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University Trip: Nizzana Dunes

In Israel, Judea, Negev on July 11, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Mere days after my interestingly scheduled ecological fieldwork trip to Yatir Forest with my friend Levi Burrows, I took part in another departmental field trip. This semester hasn’t worked out so well for me in regards to field trips; life can just be so busy even without gallivanting around in the wilderness. However, when a night trip to the famed Nizzana Dunes presented itself, I signed up with great anticipation.

Beautiful sandscape of the famed Nizzana Dunes

Guided by Dr Moshe Natan, who led many of the university trips featured in this blog last year, the trip was one dedicated to wildlife – perfect for me. Our tour mini-bus departed from Bar Ilan University, shortly after I finished work, and off we went in the direction of the Negev desert. The first site of interest that we passed was the Ashalim solar thermal power station – a fantastic creation of mirrors that light up a tall central tower. The visual effect is quite reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, and can be seen from many tens of miles away. Marvel at this photo taken from the media room of Ashalim’s buildings:

Ashalim solar thermal power station (credit Brightsource)

Well within the Negev desert, on Road 211, we drove west towards the Israel-Egypt border until with a particular destination in mind. Moshe wanted to show us desert monitors, the largest lizards in Israel, and he had leads on a particular dunes area between Beer Milka and the border. We went a bit off-road as we traversed agricultural access roads until we reached an open area with low hills. Disembarking, we began our slow sweep of the land before us, keeping a sharp eye out for desert monitors.

Making friends with a Rivetina sp. mantis

No monitors were seen, only tracks and droppings, but we weren’t discouraged. The dunes were beautiful, the strong winds creating that rippled look on the monochromatic surface. In addition, I was excited by the large amount of praying mantises (all of the genus Rivetina) which were running helter-skelter underfoot. Finished with our pursuit of monitors, we got back into our tour bus and made our way to our purposed camping site. However, surprise surprise, there were hundreds of teenagers pouring out of buses – this group also intending on staying the night.

Our campsite

So, we made some quick changes to the grand plan and headed back to the dunes where the monitors were meant to be seen. Moshe showed us where we should set up our base camp and we commenced to pitch our tents and other necessary tasks that campers do. Getting back to wildlife, Moshe took out a collection of traps to harmlessly secure us some dune-living rodents for inspection. We spent quite a while setting up traps in the vicinity of burrow openings, baiting them with tasty and nutritious bamba.

Setting out the rodent traps

Sunset came and went, leaving us in the darkness of the Negev sky, the air quickly cooling around us. It was time to embark on an exploratory tour of the dunes around us, and we were more than ready. I had recently purchased a powerful new flashlight, with intents on making all nighttime exploring easier. We set out, keeping an eye out for distinguishing tracks to help us locate our quarry. My target was anything I could find in the suborder Serpentes – snakes!

Sunset over Egypt

Believe it or not, just walking along the sandy trail, flicking my flashlight’s powerful beam hither and thither, I found my first snake of the night. I almost couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were showing me, and I was nervous that it’d slither off into the unknown before proper attention was given. I called out loudly, telling the group to come over quick. It was a crowned leafnose snake, less than a foot long and completely harmless.

Crowned leafnose snake

We spent a long time with the crowned leafnose snake, taking photos and talking about its distinct tracks. Excited as we were to see this snake, we knew that there was more to be seen, and continued our exploring.

Holding the crowned leafnose snake

We climbed a large, vegetation-free dune and caught sight of the even more distinct tracks of a horned desert viper. Long hooked lines carved out of the sand, showing the direction the snake was traveling. We followed suit, and tracked it a hundred or so metres until suddenly we saw it.

Following the tracks

Bigger than the previous snake, this viper is venomous and couldn’t be approached the same way. With caution, we edged closer and Moshe unloaded a great amount of pertinent information.

Horned desert viper coming my way

Eventually the serpent decided to move on, and so we followed it back up the dune from whence it came. Atop the dune it decided to settle down, and burrow itself in the sand.

Up close to the horned desert viper

As we watched its rippling body shimmy itself into the sand, we heard a loud clicking noise and I spotted something running towards us from out of the darkness.

Reaction shot to the camel spider attack

Quite literally like a scene out of a horror movie, a large camel spider was running at us at top speed, flailing its long pedipalps and clicking its fearsome teeth at us. It was quite alarming, even if the creature is “only” the size of a large adult human hand. We scattered, avoiding the devilish arachnid as it raced around underfoot threatening to slash us with its powerful jaws (see close-up HERE).

Camel spider

We relocated, leaving the horned desert viper and eventually losing the restless camel spider as well. The next item of interest was a large female lobed agriope spider, quite impressive both in size and appearance. I had already seen one of these on a trip to the fields near the fortress of Mirabel (see blog post HERE and photo HERE), so I felt the need to continue exploring.

Lobed agriope spider

Not far away, I spotted something small moving – a dune gecko. I called the group over, let them take over, and then continued exploring. Over the next little while all we saw were repeats: camel spiders and dune geckos. Incidentally, those two are predator and prey, respectively. Then something exciting happened: The few individuals taking the lead caught sight of a small rodent dashing about in the sparse vegetation. We circled the area and closed in, eventually finding the cute lil’ fella hiding out in an abandoned burrow.

Gerbil hiding in a burrow

What we had found was a gerbil of sorts, unidentifiable without getting a closer look at the footbeds which would require capture. Leaving the gerbil to his business, we carried on with our roving search. A pair of eyes watched us from a nearby dune – a curious Arabian red fox – yet refused to be approached. With all these impressive finds under our figurative belts, we had yet to see a scorpion, so the UV flashlight was taken out. No matter how purple-blue the ground below us looked under the illumination, there was no scorpion to be found, just more camel spiders.

Ultraviolet camel spider blur

However, we did find another four crowned leafnose snakes, as well as some more dune geckos. Walking and walking, we eventually decided to bring an end of our exploration and navigated ourselves back to our campsite aided by the twinkling lights on the horizon as well as the time-honoured stellar constellations.

Dune gecko

Back at the campsite we took out our food and had dinner while watching a nature video brought by Moshe. I feasted on schnitzel with rice and tehina, and had the pleasure of hearing and identifying an eagle owl – which I have yet to lay eyes on. When we had all eaten our fill, people began to get ready for bed. It was about midnight and we were to wake up before dawn for another excursion.

Examining a dune gecko

I had a conundrum: I had brought a sleeping bag, but with those devilish camel spiders racing about willy-nilly, I felt a little apprehensive of sleeping on the ground. I resigned to relaxing on a chair, and letting sleep’s warm embrace envelop me whenever it shall. Dressed in a fleece jacket, I was cosy and relatively comfortable perched on the chair. To make life a bit more exciting, and to perhaps ease myself to sleep, I cracked open a can of Murphy’s Irish Stout which I had brought with me.

Bathed in the soft golden light of morning

I dozed on and off throughout the night, safe from the roving camel spiders (in fact, I didn’t see or hear any the whole time at the campsite). The birds began to call before first light, mostly crested larks from what I was able to identify audibly. When the sun’s light lit up the sky to the east of us I rose and explored a little, hoping to maybe see something of interest. True to my hopes, I found a male mountain gazelle grazing far off on a distant dune, oblivious to my presence.

Exploring the dunes in the early morning

The rest of our merry band of explorers joined in, and we explored the dunes under the early morning’s golden light. We found plenty of tracks, but nothing that we hadn’t seen during the night. It was rather scenic though, and the sweeping sands of the dune coupled with the partially overcast skies created a stunning pastel vista. The traps, which had been set the evening before, provided us with nothing – although one of the traps’ bamba-bait was looted by a sneaky rodent. We returned to our campsite, packed up everything and made our way to the bus that came for us. The adventure wasn’t over yet, we had a bit of a drive to the final trip destination.

Within the old quarry basin

Driving north, and nearing Tel es-Safi, we took a slight detour in the vicinity of Moshav Nahala. Our destination was an old quarry, always a good place to find cool stuff, where we were deposited. Entering the quarry I immediately discerned a bird of prey sitting atop a short tree – a long-legged buzzard. I was excited, no doubt, but there was more to see and the open field in front of us (the basin of the quarry) was alive with the twittering of crested larks.

Little owl

Overhead I could see jackdaws and bee-eaters, but there was something far more exciting watching us from the other side of the quarry. Moshe set up his spotting scope and showed us what he had brought us there for: a little owl was sitting at the mouth of a hewn tunnel, watching us with large yellow eyes. I adore owls, and felt bent on getting a decent picture of this particular specimen.

Juvenile short-toed eagle

We walked the dirt path until we reached the perched long-legged buzzard and inevitably scared him off. To our excitement, a juvenile short-toed eagle had just perched on a nearby tree, and the rousted buzzard made it return to the air. We watched as the two birds of prey climbed the hot air thermals, all while the owl watched us. Then, if the scenario wasn’t thrilling enough as is, suddenly a male lesser kestrel came out of nowhere and started harassing the buzzard, dive-bombing it with aerial superiority.

Lesser kestrel harassing a long-legged buzzard

It was during the intensity of all these sightings, and the desperation to capture it all in photographic form, that my camera’s battery exhausted itself. I tried to revive the little black cuboid, but to no avail. It was just my misfortune that directly thereafter we had two day-time fox sightings, as well as a handful of other great photographic opportunities. Alas, there was nothing I could do, so I took a photograph of myself in the fly-filled heat and just enjoyed the outing for what it was.

Quarry selfie

It wasn’t long before we climbed back into the bus and made our way back to Bar Ilan University, bringing to an end one of the most enjoyable departmental field trips I’ve ever been on. Hopefully I’ll be able to attend next year’s dune trip as well, but in the meantime I have the more centrally-located dunes of Holon and Rishon LeZion to explore.

Southern Arava

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on June 12, 2019 at 10:02 AM

Continuing on with the saga of the trip to Eilat, my friend Adam Ota and I spent the night in a small house in Kibbutz Ketura after a day of birding adventure. The sun came up over the Arava and we felt the need to sleep in a bit. We had breakfast in the kibbutz dining room, and then packed up our belongs into our rental Audi for another adventurous day.

Morning in Kibbutz Ketura

We drove around Ketura for a bit, taking in all the sights and seeing where Adam used to work after his army service. As fun as it was in Ketura, time was ticking and we had many places to visit that day. Leaving Ketura, our first stop was the adjacent Kibbutz Grofit, built upon a lone hill in the homogenous desert landscape. We drove over to the northern end of the kibbutz and enjoyed the view of Ketura down below.

Looking down at Ketura from Grofit

When we had soaked up all of the glory of the view we got back into the car and drove south on Road 90. We turned into Kibbutz Samar, where we had received insider information from the International Birding and Research Center Eilat (IBRCE) that there were black bush robins to be found.

Our Audi A1 rental car

Locating the overgrown tree patch known locally as “The Jungle”, we set out to find the elusive black birds. It took some searching and some playing of the bird calls from the Collins bird watching app, and eventually we heard a reply.

Searching for the black bush robin

A black bush robin was calling to us from the groves outside the Jungle, and we set off to get a sighting. Unfortunately we didn’t end up getting any closer to it, and even lost the audio connection, but we did end up seeing some other nice birds. A few wheatears and blackstarts, as well as some warblers and a Tristram’s starling. There was no reason to linger, as the list of place to still be visited remained long. With that we departed, and drove side access roads in the direction of the Elifaz Sewage Ponds.

Searching for birds at the Elifaz Sewage Ponds

Most people would raise eyebrows at the idea of visiting a sewage pond, but birders know that oftentimes sewage ponds provide excellent birding. While sewage treatment primarily happens indoors and out-of-sight, there are also what is known as stabilisation pools where a more natural form of water purification occurs. These pools are outdoors and host a healthy plants and insect life, which bring the birds into the picture. Thus, some of the hottest birding sites in Israel year-round are often in and around sewage treatment centres.

Just another boring kestrel

The Elifaz Sewage Ponds proved to be relatively empty, with just a few common kestrels keeping us company. Dejected by not discouraged, we got back into our car and drove on to the next destination: Timna Park. I had visited Timna once back in 2017 with my university, but we hadn’t explored the park in its entirety. This time I was returning with wheels and an adventurous friend.

Timna Park map

We began with the short film about the site, which was very entertaining, and then we headed into the park along the main access road. Marvelling at Timna’s fascinating colour palette, we passed the first landmark, the Spiral Hill, and then turned right to a spot called The Mushroom, a natural sculpture created by wind erosion.

Timna: The Copper Road

Timna Park is a horseshoe-shaped valley located in a beautiful, craggy desert landscape, complete with a unique geological makeup that gives it its iconic look. The pink sand, and the cliffs of green- and yellow-hued fuchsia rock, complete the truly bizarre appearance. In ancient times Timna was the site of an aggressive multi-national mining operation, mostly extracting raw copper from the sandstone. Although King Solomon’s name has been tacked onto the site more than once, it was more than just the Israelites that thirsted for the valuable metal. The ancient Egyptians, with the use of Canaanite labourers, hewed giant mines out of the soft rock and even left their mark on the faces of the colourful cliffs.

Unedited photo of the “sand”

These copper mines began hundreds of years before the Jews returned from Egyptian bondage, and were actively mined on and off until the 600s CE when the copper ore started running out. Curiously enough, the modern Israeli government attempted to respark the copper mining industry starting in 1958, but that ended in 1985 due to economic reasons. The Timna Copper Mines company website is still running, due to their ventures elsewhere, but the old pictures of the mining are worth a look (see HERE).

Ancient copper producing workshop

As we drove through the valley we spotted a few birds, notably a little green bee-eater and a few brown-necked ravens. Pulling over here and there to photographically capture everything of note, we eventually made it to The Mushroom – a fungus-shaped rock. Parking, we got out and walked towards two archaeological sites beside The Mushroom: a shrine and a smelting camp, dating back to the Egyptian period thousands of years ago. Despite that the ground is mostly a dark shade of pink, every so often there’s a glint of soft green. These are bits of oxidised copper, most often still affixed to broken pieces of pink sandstone. Leaving the smelting valley, we drove on to a place called The Chariots – rock engravings left behind by the ancient Egyptians.

Raindrops in Timna Park

Much to our surprise, it began to rain as we approached the site, and rain is always surprising in the desert. Ten-fifteen minutes later the light drizzle ended and we got out of the car to examine the ancient engravings. The first was a collection of ibexes and ostriches being hunted by boomerang-wielding men. The second set of engravings were the aforementioned chariots, featuring warriors and their battle axes.

Adam searching for the wall engravings

Driving back towards the park’s centre, skipping some of the sites that I had already seen last trip, we made our way to Lake Timna. Man-made and nestled between the craggy cliffs, the tiny lake was designed to be a permanent watering-hole for animals and a fun place for humans. To my dismay, this potential paradise seemed to amount to neither of these. There was, however, a station for filling touristy bottles with coloured sand – always an interesting gift to loved ones.

Desert lark eating discarded Doritos

From there we went to Solomon’s Pillars and Hathor’s Temple, basking in the glory of the truly awe-inspiring landscape. In the parking lot, of all places, we watched a few desert birds hop about, including a few desert larks. With that, and the time ticking away, we left Timna Park and headed for the next site on our list, an old water-filled quarry hidden from plain sight.

Cerulean quarry

It took a bit of driving about till we reached the correct access road, but when we pulled up at the quarry and got our first glimpse, we were amazed. The cerulean water contrasting with the red earth/rock made for quite the visual treat. Strong winds buffeted us, threatening to send us and our belongs into the picturesque abyss below. With nothing more to do than appreciate the view, we took some photos and got back into the little white car.

KM 20

Time truly was ticking, and we had only a few hours before we had to take the car back. Our next stop was also off the beaten path, the birding hotspot of KM 20 – literally the 20th kilometre from the end of Road 90 in Eilat. If time wasn’t the only adversary on that day, an unexpected muddy puddle kept us from reaching KM 20 by means of vehicular transportation. We were forced to walk the last bit, hopelessly muddying our shoes, but knowing that it was all worth it.

Flamingo at KM 20

Arriving at the large salt pools of KM 20, we were rather pleased to see at least a hundreds birds in front of us. The majority were greater flamingos, with some black-winged stilts and other waders hugging the edges of the pools. Even a mixed flock of northern shoveler and pintail ducks was spotted hunkering down on the far bank. While I engaged in photographic pursuits, Adam scanned for the famous black flamingo and successfully located the melanistic creature on the farther end of the closest pool.

The melanistic flamingo far, far away

Hurrying back to our car, we made our way to another birding hotspot a kilometre further south – KM 19. More of the bird-friendly sewage ponds, KM 19 didn’t deliver as much as we were hoping for. A flushed marsh harrier, a handful of waders and a bunch of flocks of waterfowl filled the few reed-lined ponds. It was fun scanning the water’s edge to try and find a small wader here and there, adding up the species as we found more and more. Next time, we’d need to revisit this site at a better hour of the day, and during a better time of year.

Climbing the banks of KM 19’s ponds

Alas, this was our last fun stop with the car and we drove back to Eilat feeling pleased with our efforts. We filled up the tank, went shopping and drove to the lodgings that we had booked in advance. With budgeting a priority we went with a relatively inexpensive hotel located in the residential part of Eilat. Our expectations were low, but we were pleasantly surprised with our lot at Rich Luxury Suites.

Getting the barbecue started

Zipping over to the car rental we gave back the beloved Audi with a few minutes to spare, and walked back to the hotel to settle in and have dinner. The evening continued into night, we filled our bellies with delicious foods cooked on a disposable grill and got a good night’s sleep.

Heading back home…

Early the following morning we gathered up all our belongings and made our way to Eilat’s central bus station for the long ride back to Givat Shmuel. Thus ended our exciting excursion to the southern tip of Israel this past February.

University Trip: Nachal Kina

In Israel, Negev on December 16, 2018 at 2:31 PM

Continuing with the tale of the second annual “Campushetach” trip offered by my department at Bar Ilan University, we begin in a communal tent in the yishuv of Susiya. A group of students and faculty alike, we had spent the previous day being shuttled around the Mount Hevron area, seeing sights and then hiking down Mount Amasa. We were awoken the following chilly morning and hurried along to pack everything up on the waiting bus. The first and only stop of the day was to a parking lot of sorts located on the far side of a Bedouin village of e-Dahabshe, where we were to disembark and spend the day hiking. Arriving just as the local gaudily-dressed Bedouin children were making their way to school, we got out of our tour bus and sleepily looked around.

Beginning the day’s hike

Thankfully, there was quite a lot of songbirds chirping and flitting about, and I was immediately awakened. Adam and I huddled together as we struggled to make out different species, some of which were ones that we had never yet seen. No matter where we looked, there were little birds moving about, feeding in the early morning light. Highlights included desert finches, linnets and a bunch of desert larks. It was only the necessity to stick with our group that made us continue on, leaving behind an unlikely birding paradise.

Breakfast

It wasn’t a far walk to the first stop of the hiking trip, Horvat Uza, where the department patron Yehuda Mizrachi was setting breakfast up. Always with crowd-pleasing tricks up his sleeve, this time he brought a gas taboun to make fresh pitas on. Breakfast was quite the feast, and when we had all eaten our fill, the lectures and hiking continued.

Horvat Uza

Dr Shawn Zelig-Aster lectured from the eastern side of Horvat Uza, as we sat on the ruined walls and stones of the ancient fortress. Surveyed in the 1950s, Horvat Uza has been identified as an Israelite fortress dating back to the Iron Age, built of a curious blend of limestone and flint. The dark, rich colours of the semi-translucent flint blocks made for quite an interesting sight, especially when gazing upon rows upon rows of ruined walls.

Mourning wheatear

As expected, my attention was shortly arrested by the appearance of little birds popping in and out of sight. Sitting at the edge of the slope, I was able to spot and photograph a whole slew of songbird species, including: blue rock thrush, blackstart, black redstart, desert lark and mourning wheatear.

Trail to the valley below

When we finished at Horvat Uza, and had properly examined the multiple rooms, we continued along the trail and began a quick descent. To the east a parade of camels, trailed by a donkey-riding Bedouin and a dog, came into view, the first of many camels to be seen that day. Climbing back up the opposing slope, we began the slope-side trail over the dry streambed, enjoying the narrow, rocky path and the vast, rocky desert view.

Encounter with a camel

This hiking carried on for an hour, with camels, a faraway fox and more birds, until about noon when we dropped down into the predominantly dry Nachal Kina. Due to the previous week’s rains, there were sporadic pools of water dotting the rocky streambed, brown from the large amounts of dirt.

Descending into the dry Nachal Kina

We continued along the trail, heading upstream, enjoying the loud calls of the Tristam’s starling and the occasional presence of a rock martin or two flying overhead. Somewhere along the way we encountered a Bedouin man on a donkey with a small herd of goats and a couple dogs. He was enamoured by our presence and followed us faithfully from the slope, playing trance music on a portable speaker to enhance our hiking experience. It was quite interesting and most unexpected.

The Bedouin keeping an eye on us

An hour and a half later we arrived at the dry waterfall, where a deep pool of water awaited us. Most of us just gazed at the murky waters and found a comfortable place to sit down, but not Dr Avi Picard – he casted off his outer clothes and dove into the water. As he splashed about, and the rest of us enjoyed the break, a few bold blackstarts and the trance-playing, donkey-riding Bedouin came to join us.

Inquisitive blackstart

Next, this other Bedouin guy named Suliman came down from the ridge and began filling up his coffee pot with the dirty pool water. When we talked to him we learned that he actually came to this pool to gather water to take back home, because he believed that the water was better than what he’d get ordinarily. Needless to say, it was a very interesting experience beside that muddy pool.

Having a rest at the waterfall

Climbing out from the base of the dry waterfall, we walked the upper area of Nachal Kina, which was even drier and contained less rainpools. We walked and walked, enjoying conversation as we made our way to the base of the mountain where we had stopped for breakfast. On approach, we stopped briefly to examine three curious water cisterns, one of which is still in use today. Several ravens passed overhead as we climbed back up the slope towards Horvat Uza, where I paused to examine some thorny saltwort growing beside a large rock.

Posing with the fellas

When we arrived at the curious flint fortress we found Yehuda Mizrachi with food spread out for lunch. We sat our weary selves down and feasted on breads, salads, cheeses and more, while fresh hot pitas and calzones came off the taboun. At the end of the meal, Prof Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, the department head, gave closing remarks and we began the short hike back to the waiting tour bus.

Sunset

The sun was beginning to set as we head out, bringing a close to a very successful and fun field trip. But it wasn’t completely over, as Adam, Ben and I were to meet some friends back at the university for pizza, and only then bring an end to the very long day.

University Trip: Northwest Negev II

In Israel, Negev on May 22, 2018 at 1:15 PM

The day following our trip to Tel Gezer and other sites, we took another Bar Ilan University field trip, this time to the northwest Negev region. Leading us was Dr Shawn Zelig-Aster, a lecturer in Biblical history, and our destinations included a string of biblical-age settlement ruins. We departed from the campus in the morning and made our way by means of minibus to the first of the sites: Tel el-Hesi.

Approaching Tel el-Hesi

Famous for being the first site to be excavated using the concept of chronological stratigraphy, pioneered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Tel el-Hesi in 1890 on behalf of the PEF (as can be seen HERE). According to this method, the understanding of differing levels excavated point directly to different time periods in chronological sequence. Under the belief that Tel el-Hesi was the Biblical city of Lachish, Petrie, and later American archaeologist FJ Bliss, excavated with the use of local Arab laborers to define Levantine archaeological sequences in the most scientific manner yet.

Cereal grain detail

We disembarked from our minibus on an access road off Road 40 in a slightly less scientific manner, gathering around beside a golden wheat field to hear from Dr Zelig-Aster. Being that it’s spring and a different part of the country than I’m usually in, I was eager to find new and interesting birds, as is to be expected. But that had to wait, as there were only a few collared doves and a jackdaw in the nearby vicinity. Properly briefed on the geographical aspect of the land, we began along the dirt road toward Tel el-Hesi, shaded by a row of trees planted alongside the road.

Scenic view

We reached Nachal Shikma, with its flour mill ruins, and continued until we reached a harvested field that gave us the first look at the small tel. As we stood there, learning about the tel and its importance in history, I noticed that the birds flying around above us looked a little peculiar. Maxing out my camera’s 21x optical zoom, I was able to see that these were very colourful European bee-eaters – my first time seeing them.

Beetles on a thistle

Leaving the field to approach the tel from the north, we continued after seeing a nice step buzzard pass overhead. Next, we found a picturesque field with some of spring’s blossoms still dotting the green grass, and stopped to take a group photo.

Group photo

We approached and then climbed the tel via the dirt road, and as I walked, I noticed a flock of white storks coming from the west and a few black kites mixed in too. At nearly the top of the tel, a small flock of small birds took flight, frightened off by us. Later, I identified them as red-throated pipits – again a first for me.

Poppies growing beside the trail

Atop the tel we realised that the bee-eaters were nesting in the red earth banks, and as there wasn’t much to see anymore, we made our way back down after a few minutes, allowing the bee-eaters to continue their breeding undisturbed. From the tel’s vantage point I was afforded a sighting of a masked shrike and this season’s first roller for me – a lovely blue bird that I had only previously seen at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig in the summer.

Horned poppy flower

Heading back down the tel, we continued on the dirt road northwest toward the next site on the list: Tel Sheqef. Along the way we found a horned poppy with its orange blossoms growing right in the middle of the road, saw a few more rollers, and nearly had a altercation with some Bedouin shepherd dogs. Two kilometres later we climbed the small hill that is Tel Sheqef.

Tel Sheqef

Without too much visible architecture, the tel was largely covered with earth and dry grass, and made a nice place to stand on. As we stood in a circle, my eyes drifted off to scan the surroundings but my attention was eventually caught by one of the members of our party. We had discovered a couple crude white mosaic stones, similar to those that I found in the Jerusalem aqueduct archaeological dig, and then a couple more. Within minutes we realised that we were surrounded by dozens of these stones and were properly impressed by the implications of a ruined mosaic floor.

Bedouin herding his sheep

We didn’t spend long atop Tel Sheqef with its Bronze, Iron and Hellenistic age ruins, but rather elected to continue onward toward our next site. The walk to the west followed alongside agricultural fields, mostly wheat and potato, for several kilometres of heat and humidity. Off in the distance, we saw black smoke rising, probably a result of the rioting at the Gazan border that was ongoing that week. We trudged along, following the dirt roads until at last we reached a gathering of pine trees. We cut through the trees and found a small hill covered with the same dry grass that adorned the other tels.

Wheat field

Up top, we gathered around beside some fenced-off ruins that had been excavated in recent years. We were at Khirbet Summeily, just east of Tlamim, a moshav founded in 1950 by immigrants from Djerba. I became immediately distracted by a number of swallowtail butterflies who were obsessively feasting on thistles.

Swallowtail butterfly

I even shared a moment with one particular swallowtail who flew off when I got too close to its thistle. I expected the butterfly to go find a different flower, but no, instead it landed on the barbed wire nearby and waited. This gave me a great opportunity to photograph it, which I did to the best of my ability, and then I backed off. When I was a sufficient distance away, the swallowtail took flight and returned to its thistle, where it continued to feed.

Examining the overgrown ruins of Khirbet Summeily

We briefly learned about the site of Khirbet Summeily, and its lack of biblical identity, and then examined the ruins from up close. Descending the small hill, we returned to the trees and made our way toward the road.

Departing via the trees

Along the way we found countless clumpings of wool from Bedouin sheep that were shorn at the end of the winter, which was a slightly unusual scene. We found our minibus and boarded it, all hot and sweaty, and enjoyed the ride back to BIU, knowing that the next trip was just around the corner.

A video of this trip, which I made for the department’s YouTube channel, can be found HERE.

Ein Bokek & Ami’az Plateau

In Israel, Negev on March 25, 2018 at 7:31 AM

Following our trip day with the schoolchildren to Ein Gedi, the new day began with sunrise at the Hazeva Field School. We prayed, ate and packed our belongings onto the bus, ready to continue the fun. Driving up Road 90 from the Arava, we reached the region of the Dead Sea and began seeing interesting things, such as the magnesium production plant with its mountains of harvested minerals and Mount Sodom, which is more of a ridge than a lone peak.

Entrance to Ein Bokek

The southern half of the Dead Sea is comprised of shallow pools that were divided by dirt banks and used in the harvesting of salts and minerals by means of evaporation. It was my first time seeing this part of the Dead Sea and I found it quite fascinating. Unfortunately, there was no time to be spent at the sea, and we continued on to our first destination of the day: Ein Bokek.

Nachal Bokek flowing gently

After a quick drive around the tourist area with the hotels and spas, our bus pulled up at the side of the road at the trailhead for the Ein Bokek hike. We disembarked and followed our tour guide as we walked along the vegetation-lined stream, the calm waters gurgling along peacefully. I was hoping to see some interesting birds, perhaps some interesting warblers in the shrubbery or some eagles over the cliffs that surround us, but I found nothing of the sort.

The waterfall

Before long we reached the first tiny waterfall, and stuck around for a few minutes to enjoy it before continuing on. A few more minutes of streamside walking brought us to the end of our trail, where a pool and waterfall awaited us. Several of the lads waded into the cold waters, but I sufficed by standing on a rock island and photographing the sight.

Bokek Fortress

Recalling the start of our trail, I had seen the ruins of an ancient fortress on a low peak overlooking the stream and I decided it was worth visiting on my own whilst the lads played. Checking with the tour guide and some rangers, I struck out on my own and reached the ruins after a short hike uphill. What I found was a Byzantine fortress dating to the 300s CE built to guard over the roads in the frontiers of the empire. According to the archaeological evidence, Bokek Fortress has four levels of construction, all dating to the Byzantine period. The fortress was abandoned in the Early Arab period and, in recent years, was cleaned up and partially restored. Unfortunately, several weeks after my visit, there was a news article about graffiti vandalism on its southern walls.

View from the fortress

I looped around the west side of the fortress, and entered it from the south, admiring the stonework. I found a burnt potsherd on the ground, perhaps part of an old oil lamp. Inside, the view of the cliff on one side and the view of the sea on the other added to the charm of the ancient ruins. One particular aspect that sparked my interest was a series of bone-dry wood sticks bridging the top of a doorway. I stopped for a minute and stared, wondering for how long they had been been lying there.

Desert landscape on the plateau

Leaving the fortress, I rejoined my group as they left Ein Bokek, and together we made our way to our bus. Our next location was just a few kilometres away and we were excited to get there. We were headed to the Ami’az Plateau while hired bicycles waited for us to take us on some off-road biking. Disembarking, we gathered around the guides and were briefed before setting out. I was given the guide’s bike, a yellow, black and grey GT Aggressor, and pedaled off at a comfortable 6th speed with the rest of the lads.

The bike I used

Within minutes the terrain went from a rather dull, rocky landscape to a really picturesque scene, with flat open stretches and interesting, wind-shaped hills. I kept my eyes out for birds, especially birds of prey which, when soaring above, are less likely to be disturbed by our group. I saw nothing interesting, but the location’s beauty kept me entertained.

The beauty of the desert

Along the way we passed several dry streambeds, including Wadi Hemar, Wadi Lot and Wadi Pratsim, and we kept pedaling after our guide. After nearly an hour we reached the end of our allotted trail, and turned around. I took the opportunity to ask some lads to take my photo, and then began the ride back.

Me

We all made it back safely to the starting place and returned our trusty metal steeds to the rightful owners. After praying mincha (afternoon prayer) we boarded our tour bus again and began the long drive back to Givat Shmuel, taking a short break in Arad for food and restrooms. Thus ended yet another fun trip with the school where I work.

University Trip: Arava III

In Israel, Negev on January 29, 2017 at 11:40 AM

Wrapping up our two-day trip to the Arava (I & II) under the behest of Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department, we found ourselves leaving the gorgeous Timna Park and headed for our next destination: Tamar. A slightly obscure site that still found itself maintaining importance for thousands of years, Tamar is located alongside the kibbutz-cum-settlement of Ir Ovot in the northern part of the Arava (20km from the Dead Sea). Arriving sleepily at Tamar after the bus ride, we disembarked and prepared ourselves for a long tour of the site. We started at the northern corner, a corner tower of the ancient Israelite fortress.

Tamar the desert fortress

Tamar the desert fortress

Just to give a quick historical summary: Tamar was first established as an fortress by the Israelites, becoming a site of regional importance due to its strategic location and control over the freshwater spring. Tamar was expanded from fortress to fortified city over the following two hundred years or so. The city was abandoned after the Babylonian conquest of the Holy Land, to be taken control of by the Nabatean hundreds of years later, using it as a fortified stop on their Incense Route. In the 200-300s CE the Romans built their own fortress and bathhouse on the site, among other buildings.

Prof Aren Maeir speaking from within the ruins

Prof Aren Maeir speaking from within the ruins

There was then a period of general disuse and eventually the site became the location for a British Mandate police station; a drinking trough built to water their horses coming in from dry desert rides. In modern times, a group came to settle the south and built a small community next to the expansive ruins, naming it Ir Ovot. An organisation named Blossoming Rose, a non-profit based out of the USA, has undertaken restoration and conservation efforts to make the site the pleasant place it is to visit today.

Yours truly exploring the ruins (photo Yehushua Lavy)

Yours truly exploring the ruins (photo Yehushua Lavy)

Leaving my group to explore on my lonesome, I walked from the northern corner to the western corner, under the waving Israeli and American flags. On the way, I entered the modern military bunker, with explanatory photographs and maps on the walls in the simple underground room. From the western corner I swung southeast along the excavated city walls. I paused briefly to photograph a small drab bird that was flitting about a tree – a streaked scrub warbler. Dropping down a level I found myself looking at a large, impressive jujube tree.

Ancient jujube tree

Ancient jujube tree

Despite the popular rumours that this particular tree is over 2,000 years old, the tree is indeed old, but a more logical 500 or so years old, or so I believe. Skirting the decked trunk, I walked out the see the Roman bath ruins, reminding me of the intricate ruins at Bet Shean and Caesaria that I’d seen the previous years.

Roman bathhouse floor

Roman bathhouse floor

From the Roman ruins I walked over to a model version of the Israelite mishkan (temporary temple before the First Temple), a tribute to the possibility that the mishkan once stood at this very site (biblically known as Ovot). From the mishkan model I found myself approaching the British Mandate concrete drinking trough with its engraved Arabic graffiti; water being fed in via a duct stemming from the large well metres from the jujube tree.

Water for the British horses

Water for the British horses

Passing the through fortress ruins I spent a few futile minutes trying to photograph sunbirds feeding on a flowering bush with the blurred backdrop of the tour company.

Waiting for sunbirds...

Waiting for sunbirds…

Walking back out to the site’s perimeter, I retraced the steps of my colleagues and entered the main gate of the Israelite fortress. From the Israelite fortress I examined the ruins of a Roman cistern and interesting building strata. Rejoined with the group at the British police station, I enjoyed their company until we ended the tour, heading back to the buses for a quick drive over to the final stop on our two-day trip: the Vidor visitor centre at Moshav Hatzeva.

Vidor visitor centre

Vidor visitor centre

Being that the Arava is an unlikely yet highly successful agricultural centre in Israel, a visitor centre was opened to educated the general public as to the techniques and tribulations of desert agriculture. We learned that these days Russia is the biggest importer of Arava-grown citrus fruits, which are interestingly sweeter due to the slightly salty water pumped from desert wells (a form of compensation of sorts). At the culmination of the slide-show lecture we were taken outside to the greenhouses to be taught more, with demonstrations of flower genders and talks of pollination.

Learning about blossoms at dusk

Learning about blossoms at dusk

Unfortunately, the sun was slowly sinking over the horizon and it was hard to get many decent photos of the greenhouse fun that we had. With the classic desert night chill setting in, the Archaeology department’s volunteer hero swooped in with hot drinks and soups to both warm and nourish us before our long drive back to the Tel Aviv area, the end of yet another successful educational trip provided for us by Bar Ilan University.

University Trip: Arava II

In Israel, Negev on January 22, 2017 at 11:45 AM

Continuing with Day 2 of the Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University’s annual two-day trip to the Arava, we awoke in the desert just after dawn. I set my alarm clock a tad earlier than everyone else in my room to snatch some early morning birding. And the birding inside Kibbutz Elifaz didn’t disappoint – I spotted a good twelve species, including some highlights: red blackstart, blackstart, chiffchaff and a whole bunch of Spanish sparrows.

Spanish sparrow

Spanish sparrow

After morning prayers and breakfast (and chancing upon the kibbutz’s Druze members) we boarded the tour buses to start a long day of desert touring. Our first stop was mere minutes away, Timna Park, with its breathtaking landscape and intriguing historical remains.

Timna views

Timna views

Entering the park we parked outside the copper mines area, where I saw a bold white-crowned wheatear and a desert lark.

White-crowned wheatear

White-crowned wheatear

What caught my eye next was beautifully compelling; oxidised copper residue streaking through the erosion-sculpted yellow and pink sandstone. All over I’d find these eye-popping green traces, sometimes in the form of grainy pebbles.

Oxidised copper in the stone

Oxidised copper in the stone

Walking along the trail, I marveled at the ancient mining shafts that were pointed out to us, remains of some of the world’s oldest mines. Originally these mines were thought to belong to King Solomon, and were named as such, but recent developments shed light on evidence that the mines were, in fact, Egyptian, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.  In the vertical shafts, hand and footholds were scraped out of the grainy rock walls, enabling miners to safely descend tens of metres into the rock strata to reach the veins of copper. Baskets were lowered into the mine shafts to remove both copper ore and waste materials.

Horizonatal mineshaft

Horizonatal mineshaft

Hiking up, down and around the irregular landscape, we then arrived at what is known as the Miners Cave. A natural cave with a mine shaft excavated within the cave itself, we settled down to listen to Dr Uzi Avner.

From within the Miners Cave

From within the Miners Cave

One of the mine shafts at the cave, located just outside the entrance, was filled in for likely religious reasons – to pacify the Egyptian gods (perhaps Geb, god of the Earth). Climbing the opposite hill, we were soon to see many filled-in shafts, identifiable by their plate-like appearance on the otherwise grainy, gravel-strewn ground. There are thousands of these mine shafts, mostly filled in, in the Timna area – an impressive operation.

Timna's screw-like Spiral Hill

Timna’s screw-like Spiral Hill

Spotting a brown-necked raven perched on a ridge far away, I reluctantly abandoned the bird to follow the group towards the next site of interest: a complication of mines from various periods located around a wadi. Seizing adventure where I could, I entered and exited each of the caves and mine shafts that I deemed worthy of exploring, before we headed back to the buses.

Mushroom and Smelting Camp

Mushroom and Smelting Camp

No, our tour at Timna wasn’t over yet – in fact, it was just beginning. We were then driven to a site known as the Smelting Camp and nearby geological oddity, the Mushroom (seen in the centre of the background in the above photo). Standing on the lookout over these two sites, we heard more from Dr Avner, watched sunbirds frolic in the sparse desert flora and then got back into the buses to be taken to the next location: Solomon’s Pillars.

Solomon's Pillars by Hathor's Temple

Solomon’s Pillars by Hathor’s Temple

Now, the area of Solomon’s Pillars was jaw-droppingly awesome; the smooth, reddish-pink sandstone cliff edge of Mount Timna. Stricken by the natural beauty, I walked quickly across the sandy ground towards the cliff base, where an ancient Egyptian (and later, Midianite) temple was excavated. Called Hathor’s Temple, or the Miners’ Temple, this house of worship was built by Egyptian mining expeditions to service the goddess of miners, Hathor.

Hathor's Temple

Hathor’s Temple

Climbing up the cliff with the aid of carven stairs in the pink sandstone, my eyes were beset by a glorious desert view and then the curious ancient Egyptian wall engraving. Scratched into the rock, the engraving is from the 12th century BCE featuring Ramses III (left) making an offering to the goddess Hathor with an inscription below in hieroglyphics that reads: “The Royal Butler the Justified Ramessempre”. Because the detail is hard to see in the photo below, here is an illustration of the engraving from the Biblewalks website: see HERE.

Egyptian wall engraving

Egyptian wall engraving

This compelling rock engraving reminds me of the the life-size Roman soldier in regalia carved into the cliff wall at Nachal Kziv – something not many people know about (which can be seen HERE). Leaving the heights with its incredible view I looped back around the bottom of the cliff to rejoin the group, and then off to photograph a wee bit of free-climbing.

A bit of free-climbing

A bit of free-climbing

Across from Solomon’s Pillars is a small butte of sorts by the name of Slaves’ Hill, where archaeological work was done. On the short hike over, some of our party quenched their thirst on the sweet juice of pomelos gifted to us by the kibbutz; one of their agricultural exports. We climbed the hill to take in the views, and to watch ravens patrolling the adjacent cliff edge. Remains of what seems to be a gate and walls were uncovered, as well as organic materials – including an ancient grape seed that was found by Uri, a prominent member of our party.

Ancient grape seed

Ancient grape seed

As interesting as a preserved grape seed is, there was something even more interesting – a littering of slag (copper ore waste, in this case) covering the ground from the smelting actions done thousands of years ago.

Slaves' Hill lecture

Slaves’ Hill lecture

Descending from Slaves’ Hill, we made the trek back to the buses. But first, a posed photo of me:

Posing at Solomon's Pillars

Posing at Solomon’s Pillars

We were to leave Timna, sadly, without having seen all the magnificent sights as we had to head to the next site on the list: Tamar.

University Trip: Arava I

In Israel, Negev on January 15, 2017 at 11:45 AM

Not too long ago Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department hosted its annual two-day trip to a specific region for some intense tours mixed with informative lectures both on-site and off. Last year we took a grand tour of the Kinneret area (posts I, II and III), and this year we headed south, not unlike a migratory bird. Starting early Wednesday morning, our two buses drove southbound passing Yerucham Fortress (a Roman Era stronghold) and the Lost City before reaching the rest stop under the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. As incredible place as Avdat is, we were quickly back on the road heading for the Arava, a particularly dry stretch of the Negev. Entering Mitzpe Ramon, we dropped down into the breathtaking Ramon Crater and persisted southward for another hour of so until we reached our first destination – a lookout at the desert settlement of Shacharut.

Lookout at Shacharut

Lookout at Shacharut

Disembarking, we marveled at the view of the eastern Negev and the red mountains of neighbouring Jordan. We were then introduced to our primary guide for the trip, Dr Uzi Avner, a veteran archaeologist who began his acquaintance with the desert in 1969 as a Field School guide.

Our guide Dr Uzi Avner

Dr Uzi Avner

Whilst walking around taking pictures I noticed an interesting item among the jagged sand-coloured rocks – a crafted flint tool with nicked serrations. Depending on who you ask, this very well might have been a knife used thousands of years ago!

A possible flint knife

A possible flint knife

It was at this lookout that we learned of the first of many desert temples or sites of worship, Dr Avner’s expertise. Continuing on, we were then driven to our next series of destinations in a valley running parallel with Uvda Airbase along the Israel National Trail. Minutes before disembarking once again, we spotted a fox in its grey winter fur running away from the approaching buses.

Gathered at an ancient temple

Gathered at an ancient temple

What we saw next were various remains of numerous ancient, likely prehistoric, desert cultic sites and temples, some with interesting rock carvings decorating what are believed to be ritual altars. I prefer more substantial ruins from more recent periods (especially Crusader) but alas, there was just one building.

Nabatean ruins

Nabatean ruins

This structure was Nabatean, belonging to a group Arab traders who built cities and fortresses in the desert along the ancient Incense Route, including the iconic Petra in Jordan and the aforementioned Avdat. These Nabateans ended up converting to Christianity during the Byzantine era, leaving behind magnificent desert edifices.

Cultic stone carvings

Cultic stone carvings

But we didn’t only learn about ancient religious sites, Professor Ehud Weiss (BIU’s archaeobotanist) showed us an interesting plant called a rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This plant is a resurrection plant, meaning that after the rainy season it curls and dries up to hibernate, dead-like, protecting the seeds inside for years until the next rainy season. When that happens the plant that comes back to life, releasing the seeds and then begins the process anew.

Rose of Jericho

Rose of Jericho

Another interesting plant, which I somehow missed out on, was a wild watermelon found in deserts, tiny and practically inedible due to its bitterness. One thing that I didn’t miss out on, and continued to fascinate me throughout the trip, was the never-ending supply of interesting rocks and potsherds scattered all over the place. In between all these interesting sights and moments were the roaring aerial acrobatics of Air Force pilots from the airbase beside us, a fun distraction for some.

Stone leopards at Namerim Temple

Stone leopards at Namerim Temple

Next we saw the most famous of the sites, the Namerim Temple, which was excavated by Dr Avner himself in the 1980s. Believed to be in use from the Neolithic to Bronze Age, this symbolic temple contains many stone depictions of symbolic scenes mostly involving what appear to be leopards – thus the name (namer = leopard). Dr Avner told us an interesting story about how an officer in the Armoured Corps directed tank traffic over the temple remains, crushing some of the leopard designs, and was chastised vis-à-vis his unintentional actions by our Dr Avner. This incident sparked a new interest in the officer and some years later he joined the Antiquities Authority, eventually becoming Dr Avner’s boss, of all people.

Birding in the low shrubbery

Birding in the low shrubbery

Interesting stories aside, it was at the Namerim Temple that the side activity of birding kicked in, with a grand total of three participants. We edged our way into the low, dry shrubbery flushing out streaked scrub warblers, blackstarts and a very bold bluethroat. Unfortunately all of my bird photos came out rubbish, but here’s one that fellow birder Nesia allowed me to use, an amazing shot:

Blackstart (photo Nesia Alon)

Blackstart (photo Nesia Alon)

Wrapping up at Namerim Temple, we gathered ourselves up and headed back to the buses, ready to be taken to the next site on our itinerary: Kibbutz Ketura, to take a look at Methuselah. When excavations were done at Masada in the 1960s by archaeologist Yigal Yadin, a preserved seed of a date palm was found, likely from the food stores of the besieged Jews holding out against the Roman army. This 1,950-year old preserved seed was then germinated, producing a seedling which was eventually planted in the kibbutz, dubbed Methusaleh after the longest-living Biblical character.

Prof Aren Maeir speaking at Methusaleh

Prof Aren Maeir speaking at Methusaleh

From Kibbutz Ketura we drove to our final destination of the day, Kibbutz Elifaz, where we were to spend the night. Once safely inside the kibbutz we rejoined in the dining room for dinner and then headed out for a quick star-gazing tour just outside the kibbutz, in the desert darkness. Powerful green lasers were used first for orientation and to point out celestial marvels and then, when the tour ended, faux lightsaber battles were recreated (including sound effects by the more excitable participants).

Evening in the Arava

Evening in the Arava

Back in the kibbutz we gathered once again to listen to a lecture on acacia trees, and the great effort imparted to sustain the iconic desert plant. Following the lecture was a hard game of trivia in which I went from a very brief 1st place to finish off in a shameful 14th place. Retiring to our country lodging suites, I took a short walk around the area with my friend Itamar and we spotted a barn owl flying about with some fruit bats. The barn owl gave a single “hooo!” and vanished into the night, and I was to see no more birds until the following morning after a hot shower and restful sleep.

University Trip: Northwest Negev

In Israel, Negev on December 18, 2016 at 1:44 PM

Two week ago, on Wednesday, I had an exciting day brewing my first beer – a slightly smoked stout – with my friend Ben from university. Riding on that high come Thursday morning, we then headed off on a university trip to several sites in the northwest region of the Negev led by Dr Shawn Zelig Aster. The first order of business after a quick stop at Beit Kama junction was a lookout across the road from Rahat, the large Bedouin city in the Negev.

Contrast of yellow dirt and blue skies

Contrast of yellow dirt and blue skies

The tour bus took a nice dirt road to the edge of a field, located not far from the old British Rider Police Station which I visited in the post The Negev: Roadside Attractions. From there we had a view of Tel Sera in the distance, an ancient Egyptian, Philistine and Israelite site of mostly agricultural importance, as well as its proximity to Gaza, a major coastal city. Looking about at the expanses of yellow dirt, I spotted movement off in the distance and it wasn’t long before I had a crested lark on the screen of my camera. Next, a darkling beetle made an appearance and the reassuring presence of black kites wheeling overhead – a common sight.

Group photo

Group photo

Moving on, we then pulled into a dirt road on the far side of Tel Sera for get a lay of the land and then crossed Road 25 to enter KKL/JNF’s Nachal Gerar park where we walked to the next tel on our list (a tel being an archaeological mound of layered human settlement). As I’ve become more and more interested in birding, my eyes scanned the area as I spotted various species in Nachal Gerar including stonechats, a Syrian woodpecker, a great tit, my first ever black redstart and some sort of sandgrouse in flight, to name just the highlights.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat

Getting back to the archaeological aspect of the trip we climbed up Tel Haror, a Bronze Age site which also goes by the names Tel Abu Hurairah (literally “Father of the Kitten”) and the famous Biblical Tel Gerar, a story of well-digging and Philistine peace pacts. The remains of a mud-brick temple, built some 3500-4600 years ago, have been uncovered for humanity’s viewing pleasure.

Mud-brick wall at Tel Haror

Mud-brick wall at Tel Haror

Atop the hill is the remains of a recently-destroyed mausoleum believed by the local Bedouins to be the grave of the aforementioned Abu Hurairah, a companion of Islam’s Muhammad; buried around the site are the unmarked graves of Turkish soldiers who fell in battle during WWI.

Tel Sharuhen

Tel Sharuhen

Heading back down to the bus, we were then driven to Nachal Besor, a park with a Jurassic Park feel to it in terms of flora and topography. With Tel Sharuhen (or Tel el-Farah) being our next destination, we drove through the alternating lush streambed and the sandy badlands of Nachal Besor for ten minutes or so, a rather bumpy ride. At last we arrived at the foot of Tel Sharuhen and I spotted a bird far off perched atop a bush – a great grey shrike.

Your humble servant (photo Ogen Drori)

Your humble servant (photo Ogen Drori)

We read about the ANZAC trail named after the Australian and New Zealander troops who, during WWI, traveled this route on their way to conquer Be’er Sheva and then Gaza from the hands of the Ottomans. Finished with the recent history, we climbed the tel to learn about the ancients: Canaanites, Egyptians and Israelites.

Remains of what might have been the city gate

Remains of what might have been the city gate

Partway up the hill, remains of what seems to be the city gate area constructed of mud bricks is clearly visible. At the western end of the tel is some remains of another structure of mud bricks partially buried in the dirt. A bit of scratching around at a burnt corner revealed interesting findings: broken animal bones and pieces of flint which were likely used to cut meat, remains of an ancient kitchen frozen in time.

Ancient kitchen at Tel Sharuhen

Ancient kitchen at Tel Sharuhen

It was there that we tasted from the saltbush identified by one of the members of our party. At the northern end of the tel, a great expanse of interesting land including loess badlands was to be viewed and appreciated.

Nachal Besor

Nachal Besor

Whilst walking atop the tel, the broken rim of a carved stone vessel caught my eye and when I took it to experts at BIU the following week, I was told that it might very well be from the Second Temple period (2,000 years ago) – a fun find!

Potsherd stuck in the dirt

Potsherd stuck in the dirt

As exciting as our finds were, there was a schedule to keep and so our bus took us to our final destination: Tel Gamma (or Tel Jemmeh). Located just three kilometres southwest of where I stationed as a soldier during Operation Protective Edge (see blog post HERE), it was an unusual feeling revisiting the area under such different circumstances.

Stormy skies

Stormy skies

With storm clouds darkening the skies, we hurriedly climbed the steep tel and surveyed our surroundings, including Nachal Besor to the north.

Tel Gamma the Steep

Tel Gamma the Steep

Archaeological digs uncovered remains that pointed to the Egyptians, Philistines and even the Assyrians who conquered the area some 2,700 years ago. With broken pieces of ceramic vessels and bones littering the excavated area, we couldn’t help but give the burnt wall area a quick surface scratching, revealing some rather large and impressive bones.

Wall-scratching at Tel Gamma

Wall-scratching at Tel Gamma

At last rain began to trickle down and so we headed back to the bus, our tour of the northwest Negev coming to an end. Just to recap, these were ancient cities that were mostly abandoned long, long ago – before the time of Alexander the Great, to give perspective. Also, to simplify my narrative of our trip, there are many interesting historical and archaeological anecdotes that would delight some readers, but, alas, I aim to keep all readers adequately entertained.

Raindrops on the window

Raindrops on the window

With that been said, there is little material evidence of the cities’ prior glory and might to be seen with the naked eye; it takes a bit of imagination to envision what these sites once were.

Be’eri Forest

In Israel, Negev on August 10, 2014 at 4:44 AM

During the past few weeks, due to the ground operations of Operation Protective Edge, I found myself at the Gaza border with infantry and armoured units. One day, I went to explore my surroundings and found that I was at the edge of the southern Be’eri Forest and that there were many interesting sites to be seen. The following is a summary of two hikes I made of the area, all just a few kilometres from Gaza.

Mador Ruins

Mador Ruins

The very first site I came upon was the Mador Ruins, a collection of Byzantine, Ottoman and British remnants just off Nachal Grar. I approached the main structure, and peered under the outer arched ceiling – to look into a seemingly bottomless well. A little research online and I discovered that this was an Ottoman “saqiya” well refurbished by the British – 26 metres (85 feet) deep.

26 m (85 ft) deep

26 m (85 ft) deep

Beside the well I found a mysterious sarcophagus of sorts, unmentioned in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s report of their June 2011 survey.

Mystery sarcophagus

Mystery sarcophagus

Seeing stone mounds in the distance, I kept walking on what became apparent as the Water Systems Trail. I passed a strange partially-covered concrete that looked like a buried vase, and then this, an IDF warning leaflet that was dropped over Gaza before a bombing run and had since blown over the border:

Warning leaflet

Warning leaflet

Walking north-west towards Gaza, I came upon the ruins of a British flour mill from WWII. According to the plaque, the British army set up a large camp to store supplies and ammunition for the battles against the Germans under General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”. After the war, the camp was dismantled and the buildings abandoned.

British flour mill

British flour mill

Following some examinations of the several British ruins nearby, I heard a boom coming from Gaza and noticed that a terror tunnel had just been blown up by the IDF forces within Gaza. Here’s a photo of the immediate aftermath:

Gaza tunnel being blown up

Gaza tunnel being blown up

With that, I looped back to our camp and was temporarily finished with my exploratory hikes. However, at about 4pm on Tuesday the 28th of July, I embarked on another exploratory hike, this time heading slightly southwest. Walking through the thick powdered dirt (created by tanks and APCs) I crossed the dry Nachal Grar and came upon the Re’im parking lot, but not before finding this skink.

A skink in the powdered dirt

A skink in the powdered dirt

At the official entrance to the recreational park (which includes picnic grounds, biking trails and more), there is this British well and storage pool. The British dug out and/or renovated dozens of wells in the area and this particular one had a diesel pump and a concrete-coated storage pool.

British well and storage pool

British well and storage pool

Consulting the site map, I decided to walk east with the Se’ora Ruins as my goal. I set out and came across the first oddity quite quickly. The ground in the area near Nachal Grar had collapsed and thus there are numerous cliff edges in unlikely places. My theory is that the underground water tables have dried and so the land collapsed. We know that this area was sought after for its water even back to the times of Abraham, where he watered his flocks. So, thinking of all the people and all the animals that were supplied water from these underground water tables, I think it seems reasonable that the land should collapsed down on the emptied pockets.

''Danger! Abyss''

”Danger! Abyss”

Even now the ground sinks, as can be seen here on the trail. I just wonder how much more will collapse.

The path are a'crumblin'

The path are a’crumblin’

After recrossing Nachal Grar, I came upon the edge of the forest and had to walk in the sun – being about 5:20pm. I kept walking, passing a large amount of discarded sheep wool and then a seemingly abandoned Bedouin encampment. As I worked my way towards this ruins I saw, I heard a loud whistling sound followed by a BOOM in the direction of our army camp. I had a sense of dread and kept checking the news sites to see what had happened. There was a gag order of sorts, as at first nobody reported the mortar that landed in middle of our camp – killing four soldiers and injuring more. It was a miracle that I wasn’t there at the time; I may have not been in the path of the mortar but simply being spared the sights of carnage is a blessing enough. Back on the hike, I wasn’t sure just what had transpired so when I did make it to the Se’ora Ruins I wasn’t as interested as I would’ve been ordinarily. I had a quick look, again seeing a “bottomless” well, and then headed back to my camp.

Se'ora Ruins

Se’ora Ruins

It wasn’t long before we moved out and so I haven’t had the chance to explore the northern Be’eri Forest, but one day I shall. I’d like to end this post with a photo I took of the first Iron Dome interception I saw, the very first day I spent on the frontlines.

Iron Dome interceptions

Iron Dome interceptions

Until next time, and may we have only good thing to share! (A more in-depth and personal account of the mortar attack can be found HERE)