What Did The British Do For Us?

The news of the past few months has been full of stories relating to the British mandate in Palestine. At the end of October, we commemorated the centenary of the Battle of Beersheva, where the bravery and resourcefulness of Anzac forces helped the British win a decisive battle, leading them to conquer Gaza and defeat the Ottoman Turks. In November, we celebrated two anniversaries: the Balfour Declaration, which was a direct result of the British victory in Beersheva, and the fateful British decision to end the mandate, as a result of the UN decision to partition Palestine, which occurred thirty years later. On December 11th, there will be a reenactment of the victorious arrival in Jerusalem of the commander of the British forces. General Edmund Allenby had a tremendous respect for the city. He dismounted from his mighty steed and entered through the Jaffa Gate on foot, declaring “If the Messiah is only going to arrive in Jerusalem on a donkey, then who am I to ride a horse?”

What was it about this little country that caused the British to want to conquer it in the first place?The answer is India. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and it would go to great lengths to safeguard it. The importance of keeping trade routes to India open was paramount. When the Turks entered the First World War, the British were worried this may lead to the blocking of the Suez Canal. In response, they developed a plan to create a land bridge between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. It would provide an alternative to the Suez Canal and allow speedy deployment of troops to the Gulf, which was the forward line of defence for the British in India and the focus of its main oil interests.

Palestine was the key. Successful defence of the Sinai Peninsula from combined Ottoman and German attacks reinforced that view and the British-Anzac Egyptian Expeditionary Force was formed under British command. In addition, once Palestine was under their control, the British forces would then be able to join up with their troops in Syria. The thirty years that Palestine was ruled by the British were significant in terms of its development. Whilst British government policy often discriminated against the Jewish population of the country, local administration and bylaws helped propel it from being a backwater of the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century.

Jerusalem is known for the striking white stone buildings which make up the city. It was actually a British ordinance of 1918, that all new buildings were to be built or faced with the local “Jerusalem Stone” that is responsible for this clean, uniform look. A few months into the mandate, the British drew up a master plan for Jerusalem, which included bringing piped water to the city for the first time and building a permanent market in Mahane Yehuda, complete with the very first public toilets!

They also introduced the very English idea of “garden suburbs”, whereby a family home would be built surrounded by a garden and greenery. The adjacent streets were to be lined with trees and have a central grassy bank or island; public parks were also an important element of this design. Some of these Jerusalem neighbourhoods still exist and preserve features of the original plan, such as Bet HaKerem and  Rehavia. Others, like Bayit Vegan, Talpiot and Meah Shearim have been built up in such a way that erases all vestiges of the original layout.

By 1945 there were 100,000 British troops in the country. The six beautifully tended British Commonwealth graveyards in Israel (and two more in Gaza) bear witness to those who were killed here and in other regions of the Middle East. Private Harry Potter lost his life in Hebron in 1939, during the three year Arab Revolt against British rule that started as a protest against Jewish immigration. He is buried in Ramla cemetery and busloads of tourists go to pay their respects to him daily. A less well known grave is that of William Shakespeare, a 41 year old driver from Nottingham who was killed in May 1948 and is buried in Jerusalem.

A recent archaeological excavation near Ramla unearthed a  hundred year old rubbish tip. Located just outside a former British army base, the archaeologists were amazed to discover that 70% of the garbage consisted of empty bottles of alcohol. It seems that gin, whisky, wine and beer were imported from Europe to supply soldiers in the camp. This is the first time such a find has been uncovered and gives us a clear indication of how the soldiers relaxed when off duty.

Another very recent piece of news is US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Ironically, it was only under the British that Jerusalem was once more restored as the country’s capital after 700 years of Arab rule. It remains to be seen if today’s British prime minister will endorse it with the same enthusiasm. In his victory speech in December 1917, General Allenby declared “every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected.” It is often said that history repeats itself and one hundred years later, almost to the day, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the same point: “I also want to make clear: there will be no change whatsoever to the status quo at the holy sites…Israel will always ensure freedom of worship for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.” Let us hope that once the knee jerk reactions are over, a new era will begin where we can indeed focus on what it is that unites us with our neighbours and finally put an end to the centuries of strife and senseless warfare.

Posted in General Allenby, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What Did The British Do For Us?

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem (Psalms 137)

A majority of tourists and locals have a good idea what they want to see when they go to Jerusalem’s Old City. Most of them don’t think twice about the fact that it is divided into sections or “quarters”. Today’s quarters only began to be called by their present names in the early nineteenth century. Residents of the city preferred to live amongst their own kind, but their populations were far from homogeneous, with Moslems living in the Jewish Quarter and vice versa. We are so used to visiting the “ancient Jewish quarter” or “ghetto” in cities all over the globe: Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Girona, Krakow, Marrakech, to name just a few, that it doesn’t seem strange that Jerusalem has one too. It should! 

When King David conquered the ancient city of Jebus from the Canaanite tribe that lived here in approximately 1000 BCE and made it into the Jewish capital city, the people originally settled outside the current Old City walls. Whilst we have no exact figures regarding the population at this time, most archeologists and historians would guess around 1,000 individuals.  Known today as “The City of David”, this early Jerusalem is bordered by the Kidron Valley to the east and the Hinnom Valley to the west. This is where the Jerusalem we read about in the Bible was situated and where prophets, kings and regular people walked freely. It was David’s son, Solomon, who built the Temple on Mount Moriah, to the north of the city, on land purchased by his father for fifty silver shekels from Araunah the Jebusite (see 2 Samuel 24:24). As the numbers of inhabitants in the city grew, particularly after refugees flooded Jerusalem as a result of the decimation of the north of the country by Assyrian forces in the 720’s BCE, they gravitated up the hill into the area of today’s Jewish Quarter. Over the ensuing years and centuries their homes and businesses expanded further to the north and west of David’s original capital and the Temple Mount. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was conquered and partially destroyed by the Babylonians. They enslaved the Jewish population and transported them to Babylon.

With a change of regime and permission given to the Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, they started over again some 70 years later. They were guided by Nechemiah, who writes of his painstaking efforts to rebuild the city walls in a little-read account close to the end of the Bible, just before the book of Chronicles. Much later, during the Hasmonean dynasty (160’s BCE), the city once again increased in size. Under the rule of mega-builder King Herod, which started in 37 BCE, the Jewish capital was at its largest, only returning to similar dimensions in the 19th century! He undertook major building projects in the city and rebuilt the temple and greatly expanded the area surrounding it. During Herod’s reign hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Jerusalem, with their numbers swelling to even greater proportions during the pilgrim festivals. Archeological remains dating from this time period in the vicinity of the Damascus Gate and the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in today’s Moslem and Christian Quarters respectively, give us some idea of Jerusalem’s dimensions. By the year 70 CE, just before its destruction by the Romans, Jerusalem’s northern wall (probably built by Herod’s successor, Agrippa) extended well into today’s modern city, a little south of the neighbourhood of Meah Shearim.

It was the Roman commander, Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and Herod’s temple and expelled most of the Jewish population from the city. The final expulsion of Jerusalem’s Jewish inhabitants by the Romans took place under the emperor Hadrian, who erected Aelia Capitolina, a pagan Roman city dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on Jerusalem’s ruins. After the Bar Kochba Revolt which ended in 135 CE, Jews were completely banned from entering Jerusalem and this edict was strictly enforced for several centuries (barring a one year blip between 362-3 CE under the brief reign of the emperor Julian).

Only during the month of Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of both of their temples, were they permitted to visit the Foundation Stone on the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, this is the place where Abraham bound Isaac and from which G-d took the earth that formed Adam and Eve. It was over this rock that the Holy of Holies was positioned, the innermost and most sacred part of the temple, where only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year on Yom Kippur. From the Roman period onwards, foreign rulers would dictate where Jews in Jerusalem were allowed to go. It set a precedent that was to have ramifications until the present day. This was the turning point. Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem no longer had the luxury to decide where they wanted to live and would forever have their movements circumscribed by invading forces and external powers. Once the Romans adopted Christianity they were not any more charitable. There was no permanent Jewish presence in the capital at all under Christian rule and it was only with the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem in 638 that a limited number of 70 families were once more permitted to reside in the city. They were restricted to the area south of the Temple Mount, probably in the space known to us today as the Ophel.

The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 by the Ummayad ruler Caliph Abd-el Malik. It was not a mosque and the precise reason for its construction is still unclear and the subject of much speculation. One theory is that it was a victory monument for the Moslems who had inherited a beautiful city renowned for its stunning churches. As far as the Jews were concerned, it was a reincarnation of Solomon’s Temple and although the Temple Mount was to become a sacred place for Moslem prayer, they were allowed to assume janitorial roles sweeping it and cleaning and filling the glass lamps with oil. In–fighting between the various Moslem dynasties led to the downfall of the Ummayads and the ascendance of the Abassids who were not nearly so tolerant of their Jewish subjects. Jews were now banned from entering the Temple Mount and had to console themselves by praying at its gates. By the 11th century and the rise of the Fatimid dynasty, conditions worsened and when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in July 1099, its Jews were massacred and those that managed to flee were banished from the city once more.

It was to be another eighty-eight years before they would be given permission to return. Jerusalem was conquered yet again and this time was at the mercy of the Moslem warrior Salah-al-din (aka Saladin). Jews were once again allowed to live in the city and many of those who took advantage of this leniency came from towns on the coast that had been destroyed by his Ayubbid army. They were later joined by North African Jews from Morocco and Yemen and European Jews from England and France. Their respite was short-lived, as the city briefly came under Crusader control again between 1229-1244, when the Jews were once more expelled. They were only allowed to return after 1260, when the Mamlukes, the next wave of Moslem rulers, assumed power.

Mamluke rule which continued for almost three hundred years saw the Jewish community built up from scratch, according to Rabbi Moses Ben Nachmanides, the Jewish doctor from Spain who arrived in Jerusalem in 1267 (known by his acronym as the Ramban). He wrote a letter home to his son, in which he lamented there were only two Jews in the whole city and he made it his mission to renew the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. He also established the tradition of Jews praying at the Western Wall. Until this time, Jews had prayed in different parts of the city dependent on where they were allowed access by the ruling power. During this era they could (with special permission) pray at the Western Wall, chosen by the Ramban as a site of prayer because it was now the closest place the Jewish population could get to the original Holy of Holies. According to an account written by Jacob of Verona, who visited the city in 1335, the community lived mainly in the area of Mount Zion. Other reports mention Jews living in caves in the Kidron Valley and eventually in homes in the present day Jewish Quarter. However, they were not allowed to enter the Temple Mount area.

The arrival of the Turks in 1517 initially heralded an upturn in Jewish fortunes, but after the death of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, onerous taxation caused them to leave the city in droves. The Jerusalem populace was devastatingly poor and unable to exist without support from Jewish communities overseas. When the Egyptians conquered Palestine in 1831 they introduced many reforms and for the first time since the Roman period, Jews were allowed to pray at the Western Wall without needing to apply for special permission. They were originally concentrated in the area of the Jewish Quarter, but quickly expanded north into the Moslem Quarter near the Temple Mount. The Jewish population grew from about 2,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to 45,000 at the end of the Ottoman period. In comparison, by 1917, on the eve of the British conquest, there were about 13,000 Christians and 12,000 Moslems. At this time Jewish families lived in the Bab Huta area (near the Flower Gate), in Hebron Street (opposite the area of the Cotton Market) and in the Street of the Steps, all in the Moslem Quarter. They built synagogues, yeshivas and other institutions such as a printing press and the offices of the Hebrew newspaper “Havatzelet” in the area. Jews also began to live in communities outside the Old City walls, starting with Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1860. Some of the Yemenite community was housed in Kfar Shiloach in the ancient necropolis opposite the City of David, the biblical Jerusalem.

Under the British Mandate, Jews continued to live in the Old City in the Moslem and Jewish Quarters. However, Arab riots which started in 1920 on the eve of the San Remo Conference and continued throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, eventually led to the Jews abandoning their homes as the assaults and killings escalated. Areas where Jews lived in the New City that bordered with Arab neighbourhoods were also abandoned, such as Meah Shearim and the Georgian quarter near Damascus Gate, as well as neighbourhoods in more outlying areas.

Once the British formally withdrew and the War of Independence began in May 1948, the Old City was besieged by the most professional of the seven Arab armies that attacked the fledgling state, the Jordanians. They had been trained and equipped by the British, many of whom stayed on to help them attack. After a harrowing two weeks of house-to-house fighting, the Jews in the Old City surrendered on May 28th 1948 and its 1,300 remaining Jewish residents were once more expelled from their homes. 290 of them were taken prisoner by the Jordanians and the rest were moved to the New City. It would take another nineteen years until they could return as a result of the Israeli victory of the Six day War in 1967. Once again, they had to start building from scratch as the Jordanians had blown up most of the buildings in the Jewish Quarter.

The magnificent city of Jerusalem of old with its wondrous architecture and temple is mentioned in the fifth chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Sukka where it says: “He who has not seen Jerusalem in its beauty, has not seen a beautiful great city in his whole life; and who has not seen the building of the Second Temple, has not seen a handsome building in his life.”  The post-1967 version tries to capture the essence of what once stood, but the ravages of time have played their role and the city which has been repeatedly and brutally dismantled by civilisations that have long ceased to exist, has itself almost disappeared. The Jewish Quarter of today is the smallest of the “quarters”, delineated in the present Old City walls, a sad footnote to its majestic and tumultuous past. The fact that Jews and non-Jews alike automatically assume they will visit the Western Wall during their stay in Jerusalem and the crowds that once more throng the streets during the festivals, are perhaps the greatest testament we have that Jewish Jerusalem has not been forgotten.

Posted in ancient israelites, archeology, Architecture, Av, Bar Kochba Revolt, bible, British, caves, Christianity, crusaders, Egypt, Herod, Jerusalem, Jewish, Jewish Quarter, Mamelukes, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Moslem, Roman, Soldiers, Solomon, Suleiman, temple, Turkey, Uncategorized, Western Wall | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem (Psalms 137)

Music Makes The World Go Round

What do you get if you mix a Breslav Hassid with a Frenchman? Well, in this particular case the answer is music. Both gentlemen in question share the surname “Levy” and are descended from the musicians who played in the temple, so maybe it is something in their genes. Laurent Levy is a property developer who saw the potential of a very rundown and neglected area smack in the city centre of Jerusalem. Eldad Levy is a musician with a vision who believes the combination of cadence and harmony can harness the good in people. As a result of their collaboration, Jerusalemites are lucky enough to have a wonderful project and new museum in the completely renovated area that stretches from Yoel Salomon Street to the Italian synagogue.IMG_5603

The museum is part of the complex that makes up Music Square, a space that takes the world of music as its theme and has a number of good restaurants, a music club and a lovely outdoor space (covered and heated in winter) where musicians serenade diners as they eat. Future plans include a 400 seat auditorium and a fifty room boutique hotel, where each room will be dedicated to a different Jewish musician.

