Tag Archives: Jerusalem

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.

Solving a Second Temple Puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kaytana Savta Keeps Grandparents Busy

August is the end of the summer, the last month of Hofesh hagadol, the big vacation. Even the Yeshivas with eleven-month academic years give students three weeks off at this time of year. The professionally-run day camps have completed their sessions. Children are freed from all scheduled activities. But—and herein lies the problem—most parents still have to work.

The solution? Grandparents. IF you’re lucky enough to have some on call. And IF they are energetic enough to keep up with the grandchildren.

Kaytana Saba is in session. Or in my case, Kaytana Savta.

Four weeks ago, we had all three Bernstein girls overnight. We spent most of one day at the Bloomfield Science Museum. I’m not sure if they learned any science, but they had fun playing with the blocks and levers, looking at the plants, and playing with the optical illusions. We also saw a 3D video that compared the lives of two small rodents facing life-threatening challenges in very different habitats. The young chipmunk in a northern forest had to find and store food for the winter, fighting a larger older chipmunk to protect his supplies. The young desert rat had to find food and escape from a large snake on his first foray from the nest into the surround desert. Who would have thought you could care so much about the fate of these tiny creatures? But we all held our breath and rooted for these brave little rodents to make it through their day.

I don’t do well at 3D movies; an ear infection when I was studying pediatric nursing has left me with a tendency to get dizzy. Closing my eyes at a few critical junctures got me through the film without losing my breakfast.

I was not the only grandparent at the museum that day. A quick glance around the auditorium revealed me that audience members were either under the age of 12 or over 60. Not that I needed proof by then. All morning I had heard children calling ”Saba!” or “Savta!” No child called for their father or mother to come see what they had just discovered.

On Wednesday we had gone to a “multi-sensory show” about Jerusalem. That’s how the publicity describes it. The video screens surround the audience, not just on the sides, but on the floor and ceiling as well. The seats were equipped with safety belts and a safety bar.

The seats tilted and vibrated as the video swooped through the city’s narrow streets and over the red rooftops. Again, I had to control my dizziness by closing my eyes in a couple spots. The kids loved the experience. And once again, I sat in audience of people my age and their grandchildren. Kaytana Savta on a field trip.

As soon as we left the theater, the girls announced they were hungry. Unfortunately, we were in the Mamilla mall, an upscale shopping area in what for years had been falling apart ruins by the Old City walls. Given my granddau

Reaching up, to try to kiss the mezuza on the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem
Reaching up, to try to kiss the mezuza on the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

ghters’ tastes in food, I was not about to pay Mamilla prices for lunch. But I knew a pizza place in the Old City. “The Jaffa Gate,” I said, “is up there, at the end of the stores.”

I’m not sure they would have agreed to pizza in the Rova if they had known it would be a half hour walk. But they were eager to go. We spent a few minutes at the Jaffa Gate as Yael clowned around trying to reach up to kiss the large mezuza.

Walking to the pizza place, it struck me. Here I was, in the heart of the Holy City, walking through the Jewish Quarter, as if it was a normal thing to do. I grew up thinking of Jerusalem’s Rova the same way I thought about the moon. It was there, but inaccessible. The moon was inaccessible because of physics; the Old City inaccessible because of politics. Both situations changed in the late 1960s. And although I’ll never walk on the moon, walking through the Jewish Quarter has become so ordinary, I thought nothing of taking my granddaughters there for a slice of pizza and an ice cream cone.

When I was a teenager, any access to the Old City of Jerusalem for Jews was a dream. Today it is a reality. My grandchildren are growing up taking for granted their ability to walk the streets of the Holy City.

May they always do so.

Tisha b’Av Around the Walls of the Old City

Marching around Jerusalem's old city walls on the eve of Tisha b'Av. The Mount of Olives is in the background
Marching around Jerusalem’s old city walls on the eve of Tisha b’Av. The Mount of Olives is in the background

Saturday night, in observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av (Ninth of Av), I walked around the walls of Jerusalem, with more than a thousand other people. Our route took us past the New Gate, Damascus Gate, and Herod’s or the Flowers Gate. We stopped at the Lions’ Gate, once called St. Stephen’s Gate, to listen to some speeches.Then we continued past the Gate of Mercy, sometimes referred to as the Golden Gate. The official march ended at the Dung Gate, the closest one to the Kotel.

The Ninth of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha b’Av, is a day of religious mourning for many tragedies in our history. The fast has become the day on which we mourn the destruction of Beitar in 135 CE and the horrors of the Crusades and the expulsion from Spain. But it is the destruction of the First and Second Temples that set the observance.

The destruction of the First Temple and the burning of Jerusalem by the Babylonians occurred on the Ninth of Av, 586 BCE. Eicha, the Biblical book of Lamentations, was written by the prophet Jeremiah to record the horrors of that period. It is this book we read on the evening of the fast. A little more than six hundred years later the Romans destroyed the Second Temple on the same date.

Women in Green revived the old practice of walking around Jerusalem’s walls on Tisha b’Av twenty years ago, in keeping with their motto, “The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.” People come to the public reading of Eicha in Independence Park. We then walk around the Old City, as an expression of love for the city and resolve to keep Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

The gates we walked past were familiar to me—I’ve often ridden by them on the bus. But the gates in the northern and eastern walls have been increasingly dangerous lately and I have not gone anywhere near them. I did approach the New Gate last month while on a walking tour of the Christian Quarter. It was constructed in the nineteenth century across the street from the Notre Dame Convent to give Christians living in the new city easy access to holy sites. Using this new opening, they could travel to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher without having to walk through the Muslim Quarter.

The Damascus Gate, about 500 meters east of the New Gate, has received much publicity in the last few months, most of it negative. As one of the gates into the Muslim Quarter, it has been the site of several terrorist attacks against both Jewish civilians and police. The Damascus Gate, called Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew, offers the most direct route to the Kotel from the north. For this reason, religious Jews built Mea She’arim and several other neighborhoods close to it in the late 19th century. Their location put these neighborhoods directly on the border between Israel and Jordan after 1948. But since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, residents of Mea She’arim once again walk to the Kotel through this gate.

For most of the time since 1967, the Damascus Gate has been peaceful. It is the largest and most beautifully decorated of all the gates to the Old City. About twenty years ago, Allen and I walked on top of the walls from the Jaffa Gate to the Damascus Gate. We then descended to below the level of today’s gate to see the remains of the Roman guard post and the base of the two thousand year old gate, under the present wall. I would not do that today without a well armed escort.

Chani in front of the Damascus Gate, also called Sha'ar Shechem
Chani in front of the Damascus Gate, also called Sha’ar Shechem

There were many border police along the route we walked. Three to five officers stood at almost every corner. Five of them stood on the other side of the barricade, watching as Chani, one of my guests for the weekend, posed for a photo near the Damascus Gate. Barricades prevented us from actually going down to the gate. It seemed to me, by the way the police looked at Chani, that their sole purpose Saturday night was to stop anyone from jumping over the fence and running down the stairs to the gate itself. But they didn’t stop me from taking her picture, and we moved on without incident.

The Tisha b’Av crowd continued to walk east on Sultan Suleiman Street. The wide street is named for Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Emperor responsible for rebuilding the city walls from 1536 to 1541. Opposite us, we could see small groups of Arabs who had gathered in the shadows at the ends of the intersecting streets to stare at us. A woman who had been on the march around the walls the last few years said that the Arabs had shouted at them as they walked on Sultan Suleiman. But this year they were quiet. For the most part, those marching talked quietly to each other. There was none of the provocative loud singing that accompanies Israelis when they march en masse into the Old City to the Kotel on Jerusalem Day or Independence Day. But then, Tisha b’Av is a day of fasting and mourning, not celebrating.

We walked past Herod’s Gate and around the northeast corner of the Old City. As we walked along the eastern base of the city wall, we could see the Mount of Olives rising out of the Kidron Valley to our left. Lights allowed us to identify buildings on top of the hill: the observatory tower at Hebrew University, the steeple of Augusta Victoria Hospital, the Seven Arches Hotel. The slopes of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives were visible in the light from the city walls.

At the Lions’ Gate we stopped for speeches by dignitaries. Chani and I found a spot to sit on the curb almost directly opposite the speakers. We were able to hear them clearly, without any echo. Speakers included Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Dov Kalmonivich, Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Dahan, and Member of Knesset (MK) Yehuda Glick. The speaker I remember the best, however, was Professor Arye Eldad, perhaps because after he spoke in Hebrew, he repeated it in English.

Dr. Eldad started by talking about the bronze bust of Hadrian, which was found forty years ago in Beit Shean. Every year his father, Prof. Eldad, went to the Israel Museum on Tisha b’ Av. He would stand in front of Hadrian’s bust and say “Nu? Nu? What do you say? Where is the great Roman Empire today? Where are we? Your bones are just dust, but we, we are here.”

He continued, the story is not simple, because although Hadrian did not destroy the Jewish spirit, he still hovers over us. He had wanted to destroy the memory of Jews from Jerusalem. Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and changed the name of the Roman province from Judea to Syria Palestina. The name still pursues us today. Eldad concluded, now we need to erase the name Palestine, and reclaim our name and our city.

From the Lions’ Gate, we continued along the eastern city wall. On this side of the city. The hill is too steep to see much of the wall. Although from a bus window, you can see the Gate of Mercy, standing in the roadway, you can’t.

Not that there is much to see. The Muslims closed the gate with large limestone blocks in 810 CE prevent the Moshiach (Messiah) from entering the city. This part of the wall, complete with its non-functioning gate, was still standing seven hundred years later when Suleiman included it in his new city wall. It remains standing today. No doubt it will still stand there when the Moshiach arrives at the End of Days, at which time it will miraculously open.

From the Kidron Valley, we turned west to walk along the southern wall up to the Dung Gate. It’s a steep climb. The hour being almost midnight helped us. We couldn’t see landmarks clearly, so did not realize just how long the climb is. With the coming of darkness, the temperature had dropped, so it was no longer as hot as it had been during the day. I was surprised when we arrived at the Dung Gate—I had expected the walk to take longer. Much longer.

Like many of the other participants in the march, we entered the Old City, and

Women's section of the Kotel at midnight on Tisha b'Av
Women’s section of the Kotel at midnight on Tisha b’Av

walked down to the Kotel. The plaza was crowded. The custom is to sit on the ground or on a low chair. Nevertheless, I was grateful to find a regular chair to sit on so I could rest my aching back and hips. A large group of men was singing quiet songs appropriate to the mood of the day. On our side of the mechitza, a large group of women was also singing. The voices blended in a beautiful harmony that put me in a contemplative mood. I’d have been willing to sit there for hours, listening, if I hadn’t been so tired. The idea of falling off my chair kept me just barely awake until my friends were ready to leave.

The number 1 bus picked us up at the exit from the Kotel Plaza. I watched out the window as we drove through the Dung Gate and past the Tanners’ Gate. Most people don’t know that this opening in the wall a short distance west of the Dung Gate even has a name. Built in the old walls in the middle ages, it was re-opened in the 1980s to relieve some of the press of traffic through the gate just to its east. Like the Damascus Gate, the Tanner’s Gate is for pedestrians only.

As we drove up the hill, we passed the Zion Gate, invisible from the road because of the curve of the slope. Although we drove along the western side of the Old City, the road curves away from the walls before it reaches the Jaffa Gate. But then the road curves again. I looked out the window and saw the New Gate, completing my circle. Even if I didn’t walk the whole way, I traveled past all the gates of city on Tisha B’Av.

Link to map of the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, indicated by yellow stars. The Gate of Mercy is labeled Golden Gate , on the eastern side of the Old City. 


Exploring Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Taking a selfie of a selfie in Nachlaot, Jerusalem
Taking a selfie of a selfie in Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Eden and Askadar, the Ethiopian girls I tutor,  were reviewing their list of new English vocabulary with me. We were on the page of words that began with S.

It was Eden’s turn to read. “S-el-ef. Atzmi.’ Sehl-ef.” She stared at the English word and its translation a moment and broke into a broad grin, extending her left arm in the air, above her face. “Oh, Selfie!” she exclaimed.

I doubt either girl will ever forget what the word “self” means.

Their recognition of the word “self” reminded me of a wall mural I had recently seen when on a tour of Nachlaot, a neighborhood in Jerusalem. Just past the top of a stairway from Bezalel street I noticed it. Wall murals in Nachlaot are not unusual, but this one was different from most. Instead of a brightly painted street scene or historical mash up, this one looked like a partially colored sketch. It showed a woman taking a selfie. This was an irresistible opportunity—my friend Renee and I took photos of each other taking selfies by the painting.

Although most people refer to Nachlaot as one neighborhood, it is actually a group of 24, maybe 32, neighborhoods that run one into the other. How many you find depends on what you consider its borders. The area’s official name is Lev Ha’ir — Heart of the City — but almost no one calls it that. It is one of the older parts of the New City, with some of its neighborhoods dating back to the late nineteenth century.

Even Yisrael was the first neighborhood in the area, built by Joseph Rivlin in 1882. It consisted of 53 one-story apartments around a courtyard. Mishkenot Yisrael was founded in 1875, followed by  Mazkeret Moshe and Ohel Moshe in 1882, Nahalat Zion in 1891. Each little neighborhood was built for a specific group: Mazkeret Moshe for Ashkenazi Jews, Ohel Moshe for Sephardim, Nahalat Zion for low-income laborers. On the other side of Nachlaot are several areas where more religious communities settled: the ultra-Orthodox Batei Broide and Knesset Yisrael, and the Hasidic Batei Rand. There is an old saying: ”Residents of different neighborhoods get along like brothers, like Cain and Abel.” This may be the reason the each compound is surrounded by a wall.

I often walked through Nachlaot on my way to ulpan class on Bezalel street.

House in Nachlaot, expanded from one story to three stories. There's a clear difference in the type and size of stones used.
House in Nachlaot, expanded from one story to three stories. There’s a clear difference in the type and size of stones used.

Every day I tried to walk a different route to see the different styles of buildings. Most of them had originally been only one story, but over the years additional floors have been added. Because of historical preservation rules, renovations must preserve the original style. The first floor exterior must remain as is. In keeping with Jerusalem’s building code, the whole exterior is white Jerusalem limestone. However, it is often easy to see the demarcation between the original and new construction. The stone from different quarries may have weathered differently, with older stones being pale tan in color. Stones of one section may be different in size or surface texture.

Over the months, I watched a house on Mazkeret Moshe street gutted and remodeled. The renovations did not touch the exterior walls. Although the building now had new windows, the arched stone openings into which they fit remained the same size and shape. Even the arch over the sidewalk between that house and the opposite one looked the same, although it had been removed and rebuilt.

Because each group that comes to Israel wants to keep its own traditions for prayer, most neighborhoods in Jerusalem have many small synagogues. Nachlaot is no exception. One of the most beautiful in the area is the Syrian synagogue. It is named for the Ades family of Aleppo who built it in 1901 to serve the Syrians who lived in the Nachalat Zion neighborhood.

Jews lived in Syria even before there was a general diaspora of Jews. They traced their origins back to Joab ben Zeruyah, King David’s general. The Jewish community of Aleppo is documented as far back as the fourth century. It was a well-to-do community which produced many scholars. The community thrived until 1948, when the Jews came under attack and had to leave the country. Like most Jews who fled from Arab and Muslim countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they arrived in Israel with only what they could carry. The small synagogue in Nachlaot became the new religious home for some of those who made aliyah.

The interior of the building is richly painted. Much of the original paint faded quickly. A young Bezalel Art Academy student named Yakov Struk restored it for free, no doubt hoping that showcasing his talent in the synagogue would lead to a successful career. Unfortunately, he contracted typhus before he established himself as an artist, and died in 1915 at the age of 34. Even so, his work lives on.

 Marble columns painted on wall between windows in Syrian synagogue in Nachlaot, Jerusalem
Marble columns painted on wall between windows in Syrian synagogue in Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Like many Middle Eastern buildings, the synagogue has a pale blue ceiling. The color is supposed to trick evil spirits into thinking they are seeing the heavens and go away.

The upper walls are painted in an intricate design of dark blue on a dark mustard colored background. Two marble columns are painted trompe l’oeil style between each pair of windows. Above the windows, on a background of dark gold, round lozenges depict each of the tribes of Israel. A characteristic symbol of each tribe is enclosed within each lozenge. The symbols are derived from Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his sons, the fathers of the tribes. For example, Judah’s symbol is the lion, because he was blessed as an awesome lion, while Dan’s symbol is the snake.

As beautiful as the paintings are, they are not the focal point of the room. The eye is drawn to the intricately carved dark wood aron and bima. Small triangular and round mother of pearl chips accent the carvings, an unusual and beautiful touch.

Neon lights highlight the Ten Commandments and Aron Kodesh in a Kurdish synagogue in Nachlaot, Jerusalem
Neon lights highlight the Ten Commandments and Aron Kodesh in a Kurdish synagogue in Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Neon lights are would seem to be unusual in synagogue decor. But apparently they are common in Kurdish synagogues. The bright red, yellow and blue lights highlight the Ten Commandments plaque above the aron in a Kurdish synagogue in Nachlaot. The sanctuary has plain white walls, with sayings from the Talmud painted on them in gold. Square brown plaques decorate the balcony wall. They depict the seven species with which the land of Israel is blessed: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and (date) honey.

The more I travel in Israel, the less I am surprised by the variety of houses of prayer. I’ve seen rococo gold decorations in several transplanted Italian synagogues, an intricately painted Syrian synagogue in Nachlaot, a simple stone room in Tsfat, plain painted walls in many small Eastern European style shteiblach, the elegant marble simplicity of the Great Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem, the garish neon of the Kurdish synagogue, the hundreds of stone mosaics that cover every surface of the Tunisian synagogue in Acco. It seems that every style and type of interior decoration has found its way into synagogues. Nevertheless, each one reflects the care of its builders, and the religious feelings of those who pray in it.

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:

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.


Pharaoh in Canaan

Poster for Pharaoh in Canaan exhibition at entrance to Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Poster for Pharaoh in Canaan exhibition at entrance to Israel Museum

On  Sunday during Passover, Allen and I went to the Israel Museum to view the special exhibition ,”Pharaoh in Canaan.” The exhibition focuses on the second millennium BCE, the period during which Canaanites migrated and settled in the Nile Delta area of Egypt and the Egyptians conquered and ruled much of the land of Canaan. Archaeologists refer to the time as the middle and late bronze ages, the time in which Jacob and Moses lived.

Anthropoid sarcophagus covers from the 13th century BCE, found in Israel Photo: Yocheved Bernstein
Anthropoid sarcophagus covers from the 13th century BCE, found in Israel
Photo: Yocheved Bernstein

I had gone through the exhibit a week earlier with my nine-year old granddaughter Yocheved. Her approach to museums is somewhat different from mine. She moves quickly, sometimes stopping to look at an artifact. Letting her use my camera slowed her down a little as she stopped to take multiple photos of things she found interesting. Thus, I ended up with several photos of anthropoid sarcophagus lids, some of which are in focus.

My approach to museums is slower paced. I read the labels on the artifacts and the informative signs. I look carefully at the artifacts, comparing them. And sometimes I take a photo or two of something I find particularly interesting, if photos are allowed. Flash photos are often forbidden because the light can damage some ancient artifacts.           

Yellow limestone statue of Pharaoh Akenaton, who ruled Egypt from 1340 - 1335 BCE
Yellow limestone statue of Pharaoh Akenaton, who ruled Egypt from 1340 – 1335 BCE

One exhibit I found particularly lovely was a small statue of Pharaoh Akhenaton carved from yellow limestone. In the photos advertising the exhibit, the statue looks large and golden. Surprisingly, it is only about two feet high. The lighting makes the yellow limestone look as if it is gold. What I like about this statue is that it makes him look more human than most statues of Pharaohs. I wonder, however, what he thought of the sculptor’s showing his pot belly.

The statue was originally of two people,

Queen Nefertiti's arm around Akhenaten 's back. Statue on loan to Israel Museum from Louvre Museum, Paris
Queen Nefertiti’s arm around Akhenaten ‘s back. Statue on loan to Israel Museum from Louvre Museum, Paris

Pharaoh and his wife Nefertiti. Unfortunately, all that remains of Nefertiti is her left arm draped gracefully around Akhenaton’s back. From the back, you can see he is leaning slightly towards her, a depiction of marital intimacy not often shown in royal portraits.

Two cases were full of gold jewelry found in archeological digs in Israel. Although the rings did not appeal to me, many of the earrings were similar to ones you can see in today’s jewelres’shops. It’s strange to think that styles over four thousand years old would still be appealing, but many of the earring I would enjoy wearing myself.


The Road to Jerusalem: Latrun

memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.
At the memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.

Near Latrun, just southwest of where Road 3 crosses Road 1, a small memorial overlooks a wide valley. The valley looks beautiful and peaceful under the warm late winter sun. The farmland in a dozen shades of green stretches to the Judean mountains where the Latrun Trappist Monastery and the old British Tegart fort can be plainly seen. This is the Ayalon Valley, whose long bloody history belies its pastoral sleepiness.

The Ayalon Valley is one of a very few east-west valleys in the region. Because it is wide and flat, in ancient times it linked two major trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its flat terrain also made it perfect for war. The Ayalon was where Egyptians fought Canaanites, the sun stood still for Joshua, the Maccabees fought their sixth battle against the Seleucids, the Byzantines fought the Arabs, the Arabs fought the Crusaders, and the British under General Allenby fought the Turks in World War I.

Here is where the nascent State of Israel fought the Jordanian Legion. Whoever held Latrun controlled the Ayalon Valley and the road to Jerusalem. Both sides recognized its crucial geography. The Haganah tried to capture Latrun from the Jordanian Legion, the best trained and equipped army in the Middle East, three times.

The first battle is probably the best known. The myth is that Israel sent untrained immigrants, just off the boat from European DP camps, to Latrun to die. The truth is much more complex.

New immigrants were given rifles, quickly trained, and sent to join the Haganah. But in the plans for battle, they were placed in the rear. In front of them were better trained fighters, men who had been in battle already. In front of those fighters, was G’dud (battalion) 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, the best trained most experienced fighters of the Haganah. Leading them was the best, most experienced officer, twenty year old Arik Scheinerman. A large force was assembled to capture the poorly manned fort in the middle of the night, May 26.

In war, as in other parts of life, things do not always go according to plan. The intelligence was not current. The Israelis did not know that in the previous few days the Jordanians had reinforced the garrison at Latrun. Instead of a few dozen soldiers, the attackers would face the fire of 2000 better trained better armed soldiers.

The other problem was timing. The Israelis wanted to attack at night because they needed to cross the large flat valley directly in front of the fort. To win, they needed the cover of darkness to surprise the defenders. However, instead of starting at 12 AM, they did not move until 4 AM, just before dawn started to light the valley. They had lost the element of surprise. Not unexpectedly, they lost the battle as well.

Arik Scheinerman, a young soldier in the Haganah's Alexandroni Brigade
Arik Scheinerman as a young soldier in the Haganah’s Alexandroni Brigade (Getty Images)

Arik, the twenty year old commander leading the attack, was severely wounded in the abdomen early in the battle. As he lay there in the sun, he was sure he would die, with soldiers dying all around him, gave the order to retreat. For the only time in his career, he ordered that the wounded be left on the field. But one of his men decided to try to pull him to safety. They had to move slowly and carefully; they were under Jordanian fire, and Arab villagers were on the field killing the wounded and stripping them of anything of value. Numerous times during the next few hours, as the soldier slowly pulled the officer towards safety, Arik told him to go, to save himself. The soldier was as stubborn and brave as Arik was. It took hours, but both men made it to safety behind the Israeli lines.

Arik’s experience under the guns of Latrun reinforced his conviction never to leave wounded or dead soldiers behind. This has been one of the operating principles of the IDF up to today; they do not leave the wounded to die or be captured.

Even dead soldiers are used as bargaining chips by our enemies. Their bodies are held and returned for proper burial only in return for some advantage. In 1986, after Israel released over 1000 convicted terrorists in exchange for the body of a kidnapped soldier, a new protocol was developed. It stipulated that all efforts be made to rescue a kidnapped soldier, even at the risk of endangering his life. Kept secret until 2003, it has come to be known as the “Hannibal Protocol.” Because of events in recent wars against Hamas, the IDF is reconsidering the Hannibal Protocol. Soldiers lives have been lost and many enemy civilians have been killed in IDF efforts to bring home our kidnapped soldiers.

Hamas knows Israel will do all it can to get even dead bodies back.

During a cease fire in the summer of 2014 war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and two other officers were shot by Hamas gunmen in Rafah, Gaza. Hadar was pulled into a tunnel. One of Hadar’s men continued to follow the trail of blood into the tunnel to try to rescue him. When he realized his efforts were futile, he returned to his unit, bringing with him evidence of Hadar’s death. The IDF never announced what that evidence was, but it was enough to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Rabbinate to declare him dead.

Although the Goldin family sat shiva, said Kaddish, and observed the other rituals of mourning, they were not satisfied. Today, over a year and a half after his death, they are still pressuring the government to bring Hadar home for a proper burial. Hamas understands the lengths Israel will go to in order to bring her people home, alive or dead. Israel released over a thousand convicted terrorists to get Gilad Shalit released five years after his capture. Hamas wants a similar payment for Hadar Goldin’s lifeless body.

A few weeks later the Haganah became the Israel Defense Force. Arik Scheinerman became Arik Sharon. Known as a daring, clever, and at times insubordinate officer, he rose through the ranks. He eventually served as Chief of Staff and Prime Minister of Israel.

And Latrun?

Israel attacked it two more times. Both attempts were equally unsuccessful. It remained in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, the siege of Jerusalem needed to be broken. Where Israeli might did not work, Jewish ingenuity did. In the midst of the war, with little heavy equipment, the Hganah built a new road through the impassable mountains. It was completed two days before the first ceasefire on June 9, 1948. Without this road, Jewish Jerusalem would have been choked off by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies, and forced to surrender.

The new road, ironically called the “Burma Road” after a British road similarly built during a war, under extreme conditions, supplied Jerusalem for the next five months. Then a good road, properly engineered and built opened. But the Burma Road remains. It is a monument to the hard work and sacrifice that went into the founding of the State.

Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948
Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948

As is the memorial across the Ayalon Valley from Latrun. Next to a pale stone arch that frames the valley battlefield is a stone pillar that lists the names of the members of G’dud 32 who died during the first battle of Latrun. Fifty eight names are listed here. Fifty-eight men from one unit—a shockingly high percentage. Over a thousand men were on the battlefield, and only seventy five were killed. G’dud 32 had been the best soldiers of the Haganah, the most experienced in battle, the bravest. The untrained fighters, the new immigrants, fought behind the Alexandroni and the other trained units and suffered relatively few casualties. G’dud 32 had borne the brunt of the battle, and they suffered accordingly.

Latrun would remain in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem, for the next nineteen years. Yet the siege had been broken. New roads would be built, and Jerusalem would survive.