Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Jerusalem’ Category

Museum for Islamic Art

In Israel, Jerusalem on February 3, 2023 at 9:44 AM

Exactly one year ago, the day after our second wedding anniversary, Bracha and I embarked on a short day trip to Jerusalem. Our adventure began with a gourmet lunch at famed pizzeria La Piedra, joined by our friends Adam and Vered. From there we journeyed to the main destination of the day, the Museum for Islamic Art, located in central Jerusalem not too far from the famed Israel Museum. I had been wanting to visit this alluring-sounding museum for quite some time, so it was a joy to finally carve some time out of our schedule for a nice visit. But first, dessert in the form of an ice cream cone from the popular Mousseline ice cream parlour, found just around the corner.

The museum's foyer

The museum’s foyer

Admiring the large building on approach, we learned that the museum was created by Vera Bryce Salomons, who ultimately passed away before the museum’s opening in 1974. Its goal was to preserve and present collections of art and archaeological artefacts that represent the Islamic world. Eight permanent and one temporary exhibitions awaited us as we pulled open the glass front door, thus beginning our tour.

North African astrolabe from 1727

North African astrolabe from 1727

After confirming our tickets and hanging up our coats, we left the agreeable foyer and began exploring the first exhibit at hand – that of the early Islamic art. Now with my field of interest being the medieval periods, and my ongoing research dealing with the material (and written) evidence of the time, I naturally had quite the desire to align my archaeological knowledge with the physical displays of art that we were just about to see. While the more localised content interested me more, there was certainly a vast trove of foreign antiquities which delighted the eye. I can but point out some of the more interesting items that we were presented with, in hopes of giving justice to the experience that we had.

An ancient ivory domino set

An ancient ivory domino set

The first collection of items belonged to the Islamic empires that controlled the lands to the east, such as Persia/Iran, Iraq and more, and then slowly merged westward, covering the Islamic periods and communities from Asia Minor, the Levant and North Africa. Some notable artefacts include a leopard-painted ceramic bowl from eastern Iran, a collection of relatively simple oil lamps (quite similar to those I research), and a 6th-8th century ivory box of dominoes.

Posing at the mihrab

Posing at the mihrab

Moving on to an exhibit about artistic Islamic architecture, we admired a modern mihrab (prayer niche) flanked by 15th-16th century Spanish wooden architectural pieces and mid-19th century Daghestani prayer rugs. Next, I quite enjoyed inspecting a 13th century Syrian manuscript and 12th century Iraqi translations of the Greek Materia Medica. But it was the open pages of an ancient map from a 17th century manuscript that really tickled my fancy, filling me with hopeless wanderlust. 

17th century Ottoman book of travels manuscript

17th century Ottoman book of travels manuscript

Many art pieces and manuscripts later we found ourselves in a quieter room with some exhibits on Islamic cultures from the Middle Ages. A few artefacts that gave me a reflective pause included a glazed and painted Mongol bowl from the 14th century, Egyptian Fatimid period carved bone dolls and ornate pottery, and a large collection of Fatimid jewellery.

Mongol glazed bowl from the 1300s

Mongol glazed bowl from the 1300s

Next, I was excited to see the Mamluk period addressed, as the majority of the ceramic finds in my research date to the Mamluk period. There is one key difference though, the finds I handle are generally simple, and often handmade, pottery pieces, whereas the museum showcases only the finest painted and glazed whole vessels. Nonetheless, it was interesting to set my eyes on the finer wares that the upper crust of Mamluk society would have been using in their day to day life.

Fatimid bone and ivory dolls and a rabbit

Fatimid bone and ivory dolls and a rabbit

There was one vessel that struck me as rather strange. A brass and silver bowl, engraved with the coat of arms of Hugh IV of Lusignan (who died c. 1026), was listed as from Syria or Egypt and dating from the 14th century. I truly wonder what the history is behind that particular piece. Regardless, we continued by browsing some Ayyubid and Mamluk brass vessels and then made our way to the staircase.

Mysterious bronze bowl

Mysterious bronze bowl

Continuing chronologically, we resumed our tour upstairs in the hall dedicated to Ottoman (or Turkish) art. The exhibit covered glazed tiles and finely decorated pottery vessels, jewellery and art pieces, and of course, ornate Turkish articles of clothing. Thereafter, we had a quick look at intricate Damascus wooden furniture, taking me back to my visit to Akko’s Treasures in the Walls museum a decade prior.

A display of Seljuq craftsmenship

A display of Seljuq craftsmenship

Our tour resumed with an overview of Islamic art from the Moghul period, far east in the Indian subcontinent. Similar stylistically to the Ottoman art, at least to my untrained eyes, it was interesting to see such opulence in the form of fine jewellery, finely-carved and detailed boxes and even a painted wooden palace window frame from Gujarat, India.

Exploring the museum

Exploring the museum

From there we moved on to our last permanent art exhibit, belonging to the late Iranian period. At this point Bracha was feeling somewhat fatigued, being in the early stages of pregnancy with our son, Amir. We breezed through this section, pausing here and there to have a closer look at the displays, and then we headed for the ground floor to see the temporary exhibit titled “Coffee: East and West”.

A carven ivory powder horn

A carven ivory powder horn

What I had anticipated in being a cute, symbolic exhibition turned out to be a full-fledged, comprehensive study of all things coffee. We started with a collection of coffee cups and sets, including one particularly charming 19th century European mug that featured a fantastic Ottoman scene of a horse and rider in the desert. The sheer magnitude of the displayed pieces was overwhelming, but there were a few other pieces that shined. One such example was a trio of restored Ottoman coffee mugs that were found in an archaeological excavation at Khirbet Hamsa.

Excavated Ottoman coffee cups from Khirbet Hamsa

Excavated Ottoman coffee cups from Khirbet Hamsa

A large collection of coffee machines filled one end of the room, many of them vintage and retro appliances that were made in Italy. Some were examples of mankind’s clever attempts at gadgetry, with fantastical spouts and vents. A look at coffee in Israel’s early days, and the production of coffee-related accoutrements, gave me a greater appreciation for the times that are now chapters in the history books.

Elegant European coffee mug from the 1800s

Elegant European coffee mug from the 1800s

Once we had sufficiently browsed all that there was to see, it was time to see the final exhibit that the museum has to offer: The Sir David Salomons Collection of Watches and Clocks. This timeless treasure trove of timepieces was so tantalising that I knew it must be a blog post of its own, and so it shall be. In the meantime, this concludes the visit to a very unique and interesting museum, one that sheds light on the artistry of the Islamic days of old.

Ruins around Givat Ze’ev

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

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

Satellite view of the area (photo Google)

Satellite view of the area (photo Google)

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

The ruins of Khirbet el-Lattatin

The ruins of Khirbet el-Lattatin

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

Byzantine floor mosaic

Byzantine floor mosaic

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

What appears to be the apse of the Byzantine chapel

What appears to be the apse of the Byzantine chapel

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

Basilica column still buried in the dirt

Basilica column still buried in the dirt

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

Happy adventurers in the ruins

Happy adventurers in the ruins

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

Happy "Oketz" dog

Happy “Oketz” dog

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

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

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

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

Open garrigue scrubland outside of Givat Ze'ev

Open garrigue scrubland outside of Givat Ze’ev

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

Hewn bedrock atop the hill

Hewn bedrock atop the hill

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

Kestrel in the cold wind

Kestrel in the cold wind

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

Recent excavation efforts

Recent excavation efforts

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

A donkey friend

A donkey friend

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

Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 29, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Practically every Monday I make the journey to Jerusalem for work at the Schocken Institute where I manage their social media accounts. Sometimes I have a hankering for some birding beforehand and so I’ll swing by the Jerusalem Bird Observatory before work. Usually it’s a pleasant time and during the course of a few visits I had seen a handful of nice new-to-me species, including the wryneck and orphean warblers. However, in early September, I began to see fantastic eBird birding reports coming from another Jerusalem location, the Gazelle Valley, and I knew my time to pay another visit had come.

Map of Gazelle Valley

I had been to the Gazelle Valley just once before, with friends Adam and Itamar in the beginning of 2018, and I hadn’t been all that impressed (see HERE). I decided that it was time to give it a fair chance, and to properly plan my visit at the earliest hour possible. A good rule of thumb for birding is to start early, because birds start early (as we all know from the popular phrase) and then disappear once the sun gets too high in the sky. Thus, armed with a good plan, I made my way to the Gazelle Valley for a nice morning visit.

A faraway whinchat

Thankfully, my experience this time was significantly more successful, starting off with a whinchat or two just perched on some thistles waiting for me to see them. The weather was cool in the park, and the sounds of songbirds filled the air, so I figured I’d start exploring the park’s perimetres straight away. A fellow birder had given me a good tip, and that was to check the fig trees in the northern end of the park for some generally elusive golden orioles. I headed that way, passing through the sweet twittering of songbirds which darted in and out of the trees around me.

A gazelle coming at me from the undergrowth

I reached the fig trees, but there were no golden orioles to be found. I hid myself out of view, hoping that maybe one would pop out, but still nothing. There were mostly yellow-vented bulbuls, and a few warblers such as blackcaps, lesser whitethroats and Sardinian warblers. Abandoning the oriole haunt, I headed back down the trail until I heard some crunching in the thick undergrowth next to me. Lo and behold, a male gazelle appeared – quite close by and somewhat tame – and then another, and another. Afterall, I was in Gazelle Valley, I should be seeing gazelles.

A spotted flycatcher blending in with the tree

My walk continued until I noticed something fast and barred flying quickly right overhead. It disappeared into a grouping of pine trees, but I was pretty sure it was a sparrowhawk. Just when I thought I had lost it in the greenery, out of the corner of my eye comes another flash of movement. It was so brief, but it was clear, the sparrowhawk had just tried to snatch a songbird out of a small tree to my right. It’s one thing seeing birds of prey, which is amazing in and of itself, but it’s a whole lot better when you see them in action.

Photographers in the blind

I continued along the reconstructed Nachal Rekafot, along the aptly-named Bird Trail, until I reached the main pondside blind. Along the way I had seen more songbirds, including a spotted flycatcher, a reed warbler and a whole bunch of blackbirds. Within the blind were a few nature photographers, waiting like lions in the tall savannah grass for prey to come their way.

Portrait of the moorhen

For the meantime, just a few moorhens dared make their presence known to us hidden in our special bunker, but then a common kingfisher came and all the photographers jumped into action, clawing at their expensive cameras as the clicking sound of the shutters filled the air.

A common kingfisher

When I looked at my own pictures later, I realised that when I had first entered the hide and started taking pictures of a moorhen that was making its way away from us, I had incidentally photographed it trying to eat a small river frog. Had the kingfisher been as successful it would have been delightful, but no, he gave up after a few minutes and flew away. I followed suit.

The moorhen escaping with the frog

My last stop along this tour of the park was at the big pond, where I could see numerous ducks and other waterbirds idling about. I pulled up a chair a safe distance away and began scanning the visible areas for one of the birds I was most hoping to see: ferruginous ducks. These medium-sized diving ducks are simplistically beautiful with their rich maroon-mahogany plumage and their bright yellow eyes. Alas, not a single ferruginous duck showed its face and I was left to photograph grebes and herons – and the occasional kingfisher.

The tranquil pond-life

The hour was getting late and I had to get to work, so I began my walk back out of the park and to the nearest bus stop. As I walked I saw a few black-winged stilts flying by – an odd sight if not for Gazelle Valley’s bountiful sources of water for them to wade in. I packed away my camera and binoculars and headed over to work where, sadly, the birds are a lot less plentiful.

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.

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.

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.

Tel Tzuba (Belmont)

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 13, 2019 at 7:56 AM

One month ago, in the heart of February, I went on a short hike with my girlfriend, Bracha. We had decided to explore in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and one particular site stuck out to me: the Crusader fortress of Belmont. Doing a wee bit of research, we found a way to make a delightful little hike of it and, after meeting up in Jerusalem in the morning, set out to the trail by bus.

The start of the hike

Our bus took us directly to the trailhead, marked by green and white paint, and we began at once. The hill of Tel Tzuba was visible from where we began, large painted letters shouting “agriculture will prevail” slightly marring the otherwise picturesque view. As we walked gradually uphill we paused now and again to admire the early spring wildflowers and the noisy birds all around us.

Tel Tzuba

Within a half hour we reached the first site of interest: Ein Tzuba, a rather complicated underground spring flow system beside a small vineyard. We paused at the first pool, where mostly stagnant water overgrown with algae and a dead tadpole greeted us wearily. But it was the rest that proved more interesting, with a series of walls, gated passages, reservoirs and more modern structures that tantalised with their mysterious purposes. Consulting the on-site cross-sections as well as a book on underground aqueducts, I learned that this extensive spring system was first constructed in the Iron Age, some 2,500 or so years ago.

Ein Tzuba

When we had seen all that there was to see, we continued along on the trail, seeing more songbirds, wildflowers and a wild mushroom of unknown identity. Up ahead we made out a structure partially hidden by the low trees and undergrowth. It was a double-domed sheikh’s tomb, and we entered it briefly to look around. After a short break at one of the nearby picnic tables we continued on, walking the dirt road up the tel.

Sheikh’s tomb

As we neared the top of the hill we found the first of many crusader structures that make up Belmont. The site was first constructed by an unknown Crusader source sometime in the mid-1100s, approximately fifty years after the start of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Some years after, the military order of the Hospitallers acquired the structure and built a medium-sized castle. Despite its proximity to Jerusalem, the Kingdom’s capital, the castle was constructed more for agricultural production and mission work than for critical defence, which is evident in its construction.

Branched asphodel

Archaeological excavations led by RP Harper and D Pringle in the 1980s helped establish the size and shape of the castle. The external walls, forming a polygon that accommodated the hilltop topography, enclosed a more traditional rectangular structure with a courtyard. The castle was destroyed only tens of years after it was constructed, by the Muslim leader Saladin in either 1187 or 1191, and has been only partially in use since then. In 1834 the Egyptian leader Ibrahim Pasha thoughtfully destroyed the more of the standing remnants of the Crusader castle and left the ruins for us to explore on this lovely spring day.

Entering Belmont

We entered the outer confines of the castle, typical Crusader masonry showing itself everywhere, from standing walls to fallen ashlars. The path took us from the southwest around to the northwest, where we saw fit to enter the more inner area of the ruins. Flowering Egyptian campion added a splash of colour to the green grass and the off-white stones as we surveyed our surroundings.

Belmont castle

Some of the structures were in better shape than others, and as we climbed higher, the complex’s layout became more clear. The central courtyard had a grated-over water cistern, and was surrounded by walls and fallen rocks. Windows still remained here and there, and the degrees of fanciness in the arched doorways told us more about the rooms inside.

A bed of yellow among the trees

It took us a good half hour to explore the ruined castle, and there was always the impressive view to admire from the more lofty fortress rooftops. As we were making our final loop of the castle, climbing up the overgrown ruins and returning to the western side from whence we came, we found a dead pigeon with rings on its legs – apparently a domesticated pigeon that escaped from its human master and found death on the hilltop.

Jerusalem hills

We circled the lower perimetre of Belmont and found a place to picnic with a great lookout to the east, and essentially where we had hiked on the way to the castle. Bracha had made food the night before, and so we feasted and enjoyed the relative tranquility of a springtime afternoon picnic.

Common buzzard

As we were getting ready to head back, a nice common buzzard made an appearance overhead and it flew westward in search for prey. The short hike back was similar yet quicker than the way up, and as we approached the road where it all began, we found what appears to be an ancient coin washed up by the winter’s rain. Hopefully I will have an update sometime in the nearish future.

Ancient coin

Our trip ended with a short melon break near the bus stop as we had a good while to wait. We enjoyed the fresh fruit as we gazed out at the magnificent view and the chaffinches in the nearby flowering almond trees. At last our bus came and we rode it back into Jerusalem, bringing the end to our lovely little hike.

Jerusalem’s Binyanei HaUma Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on May 27, 2018 at 9:43 AM

On Yom HaZikaron that took place a number of weeks ago, I participated as a volunteer at an ongoing salvage dig in Jerusalem. I had heard about it on Facebook, advertised by Amit Ararat, and made the necessary connections with the Israel Antiquities Authority. I was to be joined by three friends, all fellow students at Bar Ilan University, and together we’d make memories. Adam and I met up in Givat Shmuel and took the bus together to Jerusalem. Itamar had come from his home, and was the first to appear at the dig site that morning. En route, Adam and I passed the relatively new Ariel Sharon park, a landfill-cum-nature preserve, and saw a beautiful red fox standing between the harvested rows of wheat in a field near the road – it was quite the scene.

The digsite

We arrived in Jerusalem and made our way to the dig site, located roadside the International Convention Centre and between the Central Bus Station and Supreme Court. Just to the west, slightly uphill, ruins from the Roman period, including bricks and rooftiles with stamps of the Tenth Legion, were uncovered in the first salvage excavation, in 1949. A later excavation, in 1967, uncovered two potter’s kilns with a other ceramics and ceramic-oriented equipment. Eventually the site was built-over, now the home of the convention centre, and now a small sliver of land beside the nearby street became the target for a new salvage excavation in light of new roadwork-in-planning.

Itamar, Adam and Ido washing pottery

Approaching the fenced-off area, we were able to discern the digsite by the characteristic shade-tents that accompany all digs. Entering, we met up with Itamar and a fellow student from Hebrew University by the name of Ido, both of whom were engaged in pottery washing. They showed us some interesting rooftiles and other ceramics while we waited for Danit, the dig supervisor, to receive us.

Decorated rim of a vessel

We made the necessary introductions and then enjoyed a brief site tour, catching us up with what’s been going on the past year or so since the salvage dig has been opened. In addition to Itamar and Ido there were a handful of paid laborers, and the third BIU friend, Eitan, who was still en route. Danit showed us to an excavated room, with a plaster floor which needed defining, and we got to work. Facing the eastern baulk of the pit-like room, we began by scraping the baulk straight down, to give us clean edges and a defined joint with the to-be-revealed floor. There were all sorts of potsherds, mostly unmarked rooftiles, until I came across one that had production marks, which I thought was pretty neat.

Working in the corner of the pit

What I came across next was similarly interesting, a deposit of wet clay that had a black-grey appearance, and oozed an oil-like substance when condensed. This is easily explained as refuse of the Roman potters, the black substance being nothing but carbon. We enjoyed playing with chunks of the malleable clay, but responsibly got back to work on the wall and the floor. Before long a curious crystal formation was pulled out of the dirt, this item being more of a geological than archaeological curiosity, but interesting to us nonetheless. The buckets of dirt were filled up and emptied by our hands repeatedly as the sun slowly made its way overhead. A common kestrel passed by, giving us a moment of birding enjoyment, respite from the physical labour we were doing. At some point Eitan had joined us, and was working in a spot adjacent to us pulling rooftiles out of the ground.

Eitan posing where he was digging

We took a break for lunch, getting basic food supplies such as bread and hummus from a nearby shop. After our feeding and relaxing we returned to work, eager to finish off the floor now that the walls were adequately straightened. It was delicate work, and Adam proved himself a valuable team member with his deft chiseling of the dirt caked onto the ancient plaster. We removed the dirt, scooping it into buckets to be dumped nearby, slowing bringing the old floor back to life.

LEG X FR rooftile

Ido hopped into the pit to clear some rock and scrape around a bit at the western side of the room, and the great sound of laughter could be heard coming out of our pit. But the laughter broke when Eitan managed to find an exceptional piece of tile, featuring part of a Tenth Legion stamp. The “EG X” from the complete term LEG X FR (Legio X Fretensis) was visible, as well as most of the warship that symbolised the unit alongside the wild boar.

After a day’s work

It was an exciting find, one that we were looking forward to since the day began, and it gave us a form of closure that went well with the finished floor job that Itamar, Adam and I had worked on. As the workday was coming to an end, we cleaned up and took pictures, then gave thanks to Danit for hosting us at her digsite. However, Adam and I weren’t quite ready to leave Jerusalem and decided to pay a visit to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and the neighbouring Rose Garden.

Jerusalem Bird Observatory’s pond

Itamar and Eitan decided to tag along, and we walked on over, starting with the rose gardens where we saw a lot of blackcaps and some Syrian woodpeckers. Approaching the bird observatory we saw a sparrowhawk fly directly over us, taking us by surprise and filling us with excitement. Sitting in the blind at the observatory, we watched the avian activity surrounding a small marshy pond, taking pictures here and there. There were a handful of somewhat interesting songbird species, including: greenfinches, whitethroats, willow warblers and tons of blackcaps. A single turtle dove made an appearance, as did a few thrush nightingales, a first for both Adam and I. Wrapping it up at the observatory, having said our farewells to Itamar and Eitan, we wandered around a bit looking for European nightjars which were spotted that very week. We didn’t find any, but instead saw a steppe buzzard flying over the neighbouring Gan Sacher.

Turtle dove (photo Adam Ota)

Back at the rose gardens, we watched the plentiful thrush nightingales flying about here and there, singing their complex song. In fact, the gardens were full of singing birds and the experience was most enjoyable. But the sun was soon to set and we were wanting for some food. Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) was about to start so we got some pizza and watched some of the national ceremony broadcasted on TV before heading back to Givat Shmuel – but not before ending off our exciting day with a pink blind snake slithering out in front of us on our way to the bus.

Ein Hemed (Aqua Bella)

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 24, 2018 at 8:27 AM

Taking the most of our Pesach (Passover) break, my friend Adam and I went on yet another adventure, this time to a national park a few kilometres outside Jerusalem: Ein Hemed. Many years have past since I first set my eyes on the Crusader ruins of Aqua Bella, and I’ve been waiting patiently to get the chance to visit. Adam and I set out via bus from Givat Shmuel heading for Jerusalem, getting off along the way at Hemed Interchange. The park’s entrance was just a short walk away, and after shelling out the entrance fee, we entered the park.

Nachal Kesalon

We were a little perturbed by the fact that there were hundreds of schoolchildren running around, making noise as children are wont to do. But, thankfully, there was more to see than just wildlife and we began straight away on the short trail along the Nachal Kesalon. The spring in the park, that feeds into the stream, was called Aqua Bella (or, “beautiful water”) in Latin, and, in translation, Ein Hemed in Hebrew.

Jerusalem sage flowering

The waters were sluggish, and overrun with algae, which provided a good opportunity to find interesting water-living creatures. We peered into the green mess and found hundreds of tadpoles, which are always cool to see. In addition, several species of waterbugs such as water boatmen and water scavenger beetle larvae made appearances. Continuing along, parallel with the trickling waters, we enjoyed the spring flowers including hyacinth squill, arum and the carob trees’ pink blossoms.

Approaching from the north

As we separated from the stream we came upon the impressive Crusader ruins, but kept onward to see what was beyond it. What we found was an old Arab cemetery, still in use by the inhabitants of the nearby village Ein Nakuba. There apparently is an old sheikh’s tomb, known as Maqam al-Ajami, but we were unable to locate it. Instead we birdwatched, seeing some greenfinches in the trees and a blackbird perching on tombstones.

Blackbird on a tombstone

From there we turned back and made our way into the ruins of the Crusader building. Built sometime between 1140 and 1160, this building was a fortified farmhouse which served to protect over both the neighbouring lands and the old Roman road that passed by, connecting Emmaus and Latrun (the Toron des Chevaliers castle) with the capital of Jerusalem.

Fortress ruins (photo Adam Ota)

We descended from the northern half of the building, walking on the floor of the upper floor which is now covered in grasses and wildflowers. Admiring the strong architecture, with its arched windows and doors and large vaulted rooms, we made our way to the southern half of the building, skirting the courtyard down below.

Within the fortified farmhouse

Better preserved than the northern half, the upper level featured a line of arched windows, and one small room. I love the influence of Gothic architecture in Crusader ruins, and it was truly enjoyable just to admire the handiwork. Whilst looking at one of the arched windows I noticed a mason’s mark etched into one of the large ashlars. Mason’s marks were very common in the Crusader period; they were a way of keeping track of a mason’s work when it was time to get paid.

Mason’s mark

This discovery set us off on a quest for mason’s marks, and we found plenty. Adam was particularly sharp-eyed at finding the obscure, yet unique, carven markings on the stones. This quest took us down to the ground floor of the farmhouse, via the main staircase.

Yours truly (photo Adam Ota)

Standing in the courtyard we found that there were two rooms to enter, as well as the farmhouse’s main entrance, with recreated wooden doors to match the arched opening. We decided to explore the northern side first, and found a large barrel-vaulted room with flour mill tools in the corner. We took some pictures and then made our way to the room at the northern side, which is said to be the dining hall of the farmhouse.

Weevil going on a stroll (photo Adam Ota)

Outside, via the reconstructed wooden doors, we decided to sit down to eat the lunch we brought. As to be expected, we were distracted by some birds, including a beautiful grey wagtail dashing about the stream’s gentle currents and a pair of nesting great tits, busy with preparing their nest in the trunk of a nearby tree. When lunch was over we got back up and continued along the stream, when suddenly we spotted a few small, yellow birds. Only a few record shots of them drinking enabled us to identify them as siskins, and this was the first time either of us was seeing them. When they disappeared we moved on and enjoyed the sights of the Jerusalem sage and pink garlic flowers.

Songbird paradise (photo Adam Ota)

But then, when sitting at a picnic table near the stream, just waiting for the birds to return now that all the schoolchildren were gone, it began to get interesting. First, Adam filmed a white-breasted kingfisher eating a lizard in its entirety. Next, a small flock of siskins showed up and began to eat from the fruit tree that was in front of us (see the video below). Other songbirds joined in, including chaffinches and warblers, and then the kingfisher came back. This time he had a small snake in his bill, which to me looked like a Dahl’s whip snake, and we scrambled to take pictures. Unfortunately for us (and the snake), the kingfisher decided to take his meal in the cover of a thick bush and our photographic wishes were thus rejected.

While we were enjoying the siskins, we joked that there were probably eagles soaring overhead. With true comical timing, we saw two lesser spotted eagles migrating north, flying high up in the thermals. If that wasn’t enough, two short-toed eagles made an appearance shortly thereafter, soaring in circles above us.

Outside Ein Hemed

With that we decided that it was time to leave our pleasant little birding spot and continue on, with hopes of more birds of prey sightings. As we left the park we indeed saw another bird of prey, a steppe buzzard soaring far, far away to the east. We found a trail to take us eastward, as we were hoping to reach the nearby Castel, even though it was getting late in the day. The trail was nice and we saw plenty of birds and a handful of knapweed fritillary butterflies flying about.

Knapweed fritillary

There was, however, a surprise up ahead: a female goat had just given birth to her second kid beneath the shade of a tree and the somewhat gruesome scene was just there for us to see. It was an interesting moment, being kind of turned away by the bloody sight yet fascinated by the tender gift of life. We took some pictures and continued on. Nothing of much interest happened until we found ourselves fenced in on some guy’s property. We tried leaving through the front gate but it was locked, and there wasn’t any simple way of getting out. Laughing at our absurd situation, we even tried the house door, hoping there’d be someone to let us out. In the end, left to our own devices, we decided to hop the gate and continued merrily along our way.

Specks in the sky (photo Adam Ota)

Castel was closed for the day and so we wandered on in search for food, keeping a constant eye out for birds of prey in the skies. Adam spotted a few tiny black dots in the sea of blue, and with his 40x optical zoom we were able to identify them as another steppe buzzard and a booted eagle.

Here comes the moon…

We found a decent restaurant to get schwarma at (my first time in a long while) and ate with our eyes to the sky. I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t have a moment of panic when an eagle passed by overhead, as we put down our food in favour of our cameras. But the food was delicious and we felt reinvigorated to continue our birding pursuit. We succeeded in spotting some greater spotted eagles migrating northward as the sun slowly set, the day coming to an end for both us and the eagles.

Jerusalem: Patches of Nature

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 11, 2018 at 10:15 AM

Continuing with a series of Friday trips, this post covers a trip to a number of nature parks within the city limits of Jerusalem. I was joined by two friends, both of whom have been featured numerous times in the blog: Adam and Itamar. Our plan was to start at the Wohl Rose Park, just outside the Knesset building, and then make our way south, visiting more sites along the way. Busing our way from Givat Shmuel, Adam and I took another bus within Jerusalem and began at the aforementioned rose garden.

Rose garden pond

Our mission first and foremost was to birdwatch. Although we knew that this garden is known for its birding opportunities, there were even more than expected, and birds such as starlings, Syrian woodpeckers and chaffinches filled our wide eyes. We were equipped with high-zoom digital cameras: myself with my 21x optical zoom and Adam rocking his hefty 40x optical zoom.

Song thrush

As we walked the park’s paved trails, we kept our birding focus and spotted birds everywhere around us. One bold specimen, a song thrush, perched itself on a branch right next to us and posed pleasantly. All in all, some fifteen or more species were sighted within the half hour or so that we spent there. Moving past the rose bushes, we found a small pond with a small waterfall, and behind it, a Japanese-themed garden. There we found Algerian irises blossoming and ornate Japanese pieces donated by a Japanese businessman that Adam met a few years ago whilst doing translation work.

Japanese garden

Moving onward, we saw groups of people practicing various arts in the grass, including one young man practicing Kenjutsu, one engaging in Japanese swordsmanship. Leaving the garden, we crossed a small street and entered the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Having covered this place in a previous post, just a short summary of our actions there will suffice.

Chiffchaff in the hands of a ringer (photo Itamar Berko)

Bird ringing was being shown to a visiting group and we were greeted by the staff, which include a friend of mine from BIU named Nesia. They informed us that a water rail could be seen from the blind. So Adam and I took up spots in the dark wooden blind and watched the water rail walk along the water’s edge at the tiny pond, hunting for tasty things to eat. Out of the forty pictures I took of this water rail, here is the one I like best:

Water rail

Itamar met up with us while we watched the rail, and surprised us by pulling out from his bag a camera with a whopping 65x optical zoom. It was a delight to see the results on the screen and I feel tempted to get one for myself. Taking photographs of a perched European robin with both mine and his camera really gave me perspective on how much better my photographs can be.

European robin (photo Itamar Berko)

Leaving the observatory, we began our walk southward by way of Gan Sacher. Itamar pointed out what looks to be an ancient burial cave along the path just outside of the observatory, something that was either covered up or missed the last two times Adam and I were there. In addition, the spring blossoms provided a lovely distraction for us, as you can see here:

Almond blossoms

The next site on our list was historical rather than birding-oriented but since birds can be found everywhere, we kept our eyes open. We were to visit the Monastery of the Cross, a large heavily-built structure in the aptly-named Valley of the Cross. The name originates from the belief that the tree from which the cross of crucifixion was made grew there and thus, in the Byzantine period, a monastery was built at this very spot.

Monastery of the Cross

Following destruction in the Persian period, the monastery was rebuilt by a Georgian monk around the time of the Crusaders and the site flourished. Post-Crusader Muslim rule saw attempts to change the monastery into a mosque but with limited success. Eventually in the late 1600s, the ownership of the monastery was transferred to the Greek Orthodox church, to whom it remains to this very day. We approached the fortress-like building from the north, pausing to scan the valley for birds, and then examining the monastery from up close. Above the doorway of the complex we found a Greek inscription, which I tried my best to read. We peered into the inner courtyard where a solemn monk was washing the floors and then continued on to enjoy the view from the southern end. Inside the old monastery are all sorts of interesting things to see, including an ancient mosaic floor, but we continued onwards and enjoyed the company of a spur-thighed tortoise outside.

Photographing the blossoming almond tree

From there we took a bit of a convoluted route southward through the city until we reached a grocery store, where we shopped for nourishment. Revitalised delicious pastries, we made our way to the Gazelle Valley, an urban park famous for its local population of mountain gazelles. I had heard about the park for years, since it opened up in 2015, so it was nice to finally visit.

Gazelle Valley pond

Nearly immediately, we spotted a chukar and several gazelles far off on the opposite end of the park. Bordered by highways and houses, the park is a large triangle of green that provides refuge to a large variety of wildlife. Looking at the site’s map, we saw that there was a stream with a series of ponds that effectively filter the water of pollutants, a really cool method in curbing ecological damage.

Grazing gazelle (photo Itamar Berko)

We lingered around the first two ponds, watching a sparrowhawk fly overhead and a group of moorhens splash around in the water. Perhaps it’s the season, perhaps it’s the heat of the day, but we didn’t see too many species of birds so we prepared to move on.

Almond blossoms galore (photo Adam Ota)

Itamar had to head out, so Adam and I boarded a nearby bus to Malha Mall where we found a trail to Ein Yael, and other sites just outside of Jerusalem. There wasn’t much time so we made our way quickly, but realised when we passed the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo that we had gone too far.

Path to an upcoming adventure

Unfortunately we needed to get back to Givat Shmuel and had to catch a bus, or else we’d be stranded in Jerusalem for Shabbat. We reluctantly abandoned our plans to visit Ein Yael and made our way to the Central Bus Station area. Our adventure wasn’t over yet: our bus began smoking whilst on Road 1 and we pulled over in middle of nowhere where we waited for a replacement bus to scoop us all up. All in all, a very eventful Friday!