred to as Gilgal, this is a unique site attributed to ceremonial usage during the Iron Age. The late archaeologist Adam Zertal suggested that Bedhat esh-Sha’ab was one of the first places the Israelites camped upon crossing into the Holy Land. The other possible candidates also share a distinct footprint-shaped outline, which may connect to biblical terminology concerning conquest.

Bedhat esh-Sha'ab or Gilgal

Bedhat esh-Sha’ab or Gilgal

At any rate, this site is located at the foot of a stepped slope which served as an amphitheatre of sorts during our visit there. Nummulite fossils can be found on these rocks, and sure enough we found some as we searched about. Indeed, I had even quite accidentally photographed a nice grouping of the orange, coin-shaped fossils when taking a picture of a nearby blackstart.

A blackstart perched on a nummulite-dotted rock

A blackstart perched on a nummulite-dotted rock

In more recent years, there were efforts to make Bedhat esh-Sha’ab/Gilgal a proper tourist attraction, and a gigantic megalithic tower was erected. While there’s really not much to see inside the beast, we did notice some local lads climbing up to the top to enjoy the lofty views.

The behemoth of a tourist attraction

The behemoth of a tourist attraction

We hiked back to the bus and were shuttled over to the next site on our itinerary, the Roman hilltop fortress known now as Horvat Heraf. Located just north of Argaman, a mere two and a half kilometres from Bedhat esh-Sha’ab, this was a permanent military camp for the Roman army in the Jordan River Valley region. Interestingly enough, this quite noticeable site wasn’t documented by early archaeologists, nor by the British surveyors. It was discovered in 1968, during an emergency survey after the Six Day War, and was, only then, properly analysed and named.

Making our way up to the Roman army camp fortress

Making our way up to the Roman army camp fortress

A fortress of large proportions, the inner section measures a whopping 3,400 square metres, with an additional “lean-to” constructed on the southern side. Three entrances are built into the roomed walls, and a praetorium (officer’s headquarters) in the very centre – see an aerial image of the camp HERE. We were quite understandably impressed by this visibly authentic site, and set about looking for interesting ceramic fragments and maybe even ancient Roman coins (of which we found none).

The ruined praetorium in the centre of the complex

The ruined praetorium in the centre of the complex

What made this extra titillating for me was the fact that this fortified camp was constructed during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, in connection with the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–136 CE). The evening before, friends Adam and Vered, Bracha and I watched Thermae Romae, a quirky Japanese movie about a Roman architect trying to improve upon the existing Roman bathhouses under the behest of none other than the very same Hadrian. It’s interesting to compare narratives of such a famous, or infamous, historical figure.

Beautiful shades of topography

Beautiful shades of topography

After a light drizzle, we headed back down the mountain and back into our awaiting bus to be taken to the final site for the day. This one was located a bit further upstream, and should be referred to as Khirbet Merah al-‘Enab (Hums a-Tahta), following the advice of Prof Aster. This site is the ruins of an Israelite fortress which helped defend the natural topographical roads that led into the heart of Samaria.

Part of the Israelite fortress at Khirbet Merah al-'Enab

Part of the Israelite fortress at Khirbet Merah al-‘Enab

We arrived on location to see that the site is the literal backyard of a local Arab family, whose patriarch watched us keenly as we enjoyed their hospitality. Our lecturers gave a brief rundown of the site and its importance to the region, and when we left, Prof Aster had a quick conversation with our host in Arabic and it turns out that the both remembered each other from a previous occasion some years back – always charming. With that we made one final hike back to our bus, and off we went back in the direction of Bar Ilan University, bringing yet another field trip to a successful end.

Horvat Hanut & Salvatio Abbey

In Israel, Judea on January 9, 2022 at 9:08 AM

Continuing with my explorations with friend and fellow archaeologist Avner Touitou, we were so inspired by the rich archaeological finds of the region of our last trip – Beit ‘Itab – that we decided to go back. However, this time we fancied the scattered ruins just over two kilometres south, namely Horvat Hanut and the Salvatio Abbey, also known as Khirbet Matta or Horvat Tanur. And so, in early December, we took another Friday morning trip out to the Bet Shemesh region and zeroed in on the collection of intriguing sites.

An adventure with Avner

An adventure with Avner

Parking at the KKL-JNF lot for the Matta Forest, we made our morning preparations and promptly began to explore the first site, Horvat Hanut. Also known as Khirbet el-Khan, the site was primarily occupied during the Byzantine period, following the local road being paved during the Roman period, and then rebuilt as a khan (caravanserai) during the Ottoman period.

The Byzantine church turned Ottoman khan

The Byzantine church turned Ottoman khan

Of interest was a large plastered pool, a sizable winepress and a church that likely belonged to a monastery. While the Ottomans built their khan over the ruins of the church, the original ornate mosaic floor is still somewhat intact (after extremist vandalisation in 2012), and is wholly impressive.

Detail of the Byzantine mosaic floor

Detail of the Byzantine mosaic floor

On one end of the mosaic there’s a Greek commemoration text stating that the floor was laid when Theodoros was head of the monastery, sometime in the 500s CE. Making our way to the far side of the church ruins, we found the crypt where a single sarcophagus was probably stored.

The large Byzantine pool

The large Byzantine pool

Just outside of the church is the extensive winepress installation, a collection of pools and treading floors which were used to help fund the monastery. In true Byzantine fashion, the floors of the winepress were also covered in a mosaic, albeit the simpler, less costly white one that is quite common.

The Byzantine winepress

The Byzantine winepress

From the ruins of Horvat Hanut we began our descent of the hill, towards the other exciting destinations that awaited us. It had recently rained, and the rocks were particularly slick combined with the mud, so the going was slow. Hiking carefully, we breathed in the fresh mountain air and admired the various winter blossoms that had bloomed between the rocks and the trees. As we walked we could spot the various ruins of interest on the opposing slope, which we were soon to explore.

Hiking through the woods

Hiking through the woods

At last we made it to the valley, where Nachal Zanoach flows thanks to the numerous little springs. The first of these is Ein Matta, with its tiny pool of gurgling spring water. But, we did not come for the watery delights, for an old house commanded our attention and awakened our curiosity.

Outside the old house next to Ein Matta

Outside the old house next to Ein Matta

After a bit of research, this house appears to have been Crusader/Mamluk in origin, with visible signs of continued use and reconstruction in later, more modern periods. On site, we explored it and made note of its charming look and location, the idyllic home beside the bubbling brook.

Inside the old house next to Ein Matta

Inside the old house next to Ein Matta

Poking up over the native trees, watching us tiny creatures below, towered the grove of robust washingtonia palms. These behemoths beckoned us closer, to be enchanted by their unnatural appearance in this cold, drippy valley. As we climbed over the bramble and onto the tiny clearing before the grove, I instantly was taken back into the spellbinding novels of Jules Verne, where primordial worlds still exist. We walked slowly through the grove, feeling miniature between the rows of blackened trucks, and proclaimed our wonderment of this place.

The towering washingtonia palms

The towering washingtonia palms

As we pondered as to why these trees were planted, and how they looked so ridiculous when they collapsed in a state of shriveled death, I felt another presence join us. I turned around to see an unsuspecting jackal loping towards us, yet when I saw him, he saw me and both of us reacted in alarm. I tried firing off a picture and it about-faced and fled from the scene, scarcely giving me time to even alert Avner of our furry visitor.

Salvatio Abbey from the outside

Salvatio Abbey from the outside

When we finished with the grove, we carried on and headed for the next attraction – the ruins of Salvatio Abbey. Built as a Cistercian Catholic monastery in 1161, it is believed that the several houses surrounding the grand central structure served as community housing, despite being built prior to the abbey. Our first glimpse of the complex was the great eastern wall of the abbey, built of ashlars and flanked by rubble walls on either side. With the onset of the Mamluk rule, and the European Christians leaving the land, the small village was resettled by Arabs and renamed ‘Allar al-Sifla, and then eventually abandoned permanently in more recent years.

Avner admiring the fine masonry of the abbey chapel wall

Avner admiring the fine masonry of the abbey chapel wall

We gained entrance to the complex just outside the abbey, climbing over the fallen walls from where we surveyed our surroundings. The overgrown grass obscured some of our visibility, but we could clearly see the more elaborate architecture that the abbey boasted. We entered the ruined chapel, where elegant arched windows and a finely-cut ovolo corbel captivated our attention. Despite the vegetation and the rubble, the nearly untouched ruins filled us with imaginative ideas of excavations and discoveries – naturally, we both lament the general lack of interest in medieval archaeology in the country.

The overgrown ruins of the Salvatio complex

The overgrown ruins of the Salvatio complex

As Avner examined the grand wall with more detail, I climbed past the dried golden henbane and cactus to the top of the western wall, where I could see the other side of the chapel’s wall. Avner located a cistern, and we made a final sweep of the abbey area before making our way to the northern side. There, we admired the great walls once again and set off to find the final site of interest for the day, the arched tunnel of Ein Tanur.

Within Ein Tanur's arched tunnel

Within Ein Tanur’s arched tunnel

Simply hiking down the gentle slope back to the bottom of the wadi, we chanced upon the spring in a tight cluster of fig and other fruit trees. While the water was solely located inside the expertly-crafted arched tunnel, we appreciated the amount of work that went into making the spring more usable for the local inhabitants in times of old. With that final thought, we headed back to the trail and made our laborious way back up the slippery path to the car lot. Unfortunately, we had no time to explore the delightful “Caesar Trail”, a Roman road with hewn steps believed to have been built during the reign of Hadrian, so that will have to be saved for another day.

Ruins around Givat Ze’ev

In Israel, Jerusalem on January 2, 2022 at 10:33 AM

This post is about two documented excursions to the ruins in the outskirts of Givat Ze’ev, a small city nestled between Jerusalem and Ramallah. I’ve become somewhat acquainted with the city and its outskirts in recent years, as my in-laws are residents of the Neve Menachem neighbourhood on the eastern side of the city. Avid walkers, my in-laws took me out on several undocumented visits to the various archaeological remains in the vicinity, located in open garrigue scrubland. Then, in August of 2020, I had the opportunity to document a trip to some ruins, accompanied by Bracha and our local guide, my father-in-law, David Berman.

Satellite view of the area (photo Google)

Satellite view of the area (photo Google)

We made our way through the construction sites to a stretch of concrete was once the main road north of Givat Ze’ev, since replaced by a larger road and a security checkpoint. Our destination was the ruins of Khirbet el-Lattatin, the ninth mile marker north of Jerusalem which even appears on the famous Madaba Map from the 6th century CE. Due to the site’s locational importance in antiquity, a wayfarer’s station was built in the Byzantine period, complete with a basilica plan church. As time progressed and the Arabs took control from the Byzantines, the church was somewhat repurposed as an agricultural installment, yet travelers still sought shelter on-site. The complex seemed to have gone out of use in the 9th century CE, according to archaeological finds such as pottery and coins.

The ruins of Khirbet el-Lattatin

The ruins of Khirbet el-Lattatin

Upon approach we noticed two things: the remains of a nice ashlar wall, likely connected to the ruins, and a collection of IDF soldiers and dogs from the elite “Oketz” unit. Checking with the soldiers that we weren’t interrupting any important training session, we left the road and found the semi-concealed ruins of Khirbet el-Lattatin which were excavated in 1995. What we saw before us was a complex of rooms and partial walls, nothing quite discernable so we climbed down into the ruins.

Byzantine floor mosaic

Byzantine floor mosaic

A simple white mosaic floor from the Byzantine stage of construction was easily found, as were these round floor features which looked to have belonged to the Arab agricultural complex. We explored the rooms from below, walking in and out of the many rooms and making note of interesting things. I found a thickly plastered wall section, incised with a simple chevron motif, and of its origin and purpose I still don’t know. It was peculiar to the eye to see some different building styles, but due to the site’s dramatic change under new ownership, it only made sense.

What appears to be the apse of the Byzantine chapel

What appears to be the apse of the Byzantine chapel

Also of interest were a collection of columns and bases, with one column still embedded in the sunken wall, which were originally part of the Byzantine church. In addition, we found the empty water cistern where a Sinai fan-fingered gecko was hiding, scampering away when I tried taking its picture. Overall, it was quite an interesting site, especially so close to home, so to speak. We headed back, finding a dried ram skull in the grass, bringing an end to the fun outing.

Basilica column still buried in the dirt

Basilica column still buried in the dirt

On a previous visit we had taken this abandoned road to the end, where a large agricultural watchtower is located, but this time it didn’t warrant the effort just for one photo (see HERE instead). There are other captivating ruins in the immediate area that we didn’t end up seeing, including other watchtowers, hewn mikvahs and a hewn burial cave.