The Hebrew Music Museum aims to explore how the origins of Jewish music developed. The curators believe it grew out of the local music where Jewish communities lived. For example, if you ask people today what is “Jewish music”? Invariably the answer will include a reference to klezmer. In Europe, this genre evolved from Gypsy music as itinerant gypsies were the troubadours and musicians. When klezmer music made its debut in this country, it first came to Safed where it came under the influence of the local Druze culture and was exposed to the Darbuka (hand drum). Israeli klezmer musicians incorporated it into their melodies, making their version very different from the klezmer music of Europe.

IMG_5605Each of the seven rooms that comprise the museum has a separate theme. Aesthetics are a hugely important part of the experience and every room has its own distinctive style which reflects the background of the instruments displayed there. On a recent visit, we began in Central Asia and looked at instruments that were in use during the time of the 2nd temple. It should be stressed that most of the instruments themselves are not old, but are copies of those that existed during that time period.

The next room we entered has an ornately carved wood ceiling that our guide Yaniv (another Levy, although all of them are unrelated) tells us was carved by the carpenters of the king of Morocco. In the Balkan room the ceiling panels were painted by the interior designer of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem. No expense has been spared in this beautifully designed space. There are 260 different instruments on display and whilst you are not allowed to touch them unless you are accompanied by one of the museum in-house guides, you can “play” each and every item via a tablet that you are given to accompany you on your tour. There are also a number of games with the instruments which should successfully entertain the younger crowd.IMG_5607

It is fascinating to learn about the background of so many hugely different pieces. For example, the prototype of the bagpipe, that quintessentially Scottish instrument (or so I believed), actually comes from Tunisia, where it was played by the local tea seller to announce his arrival. There are also some very long Indian horns that are reminiscent of the trumpets mentioned in the Torah and various other instruments we hear about in the book of Daniel. I was personally enthralled by the dulcimer, an instrument I associate with the plays of William Shakespeare. Another instrument that caught my eye seemed just like a cricket bat with strings attached! The museum loves to give themed tours and recently offered one based on the instruments mentioned in the Book of Psalms.

We looked at some metal castanets, an instrument which I thought originated in Spain. Wrong again! We were surprised to learn that in fact they come from the region of the Sahara Desert and they developed out of the metal manacles that were put on prisoners…my imagination went into overdrive as I envisaged a motley crew of prisoners clanking their chains and banging their handcuffs to a catchy beat.

IMG_5618There is one ethnic group that only very recently added instruments to their musical repertoire and those are the Yemenites. According to ancient Yemenite custom, it was forbidden to play any musical instruments after the destruction of the temple because the community was in mourning for its loss. There are still some people that don’t play any music (except for drums) at a wedding if it is held in Jerusalem, for a similar reason. When the Yemenites arrived here on Operation Magic Carpet shortly after the creation of the state, they only then started to incorporate instruments into their music. They already had a very strong musical tradition, but until that point it was all vocal and not instrumental.

For me, the undisputed highlight of the visit was a virtual temple tour where you are taken inside the Second Temple into the various different courtyards and rooms and see and hear the sounds and rituals to which only the privileged few had access. With special goggles and headphones you are transported into a totally different reality and even ride in an elevator to the very top of the structure where you get to see the ancient views over Jerusalem.

So, if you are looking for something a little different to entertain you on your next visit to Jerusalem I would suggest a stop in this fascinating new attraction.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Music Makes The World Go Round

Those Canaan Days

I have always found the narrative at the beginning of the book of Exodus to be somewhat abrupt when describing the change of regime that occurred in Egypt. The opening paragraph relates how the Jews prosper and increase in number and then all of a sudden there is a very unsatisfying “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). It seems to jar with the previous paragraph, which suggests the Jews flourished precisely because of Joseph’s legacy, so even if this new Pharaoh was not acquainted personally with Joseph, it appears strange to think he had never even heard of him.

Just in time for the Passover season, a new exhibition at the Israel Museum called “Pharaoh in Canaan, the Untold Story” helped me to understand this anomaly. According to museum guide Roni Peled, the one paragraph at the beginning of the book of Exodus actually corresponds to a time period of 350 years, which would help to explain this new Pharaoh’s ignorance. The whole subject of the Exodus is one of those contentious topics where historians, archaeologists and adherents of the Bible clash. Whilst no archaeological evidence has yet corroborated the Exodus story, Peled says we must emphasise the word “yet”. He posits the Egyptians have no incentive to dig any deeper and unearth evidence that would support the biblical account. That is very different from saying we have conclusive proof it didn’t happen.

According to most historians, the Hyksos are the group most commonly identified with the Jews who went down to Egypt from Canaan, as related in the book of Genesis. Known as a population who spoke a western Semitic language, they left Canaan gradually around 1750 BCE and went on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams in their new homeland. As their power increased, they ended up controlling Northern Egypt for the next 200 years or so. This included the area east of Goshen, which is where we are told in the Joseph story that the Jews settled. The book of Genesis stops its narrative at the time of Joseph’s death, and except for the brief description mentioned above we know nothing more about the Jews in Egypt until they are enslaved.IMG_3578 (2)

Egyptian sources relate that after about two centuries the Hyksos were unceremoniously kicked out of Egypt by the rulers of Southern Egypt with whom they had continuously fought. Approximately 3,500 years ago the newly united Egypt then conquered the Land of Israel, or Canaan as it was called back then. The first military conquest was under the aegis of the Pharaoh Thutmoses III. Thanks to the military journal he kept, we know the exact route of his army which had its first decisive victory at Megiddo. Bet Shean, Jaffa and Gaza were also important military strongholds. This was the start of 300 years of Egyptian rule here, a period that has been largely ignored until today. Many of the archaeological remains from that era are now being displayed. Some have been loaned from museums in other parts of the world and are being shown together with local finds for the first time. They help us build a picture of how Jewish and Egyptian cultures existed side by side.

IMG_3579Egyptian art depicts the Canaanites as bearded, in stark contrast to the clean-shaven Egyptians whose gods were the only ones to sometimes sprout facial hair. For obvious reasons, the Canaanites are always shown on the losing side in battle scenes. In reality, they changed the nature of weaponry by introducing bows and arrows made of ivory, bone and wood which added extra shooting power. They also brought carriages onto the battlefield for the first time.

The grandeur of Egypt is represented by an abundance of sphinxes (part of an exceptionally fine specimen was recently found in Hazor), scarabs and statues of Pharaohs, as well as an impressive reconstruction of the gates to Bet Shean. When the Egyptians ruled over Canaan, naturally they brought with them their own traditions and customs, but they were not averse to modifying them in accordance with regional styles. For example, in the Governor’s residence in Bet Shean, workmen built with Egyptian mud bricks, like those we read about in the biblical narrative, but here they combined them with Canaanite stonework. In another instance, what were initially thought to be imported Egyptian pottery vessels were actually found to be produced in a workshop in the area around Afula. However, the addition of handles to their amphorae is a custom they took from the locals. In a pottery jar which originally contained beer, which was an Egyptian invention, excavators were lucky enough to discover a fine collection of jewellery that had been wrapped in cotton and buried in mud. A separate discovery was a gold ring belonging to the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, the only reference to him ever found here.IMG_3586

IMG_3588Another fascinating artifact is a woman’s silver mirror that was found in the grave of three women who all had Semitic names. This brings to mind the explanation by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the French medieval biblical commentator), how after Pharaoh began to oppress the Jews in Egypt the men lost hope in the future and no longer wanted to procreate. Using their mirrors, the women tempted them to have intercourse and thus ensure the future of the Jewish people. Later on, in the desert, the women donated their mirrors in order to construct the basin in the Tabernacle.

A further object which had great significance was the rod or staff and we see several depictions of leaders holding one. Perhaps that is why both Moses and Aaron each had a staff that with G-d’s help was used as a very special status symbol to great dramatic effect. Amongst the other miracles they performed, Aaron’s rod turned into a snake that ate up the snakes of all of Pharaoh’s magicians and later turned the waters of the Nile to blood. Moses’ staff was used in the desert in direct contrast to these earlier miracles; Moses caused water to flow from the rock and created an antidote to snake bites with his staff. Once the children of Israel began to accept Moses and Aaron as their leaders and began to understand the divine force behind them that enabled them to perform the various miracles, the rod assumed a diminished role. The people had moved on to a new phase in their spiritual journey and their leaders no longer needed the trappings associated with power in Egypt to command their respect.

Jewish commentators suggest the children of Israel merited redemption from slavery because they resisted the lure of assimilation. A number of reasons were given: they kept their Jewish names, language and dress code. They also didn’t gossip and weren’t promiscuous. Interestingly enough, there seems to have been considerable Canaanite influence on the Egyptian belief system. The Egyptians had no qualms about integrating foreign gods with their own. As well as the sun gods and the well-known figure of the goddess Hathor, they were quite happy to pay homage to Canaanite imports such as Astarte, the goddess of fertility and other deities. We see several pictorial examples and engravings which show how the Canaanite gods were incorporated into the Egyptian pantheon.IMG_3593 (2)

There are many remarkable artifacts on display, but for me, the last object of the exhibition is the most poignant. It is a sickle sword or scimitar, which has been intentionally bent in order to signify the death of the soldier in whose tomb it was discovered. It was a lethal fighting tool as it combined the advantages of the battle axe as a weapon that could deliver a crushing blow, together with the power of the sword. Another very similar scimitar that was also bent in this fashion was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. This has led archaeologists to speculate that maybe that weapon was manufactured here in Canaan. An alternate theory is the weapon we possess, may have been a present from the Egyptian Pharaoh to one of his vassals . In 1979, a copy of it was presented by Menachem Begin to Anwar Sadat on his visit to Egypt a week after the peace treaty between the two countries had been signed. It symbolized the hope that in the words of Isaiah (2:4) “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares…Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war”.

 

Posted in ancient israelites, archeology, Architecture, Beer s, bible, burial, desert, Egypt, Jewish, land of israel, Megiddo, Soldiers, sword, symbol, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Those Canaan Days

And Now For Something Completely Different

If you were to ask people around the world what Hebrew vocabulary they know, most of them would recognize the word “Mossad”. Israel’s intelligence organization has a global reputation and is generally mentioned with respect and awe. It is not often that an institution like the Mossad opens its doors to the public and shares some of its history, but that is exactly what you can expect from a visit to the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Centre. This non-profit organization, dedicated to honouring the intelligence community and commemorating their fallen through education and research, offers the public a unique opportunity to deepen their knowledge regarding Israel’s security concerns and management of terrorism. In addition, you can learn about their contribution to the country’s history and hear some of their inspirational stories. The impetus for opening the centre was to bring in children from peripheral areas, with low socio-economic backgrounds to motivate them with a sense of what they have to contribute to the country. To that end, all entrance fees are used to continue this educational outreach. Today both tourists and locals are welcome to visit.IMG_3453

On a recent tour our guide was N, one of 60 volunteers who run the centre. She was born in Syria and immigrated to Israel via Lebanon, after the creation of the state. A natural raconteur, she kept our group enthralled for over five hours with her explanations and anecdotes.

N. explained how the Israel Defence Force, the Internal Security Force and the Mossad all have clearly delineated roles and how they co-operate in emergencies. She also showed us the names of the fallen from all of Israel’s intelligence organizations which are inscribed on the wall of a commemorative labyrinth, built to look like the human brain. N. shared with us how each individual on that wall made their own vital contribution to the country’s security. Over 700 names appear and their actions are documented in albums, films and files created in co-operation with their families and available for viewing in the centre’s library. However, there are still some names that are classified even after death and do not appear. Memorial services are held throughout the year and the centre has a small synagogue which has in it a one hundred and fifty year old Syrian Torah scroll, one of many rescued from that country.IMG_3449

N. talked about the Mossad’s part in helping Jews to come to Israel from countries with which we have no diplomatic relations. She related how sometimes the prospective immigrants would be taken out to sea where they would meet up with Israeli boats. On one such occasion the Israelis waited for two hours at the agreed rendezvous, but no-one showed up. Eventually they left and went back to base. A few hours later they received a message that the people had now arrived but there was no-one there to greet them. Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad (1968-74) at the time, said he would go to fetch them. As chief of the organization he was given an impressive Dabur (‘hornet’) patrol boat to sail in rather than the usual Zodiac (souped-up dinghy) and arrived to see a small fishing boat with a rather shell-shocked family aboard. He greeted them in Arabic, but they did not respond, then he switched to French and after that Hebrew, but was rewarded with the same blank faces. In the end, the secular Zamir threw his hands in the air and declaimed loudly “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elokainu Adonai Ehad” (Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d the Lord is One). The people burst into huge smiles and a visibly moved Zvi Zamir welcomed them into his boat and brought them on the final stage of their clandestine journey. Throughout its history the Mossad has been involved in bringing Jews to Israel and according to N. has tripled the population of the country by making it possible for different groups of Jewish refugees to immigrate.

M. is another volunteer at the centre and he took part in Operation Solomon, the dramatic airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991. Paid for by US Jewry, the 36 hour secret operation brought 15,000 Jews to Israel before Ethiopia fell to rebel forces. At the height of the action 27 aeroplanes were in the air simultaneously and seven babies were born en route in the overcrowded planes, whose seats had all been removed in order to create more space. However, this was just one attempt to rescue these people in an ongoing saga that  began in the late 1970’s and plays like a James Bond script. Over 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died trying to find a way to come to Israel, with virtually every family losing a relative in the attempt.

A. explained his expertise, which is the tracking and collation of anti-Semitic incitement and incendiary material, deriving from terrorist organisations, BDS and all other sources. The centre publishes the material making it easily accessible as a resource to all. A. showed us Palestinian Authority produced broadcasts for children’s television where very young children were encouraged to become martyrs, praised for creating war-mongering poems and pictures and goaded to envision a Middle East without Israel. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this presentation was the sweet looking young women or children promoting this hatred.IMG_3470

Two small museums on the premises offer a fascinating glimpse into the Mossad’s world. The terrorism exhibit displays captured weapons from terrorist caches ranging from rockets to suicide belts and items which were confiscated from visitors to prisoners in jail. This includes the shoe with a cell phone embedded in its heel, or children’s toys or books used to hide other forbidden items. The other exhibit shows artifacts from previous intelligence missions, such as the first ever Israeli drone, created out of a remote controlled toy plane, or a tennis racquet handle converted into spyware.IMG_3461

Whilst the subjects that are discussed are weighty ones, the commentary, lectures and films are often spiced with humour and can be adapted to visitors of all ages. A tour runs from one hour to a whole day and frequently visitors who think they will only stay for a short time end up changing their plans as there is so much to hear and see.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on And Now For Something Completely Different

The Circle of Life

One of the many things I love about Israel is the interplay between ancient and modern; the ability to connect between the very new and the very old, often in the most surprising ways. Theodor Herzl was perhaps the first to understand this juxtaposition in his prescient book which described his vision of the Jewish state. He titled his oeuvre “Altneuland”, or “Old/New Land”. The founders of Tel Aviv used this as their inspiration for the city’s name. They took the word “tel”, which suggests layers of ancient civilization and combined it with “aviv”, which means “spring”, with all its connotations of renewal and rebirth.

The diverse ways in which Israeli technology or thought is harnessed to ancient history or ideas, never ceases to inspire me. Let’s take, for example, the very modern concept of nanotechnology; a process in which scientists can manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. Their precision is so great that they have developed a measurement called the nanometer which is one billionth of a metre, or about as long as your fingernail grows in one second!  In an attempt to make this remarkable breakthrough more accessible to the public, what vehicle did professors at the University of Haifa use as their medium? None other than the Hebrew Bible, making the shrewd connection that civilization and technology are closely linked. By taking one of man’s oldest and most widely read manuscripts and engraving all of its one million, two hundred thousand letters onto something the size of a sugar crystal, they utilized ancient methods in the most ultra-modern manner. It took them an hour and a half to produce! They chose the Bible, because to them it signified the transmission of human civilization from one generation to the next and through it, they wanted to alert people to the scientific revolution that is taking place in our times. If you would like see this marvel for yourself,  it is displayed in the Israel Museum next to the hall where the Dead Sea Scrolls are exhibited. Bearing in mind that the written word as a medium for conveying ideas has outlasted all kinds of technologies, the significance of this venue should not be overlooked.The Nano Bible is as small as a sugar grain (Photo: Israel Museum)

Farming has played a vital part in Israel’s existence. The Bible is replete with descriptions of the produce of the land and remains of ancient agricultural terraces can still be seen in many parts of the country. According to Jewish thought, the land, the people and our religion are inextricably intertwined. Our first Prime Minister, David ben Gurion, had a vision of greening the desert in order to absorb the immigrants that would come to live here. He set a personal example by relocating to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah “The arid desert shall be glad, the wilderness shall rejoice and shall blossom like a rose” (Isaiah 35:1-2). Since then we have not been short of modern green prophets who are doing their utmost to bring this vision to fruition. One of the most recent visionaries is Russian immigrant, Bentsion Kabakov, who has literally turned the idea on its head. He has created a 4,500 square metre rooftop greenhouse on the edge of the desert, growing hydroponic (soilless) vegetables and herbs. Using the latest technology, including mineral enriched woolen bedding instead of earth, a conveyor belt system and recycled water with a specific cocktail of nutrients for each variety, he can grow close to three times as much produce per square metre than traditional methods allow. The beauty of his project is that it is so easy to duplicate. Whilst the idea may have originated in the desert it is equally applicable to urban environments and any roof has the potential to grow the same abundant crops. It seems that the sky really is the limit!IMG_3217

In an ironic twist, this new breed of hydroponic products is causing some rabbis to rethink the rules regarding the blessings religious Jews say before eating fruit and vegetables, which have been in place for hundreds of years. Up until now, it was obvious that when eating a lettuce, for example, the “Hadama” blessing was said, which talks about thanking G-d for creating “the fruit of the ground”. However, now these vegetables are not necessarily grown on the ground or even in soil, there are some who suggest that a more appropriate blessing is the ‘Shehakol” which praises G-d “through whose word everything came to be”.

One of the many biblical descriptions of the Land of Israel refers to it as “the land of milk and honey”. The honey was not that produced by bees, but came from dates which were abundant in ancient Israel. Jericho and the surrounding Dead Sea area were famous for their dates in biblical times, but actually date palms grew as far north as the Galilee. They were featured on coins of old and can also be seen on today’s modern ten shekel coin. Dates need to be cared for in order to prosper and the numerous invasions by foreign armies and the destruction they caused eventually led to the demise of the industry. In 1948, after the creation of the state of Israel, a tremendous effort was made to kick start date cultivation and that is another story of its own.

In the mid 1960’s during excavations at Masada, archeologists unearthed a small clay jar with a pile of date seeds inside which were deemed to be from the time of King Herod. Carbon testing bore out that theory. Their discovery was then forgotten for the next forty years! In 2005, as part of her research on germination of ancient seeds, Sarah Sallon, the director of Hadassah’s Medical research centre, was curious to find out if a two thousand year old seed could in fact grow. She wanted to see what the original Judean date was like and if it contained any of the healing properties that were attributed to it, which ranged from fertility and aphrodisiac uses to protection against infections and tumours.

At this point, Sallon contacted the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and asked for their help and expertise. Agriculture expert Elaine Solowey was then tasked with the project of planting the seed. She nicknamed her new charge Methuselah, after the oldest person mentioned in the Bible. Amazingly enough, under her tender care Methuselah germinated and proved to be a pollen producing male. Today he is over three metres tall and his pollen has been used to pollinate a female date plant.

But Methuselah was only the beginning, as Solowey has successfully managed to grow other saplings from ancient seeds discovered in archeological sites in the Dead Sea area, including two female strains. Ideally, she would like to be able to plant an ancient date grove to better understand the local diet in biblical times. In order to duplicate the original Judean date these female saplings grown from ancient seeds would need to be pollinated with the pollen from Methuselah. It all seems a little fantastical, but with determination and not a little patience and skill, it seems ghosts of the past really can be brought back to life.

Posted in ancient israelites, archeology, bible, dates, desert, food, Fruit and Vegetables, health, Herod, Jewish, Judean Desert, land of israel, Negev, seven species, Tel Aviv, Theodor Herzl, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Circle of Life

The First Start-Up Village

Israel is frequently referred to as a “Start-up Nation”, owing to the originality and success of its hi-tech industry entrepreneurs. The moniker is taken from a book of the same name by Saul Singer and Dan Senor, published in 2009. Whilst certainly applicable today, this term could equally have been employed in the late 19th century when a group of young, forward-thinking Jews from Jerusalem asked for help from the French “Alliance” organization to buy land in order to teach the local Jews how to farm. Theirs was an extremely unusual request, as at this time the majority of Jews in Palestine lived in one of the four holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed and depended on handouts from Diaspora communities for their livelihood. The organization was so impressed with their initiative they willingly acquiesced. 2,600 dunams (approximately 750 acres) of land was bought from the Turkish sultan, on which to set up an agricultural training school. In 1870, Charles (aka Karl) Netter, the secretary of the Alliance organization, personally came to the country to establish it.

Mikveh Yisrael, today located on the outskirts of Holon, was to play a crucial role in creating towns and agricultural settlements throughout the country and educating generations of farmers how to utilize the land. Over the years it took in waves of immigrants, from the pioneers of the First Aliya movement, to holocaust survivors, to the more recent arrivals from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Currently, the school has over a thousand pupils and teaches boys and girls, secular and religious, native born Israelis and their newly arrived counterparts in a true melting pot of traditions and cultures.

In the beginning it was not so easy to attract pupils and Charles Netter had to actively recruit his first charges. Seeing a boy lounging around on a Jerusalem street corner, Netter approached him and persuaded him to come to study in Mikveh Yisrael. His widowed mother, who was struggling to make ends meet, was very happy for her son to be looked after and given an education and readily agreed. Ideals preceded facts on the ground and Netter and his young protégé were forced to live in a cave on the premises for lack of anywhere else. Eventually buildings went up and the student body grew and the first agricultural school in the country was well underway. A number of important events and innovations took place there.IMG_2352

Netter had a vision that he would like to produce wine made in the Land of Israel and, in 1873 (a full nine years before Baron Rothschild established the Carmel Winery), began to quarry wine cellars out of the local sandstone. Sadly, he didn’t survive to see the project completed. Once the Rothschild wineries came on the scene, Mikveh Yisrael was unable to withstand the competition and their wine production stopped. But later on the cellars were to prove useful in another way, as secret hiding places for Hagana weapons and ceremonies. These days they are somewhat dusty, but still home to some vintage bottles.

IMG_2365Avraham Yoffe was a young boy when he was brought to Mikveh Yisrael on a Friday school outing. He had heard rumours that in the long defunct cellars there were still some bottles of wine remaining from the early days of the winery and he broke away from the rest of his group to try to find them. He was having such a good time that he failed to hear the bus arrive to take all his classmates home and was stuck there until Sunday morning when students and staff arrived back from the weekend. At the age of 16, he joined the Hagana and once again familiarized himself with the cellars in Mikveh Yisrael, this time used for a different purpose. He went on to become a general in the Six Day War and a member of the Knesset for the Likud party. So it seems he was not too scarred by his early experience.

Although it was surrounded by Arab villages, during the War of Independence, Mikveh Yisrael was seen as an important post to secure the route to Jerusalem. The Hagana had a base there and they made good use of the blacksmith’s workshop, where they mended and upgraded their weapons. David Leibowicz was a new immigrant from Russia who taught mechanics at the school and during this time he invented a large mortar. It wasn’t particularly accurate, but the tremendous advantage it had was the terrifyingly loud noise it produced. There are many stories about the Arabs fleeing in such haste when the mortar was fired, that they left half-drunk cups of coffee on the table, because they thought the Israelis were approaching with a huge army. This weapon was named after its creator and became known as the “Davidka”. You can visit the restored workshop and even see one of Leibowicz’s prototypes standing there, together with items that were once used in everyday life by members of the community and serve as a great trip down memory lane.IMG_2368

Another innovation, which residents of Mikveh Yisrael boast had its origins in their school, was the “kova tembel”. That quintessentially Israeli sun hat that every self-respecting kibbutznik or farmer once wore. There are even those who say it was originally known as a “kova mikva’i” after the place it was invented.

Perhaps the best recorded incident that took place at Mikveh Yisrael was in 1898 and that was the meeting between Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Herzl had hoped to gain the Kaiser’s support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and engineered a conversation with him as he stopped with his entourage on his way from Jaffa to Jerusalem. In those days, the “Jerusalem Gate” was the main entrance to the village and a memorial depicting the historic conversation between the two gentlemen at this site IMG_2371commemorates the event.

Although computers and hi-tech were still a figment of the imagination in this era, a botched photograph of the encounter led to what was maybe the world’s first Photoshop attempt. For some reason, the photographer that was entrusted to document this momentous occasion failed to get anything other than Herzl’s left foot in the picture. Realising the important public relations opportunity afforded by such a photo, Herzl insisted on a creative reconstruction of the meeting. Another photograph was taken of Herzl by himself and this image was superimposed next to an image of the Kaiser in all his regalia. In order for this to work, the Kaiser also had to be moved from his original white stallion and grafted onto a black one that had stood beside him. Fortunately, the Kaiser never caught on and the doctored photo was used to suggest the Kaiser’s support for Herzl’s dream.

March and April 2015 063A path leads straight from the gate to the beautifully decorated synagogue. Although construction began in 1870, it took until 1895 for the building to be completed. Agricultural tools form part of the embellishments on the façade and also appear as motifs on the metal grilles protecting the windows.  Inside there is the rather unusual feature of two bimot (lecterns from which the torah is read). One suggestion for this anomaly is that the synagogue was used by both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Ashkenazim traditionally read the torah at the front of the room, whereas Sephardim have their torah reading located in the middle, this way both sets of congregants could feel at home.

After completing a tour of the agricultural school, it is well worth walking a few extra metres to the Mikveh Yisrael botanical gardens, which contain a huge variety of trees and plants. Their initial purpose was to discover which foreign trees could be adapted to local conditions and to give the students a chance to experiment. This peaceful haven is home to all kinds of exotic species and helpful signs explain the origins of each one.

Despite the fact that the agricultural school is usually only open for visiting groups, during the holidays the site is also accessible to families and individuals. It is a heartwarming experience to visit this off-the-beaten-track testament to Israel’s pioneering and innovative visionaries. Its importance can be summed up in the words of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, “If Mikveh Yisrael had not been established, it is not at all certain that the State of Israel would have been created”.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The First Start-Up Village

A Warm Welcome

I recently had one of those extraordinary “only in Israel” moments which make living here so special. As many of you know, when I take tourists around the country I like to try to introduce them to experiences or cultures they have not encountered before. One of my favourite people to visit is Nurah, who lives in Daliyat al Carmel, a Druze village just outside Haifa. Nurah is a wonderful woman who has worked in a number of different professions, including in the hotel business. When the Carmel Forest Spa, one of Israel’s premier hotels, wanted to spice up its menu and offer its patrons some local cuisine they came to Nurah for some suggestions.

Together with the head chef Haim Cohen, she came up with a range of authentic, culinary delicacies they would offer as a Druze meal in the hotel. The guests went wild over the food and Nurah found herself in a new job. After a while, satisfied diners asked where it was possible to sample such food outside the confines of the hotel. As it is a spa hotel children are not allowed to stay there and guests wanted to know where they could take their families to enjoy a similar experience. Without missing a beat, chef Haim said “Oh, Nurah offers Druze meals in her home”.Nurah

When the guests had left, Nurah turned to Haim and said “What have you done”? He calmed her down and assured her she was talented enough to set up her own business. He told her to get business cards printed and when guests asked about the food she should hand out her cards. Two days later he came up to her and said she had her first group booking. In total panic, Nurah agreed to host them in a few days time, working flat out to produce an outstanding meal. When the group arrived it was Haim and some of his friends. At the end of an excellent meal he collected money from all the diners and so “Nurah’s Kitchen” was born.

After running her new business for about a year, Nurah began to get enquiries whether it was possible to cater to a kosher clientele. Having previously worked in the hotel, she was familiar with the concept and contacted the local rabbinate. They already knew Nurah and after advising her on what she needed to do to comply with kosher dietary laws, such as having a separate kitchen, they checked that everything was in order and a kosher certificate was on its way. It runs like clockwork; a representative comes in on a daily basis to light the ovens and confirm that all the products are suitable and cooked according to the rules and Nurah couldn’t be busier. Providing Druze food with a kosher twist means that the army, the Prime minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry and a host of other organizations who frequently entertain guests all put Nurah on their itinerary.

However, Nurah welcomes each and every visitor as if it is her personal privilege no matter where they have come from. “Every guest that visits Israel is our guest”, she told me “we want to show them that our country is more than just fighting and war”. On my last visit I brought just two other people with me. Nurah agreed to fit us in between the group she had entertained for lunch and the even larger group she was expecting for dinner. Although she was very busy preparing for her next guests, she found time to sit with us and tell us about her background and the business she runs.food

Apart from creating a unique opportunity for visitors to learn something about Druze culture whilst enjoying an extremely tasty meal, she is providing a great service to the women in her village. There is a high percentage of unemployment in Daliyat al Carmel, especially amongst the women. Her kitchen is run as a women’s co-operative, giving them an opportunity to work locally and contribute to the family finances. An independent streak characterizes the women in Nurah’s family, as her mother was one of the first Druze women to be sent to school to study. In an era where the girls were home-schooled in matters of religion and that was generally where their learning stopped, Nurah’s mother knew she wanted more and she persuaded her parents to let her get a wider education. Her father agreed, on condition she studied religious subjects like the other girls in addition to the material in the school curriculum.

When Nurah was needed back in the kitchen to deal with some crisis that had arisen, her sister Frida was only too happy to take her place as raconteuse. She related anecdotes about her family and her childhood and introduced us to Druze philosophy and their outlook on life. The Druze are fiercely patriotic and Frida told us how her grandfather had fought against Arab invading armies in 1948 and how a meeting had been held in the village at which it was decided to join the Israeli army. In 1956, it was her grandfather who was responsible for initiating the law inducting Druze men into the Israel Defense Forces.Moses

Frida has her own story too. A single woman, she decided she didn’t want to marry but wanted to study art. She left school after 9th grade as there was no high school in the village. She persuaded her parents to let her apprentice in the nearby artists’ village of Ein Hod, where she was taught by the quintessential Israeli artist, Mordecai Ardon. Whilst in Ein Hod, Frida also learned how to weave tapestry and she became involved in a weaving project making tapestries based on the sketches of Israeli artists, including Ardon. Their work was so popular they began to receive commissions for tapestries to be used as ceremonial art in synagogues. Consequently, Frida began to create torah mantles (covers) and parochets (the curtain that is hung in the ark containing the torah scroll). Her creations now hang in synagogues all over the world. Where else except in Israel could you find a Druze lady making Jewish religious artifacts?Strasbourg

Frida invited us into her home to show us some of her handiwork as well as to explain her latest project. She brought us into her work room where her loom took up most of the space. As well as her tapestries, she has started a new venture to teach women in the village how to weave carpets. Like her sister Nurah, she understands the importance of giving the local women a chance to earn their own livelihood. She buys the wool from a women’s Bedouin co-operative in the Negev, dyes it herself to get the colours she requires and then weaves it into stunningly beautiful rugs. Her loom is divided into two parts, the main part where she can work and a smaller section where her students can watch what she is doing and practice next to her.

Needless to say, my tourists enjoyed both the food and the company tremendously and declared that they couldn’t possibly think of returning to Israel without coming back to see Nurah and Frida in Daliyat al Carmel.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A Warm Welcome

Hidden Gems

Rabbinical tradition talks about two Jerusalems: Upper Jerusalem and Lower Jerusalem. This is usually interpreted as a celestial version of the city as opposed to the earthly city that exists in reality. I would like to suggest a new interpretation: Jerusalem that we can see above ground and a subterranean level. There have been so many below ground excavations taking place in the city, that as far fetched as it may seem, there are plans for tourists to be able to tour the lower levels of the city without disturbing life on the 21st century level.  Remember, you read it here first!

I am writing this blog as we approach the Jewish festival of Purim where turning ideas on their head or doing things in the opposite way to usual is very much part of the narrative. In this vein I would like to introduce you to two new sites in “Lower” Jerusalem which can only be seen if you venture below ground level.

The tour along the tunnel following the Western Wall underneath the Moslem Quarter has been open for several years now. However newer excavations that branch off the main tunnel have only recently been revealed to the public. One of the most impressive examples is a six hundred square metre hall with arches that was built in the early Mameluk period. Archeologists date it to the mid thirteen hundreds.

18-10The Mamluks, who ruled here for just over two hundred and fifty years were ruthless conquerors who, under their leader Baybars, pursued a scorched earth policy all over the country. They were originally from Turkey where as young boys they were sold as slaves to the Egyptian administration. In many of the structures they built they placed signs of their former servitude. A goblet signifies they were once cup bearers and this motif can be seen in various locations throughout the Old City. Despite their long rule, only one Mamluk sultan injected significant funds into Jerusalem when entire streets, religious buildings, and bath-houses were built under his directive.

The hall we can visit was part of an internal central courtyard between two housing complexes and very close to two bath-houses we know were built in 1328 by the Mamluk SultanTankiz. Finds dating from the time Roman legions were stationed in Jerusalem have been unearthed here as well as a stone goblet which archeologists surmise might have been used by the Cohanim or priestly class in the Second Temple Period. Possibly they lived in the vicinity in an earlier time. During the Roman period there may have been a fortified tower in this location as it was so close to the area of the Temple.Old City February 2015 034

As in many cases, this wonderful discovery was found by accident. It was originally underneath a dormitory in a boys’ yeshiva (religious seminary). One of the more adventurous lads started exploring and due to the pointed shape of the arches thought he was in a Crusader Church, so made a hasty exit. The Israeli Antiquities Authority was duly notified and excavations began in earnest. They too originally thought they had unearthed a Crusader structure, but ceramics from the early Mamluk period found at the bottom of the pillar bases made them change their minds.

Remnants of an earthquake in 1546 were found here as was an unexploded mortar shell from the War of Independence in 1948. The “Davidka” was a home made Israeli device that was known for its loud bombs and its inaccuracy! When the excavators identified their find they weren’t quite sure what to do with it. One of them had the bright idea of contacting the army museum. The museum was incredibly excited by the find as they knew of four Davidka mortars fired in Jerusalem, but only two had been discovered, now they knew the location of a third!

The other recently opened site is actually entered from above ground level. Once inside you descend a metal staircase where each rung takes you further back in time until you reach the Second Temple Period. This fascinating excavation is located just inside the Jaffa Gate in the former Turkish prison compound: the Kishle. Visiting this condensed archeological site with its historical remains in such close proximity to each other gives you a tangible sense of the antiquity of Jerusalem and the archeological footprints left on the city by its inhabitants.

Etzel graffiti Kishle  January 2015 151At the highest (entrance) level there is some interesting graffiti which dates to Mandate times when the prison was used by the British to incarcerate members of the Jewish underground organizations. One such prisoner was Shmuel Matza. He was only twenty when he was held there as the British had caught him in possession of a weapons cache. He was put in a cell for four days and remembers sleeping in rags on the floor that were crawling with lice and tics. The conditions were really terrible, dark and airless, with twenty prisoners sleeping in one cell. He relieved his boredom by incising the symbol of the Irgun (a military movement competing with the Hagana) on the wall and the words “Long Live the Hebrew State”. The prisoners weren’t given any knives with which to eat their food, so he carved it out with his fork. This act of rebellion took place in 1947 during the time of the British Mandate when there was no certainty the state would be founded the following year. Matza, who become a Jerusalem lawyer was traced by the archeologists because in another graffiti he carved out his own name!

Moving further down the steps, we see the remnants of the original Turkish wall from when the Kishle was first constructed in the 1830’s. About half way down the staircase we notice a small basin which dates from the time of the Crusaders. Eight small basins like this one were discovered within the area, but only two of them were left in situ and the rest were dismantled in order to excavate layers below. The archeologists’ original theory was that these basins were used by tanners to dampen their hides. However, records show that in Crusader times the citadel was used as a castle and this very smelly process would have been far too close for comfort. According to the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela, who visited the city from 1169-1172, this area was used by cloth dyers for dying their fabrics. The pigment would have been put in these basins and the fabric left in it to absorb the colour. Remains of a red pigment have been found in the plaster of the basin. In his travel journal Benjamin of Tudela wrote that the Jews paid an annual tax to the king to retain the exclusive right to be dyers. He also mentions Jews living under the Tower of David practicing their profession as dyers. This basin would seem to corroborate his description. We also learn from the writings of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahmanides), who came to the city in 1267, about two Jewish cloth dyers he encountered with whom he undertook the task of reestablishing the Jewish community of Jerusalem.Dyers basin Kishle January 2015 145

Once we reach the bottom of the steps we peer down into excavations from three different eras. The oldest period dates back to the time of King Hezekiah (8th cent BCE) when he was defending the city from the Assyrians in 701 BCE. Exposed here is a wall he built at the western border of the city. There is reason to believe it was part of the same city wall of which the Broad Wall we see in the Jewish Quarter is a section.

You can also see remnants of the city wall from the Hasmonean period (2nd cent BCE) and how they extended the western perimeter of Jerusalem by a few metres. However, the most important find in this excavation dates to the time of King Herod. On either side of the Hasmonean wall Herod built retaining walls in order to create a platform on which to build his palace, this stretched 500 metres in the direction of the Armenian Quarter, under the present day police station and was 150 meters wide. Only the very base of this palace has been discovered and we can only see one of these walls.

Herod actually destroyed the Hasmonean wall in order to build this platform. Amit Re’em, the archeologist in charge of the excavation, suggests two reasons he might have done this. One is because the engineering involved changing the angle of the wall which rendered the Hasmonean structure unsuitable. The second reason is a political one. Herod had been hounded by the Hasmoneans and fought bitter battles with them. By destroying the remnants of their wall, he signified a new regime had taken control, of which he was the leader.

This discovery also has very important ramifications for the Christian community. At present, the site of the Praetorium, the place where Jesus was said to be judged by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate is said to be located at the very start of the Via Dolorosa, on the other side of the Old City near the Lions Gate. If Herod’s palace which was later taken over by the Roman procurator is indeed here, the traditional route may need to be adapted to take this new archeological discovery into account.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Hidden Gems

Desert Down-Time

One of Israel’s greatest natural wonders is often missed by tourists because without private transport it requires quite a bit of effort to get there. I am talking about Machtesh Ramon, most often translated as the Ramon Crater. Located approximately 70 kilometres south of Beer Sheva, it is a two and a half hour car ride from Jerusalem, the same time it would take you to reach Haifa if driving north. However when you reach your destination, far from finding yourself in an urban metropolis, you are surrounded by the magnificent scenery of the Negev Desert.IMG_1060

A crater is a formation usually created by a meteorite falling to earth or a volcano erupting, whereas a “machtesh” is a geomorphological phenomenon which occurs as a result of erosion. The correct translation of the Hebrew “machtesh” is an “erosional cirque” and we have four fully formed ones in Israel, with another two baby ones in the process of being created. Similar landforms can also be seen in the Sinai, in Morocco and in the Ural mountains, but of course the most beautiful examples are in Israel. Machtesh Ramon, which is forty kilometers in length and nine metres across at its widest point, is the largest and most picturesque of them.

The process of erosion that led to the creation of the machtesh took place over millions of years. Originally the terrain was not desert, but consisted of rivers and lakes which formed near a shallow sea. Sandstone was deposited at this bottom level and at a later stage was covered with the skeletons and remains of animals that inhabited the sea, which in turn developed into different layers of limestone. Today, this forms the top layer of the Ramon ridge.IMG_1084

This is because of a process which began with an earthquake and caused the rock to fold into an anticline or A shape and thrust it upwards. Rock which was at the very lowest layer was pushed up to form the peak of the new formation. Chalk and flint and phosphates were added to the layers. Erosion caused by natural weather conditions and later on by another period of flooding detached some of the sand and conglomerates that were at the top of the anticline and scattered them randomly around the formation. As the level of the sea receded, the peak of the machtesh eroded exposing the sandstone underneath. Another wet era brought with it different sandstone and pebbles from far flung areas like Saudi Arabia and added them to the mix and when the waters receded once again they eroded the inner part of the ridge, creating the landscape that we see today. A visitor’s centre at the edge of the site has several exhibits that explain the process. As a visual aid, imagine a hard-boiled egg that has been hit from the top with a spoon. The shell and all that is attached to it implodes making a semi circular dent in the egg, so the inner part of the egg is exposed. A similar but lengthier process occurred to create the machtesh.

There are a number of different options how to enjoy the surrounding scenery. The simplest is just to take a gentle stroll along the two kilometer promenade situated on the edge of the machtesh. If you are more adventurous you can walk along one of the various trails that take you into the machtesh itself. You can enjoy the coloured sandstone and ancient rock formations and choose from a variety of paths that offer a diverse range of routes from an easy meander to a challenging hike.IMG_1055

There is a wide variety of wildlife that inhabits the area. Probably the most commonly sighted animal is the Nubian Ibex, which may be familiar to you as it is the symbol of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. There are many of them wandering around the tourist areas, unfazed by the humans they encounter. Vultures and partridges, ravens and many other birds are also frequent visitors to the area. A jeep tour with a knowledgeable guide can take you deep into the machtesh where at night you might be lucky enough to spot a leopard, a caracal or maybe a hyena. Night time excursions give you the opportunity to discover a completely different side of nature after the sun goes down. Another popular nocturnal activity is to do a spot of star gazing. On a clear night in the vast open expanse of desert it is a truly magical experience.IMG_1095

Archaeological discoveries suggest that pre-historic man also made his home in the general vicinity. Flint tools, the remains of villages and large rock piles leave us hints of earlier civilizations, their habits and their rituals. The Negev was part of the inheritance of the tribe of Shimon and later under the rules of Kings David and Solomon a line of fortresses guarded the southern border. Water cisterns dating from this period help us identify their locations.

Traders also crossed the desert here as they travelled along the ancient Incense Route from Petra to Gaza which actually bisected Machtesh Ramon. The Nabateans, the Romans, and later on Byzantine pilgrims all traversed the Negev. After the Arab invasion of the country in the seventh century, settlement in the region came to an end. The area became the province of nomadic tribes for many centuries until the British came and restored order and built new roads and police stations. They also created a regular water supply for the Bedouin to use and began a formal land registry.

In March 1949, during the War of Independence, the Israeli army marched through the Negev all the way down to Eilat. David ben Gurion, the new state’s first prime minister stressed the importance of the Negev and his wish to see the desert bloom. He retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker to help put his plan into practice and you can view his spartan home there which is only a short drive away.IMG_1066

Mitzpe Ramon, the modern town that has built up around the machtesh was originally established as a camp for workers building the road to Eilat .Still a small town with a population of around 5,500, it is host to numerous hotels, guesthouses and hostels where you can base yourself during your stay. They run the range from the luxurious 5 star Beresheet Hotel, to the more budget friendly Ramon Inn, to a bikers’ hostel and field school. There are also authorized camp sites within the machtesh itself.  Other attractions in the general area include wineries, farms and ecological activities. So if you are looking for a place to recharge your batteries in the bosom of nature, you may want to factor in a few days in the heart of the Negev Desert during your next visit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Desert Down-Time