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Archive for the ‘Galilee’ Category

University Trip: Kinneret III

In Galilee, Israel on April 17, 2016 at 5:09 AM

Following parts I and II of Bar Ilan University’s two-day trip to the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) area, our two buses drove from the scenic ruins of Wadi Hamam to the newly excavated ruins of Migdal (or Magdala). When I was visiting friends and family in Michigan a few months ago, I stumbled upon a free copy of Smithsonian magazine (Jan-Feb 2016 issue) which featured the findings of Magdala as their cover story, which I brought back home with me (see HERE). And now, on this trip, I was able to visit the much-discussed site and to hear the discovery story from the archaeologist and IAA official mentioned in the article, Arfan Najar and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, respectively.

Magdala (or Migdal)

Magdala (or Migdal)

First gawking at the ridiculous souvenirs for the myriads of religious tourists, such as tiny vials of “synagogue sand” or “Sea of Galilee water” (each for $1 apiece), we settled down for an introductory lecture on the site. At the culmination of said lecture we all stood up and walked over to the start of the archaeological park tour, showcasing the structural finds previously hidden underground.

Examining the remains of houses

Examining the remains of houses

We discussed the unique findings of household mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) in some of the houses, with the Kinneret just minutes away by foot – evidence of wealth in the village. Onwards we walked around the complex of uncovered walls until we reached the paramount discovery of the dig, a 2,000 year old synagogue with some rather interesting features. One such detail was a short, squat, ornately carved stone table which was presumed to be used for communal Torah scroll readings, a debatable assumption. A replica of the altar-like table can be seen in the photograph below, resting on the dirt partially obscured by a broken column.

Magdala's ancient synagogue

Migdal’s ancient synagogue

Continuing onward with the extensive ruins, we walked alongside the unfinished Magdala Resort and I took the opportunity to wander off in the direction of the richly blue-coloured Kinneret. I noticed a dark basalt complex not far south and found Najar to identify it for me; an Ottoman-era homestead with an adjacent pump house was his answer. With a multitude of thanks to the guest speakers we wrapped up our Magdala visit and returned to the buses, driving north to a site I hadn’t known about: Horvat Minya.

Aerial view of Horvat Minya (photo Yaniv Darvasi)

Aerial view of Horvat Minya (photo Yaniv Darvasi)

Pulling up right outside the ruins, we were greeted by a formidable limestone wall and an open main gate flanked by half-round towers. Horvat Minya is a the remains of an Islamic palace from the Umayyad period, built by Hisham, the same caliph attributed to the construction of the Islamic palace outside Jericho (the cleverly named Hisham’s Palace).

Inside the Islamic palace

Inside the Islamic palace

Upon entering the ruined palace I was immediately swept over by a feeling of exotic adventure, like I was following in the footsteps of the lovable titular character of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Everything about the colonnaded courtyard and the atypical grass-covered floors of the rooms in the northeast quadrant of the palace felt so foreign, and I reveled in the feeling.

Snaking our way through the ruins

Snaking our way through the ruins

Passing a room with a collapsed vaulted ceiling, we snaked our way through the overgrown spring vegetation and dismantled masonry. We found Persian and/or Islamic potsherds with the characteristic green glaze as well as a large stash of broken white marble of high quality. In one room, under a sturdy staircase, we found what seems to be holes made by looters, hoping to find hidden treasure troves. Rejoining the group, we visited the remains of the on-site mosque, kitchen and numerous other rooms, paying special attention to the anchoring holes on the southern wall, used to affix marble plates in efforts to beautify the room. Despite the fact that we could have stayed a lot longer, the sun was setting and there was still one more site to visit: Tel Kinnorot.

Prof Aren Maeir lecturing from the ruined walls of Tel Kinnorot

Prof Aren Maeir lecturing from the ruined walls of Tel Kinnorot

We disembarked just off the road not far from Capernaum Junction and climbed up the hill overlooking the Kinneret, reaching the excavated ruins partway up. An ancient settlement that has been used in research to showcase early urbanisation, Tel Kinnorot was mentioned in the Bible as a fortified city in two separate accounts. A fragment from an Egyptian stella with hieroglyphic markings was found in 1928 and a very thorough and well composed article was written up in recent years which can be seen HERE (I especially liked the fish bit). But we stopped to visit just the gate and storage houses, if I recall correctly, where we had a lecture as the sun slipped over the slope of the tel.

Sunset over the tel

Sunset over the tel

Afterwards we enjoyed snacks and beverages both hot and cold before walking back down to the parked buses. I was dropped off at Migdal where my parents picked me up for the drive back home, ending a very long but very enjoyable trip with Bar Ilan University, hopefully the first of many…

University Trip: Kinneret II

In Galilee, Israel on April 10, 2016 at 8:42 AM

Continuing with my first ever university trip, a two-day affair in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) region, I awoke in my country lodging bed in Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov early in the morning to first pray and then eat breakfast in the antiques-decorated dining room. We prepared sandwiches for later and boarded the buses, eager to begin the adventures of the day. Our first stop was just minutes away, the restored Samakh (or Tzemach) train station from the Ottoman period.

Restored station building of Samakh (Tzemach)

Restored station building of Samakh (Tzemach)

Samakh was the last station this side of the Yarmouk gorge before heading to Damascus and the Hedjaz region of modern day Saudi Arabia, where Mecca and Medina can be found. In order to advance both commercial and passenger transportation from the Holy Land coastline inland, the Ottoman Empire built their first station in the port city of Haifa (see post). Subsequently building stations across the land via the Jezreel Valley, the railway reached the considerable dip in elevation of the Great Rift Valley and a great undertaking was in order – the Ottomans’ largest construction feat (see map). But even with a topic as interesting as the old Hejaz Railway, time was of the essence and we were hustled back onto the buses and driven to the next site on the list, Berko Archaeological Park in Tiberias (also known as Tverya).

Roman theatre and the Kinneret

Roman theatre and the Kinneret

Skipping the history of Tiberias, which can be found in the above-linked post, we headed straight for the Roman theatre at the base of Mount Berniki – a large venue for live performances with some 6,000 seats. We had fragmented lectures given at different vantage points around the sizable theatre and then we moved on to the next ruins just a few minutes away, the remnants of the drainage canal built to direct the mountain runoff during the rainy season away from the vulnerable city.

Roman theatre and Mount Berniki

Roman theatre and Mount Berniki

Running alongside the drainage canal are the ruins of the ancient Roman city gate and Byzantine southern city walls. It was at this gate that ancient Tiberias’ cardo (main street) began, stretching northwards into the city which, in the 500’s CE, was fortified by the Byzantine Caesar Justinian. Having skipped some of the initial public buildings, including a bathhouse and a basilica, we returned to the buses for a nice drive to the picturesque Wadi Hamam.

Roman gate and Byzantine wall outside the drainage canal

Roman gate and Byzantine wall outside the drainage canal

Passing modern Tiberias we turned off Road 90 under the shadow of Mount Arbel, an impressive cliff edge that claims a 110 metre (360 foot) drop. Disembarking across from the colourful Arab village of Wadi Hamam we started our way uphill on an unmarked trail, heading for the archaeological dig of Horvat Veradim, better known as the ruins of Wadi Hamam.

Climbing the base of Mount Nitai

Climbing the base of Mount Nitai

We passed large swathes of wild mustard, dotted with the occasional scarlet pimpernel while barn swallows swooped gracefully overhead, feeding off the bugs attracted by the cows and the flowers. The weather was beautiful and the hike itself was pleasant and short; before long we arrived at a flat stretch with the walled remnants of an ancient synagogue, complete with broken columns. Perching on stone steps I settled down to hear a lecture about the significance of this synagogue, as well as the unique mosaic floors uncovered (of which I saw one just recently in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem).

Wadi Hamam aerial view (photo Dr Uzi Leibner)

Wadi Hamam aerial view (photo Dr Uzi Leibner)

During this address I was handed two small bits of broken glass which sparkled in the most delightful way. Having visited the Israel Museum last week I learned that the beauty of the sparkle is actually just iridescence caused by the glass’ deterioration, also known as silver weathering. I was unable to secure any guesstimation as to the glass’ age or maker, due to the fact that the bits are not indicative pieces are thereby essentially worthless.

Ancient glass bits

Ancient glass bits

Briefly interrupted by the village’s prerecorded muezzin call to prayer, the lecture carried on for a while during which I found an interesting piece of flint. When our brains were sufficiently filled with knowledge about Wadi Hamam’s synagogue we walked over to the other ruins which seem to have been public buildings of sorts. Descending the slope we noticed a millstone laying among some ordinary stones, evidence of ancient industry – most likely the production of olive oil. Here is my favourite photo of the two-day trip, and there is a short video clip I filmed in glorious 4K resolution when the muezzin was calling that can be seen HERE:

Lecture at Wadi Hamam

Lecture at Wadi Hamam

With that we reassembled ourselves on the buses and took off for the next site, just at the end of the road on the banks of the Kinneret – ancient Migdal (or Magdala).

University Trip: Kinneret I

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on April 3, 2016 at 7:13 AM

The week before last I attended my very first university trip, having just started studying Archaeology in Bar Ilan University. This trip was to be a two-day adventure around the Kinneret area, hopping from site to site to explore and to hear brief lectures from the various resident academics as well as special guests. We left the Bar Ilan campus in the morning, our buses taking Road 6 and then passing Megiddo, Afula and Kfar Tavor before entering the beautiful green valley of Yavne’el. Our first stop was just minutes later, at the Hod Lookout beside a monument dedicated to the early androcentric settlement of Beitanya.

Sea level at the Hod Lookout near Beitanya

Sea level at the Hod Lookout near Beitanya

Next we drove to a site that I’ve read much about, yet never really seen – Karnei Hittim (or, the Horns of Hattin). Known for the famous battle between the Crusaders and the Ayyubids under the leadership of Saladin, this extinct volcano was the battlegrounds that held testament to the Christians’ first major defeat back in 1187. Following the lead of Dr Rafi Lewis we skirted the east side of the gentle slope and made our way through a brief rainshower to the obscure ruins of Kankuzah.

Karnei Hittim as seen from the ruins of Kankuzah

Karnei Hittim as seen from the ruins of Kankuzah

Rafi, an archaeologist specialising in battlefields, proceeded to tell us all about the deciding battle that was fought to the west of us, and how he conducted numerous light digs of the general area finding all sorts of military artefacts. At one point he held up a printed version of the picture embedded below, a photograph from the 1890s listed in the Library of Congress as the Mount of Beatitudes (Capernaum) which has since been “historically relocated” to the area where the Jordan River spills into the Kinneret.

Karnei Hittim from the 1890s (photo Library of Congress)

Karnei Hittim from the 1890s (photo Library of Congress)

Leaving behind the beautiful view of the Arbel Valley, we walked back to the buses passing large green fields of wheat. Next we drove back down to the Beitanya area, headed for our next destination: the Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader.

The Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader

The Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader

I had the opportunity of visiting Hamat Gader back in 2012, but then I was only able to marvel at the archaeological ruins from the plebian side of the fence. Being a university trip, even key points of interest along the way to Hamat Gader were pointed out, including the famous ruined bridge and sites along the Yarmouk River, bordering the country of Jordan. Once inside the resort, famous for its hot springs and crocodile farm, we were ushered directly to the Roman ruins. Across the Yarmouk, under Jordanian sovereignty, is the mountainside ruins of Gadara – a once important city that had close ties with the population living beside the hot springs.

Inside the Roman bathhouse

Inside the Roman bathhouse

In class the other day I learned about the Roman plumbing technology used in these bathhouses, and the small stone cubes lining the pool behind me in the photo are actually small fountains all connected by a pipe under the stonework. Iconoclasm lent to the destruction of the faces on the stone cubes, the mouths of which would spout water. Ever under the watchful eye of the head of security, our group walked carefully from room to room, taking in the classic beauty. At last we settled down in the stately Hall of the Pillars for a few brief lectures.