Happy adventurers in the ruins

Happy adventurers in the ruins

When researching Khirbet el-Lattatin I found a fascinating document (see HERE) from the archive of the Department of Antiquities of Mandatory Palestine detailing a local villager’s visit when he reported finding antiquities in a local burial cave (which seems to be the same one that we missed). Within the report, written in the Queen’s English, it says that the villager found and presented to the British part of a limestone ossuary, several bracelets and other jewelry that were actually found and looted from the bones within the ossuary, one of which he had initially gifted to his daughter!

Happy "Oketz" dog

Happy “Oketz” dog

If that’s not enough post-adventure excitement, just after I had written this post I had gone on a field trip with my university department. Among the sites on the day’s itinerary was the Good Samaritan Museum, where assorted mosaics from around the country are preserved and displayed. To my surprise, one of the first mosaics that I saw there was one from Khirbet el-Lattatin – the original Byzantine church floor that was transplanted to the museum for safekeeping. Not having known of its existence in the first place, this finding was electrifying and so I’m adding a wide-angled photo of it to this post for maximum effect.

The fancy mosaic floor of Khirbet el-Lattatin displayed at the Good Samaritan Museum

The fancy mosaic floor of Khirbet el-Lattatin displayed at the Good Samaritan Museum

Excited by my first adventure, my next archaeological excursion took place only in the beginning of December, 2021, when I had a few hours on one particularly chilly afternoon to explore the local hill – named after a squad of Palmach fighters who set out on a mission only to fail and later be commemorated in various ways. The hill is just north of the Neve Menachem neighbourhood, and is home of a semi-active archaeological excavation, which I had tried to join two years ago, but it was being postponed due to the initial coronavirus outbreak.

Open garrigue scrubland outside of Givat Ze'ev

Open garrigue scrubland outside of Givat Ze’ev

With camera and binoculars safely secured around my neck, I set out for the slopes, happily seeing my first signs of wildlife in the form of a male black redstart and a handful of chirpy chiffchaffs in the conifer line that borders the city. Entering the open garrigue scrubland, I encountered the many tiny caves and visibly quarried bedrock along the southern side of the hill. The Steven’s meadow saffron was in blossom, as was the winter saffron, both classic winter wildflowers despite it being so cold.

Hewn bedrock atop the hill

Hewn bedrock atop the hill

The walk up the hill is best taken along the flat bedrock that wraps around the southern side, decorated with hewn cup marks and agricultural installations that were full of the last rain’s water. As I walked along the unintentional path, I kept scanning for birds but only a few stonechats were to be seen. Then, climbing up on some rocks, I saw a medium-sized bird fly out from shelter and managed to get it in my binoculars before it disappeared over the ridge. I was elated as I had just seen my first (living) woodcock, a very elusive bird that can be seen locally in the winter months.

Kestrel in the cold wind

Kestrel in the cold wind

With a smile on my face I then reached the archaeological excavation area, where ongoing efforts to learn more about this hill’s role in history have been happening. Thus far, it was revealed that a fortress was built in the Middle Bronze age (some 4,000 years ago), and that the site was also in use in the Iron Age, during the time of the First Temple. Frankly, there’s not much to see at surface level, save some stubby wall bases and scattered potsherds.

Recent excavation efforts

Recent excavation efforts

As I walked around the northern side of the hill I noticed more excavation areas, some with exposed walls, as well as more modern simple rock walls that divided the slope up into designated areas. With not much to see, I continued around to the eastern slope and made my way down into the flat area in the direction of the nearest Arab village. The bird situation didn’t improve much at first, with just more territorial stonechats perched hither and thither, but then I saw a nice long-legged buzzard who soared off into the distance.

A donkey friend

A donkey friend

When I reached the easternmost point of Givat Ze’ev, located to my right, I discerned a small flock of corn bunting on a small tree, which gave me hope. I continued along the dirt road outside the city, where ploughed fields and chilly orchards provided a change in scenery. The birding improved, if only by a little, with some starlings, greenfinches and another black redstart. With my free time running out, I turned back around and headed into the city, making my way back to my in-law’s place. These trips served as a successful and joyous preliminary reconnoitering of the immediate surroundings, but there is still more to be seen and documented in the days and years to come.