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University Trip: Wadi Dalia & Sartaba

In Israel, Jordan River Valley on February 26, 2019 at 9:01 AM

Following our trip to Nachal Rash’ash, the members of Dr Dvir Raviv’s field class on the geography, geology and archaeology of the Shomron reconvened for a second day in the field. This time we had two destinations: Wadi Dalia and the fortress-peaked mountain of Sartaba. Departing in the morning from Bar Ilan University, and picking up members along the way, our trip officially began at the western side of Kibbutz Gilgal in the Jordan River Valley.

Outside Kibbutz Gilgal

Immediately upon leaving the tour bus my eyes settled upon a curious pair of birds perched on a wire a dozen or so metres away: green bee-eaters. With the birding aspect of the trip starting off on such a high, birding-friend Adam and I were quite eager to see what we could find. Just a quick scan around the perimetre, while the first of the hikers started off, we managed to see a handful of birds, including a black kite, some Tristram’s starlings and a small flock of Spanish sparrows.

Little green bee-eater

We set off heading southwest, towards the low mountains and in the direction of Wadi Dalia, enjoying the warm air of the valley. Within fifteen minutes we reached the dry streambed of Wadi Dalia and settled down for the first of many field-lectures delivered that day by our guide, Dr Dvir Raviv. Given the necessary background information on the geographical geology, including the changes in bedrock formations from the valley to the mountains as the elevation climbs.

Wadi Dalia

From the wadi we climbed up, reaching a small plateau where we could see diagonal stripes of flint in the otherwise plain sand-coloured limestone. One of the party members found a deathstalker scorpion, the most venomous variety in Israel, and rushed over to show me. Lately I’ve been seeing more and more deathstalkers, even more than the more common species.

Lecturing on lush greenery

We climbed higher, following the trail marked in red and white paint, and saw where the recent rains washed new life into the sand-coloured slopes. With the gentle sprinkling of green came the wildflowers and, throughout the day, we saw several different species, including yellow star-of-Bethlehem and dark grape hyacinth. Although unrelated, we saw more and more black kites until the estimated count reached into the hundreds.

A swirling of black kites

The view around us became increasingly glorious as we climbed, the jagged cliff edges and the green-dusted slopes combining to make a contrastingly beautiful scene. Before long we reached a small Bedouin enclosure, with a series of caves, and sat down to hear more about one particular cave with dozens of goats milling about around us. It was then, seated in the mostly-dry streambed, that we saw a very impressive sight.

Blissful clouds

As we were listening to Dvir a large shape appeared overhead, crossing over us from the cover of the nearby cliff. Everyone looked up, and multiple voices called out at me, including Adam who was watching it approach through his binoculars. I looked up as well, and saw a large bird of prey. A mere second or two passed before I turned my camera back on, removed the lens cap and began zooming in for a photograph. I knew that I’d only get one shot, and that it would be preferable to get clarity over closeness, so I shot at a mere 260mm (instead of the potential 2000mm) and got what I got. Behold, a majestic golden eagle:

Golden eagle flyby

Amazed with what we saw, Adam and I were on birding-high and decided that we’d be more alert as we walked this arid mountain terrain. Sure enough, a few common ravens passed by overhead, as well as some more ever-present black kites. An hour later, continuing along the trail, we found a small-spotted lizard hiding among the rocks.

Small-spotted lizard peeking out

Thus we continued, hiking and hiking some more as we traversed Wadi Dalia, making our way back downhill and towards the waiting bus. It was on that home stretch that we saw hundreds of black kites, swarming in large groups over the many slopes around us. Back in the bus, we were driven to a rest stop area for lunch, where Adam and I feasted on rolls, hummus and more, and then off to the final destination of the day: Sartaba, also known as Alexandrium.

The steep climb to Sartaba

I had once attempted to visit Sartaba, a Hasmonean fortress atop a conical peak, but got confused with the access roads and abandoned the notion. So, approaching the distinct mountain gave me a feeling of long-awaited excitement, as might be expected. But, we were not to just drive to Sartaba, there was a steep mountain path to climb, and the bus was going to drop us off at the foot of it, near an empty army outpost.

Looking back mid-climb

We disembarked at the base of the trail and were immediately shocked by how cold and windy it was. Dvir gave us a few words of encouragement, including something about not getting stuck atop the mountain after dark, and then we set off. It was a steep climb, of that we were roughly prepared, but it was the incessant howling cold wind that really threw us for a loop.

An ancient coin

About halfway up we reached a small cave near an ancient water reservoir which provided rudimentary shelter from the wind as the stragglers rejoined the group. From there we looped around the northern side of the slope near the peak and then climbed the last bit from the western side.

Standing atop the fortress ruins

Impressive ruins of a large fortress greeted us, the finely-cut ashlars stacked majestically. We spread about as we all explored the ruined fortress, looking around and taking photos. Just to summarise the fortress’ identity, Sartaba was originally built by the Hasmoneans and then restored by Herod approximately two hundred years later. The fortress was then destroyed during the Great Revolt by the Romans, and has been largely abandoned since.

Exploring Sartaba

With the sun setting over the nearby mountains we gathered around Dvir to hear a short explanation on the site. We examined the work of the different archaeological excavations that had taken place over the years, and then over to the “Hearts Palace”, named such due to the number of heart-shaped columns.

Heart-shaped column

Hoping to get back to the bus before nightfall, we made our way back down the slope, which proved quite difficult at first. The strong winds, coupled with the incline’s loose gravel, made the first few paces quite challenging. Eventually we reached the regular trail and made our way down the slope at a brisk pace.

Slip-sliding our way back down

Before long we were back in our tour bus and driving back to Bar Ilan University, bringing an end to a very interesting field trip.

Belvoir

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

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

Aerial view of Belvoir looking westward (photo Biblewalks)

Aerial view of Belvoir looking westward (photo: Biblewalks)

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

Lookout over the Jordan River Valley

Lookout over the Jordan River Valley

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

A drawing of what Belvoir might have looked like

A drawing of what Belvoir might have looked like

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

Entrance to the keep

Entrance to the keep

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

Barrel-vaulted dining hall

Barrel-vaulted dining hall

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

Sally port

Sally port

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

From within the dry moat

From within the dry moat

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

Lego reconstruction of Belvoir (photo Bob Carney)

Lego reconstruction of Belvoir (photo Bob Carney)

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

Old Gesher police station

Old Gesher police station

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

View of the Kinneret from above Tel Beit Yerach

View of the Kinneret from above Tel Beit Yerach

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

Bet Shean

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

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

Roman theatre

Roman theatre

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

Recreated scaenae frons

Recreated scaenae frons

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

Beneath the bathhouse's floor

Beneath the bathhouse’s floor

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

Palladius Street with the tel behind it

Palladius Street with the tel behind it

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

Roman city of Bet Shean (Scythopolis)

Roman city of Bet Shean (Scythopolis)

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

Looking down on the ruins

Looking down on the ruins

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

The Egyptian governor's palace

The Egyptian governor’s palace

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

Nachal Harod with the Roman bridge and Jordan beyond

Nachal Harod with the Roman bridge and Jordan beyond

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

Ruins of thousands of years upon the tel

Ruins of thousands of years upon the tel

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

Basalt Ottoman building

Basalt Ottoman building

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

Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival

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

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

Sunrise on Mount Gilboa

Sunrise on Mount Gilboa

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

The crowds are waiting

The crowds are waiting

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

Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival

Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival

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

Whimsical frog king balloon

Whimsical frog king balloon

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

The balloons from Tel Yizrael

The balloons from Tel Yizrael

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

Ottoman khan on Tel Yizrael

Ottoman khan on Tel Yizrael

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

Jordan River Valley

In Israel, Jordan River Valley, Judea on October 21, 2014 at 6:44 AM

This past Sunday, my father and I drove down to Bet Shemesh and Ashdod for shipping-related work, hoping to have a little fun as well. Leaving early in the morning in the rain, we chose the desert route – border-hugging Road 90 from Tzfat down to Jericho and then Road 1 through Jerusalem. Stopping momentarily in Bet Shean we had a large flock of pelicans pass overhead; the bird migrations in full force this time of year.

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Our first stop was intended to be the mountaintop fortress of Sartaba (Alexandion) just before Road 505’s junction and after a wrong turn into a town, we were directed to a single-lane road that took us winding up the adjacent mountain. There, after parking, we found a desolate army outpost and a trail leading out to a rocky horn that I assumed was Sartaba.

Rocky horn - not Sartaba

Rocky horn – not Sartaba

Up on the horn, gazing out at the Jordan River Valley, I activated my phone’s GPS and discovered that the actual site was a few kilometres west from where we were standing. As you can see here, the dirt road snaking up the mountainside leads to Sartaba, looking down from where we were beside the army outpost.

The winding road to Sartaba

The winding road to Sartaba

As we looked out at the stormy clouds and the barren mountainous landscape, my father decided to see if he could roll a rock all the way down the mountainside. After the first rock crashed down into the dry streambed below, we saw small figures running away from the single-rock avalanche. I called out to my father to look at the birds running down there, assuming they were chukars or some desert quails, and then zoomed in on them with the camera. The 25x optical zoom was not enough and so I entered the iffy realm of digital zoom. I snapped and prayed, having a hard time seeing the colour-camoflauged creatures down below. Checking the display scene, I found myself looking at not birds, but gazelles:

Gazelles down below

Gazelles down below

Returning to the car, we attempted to drive to the real Sartaba but the road was too precarious and we do not have a 4×4. So, we returned to Road 90 and tried from a different access point. More rugged terrain suitable only for a 4×4. So, in summary, any attempt to reach Sartaba either requires a 4×4 vehicle or a very long hike up and around a mountain. Continuing down Road 90, we stopped next at a site known as Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic for “Castle of the Jews”) which is a spot along the Jordan River famous for several reasons. When the Jews crossed the Jordan River entering the Holy Land thousands of years back, as documented by the Bible, they crossed “opposite Jericho” and so tradition has it that this is the very spot where the waters stood in a pillar for the Jews to cross into the Land. Later, it is believed that this is where Eliyahu (Elijah) the Prophet ascended to the heavens after crossing the Jordan with Elisha.

Qasr al-Yahud - Israel and Jordan

Qasr al-Yahud – Israel and Jordan

But today’s tourists are mostly Christians who come to Qasr al-Yahud to baptise in the waters of the Jordan, a holy site harkening back to the dawn of Christianity. As far back as the Byzantine era, churches and monasteries were built along the banks, these being the lowest churches in elevation on Earth. These monasteries often served as safe havens for Christian pilgrims during times of Arab rule. The oldest monastery is St John’s which was rebuilt during the Crusader period on ruins from a Byzantine-era church. During Ottoman rule, when there was easy access for pilgrims, many Christian orders came and built their own monasteries. Earthquakes in 1927 and 1956 severely damaged the monasteries and after the Six Day War in 1967, the area became a closed military zone.

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

In the following decades, the monasteries became refuges for terrorists crossing the border and so the IDF was forced to set mines around the partially ruined buildings.

A minefield

A minefield

Now, at times of peace with Jordan, the site is open to visitors but several of the monasteries are still minefields and fenced off. When we visited, there were two Israeli soldiers and one Jordanian soldier guarding the border – a mere thirty feet or so of muddy water, where several pilgrims were in the water in white tunics.

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

After Qasr al-Yahud we kept driving until we reached the Beit HaArava Junction. There, we turned onto a small road to see the remnants of the original settlement of Beit HaArava (1939-48). At the end of the road we saw a few ruined houses, but they were on the other side of the security fence. We also saw a sign to the first potash plant which was in operations from 1925 till 1948. Getting back to the main road, we turned onto Road 1 to Jerusalem and took a two-minute detour to photograph Nabi Musa, the Muslim shrine and mosque for what they believe is the burial place of Moshe (Moses).

Nabi Musa

Nabi Musa

Pressed for time, we abandoned plans to visit the Kotel in Jerusalem and instead had a quick visit with family friends in nearby Ma’ale Adumim and then headed for Bet Shemesh to get the work done. When we left Bet Shemesh, heading for the port of Ashdod, this magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky:

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

After dinner in Ashdod, we took the labourious drive home via Road 6 – Israel’s longest toll-road and arrived home sometime after 9pm.