Tag Archives: archeology

Evidence from Lachish Confirms Bible Story

Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city's 8th century BCE gate.
Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city’s 8th century BCE gate.

According to the Bible, Lachish was once the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judea. But after the land was conquered by the Babylonians, it disappeared. There was a local tradition that a certain massive hill about 40 km southwest of Jerusalem was the location of ancient Lachish. Those who believed the Bible recounted historical truth, needed no proof that Lachish had actually existed. Non-believers in the Bible’s historical truth took the stories with a grain of salt.

Looking for the Assyrian Palace

About 2600 years after the city’s disappearance, European archaeologists in Iraq began excavating an area they thought was ancient Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Sir Henry Layard wanted to uncover the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. During Sennacherib’s reign, the empire grew southward, almost to Egypt. The Bible describes how his army captured the Kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. This expulsion ultimately led to the disappearance of the ten northern tribes.

Sennacherib went on to conquer, by his count, 46 cities in Judea. Lachish was the last.

The Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital. It must have been a frightening sight, to stand on the newly built city wall and look out at the enemy. Thousands of soldiers covered the hills as far as the frightened Judeans could see.

And then, in one night, the Assyrians vanished (Kings II, 7:6-8).

Lachish Frieze in Iraq

No evidence had ever been found to corroborate the Biblical story. Then in 1845 Layard uncovered Sennacherib’s palace. Much of the remains were in good condition. One reception room had a large frieze carved on its long wall. The carving depicted the conquest of Lachish. It shows Assyrian preparations, the battle itself, and the captured Judeans going into exile. The detail of the stone carvings is fascinating. The double wall of Lachish is clear as are the gates. Five battering rams stand on the Assyrian siege ramp and two more stand near the city gate. The weapons, including well as the bows and arrows, spears, and others are clear.

Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib's Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.
Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib’s Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.

Like all proper nineteen century archeologists, Layard carefully removed the frieze from the palace wall and took it home. The original is now in the British Museum in London. A replica hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

When I visited Lachish more than fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand its significance. Having studied Kings II in high school, I knew a little about its history. But it was one of the first tels I had seen, and I had little to compare it to.

Tel Lachish Today

Today, looking at the large hill in the middle of the level farmland, I understand just how large Lachish was. I now appreciate its strategic importance. It had been part of the line of fortresses between the Israelites and the Philistines. It helped protect the Israelites, the people of the mountains, from the sea people who invaded from the west.

The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE
The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE

From the parking lot the height of the tel is impressive. There must have been layers upon layers of cities built and rebuilt in this spot to make it so tall. The sides of the tel are almost vertical, except on the southwestern side. Here is the ramp, built by the Assyrians to them to break through the walls into the city. Archeologists estimate it contains 13,000 to 19,000 tons of stones. When they excavated the ramp, they found spears and iron arrow heads dating from the 8th century BCE. These ancient weapons supported both the Bible story and the illustrations in the Lachish frieze.

The Judeans rebuilt Lachish, adding another layer to the tel. The new city lasted less than 150 years. The Assyrian empire itself had even fewer years left. It was conquered by Babylonia, the new power in the Middle East.

We did not follow in the Assyrian footsteps up the siege ramp. Instead we walked up the nearby modern path to the outer city gate.

In 1935, James Starkey, the first archeologist to excavate here, found many letters in one chamber of the gate. The letters offer eyewitness testimony of the battle against the Babylonians. After conquering Nineveh, the Babylonians gobbled up the rest of the Assyrian empire. The most famous of the Lachish lettersis from Hoshiyahu, probably a military commander stationed in the area. He wrote to Ya’ush, probably the commander of Lachish. The letter reports on the Babylonian progress. It says that Hoshiyahu’s people are “watching over the beacon of Lachish, according to the signals which my lord gave, for Azekah is not seen.” One by one, the fortresses were falling, and only Lachish remained standing..

But not for long. Lachish was destroyed again, and this time Jerusalem did not escape. The Babylonians conquered the capital city and destroyed it in 586 BCE.

City Gate

Lachish was a large city. After entering the outer gate, we walked about a hundred meters, still outside the main city wall, to the inner gate. Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pulled aside a wire fence to let us walk into a restricted area. I’m used to going into restricted areas with the archeologists from Ir David, so I didn’t find this unusual. We were not supposed to be there. I thought that if the archeologists didn’t want tourists wandering around, they would have secured the gate with a padlock. At least they would have hung a “Danger! Excavations!” sign on the fence. But perhaps they don’t feel it is necessary because Lachish is in such an out-of-the-way place.

The inner gate consists of six chambers, three on each side. It’s the only six-chambered gate found in Judea (so far). David Ussisskin excavated the three chambers on the northern side of the gate. The other side was excavated more recently. The remains of these chambers revealed evidence of daily activities at the gates of the city.

The innermost of the three chambers must have been a reception chamber for merchants. Benches line the room, where the new arrivals could sit while the tax collectors inspected and evaluated their merchandise. The archeologists found measuring scoops of varying sizes and clay jug handles with the word lmelekh (for the King). Some jug handles were stamped with the name Nahum Avi, who may have been the tax collector. Jug handles bearing his stamp have also been found at other First Temple period administrative centers.

The Altar in the City Gate

Not much of interest was found in the middle chamber. The outermost chamber, however, may be the most interesting for Bible scholars. The gate was built during the time that sacrificial worship was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were clearly Jewish altars. A traveler arriving safely after a dangerous journey, as all journeys were at that time, would naturally want to offer a sacrifice. However, sacrifices outside of the Temple were forbidden. Nonetheless, the practice prevailed throughout the land. Most of these sites were in cities on the frontier, the edge of civilization. It didn’t matter where they were; such worship was prohibited. That’s why the Bible prophets traveled the land denouncing the shrines and berating the people who frequented them.

In Kings II, King Josiah of Judea who ruled between the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, instituted religious reformation. He ordered all the priests of Baal be killed and the altars and idols in Jerusalem destroyed. Inspectors went through the land, searching for, and destroying, all unauthorized altars. The altar in Beer Sheva was dismantled and hidden in a basement; the one in Arad was buried. In Lachish, however, the people desecrated the altar. They cut off the horns at its corners.

Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.
Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.

But, removing the horns of the altars was not enough. A toilet was placed in the room with the desecrated altars, which shows no evidence of ever having been used. Simply putting a toilet in the room was sufficiently sacrilegious to invalidate any prayer that might be offered.

Throughout history some things just do not change. Although today’s bathroom fixtures may be connected to running water, they still look almost the same as the ancient Judean one. And we still do not pray in the same room as a toilet.

Hevron: Where Our Forefather Avraham Stood

Old Hevron. Ma'arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) is the large rectangular
Old Hevron. Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) is the large rectangular structure in the middle.

Every time I start to think I’m getting to know Israel something triggers the realization that I’m still a newcomer. Walking in a place I’m familiar with, I see or hear an aspect I had never been aware of. While traveling with my sister Susan recently, my awareness of my own lack of knowledge of the country has been triggered multiple times.

For example, on our tour of Ir David, the most ancient part of Jerusalem, the guide mentioned something was from the Persian Period. I knew that. I’ve been to that part of Ir David numerous times, but this guide was the first one to mention a dog cemetery. For some reason, more than two thousand years ago, Persians buried dogs in a certain position. Cemeteries in several areas have been discovered, containing the earthly remains of thousands of dogs. This peculiarity helps archeologists date other things found at the same level of excavation.

Susan and I also went to Hevron, on a tour of the city sponsored by the Hevron Fund, guided by Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum. Hevron had been on our itinerary when Susan and I started planning for her visit several months ago. However, between making reservations and the day of the tour, current events overtook us. UNESCO decided that Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hevron is a Palestinian Heritage Site. Their vote effectively rejects the city’s history prior to the Mamluk conquest in 1287. Nothing that happened earlier—thousands of years of Jewish and Christian history at the site—is significant.

The holiness of Ma’arat HaMachpela to Jews is based on the belief that it is the burial place of our forefather Avraham and his wife Sarah. Additionally, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried there. Avraham bought the cave and the land around it from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred silver shekels. (Genesis 23:7-20). In those days, that was a small fortune. Muslim tradition holds that it is not Sarah, but Hagar, who is buried there. This is an important point to them because Hagar is mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. However, Sarah’s name is the one engraved on the plaque identifying the other monument in the Avraham hall. The largest room is named for Avraham’s son Isaac, the second Jewish forefather. A third room is named for Jacob, who does not figure in Muslim history at all.

The building over Ma’arat HaMachpela clearly dates from the time of King Herod, the great builder. According to the Muslims, it’s a mosque. It has always been a mosque. UNESCO did not explain how the Romans came to construct a building to be used for a religion that would not exist for another 600 years. 

The UNESCO vote also denies Christian history at the site. During the short reign of the Crusaders, from 1099 to 1187, they added a church to the Herodian building. The Mamluks destroyed the church after vanquishing the Crusaders. The Christian history at the site doesn’t seem matter to the members of UNESCO.

In response to the UNESCO vote, someone sponsored a demonstration of the Jewish connection to Hevron. By advertising on Facebook and by word of mouth, they recruited five bus loads of people to go pray at Ma’arat HaMachpela. They did not go to Hevron to see any of the city—most of their time was spent at the ancient building itself.

Five hundred year old Torah scroll in Avraham Avinu synagogue in Hevron, Israel. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein
Five hundred year old Torah scroll in Avraham Avinu synagogue.
Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein

Our group’s visit to Hevron included much of the Jewish area of the city. We went to the graves of Jesse and Ruth, the father and great grandmother of King David. We walked through the Avraham Avinu (Our Father Abraham) neighborhood. In the almost 600 year-old Avraham Avinu synagogue, Rabbi Hochbaum showed us a 500 year old Torah scroll. The congregation reads the weekly portion from it every Shabbat. Its parchment, made from deer skin, is light brown.

And of course, we went into Ma’arat HaMachpela to see the catafalques of Avraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah. The catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca are in a part of the building that is closed to Jews for all but ten days of the year. In the plastic-roofed courtyard between the Avraham Hall and the Jacob Hall, we joined with another group to say the afternoon prayers.

But for me, the most interesting part of the day was the our first stop in the morning. Rabbi Hochbaum led us across the street and up a steep

Tour group gathers around Abraham's well in Hevron, Israel.
Tour group gathers around Avraham’s well in Hevron, Israel.

dusty hill. Everyone in the group, except the small children being carried by their parents, quickly became short of breath. When we stopped, the rabbi reminded us to drink. Not that we needed the reminder—we were hot and sweaty, and the day had barely started.

He led us into an area cleared of bushes, with olive trees and a rectangular hole. On three sides of the hole, three foot high cement walls protect it. On the fourth side the tall black iron gate can be closed to keep animals out. From the gate, stone stairs descended to water. This, Rabbi Hochbaum informed us, is Avraham’s Well.

The well still has water in it. We could see it. Rabbi Hochbaum told us that today it is used as a mikveh (ritual bath) by Jewish residents and visitors to Hevron. Every Friday and on the eve of holidays, a long line of

Steps leading into Abraham's well, in Hevron. At the bottom, we could see the water. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein
Steps leading into Avraham’s well, in Hevron. At the bottom, we could see the water. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein

men come up the hill to purify themselves in the mikveh. As refreshing as it would have been, however, none of us would be dipping in Avraham’s Well that day. We were a mixed crowd, men and women, and had much more to see in Hevron.

This is where our forefather Avraham pitched his tent, outside the wall of ancient Hevron. Avraham was sitting under these very olive trees, recovering from his brit mila (circumcision), when he looked up and saw three strangers coming to visit.

Olive trees are remarkably long-lived, but 4000 years old? The one I was sitting against was green and flourishing, like the others in the surrounding grove. Olive trees have been growing around this well for millennia. Olive pits unearthed in the area dropped from trees about 4000 years ago, as shown by carbon dating. I suspect that the trees whose shade we enjoyed are the descendants of those Avraham and Sarah sat under. It doesn’t matter. Whether or not they are the same trees, I got a thrill knowing that I was sitting in the same place my Biblical forbears had lived.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy travelling the land so much. Looking over the land my our ancestors saw and walking where they walked, makes history come alive. It seems like I’ll never run out of history to appreciate this way.

Mysteries of Susya

Byzantine era synagogue in Susya --wood roof modern addition to protect
Byzantine era synagogue in Susya –wood roof modern addition to protect what remains

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Roman conquerors forbid Jews to live in Jerusalem. Although most Jews moved to the north, small groups moved south to Karmiya, Eshtamol, and Susya. Although the last town was well populated in the first millennium, we have no idea what its name was at the time. The Crusaders named it “Susya”  about four hundred years after it had been abandoned, because it sounded like the Arabic name of the area.

In the Byzantine period, from around 300 to 800 CE, it had been a relatively large, strong Jewish city, known for its wine and olive oil.  However, after the Muslim Conquest in 638, there was an upheaval in life all across the land. Wine is forbidden to Muslims; therefore, vintners in the land could no longer make and sell wine. Given the religious and political policies of the new government, some residents may have converted to Islam. The final death blow to the town was the earthquake of 749 CE, probably the worst in Middle Eastern history. Although town was not totally destroyed, its population disappeared.

What happened to all the people? It’s a mystery. Yitzchak Ben Zvi, a historian and the second President of Israel, had an interesting idea. He noted that all the residents of Yata, the neighboring Arab town, are Muslims. However, a small community within the town, called M’chamrim by their neighbors, are unlike the other Muslims. They refrain from eating camel meat, they drink wine, light Chanukah candles, and marry only among themselves. Ben Tzvi suggested that these M’chamrim are descendants of Jews from Susya who converted to Islam under threat of death. Nonetheless they maintained some Jewish customs.

At the time Ben Tzvi developed his theory, the M’chamrim were quite open about their special customs. More recently, they have been very quiet. Since the rise of Palestinian nationalism, it may have become dangerous to publicize their similarities to Israelis.

Susya is a wonderful example of a Jewish town from the Byzantine period. There is no destruction layer since it was never conquered or destroyed in a war. The main streets and the alleyways are clearly visible, as are the houses that line them. The house foundations are obvious, as are the shared courtyards bordered by homes on each side. The doorposts have indentations in them at the correct height and size for holding a mezuza, the small scroll with the Sh’ma on it. This prayer has marked the doors of Jews since God gave the commandment to Moses.

Interestingly, almost every house has a manmade cave under it. Here on the edge of the desert, having your own cave would have been sensible. The temperature in a cave is fairly constant throughout the year. These caves would have offered respite from the oppressive desert heat during the long dry season.

Susya is located in spar hamidbar, the border area between settlements and desert. The desert has always been home to nomads, raiders, and bandits. The caves would also have been good places to hide when raiders attacked.

Entrance to Byzantine era burial cave in Susya. The rolling stone protected the entrance.
Entrance to Byzantine era burial cave in Susya. The rolling stone protected the entrance.

On the right side of the main street leading up to the town, near the town wall, there is a large square depression. A cave sits at one end. This cave was employed for the two stage burial popular during the time of the Second Temple. The dead were first laid on shelves in an outer chamber of the cave. After about a year, the bones were then gathered and placed in a stone box, an ossuary, for preservation. Ossuaries were made to accommodate the largest bones in the body. They are the length of the thigh bones and the width of the skull. The ossuaries were kept in the burial cave.

A large round stone leans against the wall of the depression next to the cave’s entrance. It would have been rolled in front of the entrance to keep wild animals from entering and disturbing the bones.

In the rest of the land, people began to be buried in individual boxes (coffins) at some point in the second century CE. But in Susya secondary burial in ossuaries was practiced well into the 5th century. Were the people of the region so cut off from the rest of the Jews that they didn’t know burial fashions had changed? Or were they more resistant to change? Another mystery.

One feature of the town stands out. There are a relatively large number of mikves, ritual baths. Thirty-five have been discovered. That is many more than exist in religious towns of similar size today. That’s also more than in other towns of similar size from the Byzantine era that have been excavated. Most of these mikves seem to have been private, for use by residents who shared a courtyard.
Entrance to the synagogue in Susya
Entrance to the synagogue in Susya

The synagogue on the top of the hill has wood roof, which is obviously new, unlike the stone walls and floor. The original floor mosaic is in the Mosaic Museum near Maale Adumin. However, a copy of the mosaic is in the synagogue, with uncolored cement filling in for missing tiles. The mosaics are  Byzantine–the tiles are bigger and the colors not as varied as in Roman mosaics. The mosaics include geometric designs and Jewish symbols such as the menorah and the lulav, the palm branch waved during the Succot holiday. One of the mosaics contains an inscription, stating that it was donated by Rabbi Isai the Cohen. The date on the mosaic tells the year since the creation of the world, the usual Jewish format. Additionally, that mosaic is dated as year two of the seven year Shmitta, or Sabbatical, cycle.

On the northern wall of the synagogue, the one closest to Jerusalem, an indentation shows the location of the Aron Kodesh where the Torah scrolls had been kept. The Aron itself, however,  has been removed and can be viewed in the Byzantine section of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The building is oriented east-west, just as the Temple in Jerusalem. The steps going up into the synagogue are in three groups—three, five, and seven steps. This arrangement echoes the number of words in the three sentences of the Cohens’ blessing of the people.

The building is large for a city of this size, and clearly had a second story. In a modern synagogue, the second floor would be reserved for women. Whether or not the women actually sat separately from the men is another unanswered question. There are, of course, three possibilities. The women could have sat separately upstairs, or men sat up there because women did not go to synagogue. The men and women might have sat together throughout the building. No evidence exists to support or disprove any of the possibilities.

A very large round stone was standing inside the building near the entrance. It is thought that in times of danger, when bandits attacked the village, the residents would run to the stone walled synagogue. They would then roll the stone across the entrance for protection. Further evidence that the building was used for shelter in times of danger is provided by the entrance to a tunnel in the corner of the courtyard. The tunnel leads out to a cave in a nearby field. When marauders were sighted, the farmers could run to the cave, whose entrance was probably hidden by bushes. From there they could gain access to the synagogue. Several of the younger men from our tour went through the tunnel and reported that in places they had to crawl to get through. From the dirt on their trousers and shirts, I’d say it was a tight fit.

The many unusual features uncovered in the excavation of Susya have led to speculation about the origins and population of the city. One theory is that it was a city of Cohanim, of priests. Its location, fairly close to Jerusalem, meant that while the Temple still stood, the priests could travel there easily. After the destruction of the Temple, they remained ready to return to Jerusalem on short notice when it would be rebuilt. That would also explain the high prevalence of mikves. They could keep themselves in a state of tahara (ritual purity) for the imminent restoration of Temple worship. The orientation of synagogue, use of the double dating system, and Jerusalem style burial also point to preservation of the Temple culture. This would have been more important to priests than to the rest of the people.

The presence of the mezuzot, mikves, and menorah decorations indicate all the residents of Susya were Jews. But as for the other questions, we have no answers. They remain open mysteries.

Where Susya is:

Parc Adoulam Not Yet Open

Shulie Mishkin next to Roman milestone at Parc Adulam
Shulie Mishkin next to Roman milestone at Parc Adulam

We were on a tour related to the Bar Kochba revolt. On Route 38, southwest of Jerusalem, Shulie Mishkin asked the bus driver to stop by the side of the road. She wanted us to see three Roman milestones. Route 38 follows the route of an important two thousand year old commercial Roman road. She stressed the milestones were not in their original locations; they had been put in this spot so tourists would be able to find them easily.

 However, we didn’t see milestones. All we saw were two small skinny saplings and three holes in the ground. The milestones had been dug up since the last rainstorm.

Milestones are very heavy, being about three to five feet high and two feet across. Why would anyone go to the trouble of digging up three of them?

Someone with sharper eyes than mine pointed to a park across the road. ”Doesn’t it look like there are stones over there?” she asked.

Shulie agreed; it would be worth checking what was across the road. . She had the bus driver take us up the road and then talked some workers into opening a gate to let the bus enter..

Which is how our group from Pardes ended up visiting the new archeological park near Beit Shemesh—a park so new, it has not opened yet.

Parc du France Adoulam stretches for several kilometers, and the new archeological park is a small part of it. The three Roman milestones were just moved here two weeks ago, the man in charge explained. Now they stand proudly on the edge of the parking lot.

The park was still in the construction stage. Unconnected pipes lay on the ground, signs leaned against the buildings, construction trucks were parked in random places. Yet much of it is completed. Many artifacts are arranged in a display area, with explanatory signs in the standard three languages. Several stacks of white plastic chairs stood in the open pavilion on the other side of the parking lot. And a dedicatory grove had been planted, with stone monoliths among the young trees.

The display area behind the milestones attracted my attention. Some stone artifacts found in the area were installed to show how they had been used two thousand years ago. A long wooden beam ran through a heavy stone wheel which sat in a round stone base. In early winter, olives would

A beit bad--ancient olive press--that has been reconstructed from the original stones at Parc Adoulam in Israel
A beit bad–ancient olive press–that has been reconstructed from the original stones at Parc Adoulam in Israel

have been poured onto the base stone to be crushed for oil. As Mort Rosenblum explains in his book Olives, most of the oil is in the seeds of the olives, not in the fruits. That is why such heavy stones are used to crush them. The mashed olives would then be spread on woven mats and taken to the beit bad, the press which would squeeze all the oil out of the mash, just as it is at small presses today. I recognized the olive press at once. The long heavy beam on its fulcrum could have been attached that way only in order to exert heavy pressure on the crushed olives. As part of the reconstruction, the park management had even stacked some mats in the press.

As I walked around to snap a picture of it, I saw a different style olive press. This second one used a large wooden screw to press the oil out of the crushed olives.

The gat--ancient wine press--which was discovered built into the ground at the KKL/JNF Parc Adoulam
The gat–ancient wine press–which was discovered built into the ground at the KKL/JNF Parc Adoulam

A grape press is different. Grapes are so tender when ripe, the juice runs out if you simply put a few clusters of them in a pile. The four foot square stone gat or wine press, just beyond the olive presses, clearly reflects the difference between grapes and olives. Its sides are a few inches high, and in two places carved channels would have allowed the grape juice to run out of the pressing area into the deep stone pits on one end.

Shulie explained the role of milestones in the Roman Empire. But first she apologized to us for not knowing where the stones were. They had been moved from next to the road to the park only two weeks ago. Indeed, one of the milestones had several small pieces of wood holding it in place on its base as the cement finished drying.

Roads held the Roman Empire together, Shulie explained. The Romans built good roads wherever they went, roads being necessary for communication as well as for travel and commerce. With good roads, they could quickly move troops wherever they needed them. A good network of roads also requires signs to make sure travelers know exactly where they are and how far they have yet to travel.

Thus, milestones.

The stones are inscribed with the distance a specific spot in to the nearest city, as measured in Roman mil. A mil was 1,000 standard paces, 0.92 of today’s miles. This part of the inscription was in Greek, the lingua franca of the time. To make sure everyone who passed by understands who was responsible for the road, the name of the Caesar was inscribed in Latin. In addition to his name, the Caesar might be described in terms of one of his major accomplishments. The inscription on the milestone we saw at Parc Adoulam described the Caesar as “conqueror of the Arabs.”

After admiring the milestones we wandered around the park to see what else was there. Several picnic tables stood in a grove of trees closer to the entrance. It would be a lovely place to bring the family for an outing, to eat lunch in a shady place and learn about the production of wine and olive oil.

Several of us walked in the other direction, toward a plaza, with what looked like a fountain in the middle. As we approached, we saw it is not a fountain but a large colorful abstract painting on a round platform, elevated about two feet. In three spots, blue paint extended from the multi-colored central design to the edge. The shape of the central design looked vaguely familiar. And then it hit me. “It’s a map of France!” I said.

But I couldn’t figure out its orientation.

 “That’s north,” said a young man in our group, orienting us. pointing at one side of the map. And pointing to an island on the other side, he added, “and that’s Corsica.”

Of course. Parc du France, map of France.

The stone monoliths in the grove ringed the map, giving it a semblance to Stonehenge. There was a small hill in the middle, which blocked sight lines across the grove. I wondered if the hill had been built there to disrupt the likeness to Stonehenge and its accompanying aura of idol worship.

The monoliths held the dedication plaques. This is a Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL, Jewish National Fund) park, and the KKL, like the Roman emperors, wants everyone to know who constructed it. The plaques were in only two languages: Hebrew and French. Although the monoliths were were all the same size, the size of the dedications varied, no doubt reflecting the size of donations.

I walked around, reading the inscriptions on the plaques. Although I did not recognize any of the names, I knew the feeling, the need to publicly recognize beloved parents and grandparents no longer among the living.

Plaque dedicated to the memory of French victims of terror
Plaque dedicated to the memory of French victims of terror

The plaque next to the path closest to the entry to the grove brought me up short. The language was stark. It was dedicated to “the Memory of THOSE WHO WERE MURDERED IN ACTS OF TERROR ON ROSH CHODESH KISLEV 5776 in PARIS.”

I stood there a moment reflecting. Other plaques had been dedicated to the memory of loved ones who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Shoah. But this plaque, memorializing people killed so recently had a sharper impact. It brought to mind the line in the Passover Hagadah, “In every generation, One rises up to destroy us.” The reminder seemed antithetical to the purpose of a lovely park, but in Israel, surrounded by countries that seek to destroy us, it is a fact we cannot forget.

Rockefeller’s Contribution to Jerusalem

Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister
Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister

The Number 1 bus to the Kotel goes past the driveway of the Rockefeller Museum. Its collection of antiquities from the land of Israel makes it one of the great archeological museums of the world. On my trips to the Kotel, I had seen the top of its tower above the trees, but I had never seen the whole building except in pictures. I’ve wanted to visit it for years, but because of the matzav, the situation, I have been too nervous to go on my own. It is in an Arab neighborhood, which makes the trip a little scary. When I finally went there this week with my class from Pardes, we were accompanied by an armed escort.

My nervousness is valid. Over the last year and a half, Arab terrorists have attacked Israelis in the area more than twenty-five times. While we were in the museum an Arab stabbed a policeman in the head with a screwdriver about a block or two away. A policeman who saw the attack shot the Arab attacker to prevent him from injuring other people.

There are some who say that the Arabs have a right to protect what they feel is land stolen from them by Israel. However, that is not the root of the problem. Arabs killing those they consider interlopers did not start in 1967. In 1938 one of the most prominent archeologists of the time, G. L. Starkey, was murdered by an Arab while on his way to the museum’s opening ceremony.

My visit to the Rockefeller was on a tour associated with my course, “Sages of the Mishna.” We were there to learn about the Roman and Byzantine periods during which the sages lived, from about 100 BCE to 220 CE. We couldn’t help but notice the magnificent architecture of the building itself, even though it is much more recent than the antiquities it holds.

The hill on which the museum stands is opposite the northeast corner of the Old City wall. Looking east you can see the whole of the Mount of Olives, from Silwan in the South to the Hebrew University in the North. This was the spot Godfrey de Bouillon chose for the camp of his army of Crusaders before attacking Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives in those days was probably covered with trees. I wonder if he appreciated the view. Or was he too busy planning the slaughter all the Muslims and Jews in the Holy City? Crusader descriptions of the aftermath of the battle revel in the amount of blood they shed.

More than eight hundred later, after a trip to the Middle East John Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, decided that Jerusalem needed an archeological museum. Archeologists had been excavating in and around the city since the mid-19th century. They had taken many of the best finds back to their home countries in Europe and the U. S. Breasted felt that since the Ottoman empire had fallen and the British had replaced the Turks as rulers of Jerusalem, it would be safe to keep antiquities closer to where they had been found.

Breasted approached John D. Rockefeller and convinced him to fund a museum in Jerusalem. Some of the two million dollars Rockefeller contributed went to buy the site from the al-Halili family, who lived on the hilltop.. The British High Commissioner appointed Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, to design the new museum. Construction took eight years. The British named it “The Palestine Archaeological Museum,” since it was in British Mandatory Palestine. It officially opened in January 1938 and almost immediately became known as the Rockefeller Museum.

Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum
Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum

Rockefeller got his money’s worth. The building is magnificent. The British had already decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced with the local limestone known as Jerusalem Stone. Harrison designed the building to be a combination of the best of Eastern and Western architecture. To carry out the theme, Harrison commissioned Eric Gill to carve bas reliefs in the stone. A bas relief above the entrance to the building depicts Asia and Africa with a palm tree, the ancient symbol of Judea, between them.

The building is wrapped around a lovely cloister that features a pool. Between the arches of the cloister, on both sides of the pool, small bas reliefs depict a symbol for each of the cultures that controlled the Holy Land in historical order. For example, a boat riding curly waves symbolizes the Phoenicians and a winged horse with a human face symbolizes the Muslims.

Bullet holes in wall from 1967 Six Day War
Bullet holes in wall from 1967 war

At the east end of the cloister, you can see bullet holes in the wall. The damage perhaps symbolizes the Israeli period. On June 6, 1967, IDF paratroopers fought their way through several Arab neighborhoods and arrived at the Rockefeller Museum. They were to spend the night there, and then, possibly, attack the Old City.

Meanwhile, an army officer notified Dr. Avraham Biran, the Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities that the Rockefeller was now in the hands of the IDF. Within a few hours, Biran, Nahman Avigad and Yosef Aviram, three of the most respected archeologists in Israel, were at the museum. They, along with brigade commander Colonel Motta Gur, had arrived in an armored vehicle. As they toured the museum for the first time in almost twenty years, the archeologists were joined by some of the exhausted soldiers. It must have been a surreal experience—listening to a lecture about antiquities, given by experts, as bullets periodically flew through the exhibit halls breaking windows and display cases.

They all noticed that the exhibits were exactly as they had been in 1948 when the Jordanians had captured half of Jerusalem. The only thing that had changed was that the Hebrew signs had disappeared. Some of them were plastered over. But in one exhibit hall, high on the wall, you can see the original Hebrew lettering with a rectangular frame. Several horizontal brown stripes line are also visible within the frame. The brown marks are the remains of scotch tape which held a paper covering the Hebrew lettering, hiding it from the sensitive eyes of visitors.

The exhibits themselves are fascinating. In each hall the exhibits are arranged chronologically according to their historical period. Pictures of the excavations or tels where the items were found hang of the walls above the end of the exhibit cases. The legends explaining the exhibits are typed on paper brown with age.

In addition to the items found by archeologists, there are some unusual

Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church
Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church

exhibits. The carved stone frieze from the lintel above the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the hall devoted to Christianity. At one time when the Church was being cleaned and renovated, the frieze was removed and brought to the museum for safekeeping. But when it was time to return it, a dispute erupted. Under the “status quo” agreement for Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, only the sect that owns an area of the church can clean or fix it. Since the Christian groups could not agree as to who owns the area above the door, the magnificent frieze remains at the Rockefeller Museum.

A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aksa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938
A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aqsa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938

The Muslim Hall displays carved wooden panels that decorated beams in the Al Aksa Mosque. The style of the carvings indicate they probably date from the eighth century C.E. In  1938, when the Waqf decided to renovate the mosque, they planned to discard the intricately carved panels. Someone from the museum heard about the project and convinced the Waqf to donate the panels. That is something that could not happen today.

The Rockefeller is now part of the Israel Museum (IMJ). Official ownership of the museum and its exhibits, however,  is still undetermined. A sign on one of the outer doors says “Government of Palestine Department of Antiquities,” although the Israel Antiquities Authority has its offices in the building. Therefore the IMJ has not removed any of the exhibits or made any improvements, such as adding central heating, to the museum. Since it was a cold rainy day when my class toured, and it felt freezing inside.

Someday, in the course of some negotiation or other, the museum will officially end up Somewhere. Whether or not it is in Israel, or in Palestine, or in some as yet unknown political entity, it will still be a beautiful building full of interesting finds. And maybe then it will be renovated. At that time, people who come won’t have to wear coats, scarves, hats and gloves to see the amazing antiquities.

Archeologist Shows Byzantine Jerusalem

Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in ancient Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under the site of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish Quarter

Much of Jerusalem and the area around it is basically one big archeological dig. In some places, like the Givati parking lot, it is a standard open excavation. In other places, like the Rova, the Jewish Quarter, much of what current excavators seek is hidden under buildings. Thus, the archeologists’ work is a matter of happenstance and serendipity.

Although it seemed like a disaster in 1948, the destruction of most of the Rova by the Jordanians was actually a gift to historians and archeologists. So many buildings had been destroyed and rubble was everywhere. Therefore, when the Israel recaptured the city in 1967, rebuilding had to start with clearing up and sorting through the remains. Nahman Avigad, a well respected and experienced archeologist was in charge of the first phase. For several years, reconstruction was done only with shovels. What they uncovered changed our pictures of Jerusalem back to the time of the book of Genesis.

Excavations in and around the Old City continue today. Our knowledge increases in fits and starts. Construction of new buildings always begins with a salvage dig, to find out what was on that site before.

Megalim, the Institute for Study of Ancient Jerusalem, is sponsoring a series of tours led by archeologists about finds in the city. Each “Tour with the Investigator,” features the supervising archeologist of a site. He discusses his project and what they have found at the dig itself. It is conducted in Hebrew, of course.

At the end of November I went on a tour led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld. When he met us, he told us his major field of interest was the Byzantine period. We would see remains of Byzantine structures in several places in the Jewish Quarter.

Oren, as he insisted we call him, describes himself as being the recipient of a nes, a miracle. Near the end of his doctoral studies at Hebrew University, he had to decide on a dissertation topic. His interest in the Byzantine period led him to examine two projects of the Emperor Justinian: the Cardo and the Nea Church.

The Cardo is the main north-south street in all Roman cities. Jerusalem’s Cardo had not yet been completely investigated. A major question remained: was its southern half Roman or Byzantine?

The Nea Church, the largest in the Middle East, was completed in 543 CE. It was largely destroyed about 70 years later when the Persians conquered Jerusalem in 614 CE. Many of the large stones that remained were taken to be used in construction in other parts of the city a few decades later.  Thus stones quarried and used by the Byzantines  can be seen incorporated into buildings from the Umayyad Muslim period.

At the time he started writing his dissertation, no one had examined the archeology of the Cardo or Nea Church incorporating contemporaneous Christian, Muslim, and Karaite texts. Nor had anyone yet fully compared their structure to other known Byzantine Churches or Roman and Byzantine Cardos. His work would change the conception of the size and layout of Jerusalem in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, and help us understand life in the city in the late Byzantine and early Muslim periods.

With that introduction, he led us into the basement of the Hurva Synagogue. I’ve been there before. I’ve seen the Second Temple period mikveh and the small Roman street that covers part of it. After pointing out these features, and explaining their significance, Oren led us into an area behind us. We stood there, fifty people crowded onto a small wooden platform, and looked down at the continuation of that Roman street. When I was in the Hurva basement less than a year ago, the street extended a few feet to a wall. The guide spoke for less than two minutes. Nothing to see here; we moved on.

Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue
Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue

Now that street extends much further. It still ends at the wall, but the wall has a hole in the middle through which you can see that pavement continues. The wall also has a wooden ladder leaning against it. And at the top of the ladder is another hole in the wall, through which one might crawl into the lighted area beyond it.

Oren explained to us that as part of his ongoing investigations of the Cardo, he visited all the modern shops on the eastern side of the street. Then he used the word nes again. In one jewelry store, he noticed the peak of an arch, filled in with other stone, coming up through the floor in the back. When he asked the proprietor about it, the man replied that behind the arch was an empty space. The man used it as a safe, to store things.

That was the clue Oren was looking for. With the store owner’s permission, his team broke through the wall, and found the continuation of the street we saw under the Hurva Synagogue. I don’t call that a miracle. That’s a scientist immersed in his work. He knows where to look and what questions to ask to find the missing parts of the story he wants to piece together.

After exiting the synagogue, we walked across Hurva Square to the Street of the Karaites. We stopped in front of a one story tall stone wall, pierced by several arched openings. This was once the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, which rivaled the Hurva in size and beauty. The top of its dome was even higher than that of the Hurva. The story is that the congregation ran out of moneyduring its construction and could not complete the building. In 1869, Emperor Franz Joseph stopped in Jerusalem on his way to Egypt. Noticing the synagogue, he asked Rabbi Nissan Beck why it had no roof. The Rabbi supposedly replied that it had removed its hat in honor of the Austrian Emperor. No doubt amused by the rabbi’s words, the Emperor donated money to build the dome.

The synagogue stood tall on the Old City’s hill, taller than the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque. During the War for Independence, the Jordanian Legion systematically worked its way through the Jewish Quarter. On May 21,1948, they destroyed the Tiferet Israel Synagogue. Only part of the front wall remained recognizable amid the rubble.

Looking down into completed archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt in the Rova of Jerusalem's Old City
The archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt

After standing as a reminder of the destruction for more than sixty years, the synagogue is about to be rebuilt, almost exactly the same as originally. Oren had the privilege of conducting the salvage dig to determine what was under the ruins. He pulled some keys out of his pocket and unlocked the padlock that secured the sheet metal fence around the site. We filed down the metal stairway to stand on the boardwalk on one side of a very deep pit.

From inside we looked up at the arches of the doors on street level. The arches will be incorporated into the reconstructed synagogue. People coming in will enter the new building through the original nineteenth century doorway.

The excavation, which is now completed, took several years because it had to be done painstakingly. Examining each layer required removing everything above it. Therefore, they systematically documented everything. Once a layer was fully excavated and examined, the archeologists dug out the next layer down. Gradually they moved down through the layers, finding artifacts from successively earlier times

In the synagogue basement level they found the mikve and the boilers that warmed the water. Heated mikvaot were rare in the nineteenth century, so this Ottoman period mikveh was famous.   Artifacts were found from many earlier periods as well, including the twelfth century Mamluk.   Findings from the Byzantine period included a white mosaic floor and a wall fresco. They also found the continuation of the street from the Cardo that ran under the Hurva. Below the Byzantine layer was a thick layer of black ash. The layer of ash this deep was evidence of the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

Below the ash they found artifacts dating back to the times of Second and First Temples. Oren told us about finding a broken stone, half hidden in the black ash. As they cleaned it, he saw that it had an inscription on it–two lines written in Aramaic. As he began to decipher the ancient Hebrew script, he realized that this was an official weight belonging to a member of the family of Katros. He reminded us that a similar weight was found many years ago in the ash layer of house not too far away. It also belonged to the same family, which makes sense historically. The Katros family is mentioned in the Bible as having been responsible for weights and measures in the Temple. He still sounds moved by uncovering something with directly connected to the Temple.

Learning how archeologists are recovering our past is always fascinating. Listening to them tell about it, at the site where they discovered the evidence, and hearing the excitement in their voices, makes it immediate. Even if I don’t understand every word, I catch that sense of wonder.

And if that archeologist says holding a Temple period relic is a miracle, I’m not going to argue with him.

Solving a Second Temple Puzzle

Frankie Snyder with proposed reconstructions of floor tiles from Second Temple
Frankie Snyder with proposed reconstructions of floor tiles from Second Temple

Frankie Snyder is not an archeologist. “They won’t let me use the title,” she says of her coworkers. “I’m a mathematician–I don’t have an archeology degree.” But despite not being an archeologist, she may have figured out the design of the decorative floor tiles in the Second Temple. I spoke to Frankie at the Annual Archaeological Conference in Ir David, the City of David. This year’s conference was titled “Digging for Truth.”

Frankie was publicly showing her reconstructions of the Temple floor designs for the first time. Several of the designs had been published in newspaper articles earlier in the week. She was also scheduled as a speaker during the oral presentations later in the evening. It is no doubt unusual to feature a mathematician at an archeological conference. Despite her lack of credentials, many of the thousand plus attendees at the conference stopped to view display.

Examples of several opus sectile designs, Jerusalem
Examples of several opus sectile reconstructed designs. Small black bitumen triangle on tile at top of picture was recently found and will put in place in the reconstruction.

The Temple Mount where the Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock stand today is administered by an Islamic trust, the Waqf. From 1996 to 1999 the Waqf constructed an underground mosque on the southeast corner of the mount. They did not perform the customary careful survey to make sure all historical artifacts were found and preserved. Instead, they excavated with bulldozers and removed large shovels full of earth at one bite. About four hundred truckloads of soil,  were dumped in the Valley of Kidron. Uncounted numbers of artifacts were unceremoniously removed from the site.

Many Israelis were upset by this wholesale destruction of a historical and religious site. The government decided not to interfere in the Waqf’s jurisdiction. The Waqf completed its work.

When archeologists discover artifacts, they dig  carefully and take note of the exact surroundings. Examination of items in situ is a major factor in determining their age and historical period. Because the remains are hundreds of years old, care must also be taken to make sure removal does not damage them. Using heavy equipment to excavate destroys both the physical situation and often the integrity of the objects.

Archeologist Dr. Gabi Barkay felt it was crucial to recover and preserve artifacts removed from the Temple Mount. In 2004, he and Zachi Dvira initiated the Temple Mount Sifting Project. The purpose of the unique project is to find, analyze, and identify artifacts in the debris. They use a wet sifting technique they developed specifically for the task. Participants in the project wash the dirt-encrusted debris, sifting out anything that shows traces of human work: bits of pottery, stone with flat edges, metals, coins, jewelry, and other things. The public is invited to participate in two hour long programs. After they are introduced to the project, they sift several buckets of debris. Several times a year newspapers publish photos of smiling tourists holding some remarkable find.

Just after she made aliyah from the U.S. in 2007, Frankie decided to visit the Sifting Project for a day. She’s still there, although now as a paid employee.

During the course of her work, she came across fragments of opus sectile tiles. These are colored stones cut specifically to fit into a design. Unlike mosaics, opus sectile uses no mortar to hold the design in place. The stones are cut to fit exactly, so tight you can’t fit even a sharp blade between them. Because the stones must be cut so precisely, opus sectile is considered more elegant and prestigious than mosaics.

Opus sectile was developed in Rome and brought to the Middle East by Herod. All of his palaces contain this type of floor, frequently in the bathhouse. Some of the Roman period mansions in Jerusalem’s old city have this type of floor in a room or two. The Byzantines, Crusaders, and later Muslims also used this technique to decorate their impressive buildings.

As Frankie worked at the sifting project, she gradually became an expert on opus sectile tiles. One of the major problems she faced was sorting the tiles. Because the soil had been removed from the Temple Mount in large mechanical shovels, debris from many periods was jumbled together. So one of her first tasks was to learn to differentiate Herodian tiles from tiles used in a later period.

Samples of types of rock used in Herodian tiles of Temple floor
Samples of types of rock used in Herodian tiles of Temple floor

The sorting is based on four criteria: the type of stone used, the basic geometry of the piece, comparison with pieces from other sites whose age is known, and from historical sources. She also looked at the color of the stones and the craftsmanship with with they had been cut. As she started to develop her expertise, she was asked by other archaeologist to visit sites at which they were working. Examining tiles from sites known to have been built by Herod, such as Masada, Jericho, and Kypros, further advanced her knowledge. Additionally she worked with some Italian experts on opus sectile floors, including Lorenzo Lazzarini, who has developed methods of identifying the quarry of origin of ancient marble tiles.

The first place she reconstructed a floor design from fragments was Banyas. They had 172 pieces from a floor that originally consisted of 25,000 pieces of stone. She was already familiar with Roman tile designs that were common in Israel: the strips of triangles, the pinwheel, the four- and eight-pointed stars, the three square-within-square design, and the four square-in square pattern. She knew that each design measured one Roman foot, about 29.6 cm. (11.60.5 inches).

“It sounds like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but the box contains pieces from half a dozen different puzzles, and you don’t have all the pieces.” I said.

“Except you don’t have a picture on the box lid, and some of the pieces are broken,” Frankie added.

The Temple floor was much harder than Banyas, because the floor was much larger. Out of an estimated million pieces, they had found less than three hundred. The Herodian designs often deviated from the Roman patterns. For example, the triangles design utilized isosceles triangles, whose base was the same length as its height. The three angles were 64, 64, and 52 degrees. One corner fragment could determine the design. The eight pointed star also has unique angles in its center, so the small piece of pink limestone with that specific angle would have been part of an eight-pointed star design.

After determining the design a specific piece fit in, Frankie made a reconstruction of the design. Most of the reconstructed tiles contain only two to four stones or stone fragments. She pasted paper of matching color on stone to show how the whole tile would have looked. Three of the pink corners of one tile were photocopies of the actual pink stone in the other corner.

Frankie Snyder showing cut edge of a stone used in opus sectile floor tiles
Frankie Snyder showing cut edge of a stone used in opus sectile floor tiles

It was amazing to see how tightly some of the stones in the reconstructions fit together. The Herodian workmen did not have the precision tools we have today. She explained that the stones were cut to size using a saw, sand, and water. The actual cutting was done by the sand; the saw forced down into the line of the cut. I felt the side of the stone she held out to me. I was amazed at how smooth it felt.

When someone asked if the reconstructions had been difficult, Frankie shook her head. “It’s just simple plane geometry.”

Simple or not, it was awesome to realize the small bitumen triangle I held in my hand had once been part of the floor of the Temple. These tiles would have been in a covered area of the Temple complex, in the stoa or portico. The work that went into the these floor tiles was too valuable to leave exposed to the elements.

Others were just as affected by these reconstructions as I was. One woman bent down to the table on which the tiles sat and kissed the original stone fragment one of them contained. Another person picked up a tile, turned to face north, towards the Temple Mount, and said a blessing.

Frankie illustrated her short lecture with slides of her work. Despite speaking in English, she received more applause for her presentation than any other speaker. I suspect she would have received that applause even if she had stood there silently while simply showing the slides. Her work speaks for itself.

 

Gamla–One of Israel’s Oldest Synagogues

Approaching Gamla from the east you can see the camel-like shape of the mountain from above.
Approaching Gamla from the east you can see the camel-like shape of the mountain from above.

The Golan today is heavily agricultural, covered with farms growing apples and cherries, vineyards full of grapes for wine, and cattle. There are almost as many cattle here as people. While the human population is less than 25,000, the bovine population is more than 20,000. Driving around the plateau, we saw many small herds of cattle. The many waterfalls and pristine countryside make the Golan prime tourist area, but there is a caveat. During the years Syria controlled the land, they planted thousands of land mines. Many of the explosives are still hidden just under the surface. Every year a farmer or two loses an animal because it stepped on a land mine.

The earth is one of the most distinctive features of the area. Having been built up over millennia by volcanic eruptions, the soil and rocks are gray to black in color. Although the area is still subject to relatively frequent earthquakes, no one worries about the volcanoes. The last one ceased being active over 10,000 years ago.

Jewish settlement in the Golan is ancient, dating back to the early Biblical period. When Joshua led the tribes of Israel out of the desert into the land, the tribe of Menashe received the Golan. After King Solomon’s death, when the kingdom split, the Golan naturally became part of the northern kingdom, Israel. King Ahav defeated Ben-Hadad, the King of Damascus near today’s Kibbutz Afik. About five hundred years later, Judah Maccabee helped the local Jews fight their Syrian neighbors. His nephew, Alexander Jannai, one of the last Hasmonean kings, later added the Golan to his kingdom.

The area continued to be a battleground during the Great Revolt against the Romans. The most famous battle was the one for the city of Gamla. The name of the city is related to the word ”gamal,” which means camel. From the mountains above, the area does resemble the profile of a camel. It is an isolated hill top surrounded by deep valleys, connected to the mountain on its eastern side by a narrow land bridge. The mountains that surround the site and the challenging terrain make it a favored hiking destination for younger people. A recently built road from the picnic area to a spot near the archeological site allows people to ride part of the way in a bus. But to get to the city itself, we still had to walk about ten minutes from where the bus stopped.

The path winds around the side of a mountain. The drop into the valley on the other side is frighteningly steep. But the view across the valley is breathtaking. In the distance we could see the northern end of the Kinneret and on its far side the mountains of the Galil. We had no idea where the city itself was; we just stayed on the road.

We walked around a bend and saw the city below us, the hill on which it sits nestled among the mountains. From there it was easy to understand its strategic location. One gate across the land bridge could have easily kept enemies out of the city.

It was a sunny day, and by this point on the path we were all hot and tired. The Nature and Parks Authority must have known this would happen; they built a shady shelter at that bend. We sat drinking our water and drinking in the view.

Roman ballista replica, aimed at city of Gamla
Roman ballista replica, aimed at city of Gamla

Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pointed out landmarks within the city to help us understand what we were seeing. On the lower slope of Gamla we saw a wall that the Romans had breached and the remains of the synagogue. Higher up were remains of houses. Next to the shelter the Parks Authority had placed a replica of a Roman ballista, a weapon used in the assault of the city. When I stood behind the ballista, I could see it was aimed at the synagogue. The stones flung from where I stood would have helped break down the city wall.

Three Roman Legions, about 16,000 soldiers besieged the city for several weeks. The 9,000 Jews within its walls resisted for more than a month.

As we entered the city, Shulie pointed out an opening where the wall had been breached by the Romans. Although this was not a major break in the wall, some of the legionaries had entered the city here. But the Romans had also undermined one of the defensive towers protecting the wall and the city. When that fell, the legionaries poured in. They fought their way across the city, pushing the Jews closer and closer to the cliff on the city’s western edge. Many residents threw themselves off the cliff into the ravine far below, rather than be captured. This mass suicide has led to Gamla’s being called the “Masada of the North.”

Shulie Mishkin points out features of Gamla'ssynagogue
Shulie Mishkin points out features of Gamla’ssynagogue

The synagogue faces southwest because Jews have always turned towards Jerusalem in prayer since the day King Solomon dedicated the First Temple. Like other Second Temple period synagogues, it is rectangular, measuring about 52 by 65 feet. The steps on all interior sides would have been used for seating. A mikveh is next to the entrance. Several small rooms and cupboards surround the main room. Their function is unknown today, but many ideas have been proposed. A niche near the door on the southwest side may have held Torah scrolls. Perhaps the room off the western end housed visitors staying overnight in town.

After the destruction of Gamla by the Romans in 68 CE, its location was forgotten. No Jews lived in the Golan until the Byzantine period, about two to three hundred years later. At that time, the northern portion was a pagan center, which then became a heavily Christian area. The Jews stayed primarily in the central and western areas. Around thirty or forty Byzantine era synagogues have been found here. Many of them feature beautiful mosaics, whose style help archaeologists to date the remains.

The large earthquake of 749 CE destroyed most of the communities, as well as Beit Shean in the Jordan River valley. After that, almost no one lived there.

From 1948 to 1967 the Golan was controlled by Syria. They used the beautiful fertile land almost exclusively for military purposes. They built several military and terrorist training bases. Multiple artillery units were stationed in the area, from which they frequently fired at Israeli kibbutzim in the Galil.

After Israel conquered the Golan in the Six Day War, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) sent archeologists to survey the area and locate forgotten Jewish sites. During a lunch break one day, Yitzchaki Gal, a young kibbutznik who was working in the survey team, wandered off from the main group. As he ate his sandwich, he looked at the mountains around and below him. Something looked familiar. As he started to trace the outlines of the hill, he suddenly realized he was seeing  what Josephus had described: the camel shaped-hill on which the city of Gamla had stood. 

An archeological team was dispatched to explore the site in depth. The more places they dug on the hill, the more closely it matched Josephus’ description of the city. Even more importantly, they found evidence that adds details to his description of the Roman siege and conquest.

 Yitzchaki Gal was not the first amateur to discover important relics, nor was he the last. Every year the IAA reports several amazing discoveries made by tourists casually participating in a dig for a week or two or by students hiking through the country. The history of Israel may be very long, but it is still being, literally, uncovered today.

Location of Gamla:

Climbing the Temple Steps

The southern wall of the Temple Mount--Har Habayit.The triple Hulda Gates that led up to the Temple Mount Plaza are in the center.
The southern wall of the Temple Mount–Har Habayit. The triple Hulda Gates that led up to the Temple Mount Plaza are in the center.

The steps at the southern wall of Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, are surprisingly well preserved. The limestone is cracked in some places. In places where the limestone was broken and a step was dangerous, it has been repaired with cement. These obvious repairs allow visitors to see what is authentic and what is the work of modern restoration. We can look at the worn limestone and appreciate the damage that 2,000 years of weather and people’s feet inflict on hard stone. The distinction between the ancient and modern will no doubt blur over the coming centuries, given that today’s concrete will similarly weather in

Two thousand years have taken their toll on the limestone steps leading up to the Temple Mount
Two thousand years have taken their toll on the limestone steps

the years to come.

Meir Eisenman guided three of us on a private tour of the Southern wall excavations. We had started at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, where we could see how the Herodian stones had been placed like Lincoln logs. The long edge of one course of stone faces south, and the short edge of the next course faces that direction. Building this way makes a very strong structure. This system has helped the wall to stand through years of war and its associated destruction, as well as numerous earthquakes.

The construction is distinctive. The stones are large. Archeologists estimate most of these stones weigh between two and three tons; the largest stones are estimated to weigh 80 tons.   Each stone has a sharp incised border, about two inches wide. The Hasmonean builders before Herod also used stones with borders. Their stones do not have such sharp edges, and the borders are not quite as distinct. Obviously, the Roman quality control department had higher standards than the Hasmonean one did.

 When the area was excavated and made accessible to tourists, several piles of the huge Herodian stones were left as the archeologists found them. The stones lie where they landed on the ancient street when they were pushed off the Temple Mount by the Roman soldiers in 70 CE.

We walked around the corner to the southern wall and walked up the steps towards where they enter the mount. The steps are in groups of three: two narrow steps followed by a wide one. The reason for this pattern is unknown. Perhaps the Temple architect put in the wide steps so that the animals going up to be sacrificed had sufficient space to stand comfortably. Perhaps this pattern was to ensure that people coming up to the Temple would have to watch their steps. They would take time to think about the act of worship they were about to perform. Meir posited a third explanation: the irregular pattern is to slow the progress of people leaving the Temple Mount. No one should speed away after worship. Ideally they will remain in the contemplative mood inspired by closeness to G-d.

On the festival days of Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, the steps and the whole Temple precinct would have been crowded. At these times, when all Jews were required to come, the stairs would have been jammed with people and animals. While waiting to get in, the adults would have chatted and the children shouted to each other, against a background of sheep bleating and calves mooing. The quiet cooing of the doves would have been lost in the clamor. The people’s attention would have been focused upwards, as they wondered how soon they would arrive at their goal. How long would it be before they would hand over their animal to the Cohen, the priest, to be offered up?

I stood on the stairs, looking at the two sets of the Hulda gates. It was easy to  imagine the crowd and all the animals that needed to be ritually slaughtered and offered up by a Cohen. That would have been my father’s job, I thought. He was a Cohen as was his father before him, stretching all the way back to Aaron the first High Priest. Something of that ancient heritage remained in the family. My grandfather butchered the meat in his small grocery store in Pennsylvania, back in the days when grocers sold only fresh meat. Later, my father had been in the meat distribution business. His plant cut and froze beef, veal, and lamb, the same animals he would have cut had he lived in the Temple era.

He probably carried within him another piece of the ancient priestly heritage–a bit of DNA on his Y chromosome. The Y chromosome, which determines male gender, is the only verifiable piece of heredity that can be traced down the line of male ancestors. In the mid-1990s Professor Karl Skoreki, wanting to test the priestly lineage, gathered samples of DNA from Jews. He found a distinctive section of DNA on the Y chromosome of men who were Cohanim. This mutation has passed down within the cell nucleus for an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 years. It is not often found in Levites, the descendants of Aaron’s brother Moses and other members of the tribe of Levi. Later researchers found the Cohen gene in 45% to 56% of Cohanim, but in only 3-6% of other Jewish men. In the rest of the world’s population this gene is even more rare.

At the top of the southern steps are the arches of the Hulda Gates, three on the right, two on the left. Today the gates are blocked with stone. Once worshipers entered the Temple Mount through them, and walked up the interior tunnel to the Temple precinct itself. This was the main entrance, the one used by all the people bringing sacrifices.

Millions walked up these steps. Hundreds of them brought sacrifices every day. People brought doves or lambs for sin offerings, men came leading a goat or a sheep to fulfill a vow, women brought doves to thank G-d for surviving childbirth. There was probably a steady flow of people up and down the southern stairs. Those ascending went in the gates at the right; those descending came out the gate on the left. Those who came with special requests, such as for comfort following the death of a loved one, healing of a sick relative, or to find a lost object, however, went in the opposite direction. When seeing someone walking the wrong way, worshipers would ask what the problem was. After hearing about the problem, they would naturally reply, “May G-d answer your prayer,” thus giving an additional blessing to the troubled person.

Mount in the model of Second Temple period Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Model of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount in the model of Second Temple period Jerusalem at the Israel Museum

As I looked at the two sets of gates, I remembered what they looked like in the model of second Temple Jerusalem at the Israel Museum. The model was built in the late 1960s before archeological excavations revealed the structure of the steps and wall. Michael Avi-Yonah, the historian who designed it, relied on descriptions by Josephus and Deo Cassius. It shows both sets of gates as double doors in the stone wall. No one yet knew where most of the street ran at the time of the Temple, where the mikves and Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) were, or what the lower portions of the retaining walls around the Temple Mount looked like. Today we have much better idea of all these things. What is most impressive is how accurate the model is, how much of it has been verified by archeology.

My father, of course, would not have ascended to the Temple Mount through the Hulda Gates on the south side. When serving in the Temple, the Cohanim had their own special entrance on the western side. To get there, they walked over a bridge from the Western Hill of Jerusalem, where today’s Jewish Quarter is. The bridge was held up by Robinson’s Arch, named for the British archeologist who first realized what an outcropping from the western wall must have originally been.

Excavations in the area continue. Every year we learn more about ancient Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. What amazes me the most however, is not what has been lost or destroyed, but by what remains. The wall of the Temple precinct stands tall. In this earthquake-prone area, few structures have lasted more than several hundred years. Yet these walls and steps have survived over two millennia.

Visiting King Hussein’s Palace

King Hussein's summer palace on Tell al-Ful, Jerusalem, abandoned unfinished since 1967
King Hussein’s palace on Tell al-Ful, Jerusalem

The first time I saw King Hussein’s summer palace, I was on a tour bus heading north. We were going to spend the day exploring the Shomron, part of the Biblical Northern Kingdom of Israel. As we rounded a bend in a sparsely inhabited area just north of Jerusalem, Eve Harow told us to look up to our left, just beyond the large water tank. There on a hilltop I saw what looked to be the metal framework of a large structure under construction.

But it was not a building under construction, not any more.

In the early 1960s King Hussein of Jordan decided to build a new summer palace in the land his country had captured in 1948. Jordan officially annexed this area in 1950, and called it the West Bank. Only two countries recognized the annexation: Pakistan and Great Britain. Except for periodic trips to the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, the king had ignored the area. Sometimes when he came to Al Aksa, he stayed at his home in Beit Hanina, at that time a small neighborhood north of Jerusalem. Perhaps on one of his trips, he had seen this hilltop, Tell al-Ful. Perhaps he had even landed his helicopter here, to survey the site. He would have been struck by the beautiful breeze, and the incomparable view of the whole city of Jerusalem, the Judean mountains and desert, and the Dead Sea, beautifully blue in the distance.

In 1964, the Israeli government decided to build an official residence in Jerusalem for its President. They announced a competition for Israeli architects to submit designs. King Hussein probably felt he could not be outdone. He consulted architects all over the world to design a suitable palace in Jerusalem, to be built on Tell al-Ful.

Ground for the palace was broken in 1964. Construction proceeded at the usual slow Middle Eastern pace. There was no hurry. If the King did not spend this summer near Jerusalem, he would spend next summer here.

King Hussein once wrote that the biggest mistake he ever made was attacking Israel in 1967. Less than four days after the first Jordanian soldiers attacked the south of Jerusalem, Hussein had lost all the territory on the west bank of the Jordan River.

Work on his summer palace ceased. It still stands today as it was then, an incomplete skeleton of a building.

This week I went to see what is left of the palace on a tour with Chaim Silberstein, president of Keep Jerusalem. The organization works to dispel inaccuracies in media portrayal of the city, its history, demographics, and current events.

The road up Tell al-Ful is paved only part of the way, so the last portion of the ride was quite bumpy and dusty. But as often happens, the worse the ride is, the bigger the payoff. When the six of us on this tour got out of the car, we all agreed the view had been worth the terrible ride.

The first thing we saw was the remains of the King’s palace. The ground floor, second floor, roof, and some walls are intact. Graffiti decorates the walls. A stairway leads from the ground floor to the first floor. The first few steps have deteriorated to a steep pebbly ramp. The steps themselves, where they exist, have crumbling edges. I held the metal railing tightly as I climbed. Chaim mentioned that he had installed the railing himself so he could safely bring visitors. We all ascended very carefully.

The first floor is open in all directions to the view—there are not even low

Looking west from King Hussein's unfinished palace, over most of modern Jerusalem
Looking west from King Hussein’s unfinished palace, over most of modern Jerusalem

parapets to keep you from falling off the building. In a couple places, neat rectangular holes in floor could trap the unwary. Were these meant to be openings in which air conditioning ducts or dumbwaiters would have been installed?

Chaim took us almost to the edge of each side to point out landmarks. To the south lay the Old City. From this angle, we could not see the Golden Dome of the Rock, but he said in the evening, you can see a flash of gold as the setting sun hits it. To the southeast, a barely visible bit of blue–the Dead Sea–peeks out between the tan Judean Mountains and the blue-gray Mountains of Moab in Jordan.

The building has wings going in each direction, so we walked back to the center before walking out to the easternmost edge. Chaim had given us binoculars, and now he directed us where to look for the city of Amman, high in the Mountains of Moab. Between the haze and my elderly eyes, I only saw a fuzzy light colored area. I’m sure King Hussein, had he ever moved into his completed palace, would have had an excellent telescope installed, or perfectly focused binoculars to offer his guests a view of his capital city on the other side of the Jordan River.

Looking north from unfinished palace, over Beit Hanina and Kafr Aqub neighborhoods. In left foreground, part of the King's ten car garage
Looking north from unfinished palace, over Beit Hanina and Kafr Aqub neighborhoods. In left foreground, part of the King’s ten car garage

From our high vantage point, we could see a series of Arab towns and neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city from north to south. From Kafr Aqub, to Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and south through Isawiya and A-tur, to Jabel Mukaber and Sur Bahir, the towns run one into the next with little empty land between them.

Arabs can build without any of the permits that other Israelis need, so they do not submit building plans to the municipality for approval. Nor do they need to meet city building codes, including those requiring earthquake-resistant construction. Israel, lying on the long Syrian-African rift, is subject to many small earthquakes every year, some measuring up to 5 on the Richter scale. The country suffers a large earthquake approximately every eighty years, the most recent one having been in 1927. The next big earthquake will no doubt prove disastrous to buildings that are not up to code standards.

From 1948 to 1967, all the towns on the west bank of the Jordan River, including Jerusalem, slumbered undeveloped. Since coming under Israeli rule, the Arab population in the area has increased from 55,000 to about 300,000, a more than five-fold increase in less than fifty years. Aerial photographs attest to this growth.

These neighborhoods have grown in an unplanned fashion. In photographs, there are no green areas visible and streets have no pattern. These Arab neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city have all developed since 1967.

Even the neighborhood around the King’s summer palace has changed. When King Hussein picked the site, nothing had been built on the sides the hill, or even close to it.

But the site had not always been empty. Charles Warren was the first archeologist to explore this hill. He dug here in 1868, and identified it as ancient Gibeah, where King Saul had his headquarters, as described in the Biblical book of Samuel. C. R. Conder, in 1874, and William F. Albright, in 1922 and 1923, also excavated here and agreed with Warren. The evidence, they said, supports the view that the first fortress here was built by King Saul and later either he or King David repaired it. Professor Israel Finkelstein disagrees with that opinion.

The question of what really lies under the surface of Tell al-Ful can only be answered by further archeological excavations. Many archeologists would jump at the opportunity to dig here. Some have said that Tell al-Ful is the second most important archeological site in Israel after Ir David, the City of David. But unlike most of the land in Israel, this hill is privately owned, by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. King Abdullah has shown no desire to learn the answer.

Perhaps Saul was the first king to live on this hilltop with its lovely breezes and view of the mountains of Judea and Moab. Or perhaps Hussein and Abdullah would have been the first kings to do so. Maybe someday we will find out.

Location of Tell al-Ful and palace: