Tel Givon may be one of the most important archeological sites in Israel, according to Professor Yoel Elitzur of Herzog College. He was guiding my class to sites connected to the prophet Jeremiah.
But first, we had to get there.
The tel sits within the original tribal lands of Benjamin, in Area A, on the Arab side of the security barrier. Although we had permission of the IDF to enter the security barrier, our visit could be canceled at any time, depending on of the situation. Nonetheless, Yoel was very excited to be leading us up the tel. The last time he had visited the site was forty years ago, when he had taken his son to see it. In 1977, relations between Arabs and Jews had been more casual and movement between Arab and Jewish towns had been easy. The intifadas and terror attacks had changed that.
We arrived before our 9A.M. appointment with the IDF at the entrance to Givon Hayishana (Old Givon). Meir Rotem, our local guide, talked about the history of the area while we waited for someone to come unlock the first gate in the security barrier.
In this area, the barrier is a twenty foot high wall, like the one seen on most newscasts from Bethlehem. The security road runs along the Israeli side of the wall. Closer to us, down a small hill, a barbed wire fence runs parallel to the road.
Almost an hour after we arrived, the Border Police pulled up. Two policemen got out of the armored car and talked to Meir and Yoel. After about fifteen minutes, the policemen walked up the hill to the barbed wire fence and unlocked the gate.
We walked to the open gate, but had to wait for the IDF to arrive before going through. Yoel spoke some more about the history of the Gibeonites. A half hour later we heard the IDF was on its way. We walked up to the road, and along the wall for about two kilometers, to where the security barrier changes from wall to an electronic fence. The security barrier is a chain-link fence fitted with electronic sensors, to detect penetration or interference with its integrity, for more than 95% of its length.
Soon a green IDF armored vehicle pulled up to the gate in the fence. Three soldiers got out and walked around as we all waited for Magav Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Border Police) to come unlock the gate, and then re-lock it behind us. After a while, they arrived in their light gray armored car. Two policemen got out. One of them unlocked the gate. The other border policeman and two IDF soldiers accompanied us as we—finally!–walked through the gate. They would accompany us for the two hours we remained in Area A.
We walked down a small hill, through some fields, across the valley and then began to ascend Tel Givon. The valley through which we walked is bordered by Nebi Samuil, which at 908 meters is one of the highest points in the Judean mountains. At the top of Tel Giv’on we would be on eye level with Nebi Samuil.
As we walked through the valley, past olive groves and fields being readied for planting, Arab cars whizzed past us on the road between Ramallah, Al Jib and Al Judeira. Part of the way, we walked along a small stream. It had rained in the previous week, so I wasn’t surprised to see the water flowing. Due to its geology many springs in Benjamin flow year round. I was surprised, however, by this stream’s sick green color and sewage smell. Israel has offered to build sewage systems in several Arab areas, but for political reasons, the Palestinian Authority has refused. I wonder if the people who live with these open sewers know that their own government is forcing them to put up with this stench.
After crossing the small stream by stepping on rocks that offered almost secure footing, we started to climb the hill. There is no smooth path, like at established archeological sites and national parks. We walked through olive groves on soft soil, and along ridges of cobblestone sized rocks. We scrambled up small cliffs, clinging to outcropping larger rocks, carefully placing our feet on the same rocks the person in front of us did. In some places, a more adventurous classmate would walk a little farther along the flatter area, and find an easier route up a ten-foot high cliff. A few times I gratefully grasped the proffered arm of a taller, more fit, classmate to ascend a particularly high gap between a stone and the more secure footing above. It was not an easy climb. We hiked for about forty-five minutes without stopping.
Our security escorts climbed with us. At least one of them was always the last person in our ragged procession. Often one of them walked ahead of us, scouting his own route. I noticed how they held their weapons. None of them let his rifle hang down his back for more than a moment or two. They weren’t wandering through a quiet national park or down the streets of Jerusalem for pleasure. They had been assigned to hike with us because their services might be needed. Or, perhaps, to ensure their services would not be needed.
A shepherd in a red sweatshirt watched us scramble up one cliff and cross the path in front him to climb the next steep area. I envied the goats’ sharp hoofs that could enabled them to climb up and down this hill easily.
About two-thirds of the way to the top, we stopped to enter a first Temple period burial cave. All the bones had been removed more than two thousand
years ago, when the cave was converted to an olive press. The Arabic graffiti on the walls showed the cave was still in use. Yoel read some of the graffiti and translated into Hebrew: “Hamas yesodi.” It could be translated into English more than one way: violence is fundamental or Hamas [the group] is primary.
Leaving the cave, we continued to climb. At the flat top, we saw several large circular excavations. The shallow one had been used to press grapes. Yoel pointed out areas where the grapes were pressed and the channels carved in the rock to collect the juice.
The larger excavation was much more impressive. It was very wide and deep. Hugging the interior wall, more than a hundred stairs led to the bottom. Yoel led a few energetic people down the stairs to see where the water had once collected. The first few steps were covered with small stones; they looked more like a steep hill of rubble than a safe slope. I remained at the top. Even though Yoel was dozens of meters below us, those of us at the top could hear his explanation of the water system. Even our security escorts hugged the fence at the top of the water system, listening.
The pit reminded me of the circular excavations with carved stairs I had seen at Megiddo and at Tel Sheva. Yoel compared this water system to them, mentioning that it dated from either the Canaanite or First Temple period. A nearby, shallower tunnel to the spring is dated similarly. Experts question which access was constructed first. Because the Palestinian Authority has not permitted complete scientific excavation of the tel, the question will remain unanswered.
The shepherd in the red sweatshirt wandered past on the ridge above us. Four Arab men gathered on the stone steps above us to watch and listen for a while. They soon left.
I did enter the more shallow water tunnel. It was totally dark, except for the flashlights of those in front and behind me. I wondered if joining this short exploration had been a mistake and hoped I wouldn’t trip. Keeping one hand on the cold damp stone walls gave me a small feeling of safety. The short trip renewed my appreciation of what our ancestors did to survive. Fetching water was often a job for girls in antiquity. That’s why so many ancient cultures tell stories about boys and girls meeting at a well.
At the other end of the tunnel, water ran out of the hill in a cement block trench, built by the British during the Mandate, 1919 to 1948. While listening to
Meir explain the British work, I looked up and saw goats, sheep, and the red-shirted shepherd standing on the bank we had just scrambled down. I wondered if he was following us, or his regular route with the goats took him on a path that just happened to cross ours.
As we turned to go back down the tel, it started to drizzle. Descending wasn’t as difficult as climbing been. No strong arms were needed to help any of us traverse a particularly steep spot. Balance was a challenge because the rocks were getting slippery.
The man behind me quoted something we’d been told in class, “this is ‘intermediate level’ difficulty.”
“Then I don’t want to see ‘difficult level’ difficulty,” I answered.
He grunted.”You have to remember. In a terrorist attack, ‘intermediate injury’ means the person loses only an arm or a leg.”
At the bottom of the tel, as I walked back across the fields, I heard shouting behind me. Arabs at the top were yelling and throwing stones at us.
“Don’t worry!” shouted Meir. “They are out of range. They won’t hit anyone.”
The line of stragglers behind me, still on the steep hill, kept up their steady pace. Our security escort, a short distance behind the stragglers turned and moved towards the rock throwers. The Arabs disappeared.
We only had to wait a few minutes at the barrier for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. But when we got back to the barbed wire fence we had to wait a while in the rain for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. Cold and wet, I climbed on the bus, grateful that the driver had turned on the heat.
It was three days before my overstressed thighs could navigate stairs and hills easily. But getting to see ancient Giv’on was worth the pain.
Tel Giv’on is on the eastern edge of Al Jib on this map.