Tag Archives: History

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:

The Sages of the Mishna at Beit Shearim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Beit Shearim?

The Jordan River at Qasr al Yahud

Baptism in the Jordan River at Qasr-al-Yahud, where Joshua led the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel
Baptism in the Jordan River at Qasr-al-Yahud, where Joshua led the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel

If you’ve ever listened to how the old Negro spirituals portray the Jordan River, you would expect it to be deep, wide, and chilly. To cross it you need to row your boat ashore. The reality is rather different.

At Qasr al Yahud, near Jericho, the river is shallow, narrow, and pretty warm. And because it is an international border guarded by soldiers on both sides, the boat is useless.

Warning that the river is an international border
Warning that the river is an international border

This week, I went to Qasr al Yahud on a tour with my class from Matan, a women’s seminary in southern Jerusalem. We’re studying the territories assigned to each tribe during the settlement of the land of Canaan, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges. And where better to start than at the place Joshua led the people across the Jordan River?

G-d tells Joshua that the Cohanim, the priests, will lead the crossing. The Cohanim will carry the Ark of the Covenant, and when they step into the river, the waters will stop; they will heap up and the Children of Israel will cross on dry land. It sounds a lot like what happened to their parents and grandparents at the Red Sea when they left Egypt forty years earlier.

We know the crossing occurred a few days before Passover, the end of the rainy season. The Tanakh specifically tells us that the river was in flood. The Jordan must have been a mighty river back then, not the paltry stream we see today. In a year of plentiful rain, there would have been a significant flow of water. Photos from 1935 show the Jordan in flood, spread out for miles.

It wouldn’t happen today, even in a year of plentiful rain, because water flow in the river is highly regulated. The three main tributaries of the Jordan—the Dan, the Hasbani, the Banias—come out of the mountains join together just north of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The outflow from the southern end of the lake is controlled by the Degania dam, which is rarely opened wide. Very little of the river water flows out the southern end of the lake. Instead it is channeled through the national water carrier to cities, towns, and farms in Israel, or through special pipes to neighboring Jordan.

During rainy season, dry wadis throughout Israel become streams and rivers. Those on the eastern side of the watershed discharge into the Jordan, increasing its flow. Water from farms whose irrigation is not carefully controlled also increases groundwater runoff. Because many Palestinian villages in Areas A and B refuse to connect to sewage treatment lines, surface runoff is highly polluted. Between the low water flow in the river, plus the sewage and other pollutants in the river, by the time it gets to the vicinity of Jericho, it is a ugly greenish brown color.

Neither the small size of the river nor the pollution discourage Christian pilgrims. Every year approximately 300,000 visitors arrive, many to be baptized where John baptized Jesus more than two thousand years ago. Although the exact site of the baptism is unknown, evidence from the Bible points to the area known by its Arabic name as Qasr al Yahud.

Qasr al Yahud, like many names in Arabic and in Hebrew, can be interpreted two ways. It might mean “the Palace of the Jews” or it might mean the “Crossing [Place] of the Jews.” The latter translation refers to where the Jews crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan.

The Biblical description of the river crossing indicates that this is the correct area. It is described as being opposite Jericho. Driving down from Jerusalem, we went past Jericho, and could see its outskirts behind us as we turned onto the Qasr al Yahud access road.

The Jordan River, for all its length from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea, is far below sea level. Near Jericho the land around the river is flat; if it is not too hazy, you can see for miles in any direction.

However, several miles north of Jericho, the mountains of Samaria come right down to the river. When the river is in flood, the mountains can act as a natural dam, constricting the flow. If an earthquake dislodges boulders, the river can actually be stopped here. Earthquakes did indeed stop the flow of the river for several days after an earthquake in 1546. The 1927 earthquake may have also have blocked the river and caused the water to back up for a few hours. Some scholars have theorized that such an earthquake was responsible for the Jordan stopping and the waters heaping up “like a wall,” allowing the Jews to cross without getting wet.

It is unlikely that such an earthquake would cause the waters to accumulate like a wall today, unless it also caused the Degania Dam to collapse.

The Bible records another instance of the Jordan River stopping to allow people to cross it on dry land. In Kings II, Elijah and Elisha walk to the river from Jericho. Elijah hits the water with his cloak, and the river splits so the two prophets can cross. As Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha grabs his cloak. He returns to Jericho, using the cloak to split the river so he a can again cross without getting his feet wet.

The people we saw on the banks of the Jordan this week were not worried about getting their feet wet. They had come to Qasr al Yehud specifically to dip in the Jordan’s water, as Jesus had.

 

Baptismal gowns for sale at the gift shop, paid for in your choice of currencies
Baptismal gowns for sale at the gift shop, paid for in your choice of currencies

The gift shop sells white baptismal gowns for the convenience of pilgrims who have not brought their own. Next to the gift shop is an enclosed area for those being baptized to change and to shower. Given the high level of pollution, post-baptism showers, even if not required by religion, are certainly necessary from a health standpoint.

I watched as the priest spoke to a group. They stood on the wooden platform as they prayed together and sang a hymn. Then the priest led them to the stairs. He stood on the second step, getting wet up to his knees. Repeatedly filling a cup with water, he poured it  over the head of each person in turn. After being baptized, most of the people waded out into the waist deep water and dunked themselves up to their shoulders. Out in the deeper water, they lost their seriousness, and laughed as they bobbed up and down. Not one of them approached the floating cord that marked the border between Israel and Jordan.

Many of them posed for photos with their friends as they came back up onto the platform. I took a few photos of them too, but as I did so, I thought of how

Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, a Jordanian soldier is more interested in his phone than in the people on the Israeli side of the Jordan
Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, the Jordanian soldier behind me is more interested in his phone than in the people on the Israeli side of the Jordan

I feel when tourists at the Kotel take photos. It always makes me uncomfortable to see a camera pointed in my direction as I pray. Yet, here I was doing the same thing. So I pointed my camera in another direction—towards the wooden platform on the other side of the river.

The Jordanian side of the river is as holy as the Israeli one, but we saw only two or three pilgrims on the opposite bank. The Jordanian soldier sitting there seemed bored. It looked like he was more interested in his phone than in watching the river. Just like the IDF soldiers on our side.

I could only wish that the soldiers on all our borders would have such dull uninteresting duties.

Gush Etzion, South of Jerusalem

The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the aea after it was regained by Israel in 1967
The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the aea after it was regained by Israel in 1967

When I was in Israel for the summer in 1962 with a group of other American high school juniors, we were taken to a hilltop a little south of Jerusalem. The guide waved his hand at the desolate hills before us and told us the history of Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc. The Gush was group of four kibbutzim that had been attacked by the Arabs several months before the end of the British Mandate. In April 1948 they were short of ammunition and other supplies to defend themselves. They called on the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish underground army, for help. The Palmach sent thirty-five young men from Jerusalem to take supplies and armaments to the besieged settlements. They were ambushed by the Arabs, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

The kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was captured on Iyar 4 and all the defenders killed by the local Arab fighters. The defenders of the remaining three communities in the Gush held out another day, until the British Mandate ended. At that time, the Jordanian Legion took over the attack. The Jews, surrounded and out of ammunition, surrendered to the Legion, knowing that the Jordanian soldiers would not murder them. They spent the whole War for Independence in prisoner of war camps in Jordan.

The story of the fighters of Gush Etzion made a strong impression on me. As a teenager, I and my friends were sure that Israel had no hope of ever regaining these areas. Jews would never live there again.

Five years later the Gush was in Israeli hands.

I’ve been to the historical museum at Kfar Etzion twice. A few years ago it was located in a small nondescript building. Photos of the area during the mandate period and the reestablishment of the Kibbutz after 1967 hung on the walls. A short documentary film, mostly in black and white was screened. It reviewed of the history of the area. The land had originally been bought by a European Jew to be used for agricultural settlements. The first Kibbutz established on the site in 1935 failed because Arab attacks. The second settlement, Kibbutz Etzion, was established in 1943, and was starting to grow by 1948. Three other settlements were also established in the area before statehood was declared. All facts, lots of maps, no emotion. I came away knowing more about the Etzion Bloc, but not feeling more connected to it.

Last year a new historical museum opened. The same photos hang on walls throughout the modern multimedia center. But a new video features actors portraying some of the early residents and defenders of the kibbutz. We see them struggling to build the kibbutz, deciding to evacuate mothers and children, fighting until the last day. I knew what was going to happen in the last video—the kibbutz would fall to the Arabs. Even so, I sat there watching it with tears in my eyes, hoping for a different ending.

History doesn’t change just because you want it to. The film ends with the fall of Kfar Etzion. When the lights go on, the screen rises, and visitors are invited into the next room, where a large hole in the floor

Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. "And I said to you, In your blood you shall live." (Ezekiel 16:6)
Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. “And I said to you, In your blood you shall live.” (Ezekiel 16:6)

allows you to look into the bunker where the last defenders had held out. Yizkor plaques on the wall list the names of the residents of the kibbutz who had been murdered after they surrendered to the Arabs.

For nineteen years the area of Gush Etzion was part of Jordan. For nineteen years, every spring on the date the settlement fell to the Arabs, the survivors gathered on the hilltop just south of Jerusalem on which I had stood. The mothers and children who had been evacuated, all the widows and orphans, stood where they could see the top of the oak tree of Gush Etzion. They said the memorial prayers, many of them yearning to return to their former homes.

In June 1967, the Jordanians again attacked Israel. Israel had spent the previous weeks begging King Hussein not to attack if (when) war between Egypt and Israel broke out. The King had agreed. But on the first day of the war, Egyptian President Nasser called King Hussein. He reported they were already winning. If Hussein didn’t attack Israel, Jordan would lose out when it came time to divide the spoils. So the Jordanian army attacked Jerusalem, and within a few days lost all of Judea and the Shomron.

The orphans of Kfar Etzion, led by 24-year old Hanan Porat, wanted to return to their homes south of Jerusalem as quickly as possible. The government had not yet decided how much of the territory to retain. But Hanan and his friends told Prime Minister Levi Eshkol they wanted to live in their old homes and pray where their parents had prayed. The Prime Minister gave them his blessing. Two days later the group of exiles from the Judean mountains returned to their home.

There wasn’t much to return to—the Jordanians had destroyed the buildings and uprooted most of the trees. But they rebuilt and replanted. More people joined them, and additional towns were established. Today, there are eighteen Jewish communities in the Gush.

I love driving through the area, looking at the towns and the lush farms. The soil and climate are perfect for wine grapes, and the neat rows of grape vines seem to stretch for miles. The quality of the grapes is reflected by the wines produced by several wineries.

Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut
Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut

The climate seems perfect for education as well. Numerous yeshivot have been established in the area. The oldest is Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, established in 1968. About 500 students in the Hesder program combine advanced religious studies with military service. Most of the larger communities in the Gush have a yeshiva– Beitar Illit, the largest town has 25 yeshivas of varying size.

Since the Oslo accords, the land in Judea, which includes Gush Etzion,  and the Shomron has been designated as Area A, B, and C. The Jews all live on land classified as Area C, which is under Israeli civilian administration and security. A sizable Arab population in Gush Etzion lives in Areas A and B. In Area A, civilian administration and all security are provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Area B, the PA provides civil administration and Israel is responsible for security.

These areas are like pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. Even with a good map the only way to tell which area you are driving through is by looking for subtle clues. For example, black water cisterns are seen on the roofs in Arab communities; the roofs of houses in Jewish communities have white solar water heaters instead. Cars with white or turquoise PA license plates can travel all the roads. Cars with yellow Israeli license plates can only drive in Areas B and C. Roads in Area A have big red signs notifying Israeli drivers that entrance is both illegal and dangerous to their lives.

In 1950, the Israeli government established a memorial day for those who had died in the struggle for the State. David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, insisted that Memorial Day be on Iyar 4, the day Kibbutz Etzion fell. Today the day before Independence Day is still observed as a memorial to those who fell in all of Israel’s wars, as well as for victims of terror.

Almost fifty years after I first heard the story of Gush Etzion, I can sit under the 700 year old oak tree in Alon Shvut, and hear the story again. Today it is a better story because it no longer ends with defeat and longing for return. Sitting under the tree, I can remember my feelings as a teenager, my wish that the defenders of the Gush had been successful. As I look around, at the stone houses, the large Yeshiva and Herzog College on the hill, the playground, the vineyards and fruit orchards on the once barren hills, I still cry. It feels incredible that so much life has developed in area that was once forbidden to us.

Where exactly is the Gush?

Avshalom’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley

Avshalom's Tomb stands out, separate from the Mount of Olives bedrock in the Kidron Valley
Avshalom’s Tomb stands out, separate from the Mount of Olives bedrock in the Kidron Valley

From the road on the east side of the Old City, I look out the bus window down into the Kidron Valley. Three impressive tombs stand close to the valley floor. Even at this distance, I can see that they were not built using stones from quarries elsewhere. Rather, they are carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. Like many ancient tombs in Israel, their current names—Zachariah’s Tomb, Avshalom’s Tomb, Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter– bear no relationship to the occupants.

The tombs fascinate me. Their pale beige limestone color almost camouflages them against the pale beige mountain behind them. Although their design is similar to other, larger, structures in Jerusalem, they are different from almost anything else.

I finally had a chance to visit the tombs last week. As part of the annual archeology conference, Ir David offered many short tours of nearby points of interest. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I signed up for the tour of the Kidron Valley Monuments.

The Kidron Valley, as our guide Re’ut reminded us, is one of the three valleys that define Jerusalem. Ancient peoples had two requirements when looking for a site to build a city: fresh water and defensibility. The Gihon Spring, near where the Kidron and Hinnom valleys meet , provides water. The steepness of the valleys protect the city from attack from the east and the west. The Old City of Jerusalem has been conquered more than thirty times in its history. Almost every time the attack has come from the north, where Jerusalem’s hill has a gentle slope. Only two attacks from the east were successful. In 900 BCE, King David’s forces entered the city from the east, and in 1967 CE the IDF did.

Corner of Jerusalem's Old City wall from the Kidron Valley floor
Corner of Jerusalem’s Old City wall from the Kidron Valley floor

The nature of the valley’s protection isn’t readily apparent from a bus window. The hill looks steep, but until walking down into it I had not realized just how steep it is. Just to get to the paved path down the hill, we first had to descend two flights of stairs. The paved path to the base of the valley slants across the side of the hill to gentle the sharp drop.

Later, coming up from the valley floor, we would walk up a steep hill to the conference’s outdoor proceedings. Leaving the conference site, we climbed about 200 more steps (yes, I counted!) to get up to the street. The street was another steep hill up to the Old City wall, to the bus stop. To run up that hill, carrying weapons, while under assault from the city defenders would have been a nearly impossible task. No wonder the Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and all the other conquerors of Jerusalem preferred to attack from the north.

The Mount of Olives, opposite the city, has always been a natural necropolis. The hill contains many caves, which were turned into depositories for the dead thousands of years ago. Today, the Mount of Olives is one of the oldest known Jewish graveyards. Of course, now the dead are put in holes dug to hold one person each.

The size of the monuments down in the valley, as seen from the bus window, is not one of massiveness. They look big, but on the scale of familiar things, not all that extraordinary. But as I stood on the overlook of the Kidron Valley just below the road, I revised my opinion. This was the first time I saw people walking around the bases of the monuments. I was surprised at how small the people looked in comparison to the height of Avshalom’s tomb. It was obviously much taller than it appears from the distance.

The book of II Samuel (18:18) says that King David’s son Avshalom built a monument for himself in the Valley of the Kings. Because the Kidron is also known as the Valley of Kings, it has been thought that Avshalom’s monument is here, but no one knows its location. That hasn’t stopped generations of people from calling the tomb with the strange conical top “Avshalom’s Tomb” and “Yad Avshalom,” Avshalom’s Monument.

He may indeed have been buried somewhere near here. But the structure itself dates only from the first century CE, about a thousand years after Avshalom’s death. The columns carved into the front of the structure have Ionic style capitals, showing a Greek influence. Above them is an architrave with an Egyptian cornice.

The cone shaped cap was topped with a six-petaled lotus flower, which is no longer present. Unlike the rest of the structure, the top is not carved from the bedrock, but was built of ashlars, large stones hewn specifically for building. With the spread of Hellenism starting in about the second century BCE, a belief spread that the body and the soul were separate. For several centuries thereafter, the bodies of the deceased were interred in tombs. Acknowledgment of the person’s soul was made by constructing a special monument on top of the tomb or next to it. This special resting place for the soul was called the nefesh, from the Hebrew word for soul.

We walked to the back of the monument in the narrow space carved out around it. Behind it, we saw a burial cave, dug into the rock for the interment of family members. But whose family was it? We don’t know that either. At the time this family lived, and died, names were not routinely posted on graves or tombs. This practice, of not labeling grave sites, speaks to the stability of society. People lived where their grandparents had lived. They expected their own grandchildren to live there too. Everyone knew who was buried where, and who would be buried alongside them. There was no point in putting up markers.

No one in those days expected their society to come crashing down. The destruction of the Temple by the Romans destroyed traditional Jewish life. Less than seventy years later, after the Bar Kochba rebellion, Hadrian banished the remaining Jews from Jerusalem. Amidst all the upheavals, the informal chain of information was lost. Today, we can only determine how old the tombs are. The names of those buried inside have been lost, forever.

But some traditions continued, and somehow Avshalom’s name was attached to this tomb. Avshalom, the favored son, the rebellious one. The book of Samuel describes Avshalom’s revolt against his father, King David. His revolt ended when his beautiful long hair became entangled in the branches of a tree. He couldn’t escape and was killed. He became the iconic rebellious son.

The Torah describes the “wayward and rebellious” son as a “drunkard and a glutton” who “does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother” (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21). His punishment is death by stoning. Although there is no record of this punishment ever being carried out, the law remains on the books as a threat. A custom arose to bring disobedient children to the tomb and remind them of what happened to Avshalom. The parents would then throw

Avshalom's Tomb in 1914. The piles of small stones thrown at misbehaving children can be clearly seen
Avshalom’s Tomb in 1914. The piles of small stones thrown at misbehaving children can be clearly seen

small stones at the structure, showing their own rebellious sons what could conceivably happen to them.

Photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show the tomb surrounded by small stones. The heaped up stones extend about a quarter of the way up its base. The Jordanians removed the stones during the 1950s, when they  “renovated” the Mount of Olives. So today visitors can see the structure in its totality and appreciate its architecture.  I am sure there are times when parents today wish they could still take their children to the Valley of Kidron and symbolically stone them.

The Disappearance of Babylonian Jewry

The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.
The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.

Farhud is an Arabic word which means “violent dispossession.” To the Jewish community of Iraq in the 1940s and later, the word meant what happened in Baghdad on Shavuot 1941. The emphasis was on the violence.

Like most of the people in my course about the Second Temple period, I had never heard of the Baghdad Farhud. What we saw at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda surprised and shocked us.     

In  1941 the Jewish community of Iraq was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Today Iraq occupies the center of what was once the powerful Babylonian Empire. It stretched from Egypt to Turkey, with coasts on the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Caspian Seas.  The first Jews there were exiles from the Kingdom of Israel, who arrived after Assyria conquered them in 720 BCE. Remnants of the ten northern tribes were still living by the rivers of Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE. He destroyed the Temple and took the leaders of that country into exile as well.

 In the early part of the first millennium, the community flourished as a center of Jewish scholarship. The Babylonian Talmud, the seminal work on which Jewish law and scholarship is based,  was composed and edited here. But later the community went through many difficult times. Most Iraqi Jews made aliyah after the founding of the State of Israel. By 2006, there were not enough Jews left to even call them a community.

When people make aliyah they bring their culture and artifacts with them.  Sometimes they establish a small museum or center dedicated to preserving their heritage. Many such institutions have been established throughout Israel. Allen and I have visited several, including the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry in Tsfat and the Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem. They are all small jewels. Their mission is to preserve history and culture, house focused research centers, and educate the general public about otherwise unknown pieces of our heritage. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is one such museum.

I first learned about the Babylonian exile in second grade Sunday school, so it seems like I have always been aware of it. I learned about the Babylonian Talmud a few years later. In high school I even studied some selections from Masechet Brachot, a portion of the Talmud dealing with prayers and blessings. The Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita were major centers of Jewish learning for over 800 years. Most of the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud studied at one of them. The Babylonian influence on the development of Judaism is immeasurable. For hundreds of years, Jews all over the world looked to Babylonia for answers to questions of law and practice.

Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda
Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda

A room at the museum is devoted to the Babylonian academies. Several vitrines feature models of what they probably looked like. Two teachers stood in the front. The Gaon, the expert older teacher spoke Aramaic, and the Meturgam, the younger teacher with a louder voice, translated the Aramaic into Arabic, the language spoken by the people. The best students sat in front, with other students behind them. Ordinary people who came to hear the lectures stood on the back.

But contact between the Jews of what had been Babylonia and the rest of the world ceased after the Mongolian conquest of the area in the 13th century. In the 18th century, it was discovered that Jews did still indeed live in that part of the world. After the Alliance Français established schools for the Jews in the 18th century, their communities in Baghdad and other cities started to flourish again. Because the schools taught both French and English, the Jews were soon able to gain jobs in the government as the influence of France and Britain expanded in the Middle East.

As we walked through the museum, we saw exhibits that testified to the good life Iraqi Jews enjoyed: beautiful clothes, musical instruments and photos of Jewish orchestras, and skillfully made religious artifacts. The docent who guided us through the museum, pointed out one silver Torah cover, which had arrived at the museum tarnished and black. Assigned to figure out what to do with it, she brought her children’s electric toothbrush to the museum to painstakingly polish the silver. She laughed as she said, “I paid a woman to come clean my house so I could come here and clean.” She did a good job–the Torah cover gleamed, reflecting the spotlight that shone on it in its class case.

The British gained control in Iraq after the first World War.  Jews were granted the rights to vote and hold office in 1921, and several served in the legislature. They continued to do so when Britain granted Iraq its independence, under British supervision.

During the 1930s German representatives in Iraq encouraged anti-Semitism and formation of groups modeled on Hitler Youth. When World War II started, and the British were losing, Germany’s influence increased. Because it needed Iraqi oil to provide fuel for its planned invasion of Russia, it encouraged the Iraqi government to seize the oil fields in the late spring of 1941. The attempt failed. Britain, however, worried that it could lose control of its source of oil, invaded Iraq. The British army reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 31.

While all this was going on, Nazi-influenced groups planned a Farhud, an action to destroy the Jewish community, to destroy Jewish businesses, kill as many Jews as they could, and expel those who remained from the country. They made lists of Jews in the cities, even marking homes and businesses owned by Jews with red handprints. It was planned for June 1. When the British came to Baghdad’s outskirts they did not enter the city because they did not want to upset the Arabs. The Jews believed they had been saved from destruction and decided to publicly celebrate the Shavuot holiday.

On June 1, a group of Iraqi soldiers met a group of Jews who were celebrating Shavuot. The soldiers attacked the unarmed Jews, killing several of them. The violence spread through the city. Gangs of armed Arabs rampaged through the Jewish neighborhoods for two days, killing men and boys, raping women and girls and then killing some of them, and burning Jewish stores and businesses.

The British on the outskirts of the city surely knew what was happening. Even if they had not been able to hear the sounds of violence, they most likely would have heard the gunshots, and surely saw the smoke of burning buildings. But they were under orders from London not to intervene. Stopping the killing of Jews could anger the Arabs and endanger the oil fields. When the rampaging and violence spread into Arab neighborhoods on the second day the British entered Baghdad and restored peace.

The final exhibit at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is a Memorial to the Farhud. Two columns list the names of those killed, 148 men, women, and children.  Our group sat in this room, surrounded by blown up photographs of the Farhud, to watch a video in which several survivors talk about their experiences. They spoke about watching helplessly as enraged Iraqis broke through barricaded doors and about seeing their mothers raped and killed. They talked about running up to the roof, of racing across roofs trying to escape. Later in the week, they returned to  houses full of broken or burnt furniture, or to one totally stripped of all furniture, clothing, and kitchen contents.

The Jews in Iraq never felt secure again.

On May 15, 1948, Iraq declared war on the newborn State of Israel and declared aliyah illegal. But in 1950, Iraq allowed the Jews to leave. First they had to relinquish all their property, and give up their citizenship and the right to return. They could take almost nothing–66 pounds of luggage and the equivalent of $140. That’s not much to start life in a new country. The government allowed some Torah scrolls to leave the country. The scrolls had their own ticketed seats in the airplanes. Other Torahs were smuggled out, removed from their cases and carefully rolled up and hidden.

Israel organized a giant airlift to rescue the Jews of Iraq, Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. The airlift was named for the Biblical figures who led the Jews from Babylonia back to the land of Israel in 450 BCE.  American airplanes were used because Israeli planes were not allowed in Iraqi airspace. By the time these operations ended in 1952, 90% of Iraq’s  Jewish population, approximately 120,000 people, had been brought home. Most of the remainder gradually left Iraq as well.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, there was less than a minyan left. Emad Levy was one of the last Jews. He was the Rabbi, kosher butcher, and mohel (circumcizer), when there was a need for his services. But even he knew there was no future for him in Iraq. One day in 2007 he received an envelope containing a bullet; he made aliyah shortly thereafter. Among his first stops in his new country was the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. Our guide welcomed him and as they talked she thought he would be a good match for her best friend. She was right, and the Israeli Iraqi community celebrated his wedding within the year. Emad still comes to the center to talk about Jewish life in Iraq.

Nonetheless, after over 2600 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has disappeared.        

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is located in Or Yehuda, Between Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv (outlined in red on the map)

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: