Tag Archives: archeology

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:

Josephus at Yodfat

Looking down at a line of simulated Roman attackers from near the top of Yodfat
Looking down at a line of simulated Roman attackers from near the top of Yodfat. The Roman camp was in the valley where the bus is parked.

Rome. Its name still evokes conquest, power, and empire over 1500 years after its final downfall. Yet the tiny province of Judea fought the mighty empire for more than three years. The Roman legions may have been unstoppable, but the stubborn Jews refused to give up. There were some exceptions; Yosef ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the most famous.

Yosef was a Cohen who had worked in the Temple in Jerusalem. In his youth he lived with the ascetic Essene sect in the desert for three years. Later he traveled to Rome and pursued a classical education. On his return to Judea, at the start of the Great Revolt in 66 CE, he was appointed military commander of the Galil.

We have few details about his life, beyond what he chose to share in his autobiography. And for political reasons, his autobiography may not have been dedicated to the true facts of his life. What we do know is that as commander of the Galil, Yosef went to Yodfat, called Jotapata by the Romans, to command its defense against the advancing legions.

The city of Yodfat stands on a hilltop about 25 kilometers  west of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). With cliffs on the east side and very steep drops on two other sides, it is accessible only from the north. And even from the north, the climb is steep. Most of the people in my class, including me, were out of breath from climbing part way up the hill to a stopping place. We sat on rocks overlooking the parking lot where our tour bus was parked far below. That valley was where the Romans, under the command of Vespasian, had camped during the brief siege. They didn’t have to put up a tight perimeter wall as they did in other places; geography itself prevented defenders from leaving for supplies.

The path to the top was neither as long nor as winding as the famous Snake Path to the top of Masada. The ledge where we stopped to learn about the battle

Roman battering ram (replica).The end does look like a ram's head.
Roman battering ram (replica).The end does look like a ram’s head.

looked to the north, towards what would have been the camp of the  Roman 15th Legion. About a third of the way up the slope, two rows of long spears and shields stand as if held there by invisible Roman soldiers. Next to where we sat stood a replica of a Roman battering ram. The replica weapons were placed here to give visitors a hint of what the enemy might have looked like to defenders.

After conquering the hill, the Romans had destroyed what was up there, and left. The only evidence that remained were traces of foundations, a few mikves, and some cisterns. No one ever built there again. It was not of sufficient strategic value. But this is where Yosef ben Matityahu, and a band of fighters made a stand in 67 CE during the Great Revolt against the Romans.

At the beginning of the revolt, Yodfat was one of the towns that was fortified with a surrounding wall. Undeterred by the height of the hill or the city walls at its top, the Romans built a ramp to the top. Their archers and spearmen were able to shoot over the wall. A battering ram damaged the walls themselves.

The siege went on for 47 days. It was summer and although they had sufficient food, the town ran out of water. When Yosef instituted water rationing to preserve what little they had, the people complained that knowing they had so little each day made their thirst even worse.  And then the Romans broke through the wall. Titus, Vespasian’s son and one of the commanding officers, led the legionnaires into the city, where they killed all the men and captured 1200 women and children. The Romans then razed the city, and burned what was left.

Forty of the fighters survived the initial Roman onslaught and retreated to one of the caves that dot the sides of the hill. Yosef proposed that rather than allow themselves to be killed by the Romans, or be captured and taken into slavery, they should take their own lives. They would choose, by lottery, men who would be responsible for killing others. In the end, two would be left. One would kill the other and then kill himself. Maybe Divine Providence helped Yosef that day, maybe it was sheer good luck, or maybe he had somehow rigged the lottery. Whatever it was, Yosef was one of those last two men.

Perhaps he had already known when he arrived at Yodfat that the Jewish revolt was doomed to fail. Perhaps he realized it as he looked down on the Romans from the city walls. He does not write about his thinking. It is unclear what happened to the other man, whose name is unknown, but we know Yosef ben Mattityahu, Jewish commander of the north, surrendered to the Romans.

Somehow he managed to convince them not to kill him. Being able to write better than the Roman commanders, he suggested they needed an official historian. He offered his services. The captive Jewish general was useful to the Romans. Changing his name to Flavius Josephus, he wrote the history of the Great Revolt, The War of the Jews. This book is almost the only detailed written record we have of the end of the Second Temple period .

When we read history, we always ask, how reliable is this author? Does he take an objective stance, or does he have some agenda to promote? In The War of the Jews, Josephus clearly has an agenda—his own survival. He needs to flatter the Roman generals, so they will allow him to live. By the time he writes Antiquities of the Jews many years later, he is no longer worried about his survival, and is somewhat more objective. So should we trust him as a historian? Yes, and no.

As Shulie Mishkin often says when referring to Josephus, “When he does not have a reason to lie, he tells the truth.” So when he writes about life in the Second Temple period, or about geography, he is trustworthy. Indeed, many of his observations and comments have been supported by archaeological finds. But when he is talking about war and the Romans, that’s another story.

Although Josephus wrote War of the Jews in a way that glorifies Rome and the achievements of her brave legions and its officers, the book nonetheless tells us many details that we would otherwise not know. Even if in doing so, he invented some of those historical details. For example, he reports the speech made by Elazar ben Yair on top of Masada the night before it was captured by the Romans. It was a stirring inspirational speech. Josephus most likely wrote and polished every word himself, since the only survivors at Masada were two women and five children who would not have heard Elazar’s words. I wonder how much of Elazar ben Yair’s speech came from Josephus’ own words to his men at Yodfat.

But most other non-military details in his history are accurate. Some of us climbed further from the ledge where we had paused to catch our breaths and hear the story of the site. Josephus wrote that the Romans killed 40,000 people in Yodfat, and, indeed, the flat top of the hill is large enough for a city with that size population. We could see traces of building foundations, but not much h

Near the eastern edge of the city--the dark green hills are on the other side of the Yodafat wadi
Near the eastern edge of the city–the dark green hills are on the other side of the Yodfat valley

ad been excavated. We walked towards its eastern edge. The drop to the valley far below was breathtaking. It induced thoughts of slipping on a pebble and dropping so fast and far it would take a team of dedicated mountaineers and people being lowered from a helicopter to rescue you. I backed away as quickly—and carefully– as I could. Although two people went even closer to the drop, no one dared standing on the absolute edge. No wonder the defenders of the city felt invulnerable. Unfortunately for them, the Romans had enough men and supplies to make the word “invulnerable” meaningless.

When the archaeologists finally came to Yodfat, they found one cistern had been filled with bones. They also found a stone nearby with two drawings carved on it. One was the ancient symbol of a mausoleum, the other a crab, the zodiac sign of the month of Tammuz, the month that the Romans conquered the city. After the Romans left the area, someone had come to Yodfat to take care of the dead, depositing their remains in this one place, and marking it with a memorial stone.

Tour guide Shulie Mishkin at monument to fallen defenders of Yodfat
Tour guide Shulie Mishkin at monument to fallen defenders of Yodfat

Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, known in the US as the Jewish National Fund, has erected a monument to the defenders of Yodfat at the foot of the hill. Above the story of Yodfat are the two strange symbols. The fight against the Romans may have been futile, but we remember the stubborn fighters who tried to restore Jewish rule to the land.

Yodfat’s location

The View from Ramat Rachel

Hypothetical Destruction, one of four sculptures at Ramat Rachel, Jerusalem, marking area of a building thought to have once stood there
Hypothetical Destruction, one of three sculptures at Ramat Rachel marking the corners of a building thought to have once stood there

If geography and topology give a place strategic importance in one era, they make it important in other eras as well. Once again, on a tour to see an ancient site, I saw this point demonstrated. This time my tour was part of a course on the Second Temple Period; the place was Ramat Rachel, in the southern part of Jerusalem.

A ramah is a high place, and at 818 meters above sea level, Ramat Rachel is this highest place for miles around. At one time it was halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Over several thousand years both cities grew, until today Ramat Rachel is within the southern borders of Jerusalem, less than two kilometers from the outskirts of Bethlehem. From one spot on the hilltop, you can see almost to the Dead Sea, and turning around, you can see, first, western Jerusalem, and further around, the Mount of Olives. It is obviously a strategic piece of real estate.

I’ve been there twice—both times the wind made it feel cooler than the lower surrounding areas. It may have been the cool breeze that led one of the last kings of Judah to build a palace here, but it was probably the height of the hill that brought the Roman Tenth Legion 800 years later.

Like most ancient sites, it has been excavated more than once. The first modern people to dig here were not doing so to uncover historical artifacts. They were members of the IDF digging trenches to fortify the border and protect themselves from the sight and the bullets of the Jordanian army. What they found piqued the interest of archeologists, but the site was too dangerous to excavate. During an archeological conference in 1956, a gathering on the hilltop drew the attention of Jordanian soldiers stationed nearby, who opened fire. Five people were killed, and fourteen more were wounded.

Nonetheless, archeologists were determined to explore the site, and Yohanon Aharoni dug here in the early 1960s. He uncovered remains of a huge palace, which he thought had been built by King Yehoyakim. After all, had not the Prophet Jeremiah railed against the King’s magnificent palace, which he was building? Jeremiah mentioned the fine dressed stones and “red stuff smeared on the windowsills.” One bit of evidence that this was indeed Yehoyakim’s palace came with the discovery of carefully cut stones that had remnants of red paint still clinging to them under the windows .

Gabi Barkai came to excavate here in the early 1980s. It was much safer for him and his team to dig here, since the surrounding area was now in Israeli hands. He found a lower layer of remains. In this layer, he found pottery jug handles with stamped with tax collectors’ seals from the time of King Hezekiah.So a palace may have stood on the site 100 years before Jeremiah’s complaints about Yehoyakim’s construction project.

The history Israeli archeology always includes the name of Yigal Yadin—he seems to have an opinion about every site excavated from the 1950s to the 1980s, and Ramat Rachel is no exception. After learning about an underground passage leading from the palace, Yadin concluded that this was the palace of Queen Athaliah of Judah. She seized power when her son, King Ahaziah, died, and cemented her hold on the throne by killing all the members of the royal family who might challenge her, including her sons and grandsons. It is easy to understand why she might have felt the need for an escape tunnel. However, Yadin’s theory is not generally accepted.

The question of whose palace these remains were part of remains open, but that is not the end of the story. Tons of pottery jug handles with the letters yud-heh-daldet on them had been found, and they did not fit in with what was already known. The letters spell Yehud, the Persian name for this province of their kingdom. The stamped jug handles are Persian tax stamps, from a few hundred years after the Kings of Judah reigned. Ramat Rachel’s ruins have yielded more of these Persian tax stamps than any other site. Indeed, the majority of Persian tax stamps found in the country were uncovered here. These artifacts did not fit the royal palace story.

Many water channels were found surrounding a platform, a platform too high to be natural. Between the channels were layers of imported garden soil. Obviously an elegant garden had been constructed on the site. The problem is that large elaborate gardens are not a native Israeli idea.

The discovery of these Babylonian/Persian style gardens, has led to further revision of thinking on the function of ancient Ramat Rachel. It is now surmised that Ramat Rachel may have been an ancient administrative center. Conquering nations usually wanted to increase the accessibility of their own administrators. Jerusalem was

Persian Proto Aeolian capital at kibbutz Ramat Rachel, Israel
Persian Proto Aeolian capital at kibbutz Ramat Rachel

surrounded by mountains higher than it was, and difficult to get to. Conquerors generally wanted to de-emphasize Jerusalem as a religious center, in an effort to get the native people to worship their gods and thus become assimilated into their own populations. There is no destruction layer in the ruins, so this site was probably never conquered in battle. A series of foreign governments, starting with the Assyrians, simply built their centers in a scenic spot outside what had been the Jewish capital. After the Assyrians, the Babylonians governed the land from this hill, and then the Persians did as well. Ramat Rachel is one of the few places in Israel where we can see remains of monumental Persian architecture.

When the Persians were succeeded by the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander the Great, all went well for a while. Then Antiochus Epiphanes made a mistake—he moved his center to Jerusalem and set up a statue of himself in the Temple. This latter action inspired Judah Maccabee to revolt. Judah’s victory, celebrated by the holiday of Chanukah, led to the Hasmonean period, the last Jewish kingdom. The Hasmoneans, in their anger over what Antiochus had done and wanting to wipe out all traces of foreign powers, dismantled the governmental structures at Ramat Rachel.

Later the Roman Tenth Legion would encamp here. During the Byzantine period, Christians built a monastery on the site because of its proximity to the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The hill remained insignificant until Jews, returning to the land, established Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in 1926.

A kibbutz is a communal agricultural settlement, unique to Israel. Although today this kibbutz is within the city boundaries of Jerusalem, when it was founded it was well outside the city. Those who lived and worked here were farmers. Because it has such a commanding view of the surrounding area, it was of strategic importance in the War of Independence.

The Egyptian and Jordanian armies rarely worked together, but in 1948 they both attacked Ramat Rachel. The battles fought here were intense. The Arabs captured it three times and Israel recaptured it each time. At one point, the defenders of the kibbutz saw Israeli soldiers approaching. Thinking they were about to be relieved, the defenders excitedly left their base in the dining hall, only to be fired on by their own army. The oncoming soldiers could not believe that Jews were still there, fighting to keep the land. When the armistice agreement was signed, Ramat Rachel remained in Israeli hands, almost completely surrounded by Jordan.

In 1967, at the behest of Egyptian President Nasser and encouraged by false reports of Egyptian victories, the Jordanians launched an assault on Jerusalem by attacking Ramat Rachel and the nearby UN headquarters. Under attack from Jordan, Israel fought back, regaining territory it had lost in 1948.

Since then, Ramat Rachel has thrived. It is no longer strictly agricultural. It still owns some cherry orchards but it has sold much of its land to real estate developers. Most kibbutz members today earn their living working in the Ramat Rachel Hotel or country club, or in hi-tech.

A lookout point, designed by the sculptor Ron Morin, sits on top of an old IDF fortification. From the top, you can see all of Jerusalem in front of you. Because of the distance from the Old City, it was obvious why King David wrote “Jerusalem, the mountains surround her.” Shulie Miskin, our guide, had to point out the golden Dome of the Rock, which seem nestled within the surrounding mountains like a bright bird’s egg tucked into its nest.

Ramat Rachel is a popular site for social events because of its scenic location. On my visit, a photographer was busy taking wedding pictures. He directed the participants to move just a little, to turn this way or that, until he had the perfect setup. As we left the lookout point, I looked back. The bride was standing near the edge, the blue and lavender hills in the background, her veil romantically floating behind her in the breeze. I treasure that picture in my mind. It is a reminder that even in difficult times, peace is possible.

Location of Ramat Rachel