Tag Archives: Archaeology

Climbing Tel Givon

Olive grove growing on edge of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.
Olive grove growing at the foot of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.

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.

The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)
The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)

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

Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon
Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon

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.  

Our IDF security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon
Our security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon

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

Goats and sheep on Tel Givon
The goats and sheep that seemed to follow us on our climb up

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.

Following Pilgrims’ Route to the Temple Mount

Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach to Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to Temple Mount.

The “Tours with the Investigator” follow a set pattern. The archaeologist introduces himself and gives a brief introduction. Then he takes off at a rapid pace, because if we are to hear everything he wants to tell us, he must be quick. Our destination? A white sheet metal wall with a sign that says, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Archeological Excavation. Danger. Do Not Enter.” He pulls a large ring of keys from his pocket, unlocks the padlock on the barrier, and motions for us to enter. The he locks it behind us.

Nahshon Szanton unlocked one of the barriers on Maalot Ir David, and told us to go down the stairs. We walked down and down, to three or four stories below street level, through a hole in the rock, and into a large tunnel. Lit by a string of light bulbs hanging from a wire, the tunnel stretched several hundred meters in each direction. Its lower sides were crudely plastered, the upper walls and roof held in place by a double metal arch. A chain conveyor belt hung from one row of arches—it looked like it traversed the length of the tunnel. Nahshon asked than no one take photographs since the work has not yet been completed. He does not want to see the first publication of his discoveries on Facebook.

All of us on these tours are archaeology groupies. We have all been to dozens, if not hundreds, of archaeology sites in Israel. We could tell from the large size of the neatly cut rectangular stones that we were standing on Roman pavement. The original Roman pavement. It still seems incredible to me that I can walk on streets that have been here for two thousand years. Nahshon is sure he is excavating the Pilgrim’s Route, the road pilgrims followed from the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam) to the Temple during Roman times. But when he started digging where we entered, he didn’t know where the road would lead. He needed more evidence than a few Roman style paving stones in a spot that seemed right.

There is an axiom in archeology: Not finding something is not evidence that it is not there. Negative evidence is meaningless in the context of the past. If you didn’t find anything, it may only mean you did not look in the right place.

Sometimes the “right place” is a matter of a few centimeters.

From 1894 to 1897, the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund sponsored Frederick Jones Bliss and Archibald Campbell Dickie. Their goal was to uncover some of the history of Jerusalem. In just a few years, Bliss and Dickie managed to discover parts of Roman Jerusalem’s southern wall, the drainage channel in the Tyropoeon (or Central) Valley, and parts of the road from the Pool of Shiloah to the Temple Mount. These are all significant finds. About two thirds of the way up the hill from the pool, they dug out the corner of a few steps. They concluded that these steps were the entrance to a building that fronted the road. But by excavating exactly in that spot, they did not uncover the whole structure of the steps. Another meter further, they would have found something even more interesting.

But before we walked down the road to see Bliss and Dickie’s work, Nahshon needed to explain some things he had found. From the Pool of Shiloah, two roads appear to ascend toward the Temple Mount. So far, the archaeologists are unsure if they are two separate roads, or the two sides of one very wide road. Additionally, the excavated part of the road goes only part of the way up the hill. People who want to follow the Pilgrims’ Route to the Kotel Plaza have to walk in the old Roman sewer the rest of the way. (You can see the road and sewer under it in this video featuring Nahshon. It was published on YouTube a few months after he led our tour of the site).

Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the road from the Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the Pilgrims’ Route from the Pool of Shiloach to the Temple Mount.

Since the Romans always constructed sewers under streets, it is reasonable to assume that the old road overlies the old sewer. Nahshon moved a large stone and lifted a thick piece of wood, uncovering a hole. We peered down and saw a paved tunnel beneath us—the Roman sewer. Later, as Nahshon was talking, we would hear voices floating up through  some of the holes in the pavement. He interrupted himself to comment on them, “Tourists.” 

The question of major importance that Nahshon wants to answer is who built the road, and when did he build it? Among the most important clues in dating findings are layers of destruction. In Jerusalem, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, a thick layer of black ash remained. Anything below this destruction layer must have been in place before the 9th of Av 70 CE. Archaeologists get very excited about finding a destruction layer, especially when, as in the case of this road, the ash lies right on top of what they want to date.

They also look for other things to help them date construction—pottery, coins, glass, stone vessels, bones, organic matter. The latest thing you find under something gives a clue to when it was built. The coins Nahshon and his team found dated from the fourth decade CE, somewhere around the year 30, at the time of Pilatous.

Investigators often use the rulers’ and writers’ Latin names, which are unfamiliar to those of us who do not read Latin. Apparently, we were supposed to recognize Pilatous, because he stopped and asked, “You know who is this Pilatous?”

A man standing behind me replied, “He killed their god.”

From the murmur around me, I realized that most of us were putting it together at the same time—that Pilatous, Pontius Pilate.

Satisfied with our reaction, Nahshon continued the history lesson. Although he said he is not a historian—“I work with details”—he showed his firm grasp of the history of Roman Judea.

Every Roman leader had to build. They built to honor the new Caesar, they built to further the glory of Rome. Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Syria for only ten years, but in that time he was responsible for several significant construction projects. Because water is always in short supply on the edge of the desert, Pilate decided to bring water to Jerusalem from south of the city, and built the upper aqueduct. Additionally, he built the street on which we were standing.  Most likely he built the Pilgrims’ Route to curry favor with the Jews.

We walked a short way down the street, to a set of steps standing in the middle of the tunnel. These are the three steps Bliss and Dickie had found. At their base, they look like the bottom of a monumental stairway, the kind that leads up to a Temple or important building. Bliss and Dickie had thought they led to a shop or a home. But Bliss and Dickie had uncovered  only the corner of the steps. Nahshon’s team has excavated the steps in their entirety. They do not lead to a doorway; the top is flat.

So why were they built? Steps this large and well built must have served an important purpose. The Romans sometimes constructed such platforms to support a pillar topped with a statue. But there is no inscription on the steps, nor are there any remnants of a pillar.

The archaeologists looked for a parallel structure somewhere, but didn’t find anything. Then a member of the team remembered his Gemara studies. A Braita, a statement by an early Rabbi, described an Even Toane, a stone of testimony. This was a specific covered place in Jerusalem where people could seek lost items and announce items they had found.

Could this be an Even Toane ? Nahshon smiled. He pointed out that in Jerusalem there have always been things that are found only here and nowhere else. It could be the Even Toane, or it could be something we don’t know anything about.

He admitted he wanted to say yes. “If I were a youth group leader,” he said, “I would point to those steps and say ‘Here you see the Even Toane.’ But I’m not, I’m an archaeologist.”

The Synagogue by the Hot Springs

Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius
Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius.

Steam rose from the open drain next to the sidewalk where we stood. My class from Pardes Institute was at Hamat T’veriya, listening to Leah Rosenthal review the Talmudic discussion about the use of hot water on Shabbat. Is it permissible to warm food with steaming water from such a spring on Shabbat? Is it permissible to bathe in a hot spring? Well, it depends….

Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys at Hamat T'veriya, near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)
Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)

Behind her, steam rose from chimneys built into the ground.

Hamat, or Hot Place as it was originally called, sits at the southern end of the modern city of Tiberias. It’s near the southern end of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The hot springs have drawn people to the area for millennia, and are reason Tiberias is located where it is.

If you come here by cab, you have to be sure the driver understands you want to see the archeological area and national park. Most drivers will automatically take you a little further south to the modern installations of Hamat Gader. There, you can indulge in a leisurely soak in the mineral-rich waters that bubble up, pre-heated by geological forces.

In 1985, our family had spent a couple hours at the modern hot springs on a synagogue-sponsored trip. It was late December, and we had just passed several cold damp days in Jerusalem. Between the normal Jerusalem winter chill, and the lack of heat almost everywhere, I had often felt like I could never get warm. I was unenthusiastic about putting on a bathing suit and immersing in an outdoor pool. But the building itself was very warm. My youngest child needed close adult supervision. And the steam rising off the indoor and outdoor pools enticed me.

The warm water quickly warmed even my cold feet. It was so warm and relaxing, I didn’t feel like swimming—I just wanted to drift near the inlet where the hot water entered the large pool.

My son asked me to come to the outdoor pool with him. Standing in the pool was a surprise. The water, heated underground, was hot, but the air above the pool was chilly. I quickly bent my knees to keep as much of my body underwater as possible. I understood the appeal of hot springs, and why Sir Walter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion took his family to Bath.

On our trip current to Hamat T’veriya with Pardes, however, we were interested in the hot springs only in passing. We had come to see the remains of a synagogue from the Mishnaic period.

Past the chimneys venting underground steam, a side path leads uphill a short distance to a modern shed-like building. It protects a fourth century CE synagogue, which was discovered in 1920. The archeologists who excavated the sanctuary discovered two older synagogues under it. A holy place is a Holy Place. If a particular site was hallowed by house of prayer, then it was only logical to build its replacement on the same site.

Visitors are restricted to an elevated platform that runs along two sides of the preserved structure. The remaining walls, about waist high, surround a beautiful mosaic floor. The mosaics follow the same pattern as I’ve seen in other synagogues of the Mishnaic period.

Because it was built in the north, the building faces south. A clear glass sheet stands on the south side, where an indentation in the floor indicates the Aron might have stood. “Ve’ahavta l’rayacha camocha” (You shall love your neighbor as yourself) is painted in black letters on the glass.

The architectural details of the synagogue, however, are not terribly interesting. The mosaics are the focus of attention.

Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T'veriya
Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T’veriya.

On the north side are several inscriptions that sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered a synagogue. One says, in Greek, “May he be remembered for good and for blessing, Profoturos the elder constructed this aisle of the synagogue. Blessing upon him. Amen. Shalom.” Shalom is written in Hebrew. The inscriptions, ancient equivalents of “Dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Cohen,” shows how some things just never change.

Closest to the south wall, a row of mosaics depict symbols of the Temple: shofars, trumpets, an incense shovel. The center of this mosaic shows a large menorah, which had become the prime symbol of Judaism. There are no six-pointed stars in the building, or indeed, in any of the early synagogues. Today’s symbol of Judaism, now called the Star of David or Magen David, did not come into common use until the 17th century CE.

The most striking mosaic, in the center of the floor, is a large circle, enclosed in a square. On its circumference, the circle is divided into twelve sections, each one portraying a sign of the zodiac, or as they are called in Hebrew, a mazal. The term mazal refers to the belief that one’s sign determines one’s fate in life—a belief borrowed from surrounding cultures. We’ve seen zodiac cycle mosaics in other Byzantine era synagogues. They seem to have been a common decorative motif of the period.

Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret
Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret

The signs of the zodiac are symbolic of the sun’s position in the sky at a particular time of the year. Therefore, it is natural to see some symbolic depiction of the sun in the middle of the zodiac cycle. However, this mosaic seems to go a little too far. In the chariot, which carries the sun through the sky every day, stands not the sun, but the figure of a man. Helios, the sun god, rides his chariot across the synagogue floor? That seems strange to our eyes.

Today’s belief in the power of astrology is most likely not the same as it was ancient Israel. Lester Ness postulates that ancient Jews believed that because God created the stars, He controlled their powers. TThe signs of the zodiac were thus visual symbols of God’s power. Jews could not make a picture or a statue of God for their synagogue. Instead, they made mosaics that showed the emissaries through which He worked. In this way, they showed they were both part of the cultures that surrounded them, and also separate from those cultures. Their use of imagery of the zodiac and of Helios symbolized God’s power and control of the world.

The synagogue in Hamat T’veriya is an example of how Judaism has changed over the centuries, yet how it has remained the same. It doesn’t matter how God’s power is expressed. It could be through the astrological power He gave the stars, through the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt, or through the miraculous survival of the Jews through so many centuries. But our belief in one God remains steady.

The Sages of the Mishna at Beit Shearim

The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried
The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried

When Uri Savir was growing up in the early 1950s, the area around Kiryat Tivon was largely undeveloped. On Shabbat, when his father did not have to work, the two of them would explore the surrounding hills of the Galil. They collected mushrooms in the forest. Often they walked to the monument to Alexander Zaid, who had founded the Jewish self defense organization, Hashomer, in 1926. In the late winter and early Spring Uri and his father picked the bright red kalaniot (anemones) that grew wild.

The hills are pocked with caves. Uri and his father never entered any of them. It was too dangerous —you could get cave fever from exploring a cave. But they would stand at the openings and look in, staring at the sarcophagi inside. In those days, the biggest archeological find was a menorah engraved on one cave entrance.

Everyone knew that the menorah was a uniquely Jewish design. Finding it on a burial cave meant that the sarcophagi inside held the remains of Jews. These caves are just outside ancient Beit Shearim, one of the cities where the Rabbis of the late Roman period developed the Mishna. The Mishna, or oral law, is a compilation of Rabbinic discussions and interpretations explaining Torah law. Many of the Tannaim, the sages of the Mishna, were buried in sarcophagi in Beit Shearim. All the burial caves are man-made, carefully dug out of the soft limestone, with alcoves and shelves to hold the deceased. As the vast necropolis was excavated, the graves of many of these Rabbis were identified.

The caves had been discovered in 1830, but little  archeological work was done then. Benjamin Mazar came and did some excavation from 1936 to 1940. In the 1950s, Nahman Avigad continued the earlier work.

By the time Mazar and Avigad started work in Beit Shearim, grave robbers and unscrupulous antiquities dealers had already raided the caves. Nonetheless, it was remarkable how much of historical value still remained. The necropolis has been recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. For this designation, it had to meet two criteria. The first one is that the site demonstrates an interchange of human values, including architecture, technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design. Secondly, the site must offer a unique testimony of a living cultural tradition, or a lost one..

We were touring the Galil with my class from Pardes Institute,  studying the sages of the Mishna.. This tour of places associated with the development of the Mishna was our capstone. Because we had many places to see, we entered only two caves.

One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim
One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim

The first cave we entered has been named the “Cave of the Coffins” by the Nature and Parks Authority. When first excavated, this cave held 135 coffins, twenty of which were carved with decorations. Several of these coffins sit in alcoves of the cave, lighted to show off the animals and plant ornamentation.

At the far end of this cave a menorah has been carved from the wall. Many menorot have been found in the caves, but this one is the largest, standing 1.9 meters high by 1.25 meters wide, a little over 6 feet by 4 feet. The Parks Authority has worked with the Israel Antiquities Authority to preserve it in situ.

The entrance to the Cave of the Coffins has three doorways. Another cave with three doorways sits in a courtyard, deliberately built there. Additionally, benches cut into the hill above the cave, allow visitors to the grave to pray or study All this is in keeping with the stature of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who is buried in this cave. As Nasi, the President or Prince, he was head of the Sanhedrin, the Rabbinical court. His major work was compiling the Mishna, committing the Oral Law to writing so it would not be lost as the Jews scattered throughout the world. His stature was so great, that to this day, he is simply referred to simply as “Rebbi.”

Interestingly, Rebbi’s name is not inscribed anywhere in the cave. However, the names of his two sons, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Gamliel, are painted in the chamber closest to the door. A stone inscribed with name of the man that Rebbi had appointed head of the Sanhedrin in his stead, Anina the Younger, was also found here.

In the back of the cave are two graves dug directly in the ground. No coffin was found, just the two graves, side by side, as might have been prepared for a man and his wife. The graves were originally covered with large stones. The structure of this grave is another bit of evidence that Rebbi was laid to rest here.

At the time of his death, Rebbi lived in Tzippori, a larger town about 15 km away. Nonetheless, he left instructions that he be buried in Beit Shearim. He also requested that he not be put in a stone coffin, but be dressed in a simple linen shroud and laid directly in the ground. Today, the custom in Jerusalem is to be buried as Rebbi was—dressed in hand sewn linen shrouds and laid directly in the ground.

Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor "classroom" above his grave at Beit Shearim
Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor “classroom” above his grave at Beit Shearim

We exited the cave, and climbed the old worn rock steps up the hill into which the burial cave is carved. We sat on the stone benches of the outdoor classroom for a short class. Leah Rosenthal, our teacher, presented an excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud about Rebbi. She joined us on the two day trip to continue the learning we have been doing since last Fall.

Our course has focused on the personalities of the Tannaim, as revealed by what was written in the Mishna and in the Gemara. The Gemara is the record of the discussions of the Rabbis about the Mishna. It records their decisions about the halakha, the religious law. Because the Gemara developed simultaneously in the Galil and in Babylonia, there are two versions, known as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The excerpt Leah chose to learn with us was from the Babylonian Talmud.

To start, she pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was not the first one to compile texts. Rather, he was the sage who had such stature that his compilation was accepted by everyone. He ushered in a new era. From that time, to this day, all students study the Mishna, as compiled and redacted by Rebbi.

Leah chose to highlight Rebbi’s skill as a master teacher. The excerpt starts with his quoting a line from Psalms: “But whose desire is in the law of Lord.”(1:2). Rebbi explained this as meaning that “One can learn only that part of Torah which is one’s desire.”

The Talmud goes on to illustrate Rebbi’s application of the verse from Psalms. Two students, R. Levi and R. Shimon, disagreed about what to study: Psalms or Proverbs. Rebbi decided to study Psalms. They read the first chapter. When they reached the second verse, Rebbi explained it in his usual way. R. Levi stood up and said, “Rebbi! You have given me the right to rise!” He understood that because he did not desire to study Psalms, he would not learn much from that class. Rather, he would learn more from studying Proverbs, as he had originally wanted. Rebbi, by stating that one can only learn well what his heart, had given him permission to study something else.

Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March
Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March

Sitting at the top of the hill, on the ancient stones, above Rebbi’s grave, we learned some of his work. In those few moments, Leah had brought him to life.

As long as students continue to study Mishna and Gemara, the ancient sages remain alive.

Looking out at the flowering trees and wildflowers scattered in the grass, we had no desire to go elsewhere to learn.

Where is Beit Shearim?

Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Jerusalem

Standing at entrance to Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem
Standing at entrance to Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem

One of the first things you notice when you walk in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center is the fabulous view of the Hinnom Valley and the Old City walls through the large arched windows on the eastern side  the building. It takes an effort to remember that only 50 years ago the view of the walls would have been much less pleasant. The valley was then No Man’s Land, between Israel and Jordan, full of weeds and the barbed wire. The beauty of the city walls was there, but hidden.

I’ve been to the Begin Center several times, and the lobby was always almost empty. This week it was full of people wearing name tags dangling from blue ribbons around their necks. We had come during the international conference of Israel studies, which is not an event advertised in the newspaper we read. Like many international conferences, its “official language” was English, so throughout the lobby we heard a familiar language. I wished I could see the titles of the presentations, but the schedules were reserved for conference participants only.

We had signed up for an English language tour of the Begin Museum. The museum is the section of the Heritage Center that presents the life of the former Prime Minister and his legacy The videos in each room would be in Hebrew, but we could hear them translated through our headphones.

Before we went in to the museum, our guide asked what people knew about Begin. Most of the answers offered were from the last quarter of his life: peace talks with Egypt, Anwar Sadat’s visit, Nobel Prize. I contributed that he was head of the Irgun (also called Etzel) in World War II and until the Irgun was totally integrated into the IDF in mid 1948. 

Each room focuses on a period of Begin’s life, in chronological succession. Photographs on the walls surround the video screen so that visitors can absorb a feel for each period and see some of the people he worked with. Almost every video included clips of speeches he had made. After the first room or two I turned down the volume on my headphones, so I could hear the original Hebrew. I was surprised by two discoveries. First, I could understand him! He spoke clearly and slowly enough that even if I didn’t get every word, I knew what he was talking about. The man had opinions and strong beliefs, and had no trouble expressing himself. And then I realized what an effective and powerful speaker he was. I’m old enough to remember when Likud won the 1977 election and Begin became Prime Minister. I remember Sadat’s visit, the Camp David talks and accord, and the Nobel Prize ceremony. But I don’t remember ever hearing him make an important speech before a crowd or in the Knesset. Hearing these clips was a revelation.

The other woman in our small group of six visitors was about our age (I later found out she is a few years older than me). Other than our guide, she was the only one not wearing translation headphones. In the introductory room, where they briefly mentioned the election Likud won, she seemed very moved by a video of the announcement that Menachem Begin would be the new Prime Minister. It was almost as if she was reliving the experience. Later, she verbally disagreed with the guide’s explanation of an incident in 1948, when the IDF, under orders approved by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion sank the Altalena just off the coast of Tel Aviv. The ship carried essential arms and ammunition brought by Begin’s Irgun to Israel. Thousands of people saw the attack. They breathed the smoke from the wreck for two days.

As the guide led us to the next room, I asked the woman what she had wanted to add. She said her father was a doctor, and he had taken care of some of the people from the Altalena. They had told him that the firing had been in one direction only—from the shore at the ship. Begin, on shipboard, had ordered the Irgun members not to fire back. He refused to allow Jews to kill Jews. The Palmach members of the IDF had received no such order, and continued to fire at Irgun members in the water, those trying to swim away from the sinking ship. Later in life, Begin would say that he wanted to remembered as someone who had prevented a civil war.

After the museum tour, we admired the view of the Old City from the terrace. It was too hot to stay out there for very long, so we climbed the stairs at the south end of the terrace to see the archeological excavation.

The Begin Center is built into the side of the hill that descends into the Hinnom Valley. As with many building projects in Jerusalem, when they began to dig for the foundation, they found something very old. Here they found tombs from the First Temple period. In Israel, it is possible to determine the period a burial

 First Temple period tombs behind the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem
First Temple period tombs behind the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem

cave was used by how the dead are treated. These tombs feature stone slabs with a round indentation at one end. The dead were placed on these slabs, dressed in shrouds, with their head resting in the indentation. At the end of the official mourning period, one year after the death, the family would return to the tomb and remove the bones to a repository located under the slab. When the Bible refers to someone being “gathered to his fathers” as a synonym for ”died,” it means the phrase literally.  

Near the burial caves the workers, under the supervision of archaeologist Dr. Gabi Barkay, found another, later, burial cave. This one contained the graves of Roman soldiers of the 10th Legion from the late Second Temple period. This was the Legion that laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. The cave was used for other purposes during World War I, as evidenced by supplies left there by the Turkish army.


Golan Synagogue: Majduliya

Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan
Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan

About thirty-five of us followed the archaeologist down a dirt track across the high plain of the Golan. In every direction, all we saw were dried yellow grasses and an occasional purple thorn flower. Here and there, a black basalt rock stuck up through the vegetation. In the distance, off to the northwest, the faint blue gray mountains reached up into the bright blue sky.

Mechael Osband PhD, the archeologist who had discovered this site, reached the seven wire cow fence. He opened the gate by lifting one post and peeling the wire back to let us through, asking one of the men in our group to close it after everyone had walked through. He was not about to let any cow wander through his site.

From a short distance you can't tell that this is the site of an ancient Golan synagogue
From a short distance you can’t tell that this is the site of an ancient synagogue in the Golan. Sign reads: Danger. Entrance forbidden. Archaeological excavation.

My class on the development of prayer and the synagogue carefully walked down the track. Neither Mechael (pronounced Mee-chah-el) nor Shulie Mishkin, our guide, felt the need to make sure we didn’t wander off on our own; the thorns on either side of the path were too numerous. They grabbed at our skirts and slacks. My classmates wearing sandals complained that they should have worn sneakers.

We passed through another gate in a wire fence, all but invisible a few feet away, and saw black earth, some black rocks, and lines of white sandbags. This was Majduliya, Mechael’s first archeological dig of his own, one he had discovered about a year and a half ago during his post-doctoral research. He was now preparing for the new season.

This part of the Golan was known as an area of Jewish settlement in Second Temple times. Not far from Majduliya are the remains of Gamla, a Jewish stronghold during the Great Revolt, which was captured and destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. Many other towns in the Golan are mentioned in the Talmud.

Thus, it has long been of interest to archaeologists. Gottlieb Schumacher, the German-American engineer who surveyed the route for the Damascus-Haifa railway and excavated at Megiddo, came by here in the late 19th century. In his survey of the Golan plateau, he mentioned Majduliya, saying that its original name is not known. He did find four ancient olive presses, but the area was already known to be an olive growing area. He concluded that there was “nothing of interest here.” Little did he know.

Mechael discovered the site while conducting a survey of Roman pottery in the Golan. A pool of water in the middle of the field attracted his attention. Then he found something man made, some dressed stones in a row—a portion of a wall. Inside wall or outside wall? That was yet to be determined.

When you find a wall, he told us, the first thing you want to do is find a corner. That will tell you the orientation of the building. Starting from the corner, you can then look for other corners and determine the size of the structure in question. Before he walked over to the first corner, he pointed out indentations in two stones, evidence that two doors had led into the structure.

He walked along the northern wall over to the eastern corner, pointing out benches built into all four walls. From the size of the building— about 50 by 75 feet—and the presence of the benches, he determined that this was obviously some type of public building. But he still needed to determine the ethnicity of the village in which it was found.

The presence of a mikveh is the generally accepted sign of a Jewish town. In most of the places where synagogues have been found, at least one mikveh has been found nearby. But almost no mikvaot have been found in the Golan. This site isn’t completely excavated yet, so the lack of a mikveh is not significant. However, the excavators also look for artifacts that are associated solely with Jewish habitation—stone vessels.

The Jews in earlier periods observed laws of ritual purity and impurity strictly. The advantage of vessels, such as cups and bowls, made of stone is that stone cannot contract impurity. The presence of stone vessels means that Jews lived in the area. Although stone vessels have been found at other sites in the Golan, none have been found yet at Majduliya. Finding them would show the archaeologists that this was a Jewish village, so they will continue to look for stone cups and dishes this season. Finding such vessels will confirm that building must have been a synagogue because the only large buildings found in Jewish villages of the Roman period were synagogues.

But more evidence was waiting to be discovered.

He turned the corner and walked along the southern wall of the building, the wall closest to Jerusalem, the direction of Jewish prayer. About halfway along its length, he knelt down, and leaning over, moved a few sandbags. “These things were found in the last week.”

During the month-long active archaeological season in midsummer, dozens of students and other volunteers will be busy here. They will carefully dig with small shovels and clear away soil and debris with brushes. But now, four weeks before the volunteers arrive, Mechael is the only one at the site. He’s getting ready for the busy time. Nonetheless, the lure of possible discovery is too strong. It may not be the season yet, but as he examines the site to see what has changed during the rainy winter, he is not averse to uncovering something that looks promising. Which is what he did on this southern side of the building.

As he hunched over, he pointed out that the area he was leaning over was lower than the rest of the building. A lower area on the side closest to Jerusalem is typical of synagogue architecture of the Roman period.

The sandbags he moved had been protecting two objects, which he now held up. They were red and looked like pottery. “Anyone know what these are?” he asked.

Most of us shook our heads. One brave person hazarded a guess. “Roof tiles?”

Mechael smiled. “These are tiles from the roof. Tiles came with the legions; they show that the synagogue was built in Roman times.”

From seeing excavations of earlier towns, I knew that roofs had been constructed either from stone beams or wood and mud. When the Romans ruled the land, they needed to provide year-round work for the soldiers. In the winter, the cold rainy period when fighting ceased, the legions were put to work making tiles. When digging the foundation for the Binyanei HaUma, the international convention center in Jerusalem, builders had discovered the Tenth Legion’s tile factory.

Carefully placing the roof tiles on the ground, Mechael moved two more sandbags and lifted the corner of a rubber mat. He peeled it back, and then brushed some of the dirt from the surface. Small white spots appeared through

When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.
When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.

the black dirt. He brushed some more dirt away and sat back on his heels, a pleased expression on his face.

The white spots looked to be the size of the small tiles used to make mosaics. And indeed that is what they are. Most Roman period synagogues found so far have mosaic floors, and Mechael believes he has found one here as well. Only time, and painstaking removal of the dirt covering the floor, will confirm his belief, or tell him he jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on too little evidence.

As he discussed the possibility that he has found a mosaic floor, he mentioned that finding it cleared up another mystery. Now that it is summer, the whole area is dry, but when he first saw this field in the winter, a pool of water filled this area. “Of course,” he said, as if the idea had just then occurred to him. “There’s no drainage here–there’s a floor under it!”

A small village once stood here, with a synagogue near its edge. The whole site is about seven and a half acres, and only a small part of it has been excavated–a few houses and the synagogue. Much work remains to be done, and will no doubt take several years to accomplish.

Mechael Osband is enthusiastic about the prospect of uncovering all of it.

Pharaoh in Canaan

Poster for Pharaoh in Canaan exhibition at entrance to Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Poster for Pharaoh in Canaan exhibition at entrance to Israel Museum

On  Sunday during Passover, Allen and I went to the Israel Museum to view the special exhibition ,”Pharaoh in Canaan.” The exhibition focuses on the second millennium BCE, the period during which Canaanites migrated and settled in the Nile Delta area of Egypt and the Egyptians conquered and ruled much of the land of Canaan. Archaeologists refer to the time as the middle and late bronze ages, the time in which Jacob and Moses lived.

Anthropoid sarcophagus covers from the 13th century BCE, found in Israel Photo: Yocheved Bernstein
Anthropoid sarcophagus covers from the 13th century BCE, found in Israel
Photo: Yocheved Bernstein

I had gone through the exhibit a week earlier with my nine-year old granddaughter Yocheved. Her approach to museums is somewhat different from mine. She moves quickly, sometimes stopping to look at an artifact. Letting her use my camera slowed her down a little as she stopped to take multiple photos of things she found interesting. Thus, I ended up with several photos of anthropoid sarcophagus lids, some of which are in focus.

My approach to museums is slower paced. I read the labels on the artifacts and the informative signs. I look carefully at the artifacts, comparing them. And sometimes I take a photo or two of something I find particularly interesting, if photos are allowed. Flash photos are often forbidden because the light can damage some ancient artifacts.           

Yellow limestone statue of Pharaoh Akenaton, who ruled Egypt from 1340 - 1335 BCE
Yellow limestone statue of Pharaoh Akenaton, who ruled Egypt from 1340 – 1335 BCE

One exhibit I found particularly lovely was a small statue of Pharaoh Akhenaton carved from yellow limestone. In the photos advertising the exhibit, the statue looks large and golden. Surprisingly, it is only about two feet high. The lighting makes the yellow limestone look as if it is gold. What I like about this statue is that it makes him look more human than most statues of Pharaohs. I wonder, however, what he thought of the sculptor’s showing his pot belly.

The statue was originally of two people,

Queen Nefertiti's arm around Akhenaten 's back. Statue on loan to Israel Museum from Louvre Museum, Paris
Queen Nefertiti’s arm around Akhenaten ‘s back. Statue on loan to Israel Museum from Louvre Museum, Paris

Pharaoh and his wife Nefertiti. Unfortunately, all that remains of Nefertiti is her left arm draped gracefully around Akhenaton’s back. From the back, you can see he is leaning slightly towards her, a depiction of marital intimacy not often shown in royal portraits.

Two cases were full of gold jewelry found in archeological digs in Israel. Although the rings did not appeal to me, many of the earrings were similar to ones you can see in today’s jewelres’shops. It’s strange to think that styles over four thousand years old would still be appealing, but many of the earring I would enjoy wearing myself.


Magdala update

Eyad Bisharat views the bronze incense shovel being held by Arfan Najar, at Magdala where it was discovered. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority
Eyad Bisharat views the bronze incense shovel being held by Arfan Najar, at Magdala where it was discovered. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

Allen opened the Jerusalem Post Wednesday morning and said, “Look! There’s an article here about Magdala!”

Articles about archaeological finds are not unusual. A relatively large number of archaeologists work in Israel. Given the area’s long history of building, destruction, and rebuilding, it is not surprising to read of important new discoveries. Almost every week the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announces some amazing find. What is surprising is to learn that this week’s announcement is about something unearthed at the dig you visited less than a week ago.

Last Wednesday, Arfan Najar talked to my class about his work at Magdala (Migdal). This week his photo is in the newspaper. He is one of the three supervising archaeologists who found a bronze incense shovel and a jug on the floor of a storehouse near the dock at Magdala.

The bronze incense shovel found at Magdala, after it was cleaned. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
The incense shovel, cleaned up. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

The dock? When we were there last week, he only mentioned the dock in the context of the local fishermen, who brought their catch to the marketplace.  He had waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the Kinneret, visible behind him, and said that much of the fish was salted before being sold. Residues of salt had been found in the small pits hollowed out of the stone floor of some of the shops.

The  IAA does not announce finds until they are authenticated. When Arfan talked to our group last week, he knew about the bronze shovel and the jug but he did not mention them. He knew how important they were. Only ten other incense shovels have been found. But they were easily identifiable because of descriptions in the Bible and Talmud. They are pictured in the mosaics of early synagogues.

How hard it must have been for him to refrain from saying anything. He didn’t even hint about recently uncovering something significant. Not even “watch the news for an IAA announcement about our dig.” Arfan described Magdala for us, talking about what they had found with expertise and humor. 

And all the time, he kept his secret.

Magdala on the Kineret

Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.
Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.

Father Juan Solana was impatient. He had started a project to build a center for religious tourism at Migdal (Magdala).  The Legionaries of Christ had bought the land by the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and received approvals from national and local authorities. All they needed was certification from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that nothing of historic value would be disturbed.

“When will you finish?” he asked Arfan Najar, one of the supervising archaeologists sent by the IAA in 2009.

“Two, three months,” replied Arfan. They would dig a couple trenches, find nothing significant, and leave.

Arfan chuckled as he related that story. He was standing in the middle of the archaeological excavation at Migdal where he is still working, seven years later. ”Father Juan keeps saying, ‘Please finish. Please finish.’”

Everyone in my class from Pardes on life in the Second Temple Times laughed. We were at Migdal this week to learn about the Great Revolt (66- 70 C.E.) which ended the Second Temple Period. We’ve heard a similar story in several other places. In order to construct something new in Israel, the builder must obtain a permit from the IAA. Thinking there is nothing interesting at the site, the IAA sends a relatively unknown archaeologist to conduct a salvage dig. A salvage dig, the archaeologist reassures the builder, doesn’t take too long. He digs for two months, maybe three. Then he writes his report that there’s nothing important at the site, and the permit is issued.

But once in a while the archaeologist finds something interesting, something of historical significance and the dig continues for years. Some of the most important recent archaeological finds have come out of salvage digs. These include findings from the Givati parking lot and the Kishle in Jerusalem. That’s what happened at Migdal.

Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. Note the menorah in the middle and the oil jugs to each side of it
Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. The menorah with oil jugs to each side of it can be seen on the end. The original stone is in the IAA storehouse.

Arfan and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the other supervising archaeologist, and their team started digging a trench. They dug through the earth about a foot and a half and found a large rectangular stone. As they brushed the dirt from the stone, they became more and more excited. It is about the size of a large foot stool, and has short legs. The four sides and the top are intricately carved with incised religious symbols from the Second Temple era.

Within two months the archaeologists had unearthed parts of walls of what looked to be a decent sized building. The salvage dig was extended, and then became a full-fledged archaeological dig sponsored by Anahuac University of Mexico, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the IAA.

The building they unearthed is a synagogue, dating from the first century. Because a few coins were discovered in the foundation, the archaeologists know that the building was built about 30 years BCE. In 67 CE, when the Romans conquered Magdala during the Great Revolt, they destroyed the whole city. However, this building was not buried in rubble of its upper layers. Here, at the edge of the city, no destruction layer was found. The foundations, lower walls, mosaic floor, and the mysterious stone remained intact under a layer of earth for almost two thousand years.

Magdala had been built by the Romans as an administrative and commercial center for the whole Galil and served that purpose for years. The Temple in Jerusalem still stood; it was the religious center for the country. Very few synagogues existed at the time—there was no need. In 2009, when Najar and Gorni started digging, only six synagogues had been found in the whole country dating from the Second Temple period, all in the south. The only evidence of synagogues in the north came from the Christian Bible, in the stories of Jesus’ preaching. Magdala was the first Galilean synagogue to be discovered.

Like the other synagogues of the time, it is built with stone benches on its perimeter, and faces Jerusalem. The floor is decorated with a black and white mosaic in a geometric design, which reflects the great wealth of the community. Since all the pieces of the support columns have been found, the archaeologists know the ceiling was about three meters high. The main room was large enough to hold 120 people. Two small rooms on the southern side had shelves and were most likely to have held Torah scrolls.

Herod, the great builder of Caesaria, Masada, Herodyon, and the Temple, was also a great despot. He managed to hold on to the Roman province of Judea and keep everything under control. The Judean kings who came after him were not so strong, and became puppets of Rome. The real power was held by the Roman procurators, who tried to extract ever more taxes from the country. The Jews were not going to tolerate so much Roman interference and they rebelled. The Great Revolt of the Jews started in the Galil and spread south to Jerusalem.

Magdala is built on the flat land between the Kinneret and the cliffs of Arbel, just north of Tiberius. It had no natural defenses. Joseph ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the Jewish commander of the Galilee. He ordered a wall be built around the city. The Jews of the city realized it would  fall to the Romans. They did not want the synagogue desecrated so they decided to carefully dismantle it. The stones of the upper walls and the top two-thirds of the columns that supported the roof were used to build the defensive wall. The bottom third of the walls and the furnishings, including the Stone, were then covered by a thick layer of earth. They were holy and would not be subject to destruction—the layer of earth would protect them.

And protect them it did, until two thousand years later an Arab and a Jewish archaeologist dug and swept it away.

Magdala is a town of significance to Christians because of its association with the life of Jesus. Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala) may even have been the wife of Jesus, according to a minority interpretation of scripture. This association is what brought Father Solana here. He wanted to build a hotel to house religious pilgrims and a spiritual center that would be open to all faiths. The spiritual center, called Duc in Altum, has already been built close to the Western shore of the Kinneret.

The synagogue was found where the hotel was supposed to be built. After being redesigned, construction has finally started. As Arjan told us about the excavation, he occasionally had to stop speaking for a moment or two because he could not be heard over the construction noise. The new design incorporates the synagogue and other elements of the ancient city into the hotel. One wall of the lobby will be glass, offering hotel guests a close view of the ancient synagogue. A wing of the hotel is built right up to the eastern side of the synagogue.

Up to now it has been thought that early synagogues played a different role than today’s synagogues do. The word for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Knesset, House of Gathering. People came here to meet friends, study Torah, and attend community meetings. Communication with God was through sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue only became a Beit Tefila, a House of Prayer, after the destruction of the Temple, when people had to find a new way of communicating with God.

Archaeologist Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial's vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch
Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial’s vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch

The Magdala stone may have served as a resting place for scrolls, such as a Torah scroll. It is the right height for a seated person to read. Or perhaps it was a reminder of the Temple, designed to give the building an aura of holiness. Many of the incised designs—the menorah, the table, the oil jugs, the arches—are fixtures or architectural elements of the Temple. The rosette design on the top of the stone might be a reminder of the heavenly chariot, as described by Ezekiel. One thing is sure—it was found in the oldest synagogue ever discovered (so far).

One feature that always helps identify a building as a synagogue is a nearby mikve. So it was natural for someone in my class to ask Arjan where the mikve was. He said that four mikves had been found in the town. Then he turned and pointed to his right. “But we have here the Sea of Galilee,” he said with a smile, “the biggest mikve of all!”

For many years the town of Migdal, ancient Magdala, was of interest only to Christian pilgrims. Thanks to a Catholic priest’s desire to build a spiritual center, and the work of both a Muslim and a Jewish archaeologist, one of the earliest synagogues has been discovered. As more artifacts of life in first century Galilee are uncovered, it may well become a site of interest to more Jews as well.

Location of Migdal:

Philistines and philistines

Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE, at  Museum in Ashdod
Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE. Reproductions on display at Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod


To those who have read the Bible, the Philistines were a major enemy of the tribes of Israel. Judges and Samuel describe constant warfare between the Philistines trying to conquer the land and the Jews trying to defend it.

Today, the word “philistine,” has nothing to do with a person’s ethnic origins. Describing people as philistines means they lack taste and do not care about culture or refinement. They are boors.

On a recent trip to Ashdod, we visited the Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod. There we saw examples of their pottery and other artifacts, and learned about their culture. The word “philistine” has now taken on a whole new meaning for me.

As one of the Philistines’ five cities, Ashdod is a fitting place for a museum dedicated to their culture and history. Their other cities were Gat, Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ekron. The locations of Philistine Gaza and Ashkelon are known. Archeologists are fairly sure they have identified ancient Gat and Ekron as well.

The Philistines were the sea people. They arrived on the southeastern rim of the Mediterranean from Crete or Cyprus around 1200 BCE. This was same period that the Tribes of Israel came to the area from the desert on the east. Both groups wanted to take over the land from the Canaanite kings. Conflict was inevitable.

As the Philistines expanded their holdings in the area, they fought the Egyptians, who at the time were the major Middle Eastern power. Much of what we know about them, apart from what we read in the Bible, stems from Egyptian sources. An Egyptian wall carving

A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets visitors at Ashdod museum
A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets Allen at Ashdod museum

depicts a battle in the time of Pharaoh Thutmose, who is thought to be the Pharaoh of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The carving shows the Philistines, in full battle dress. The design of the Philistine metal helmets show impressive metal working skill. So do the fragments of their weapons that have been found. A metal statue of a Philistine in full battle dress stands in the foyer of the Ashdod Museum. Like almost everyone else who visits the museum, Allen and I stood next to it for a photo.

The Philistines tended to adopt things from all the cultures they came in contact with. We can see that in their names. In their early years in Canaan, names were of Indo-European origin. In later centuries they had more Canaanite names.

The assimilationist habit also show up in their pottery. The Israel Museum has almost all the authentic Philistines antiquities. What we see in the Ashdod Philistine museum are accurate reproductions of representative finds. From these reproductions we are able to see

Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum
Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum

and appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the people. Jugs dating from the 12th to 11th century BCE are northern Mediterranean in style. Later pottery show the influence of other trading peoples. The vessels in the photo are from the 10th to 9th century BCE and show a distinct Aegean influence. The red color and shape are local style, but the black color and horizontal bands are Aegean.

Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum
Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum

An approximately six inch tall clay figurine from the 12th century BCE caught my attention. She was found in Ashdod, and named Ashdoda by those who uncovered her. Half woman and half chair, she is thought to be a 12th century BCE cultic figure. When the sculptor Henry Moore visited the museum, he remarked that if he had known of her existence, he would have made her his muse.

Ashdoda’s true role in Philistine culture is only speculation. We know very little about their religion. The Bible says they worshiped Dagon. Whether he was a grain god (from dagan, grain) or a fish god (from dag, fish) no one today knows.

The discovery of a two-horned altar and an incense altar only emphasize how little we know about their religion. Many altars of the time had horns at their corners, but why does this one have only two? Did the two horns have a specific cultic meaning, or has only half the altar been found?

If they created and used all this beauty, how did their name become a label for boorish and uncultured? The worshipers of one God looked down on those who worshiped idols. They ascribed many bad traits to the idol worshipers, including a lack of appreciation of the finer things in life. Thus Philistine evolved to philistine.

For several centuries, they were the dominant people along the Mediterranean Coast. Then the Israelite kingdoms expanded. Still later the Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms strengthened and expanded, and conquered the Philistines. They assimilated into new cultures, and disappeared from history. 

But history has a way of reviving and reinventing peoples in unexpected ways. When the Romans put down the Great Revolt in 70 C. E. they were sure they had destroyed the Jewish state for all time. Fifty-five years later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Romans had to destroy it again. Determined to destroy all traces of the people who had fought them so long, the Romans gave the area a new name. They named it Palestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemy of Judea.

After World War I, the British received a mandate to administer a large swath of the dismantled Turkish Empire. The Turks had called it South Syria; the British called it Palestine. 

Once the Philistines had been proud rulers of a large portion of today’s Israel. Today we think of them as  philistines, uncultured people lacking in taste. The re-inventions of history are not always kind.