Where Past and Present Meet

In order to understand the pioneering spirit that built this country and continues to contribute to strengthening its Zionist values today, a visit to Gush Etzion, aka the Etzion bloc is an inspiring experience. Only twenty minutes by car south of Jerusalem you will find yourself transported from an urban landscape into the rugged terrain of the Judean mountains, which further along segues seamlessly into barren desert.

Let’s start with its biblical history; this is the landscape where the scenery of the bible comes alive. Looking out at the pastoral panorama of rocky hills and agricultural terraces it is as if time stood still. You can visualize what life must have been like when Abraham and Isaac walked here on their way to Mount Moriah, where Ruth and Boaz met in the fields as she gathered sheaves of wheat and when David herded his flocks on a nearby hillside. If you travel along the Path of the Patriarchs which traces the ancient route pilgrims would have taken from Hebron to Jerusalem you can go back two thousand years and enter inside the rock-hewn mikve/ritual bath specially built in the time of the Second Temple to enable pilgrims to purify themselves on their journey. There was no village here at the time; it was built out of altruism, an act of kindness for passing travelers. Later on in Byzantine times the place was used as a reservoir.  In the same spirit, modern day school children have planted trees along the way, which once they are grown will provide pleasant shade along the sunny route for present day wayfarers.Gush Etzion  October 2014 010

Milestones dotted along the path tell another story, this time of the Romans who also spent time in the region. As well as methodically charting the distance to their destination, they used sophisticated engineering and hydraulic techniques to build a system of aqueducts that carried water from the springs and pools of Gush Etzion to Jerusalem. The city with its ever increasing population and thousands of tourists arriving on pilgrimage festivals was unable to fulfill its citizens needs from local water sources. Work that was probably started in the Hasmonean period was upgraded and continued by the Romans. They did such an impressive job that water has been conveyed to Jerusalem through this series of channels, dams and aqueducts all the way through to the time of the British Mandate at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For the adventurous amongst you, it is possible to walk through part of one of these aqueducts. The muddy water reaches to mid thigh in places and if you are prepared to crawl on all fours you can see the point where the water bursts from the ground at the source of the spring. A good flashlight and a change of clothes are highly recommended.

I mentioned the Hasmoneans and in fact the Path of the Patriarchs meanders alongside Moshav Elazar, named after the brother of Judah the Macabee. When the Hasmoneans were waging the dual war against the mighty armies of Alexander the Great and the enforced secularization of the Jewish people they fought two battles in Gush Etzion. The preponderance of natural caves in the hillside gave the fearless fighters shelter (and were to be used for the same purpose by Bar Kochba and his men almost two hundred years later). The Greek equivalent of the Merkava IV (the most sophisticated Israeli tank) was the elephant. When Elazar realized that all was lost and they were about to be defeated, he brought down the elephant of the Greek commander which collapsed on him causing his instant death. This courageous act turned the tide of the battle, the Greeks withdrew and Judah succeeded in keeping Jerusalem in Jewish hands. The name of the community commemorates Elazar’s bravery.

The Path of the Patriarchs links the two modern settlements of Alon Shvut and Neve Daniel and this is where our story moves forward several centuries in time. The name “Alon Shvut” means in Hebrew “return to the oak” and indeed just outside the present day community an impressive oak tree, several hundred years old, spreads its branches.

In the 1920’s, the first people to try and settle in the area were a group of Yemenite Jews, who had bought the land from a local Arab sheikh. At almost 1,000 metres above sea level the winters here are very cold and when snow fell they thought they were seeing the biblical manna fall from heaven. They persevered in the harsh conditions until the Arab riots of 1929 when they were evacuated by the British to Jerusalem for their own safety.

The second attempt to establish an agricultural settlement took place in the mid 1930’s. This time the idea was to establish an agricultural holiday village. The man behind this enterprise was called Zvi Holzman and Kfar Etzion was named after him as both “Holz” in German and “Etz” in Hebrew mean wood. The Arab riots of 1936 forced the Jews to leave and the continued violence over the next three years saw the project destroyed.