Lecture in the Hall of the Pillars

Lecture in the Hall of the Pillars

Wrapping up at Hamat Gader we drove up the Golan side of the Kinneret to our next point of interest, Ein Gev. One of the first kibbutzim to be established in Golan under Syrian authority, the success of Ein Gev was a powerful message to all parties involved. Leaving the buses, we walked to the grassy lakefront and sat beneath the gently swaying palm trees settling in for another lecture.

Lakefront lecture at Ein Gev

Lakefront lecture at Ein Gev

With still so much to see, we were hustled back onto the buses and driven to an ancient site on the banks of the Jordan at the southern end of the Kinneret, a site known as Tel Bet Yerach. I had tried visiting Tel Bet Yerach on my trip to Belvoir, yet couldn’t seem to find the archaeological discoveries. And so, as we crossed the Jordan after Degania I recognised exactly where we were headed yet didn’t know until that moment that the whole elevation was considered the tel of Bet Yerach. The archaeological site is quite in depth and we were given photo-copied maps of the dig to properly understand the layout.

Tel Bet Yerach

Tel Bet Yerach

Tel Bet Yerach’s name is thought to originate from the inhabitants’ worshipping of the moon, or perhaps of the pagan moon god Sin (which may be connected with the huge moon-shaped megalith Jethro’s Cairn some 30 kilometres away). With the Jordan and the Kinneret flanking the massive stone fortifications, Bet Yerach became an important and highly protected regional city. Flourishing during the Canaanite and Egyptian periods, the city was then destroyed and then rebuilt way later during the Persian era with the Greeks and Romans augmenting and improving the city in their times.

Distinct Tel Bet Yerach pottery

Distinct Tel Bet Yerach pottery

One of the lecture topics that interested me most was the unique pottery belonging to Tel Bet Yerach, a distinct black and red that is only found elsewhere in the Caucasus region. As Professor Aren Maeir spoke I scoured the ground looking for potsherds that matched the description given – the piece I found and rubbed clean was declared to be from the Early Bronze Age III (some 4,000 years old or so). With daylight waning we had one last lecture, given by Professor Ehud Weiss, on the Ohalo II site which made headlines providing rare evidence of food sources as well as early dwelling structures. Unfortunately darkness was upon us before we were able to get a good look at where the ancient site is located on the banks of the Kinneret, but the information given over was very eye-opening. Boarding the buses one more time we were driven to Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov where we were set up in quaint country lodgings for a night of trivia, academia and, of course, much needed sleep to prepare us for the next day.

Meron

In Galilee, Israel on March 20, 2016 at 9:21 AM

After visiting the various sites located around the Golani Junction as reviewed in a previous post, I drove up north and turned onto Road 866 headed for Meron. I pulled over briefly at a roadside lookout to take this panoramic picture of the gently rolling mountains to the south and the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) to the southeast.

Road 866 panorama

Road 866 panorama

Winding my way up the mountain I reached the entrance to Meron and pulled in, parking not far from the famous kever (grave) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, often referred to by his acronym Rashbi. From the parking lot I looked up at the majestic hillside ruins of Meron’s ancient synagogue, now marred by “Na Nach” graffiti.

Ancient synagogue of Meron

Ancient synagogue of Meron

Inside the recently restored remains of the once great Roman-era synagogue I admired the architecture and layout, being built up against a rock wall. Perhaps the first to be built in what has become known as “Galilean” style, the synagogue’s construction is composed of a large room with two parallel rows of columns and multiple entrances on the southern side. Built to service the large Jewish presence in the Galilee during the Roman times, the synagogue eventually fell to ruin and disuse after the military backlashes of the Great Revolt and subsequent earthquakes which collapsed most of the structure. Looking down the precipice to the north, I gazed upon ancient burial caves which I had already explored on a previous trip.

Burial caves

Burial caves

Circling around the rock tower seen on the left side of the previous photograph, I found a way to climb up and reached the top in no time, gazing down at the world around me. Below me was the ruins of the synagogue, the unseen Rashbi complex to the south and the sprawling houses of modern day Meron to the north (with the aforementioned burial caves visible in the lower left corner).

Meron

Meron

Far off in the distance in the above picture is the mixed Christian-Muslim village of Jish (or Gush Chalav), the next and final destination of my trip for that day – but first, a visit to the kever of Rashbi and his son. I had hoped to cover Rashbi’s kever in a post about Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday which is partially focused on Rashbi himself, but my last several attempts to attend had failed and so I report my ordinary daytime visit.

Kever of Rashbi and son

Kever of Rashbi and son

With an unending flow of visitors from both near and far, Rashbi’s kever dominates Meron’s renown, persuading many to list Meron as one of Judaism’s holiest sites. But there are dozens more holy graves literally scattered throughout the Galilean countryside, marked with iconic blue paint (Kabbalistically symbolic of protection against the evil eye), and I merited to give pause in reverence before getting back into my car. I had a delicious schnitzel baguette at the roadside Gallo restaurant and put the car into gear heading towards Jish (Gush Chalav). As instructed by my GPS, I parked precariously at the end of one of the nameless streets and disembarked. Gathering in my surroundings, looking around at the nonconformist houses with the sounds of Arabic “Jingle Bells” on loop floating in from the school down in the valley below, I started off on the trail to the final objective on my trip.

Trail outside Jish (Gush Halav)

Trail outside Jish (Gush Halav)

I was headed to the ancient synagogue of Gush Halav, and I was taking a marked trail that runs not far from a nearby streambed. I passed cows and goats, poked my head into a small cave to find a partially decomposed sheep carcass, and continued onwards. Entering an eerie shaded area with tall hillsides, dry gravelly ground and bare trees whose gnarled branches stretched out grotesquely, I gripped a large stick as I saw a motley pack of unkempt dogs making their way through the bizarre landscape up ahead. It was in this unlikely place that I came upon the fenced-off ruins of the ancient synagogue.

Ancient synagoge of Gush Halav

Ancient synagoge of Gush Halav

Gush Chalav was an important walled city for hundreds and hundreds of years, having served as the final Jewish stronghold in the Galilee during the Great Revolt against the Romans. Titus himself marched on Giscala (the Romanisation of Gush Chalav) after the fall of Gamla in the Golan, demanding surrender and subsequently receiving it, thereby ending Jewish resistance in the northern regions. Jewish presence has been marked throughout the hundreds of years that followed until the Ottomans conquered the area in the 1500’s and the village was inhabited by Muslims. Druze refugees from the Lebanese mountains settled in the 1600’s but, after terrible earthquakes, the village was overtaken by a mixture of Muslims and refugee Maronite Christians from Lebanon as well (most of the Christians coming from nearby Biram, as mentioned in the Bar’am post).

Inside the ancient synagogue

Inside the ancient synagogue

Gush Chalav’s synagogue was built nearly identically to the one in Meron, using the same basilica-layout that was made popular by Roman influence. With the sun setting and the long day coming to a prolonged close, I returned to the gravel trail and made my way back to the car and from there, back home.

Golani Junction

In Galilee, Israel on December 21, 2015 at 6:21 AM

The other week, before I got caught up with my sister’s wedding, I visited some interesting sites around the Golani Junction. Located between Haifa and Tiberias, the Golani Junction was and still is an important crossroads connecting various regions of the Holy Land. The junction, which is really an interchange now, has been revamped in recent years with extensive roadwork to streamline the traffic flows, costing some ₪300 million.

Golani Junction

Golani Junction

The first place I visited was the KKL-JNF nursery and neighbouring Lavi Forest where rehabilitation of Israel’s trees is done – in fact, there is a “plant-a-tree” park across Road 77 for visitors to take an active part in reforestation.

Foreign flags flying at the Tree Planting Centre

Foreign flags flying at the Tree Planting Centre

It was at one of these locations I had hoped to find an archaeological garden similar to the one at the Kabri KKL-JNF centre (see HERE) – but my search came up fruitless. At the Golani Junction itself is a place I partially visited once before while still in the army, the Golani Museum. Both a museum and a memorial, this site commemorates and sustains the ongoing legacy of the IDF’s most beloved brigade, the Golani Brigade.

The Golani Museum

The Golani Museum

Within, I walked the beautifully shaded trail learning about the battle that took place at the Golani Junction which gave it its name. With various memorials and recreated battle scenes abound, there was an atmosphere of both the valour and the struggles that accompany all things military. I peeked into the Lecture Hall before stopping at the panoramic depiction of a northern border scene with metal soldier silhouettes dispersed among the pine trees.

Border scene panorama

Border scene panorama

When I neared the arched room, two Golani soldiers who serve as guides spotted me and took me on a small tour. It amused me at times when they tried explaining some things to me as if I was a tourist when, unbeknownst to them, I have seen/done/lived these things in my own army service – firsthand knowledge. The soldier-guide reviewed the early history of the brigade, illustrating that the first Golani soldiers were farmers and thus the earthtone colours that identify the brigade helped solidify their deep connection to the land. The famous olive tree logo was drawn by one of the brigade’s early officers, denoting a deep-rooted longevity that Golani aims to emulate.

"After me!"

“After me!”

Inside one of the strangely shaped concrete bunkers that serve as exhibits for the brigade’s rich history I watched a short video spanning the years. One of the previous Golani brigade commanders, Tamir Yadi, is actually mentioned in an old blog post of mine – Hevron. Looking through old pictures and gear from 1948 onward, I examined historic battle plans and then found the Memorial Room. A small room lined with bookcases; each filled with faux leather booklets labeled with the name and ID number of each fallen Golani soldier. I searched for some of the more recent ones and saw very nice commemorations with mini biographies and personal photos. Beyond that room, back outside, is the Memorial Wall with each of those same names etched in stone. I looked over the recent names and remembered the losses we incurred as a nation last year in Gaza.

Golani Brigade's memorial walls

Golani Brigade’s memorial walls

Continuing along, I walked past the displayed military vehicles including APCs and jeeps that are parked on a ridge among fruit-laden cacti.

Armoured personnel carrier

Armoured personnel carrier

Leaving the Golani Museum I drove back towards Road 77 but stopped short and pulled onto a small dirt road where I parked among in a field of dead plants. I got out of the car and walked north, coincidentally the Gospel Trail, passing a dead cow on the way.

Dead cow on the Gospel Trail

Dead cow on the Gospel Trail

Suddenly, I caught the glimpse of a small songbird flitting about in the dead vegetation and patiently awaited his resurfacing. My patience paid off as I was able to get this photo of this particularly carefree graceful prinia:

Graceful prinia

Graceful prinia

Satisfied with my photo, I walked towards the trees – the sounds of startled grasshoppers popping into the air like popcorn filled the quiet, still air. Just beyond the first few trees I found what I was looking for – the meagre remains of an ancient Roman road. A small section of the vast road network that criss-crossed the Roman Empire, the remnants are much more distinguishable in person.

Old Roman road

Old Roman road

Leaving the old road and the Gospel Trail, I returned to the Golani Junction and drove north on Road 65. I passed Mount Nimra on my right and then pulled over, entering a construction site. My next stop was the Amudim ruins which I’ve been meaning to visit for ages. With an authoritative air I parked on the gravel and strode confidently towards the ruins, not waiting for the construction workers to stop me. I entered the fenced-off archaeological site and beheld the Amudim ruins, remains of a 1,800 year old synagogue which serviced the nearby Jewish village.

Amudim ruins

Amudim ruins

Today just one pillar stands tall with many broken pillars, ornate plinths and capitals strewn about in all directions. Even beyond the fenced-off area I caught sight of a fallen pillar laying on the ground amid a great mess of stone chunks. I like to imagine how these ancient synagogues might have looked back in their time and, in this case, I took particular interest in the shape of the standing column. Instead of being traditionally round, this pillar had a concave indention, like a rounded-bottomed heart – and I wonder why the craftsmen specifically carved that fanciful shape.

Interestingly shaped pillars

Interestingly shaped pillars

When I stopped wondering and took my leave of the holy ruins, I paused and admired the Netofa Valley across the road and then hopped into the car to visit the next site on the figurative horizon, the Mimla ruins. Alas, due to roadwork I was unable to reach the site and continued on to the kever (grave) of the prophet Habakuk – which was blocked off as well. And so, deterred but not ready to call it quits, I pressed onward towards Meron…

Hula Valley: Birding Tour

In Galilee, Israel on November 22, 2015 at 5:43 AM

One thing that fascinates me about Israel’s nature is the rich diversity of birds, particularly the Old World raptors – both resident and migratory species. One Friday several weeks ago I seized the opportunity to go on a birding tour in one of the world’s best bird-watching locations, the Hula Valley.

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

Leaving the house shortly after 5am I drove the dark mountain roads heading east and saw the early stages of daybreak just after passing Tzfat. I reached Agamon Hula, a KKL park, and prayed in the parking lot before meeting up with my tour guide, Lior Kislev. A popular birder, Lior’s website has helped me several times with bird identification and it was a joy to meet him at last. We entered the park with a few of the other tour members (including Yedidya Popper, a protégé of Lior who graciously shared photos with me for this post) and, equipped with binoculars, began with the barn swallows resting on electrical wires just outside the visitors centre.

Black kite perched

Black kite perched

Nearly immediately thereafter we were launched into full-scale raptor watching with a whole bunch of greater spotted eagles, black kites, black shouldered kites, marsh harriers and others who were flying about and resting on the side-roll irrigation system frame. We walked along the trail stopping now and then to watch aerial turf battles and the occasional hooded crow mobbing. At one point, while our collective eyes were pointed skywards watching the predatory commotion, I heard a loud squeak at my feet which was identified as a social vole – hide little fella!

White-shouldered kite mobbed by a hooded crow (photo Yedidya Popper)

White-shouldered kite mobbed by a hooded crow (photo Yedidya Popper)

During all this time, and for most of the tour, there was a steady flow of large migrating birds flying overhead including white pelicans, spoonbills (which I was very excited to see) and, of course, common cranes. I had always associated Hula Valley’s migration season with the cranes that are so heavily talked about but with an experienced ornithologist at hand, I came to understand that the cranes were just a very small part in the overall bird-watching experience. We stopped for breakfast at a picnic table, frequently interrupted by raptor activity on the other side of the Jordan River or by warblers (of which we spotted four species) and a beautiful bluethroat or two flitting among the reeds.

Lior Kislev and the tour

Lior Kislev and the tour

In addition to the birds, there were several resident nutrias – an invasive rodent from South America. In terms of migratory species, also the African monarch butterfly makes its way through the Hula Valley and we saw tons of them.

African monarch butterflies (photo Yedidya Popper)

African monarch butterflies (photo Yedidya Popper)

As we walked closer to the bodies of water, someone called out “black francolin” and we watched as the elusive gamebird dashed into the undergrowth. As we walked along the water’s edge we saw a good number of passerines including red-throated pipits, whinchats, larks and some species of the predatory shrikes – a bird that has interested me since childhood. Before long we were able to peer through the reeds at the numerous species of waterfowl and waders including grey and little herons, ibises, coots, moorhens and more.

Peering through the rushes

Peering through the rushes

We arrived at the first platformed observatory where we met a Peruvian governor and his wife on a VIP tour of the nature park and then spied on something that excited me immensely – greater flamingos. Even while we watched the cormorants, common snipes, stilts, avocets and more in the shallow waters Lior would frequently direct our attention to the sky where soaring raptors circled overhead. It was during one of these sudden sightings that we saw something uncharacteristic – an immense griffon vulture was visible way out to the east. A bird with incredible range, and truly immense wings (boasting a 2.3–2.8 m (7.5–9.2 ft) wingspan), this particular vulture was likely searching for food over the nearby Golan plateau where they nest (see Gamla).

Lake Agamon observation deck

Lake Agamon observation deck

Reluctantly we left the observatory and continued on, stopping at a grassy area to lay on our backs watching the black storks, black kites and booted eagles wheeling above us while we snacked on fresh almonds and cookies. Along the trail up ahead we found two catfish that had been seized from their watery hole and were mysteriously untouched. We passed caspian turtles and a squacco heron before reaching the observatory most visitors are familiar with. Being as that we wanted to see all that there was to offer, we took the 11-km trail that loops around the lake in its entirety – not the path most traveled.

Booted eagle (photo Lior Kislev)

Booted eagle (photo Lior Kislev)

With one or two water buffalo off in the distance, we watched a small muddy pond packed with mallards, shovelers and common teals; a lone black kite circling ominously nearby. Suddenly the waterfowl exploded into the air, the sound of hundreds of wings beating, and we scoured the area for that black kite – perhaps he had succeeded in nabbing one for lunch.

Pelicans flying overhead

Pelicans flying overhead

Finally on the home stretch, we walked and talked, pausing to discuss self-combusting peat which was a problem in the park several years ago. Shortly before we reached the visitors centre Lior showed us a dead young viper which looks to have been crushed – I have yet to see a living viper in the wild.

Dead viper

Dead viper

Back at the visitor centre we sat down with pen and paper to make a list of all the birds we had seen that morning. All in all, over the course of five or so hours, we succeeded in spotting 72 species of birds, far more that I would have ever imagined. I highly recommend taking this tour to all those who read this blog – it’s truly a treat!

Belvoir

In Galilee, Israel, Jordan River Valley on November 15, 2015 at 5:39 AM

Finishing off my day trip to the Gilboa and Bet Shean regions was a stopover at Israel’s best-preserved Crusader castle, Belvoir (or Kochav HaYarden, in Hebrew). Located just ten kilometres north of ancient Bet Shean, this Crusader fortress stood on an escarpment overlooking the Jordan River Valley – a seemingly impenetrable bastion. From Road 90, running parallel to the Jordan River, I drove up the single-lane access road that meandered its merry way up the mountainside.

Aerial view of Belvoir looking westward (photo Biblewalks)

Aerial view of Belvoir looking westward (photo: Biblewalks)

I entered the park and began what I thought would be a circular path to the castle, but I soon reached a closed gate with a view of the low mountains to the north and the seasonal Tavor stream. Turning around, I walked the short direct trail to the bluff’s edge passing a sculpture garden featuring the work of Yigal Tumarkin. The name Belvoir means “beautiful view” in French and they were’t lying when they named the castle – the view is phenomenal.

Lookout over the Jordan River Valley

Lookout over the Jordan River Valley

The suggested path for visitors starts at the main gate at the southeastern corner of the castle, leading past the once-heavily fortified barbican (now mostly in ruin). From there the route leads into the outer courtyard passing the corner towers and the cistern where water was stored, being as such there was no spring in the immediate vicinity. One thing that’s particularly beautiful about Belvoir is the symmetry used to build a succession of fortified structures, culminating in the small keep at the western end.

A drawing of what Belvoir might have looked like

A drawing of what Belvoir might have looked like

The history of Belvoir is rather brief beginning in 1140 as a fortified farmhouse owned by the Velos family and sold to the Knights Hospitallers in 1168 who, in turn, built the castle as we know it. In 1182-83 Belvoir was besieged by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin, the bane of the Crusaders, although the siege was a failure. Not intending to give up, Saladin returned with his army in 1187 after defeating the Crusader at the Horns of Hattin and laid siege once again. After two years the sultan’s sappers succeeded in undermining the barbican and the Hospitaller knights negotiated a truce in which they were afforded safe passage to Tyre, in modern day Lebanon. Frightened that the Crusaders would somehow return to occupy Belvoir, Saladin had it partially destroyed. The sultan’s fears were justifiable as the Crusaders did return in 1241 and, upon seeing the ruins, abandoned the castle, leaving it definitely.

Entrance to the keep

Entrance to the keep

Walking into the inner fortress, I passed through the arched gateways of the keep (also known as a donjon in French). Inside the inner fortress I found the kitchens, dining hall and refectory as well as other smaller courtyards, accented by the four corner towers. The trio of ovens are of a very interesting design and I can almost recreate a scene in my mind where the bland European foods of wild boar and coarse bread were cooked up for the great feast in the nearby dining hall.

Barrel-vaulted dining hall

Barrel-vaulted dining hall

The special laundry basin, also located in the inner fortress, has an interesting lining of broken pottery bits, reminding me of the clay piping in Montfort Castle, the Teutonic Knights’ mountaintop headquarters. Outside the keep is the west gate where a drawbridge once stood, spanning the deep dry moat that was carved out of the basalt mountaintop. Interestingly enough, the castle’s construction was completed with both the local black basalt and a yellow-white limestone that was brought in – in fact there is a carved stone from an ancient synagogue that was recycled in an arched window. Before crossing the drawbridge, I followed the suggested route down a sally port (secret exit) in the southwest corner tower.

Sally port

Sally port

Down in the moat I was able to look up and imagine myself as an invader attempting entry into a seemingly impenetrable behemoth of stacked ashlars.

From within the dry moat

From within the dry moat

I reentered the castle via another sally port located in the central western tower. Crossing over the fixed metal drawbridge, I spotted two chukars (a type of partridge) on the far end of the moat and then headed for a small visitors’ centre of sorts where several curiosities are on display. While researching Belvoir online I came across something magnificent, a Lego reconstruction of the castle created by the lauded Lego castle builder Bob Carney. If you haven’t seen his work, you should definitely check out his site where he has nearly 150 real castles built out of Lego and properly documented (I linked the full Belvoir page in the photo caption below). You can see a stop motion video of Bob’s recreation of the medieval Rhuddlan Castle in Wales on YouTube (HERE).

Lego reconstruction of Belvoir (photo Bob Carney)

Lego reconstruction of Belvoir (photo Bob Carney)

Wrapping up my visit to Belvoir, I drove back down the meandering mountain road, scouring the roadside for gazelles and hyenas (of which I saw neither), until I reached Road 90 once again. I turned north and stopped off at Old Gesher (Naharayim) where I first found an old British police station (yet another Tegart fort) which has since been pockmarked by bullets from a battle between Israeli and Iraqi forces in 1948.

Old Gesher police station

Old Gesher police station

I drove closer to the Jordan River but it was soon apparent that the site was already closed for the day and I would simply have to return another time. Heading back to Road 90 I continued north to my final stop before heading home, Tel Bet Yerach – a remarkable archaeological site which I neglected to mention when covering Jethro’s Cairn, as they both concern the same pagan deity. The tel is located on the southwestern banks of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), right at the southern mouth of the Jordan River. Unfortunately I was not completely sure where this site was so I estimated in planning and eventually realised that I was located on a plateau somewhere above it with no easy way down.

View of the Kinneret from above Tel Beit Yerach

View of the Kinneret from above Tel Beit Yerach

So I relented and just took the time to enjoy the view as the sun slowly began to set over my shoulder, content with seeing all that I had succeeded in seeing, but ever eager to explore some more.

Bet Shean

In Galilee, Israel, Jordan River Valley on November 8, 2015 at 7:36 AM

Continuing on with my trip that covered thus far the Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival and Beit Shturman and Beit Alpha, I left the base of Mount Gilboa and drove into the city of Bet Shean. I was headed for the national park which holds the ruins of ancient Bet Shean (or Scythopolis, as it was known in Roman times). Entering the park, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the ruins uncovered and on display- how have I taken so long to visit? Having to consult the visitor guide’s map to decipher the endless rows of broken structures, I began with the iconic Roman theatre.

Roman theatre

Roman theatre

Built to seat some 7,000 spectators, the half circle rows of limestone benches face the stage which, during Roman times, was backed by a twenty metre-high scaenae frons, an elaborately decorated background which usually rose to the height of the ceiling. In the case of this particular ruin, the scaenae frons was mostly destroyed, as well as the upper rows of seats, so renovations are taking place to recreate the theatre to its original glory.

Recreated scaenae frons

Recreated scaenae frons

Leaving the theatre, I next explored the vast bathhouse which covers some 9,000 square metres of prime real estate. As in most large Roman cities, the bathhouse was a central public building where citizens would come to exercise, bathe and socialise. One thing that I noticed was the intricate mosaic work even in the large rooms, where simple floor tiles would have been easier. Another thing was the revolutionary hypocaust, an underfloor heating method which warmed the floor and the room itself. I had seen the same construction in a small Byzantine bathhouse outside the mountaintop ruins of Avdat in the Negev, and here the technology was explained in full.

Beneath the bathhouse's floor

Beneath the bathhouse’s floor

Leaving the bathhouse complex I began my walk down Palladius Street, a colonnaded road of large white columns dividing the bathhouse and “sigma” from the Byzantine agora. I paused to take a look at the sigma, a semicircular concourse lined with small mosaic-floored rooms – including one with a medallion of Tyche, the city’s guardian goddess.

Palladius Street with the tel behind it

Palladius Street with the tel behind it

Crossing the street, I looked at the agora which is relatively unadorned, having served as a commercial centre during those times. Continuing along the main road, I reached the junction between the Northern Street and the continuation of the city’s nucleus to the east. It seems as though the excavators and renovators have given up on the Northern Street, as it is absolutely littered with ancient rubble, including large building chunks and broken pillars. So I focused my attention on identifying the numerous structures before me, including the Roman Temple and Nymphaeum, an ornate public fountain.

Roman city of Bet Shean (Scythopolis)

Roman city of Bet Shean (Scythopolis)

It was about now, standing amid a chaotic collection of crumbled construction, that I realised I had made a grievous error not bringing any water along. The midday summer sun that permeates the valley was starting to dry me out. I wrapped my button-down shirt around my head and shoulders and forced myself to continue onwards. I walked along the Valley Street which leads to the northern end of the city, but I was headed not north, but up. Standing at the base of the tel (archaeological mound), I began my conquest of the harsh yellow hill. The stairs going up were tough indeed, but at the very top was a view that really captured the magnificence of the city sprawl down below.

Looking down on the ruins

Looking down on the ruins

However, it was only the Romans who occupied the ruined area, previous civilisations inhabited the summit of the hill, with their subsequent constructions one atop the other – a stratum of ancient foundations. Nearly as prolific as the glorious tel of Megiddo, some twenty layers have been uncovered at Bet Shean, including those of Jewish rule. It was at a lookout with an audio guide that I found a stout water fountain – the fountain of life for my parched lips. Drinking desperately from the weak flow of warm water, I listened to the tender voice informing me of the place I was kneeling upon, and the surrounding view. Following the trail, I saw a good number of ancient walls from Canaanite and Egyptian occupation, including the Egyptian governor Ramses-Weser-Khepesh’s palace with an uncovered stone lintel depicting him kneeling before his master, Pharaoh Ramses III, in hieroglyphics. If that’s not interesting, I don’t know what is.

The Egyptian governor's palace

The Egyptian governor’s palace

Perhaps of greater interest is the Biblical story of King Shaul, when he and his sons were killed in battle with the Philistines at nearby Mount Gilboa, and were brought to Bet Shean to dangle from the city walls as trophies. On a lighter note, to the north of the tel is Nachal Harod and the churning water can be both seen and heard way down below. A ruined Roman bridge is also visible, as well as the ruins of several Byzantine churches on the opposing hillside.

Nachal Harod with the Roman bridge and Jordan beyond

Nachal Harod with the Roman bridge and Jordan beyond

Passing the numerous excavated temples, fortresses and various buildings, I came to a lone skeleton of a tree, supported by rusted metal against the stark stone ground. It reminded me of a particularly absurd play/film called Waiting for Godot, which I was made to watch in high school.

Ruins of thousands of years upon the tel

Ruins of thousands of years upon the tel

Trotting back down the hill, I swung eastward, walking down Silvanus Street which is similarly colonnaded. When the street ended and a dirt path began, I passed another bathhouse and then public lavatories that serviced the theatre and bathhouse visitors. Just beyond that I found a cultic compound with an assortments of altars and similar structures amid a temple. I then re-entered the magnificent theatre where I began my tour of the ancient city and made my way back up to the visitor centre to watch a short film about the city in general in the comfort of shade and strong air-conditioning. Without too much time to lose, I decided to skip the Roman amphitheatre (oval as opposed to the mostly circular theatre) and the nearby Crusader/Ottoman fortress and other Ottoman buildings, uncharacteristic as that may be.

Basalt Ottoman building

Basalt Ottoman building

I had stumbled upon the fortress two years ago while driving through the city with my army truck and didn’t see anything of extreme interest. Plus, time was not on my side and I still had a few more places I wanted to visit including the Crusader castle of Belvoir just a few kilometres northward.

Beit Shturman & Beit Alpha

In Galilee, Israel on October 25, 2015 at 6:22 AM

Continuing on with my trip that started on Mount Gilboa where I watched the dawn launch of the Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival, I had visited Tel Yizrael and was headed for my next site, Beit Shturman. Located in Kibbutz Ein Harod (of which there are two, side-by-side), Beit Shturman is a museum dedicated towards preserving the wildlife and archaeological remains of Israel. Built in 1941, the museum was one of the very first to be established in to what has become a country full of museums and art galleries, so much so that Israel is the country with the most museums per capita in the entire world.

Beit Shturman

Beit Shturman

I parked outside a school and sauntered over to the museum, the front door opening as a museum administrator greeted me by name. My visit began with a short film dedicated to the history of the museum, and more importantly, the personal history of the Shturman family. Named after Chaim Shturman, who was tragically killed by a land mine, the museum hopes to be a living reminder of the things that Chaim held dear as an important member of the settlement projects in the Holy Land. Subsequent members of his family also lost their lives fighting for the same cause and the museum renewed their dedication with each loss.

Mold art

Mold art

I then began my tour of the building with a quick look at the small art gallery, where I found something quite unique. I’m not one for modern art, but I found this particular piece to be compelling: a circular display of mold that had grown on a mixture of black coffee and sugar. Heading into the next room, I feasted my eyes on the myriad of stuffed birds, mammals and more – a taxidermist’s dream. I found the collection of stuffed raptors to be most interesting as it gave me a little further information on all the Old World birds of prey that I know too little about. The jars of preserved human and animal fetuses and embryos were a bit much, but the stuffed hyena reinvigorated me, as I had seen only a mere glimpse of one in the wild. I then learned something interesting about the teeth of the nutria (or coypu, an invasive species from South America) which will continue to grow unchecked if the opposing tooth is broken or extracted.

Nutria tooth trivia

Nutria tooth trivia

Leaving the room of animal wonders, I headed into the exhibition of Orde Charles Wingate, “The Friend”. Without delving too far into pre-Independence history, Wingate was a British officer who, upon reading the Bible, took great interest in helping the Jewish pioneers in their struggle for freedom. In 1938, Wingate established the Special Night Squads that were composed of both British soldiers and Jewish “notrim” or Auxiliary Police who were then trained as mobile ambush units. As the time went on, Wingate would fill his ranks with an increasing percentage of Jewish soldiers and his actions, controversial yet successful, began to show to his superiors in the field and back in London. There was a change of policy towards the Jews in 1939 and the SNS was disbanded, with Wingate being transferred to Burma. The success of the SNS left a deep mark in the Jewish pioneers and the unit itself has been thought of as a forerunner to the elite British SAS that we know of today.

Orde Charles Wingate

Orde Charles Wingate

Leaving the building, I walked the archaeological garden outside, stocked with pillars, presses, sarcophagi and more, all temporarily unlabeled due to renovations. Bidding farewell to the helpful guides, I took a quick look at the kibbutz’s derelict Founders’ Courtyard with the scattered farm tools and equipment which helped create the kibbutz, and then headed for my next destination: Beit Alpha.

Founders' Courtyard

Founders’ Courtyard

Perhaps the smallest national park, Beit Alpha is only one large room with a reception/gift shop and outdoor covered courtyard. But it’s the contents of that one room that gives the site its importance – the excavation of a 1,500 year old synagogue.

Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic floor

Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic floor

Notably the first Jewish excavation held in modern times, the synagogue was discovered by members of the Beit Alpha and Hefzi-Ba kibbutzim in 1928. Unearthing was done the following year and the elaborate mosaic floors uncovered are known to be among the most beautiful and best preserved in the country. Prior to seeing the whole floor bathed in light, a video is played with actors recreating the scene of what could possibly have been the thought process behind the synagogue’s design. As several of the mosaic details seem “off”, it is believed that sections or designs were simply copied from the ancient synagogues of nearby Tiberias, which was a centre of Judaism at the time.

Artist's imagination of the Beit Alpha Synagogue building

Artist’s imagination of the Beit Alpha Synagogue building

The artists who created the Beit Alpha mosaics, Marianos and his son Hanina, were also listed as the ones creating mosaics in neighbouring Bet Shean, which is logical as mosaic floors were all the rage during the late Roman periods. Even seemingly idolatrous constructions of Greco-Roman gods, such as Helios seen here in the centre of the zodiac, were also seen as something acceptable and perhaps even beautiful from a cultural point of view. With the different areas being illuminated by spotlight throughout the video, in-depth explanations of iconographic significance were afforded to the modern spectator. When the show was over, the lights went on and I took a full loop around the room, taking photographs from various angles.

Closer look at the mosaic

Closer look at the mosaic

With a new group entering to watch the video anew, I headed out and glanced over the information outside concerning ancient synagogues in northern Israel, predominately found in the eastern Galilee and the western Golan. Having eaten my lunch in the national park’s sukkah, I got back in the car and drove off to my next destination: Bet Shean.

Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival

In Galilee, Israel, Jordan River Valley on October 18, 2015 at 4:23 AM

Harkening back to Chol HaMoed of Sukkot, this blog post retells my trip to the Gilboa and Bet Shean regions. I left the house at a peppy 4:45am and drove down the dark mountain roads, through Druze villages and eventually out into the Harod valley. I drove up Mount Gilboa from the west and reached an outcropping known as Mount Shaul where I found an assortment of parked cars – apparently I wasn’t the only one with this idea.

Sunrise on Mount Gilboa

Sunrise on Mount Gilboa

What I had come to do so early in the morning was to watch the dawn launch of the International Balloon Festival which is held in two very different locations every year – the Gilboa area and the Negev. I walked through the pine tree forest on Mount Shaul, passing small plaques with biblical verses commemorating the fateful battle between King Shaul and the Philistines, which culminated in Shaul’s suicide as well as the death of three of his sons. At the eastern side of the ridge, I watched the beautiful sunrise over the valley and Jordan beyond, as can be seen in the above photo.

The crowds are waiting

The crowds are waiting

Following a path, I then walked westward until I reached the lookout where the crowds were already staking claims for the best view of the balloon launch. Far below, nearly out of sight due to the trees, the international group of aeronauts were filling up their hollow crafts with good hot air.

Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival

Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival

The first to take flight was a blue balloon of standard shape, but the next made the spectating children glee with adoration – a frog with a golden crown on its head rose into the clear morning sky.

Whimsical frog king balloon

Whimsical frog king balloon

Several others, both traditional and whimsical, soon took flight, including a white human head, an ice cream cone and a baby chick emerging from its shell. Interestingly enough, the rock I chose as my vantage point was right next to a man stretched out on a blanket playing with his children, and this man turned out to be a reservist officer I had worked with in the army – small world! I stayed for a bit longer watching the different balloons rise and fall and then decided it was time to move on to my next location. As I drove back down woodsy Mount Gilboa, I spotted the balloons from a southern angle, but the pictures didn’t come out nearly as scenic. At the bottom of the mountain I turned westward, heading for a site I’ve been meaning to visit ever since my army years – Tel Yizrael.

The balloons from Tel Yizrael

The balloons from Tel Yizrael

Located at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley (the same name Latinised), the tel was once a major Jewish city and over the years saw the standard lineup of Holy Land invaders including the Assyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Ottomans. Due to the tall dry grass and the self-imposed time constraints, I only explored the eastern, northern and western sides of the tel, which is unfortunate because most of the excavations were done on the southern side. But I did see a handful of building remains and ancient water cisterns, as well as this khan from the Ottoman period.

Ottoman khan on Tel Yizrael

Ottoman khan on Tel Yizrael

Leaving Tel Yizrael I headed to the next site on my list: Beit Shturman in the nearby Kibbutz Ein Harod.