Israel's Good Name

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.

  1. We did this hike recently. Unfortunately we totally missed Salvation Abbey and Horvat Tanur. From the Matta spring which direction did you walk to reach Horvat Tanur?

  2. So many trails to explore, so much history to reflect upon. The Byzantine mosaic floor is beautiful and reminds me of a quilt. To think that the person’s who put those tile pieces into place with the cement have been dead for all these years. However they left a legacy! Shem, you too are leaving a legacy in your posts. Thank you. Question: that pool, was it like a Mikvah or for drinking water? I once walked thru the Siloam Tunnel (Hebrew: נִקְבַּת הַשִּׁלֹחַ, Nikbat HaShiloaḥ), also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, there in Jerusalem. What a hoot that was, a 20 min walk-thru! Water was cold, up to my mid knee and it was so dark (no lights – only our cell phone). However I will never forget that cave walk. I reread the story of King Hezekiah & why that tunnel was constructed after we completed that walk.

    • Indeed so, I’m happy that I get to play the role that I do.
      Regarding the pool, it was used for storing water that was used both for drinking and agricultural purposes.
      Exciting about the tunnel walk, for some reason I don’t remember having to walk through water.

  3. I love your articles! Would it be possible to post a GPX files of your walks/hikes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: