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Watching Birds Migrate in the Galil

Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil , Israel
Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil

Nir, the guide at Agmon Park Nature Reserve, told us to hurry and get off the bus. “The cranes are already coming. You can hear them.”

As I walked toward the lake, I could hear a faint sound.

Nir pointed towards the mountains to our south. “See?” he shouted. “Here they come!”

I looked towards a depression in the line of mountains, but I saw only gray clouds. And then I saw a large group of black specks, slowly getting larger as they came closer, resolving into tiny v-shapes, and then into bird silhouettes. The cries of the birds steadily grew louder, as the birds came closer, and as more and more flew towards the water. The cranes were coming from the surrounding fields to the lake where they would spend the night. The first group came near and circled over the lake. Another group appeared from over the mountains. A large flock flew in from the north and circled. The flocks kept coming—thousands of birds.

Israel is on the second largest migration flyway in the world. In the fall the birds fly over us on their way from Europe to Africa. In the spring they fly back north. More than four hundred species, five hundred million individual birds transit Israel twice a year.

Draining the Swamps

Throughout history, the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps were major attractions for birds. In the 1950s, however, David Ben Gurion decided that draining the swamps should be a major project of the young state of Israel. The project was necessary to provide additional land for agriculture The new settlements being built for the influx of immigrants needed land for housing and to farm. Draining the Hula Valley would also decrease disease. Too many early pioneers had died of malaria, and the mosquito-borne disease continued to affect too much of the population.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) built canals on both sides of the valley and deepened the channel of the Jordan River to the east. It was not until the swamps were drained that they discovered they had done too good a job. Swampy soil needs to stay wet or it becomes dry dust, unsuitable for growing crops. Migrating birds now found little food. Migratory paths were disrupted.

Farmers and ecologists realized the water engineering had gone too far. So the JNF-KKL undertook a project to restore the swamps and lake. They renovated the canal system to channel the water and keep the soil wet all the time. Today the water table is about a meter below the surface. The swamps are now much smaller and healthier—no anopheles mosquitoes. Agriculture flourishes in the area. The birds returned, and tourism has become a local industry. And the birds are happy—particularly the cranes.

Not all the birds migrate to Africa

The fall bird watching season runs from October through November. But every year several thousand cranes don’t continue on to Africa. They stay in Israel. That many cranes pose a problem to local agriculture. Farmers complained about the birds eating all the seeds and tiny sprouts, destroying the crops before they even started growing. Bird lovers became upset because it’s not right to wantonly destroy creatures who are just trying to survive. The birds that stayed were fledglings not yet strong enough to fly to Africa and their mothers, as well as injured birds. Eventually, a compromise was worked out.

When a farmer seeds his fields, Agmon Park workers keep the birds away from the field until the plants are too big to be eaten. Park employees scare the birds away from newly seeded fields by driving equipment through the field several times a day. They also put out food for the cranes in another part of the park, so the birds have no need to forage in the farmers’ fields. This bird feeding program runs from December through February every year.

The bird feeding program is a successful venture. The farmers are able to grow crops, and the cranes get the food they need. About 30,000 cranes overwinter in the vicinity of Agmon Hula.

Cranes are not the only birds that like the Hula Valley. We were too late in the year to see the eagles and storks. However, with the help of binoculars, we could see a small flock of fifteen white flamingos standing together on the far side of the water. My first reaction when Nir pointed out a pair of ducks flying over the canal was that Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were far away from the swan boats of Boston Garden.

Birds of prey encouraged

The park encourages birds of prey because they help control the rodent population. We walked past one of the many owl houses, which are not occupied at this time of year. The owls are such good hunters, when park staff clean the owl houses after the birds have left for the season, they find many uneaten carcasses of rats, voles, and other small rodents.

Despite the predations of the raptors, the rodent population seems to flourish.

Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop at Agmon Park Nature Reserve during migration through Israel
Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop during migration through Israel

We walked by numerous holes dug by a variety of rodents. But the only rodent we saw was a river rat, also known as a nutria. It looked a long dark brown furry blob crossing the road. I had never seen one before—I had no idea nutria were that big.

Around a bend in the road, we spotted a large black and white bird sitting on the bare top branch of a tree. It was a Black Shouldered Kite. It obligingly sat there staring off into the distance long enough for all of us to snap its photo. This species of kite is rarely around, so we needed those photos to prove we had actually seen it.

Cranes fly to lake at sunset

The highlight of the afternoon was watching the cranes come in for the night. Although they forage in the fields during the day, they spend the night on the water. Between sunset and nightfall they all leave the fields, fly over the valley, and land on the water. The first flock flew in from the south. And the next one, and then the next—too many birds in each flock to count. We were so focused on these birds, we did not notice those flying to the lake from the north until they were directly overhead. More flocks flew from the fields closer to the Jordan River on the east, and then a few from the mountains of Naphtali to the west. And still more came from the south.

There were too many in each flock to count. Nir had told us earlier that there were 33,000 cranes in the park that week. How, I asked him, do they know the number? He said staff count the cranes early in the morning, before sunrise when the birds rise from the lake to forage in the fields during the day.

Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula during migration through Israel from Europe to Africa
Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula

We stood there more than ten minutes, watching as more and more cranes filled the sky. After flying in large circles over the park, they began to land on the water, just a few at first, who were soon joined by others. The water in front of us began to disappear under its cover of birds.

The light had faded. The group coordinator told us we had to get back on the bus, but we stood there mesmerized by the cranes. Finally, the coordinator made the ultimate threat: if we wanted a bathroom stop on the way home, we had to leave immediately. Reluctantly, we headed back to the bus.

After finding my seat, I looked out the window. In the growing darkness, cranes were flying in from the east and the north, flying from Europe to Africa, as they had for millennia, as, God willing, they will continue to do for all the years to come.

Where is Agmon Hula Nature Reserve?

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.

Children at the Israel Museum

School group learning about the Byzantine period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
School group learning about the Byzantine period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

On a cold rainy Wednesday morning in December, I went to the Israel Museum (IMJ) with my class from Pardes. We were, by far, the oldest organized group in the museum. Everywhere we went, we crossed paths with groups of children, brought by their schools.

I knew that schools take advantage of the resources of the museum to teach students about history, art, archeology, and religion. When I have taken my grandchildren there, they often express interest in seeing specific things. Last winter on a visit to IMJ with then nine year old Yocheved, she led me to the theater in the Shrine of the Book. She wanted me to see the movie about the time traveling girl. She had seen it when she was there with her class earlier in the year. Then we went into the large white-domed part of that complex to see the documents themselves. As is her practice with any exhibit, she raced through it, allowing me to time to read maybe a quarter of each explanatory sign under the vitrines. Yocheved told me that her school would bring her to the Israel Museum four times that year, and four more times when she was to sixth grade.

When my grandsons were eight-and ten-years old,  I took them to climb a

In front of the Aron Kodesh of the 1700 Vittorio Veneto synagogue at the Israel Museum
In front of the Aron Kodesh of the 1700 Vittorio Veneto synagogue at the Israel Museum

special exhibit. “Bambu” was a construction of bamboo sticks that looked like a forty foot high nest built by a very large messy bird interested in architecture. We had arrived early and instead of just sitting around waiting for our turn, Yakov asked to go see the synagogues which have been brought to the museum from other countries. Not only did Yaakov know what he wanted to see, he led the way to the exhibit.    

So I wasn’t surprised to see groups of schoolchildren in the museum. I was surprised to see the number and variety of groups. In the lobby, a group of preteen Arab girls, dressed in navy jumpers and white blouses, dark slacks modestly covering their legs, was supervised by teachers wearing hijabs. Quartets of teen aged boys raced to complete their worksheets about specific exhibits in the area of Roman antiquities. A corner of the room displaying portions of Byzantine churches and mosaics was occupied by ten or twelve year olds sitting on the floor in a large circle, listening to an explanation of the history of the period. As we walked through a hall that displayed clothes associated with birth, marriage, death, and other life events, we tried to avoid being run over by six or seven year olds being hurried through the room by the teachers.

Leaving the museum, we huddled in the semi-protected walkway waiting for our bus. We were passed by a seemingly endless procession of young children from an Arab school, rushing through the rain from their buses.

It’s wonderful to see all the children. They will grow up understanding the depth of history in this land. They will appreciate the diversity of cultures in this country, the archeological evidence left behind, and the variety of experiences that can be expressed through the arts.

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.

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.

Jeeping in the Judean Desert

From the scenic overlook on the plateau of the Judean Desert, looking at the Dead Sea. Mountains of Moab are the darker blue in the background. The town at the foot of the cliff is Mitspe Shalom.
From the scenic overlook on the plateau of the Judean Desert, looking at the Dead Sea. Mountains of Moab are the darker blue in the background. The town at the foot of the cliff is Mitspe Shalom.

The Judean Desert is small as far as deserts go, but in Jewish history in the land of Israel, it looms large. The Jews traditionally lived in the mountains that form the central ridge of the land, because invaders typically came from the sea. The Philistines and other sea people occupied the flat land closer to the coast; the Crusaders invaded from the coast. In times of trouble, the Jews escaped to the desert. This is where David hid when King Saul sought to kill him and this is where Elijah ran when he was fed up with the people turning their backs on G-d repeatedly. In post-Biblical times, Jews ran to the desert to escape the fury of the Roman Legions at the end of the Great Revolt in 70 CE; it’s where Bar Kochba hid during his rebellion against the Romans sixty-five years later.

Unlike the Negev that comprises the southern part of the country, the Judean desert is at a higher altitude than many of the world’s deserts, being located on a plateau in the mountains of Judea. The high plain is cut dramatically by deep wadis, the river beds that are dry in the summer but carry huge amounts of rapidly flowing water during winter’s flash floods. This week Allen and I saw a small part of it on a jeep ride to the eastern cliff of the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea, the lowest point of land on the earth, as part of a One Israel Fund tour.

Eve Harow, our guide, told us the road was paved all the way to the scenic overlook—”recently paved” was the phrase she used. By “recently” I suspected she meant in the last thousand years, as we bounced and jolted along our way. We had only traveled a few miles before all seven of us in the back were holding

Paving of road in Judean desert washed out by a flash flood
Paving of road in Judean desert washed out by a flash flood

the bars bolted to the ceiling of the jeep to help passengers avoid being hurt by the jolts and bumps. In several places we had to go off the road because it had been washed out by a flash flood. The power of the flood waters was clearly visible in the exposed six inch depth of the road paving as we drove past the break, and then back on to the road.

We arrived at our destination, descended from the jeeps, and then walked up a rise to a large succah-like structure. As we approached the top of the hill, we all had the same one word reaction:”Wow!” Before us, at the bottom of a sheer cliff, was the Dead Sea, beautifully blue, not the dull color it iswhen seen close up. On its other side, the mountains of Moab, in Jordan, were a dusty blue, blurry in the haze.

Arye Weinstock, the head of the jeep tours company, did not stop at the shelter, but led us up the hill to its right. The path’s dusty surface was slippery with pebbles, but we were kept from falling off the cliff by a waist high stone wall. At the top of the hill, the wall curved around to our right, protecting us from falling over the edge into the dramatically deep wadi that led to the Dead Sea.

After giving us time to admire the view and take many photographs, Arye oriented us. Below us to the left and slightly north of us lay the town of Mitzpe Shalom, green with irrigated palm trees. To the south was Mineral Beach, where Ahava manufactures cosmetics. It used to be a popular spot for tourists who wanted to float in the heavy salty waters of the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, the sea has been steadily shrinking and sink holes have been opening along its shores, making the beach a dangerous place to visit. Today Mineral Beach is closed.

Wadi near where it empties into Dead Sea, as viewed from the desert plateau in the mountains
Wadi near where it empties into Dead Sea, as viewed from the desert plateau in the mountains

Like many wadis, the one we stared into had bits of green at the bottom where it crossed the plain to empty into the sea. The small bushes had deep roots and were sustaining themselves on what remained of the last rains, over three months ago.

The desert’s relatively small size makes it seem friendly to inexperienced hikers. Arye told us several stories about the dangers of the desert to the unwary. Because the air is so dry and the sun so hot, you need to carry five liters of water when you go into the desert, advice that too many hikers either ignore, or perhaps never receive. He told us of coming across three German hikers one day when he was driving through the desert. They looked, as he put it, “in a bad way,” so he gave them a bottle of water and some oranges. He told them he had to do something else, but offered to pick them up on his way back a little later. They replied they would be all right and refused his offer of help. They didn’t need his water; they had checked a map and knew that there were a couple rivers nearby. He pointed to the wadi where we stood, steep sided and bone dry. “That’s what a river here looks like.”

Black and white Beduin goats grazing on desert hillside
Black and white Beduin goats grazing on desert hillside

The desert mountains were just as dry as the wadi. The plants we saw driving to and from the Dead Sea overlook were dry straw. But somehow the Beduins manage to live here—we passed several of their encampments. The homes looked to be made of sheets of aluminum and tarps. Around each cluster of homes several pickup trucks were parked, and frequently a tank of water as well.

But what amazed me the most were the flocks of goats. Usually the flocks are tended by young boys, who may be responsible for up to a hundred animals or more. Somehow all these goats can find enough to eat on the desolate hills.

Even the desert that looks like a barren waste supports life.

Where we were:

Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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