Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Jerusalem’ Category

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!

Exploring Jerusalem

In Israel, Jerusalem on February 25, 2018 at 8:15 AM

At the end of January I began a currently-ongoing series of adventures with my friend Adam Ota. Being that we both like to explore, and that we are both on semester break, we decided to have some fun, starting with a Friday trip to Jerusalem. Having left early in the morning, we met up and boarded a bus under the rainbow-adorned skies of Bnei Brak. Disembarking in Jerusalem, we then boarded the light rail for the Old City of Jerusalem. Getting off near Damascus Gate, which we bypassed, we entered the walled Old City by way of the New Gate. I don’t recall ever using the New Gate so it was an experience in and of itself.

Within the Christian Quarter

Our goals were to simply explore, and we began right away. Keeping an eye out for interesting things, we passed the Latin Patriarchate and Santa’s House before making our way through the shuk (open market) of the Christian Quarter. Swinging north through the narrow stone alleys, we set out to find the site where the headquarters of the Crusader Hospitaller Order once stood. We passed a curious plaza of columns and arches, adorned with sculptures of white storks bearing fish instead of babies. Wandering around a bit, taking note of the various architectural intricacies, we found what we were looking for: a large white stone with an inscription about the medieval hospital that commanded the interior of a small fenced-off yard.

Commemoration of the Crusader Hospitaller Order

Continuing to explore, we stumbled upon the historical Aftimos Market and then the holiest Christian site in the world – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Curious as to what there is to see, we ventured through the arched gateway to the plaza and were wowed at the amount of pilgrims and tourists who were waiting to enter the site. Looking about, Adam pointed out a small ladder leaning against the window frame on the second level of the structure, telling me that there’s a story about it.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

He was right – this ladder is called the Immovable Ladder and has been there nearly consecutively since the 1700s. Since the ownership and rights are a complicated issue, every little change to the site or its possessions must be agreed upon by all five church orders who jointly share guardianship of the holy site. This issue has basically enacted a status quo situation for the ladder that was left there, albeit unintentionally, forbidding its removal. In additional, due to this same concept, archaeological work done to the site take ages to get approved, but the results usually prove to be interesting to say the least.

Wall plaque of St George slaying a dragon

Heading out with a Turkish group, we made our way back out of the Old City via the New Gate, once again. The next site on our itinerary was the Museum of the Underground Prisoners in the Russian Compound, not far from City Hall. We entered and began to explore the quiet museum, a building restored to resemble the prison that it once was. Built in 1864 by the Russian Empire, the structure served as a hostel for Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Later, the site was converted into the Central Prison by the British in 1918. Used the hold both Arab and Jewish prisoners, the prison was well-guarded. However, escapes were attempted, often with help from the outside. Eventually, the prison served as a warehouse after being cleared out during the War for Independence and was transferred to the Ministry of Defense in 1991. The building was restored to how we see it today, a remembrance for the difficult formative years of the modern Jewish country.

Within the Museum of the Underground Prisoners

We began our tour of the building with the printing and wood workshops, working our way around in a counterclockwise manner from the central hallway. Next we viewed the showers and the kitchens, reflecting upon how life must have been for the prisoners here in the not-so distant past. Appropriate background noise played in the different workshop rooms which gave it a realistic ambiance.

Printing workshop

We moved on to Room 23, a group cell where an old escape tunnel still exists from the fateful day of February 20, 1948 when twelve members of both Lehi and Etzel groups attempted to escape via this tunnel. Another interesting feature of the room are floor stones carved with words, symbols, and illustrations by the prisoners as they idled away in their collective cell. From there we moved to the prayer room, making our way around the other courtyard. A visit to the solitary confinement cells and the local gallows, was certainly sobering and so we carried on.

The warden’s office

At the far end, just before the exit, we found the office of the prison warden which we found quite interesting. Beside the fireplace inside we noticed a vintage British fire extinguisher, an interesting antique. Outside, back in the cold winter air, we watched a pair of Syrian woodpeckers in a tree and then inspected the few outdoor exhibits before carrying on to the next site on our list.

The Ticho House

Up next was the Ticho House, just a few minutes away from the downtown area. Operated by the Israel Museum, the Ticho House is the restored house of Albert and Anna Ticho, who lived there in the early and mid-1900s. It was one of the first houses to be built outside the Old City walls way back in 1864, and had transferred hands several times in the past 150 years. Today it serves as a small gallery with a balcony café, perfect for dates or adventure seekers.

Hanukiyyah collection

Inside, we began with the room on contemporary art but, as that isn’t quite our cup of tea, we moved on to the next room where some of Albert Ticho’s hanukiyyah (or, menorah) collection, that he had amassed over the period of forty years, was on display. Those and a few other interesting items on display rounded off that room and we ventured back outside. Wandering about a little to examine neighbouring houses of similar age, we eventually headed for the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) where we were to grab lunch before heading back.

Adventure is always calling

Choosing the cheap route, we got falafel and then popped over to the local taproom, Hatch, where I sampled some of the new brew offerings, and settled on a cold glass of oatmeal stout. We then headed for the bus and arrived back in Givat Shmuel with enough time to get ready for Shabbat and the feeling that more adventures were on the horizon.

University Trip: IAA Warehouse & Rockefeller Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on January 28, 2018 at 8:19 AM

Several weeks ago, just after my trusty LG G3 phone kicked the bucket, I went on another university trip to two sites in the Jerusalem area. As part of my “Early Ceramics” class, taught by Dr Eran Arie, we were to visit both the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) warehouse in the Bet Shemesh area as well as the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Due to our status as students of archaeology, we were going to be taken to areas generally off-limits to the general public.

Some of the IAA’s outdoor collection

We boarded our minibus just outside the campus in the morning and drove directly to the warehouse, pulling up alongside the fenced-off compound. Very nondescript from the outside, we saw the first signs of IAA presence within. Huge outdoor shelves supporting large stone architectural elements on wooden pallets grabbed our attention, but we were assured that there were even more interesting antiquities to see inside.

Around the IAA table

Inside and upstairs, gathering around a large table, we were given a short talk about the history, techniques and struggles of the IAA’s endeavours in safeguarding the nation’s antiquities. The speaker, Dr Miki Saban, is the warehouse’s director and followed up his talk by taking us into the adjacent storage room, where thousands of articles are stored. From this side room we were taken back downstairs and into the cold main warehouse, where rows upon rows of large, sturdy metal shelving units awaited us. Divided by time periods, we instinctively wanted to explore unhindered, but we were visiting with a purpose. We were to be seeing early pottery vessels, from the various prehistoric periods as well as Early Bronze, and were ushered into the proper rows accordingly.

Filing card pulled at random

Eventually we were allowed to explore a bit, and I found many fascinating items, some of which are still unpublished. The problem with unpublished items is that the head excavator or archaeologist usually retains the rights to display said item to the world, and thus the item can remain in limbo until published. Regardless, we had a lovely time seeing the numerous ossuaries, vessels, columns, anchors, cannons and more from all the ages.

Fancy ossuary

Outside, when our visit came to an end, we left the compound and climbed back into our minibus. The drive to our next destination, the famed Rockefeller Museum, went by and before we knew it we were in East Jerusalem, in the shadows of the great walls of the Old City. We entered the museum’s complex and were taken aback by the beauty of the buildings architecture.

Rockefeller Museum

It wasn’t just the stone filled us with admiration; clusters of daffodils were freshly blooming in the front yard begging us for photographs. I took a bunch, but none of mine came close to the beauty of this photo taken by Orpaz, a fellow classmate of mine:

Blooming narcissus (photo Orpaz Horn)

Inside the museum, I felt swept away by the heavy stone architecture, an interesting blend of what looks to me as neo-Gothic and Islamic with Classical elements. We breezed past the temporary display in the foyer and the coat-check (a glorious reminder of a romanticised past), and made our way to the building’s central courtyard. There, Eran gave us an opening talk on the museum’s complicated history and its modern-day custodians, a joint effort by both the IAA and the Israel Museum.

Pooled courtyard

Just to summarise, the museum was built in 1938 by the British who controlled the Holy Land after WWI in order to house regional finds securely. It was built of white limestone of stately architecture, funded by American financier John D Rockefeller Jr. With the declaration of independence in 1948, Jerusalem found itself divided, with the Rockefeller Museum ending up in Jordanian hands. Eventually, in 1966, Jordan’s King Hussein decided that he wanted ownership of the museum and seized it as part of his nationalisation plan. This turned out to be a good thing for us Israelis, because East Jerusalem was reconquered in 1967 and Israel took control of the museum. Since then, the museum has been used to house a variety of important local finds, with everything kept just as it was back in British hands – a rather proper look.

Examining Seti I’s stela

Back into the arched corridors, we found the first of many very interesting items on display: the basalt stela of Seti I, an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled some 3,300 years ago. Another fascinating item was the partial skull of the “Galilee Man” from Nachal Amud, said to be the oldest human remains found in the Levant. Before long we met up with Allegra, who took us behind a closed door in the South Gallery. Inside the narrow, somewhat dusty room filled with old wood-and-glass display cases, we were introduced to even more early ceramic vessels and sherds that we didn’t have access to in class. Weak sunlight filtered in through the old windows (vestiges of the British) as we handled various pottery pieces.

Arched corridors

We had a good time in the narrow room, but there was much more to see. We were then guided through the museum’s different exhibits and galleries. We saw many fascinating items, yet I found difficulty trying to identify what I was seeing because everything is labelled with a simple number reference and laminated sheets located throughout the rooms hold the answers – not the easiest way to get answers when rushing through a fascinating museum.

Interesting character

One fascinating room contained a huge amount of decorative stone architectural elements from Hisham’s Palace in Jericho. I know so little about that site, but from the displayed remains, it must have been a very beautiful palace in its heyday. Another cool exhibit was the ancient wooden panels from al-Aqsa Mosque of the Temple Mount from its destruction by earthquake in the 700s CE. Then we were back behind closed doors, this time down a charming circular staircase. We gathered in the bunker-like underground storerooms, peeking about at the many interesting items on the shelves. One thing that particularly struck my fancy was the display of old tobacco jars and cigarette boxes from the British and Ottomans still being used to this very day to hold antique knick-knacks.

Rockefeller Library

One of the final stops in the museum was the rich IAA library, located in the northeast corner of the building. A charming room with huge neo-Gothic pillars (similar to those in the Column Hall in the Hospitaller Fortress in Akko) pockmarked by bullets from the Six Day War, I felt pangs of longing for the romantic days of heavy stone architecture and dusty, leather-bound books.

Timeline of ceramics

At last, we had just two small exhibitions to look at on our way out. The first was a showcase of potsherds as the ages go in an artistic long glass case–truly joyous to look at. The second, and final, was the temporary exhibition that we had skipped in the very beginning: a selection of curiosities from ancient Ashkelon. With that we left the fancy building and headed back to our minibus for the ride back to Givat Shmuel, ending yet another exciting trip provided by Bar Ilan University.

Jerusalem Aqueduct Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 12, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Several weeks ago, the day before my birthday, I had a day off from classes which had begun with the new semester mid-October and decided to participate in an ongoing excavation led by the Israel Antiquities Authority. My friend Ben joined in on the fun and we made our way to Jerusalem in the morning, heading for the dig located in the southern part of the city, below the Armon Hanatziv Promenade.

Approaching the dig site

Heavy rainclouds loomed overhead as we approached the construction site where our dig was taking place, where remains of the Greco-Roman aqueduct was found and a salvage excavation was opened up. We passed the hard-hatted workers and construction vehicles as we made our way to the black-tented excavation area. Meeting Yaakov Billig, the IAA director of the dig, we were briefed on the historical and archaeological situation of the aqueduct.

Jerusalem aqueduct archaeological dig

In short, during the late Hellenistic or Roman times an aqueduct was constructed to bring fresh water from reservoirs near Bethlehem to the Old City of Jerusalem. Many attribute the construction to Herod, as he was responsible for a huge building boom, but others prefer to credit the Hasmonean dynasty. Known as the Upper Aqueduct, the elevated structure sloped ever so gently down towards Jerusalem – important for identifying the intermittent sections found between the reservoirs and the capital. I don’t recall the exact height from the briefing, but according to various online maps I think that we were at 778 metres above sea level. Regardless, mapping the slow drop in elevation is crucial for correctly identifying remains of the same aqueduct.

Western meanders of the channel

In addition to the remains of the aqueduct, there was also what seems to be a large building and then a serpentine plaster water channel running perpendicular to the stone aqueduct. When our briefing ended, Yaakov handed us over to Rivka, the supervisor for the plaster channel area, and we were put to work on the far end. Our task was to further define the channel which had already been crudely exposed by a bulldozer. We armed ourselves with pickaxes, hoes and black plastic buckets and got to work. Just a few metres away was a small group of schoolchildren who provided us with fun music and conversation to which we worked.

Working alongside the schoolchildren

We picked, cleared and defined, moving slowly west down the channel, working gingerly around the delicate plaster. There wasn’t much in terms of artefacts, not even any interesting potsherds at first. Eventually we found some Roman-age ceramic roof tile pieces, but even more interesting was a rim piece of an ancient glass vessel, curled upon itself in a delicate manner.

Interesting piece of glass

At around 10:00 am we took a short break to examine the other areas of the dig, to eat and to do a little birding in the nearby grasses. I found a few stonechats, pied wagtails and jackdaws along with the regular Israeli city birds, and I rejoined Ben for some breakfast. The group of schoolchildren left shortly thereafter and we were relocated to a different part of the plaster channel. With the connection of the aforementioned building and the plaster channel still buried, we were given new instructions to define it better. I settled down with a small pick and got to work define the delicate sides while Ben wielded the big pickaxe, clearing away the area beside a bulldozed trench. Yaakov came over to chat with us, telling us that he attended Bar Ilan University as well.

East end of the channel

One of the hired Arab workers popped over to show us a rock that had broken in half, revealing a crystallised quartz interior. Then, as I cleared away the loose dirt I found myself holding a nearly perfect stone cube. Curious as to what it might be I waited for Yaakov to return, and was then told that it’s a mosaic tile – which makes sense due to the fact that on five of the six sides there was the remains of ancient cement.

Mosaic stone

The hours had passed before us and the hired workers began to pack up, another day at the dig coming to an end. We packed up as well, and said our words of farewell to Yaakov. But before we left, there was a special treat for us: a coin had been found earlier by the hired workers, and the dig’s assistant director, Rotem, took us to see it. I was surprised at how small it was, all encrusted and corroded, but it was clearly a coin with some sort of lettering that will be easier to identify after the lab finishes with it.

Yours truly

Leaving the site we headed back towards the heart of Jerusalem, specifically to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) as we were famished and waiting impatiently for some juicy burgers. We had our late lunch at Burger Market, washed down with bottles of cold alcoholic cider, before browsing the vibrant shuk.

Hatch brews

Our last stop was to the newly opened Hatch taproom, where a fun selection of fresh beers are available, in addition to creative sausages. After some samples I settled on a hoppy IPA, very similar to the popular NEIPA, and Ben had a Scottish ale. In added celebration of my birthday, Ben went ahead and ordered us one of the sausages, topped with a mango chutney and chopped onions. It was surprisingly tasty and we had a grand time eating, drinking and talking to the owner, Ephraim Greenblatt, about beers and brewing. At last, we said farewell and took a crowded bus back to Givat Shmuel bringing an end to a very fun and interesting day.

University Trip: City of David

In Israel, Jerusalem on August 13, 2017 at 7:29 AM

The day following our Bar Ilan University academic tour to “Moshavot” of the Galilee took us on another tour, this time of the famous City of David in Jerusalem – where we all had to meet at the given time. But, my morning was wrought with strange inconveniences, for when I disembarked at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and attempted to then board the light rail, I discovered that my RavKav public transportation pass had disappeared – stolen or dropped. It was an hour or so after the prearranged start time for the tour when I was issued a new RavKav and so I made my way to the City of David in hopes of salvaging what I could of the tour. Located just outside the Old City’s walls on the southern side, I elected to walk through the Old City – a pleasant walk. Making my way through the Armenian Quarter, I then passed the small and obscure archaeological park called Gan HaTekuma and I exited the Old City via the Dung Gate next to the Kotel (Western Wall). Turning east, I laid eyes upon the Givati Parking Lot Excavation site for the first time and then continued to the City of David.

Givati Parking Lot excavations

Entering the national park for the first time since 2008, I passed myriads of tourists and approached the ticket counter to explain my predicament that I was part of a group which had already entered. Believing my story, I was given a stamped ticket and allowed into the park – but it took a few minutes of confused wandering before I located my group in the excavation area of the “Large Stone Structure” (suggested to be King David’s palace) beneath the floor of park’s entrance area. I caught myself up as best as I could perusing the signs concerning the important finds uncovered thus far after which I focused my attention on our guide for the day, Dr Eyal Meiron, an expert on the City of David. We briefly inspected the Royal Quarter (Area G), a complex dating to the First Temple period, and then made our way to a nice lookout spot where we stood/sat beneath a sun umbrella to learn more about the city. The city is built on a mountain ridge in a mountainous area with the Arab village of Silwan on the adjacent ridge and the Mount of Olives slightly further away to the northeast.

Lookout towards Silwan and the Mount of Olives

To give a brief summary of the City of David, the excavated region was the original city of Jerusalem before it slowly expanded outward, from the revolutionary expansions of King Hezekiah in the 7th century BCE to its famous city walls of today, built in the mid 1500s by the Ottomans. It is believed that the first walled city was built during the Middle Bronze age, and then passed ownership a few times until King David conquered it in the Iron Age, approximately 3,000 years ago. King Solomon, the son of David, expanded the city and built the First Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. A couple hundred years later, after the Jewish kingdoms split, the Assyrians attempted to conquer ancient Jerusalem but failed. The Babylonians, however, succeeded and razed the city to the ground, destroying the Temple as well. In the Hasmonean and Roman times the city experienced a rebirth of sorts, until it was once again destroyed (along with the Second Temple) by the Romans in response to the Great Revolt. Eventually the city limits changed and the City of David, which found itself outside of Jerusalem, was largely forgotten about. Excavations in the late 1800s revealed the forgotten city and since then the City of David has been one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel.

Ottoman wall of the Old City

We left our lookout area to go underground to the Warren’s Shaft System, a carven well in the rock which was believed to be used to draw water from the Gihon Spring. An important part of every city, fresh water was readily available to the inhabitants of the City of David gushing from the Gihon Spring, yet due to its low setting the defensive walls were built excluding the spring. The issue of providing water under times of siege during the Canaanite times was answered first by the Warren’s Shaft System and later by a tunnel and fortified pool which jutted out from the city walls. While we were stopped at the top of the shaft it was curious to note how many of the passing tour guides both knew and admired our guide, who had apparently educated many of them in matters concerning the site.

Dr Eyal Meiron pointing beside the shaft

Continuing along underground along the Secret Tunnel, we reached a large open area which housed the remains of the Canaanite Pool and surrounding fortifications. Walking on metal walkways with the occasional glass panel to view the ruins below, we skirted the excavated area and marveled at the size. Unfortunately, due to the cramped angles and low lighting, none of the photographs that I took properly document the sights that I saw underground. I thus turned to Eyal who has been so kind as to share this illustration of how he imagines the pool and fortifications to have looked during the Canaanite era.

Canaanite pool fortifications (reconstruction: Eyal Meiron, illustration: Leonardo Gurevich)

Emerging into the sunlight for a few brief moments, we quickly headed for the Canaanite Tunnel – one of two parallel passages that cut through the karst bedrock from the Gihon Spring underground to the Shiloah (Siloam) Pool at the far southern end of the City of David. The famous Shiloah (Siloam) Inscription that was found in 1880 towards the end of the other passage, the Hezekiah Tunnel, has been kept in Turkey’s Istanbul Museum after being cut out of the rock wall despite Israel’s repeated requests for its returned ownership. The three-dimensional aspect of our tour makes it somewhat complicated to explain but in essence we were more-or-less heading south and down in elevation from the beginning of the tour till the end. Within the 115 metre long Canaanite Tunnel, we encountered tight squeezes and small amounts of flooding – which I later found out was sewage water!

Within the Canaanite Tunnel

Being as that we chose the shorter, “dry” route through the bedrock, we emerged once again into the blessed sunlight and found ourselves looking at the original walls of Jerusalem – a truly ancient construction.

Walls of ancient Jerusalem

The tour officially ended there but some of us carried on along the cobbled road towards the Shiloah Pool, passing several sites of interest along the way including the Amanah House and the Meyuhas House – some of the first modern Jewish houses outside the Ottoman walls of Jerusalem. Before long we reached the Shiloah Pool and waited there for the shuttle to take us back up to the Old City wall.

The Shiloach (Siloam) Pool

Deposited at the Dung Gate, I thanked my Arab driver and entered the Old City, making my way back along the same road toward the Jaffa Gate. Seeing the Tower of David, and feeling inspired to finally visit this long-overdue site, I quickly learned that I had come too late. Angling for just a little bit more adventure, I contemplated visiting the area where the Hospitaller Knights of Crusades were headquartered but decided against it due to the fact that it was the end of Ramadan and prayers had just let out – I didn’t want to venture off alone through the crowds.

Harpist in Jaffa Gate

Leaving the Old City, I settled with taking a quick visit to a Jerusalem beer and beer supply store where I enjoyed a cold glass of Lindemans Cassis Lambic, a naturally fermented Belgian beer flavoured with blackcurrants – quite tasty and quite refreshing! A short ride on the light rail and I was back on a bus to Givat Shmuel, ending yet another successful adventure.

Bible Lands Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 30, 2017 at 10:38 AM

The other week, before the holiday of Pesach (Passover), I took a trip to Jerusalem with several goals in mind. The morning began at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which I had visited for the first time several weeks prior. I was determined to spectate – and maybe even participate – in the daily morning bird banding, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did I get to watch and learn about the banding, I also saw a handful of new species for me, including: nightingale, collared flycatcher and my personal highlight, a wryneck.

Wryneck in the hands of Amir Balaban

After the morning banding sessions ended, I settled in the blind to watch for birds and met some birder-photographers whose photos I’ve been seeing for a good while now on Facebook. The highlight was a lone hawfinch which landed near the water’s edge; the cameras clicking away madly as everybody attempted to get a worthy shot. When the clock struck noon I decided I was done at the observatory and made a snap decision to go visit the Bible Lands Museum, on the other side of the Knesset. Opened in 1992 by Dr Elie and Batya Borowski, this museum is the only one of its kind specifically dedicated to biblical history. When I announced myself as a student of archaeology, the girl behind the front desk told me that I was entitled to a discount and that I had come to the right place. And so I gained entrance and began my tour of the museum with the first of twenty galleries on the main floor, taking my time to examine the interesting showcased artefacts. Progressing clockwise in convenient chronical order, the first galleries were of the rise of civilisations and writing – with interesting artefacts including this bearded worshipper of limestone and lapis lazuli from Sumer, Mesopotamia:

Innocent face of the bearded worshipper

I have an affinity for the comical facial expressions interesting pieces as old as this characteristically have, so I was pleased to see next another bearded man, this time of alabaster and hailing from Mari, as well as a particularly hasidic-looking “bald bearded man with sidelock” inlaid in shell also from the Mari area. But there were more than just humourous humanoids to be examined, for some fancy necklaces of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian next caught my eye, followed by a bronze chariot of sorts being pulled by bronze bulls originating from southeastern Anatolia.

Pre-Hittite bronze chariot

Indeed, the further I advanced into the darkened recesses of the museum, the more interesting the displays were (at least for me). I marveled at a painted cedarwood coffin from Egypt and stelas from Aram city-states, those of biblical mention. At certain displays I felt a behind-the-scenes connection with the touristy representation of the artefacts, being as that I have numerous archaeology classes on the history and legacies of the listed locations.

Stones of Aram

Another feature that struck me as interesting was the model of old Jerusalem, not exactly the same land as the modern Old City. When I had visited Jerusalem last, I was on a tour with Prof Faust (one of BIU’s leading scholars on biblical archaeology) and learned a lot about the walled confines of First Temple-era Jerusalem.

Model of ancient Jerusalem

From then the galleries followed the standard Holy Land list of successive conquerors, namely the Persians, Greeks and Romans. I particularly enjoyed the model of the royal audience hall of the palace in Susa (or Shushan as mentioned in the Book of Esther), a few small gold coins from Greece and the sarcophagus of Julia Latronilla from Rome. Completing my circuit of the main floor galleries, I ventured downstairs to see the temporary exhibit on Khirbet Qeiyafa called “In the Valley of David and Goliath” passing some nice Roman mosaics on the way.

Aerial view of Khirbet Qeiyafa looking south (photo: Skyview)

Having been to Khirbet Qeiyafa, and having dug with Prof Garfinkal (albeit at Khirbet Arai), I felt a connection of sorts whilst perusing the displayed finds and watching the short video about the excavations and subsequent research developments. Debatably associated with the biblical city Shaaraim, based on the fact that two gates were excavated, the region was the buffer zone between the Jews and the Philistines during the Iron Age. It was in the valley below the fortified city, known as Emek HaElah, that the iconic battle between David and Goliath took place. I inspected the inscribed ostracon (broken pottery with inscriptions) and the miniature temple-esque building, among the artefacts, and then settled down to examine some of the academic books written about the place. Browsing through the bibliography I found several of BIU’s archaeologists, and when that satisfied my curiosity, I continued over to the last two temporary exhibitions: “The Classic Court” of Etruscan, Greek and Roman art; and “Gods, Heroes and Mortals” of Ancient Greek pottery.

Snake detail on an Ancient Greek gold armlet

When finished I refilled my water bottle and headed over to the bus stop where I was to be taken to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) to meet an old friend, and then off to the Jerusalem Craft Beer Festival – where we sold our first bottle of beer as homebrewers, a 500ml bottle of Arx Meles Stoutus I.

University Trip: Old City of Jerusalem and Ramat Rachel

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 9, 2017 at 5:46 AM

A few weeks ago, after visiting the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and some archaeological sites in and under the Old City, I went on a university trip to Jerusalem, the nation’s capital. Prof Faust, of Bar Ilan University’s Tel ‘Eton archaeological dig, led the trip to some important Bronze and Iron Age remnants found in Jerusalem. Riding in a minibus, we entered the capital from the north and made our way to Jaffa Gate where we continued on-foot to the first site of interest: the Broad Wall in the Jewish Quarter. Built over 2,600 years ago, this wall is indeed broad – seven metres wide in the excavated area – and likely served as part of the northern wall of ancient Jerusalem in the First Temple period. The Old City of Jerusalem as we know it today is surrounded by an Ottoman wall built in the mid 1500s, as the city limits shifted north from its original extent.

Jerusalem’s Broad Wall

Then the professor pointed out something that I never noticed; in some sections of the Old City there are red and black tiled stripes on the stone floor. These red and black stripes depict a suggested continuation of respective First and Second Temple Period walls found far below the strata of construction. Nearby, alongside the Cardo (the north-south street in Ancient Roman cities), we gazed down glass-covered shafts to see remains of both First and Second Temple walls.

Windows to another world

From these shafts we walked over to an open excavated area with more ruins from the Temple Periods, and then we made our way to the Israelite Tower. In the map of the Jewish Quarter (click HERE), the Israelite Tower can be found just north of the Broad Wall. Built in the First Temple period, the tower would have been a typical four-chambered bastion of the aforementioned Broad Wall protecting Jerusalem’s northern border. Usually closed to visitors, we as a group of budding archaeologists were allowed in to the locked area underground.

The Israelite Tower

Within, we looked at the merge between the First and Second Period walls of the tower, the earlier wall suffering damage from the campaign of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. I rather enjoyed the spectacular photographs of the excavations in the 70s and 80s, Jerusalem looked quite different even back then. Leaving the Israelite Tower, and closing the gate behind us, we retraced our way back through the Cardo and witnessed a Bar Mitzva procession to the recently rebuilt Hurva Synagogue – the lad playing what looked like a clarinet à la the Pied Piper.

Bar Mitzva at the Hurva Synagogue

We then made our way through the Jewish Quarter until we reached the Kotel Plaza area and the Dung Gate, there we gained entrance to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park (which I visited last post with friends). But, Prof Faust was only intending on showing us Bronze and Iron Age ruins, so we breezed through the majority of the park.

Spring flowers at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park

We stopped at the Ophel area, a complex of fortifications including walls, towers, cisterns and rooms. The discovery of what appears to be another four-chambered gate, Jewish construction characteristic of the First Temple Period, was the highlight of the recent excavations, perhaps having been built by King Solomon himself. Another neat discovery was that of twelve large clay jugs known as pithoi, one with a Hebrew inscription, which are dated to the destruction of Jerusalem by the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

Inspecting the Ophel ruins

While listening to the professor, with the incessant sermonising of the Al-Aqsa mosque imam going on in the background, I was keeping a sharp eye out for interesting birds hoping that I’d spot the blue rock thrush again. Though I did not it again, my eye caught a smallish black bird flying about one of the ancient windows of the Temple Mount walls. Using my 21x zoom, and then zooming in the picture, I noticed the orange patch on the wing identifying the bird as a Tristam’s starling – a bird I had only ever seen in the Masada and Dead Sea areas.

A mess of stone ruins

Hurrying back out of the park, we rushed to the minibus parked near the Dung Gate because it was Friday afternoon and we still had two more sites to visit. The next site on the list was the ruins of Ramat Rachel just south of Jerusalem, including remains of a Roman and Byzantine village with ruins such as a columbarium and mikvaot (ritual baths) dating from the Second Temple Period. In addition, many agricultural elements were discovered such as both olive and wine-presses from various periods of antiquity, some with mosaic floors.

Ramat Rachel excavations

Passing the agricultural section, we took a quick look at the Byzantine church area before moving on to the Roman villa and Byzantine village. Lastly, we examined the Ancient Tower Lookout and then headed to the edge of the hill where we enjoyed the view of southern Jerusalem and the nearby Mar Elias Monastery (built in the 6th century). In 1956, while a group of some 500 conference participants gathered at the newly excavated Ramat Rachel dig, Jordanian troops opened fire from the outposts near the monastery killing four and wounding seventeen.

Mar Elias Monastery

Interestingly enough, one of the most recent discoveries at Ramat Rachel was the uncovering of a skeleton wearing a helmet – presumed to be a Jordanian soldier. There was a pleasant presence of nesting jackdaws and an abundance of wildflowers such as lupin, hairy vetch and prickly alkanet as well as blossoming Judas trees which brought joy to us all. But the clock was ticking and it was time to venture on over to our final destination, Rogem Site.

Nesting jackdaw

One of a series of mysterious tumuli (or mounds possibly covering graves) in the Jerusalem area, this Rogem Site is the biggest of them all. Surrounded by rock-hewn caves and agricultural installations, this mound can be found in the neighbourhood of Ganim Bet and is covered with some really great wildflowers including scarlet pimpernel and stolonous gold-crocus. While climbing the hill I noticed a particularly beautiful called barbary nut which were all shut – however, in the half hour or so that we were on the hilltop, all the flowers opened wide. This explained the common name in Hebrew for the flower: afternoon iris.

Barbary nut

The professor told us about a theory that these mounds were built to host cultist bonfires, if I understood correctly, but there is much skepticism. Leaving the wildflower-spotted hill and back in the minibus, we had a merry conversation about the hallucinogenic ergot fungi, which one of our party members found on a stalk of wild grain. Within a short while we were pulling up at Bar Ilan University and everybody disembarked to head their separate ways, bidding each other a “Shabbat shalom!”

Jerusalem: Quarries and Archaeological Park

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 2, 2017 at 8:38 AM

Carrying on with the Jerusalem trip I took with friends Adam and Daniel Ota, we had first visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and then the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market). Our next destination was intended to be the Rockefeller Museum, an archaeology museum in East Jerusalem. However, we dallied along the way, pausing to admire the historical buildings of Jerusalem. One particularly interesting building was the Italian Hospital, an impressive Renaissance-style building completed in 1919. Upon reaching the walls of the Old City, we were making our way into East Jerusalem after passing the ornate Damascus Gate when we spotted something intriguing at the base of the wall.

King Solomon’s Quarries

An opening of a cave, with a sign stating “King Solomon’s Quarries (Zedekiah’s Cave)” – and with a name like that we just had to investigate. The moody guard attending the entrance post admitted us after we paid the nominal student fee and our explorations began. At first we imagined that the maw-like chamber was the whole extent of the cave but as we walked further and further along the lit path, we realised that this was quite an impressive cave.

O’ glorious cave

The cave was originally a natural cave and was enlarged into a large subterranean quarry approximately 2,000 years ago – around the time of the Second Temple. According to the report by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a ceremonial stone mallet with Freemason markings and the words “King Solomon” was found, in addition to pottery and coins from various periods. Stone blocks hewn from the cave were used to build houses and buildings in Jerusalem and, with the Old City built over it, the cave was forgotten and the entrance covered up. One wintery day in 1854, an American scholar named Dr James Turner Barclay accidentally discovered the cave while walking his dog and secretly surveyed the cave, announcing his discovery shortly thereafter. Deeper and deeper we walked, the air becoming damp while the occasional drops of water falling around us from the cave ceiling. We next passed through a large cavern named “the Freemasons Hall”, where Freemason ceremonies took place in the years after the cave’s discovery.

Within the Freemason Hall

Leaving the cavern we heard the noise of running water and found a crack in the cave wall dripping water into a small pool, a site named “Zedekiah’s Tears”. On the other side of the cave we found a chained-off area with a sign claiming that the area ahead was a “challenging trail”, but, being the explorer that I am, I naturally ignored the pesky chain and explored the damp darkness. What I found was a hole in the cave floor with what looked to be a passage below – I did not venture any further. Heading back out of the cave, pausing to comment on the charcoal graffiti dating 1889, we expressed our marvel of this virtually unknown place of interest. Just to express the cave’s size, the maximum length measures out to about 230 metres, with the width reaching over 100 metres at the widest point. All-in-all the cave is 9,000 square metres with the average height of fifteen metres throughout – an illustration over the satellite image of the Old City demonstrating the underground reaches can be seen HERE. Rain was drizzling down when we left the muggy comfort of the cave and we made our way to Rockefeller Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day twenty minutes prior.

Iconic tombs in the Kidron Valley

And so, to salvage the rest of the hours of daylight, we decided to loop around the eastern side of the Old City and found ourselves looking across at the Mount of Olives and down at Kidron Valley with its masses of Jewish graves including the iconic Yad Avshalom and the so-called Tomb of Zechariah. Our view then turned to the Arab village of Silwan and then we made our way to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, just inside the Dung Gate.

Jewish ‘graves’ and Silwan

We paid the discounted student entrance fee and began with the Davidson Centre where we breezed past descriptions and explanations of Jerusalem’s rich yet turbid past. Leaving the visitors centre, we first feasted our eyes on the gardens of the Umayyad palace before crossing over into the Ophel Walls area with it numerous strata of construction. Houses, communal structures, ritual baths and cisterns all build one atop the other; the archaeological work must have been dizzying.

Strata of ancient construction

Unfortunately, while the rain had stopped minutes earlier, the skies were still gloomily overcast. With sunset approaching, we hurried through the ruins and I spotted two fun birds with colourful names: a black redstart and a blue rock thrush (my second one ever). Here is an interesting Byzantine mosaic floor that reads “Happy are the inhabitants of this house” in Greek:

Byzantine mosaic floor

One thing that I find difficult with sites such as this (and also Bet Shean, for example) is the sheer quantity of things to see. When one sees a singular ancient building or the ruins of a small complex it is easier to process, but when confronted with the huge amount of ruins and artefacts to examine… some of us get a little overwhelmed.

Cloudy sunset over the Old City

We made our way to the staircase of the Hulda Gates, entrances to the Temple Mount that were sealed up many years ago. There is a Latin inscription visible above the western Hulda Gate, dating to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian, and a façade from the Umayyad period.

Looking up at the façade and inscription

Walking along the southern wall of the Temple Mount, we reached and climbed the remains of the Crusader tower (the famous Templars were based out of the Temple Mount, thus the name) and enjoyed the view. Above us, beside the dull silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, there is a Muslim archaeology museum of sorts – sadly off-limits to us.

Crusader tower behind the tree

Leaving the tower, we continued along the impressive wall and reached the corner where an interesting inscription is on display as well as multitudes of enormous broken blocks from the Roman destruction of the Temple nearly 2,000 years ago. There, the famous Robinson’s Arch was discovered fallen, with small stores at the opposing base.

Robinson’s Arch

Darkness settling in, we hurried through the last section of the ruins and then popped over to the Kotel (or Western Wall) for a quick visit.

Posing at the Kotel

Despite the gloomy, grey skies that the day offered, twilight was actually quite beautiful and I was able to take a rather pleasing photo of the Kotel:

Kotel at twilight

Leaving the Kotel, we boarded a bus back to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station where we had dinner (schnitzel in a baguette for me) and then boarded a bus back to Givat Shmuel to bring an end to a very long but very adventurous day. Little did I know that I was to revisit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park a mere two week later with fellow Archaeology students in the form of an academic tour – coming up next…