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
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