Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Eilat

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on July 27, 2020 at 8:50 AM

Just a few weeks ago, in the beginning of July, my wife Bracha and I went on a two-day trip down to Eilat, Israel’s resort town. The trip was organised and heavily-subsidised by Minhal HaStudentim, which offers trips and activities – in addition to tuition help – throughout the year to immigrant students. Being that we are both immigrants and students, we were able to snag this fun little trip for quite the bargain.

Is it a honeymoon or just a group trip to Eilat?

Early Sunday morning we sleepily lugged our bags over to Rishon LeZion, where our dedicated tour bus was waiting. Somehow we ended up being attached to the bus with students from the areas of Rishon LeZion and Rehovot, and not with our friends from Bar Ilan University, but we made the best of our predicament and made new friends. When we had successfully found our permanent seats – factoring in the safety guidelines during this strenuous time period with the coronavirus – our bus driver turned his vehicle in the direction of Eilat.

Our guide, Liran Gabay

However, we had a quick stop along the way, and that was Ein Gedi off the coast of the Dead Sea. Our route took us through Jerusalem, and our tour guide, Liran Gabay, filled our ears with wordy explanations to the various sites that we passed. Upon arriving at Ein Gedi we were greeted by dozens of fan-tailed ravens and Tristram’s starlings, as well as a splendid number of blue-spotted Arab butterflies – truly astounding to see such concentrations of flappy, yellow wings.

Ten blue-spotted Arab butterflies at Ein Gedi

Due to time constraints, we just did the short walk to the lower waterfall, where we whet our appetite in the hot, dry desert heat. After sandwiches, which served as a pre-lunch, we got back into the tour bus and began the long, straight drive down Road 90 to Eilat. But no, there was still another adventurous stop to make, and that was an extreme park by the name of Top 94. There, we did a variety of activities including a shooting range, paintball and eating lunch.

Bracha firing the .22 sporting rifle

I was quite excited for the shooting range as we were going to be shooting .22-calibre bullets – a calibre-first for me, and Bracha’s very first time shooting any weapon. We stationed ourselves side-by-side and unleashed a succession of hot metal at paper targets pinned up downrange. To my delight, both of us had rather tight groupings, although both sporting rifles’ iron sights were quite inaccurate which led us to wildly miss our targets.

Targets: Bracha’s to the left, mine to the right

Paintball was also delightful, yet the splatters of orange caused a bit of pain and bruising here and there. Bracha and I were on opposing teams in a game format that meant playing just to shoot each other willy-nilly, all in a brown, garage-themed setting. Lunch was nice as well, a generous portion of schnitzel and rice alongside french fries. There was a small museum on-site, the Negev Warriors Museum dedicated to soldiering between the years 1917-1949, but unfortunately it was closed.

Getting ready for some paintball

At last, we boarded our bus and began the final leg to Eilat proper, arriving directly at our sleeping accommodations, the HI Eilat Hostel. The sun set over the mountains of Egypt and we got settled into our own room, a fortunate upgrade that we were able to secure. Continuing the theme of feasting, we headed down to the dining room for dinner – a mess of meatballs, schnitzel, rice, pasta and more. It was an interesting affair balancing a hotel experience with the necessary restrictions regarding serving, which had limited portions with minimised human contact and longer lines, but we made the best of our situation.

Looking out from our hostel balcony

With the culmination of dinner we had a little bit of free time so we headed out to explore the boardwalk area with its plethora of shops, restaurants, bars and more. The gently lapping surf and the full moon’s reflection on the calm water beckoned us near, so we shed shoes and drank bottled cocktails in the coarse sand. It was a profoundly relaxing moment, even with the hubbub of nightlife behind us, and made the perfect ending to an action-packed day.

Sculpture commemorating raising the Ink Flag

The following morning greeted us with the hot Eilat sun streaming rays of warmth to heat up another day of adventure. Breakfast was served and then we headed out to our first stop of the day, the Umm Rash-Rash historical site just across the road from our hotel. It was the beginning of March 1949 and the Israeli government was bent on securing access to the Red Sea before agreeing to a ceasefire with the surrounding Arab nations. Two infantry brigades pushed south through the desert and reached the coastal area of Umm Rash-Rash which was being held by Jordanian forces. On March 10, 1949 the conquering Israeli soldiers raised an impromptu flag, known as the “Ink Flag”, a symbol of sovereignty over this tiny patch of coastal land linking Israel with the Red Sea.

Taba bording crossing

Getting into our tour bus, we were then driven down to the Taba border crossing which links Israel with Egypt. There, we got out to enjoy the expansive view of the Gulf of Aqaba and our neighbours, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I kept a sharp eye out for terns, gulls and other interesting sea-going birds, and my efforts paid off. I was rewarded with my first ever white-eyed gull, as well as some white-cheeked terns.

The Gulf of Aqaba from the Israel-Egypt border

Our next stop was the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, where we slotted for some fun snorkeling in the reefs. Neither of us had ever been snorkeling, so we were both righteously excited to strap on some gear and plunge into the water, clear waters of the Red Sea. Terns flitted about over the low waves, we burnt our feet in the scorching sand, and the sun slowly ate through our protective layer of sunscreen. Eilat in the summer is truly a sauna, and we so badly wanted to just get into the cooling waters.

White-cheeked tern resting on a floater

At last our time to snorkel came and we walked our way out to the launch point of the snorkel route. For most people it took barely a minute or so to get the mask and snorkel tube affixed and ready to go, but I floundered in the shallows struggling to breathe normally as I peered into the underwater world with blurred vision. Unfortunately, the bespectacled among us couldn’t wear our glasses and with my prescription, I’d be happy if I saw any of the many fish species that live in and around the coral reef. Interestingly enough, this is the northernmost coral reef in the world, but alas, I have no pictures to show for it. When the snorkel activity was over, and I had seen a few colourful fish-blurs which shall remain unidentified, we got back into our bus and headed back to the hostel for lunch. When our bellies were full we were escorted back out to the waterfront, for even more watery activities. This time they were of the boating sense, as well as lounging about on the beach with the other beach-goers.

Coming back aboard after banana boating (photo Liran Gabay)

Our first option was the banana boat ride, where we and eight others were shipped out to sea and then marooned on a floating banana-like raft roped to the back of the boat. We hung on for dear life as the boat captain sped away, dragging us along in his wake, cool saltwater splashing our faces liberally. We clung as we laughed, the buoyant raft being swept along effortlessly as the captain throttled his engines.

The more extreme version of banana boating

There were some close calls but alas, nobody was fully capsized and we made our way back to the marina smiling and dripping under the hot midday sun. The next option was an even more extreme raft where the riders lay clinging to a rectangular float only to be flung about wildly. There’s a mutual understanding that those riding the rafts desire to be slightly drowned, and that the sea captain desires to do the drowning. Bracha and I decided that we’d rather watch the proceedings unfold, and I rushed to get my trusty camera.

Green sea turtle at Eilat

The eight riders flopped about in the foamy water, the spray dousing them with every turn. Bracha laughed heartily as the riders clung desperately to the raft, only to be thrown off every other minute. Indeed, everyone was laughing and a good time was had by all. One of my favourite moments, however, was when one of the fellow students spotted a green sea turtle coming up for air in the marina.

Eilat’s North Beach

After the boats we spent a bit of time in the water and then headed back to the hostel to change. I had been angling to pay a quick visit to North Beach, a famous birding haunt, where I was hoping I’d see some new and interesting terns, gulls, sea birds and the like. Bracha joined me and we walked along the beachfront boardwalk, replete with excessive tourist attractions. It was a longer walk than either of us had anticipated but at last we made it and we stood at the seashore as the sun began its daily descent.

Juvenile white-eyed gull flying over the sea

I scanned the seas with my binoculars, seeking flapping or soaring wings, but also made sure to check the far-out floating buoys. At first there were just more white-eyed gulls, but then a large tern appeared overhead – my very first Caspian tern, a true behemoth of his genus. That certainly was exciting, but I wanted more. I checked the drainage canal for birds, but there was nothing identifiable, so I scanned the seas again and again.

Some invasive house crows

One of the delightful aspects of birding is the unpredictability involved; sometimes, where you expect to see something you do not, and other times, sightings come as a wonderful surprise. Knowing that one day I’ll eventually tick off other, yet-unseen terns, gulls and other seabirds, we headed back to the hostel for a “barbecue dinner”.

Lantern tour at Timna Park

The government had convened once more to discuss the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and it was decided the restrictions be put in place once again. Therefore, our trip was being brought to a premature end, and some of the much-anticipated events cancelled. Hoping to give us one last hurrah, it was decided that we’d have a quick early night trip to Timna Park for a special “lantern tour”. I had been to Timna twice before, see HERE and HERE, so I was okay with the idea of going at night – despite the fact that the ground colour is one of the park’s finest features.

Egyptian influence at Timna

Our lantern tour was surprisingly picturesque, and certainly everyone made the most of it as we knew that we were to be heading back up north on the morrow. It was late when we returned, but that didn’t keep us all from enjoying one more night in Israel’s resort town. On the drive back the following morning we saw a few nice species of wildlife from our bus window – including one dorcas gazelle spotted by Bracha.

Mitzpe Ramon’s desert sculpture garden

We also made a quick stop at Mitzpe Ramon where I took the opportunity to walk out into the Desert Sculpture Park along the Israel National Trail. We arrived back home safe and sound, thankful for our special little outing but also ready to get back into our daily routines.

Lovely bit of vacation

More trips were to be had shortly, as my friends were angling to get out and explore as well.

Le Destroit

In Coastal Plain, Israel on July 19, 2020 at 4:05 PM

Just last month, as the Ministry of Health sanctions and guidelines regarding the coronavirus outbreak were loosening up, I went on a nice little trip with a nice friend. Similar to our trip back in December 2019, when we visited Khirbet Luza and other Crusader ruins, this time Avner Touitou and I had similar intentions. Still struggling with thesis ideas for our MAs in Crusader Archaeology, we figured that going about and actually visiting some lesser-known ruins might help spark an idea that would lead towards something useful.

Chateau Perelin jutting out into the sea

Whereas last trip we focused on the Jerusalem area, this time our attention was turned a little north, to the Atlit region, where the Kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end. The focal point of our planned trip was the ruined fortress of Le Destroit, which neither of us had ever been to. Interestingly enough, I had passed it hundreds of times during my army service, and had actually attempted to even visit it, however unsuccessfully. At last, thanks to Avner’s gung-ho spirit and vehicular capabilities, the visit to Le Destroit was to become a reality.

Approaching the old stables

Avner picked me up outside our apartment in the morning and we made our way posthaste up Roads 4 and 2 towards our destination. We had some more Crusader sites picked out, as well as a spot for lunch, but Le Destroit was first and foremost. Some forty minutes later we pulled up outside the small nature preserve, officially called the Karta Ruins Nature Reserve, just outside of Atlit. Accordingly, the ruins goes by several names including Karta/Qarta, Districtum and Khirbet Dustray, as explained in various archaeological sources that I examined whilst writing this blog post.

Le Destroit layout as drawn by J Dikijian

Le Destroit was built sometime in the 1100s, following an incident where King Baldwin I was attacked and wounded by highway robbers along the coastal road. The exact location of the Crusader fortress is between two deep passes cut east-west in the sandstone ridge, just along the coastal road, which provided a perfect hideout for robbers to leap out from, catching their victims unawares. Thus, in efforts to safeguard the roads for the benefit of all travellers, the Crusaders erected this small fortress as a watchtower.

Looking at at Chateau Perelin from within the stables

Interestingly enough, the Crusaders themselves were the ones to destroy it, for when they built the grand Chateau Perelin at Atlit as a regional base, they were concerned that someday the Muslims would use the smaller fortress as a defensive position against them. Surely enough, the Muslims did arrive within that decade, and their leader the Ayyubid sultan Al-Mu’azzam Isa razed the rest of Le Destroit to the ground, not leaving very much for us happy visitors to see.

Avner examining the hewn sockets

Avner and I explored the sandstone ridge, examining the small cave-like stables that was hewn not far from the fortress itself. From within the windows we had quite the lovely view of Chateau Perelin’s ruins, jutting out into the blue Mediterranean Sea. Continuing along the forged trail, we arrived at the northern side of the fort, and took stake of our surroundings.

The eastern side of the tower with its hewn moat

A small hewn moat was clearly visible on the east side, so we climbed up atop the rock podium from the northwest corner. Not really knowing what to expect, we were slightly surprised that there wasn’t much more than the literal base of the original construction. In the southeast corner we found a small cistern, fenced off and containing just a little bit of water. With not much to see below our feet, we focused on enjoying the sprawling seaside view and picturing what it was like to be here in Medieval times.

Looking back from whence we came

Consulting the Wikipedia entry for the fortress, we learned that an interesting ancient inscription was found nearby. We descended and gave the southern and eastern walls a good lookover, admiring the construction of the manger on the eastern side.

Looking out to sea

Dropping down from the elevated sandstone ridge, we scanned the rock walls from the east, looking for the cryptic letters. Much of the rocky area around the fortress was used to quarry sandstone ashlars for construction, so we knew to look for the more natural patches.

Ancient inscription in the rock wall

At last, lo and behold! Clearly cut letters carved out of the rock face! We stood below it, admiring and wondering how someone found it, until we were ready to move on.

A closer look at the carven letters

Taking one of the passes, hewn east-west out of the sandstone ridge, we made a loop back to the marked trail, returning to the fortress. Along the way we encountered what is believed to be a guard booth, also hewn from sandstone.

Avner inspecting the guard booth

Making our way back to the car, I had a quick gander at the closest fishpond (or whatever the body of water serves as) and then we decided that it was time to go to the beach. We entered HaBonim Beach into the Waze navigation system and set a course which ended up taking us on dirt roads through fields and alongside banana greenhouses, providing loads of befuddled entertainment as we wondered if we’d ever get there. At last, after too long in the open fields, we arrived at a small parking area and disembarked.

Sea of white Queen Anne’s lace

Heading straight for the sea, passing a small tributary which would empty into the sea had there been more water, we made two interesting discoveries. The first was that we had landed exactly where the “famous” shipwreck is, the subject of innumerable sunset photographs, which turned out to actually be quite small. Where I had always envisioned a small ship, of impressive proportions, there lay a small boat which was a bit underwhelming. A little research revealed that this boat is believed to be a Turkish cement-carrying ship that somehow sunk, but in fact it seems that it was an Israeli fishing boat named “Netz” that sank during a storm in 1970. The boat was left in situ, and has slowly decomposed, but more pictures can be seen HERE, on an interesting Hebrew blog. Also, a very neat aerial shot can be seen HERE.

Sunken fishing boat at HaBonim

The second discovery was the presence of countless jellyfish washed up on the shore, belonging exclusively to the species nomad jellyfish (Rhopilema nomadica). This species has infiltrated the Mediterranean Sea, having migrated via the Suez Canal. Large and usually a semi-translucent white, these jellyfish have become quite an issue every summer and whilst we were not pleased to see their presence, we weren’t completely deterred. Slathered with sunscreen we braved the potential of stinging jellyfish and entered the surf bravely. Sure enough, we each began to feel the stings and while we could usually see them drifting about, the repeating waves concealed them and it was inevitable that we should feel their jellied tentacles. True, the sensation is unpleasant, but in all fairness it’s not that bad, so we stayed in the water and just tried to avoid the jelly beasts as they drifted aimlessly around us, their trailing stingers ever-dangling in search for prey.

Nomad jellyfish washed ashore

When we were done enjoying the beach we packed up and headed back to the car, noting paragliders and common terns sharing the crisp blue skies above us. There was another Crusader site that we wanted to take a quick look at, so we drove back out into the dirt roads which eventually led us to our destination, Tel Dor. In 2018, I had excavated for a day at Tel Dor (see HERE), and I remembered the developing discoveries concerning the small Crusader fort atop the precipice overlooking the ancient harbour.

The lovely colours of summer on Tel Dor

Merle, or Merla Templi in Latin, was a small castle of which, unfortunately, very little is known. It is believed to have been built sometime before 1187, the year that marked the fall of the first Kingdom of Jerusalem, and likely served as a lookout of sorts. Of the ruins, there was a small tower that survived until 1895, and today there’s some ghastly modern concrete marring the ancient construction.

Merle under excavation (photo from August 2018)

We parked outside the beach area and made our way to the small fort ruins, passing loads of beach-goers and some more washed up jellyfish. The tel was very unlike how I last remember it, the coastal vegetation covering the previously-exposed ruins from a myriad of time periods. Standing atop the ruins of Merle, I struggled to make sense with what I remembered from the active excavation, but, alas, the ruins are altogether quite underwhelming.

Archaeologists chipping away at Merle’s history (photo from August 2018)

We left without a sense of satisfaction, having not really understood any more about the old castle than we could have from glancing at the archaeology books. The hour was late and we had grown hungry in the full midday sun. Avner had researched a lovely place to eat at in nearby Zichron Ya’akov, so we drove over and parked the car somewhere in the chic town centre.

Common kestrel searching for prey

The lack of tourists, due to the coronavirus sanctions, definitely gave the touristy town a bit of a deserted feeling, and to top that off, the restaurant Avner had found was decidedly closed. So, ravenous in a small town, we scoured the cobbled streets in search for good eats. At last we decided on a simple sandwich shop called HaNadiv, where I ordered a schnitzel baguette and a cold bottle of American Budweiser (a recent import to Israel which Avner had not yet tried).

Schnitzel baguette and a Budweiser

When we finished our meal, which was downright delectable, we got back into the car and headed back down south. Avner dropped me off and rerouted to his own house, parting with solemn promises to take another Crusader-themed trip in the near future – which we did!

Nachal Rabah

In Central Israel, Israel on July 12, 2020 at 9:25 AM

In March, just as this ongoing coronavirus pandemic was first taking a foothold in Israel, my friend Adam Ota and I went on two back-to-back trips to the same location. With spring migration ongoing, we noticed that there was a particular site garnering interest, with numerous sightings of interesting bird species – as well as the occasional mammal. Some birders are less forthcoming with location information, as they claim that keeping fauna-rich sites a secret will better preserve the nature therein. Thus, after consulting maps and picking out keywords from several pertinent Facebook posts, we somewhat solved the mystery and made plans to visit this site for ourselves.

Starting off the morning just outside Rosh HaAyin

Our destination was Nachal Rabah, a four kilometre stretch extending from northern Rosh HaAyin to the security fence to the east, paralleled by Road 5. We did not know where the choicest locations were, so we figured we’d traverse the entire length of the streambed, hoping to see whatever we could. The bus dropped us off at the closest interchange and we began our walk into nature via a small trail that took us into the woods.

Unnamed brook of Nachal Rabah surging along

The Persian cyclamens were a’bloom everywhere, underneath the conifer trees and beside the rough, grey boulders. Having hiked similar wooded areas such as Cola Forest, with its Crusader ruins, and Ben Shemen Forest, where we had gone birding several times, we knew in advance that our best bets were in the open stretches of garrigue scrubland, also known as batha habitat. Equipped with this knowledge, we made our way swiftly through the sunbeam-struck woods until we reached an open area.

Nachal Rabah’s open scrubland

Interestingly enough, the transition from woods to open scrubland is exactly where the Green Line was drawn, way back in 1949. Today, a huge bridge follows that same line, part of a new traffic rerouting project. Once in open territory, we scanned the surrounding rocks for interesting birds but found mostly Eurasian jays and chukar partridges. At last, as we progressed through the dew-soaked grass, we spotted a long-legged buzzard perched on a treetop further up ahead.

Long-legged buzzard

We got acquainted, until he felt uncomfortable and flew off, putting quite the scare into some nearby rock hyraxes as he swooped past. Looking around, we decided to explore a nice vernal pool nearby where a pair of mallards had just landed. Inside the clear waters, we found scores of tadpoles and thousands of frog eggs strung along beside the underwater vegetation.

Strings of frog eggs

Still, we weren’t seeing any of the promising species we’d heard so much about, so we pressed on. We reached an access road which led to a quarry, and followed that for a bit until we decided that we had gone far enough for one day. Fortunately, a nice woodchat shrike decided to pass us a little visit, and we then spotted some mountain gazelles on the nearby ridge.

Woodchat shrike

We decided to turn back for the day, and found a nice little cave along the way. Upon consulting the Amud Anan map, I learned that this was called the Shakeef a-Sheikh Cave. An even more important cave, Qesem Cave, is just across Road 5, visible during some of our trip’s duration. Qesem Cave famously hosts some of the earliest human remains, and is unfortunately locked and not open to visitors.

Seeking shelter in the Shakeef a-Sheikh Cave

A lone short-toed eagle passed overhead, and we decided to move on, heading for the large bridge that we had encountered earlier. Under the bridge, Adam decided that it was time for some hot chocolate and whipped out his handy coffee pot. He got a quick little fire started and within minutes had water boiling, a quick and easy refreshment forthcoming. While he was doing that, I was scanning the skies, and found a small flock of white storks which disappeared as quick as they appeared. Also, a common kestrel returned to his nest in an upper bridge cavity, and brought tasty treats. One was just a grasshopper or locust, but the other was a small, slim snake which I couldn’t identify – my guess is a Dahl’s whip snake.

Hot chocolate in the making

Heading back through the woods, we decided to take a different route, and climbed the nearby hill. This decision paid off, as we were awarded with more sightings of migrating raptors – short-toed eagles and steppe buzzards. Even a sparrowhawk made an appearance, dashing between the tall conifers. Atop the hill we found the old Byzantine ruins of Horvat Dayyar (or Khirbet a-Daweer), the remains of an ancient olive oil press and other unidentified structures.

Horvat Dayyar ruins

Beside the ruins was the lookout, affording spectacular views of the woods and slopes below us. We basked in the glory and rehydrated, getting ourselves prepared for another hike back down the hill – the wildflower trail. Being spring, there were loads of flowers to see, from wild tulips to anemones to the several simple yellow blossoms whose names are so hard to remember.

Mountaintop lookout

We continued along Nachal Rabah, seeing different flora in the more damp environments, including some mushrooms (Crepidotus mollis and Psathyrella candolleana) which turned out to be edible – yet not particularly tasty according to the identification guides.

Psathyrella candolleana mushroom

Our legs carried us out of the touristy forest and into a small wooded area which had no trail to speak of. We hiked along the calm stream and watched another flock of white storks fly by over our heads. Before long we reached a small, man-made pond with even a small observation blind – but, alas, there was nary a waterfowl but for a few mallards.

Rosh HaAyin’s little pond

Pushing on, we looped around a small residential neighbourhood until we reached the road leading to our final destination – Izbet Sartah. Here is where it got exciting, as raptors started filling the skies, just as some curious resident was showing off his bird knowledge. We struggled to be affable as our eyes were cast to the heavens, confirming his statements as we muttered directions to one another. The raptors turned out to be mostly the same: short-toed eagles, steppe buzzards and common kestrels.

Jackdaw mobbing a short-toed eagle overhead

Checking bus times, we decided to make our final push a quick one, and heading up the small, wooded hill that hosts the ruins of Izbet Sartah. Songbirds were a’plenty and it was hard not lingering in hopes of getting a good ID or photograph of a cool species. Then it happened, a great spotted cuckoo flew into a nearby tree. Every year I see but one of these birds, and I was determined to get a better sighting. Excited, and also rather tired, we circled the aforementioned tree and flushed the parasitic bird, adding another bird to my annual checklist (which stands at 107 species, to-date).

Izbet Sartah ruins

With time truly running out we made a mad dash for the ruins, and examined them most briefly. Izbet Sartah, also known as Even Ezer, is a small Iron Age settlement, discovered in 1972 by Tel Aviv University during an archaeological survey. I had learned about Izbet Sartah back in one of my intro classes several years ago, and had always wanted to visit. At last, I was there, standing among the excavated ruins with no time to appreciate them.

Grain silos everywhere

Believed to be the site of a great battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, the ancient settlement was largely abandoned until the Byzantine period. Even then, the site seemed to have hardly been used, and was practically forgotten until modern times. Excavations in the 1970s revealed a large courtyard with casemate walls which was later upgraded into a house surrounded by grain silos. Additionally, a small ceramic ostracon was discovered, inscribed with proto-Canaanite letters – one of the earliest Hebrew texts ever found.

Pink garlic with bokeh

We took our last photos and hustled back down the hill to the bus stop. Our bus came promptly and we rode all the way back to Givat Shmuel, bringing our first foray into Nachal Rabah to a conclusion. However, we were not quite satisfied with our experience, and thus planned another excursion for the very next day. This time we headed straight for where we had ended the day before, to explore the continuation as far eastward as we could.

Dirt road beside the batha habitat

It was before 7:00am when we arrived on site, and began seeing a whole new collection of birds, starting with corn buntings and long-billed pipits. It got better, with three species of warblers dancing about on the low bushes: Sardinian, as well as both common and lesser whitethroats. Before long, a nature photographer drove up to us in an SUV and asked us if we knew where the common rock thrush was. Unfortunately, we did not but we were eager to see it as well, so we told him to let us know if he finds it.

Common whitethroat relaxing on a bush

We continued on foot, amazed at how much richer this area was than the areas we had visited the day before. A bunch of long-billed pipits revealed themselves, as well as a small flock of swifts. Another man in an SUV approached us, turning out to be someone we knew by name, a birder who lives nearby. Since the whole corona debacle was starting, we kept our distance as he gave us pointers as to what to see where.

Swifts mating mid-air

With his help, moved on over to an area where there were dozens of large bushes and small trees – a warbler sanctuary. He scanned the area here and there, telling us to be on the lookout for some of the more interesting warbler species. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to ascertain if we had seen a lucrative Rüppell’s warbler, nor the larger Western Orphean warbler, but the rest was nice. What topped it all was a sudden viewing of a common cuckoo – we had been hearing calls throughout the morning, but it was only with this birder’s help that we found it flying along the slope.

Corn bunting

After he had driven off, we resorted to walking our way back to the flatter garrigue scrubland, taking it slow to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Sure enough, we noticed a pair of long-billed pipits nesting quite literally a few metres from us.

Long-billed pipit gathering up nesting materials

It was amazing to watch them go about their daily business, keeping an eye on us as we stood on the dirt road a safe distance away. Soon enough our focus was shifted to the heavens, where the drifting clouds provided a textured backdrop to the developing raptor migration.

Twenty-three black kites

We craned our necks as we alternated between camera and binoculars, trying to make sure that no interesting species slipped by unnoticed. Among the soaring birds were the following, relatively expected species: short-toed eagles, steppe buzzards, lesser spotted eagles and loads of black kites. Even a booted eagle made an appearance, diving around behind one of the nearby hills.

Huge flock of white pelicans

Thousands of pelicans also graced our lenses, swirling together is somewhat unison. As the raptor trickle began to slow, we pickened up our pace to head back home. Although there was still so much to see, and so much more of Nachal Rabah to be explored, government-issued lockdowns were on the verge of taking effect, and we had to head back to our respective homes.

Ending off with some unidentified stone pilings

True, the coronavirus lockdown did take its toll on us – especially with not being able to go out to enjoy the sights and sounds of spring migration, as much as we would have liked to, but occassionally the action came to us. Two days of heavy duststorms brought thousands upon thousands of storks and raptors of a variety of species directly over Givat Shmuel, dotting the yellow sky with ever-moving dark dots of lethal energy. The spring may have been snatched from us, but we resumed our nature adventures recently with renewed evening trips to the nearby dunes.

Beit Zayit Reservoir

In Israel, Jerusalem on June 3, 2020 at 6:21 PM

Back in the beginning of March, just as the winter was coming to an end, there was one particular place that piqued my interest. I had seen photos of it shared on various Facebook groups, and the picturesque appearance beckoned me closer. At last, someone posted that they found fairy shrimp and that sealed the deal. I contacted Adam Ota, the ultimate travel companion, and plans were made to go visit this wonderful place which is known as the Beit Zayit Reservoir.

Beit Zayit Reservoir (photo Eyal Asaf)

Located a few kilometres outside Jerusalem, this crescent-shaped reservoir was built in the 1950s following the construction of the Ein Kerem dam, which stopped the Nachal Soreq stream. This created a flooded area which has a fluctuating waterline. With this particularly rainy winter season, the reservoir swelled proudly with the rainwater run-off and even the usually dry northern end became marshy wetlands.

Marshy flooded northern end of the reservoir

Adam and I boarded our Jerusalem-destined bus in the morning and got off on Highway 1, where we transferred to another bus to take us closer. Alighting just metres from the trail, we first scanned the nearby groves, the crisp morning air abuzz with the singing calls of songbirds. Sure enough, there were handfuls of chaffinches and blackbirds, and then a nice little surprise: a few hawfinches perched on a large, bare-branched tree.

Posing blackbird

We were elated to have such an excellent start, and hurried along the trail, hoping to reach the reservoir as quickly as possible. Expectedly, there were distractions along the way, namely more birds and a fully-blossomed almond tree – a true sign of early spring in Israel. Urging ourselves on, we reached the reservoir from the north, and laid eyes on its flooded banks.

Scanning for interesting waterfowl

It was perfect. There were birds everywhere, including mallards, sandpipers, coots, moorhens and grebes, and the location was gorgeous. We made our way to the water’s edge, hoping to catch sight of these fascinating fairy shrimp. It was mere seconds before we spotted one, swimming upside-down in the shallow water. Then we saw another, and another, and then we realised that the water was absolutely filled with them.

Fairy shrimp (photo Adam Ota)

There were other invertebrates as well, tiny swimming creatures which added to the richness of the underwater ecosystem. The fairy shrimp dwarfed them all, themselves being only a wee couple centimetres long. It was exciting watching them, but we knew that we had to keep going to see more – and perhaps more fairy shrimp.

Macro shot of a copepod (photo Adam Ota)

We walked the nice trail that hugged the reservoir, stopping now and again due to pleasing distractions. A common buzzard landed on a tree across the water, and it was a challenge to get a decent picture. We walked and walked, thoroughly enjoying the weather and the charming location. However, with much walking comes great hunger and we knew that it would soon be time to feast.

Panoramic shot of the reservoir

There’s nothing better than good, fire-roasted food and we came prepared with the necessary ingredients for a fine feast. Checking our location via GPS we understood that we were approaching the end of the reservoir and sought out a prime location for a fire. We needed to ensure that the spot that we chose both gave us shade from the sun to the east, but open skies to the west to watch for migrating raptors. It wasn’t long before we found the perfect spot, where a convenient broken concrete tube was waiting for us to repurpose it into a makeshift oven.

A prime barbecue location

We gathered some dead wood, and plenty of kindling, and got a fire going. Adam had thoughtfully packed some delicious spicy hotdogs, which we impaled on skewers to cook over the scorching heat. As we were eating we casted our eyes skyward from time to time, and then, our efforts paid off and we saw them.

A common buzzard far away

Migrating raptors began to dot the skies, making us dash for our camera and/or binoculars. It started with a few steppe buzzards seen over the faraway pine trees, and then some short-toed eagles were added to the mix. A few Eurasian sparrowhawks joined the fun, and then more steppe buzzards. They’d climb the thermals, reaching a favourable stream of hot air, and then disappear off to the north, to be replaced by others making the same moves.

Hooded crow mobbing a migrating steppe buzzard

Watching migrating birds of prey is a real treat, as you never know what you’ll end up seeing – and even if you see just the regular, expected species, it’s still an exciting time. We ate roasted hotdogs and drank cold water, taking in the experience. When the hotdogs were gone we got out the marshmallows that I had brought, and began a’skewerin’.

Happy adventurers

Sated from the delicious meal, we extinguished the burning coals and gathered up our bags. It was about 11am and large groups of people were starting to show up. We relinquished our prime, waterfront location to some picnic prospectors and struck out for the end of the reservoir. It was surprisingly close, and the big dam beckoned us to explore further. We ventured on, dipping down behind the dam and found a release pipe where excess water gushed out in a huge spray.

Behind the dam

It was tranquil behind the dam, with no crowds and the tiny Nachal Soreq just gurgling along underfoot. It was then that we went off-trail and Adam found something exciting. He shouted cries of jubilation as he raised his arm in victory, a single stem clutched tightly in his fist. It was wild asparagus and he had just harvested a single shoot. Adam had had a relatively bountiful some weeks prior when trotting about in Ben Shemen Forest, and now was time to harvest some more.

Wild aspargus with garlic

We scoured the undergrowth, searching for the precious little shoots. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of plants throughout the area we scanned, and the harvest was quite meagre. However, I was able to secure enough asparagus (approximately 8-10 shoots) to bring home as a treat to my asparagus-loving wife.

Making our way back to the marsh

With that we turned back, and walked the water-hugging trail that was now full of excited visitors. There was just one last raptor in the air, a sparrowhawk, and Adam needed to grab a few fairy shrimp specimens to take home. We reached the flooded marshy area quickly and set out to harvest some invertebrates. Adam used his nifty little net and scored a good number from the millions that were swimming before us. These treasures tucked away safely, we began the walk back to the bus stop.

In search of fairy shrimp

There was just one last surprise for us, a rock-hewn reservoir with a circular mouth at the side of the trail, which had gone unnoticed the first time we passed it. We got our bus after a short wait at the stop and made our journey home, bringing an excellent adventure to a close.

Adam has also written about this trip to the Beit Zayit Reservoir, long before me, in his new blog The Ota Files. Read his hilarious take on our adventure in his post HERE.

University Trip: Tel Arad & Tel Be’er Sheva

In Israel, Negev on May 10, 2020 at 8:47 AM

Last semester, in the beginning of January, I went on yet another department-run field trip with Prof Aren Maeir. Since I’ve been a trip-going student for several years now, there is an increasingly small list of unique and new field trips being offered to me. However, when I heard of a trip to Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva – of which I’ve been to neither – I jumped to the opportunity.

Welcome to Tel Arad!

Our tour bus departed from Bar Ilan University in the morning, and we made our way south toward our first destination: Tel Arad. We arrived just after 9:30 and disembarked, gathering up informational brochures from the front desk, before heading up to the fortress at the top of the tel. I scoured the area for birds, hoping to add a few nice desert-living species to my freshly-started 2020 list. Sure enough, I spotted a mourning wheatear bouncing around the rocky terrain of the national park, joined by a male black redstart.

Approaching Tel Arad’s fortress

Atop the tel, Prof Maeir began to educate us about the site that we were about to enter, however, I was much too busy filming and looking for birds to know what was said. As part of my job as media director of my department, I film, edit and release videos of our field trips. You can see the video of this trip HERE, on the department’s YouTube channel (feel free to subscribe HERE!).

Finsch’s wheatear on barbed wire

Before elaborating on the site, I should add that I tried visiting Tel Arad back when I was a truck driver in the IDF, but didn’t end up having time to explore. So, this trip’s score was to be settled at last. About Tel Arad, the site first saw human occupation in prehistory, with a scattered settlement, and then became a walled city during the Bronze Age. The tel-top fortress was first built in the Iron Age, built and rebuilt numerous times as a result of enemy destruction. In the Hellenistic period the fortress saw an addition of a tower, and the city was only finally abandoned in the Early Arab period (8th century CE). Following surveys conducted by the British in 1874, the site was ultimately excavated in the 1960-80s and established as a national park.

Within the fortress

We entered the fortress from the east, and entered the not-so-tall tower, enjoying the lookout over the ancient city. Looking down at the layout of the fortress below us, we saw the warehouses and the temple, with its shrine and altar. There was a bitterly cold wind that whipped at us, driving us down from the lovely lookout and into the partially restored fort interior.

The Cana’anite city down below

After a quick gander at the subterranean water system and reservoir, where some feral pigeons waited in ambush to burst out at us with a flurry of powerful wingbeats. Not the least bit alarmed, we continued down to what is called the “Canaanite city”, and examined the exposed ruins scattered here and there. I must add that this layout, with the fortress up above and the walled city down below, was greatly pleasing to the eye and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there.

Outside the Aradian house

We followed the park’s recommended trail, bumping into a group from Tel Aviv University, led by Dr Ido Koch, whom our Prof Maeir seemed to know quite well. While outside the typical Aradian house, a broad-room style house, I noticed an interesting turn of events over the western border fence. A hooded crow had spotted two brown-necked ravens coming in, and went over to greet them in the best way possible. A short and anti-climactic aerial battle ensued, and I watched the corvids swoop and dive at one another until at last they all dispersed free of visible injury, but perhaps injured pride.

Raven vs crow

When we were finished at Tel Arad we got back into our bus and had a nice desert drive over to the second site of the day: Tel Be’er Sheva, located just outside of the city Be’er Sheva. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tel is an important site that saw civilisation for a span of thousands of years. There are remnants of settlement from prehistoric times, as well as a pretty continuous occupation in the Iron Age. During the Persian period, in the 5th-4th centuries BCE, a small fortress was built.

Welcome to ancient Be’er Sheva!

Subsequently, in the Hellenstic period, a temple was constructed – the stone base of the altar still visible on-site. The fortress was enlarged in the Herodian period, and then a diamond-shaped fortress was built in the subsequent Roman period, to be restored in the Early Arab period. During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Be’er Sheva’s epicentre moved from the tel to the outlying areas – today, the sprawling modern city. Used by the Ottomans as a staging ground during WWI, the city was conquered by ANZAC troops in 1917.

A mess of rooms and pathways

We entered the site and approached the tel from the east, climbing up into the walled city from the southern gate. Within, the city’s remains – most of them reconstructed – portray a chaotic assemblage of human-built structures, crisscrossed by ancient streets and modern footpaths. Prof Maeir went into great detail as we walked from area to area, while I attempted to capture it all on film.

Strangers watching us from the tower

Several black kites soared overhead at low altitudes, attracted to the rubbish heaps perhaps accredited to the nearby Bedouin encampment, or perhaps the local village Tel as-Sabi. Likewise, a medium-sized mammal (perhaps Indian crested porcupine) had been burrowing under some ancient walls, which amused me to see. The path took us along the inside of the casemate wall until the northwest corner, where it turned in to lead us to the observation tower.

Superimposed model over reconstruction

It was atop the tower that I felt a greater understanding of the circular city below me, as I was able to see the layout from a bird’s-eye view – oh, how I envy them! Casting my view out even farther, I spotted an interesting sight from the Bedouin encampment – dozens of dromedary camels alongside scores of fuzzy-looking sheep.

Descending into Tel Be’er Sheva’s water system

We descended from on high, and made our way into the bowels of the globe – well, not that far, just seventeen metres down into ancient Be’er Sheva’s underground water system. It was nice and cool down below, and like all ancient water systems, quite an engineering feat considering the tools and knowledge the builders possessed.

Video that I filmed of the trip

Finishing our circuit of the ancient city, we stopped at the famous altar’s replica (the original is on display at the Israel Museum) for a quick selfie with the whole group, sans myself who needed to document the documentation. We had a short break and then loaded ourselves back into our bus to be shuttled to our next location: Tel Lachish.

Low-res selfie documentation

However, being as though I already visited, blogged about and filmed a previous Maeir-led excursion to Tel Lachish (see HERE), I thought I’d sit this one out and instead did some near-sunset birding, and fox-watching, which turned out to be quite enjoyable. I secured a ride back to Jerusalem with the professor and from there to a bus to have dinner with my then-fiancé, Bracha. The day ended as it had begun, with smiles and a resparked thirst for fun, adventurous outings.

Khirbet Luza

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 29, 2020 at 8:45 AM

Continuing on with backlogged adventures, this post brings us to the mountains outside Jerusalem in the beginning of December. As part of our MA thesis project, friend and classmate Avner Touitou and I have been exploring our options. Being that we are both specialising in Crusader archaeology, we figured we’d best go out on a little adventure to hit up some lesser-known Crusader sites in the Jerusalem area.

Khirbet Luza

Avner picked me up in the morning and we drove over to our first destination, Khirbet Luza (or, al-Lawza), located not far from Moza. With a quick stop for coffee we made it to the nearest parking lot, at Arazim Valley Park, and continued on foot, all bundled up from the cold.

Join Avner on this adventure

Trying to keep pace, I scanned the nearby trees and vineyards in search of interesting birds and found a decent selection, including chaffinches, black redstarts and a whole lot of blackbirds.

Black redstart

As we walked, Avner pointed out a few gazelle on the slopes in front of us, and sure enough the trailside slopes had what to offer. It happened so quickly, and so very unexpectedly. I saw a head peering out from behind the rocky vegetation, and immediately, instinctively knew that it belonged to a striped hyena.

Striped hyena head popping up

I nearly shouted with excitement, and hurriedly took photographs as I explained to Avner where it was hiding. Sure enough, it decided to move on, giving us a few seconds of a really great wildlife encounter. I had seen only one definite hyena, at night when I was driving in the army, and then another possible sighting near Tel es-Safi, which I wrote about HERE.

…and on the move

On a high, I reluctantly carried on as we continued walking our way along the trail in the direction of Khirbet Luza. We passed hundreds of trees with beautiful autumn foliage, unmarked ruins and a sign announcing the location as being Enot Telem National Park – a collection of natural springs, which were most recently used by the British. At last, after passing Ein Luz spring, we found it, the unassuming multi-leveled ruins on the left slope of the wadi-trail.

British pumping station

Leaving the trail, we climbed up on the damp rocky soil terraces, noticing the abundance of Steven’s meadow saffron, the delicate pinkish-purple flowers popping out of the soil. We explored the lowest level of the ruins, a large square chambre with thick walls, believed to have served as a pool of sorts.

Foggy Jerusalem hills and Khirbet Luza’s pool of sorts

We climbed up to the next level, where the ruins were either partially filled in or collapsed. The atmosphere was rather foggy, as was our understanding of the site. A northern raven flew overhead, patrolling the opposing slope, and we found some decorated Crusader pottery and typically-masoned ashlars. Some other flowers, including winter saffron, added a bit of flora here and there.

Decorated Medieval pottery

The second level of the ruins consist of a rectangular open room with added residential chambres closer to the natural slope. There are also several barrel-vaulted rooms, which are for the most part partially buried. We explored the toppled ruins the best we could, being wary of potential pits among the rubble.

Examining the high wall

Khirbet Luza was a rural estate built during the Crusader-era Kingdom of Jerusalem, situated on a rural road which connected other estates and monasteries. The terraces surrounding the building would have likely supported grapevines or olive trees during the Crusader period; today, these same terraces host olive trees, perhaps descendants of the Medieval ones.

Winter saffron

We continued on over to the nearby spring, where we found a huge blackberry bush just weeks from being ripe. We nibbled on a tart berry, just for entertainment’s sake, and then turned our attention to the spring’s pool where something sparkled at us from within the clear water. It was worth probing at it, in hopes of fishing out something amazing – but alas, ‘twas nothing exciting at all.

Exploring the spring

When we had finished our exploration of Khirbet Luza we walked back to the car, passing a whole bunch of common kestrels. From there we drove over to the next destination: Khirbet el-Burj, located in Ramot, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Dead grass-covered tel

Parking the car in a totally residential area, we found the hill associated with the site and climbed accordingly, seeing a few stonechats flying about. There was an overall cover of dried grass which made seeing any possible ruins difficult, yet we persevered. Yet, we did see a bit of architectural remains which seem to have dated back to the Crusader period.

Nabi Samuel nearby

Skirting the small hill from the south-side, we climbed up to the top from the east and saw a familiar landmark to the north. Nabi Samuel, a fantastic archaeological and religious site which holds some importance to me. My wife and I had gone there for our very first date, and thus already cherished, it was then the location of my marriage proposal – up on the rooftop with its view of Jerusalem.

Not much to see here at Khirbet el-Burj

But, up on the top of Khirbet el-Burj, there wasn’t much to see. We found some exposed walls, and the meagre remains of a largish building with a tower, destroyed in 1967 according to the IAA report. With not much to see, factoring in the passage of time and neglection, as well as the dominant grassy obstruction, we decided to bring our trip to an end. But first, two meadow pipits popped into view, giving me a nice sighting. We walked back down to Avner’s car and drove out to the main road, where we parted ways. Avner headed home and I waited for Bracha so that we could journey over to Ma’ale Adumim for Shabbat.

Montfort Castle Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on March 17, 2020 at 12:07 PM

There’s been a bit of a writing lull, what with my wedding in the beginning of February and the overload of work and school-related exams, papers and activities. Now in this unreal coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I think it’s time to cover the last of this past summer’s adventures. This post took place in late August, a few days before I proposed to my then-girlfriend Bracha. Some family was visiting from Washington State and I had seen an advert about renewed excavations at Montfort Castle, quite near my hometown of Ma’alot.

Sunrise over the Galilean mountains

Setting the gears into motion, I had contacted one of the dig’s organisers, Dr Rabei Khamisy of Haifa University, and arranged our volunteering for a day. That morning arrived and we left the house at the crack of dawn, meeting up with the rest of the team at a parking lot overlooking Nachal Kziv a few minutes before 6am. To get to the fortress we took one of the winding mountain trails, which is beautiful in its own right. However, being able to bring my relatives to a grand Crusader castle (albeit in ruins) such as Montfort was quite a thrill.

Mission briefing

We explored a wee bit of the 800-year old fortress before approaching Rabei for instructions, wondering what interesting work we’d be tasked with. Thankfully, he had the perfect job for us which had us working at the foot of the Montfort’s keep (the innermost fortified section of the castle). Our mission for that day was to expose a long-lost drainage channel which was recently rediscovered in old expedition photos of the castle. The team’s lead researchers had only come across it a few days prior and desired to see it exposed once again, to be examined and photographed. We accepted our mission joyfully and set forth exposing the channel, which was predominately hewn into the bedrock floor.

Exposing a mysterious little pit

The labour was fun and we were a great crew of six: Uncle EJ, Aunt Karise, cousins Walker and Judy Rae, brother Nissim and myself. The laughs were plenty and the dirt and rocks slowly moved from the channel to dumping piles elsewhere around us. We moved part of a broken trough that was placed against the keep’s walls, adjacent to a reservoir, and cleared our way around a short tree whose roots penetrated deep into a mysterious pit, finding all sorts of small items including a spent bullet casing.

Looking towards the sea

Eventually we broke for breakfast and dined with the rest of the crew who were working elsewhere in the castle. Their group was formed mostly of volunteers from Europe and Australia, as well as some Haifa University staff members including Prof Adrian Boas, one of Israel’s lead Crusader archaeologists.

The more interesting part of the exposed channel

When we were done eating we got back to work, with Rabei checking in on us now and again, just to make sure everything was going as planned. Our timing was great and we finished our mini-excavation just as the sun was coming up over the keep. We cleaned up the exposed channel, making sure it looked presentable for any possible official photography attempts, and put our borrowed tools back.

Early migrating honey buzzard

I hadn’t taken many photographs as we were all busy working or bonding, but when I saw a few birds of prey over the opposing ridge I whipped out my camera. Lo and behold, an early-migrating honey buzzard was circling overhead, in the company of two noisy short-toed eagles.

Group selfie (photo EJ Swainson)

Finished at the dig, having spent a really productive and interesting day at this once spectacular castle, we made our way back to the cars parked up above. It was a great experience for us all, and Uncle EJ even wrote a lovely Facebook post about it when they returned home to America, which you can see HERE. To many more adventures with friends and family!

Ma’agan Michael

In Coastal Plain, Israel on January 6, 2020 at 10:54 AM

Still catching up on adventures from this past summer, this post will focus on a nice morning birding trip to the seaside kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael. I was accompanied by Adam Ota, veteran adventurer and friend, to engage in as much interesting birding as possible. There had been reports of a rare migrating red knot, a shorebird that ordinarily lives thousands of kilometres away, and my intrigue was piqued. I had never been to Ma’agan Michael, and this sounded like the perfect opportunity to scope it out.

Welcome to paradise: Ma’agan Michael

Adam and I departed from Givat Shmuel early in the morning, and bussed our way to the train in Tel Aviv. We were then taken to Binyamina, where we had a bit of a wait till the kibbutz-destined minibus would show up. Not wanting to waste valuable time, we relented to birding the nearby fields but didn’t see anything of interest save a whole bunch of Eurasian jays.

Black-crowned night heron watching us walk by

At last we arrived at the kibbutz and made our way seaward, noting that we’d be reaching the fishponds first. Ma’agan Michael boasts some 1,600 dunams of fishponds, used to raise carp, mullet and other fish for the commercial market. We passed dozens of kibbutz members, visitors, joggers and more as we neared the ponds. Knowing that there would be birds to see, we had to fight the urge to linger and pressed on towards the beach.

Common terns at surf’s edge

Along the way we saw dozens of terns, gulls, herons and egrets – the usual fishpond inhabitants. At last we reached the beach, the glorious stretch of sun-kissed sand dotted with racing shorebirds, terns, tufted ghost crabs and more. There was a small flock of common terns near the surf, so after walking southward a bit, we settled down for a bit to watch them and to take pictures.

HaYonim Island

We scanned the neighbouring HaYonim Island, where many pigeons, gulls, terns and more were congregated. There were hopes to see a curlew or a whimbrel, both of which were sighted close to our visit, but we found neither. However, we did see a nice amount of waders, such as sandpipers and plovers. Also, a slinking Egyptian mongoose passed by at the edge of the bushy vegetation that borders the sandy beach.

Sneaky Egyptian mongoose

Before long we reached a calm drainage tributary where even more waders were gathered. Hundreds of photographs were taken, and a good handful of species were seen. Some couple hundred metres further south were congregations of gulls, but with the aid of my 2000mm lens I was able to see that most, if not all, were the standard stock of Armenian and yellow-legged gulls.

Gulls and shorebirds everywhere

When the sun was starting to get to us, and we felt like it was time to head back – the long way – we turned westward and found a wooden gazebo perched at the edge of the nearest fishpond. Making our way through the brush, we reached the blessed shade and relaxed, still keeping an eye out for cool birds.

Adam on the search

Truly, a squacco heron was standing at the edge of the pond, a lovely find. Lovely as it were, what Adam pointed out next was even lovelier: a golden jackal had popped into view down below in the thick grasses alongside the nearest tributary.

Birding from the gazebo

There were ducks and songbirds, and the usual terns and gulls, but it was rather fun watching the tributary from an elevated position. Once our humanly presence was no longer in sight, there was an influx of birds that gathered at the water’s edge, and it allowed us to watch with ease.

Birding Ma’agan Michael’s fishponds

But, we couldn’t spend all day in the gazebo, so we gathered up our belongings and struck a path towards the kibbutz, walking between the fishponds. We saw more of the same, and plenty of dead, dried and disfigured fish scattered everywhere in a grotesque, foul manner. As we were leaving my camera’s battery decided that it had had enough, and fritzed out. Fortunately, I was able to capture 99% of our adventure with the camera, and to celebrate the good timing, here is probably my favourite photo from the day, a lone black-winged stilt in the company of a few ruddy turnstones:

Black-winged stilt standing guard

Back in the kibbutz, Adam and I realised that we had quite a wait for the next bus, and decided to look around a bit. We found the local mini-market, and bought popsicles to help beat the heat – I wisely chose a delicious Häagen-Dazs macadamia nut brittle ice cream bar. While waiting for the bus we schemed all about how I’d propose to my now-fiancé, Bracha Berman, which went rather well back in late August. Our bus arrived and we made our way back to the train station where we parted ways for the weekend, bringing yet another adventure to a successful close.

Horns of Hattin Battle Reenactment

In Galilee, Israel on December 4, 2019 at 10:49 AM

A week or so after my day’s participation at the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig I spent a few days up north in Ma’alot with my folks. Planned carefully, this visit coincided with the Horns of Hattin battle reenactment, paying homage to the famous battle that launched the medieval sultan Saladin into international fame/infamy. The battle reenactment is part of a three-day event organised by a group known as “Regnum Hierosolymitanum”, catering to history enthusiasts from around the world.

The Horns of Hattin

First, to retell the tale with photographs from the recreated battle interspersed. The year was 1187 and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in full swing, under the leadership of King Guy of Lusignan. The Crusaders had entered the Levant and had conquered Jerusalem in 1099, creating the kingdom under the early rule of Baldwin I. Generations later, after the reigns of Baldwin IV the “Leper King” and Baldwin V who died as a child, Guy of Lusignan claimed rule by being the husband of Sibylla who was next in line for the throne.

Ayyubid archer watching for the armies

On the other side, the tens of thousands of Muslim horsemen and footsoldiers were united under the banner of Sultan Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Having joined the two most powerful cities of the region, Cairo and Damascus, he reestablished the Sunni caliphate and began impressive conquests throughout the Middle East. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, occupying Islam’s third holiest city, was next on Saladin’s list and he attacked thenceforce.

Crusader forces approaching

Departing from Damascus with a formidable force, Saladin marched towards the Kingdom of Jerusalem and laid siege on Tiberias, a fortified city on the Sea of Galilee. Rushing to defend the besieged city, the Crusader armies pushed eastward from the coastal plains. What’s important to note is that the Crusader forces were composed of numerous Christain entities: The Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army, the Templar and Hospitaller Military Orders which were somewhat subservient to the Vatican, and other important noblemen.

Gerard de Ridefort, Reynald of Châtillon and King Guy of Lusignan

Upon conquering all but the citadel of Tiberias, where Eschiva the wife of Count Raymond III of Tripoli was holed up, Saladin took his army westward to meet the Crusaders near Zippori. The Crusaders had spent a few days in the area, pushing eastward under split leadership. It was the beginning of July and the heat was unbearable, punishing the armoured soldiers and weakening them with thirst.

Parrying horsemen

The armies met on the slope of the Horns of Hattin, an extinct volcano that received its “horned” appearance after an ancient volcanic eruption. The Ayyubid army outnumbered the Crusaders, and harassed them with fire, arrows and noise, surrounding them until the Christian armies broke rank. Attempts at counterattacks on the Muslim forces failed, and the Crusaders were slowly cut down. Some escaped, many were killed and the battle came to an end.

Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Templar Knights

The remaining Crusaders were captured by the Muslim army, and dealt with forthwith. King Guy of Lusignan was spared, offered to drink from the cup of Saladin, as well as Gerard de Ridefort, but others weren’t so fortunate. Reynald of Châtillon, an important nobleman who served as a vassal to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was beheaded by Saladin himself, a death sentence that was meted out to Templar and Hospitaller knights as well.

Field photographer in period dress

Saladin’s victory spelled doom for the crushed Kingdom of Jerusalem, with its king imprisoned in Damascus and its army in ruins. Only the fortified coastal city of Tyre escaped the ravishings of Saladin’s army, and ended up being a city of refuge for King Guy when he escaped. It wasn’t until 1191 that the Christians received reinforcement from abroad, with the Third Crusade. English king Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France brought considerable armies which were able to recapture lands and renew the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Saladin and his men, but Jerusalem never returned to the state it was in during the first phase of the kingdom. Thus ends the history lesson.

Attacking the huddled Christians

Getting back to the reenactment, the reenactors had begun their 30-kilometre march on July 3rd starting at the Springs of Zippori. For two days they marched in the day, and camped in the night, reliving the experiences from 1187 the best they could. Dressed in period clothing, armed with period weapons and equipment, the dozens of members made their way to the mountain.

Players and watchers

My brother Nissim and I set out the morning of Friday the 5th, aiming to intercept the march where they reach the Horns of Hattin. Quite near the site we picked up another history buff who had come to see the reenactment as well. We parked in the designated field at the foot of the mountain and joined the hundred and something spectators who were gathered about beneath shade tents.

The clashings of many swords

A single Ayyubid tent was set up in the battlezone, and single archer stood outside watching for the arrival of the armies. It took a short while but eventually they came, riding in from the west. We watched as the two sides set up the battlefield and got ready to fight. The prominent figure on the Christian side was the imposing looking Reynald of Châtillon, vassal lord of the kingdom, dressed in red robes and chain mail armour. On the Muslim side was Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan, dressed in blue robes and chain mail armour.

Nissim looks happy

The sides clashed here and there, first demonstrating cavalry charges with pounding steeds and flashing steel. Here and there a soldier fell, and the battle continued. Archers took up their bows and let arrows fly into the midst of their enemies. Shields were raised, crosses were held on high, and the sweat poured freely. Just like it was in 1187, the beginning of July was hot and sunbaked this year too.

Surrounded by Saladin’s forces

We watched from the sidelines, taking pictures when we could, and enjoying the battle before us. Eventually, after cutting down most of the Christian soldiers, the overwhelming Muslim forces captured Reynald of Châtillon and the knights, among the other prisoners-of-war. We watched as the reenactors recreated the scene of Reynald’s beheading, which was curious to say the least.

Saladin beheading Reynald of Châtillon

With the battle over, the players allowed the crowd to mingle with them and we made our way back to the car. It was getting a wee bit late and we had to drive back to Ma’alot for Shabbat. It was a lovely outing though, and rather fun to take photos of – of which I have many. For more information about the “Regnum Hierosolymitanum” group see HERE and HERE; for the Facebook event page see HERE.

Mount Zion Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 6, 2019 at 2:22 PM

Way back in the end of June, at the start of the busy summer months, I had the pleasure of taking part in yet another exciting archaeological dig. Being that I have just begun my MA degree this autumn semester, I’ve been involving myself in the Crusader period more and more. This led me to meeting up with Dr Rafi Lewis, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig, at his excavation site just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Beneath the Old City walls

Referencing from the expedition’s website, the ongoing mission of the excavation is to expose and preserve the many layers of civilisation found on Mount Zion, going back thousands of years. As with nearly everywhere in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, the veritable footprint of humanity is profound in both magnitude and multitude. Just glancing about the dig site at Mount Zion, one can see a plethora of different architectural elements seemingly stacked upon one another in a dizzyingly fashion.

Dr Rafi Lewis & Dr Shimon Gibson

Dr Rafi Lewis of Haifa University joined Drs Shimon Gibson and James Tabor, both of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who had been excavating at Mount Zion since 2007. Whereas Drs Gibson and Tabor have their primary foci on the Roman era and the parallel rise of Christianity, Dr Lewis focuses on the Medieval period, and even more interestingly, Crusader battlefield archaeology.

Looking around the dig site

I had scheduled a day to join the dig in advance and made my way to the Old City of Jerusalem that early Wednesday morning. Arriving at the site shortly after 7am, I found a fenced off area just below Zion Gate – outside the impressive Ottoman wall of the Old City. Entering, I found Dr Lewis and made introductions before we set out on a little tour of the site. I found the range of excavated sites to be quite fascinating, and very unlike older sites such as Tel es-Safi where I excavated only Bronze and Iron age layers. Here there was so many different levels, belonging to such a varied group of historical peoples, that the very concept garnered interest.

Looking up at the nondescript tower structure

It’s certainly hard to recall which pit belonged to which era, and which wall was built by which reigning group, but the overall picture was that there was plenty to go around for everyone will all their preferred historical periods. Dr Lewis led me over to a rectangle of brushed earth, bordered by earthen ledges and stone architectural features. He then explained that this was the floor of a Ayyubid structure, believed to have been a tower, and that we were now going to explore what lies below – presumably Fatimid ruins.

Ornate pottery piece

While there were dozens of people milling about the general Mount Zion dig area, there were only a handful in and around this Arab structure. We made introductions and settled down to start working, armed with the usual archaeological hand tools. Our first task was to take up the next couple inches of soil, looking out for the usual archaeological artefacts. Every so often someone would come over with a metal detector to check for coins, jewelry and other metal objects.

Some fancy glass

I was amazed at the amount of nice pottery, far nicer than the generally rough sherds I have found in the Bronze and Iron age sites I’ve traditionally excavated at. Likewise, glass was more plentiful and came in all sorts of degenerated colourations. What surprised me most, however, was a weirdly shaped hard organic item that eluded even my wildest guesses. When I asked the experts, I was informed that it was none other than the tooth of a parrotfish – imagine that!

Ancient parrotfish tooth

Every now and again a coin would be found – never by me, unfortunately. However, I did find a nice piece of a mould-made oil lamp with an ornate pattern that looks like bent palm trees forming arches, encircling the pouring hole. Shortly thereafter, once the excitement had died down, another two pieces were found – one being a match, and one from a different lamp.

Posing with the lamp sherd

Another fun aspect was the high number of tesserae (mosaic stones) that were interspersed quite like cookie dough chunks in my favourite ice cream flavour. Handfuls of cubed stones were gathered up and chucked into the tesserae bucket, to be bagged, registered and dealt with at a later date.

Scores of tesserae

At 9:30am we paused for breakfast, and gathered around the serving tables at the higher end of the dig site. I feasted on plums and halva, somewhat limited in what I’d eat due to the expedition’s unkosher status. It was then that I observed a familiar face working beside an excavated pit below me. This face’s owner, Ido Zangen, is comparable to the charming character Waldo in that he appears at every archaeological excavation – you simply have to search for him to find him!

Finding Ido!

After breakfast we got back to work, and we had a new manager in our Ayyubid/Fatimid tower floor: Dr Rona Avissar Lewis, the wife of Rafi Lewis. Rona had previously been a staff member at the Tel es-Safi excavation, years before my stint there. Delving back into our work, we cleared away a nice sized layer of soil, uncovering the usual ceramics, tesserae, small finds and more.

Rona and Gray clearing out the dirt

As the hour got later the sun’s rays began to punish us through the mesh shade net above us, and I sought shelter to rest. The work day was almost over, so when I was done resting and rehydrating I rejoined my digmates to do the finishing touches. I don’t know how much dirt we moved that day, but it was very exciting working on a medieval tower and I look forward to doing more.

A last look at the curious oil lamp

Before I left I bid farewell to my digmates Gray, Mel and an older couple from Chicago; staff member John (a spitting image of Captain Flint in “Black Sails”); and the dig co-directors Rafi and Shimon. Feeling a wee bit peckish, I got a nice schnitzel baguette at the Central Bus Station and continued on with the rest of my day.