Determined to found a community, a group of Polish Bnei Akiva members started Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in 1943. Their actions coincided with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It seemed perseverance had finally paid off and by 1947 there were four kibbutzim in the vicinity, (the others were Massuot Yitzhak, Revadim and Ein Zurim) and a population of 400 Jews. The UN partition vote in November 1947 was not as joyously received in the Gush as in other parts of the country because it left these communities outside the intended Jewish state.convoy

Four days later the residents received the first warning of an intended Arab attack. Danny Mass, a commander of the Palmach was sent to the Gush to oversee its defences. Less than two weeks after the decision to partition Palestine a convoy from Gush Etzion was attacked by local Arabs and ten people were killed. This was the beginning of the end. It was followed on Jan 14th 1948 by an Arab attack on the Gush during which the bloc was besieged. In an attempt to get them much needed supplies, a group of forty of the Palmach’s finest men was sent to try and relieve them. Five were eventually sent back to Jerusalem and thirty-five proceeded to the Etzion bloc

On Jan 15th they started out from Har Tuv after midnight to walk the 25 km to Massuot Yitzhak. They walked through the hilly terrain throughout the night reaching the Arab village of Tsurif around dawn. Here they met an Arab shepherd. Figuring he was harmless they let him be, but he apparently called for the troops, as soon the thirty-five were being fired upon from all sides by local Arabs. A fierce battle lasted until the evening when the Palmach soldiers were out of ammunition and paid for their naïveté with their lives. Their bodies were stripped and horribly mutilated. Among the dead was the commander Danny Mass. The community of Neve Daniel is named in his honour.Danni Mas

On March 26th the Nebi Daniel convoy was attacked as 51 vehicles were trying to make their way to the Gush. May 13th was the day the Old City fell and on the same date, the day before the declaration of the state, Gush Etzion fell too. Every building was destroyed by the Jordanians and the thousands of saplings that had been planted were uprooted, only the old oak tree was granted a reprieve. 240 men and women were killed and another 260 taken as prisoners of war to Jordan. Prime Minister Ben Gurion eulogized the defenders of Gush Etzion and their heroic stand against the Jordanian Legion as follows. “I can think of no battle in the annals of the Israel Defense Forces which was more magnificent, more tragic or more heroic than the struggle for Gush Etzion … If there exists a Jewish Jerusalem, our foremost thanks go to the defenders of Gush Etzion”.

Nineteen years later, the day the Paratroopers recaptured the Old City, soldiers also moved south to the Gush and found the Jordanian army camp which had been in Kfar Etzion abandoned. Those who returned to the area recognized the old lone oak tree from earlier days and it became a symbol of the renewed Etzion bloc.  It is surrounded by stones which serve as a memorial to those who fell defending it.

The children of the original founders settled again in Kfar Etzion, rebuilt their destroyed homes and started farming anew. Once more the area started to flourish with activity. A new kibbutz, Rosh Zurim, was established on the site of the former Ein Zurim in 1969.  The hesder yeshiva students of Har Etzion established Alon Shvut in 1970. A few years later saw the founding of the co-operative Moshav Elazar in 1975, with Kibbutz Migdal Oz shortly after in 1977. The city of Efrat followed in 1980 and Neve Daniel 1982. Today there are two cities and well over 70,000 people, both religious and secular, living in the various communities in the Gush. It is home to several first class educational institutions, teaching from primary to post graduate studies. Facilities cater to both those in a regular academic framework and those needing a more sympathetic environment to cope with their particular learning challenges.Gush Etzion  October 2014 004

Today most agree that it would be unthinkable to leave Gush Etzion outside the borders of Israel in any future peace agreement. Unfortunately the area still has to contend with much tragedy: Just over thirteen years ago two residents of the Gush, Dr. Shmuel Gillis and Tzachi Sasson were killed in separate terrorist attacks within a few days of each other. The response of their families was to open the “Pina Hama”,or “Cozy Corner” in their memory. This is a resting place for all the soldiers that serve in the area and is manned by volunteers who bake cakes and other goodies to give them in appreciation for protecting them.

This past summer was not an easy one for anyone who lives in Israel and the difficult times started with the Gush Etzion  October 2014 001kidnapping and subsequent murder of three students who studied in the Gush and were making their way home at the end of the school day. The tragedy of Gil-Ad Sher, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel touched everybody’s hearts and united the country in mourning. In order to commemorate their young lives, residents of the Gush decided to develop a new site as a place for recreation and tourism. Together with volunteers from all over the country they have cleared and renovated part of a forest adjacent to the main road junction in the area. They have restored the original forester’s house, added a children’s playground and made it into a campsite. Communal cultural and social activities are already taking place on a regular basis. There are plans to develop it further and the unadulterated enthusiasm and dedication of those who make the effort to visit and help support the venture is none other than Zionism at its finest.

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The Friend of My Enemy

The civil war which has been raging in Syria for the past three years has so far managed to avoid spilling over into the borders of Israel, with a few minor exceptions. However, Syrian refugees, both civilians and combatants, have been coming to our northern border and requesting medical aid. So far, over one thousand of them have been treated either in mobile aid stations or in Israeli hospitals, with that number rapidly rising. Whilst this humanitarian response to members of an enemy state goes barely noticed in the western media, this is not the first time that the country has played host to war victims from Syria.

In 1860, under Ottoman rule, tensions escalated between the Maronite Christian and Druze communities in Lebanon. This led to an all out war between the two groups and the fighting spread to Damascus. The Turks sided with the Druze and backed them with military assistance. As a result, a massacre took place in which approximately 11,000 Christians were slaughtered, leaving 20,000 widows and orphans.

Johann Ludwig Schneller, a German Protestant missionary who was living in Jerusalem at the time, was moved to try to rescue some of these children who had become orphans. He traveled to the region but the locals were distrustful of his motives and he returned with only nine youngsters. Nevertheless, he began to build an orphanage for them. By the end of the following year the number of children in his care had risen to forty-one and by the end of the century there were one hundred and thirty students at the orphanage, including boys and girls and a number of blind children. By 1896, when Schneller died, 1,500 pupils had passed through the institution. He is buried together with his wife in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.Arab Orthodox Society and Schneller April 2014 047

In the beginning, construction was financed by donations from the European Protestant community. But in 1898, the Kaiser came to visit the orphanage whilst he was in Jerusalem for the laying of the cornerstone of the Lutheran church in the Old City. From that point on, fundraising became a whole lot easier. Three years later a German nobleman bequeathed his entire estate to the school on condition they establish a school for the blind. A building which housed forty to fifty children was built for this purpose. A donor’s commemorative plaque in Hebrew and Arabic can be seen above the entrance.

After the Kaiser’s visit, he sent three large bells as a gift and these were incorporated into a bell tower. It was built in the “onion tower”, baroque style of those in Southern Germany of the day. The words Syrisches Waisenhaus  (Syrian Orphanage) were engraved on the structure and above them a stone relief of a lamb carrying a pennant with a cross on it. There was also a quotation from the gospel of Luke in both Hebrew and Arabic. Whilst the external buildings of the orphanage appeared very Germanic in style, the interior structures incorporated more local architectural features such as arches. Arab Orthodox Society and Schneller April 2014 043

The children attending the orphanage spanned the full range  of Christian denominations and as well as those from Lebanon and Syria there were also pupils from Egypt, Transjordan, Ethiopia and Central Africa. In addition, underprivileged children from all over the country studied there. Lessons were taught in either Arabic or German and secular subjects were an integral part of the curriculum. Text books were printed especially for them, including books in braille.

Arab Orthodox Society and Schneller April 2014 054Each pupil was also taught a trade so they could become productive members of society. Fifty-five craftsmen, many of them especially brought over from Germany, were part of the teaching staff. A whole complex was eventually built to house and teach the orphans.  As well as the workshops there was also a laundry and a windmill and Schneller rented agricultural land in order to grow crops. He later added a teacher’s training college and a factory which manufactured roof tiles. There was even a small museum on the grounds, which, by the beginning of World War One, spread over 500,000 square metres.

The orphanage continued to operate until the First World War when the compound was taken over by the Turkish army and used as a barracks. In the interim years between the two world wars Schneller’s son and grandson managed to modernize and manage the buildings. However, in the Second World War the British confiscated the property and turned it into a closed military camp. They installed about 50 watchtowers and huts and the area became known as the Schneller Barracks. When the British abandoned the property in 1948, it became the headquarters of the Hagana during the War of Independence. For the next 60 years the compound served as a base for the Israel Defence Forces. At the beginning of the 1950’s the Israeli’s called in representatives of the Lutheran church to take away and preserve any religious artifacts.

Arab Orthodox Society and Schneller April 2014 052

In 2008 the army vacated the premises, which currently comprise a prime area of Jerusalem real estate. Ironically, this is a far cry from their humble beginnings when they were one of the first institutions to be built outside the Old City walls. This was a project fraught with danger as the area was rife with roaming bandits who had no compunction about attacking isolated properties. Having suffered a number of such attacks on his private residence, Schneller had a three and a half metre protective wall built around the orphanage. Together with the addition of watchtowers set up by the Ottoman government to secure the area, the residents were thus provided with a measure of safety. Alongside the development of early neighbourhoods such as Mishkenot Sha’ananim and the Russian Compound, the Schneller orphanage was instrumental in providing the city’s inhabitants with enough confidence to start construction outside the city walls. Arab Orthodox Society and Schneller April 2014 056

Over the years, several ideas were bandied about by the Jerusalem municipality how to safeguard and preserve the historic buildings which are situated today in the midst of the ultra-orthodox enclave of Geula. Ultimately economic interests won out and approval has been given for six multi storey buildings to be erected on the site to provide an exclusive and prestigious housing complex for the ultra-orthodox community. It is unclear just how much of the original structure will survive once the contractors start their work in earnest. This prompted me to take a wander around the now abandoned compound to photograph what remains and some of the fruits of my labour can be seen here.


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Harry Potter and the Slave Boy Warriors

On a recent warm, sunny morning I found myself in the beautifully manicured British war cemetery in Ramle. I was there looking for the grave of a young British lieutenant who died in 1920. He was a graduate of my husband’s high school in London, England. As he was attached to an obscure Indian regiment, the people documenting all the school’s fallen soldiers originally assumed Ramle was in one of the far flung corners of the British Raj. Rather belatedly, they discovered it was in fact located in Israel!

Most tourists have also never heard of Ramle and when people ask me about it I am hard pushed to find something complimentary to say about its current state. Located not far from Ben Gurion airport, it is a mixed Arab-Jewish city widely associated with crime and drugs. Whilst that is the unfortunate reality today, a number of municipal projects have been initiated to rehabilitate Ramle (and its neighbouring city of Lod) and bring it out of the mire and back to its former glory.

Despite present appearances, Ramle was established as the country’s capital city and served as such under various Moslem dynasties, the last of which was the rule of the Mamelukes. Notwithstanding the fact that they defeated the Crusaders and remained in power for over 250 years, most people have never heard of the Mamelukes either. So let me take this opportunity to give them and Ramle some coverage.

The term “Mameluke” means “owned” in Arabic, it was coined by the Seljuk Turks (Sunni Moslems) who would capture small boys as young as six or seven years old and sell them in slave markets. These children would be educated and incorporated into the various Moslem empires where they were taught to be administrators or trained as soldiers. The centre of Mameluke education was in Cairo. Quite possibly because of their early indoctrination, these slaves were very loyal to their rulers. At the age of 35-40 they would be released from servitude by the caliph. They could marry freely with the local women and their children were not considered slaves if the father had already been freed.

In 1258, the various Moslem dynasties in Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus were overthrown by a new force: the Monguls. These fearless fighters came from Mongolia, led by their ruthless leader Genghis Khan. Within two years they had advanced as far as the Land of Israel where they were challenged by an army far superior than any they had previously encountered. At the battle of Ein Jalut (Jalut means “Goliath”) believed to have taken place in the area of the Ein Harod valley, between Afula and Bet She’an, the Mongul and Mameluke forces met.

BaybarsThe Monguls were severely hindered by their lack of familiarity with local conditions and for the first time they faced an opponent who out-smarted them. The Mongul horses, used to the grassy terrain of the Mongolian Steppes, did not have horseshoes unlike the Mameluke horses whose hooves were protected. Now they found themselves fighting on stony, basalt terraces which were very hard on the horses hooves. Mongul horses were accustomed to a diet of grass, whereas the Mamelukes fed their animals hay and made sure they had burnt all of the grazing area. The defeat of the tribal Mongul army was absolute, as the more professional Mameluke army routed the invaders.

The Moslem sultan stubbornly refused to award them for this triumph, so Baybars, his chief of staff, murdered him and appointed himself ruler instead. According to Mameluke protocol the strongest leader ruled. In this instance he was unusually tall and had one blue eye and one brown eye. He had been bought as a young boy by the emir of Damascus, but because of his strange appearance was sold on to the ruler in Cairo where he became his bodyguard and commander of the armed forces. Baybars’ demise is described in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem the Biography” where the author relates how he prepared a poisoned drink for a guest “but then forgetfully drank it himself”. Mameluke rule in the Holy Land began in 1260 and ended in 1517 when they were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. However, to start with, they needed to vanquish the resident Crusaders.Temple Mount 026

Strangely enough, the majority of archaeological remains from this period can be found in Jerusalem, even though it was neither a civil nor administrative centre. The city was a desolate backwater and for the only time in its history didn’t even have a city wall. For the most part, the Mamelukes employed a scorched earth policy thoroughly destroying all the cities they conquered from the Crusaders, who, up until their arrival had been ruling the Holy Land. Because Jerusalem was not on a main road or accessible by sea, it may have been spared as it was not worth their bother. They perceived Crusader strength as coming from the sea, so the Mamelukes destroyed every city they conquered along the coast so as not to let them back in.

Ramle, was founded in 716 by the Ummayad dynasty as their capital (the same rulers who built the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem) and is the only city in Israel that was founded as a Moslem Arab city. It assumed such importance that it was identified as the traditional burial place of the Prophet Mohammed’s family and friends, mentioned in the Koran. The name Ramle comes from the Arabic ‘raml’, meaning ‘sand’, referring to the sandy dunes on which the city was built. Its strategic location near the main road linking Syria in the north and Egypt in the south, that intersected with the road linking Jerusalem to the coast, ensured Ramle’s importance both economically and politically for a period of approximately 400 years.

The remains of Arab Ramle are buried under today’s modern city which means there are not many visible signs from this period. Two sites, however are worthy of mention. The first is the White Mosque, originally built in the 8th century and later repaired by the Mamelukes in the 14th century after its destruction in an earthquake. Its most striking feature is the minaret on the northern side of the mosque known as the White Tower. It was used both as a watch-tower and the place from which the muezzin would call the faithful to prayer. You can climb the tower and stand on its observation deck to enjoy an excellent panoramic view over Ramle and the surrounding area.

Underneath the mosque is a huge subterranean pool known as the Pool of Arches. The 400 square metre pool was originally built as a reservoir which was filled with water from natural rainfall or from a nearby aqueduct. There are openings in the ceiling through which water was drawn in ceramic vessels. The Arabic name for the pool is Birket El-Anzia, ‘the Goat Pool’, which suggests that in days gone by herds of goats were brought there to drink the water. These pools were probably also used by the local cloth dyers whose industrial premises were situated close by. Visitors can rent a rowing boat in order to explore the cistern and see the impressive huge stone arches and pillars that date back over 1200 years.

IMG_0577 (2)Ramle also has a museum which displays artifacts from the city’s glory days. One of the exhibits attests to Ramle’s previous importance, as it was one of the few cities in the land where coins were minted. In the 1960’s a hoard of over 400 coins was discovered in the garden of a local resident whilst he was renovating his home. Some of these coins had been cut into smaller pieces signifying a time when small change did not yet exist and payment was made by weight.

Quite ironically, the British war cemetery, which is the largest one in Israel, has also become a tourist site for modern visitors. On the day I went looking for the grave of Lieutenant Caldwell, there was a group of 40 or so local Israeli’s looking for the grave of another British soldier. A certain Private, who was only nineteen years old when he was killed in Hebron, presumably in the riots of 1939, has become the cemetery’s most celebrated occupant. The reason, his name: Harry Potter.

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Wanna Go On A Lion Hunt?

Lion #1

Lion #1

When I was a young girl growing up in London, I used to belong to the Brownies, which was the junior version of the Girl Guides. One of our favourite chants was “Wanna Go on a Lion Hunt”? Our sing song took us through savanna terrain, and swamps in our pursuit of the king of the jungle. All this was acted out in pantomime accompanied by a specific set of actions and when we finally found our lion, we would hastily back track and do the whole charade in speedy reverse. A tourist to modern day Israel should not expect to come across a lion except if they are visiting a zoo, but the frequency with which lions were mentioned in the biblical text allows us to conjecture that lions and other wild animals were commonly sighted in ancient times. In trying to convince King Saul of his ability to fight the Philistine giant, David, the young shepherd boy assures the king he is used to dealing with wild beasts such as bears and lions who regularly come and attack his flock. Samson also struggled with a lion and lion imagery is so prevalent in the Old Testament that there are no less than six different Hebrew words used to describe the animal. The numerous references to lions, which appear in well over a hundred places, emphasise how often they were seen.

In many instances the bible describes the strength of the lion’s roar. It is likely that many more people had heard the lion than had stayed around to see it. That just made the prospect of coming face to face with one all the more frightening.

Lion #2

Lion #2

The prophet Amos who came from Tekoa in the Judean wilderness, correctly says “A lion has roared, who can but fear?” (Amos 3:8)

It is presumed the type of lion mentioned in the bible was the Asian lion which disappeared from Israel about 900 years ago. Today some of its descendants can be viewed in Jerusalem’s biblical zoo. However, whilst real lions may no longer roam the land freely, their likeness has become one of the symbols of the Jewish people. When the patriarch Jacob gave his death-bed blessings to his sons he referred to Judah as “a lion’s whelp…a lion, like the king of beasts” (Genesis 49:9). In so doing, he effectively created the symbol of the tribe of Judah, with which it, and later the Kingdom of Judah, would be forever associated.

Lion #3

Lion #3

Sometimes a lion appears not only to scare the people, but to deliver G-d’s message. In 1 Kings:13 there is a description where a “man of G-d” is sent from Judah to Bet El in order to denounce the new religion being established there by King Jereboam. The “man of G-d” is eventually killed by a lion because he disobeys G-d’s command. This lion is no ordinary predator, but is obviously on a divine mission as is suggested by his remarkable self control. He carries out his designated task to kill but neither eats nor mutilates the corpse, nor attacks the donkey who accompanied the victim. In a wonderful insight, Yael Ziegler posits that the lion not only represents divine will, but is also the symbol of the kingdom of Judah.

The noble qualities of the lion made it a mascot fit for a king and indeed the bible relates how King Solomon decorated the temple and his throne room with images of lions. A much later ruler, but one who is often associated with Solomon, is the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Legend tells us that the Turkish ruler was tormented in his sleep by a terrifying vision of four lions devouring him. The next morning he called all his interpreters to him and requested an explanation of his macabre dream. Nobody was able to come up with an answer until an elderly courtier asked the sultan what he had been thinking about before he went to sleep.  He answered that he had been contemplating how to punish those citizens of Jerusalem who did not pay their (already harsh) taxes. The interpreter told him that Jerusalem was a holy city and a special favourite of G-d/Allah who protected it against those who would do evil there and the lions had been sent to destroy him. In order to reverse the decree Suleiman needed to atone for his wicked intentions. So the Sultan set out to visit the city and found it desolate and in ruins. He decided to rebuild walls around the city and he ordered two pairs of lions like the ones in his dream to be positioned over one of the gates. These were to serve as a warning for generations to come and as a symbol of how Allah had changed the Sultan’s heart from carrying out a cruel decree to restoring the city and rescuing it from its ignominy. This is how the Lion’s Gate received its name. There are those purists who quibble that the lions are not really lions but rather leopards or panthers and that they were part of the heraldic symbol of the Mamluk leader Baybars…but that is another story.

Lion #4

Lion #4

Jerusalem has been the capital of the territory of Judah since the time of King David and in 1950 the ubiquitous lion became the emblem of the modern city. I invite you to come on a modern day lion hunt with me and see if you can identify where these lions illustrating the blog are located. Answers are below.

Lion #1 in front of a private house in Talbieh’s Marcus Street is part of a series of 80 lions that was created in 2002. It was the brainchild of artist Aliza Olmert wife of then mayor, Ehud Olmert, who had seen similar projects in other parts of the world. The basic unadorned, sculpted lion was given to a variety of artists to decorate. They were later auctioned off with the proceeds going to finance different programmes to benefit the children of Jerusalem.

Lion #2 is part of a mosaic in the Yad ben Zvi Institute in Rehavia. It is actually a copy of a mosaic floor from the ancient synagogue of Ma’on in the Negev, near today’s Kibbutz Nirim. The original mosaic dates back to Byzantine times when it was common to find such artwork in a synagogue. Two lions flanked a menorah which itself had feet shaped like lion’s paws. During this period when the temple was no longer standing, the synagogue was considered as a “mikdash me’at” or lesser temple, a substitute for what once had been. Much of synagogue art depicted Jewish symbols that reminded the people of better times and tried to encapsulate the essence of their faith.

Lion #5

Lion #5

Lion #3 is a stone statue in the courtyard of the Soldiers Hostel in Jerusalem near Sacher Park. It was sculpted by David Ozeransky, who was born in the Ukraine and came to Palestine in 1929. He studied at the Bezalel School of art. He is also the creator of a far better-known lion sculpture in the city: the winged lion that sits atop the Generali Building on Jaffa Road.

Lion #4 is located just a few feet away at the entrance to the Yad LeBanim soldiers’ memorial complex. According to creator Sam Philippe, his bronze sculpture of a lion standing at over 9 feet tall and weighing approximately a ton, is one of the largest in existence. Considering that his debut into the world of art was making sculptures from chocolate he has come a long way. Today his (smaller) sculptures have been presented to leaders around the world as gifts from the Israeli government.

Lion #5 is another mosaic, this time above the entrance to the Natural History Museum in the city’s German Colony. The museum building was originally built by an Armenian businessman in the 19th century. It later became the home of the Turkish governor, then the British High Commissioner and still later became an officer’s club. The Natural History Museum was established in 1962 and is dedicated to local wildlife and fauna. It has an eclectic range of exhibits including a stuffed lion and lioness presented to the city by none other than Idi Amin from the days when he was Governor of Uganda.

If you have a snapshot of your favourite Jerusalem lion, send it to me and I will put up a collection on my facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Helen-Cohn-Israel-Tour-Guide/462609387192220

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The Menorah Mystery

As Chanukah is just around the corner, I thought it would be interesting to look at the origins of the forerunner of the eight branched candelabra or chanukiah: the menorah. The menorah made its first appearance in the book of Exodus where after G-d commands Moses to climb Mount Sinai he tells him “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold…Note well, and follow the patterns…that are being shown you on the mountain” (Chapter 25 31-40).

Unfortunately we all know what happened to the original blueprints Moses received and the sketch of the original menorah is lost to us. The description given to Moses is of a six branched candelabra with seven flames. Several different interpretations have been suggested to explain its symbolism: the burning bush seen by Moses on Mount Horev, the seven days of the week or of creation with Shabbat in the centre, the branches of human knowledge, to name but  a few.

The original menorah was made for using in the Tabernacle in the desert, but we know from the second book of Chronicles that Solomon built ten golden menorahs for use in his temple. Jeremiah describes their fate as part of the loot that Nebuzaradan, the Chaldean chief of the guards, takes with him to Babylon. We don’t know if they were brought back with the returnees as part of the “vessels” given to Sheshbazar when the exiles return as they are not specifically enumerated by the scribe Ezra in his description of the items given back to the people.

Priest_prepares_the_Menorah_2_2The exact function of the menorah in the temple is unclear as is whether all of the flames were kindled every day. We do know that the priests lit the flames in the evening and cleaned the menorah the following morning, replacing the wicks and refilling the cups with purest quality olive oil. The miracle of the Chanukah story took place in the year 164 BCE when the anti – Semitic Greek ruler, Antiochus IV tried to outlaw Judaism and defiled the temple dedicating it to Zeus and sacrificing pigs on the altar. His actions led to outrage amongst the traditionalist Jews who were not only fighting against this aggressive attack on their religion by the Greeks, but also against the Hellenized Jews in their midst. Led by Judah HaMacabee of the Hasmonean dynasty, a guerilla war ensued against the Greeks. The king’s sudden death allowed the traditionalists to gain control and when they made their way into the temple, they found only enough undefiled oil to allow the menorah to burn for one day. They hastily sent forces to the Galilee to bring more supplies of pure oil. It took eight days before they returned, during which time the light of the menorah miraculously remained burning. It is for that reason we use an eight branched menorah or “chanukiya” to celebrate the festival, with the ninth flame used to light the other eight.

It is interesting to note that the two post-biblical festivals which were incorporated into the Jewish calendar, namely Chanuka and Purim, celebrate our victory over those who wished to wipe us out. However the focus of both these festivals is not on the fighting and bloodshed, but the miracle of our survival. The military victory of Chanuka is de-emphasised in favour of the miracle of the oil and the rededication of the temple, and on Purim we stress charity and gifts to the poor. One of the ironies of Chanuka is that the civil war that erupted between the Jews was in protest against the Hellenization of the Jews. In modern times, as a direct result of the commercialism of “the Christmas season,” in many places Chanuka has turned into the most assimilated holiday we have!

In Herod’s temple we know there were also menorahs thanks to the writings of Josephus. He relates in his book “The Jewish War” how a priest named Phineas handed them over to the Romans. Legend has it they were triumphantly displayed during the victorious Roman procession into Rome together with other treasures of the temple. What happened to them after that is open to much speculation. Many people believe they are located in the storerooms in the basement of the Vatican and various requests over the years by Israel’s chief rabbis and members of the Knesset for their return have gone unanswered.Scan0001

The one thing we know for sure, is that a relief of the Temple menorah is depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome. This first century victory monument built by his brother, Domitian, commemorates Titus and his father Vespasian’s successful campaign over the Jews in Palestine. So maybe this ought to be the definitive description of its appearance?

In the Old City of Jerusalem there is a model of the menorah built by the Temple Institute, who actively encourage the building of the third temple on the Temple Mount. In accordance with their mission they create ritual objects to be used in this temple, basing their construction on both the biblical texts and descriptions in the Mishna (the codification of the Jewish Oral Law, which is believed to originate in the time of Moses). Their version of the menorah, which can be seen in a plaza overlooking the Western Wall, whilst similar to that depicted in Rome, is not identical.

Another interpretation of the menorah was actually found very close by in the Jewish Quarter. It appears as graffiti on the wall of a house believed to have belonged to one of the priests who served in the second temple. It seems safe to assume that the version of the menorah that is etched on the wall would be a true likeness of what appeared in the temple. It is very different to the other two, featuring a triangular base and straight branches attached to a central stem.menorah ir david

A not dissimilar drawing was found in the area of the City of David. It is a simple sketch inscribed onto a stone that was found alongside the pilgrim path that led up to the temple. Perhaps a visitor wanted to record his impression for posterity and his souvenir fell out of his pocket?373

An alternate explanation, is that the nature-suffused imagery in the description of the original menorah in the book of Exodus, which mentions flowers and calyxes, almonds and branches, is actually reminiscent of a local plant. Dr Ephraim and Hannah Reuveni, the founders of Neot Kedumim, a biblical nature reserve, were so struck by the botanical references that they inaugurated a search for indigenous plants that fitted the biblical design. Their efforts led them to the sage family, particularly a genus called “Salvia”, which is also a fragrant variety. The combination of its form symbolizing the light of the menorah and its perfume, reminiscent of the incense in the temple, captivated their imagination and they posited that maybe this was the original prototype. It seems we shall never know for sure exactly how that first menorah looked.Scan

The Samaritans, whose traditions rely heavily on the biblical text, frequently depict the menorah in their art. Their version has curved branches with knobs and flowers as mentioned in the description in Exodus. However another discovery in the early Davidic city of Qeiyafa is of an interesting stone object. This personal altar has been dated to the tenth century BCE and incised on the side of it is a menorah with straight branches. What is mind blowing about this find is that it predates Solomon’s temple by about forty years!

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The Other Side of the Tracks

Over the last few years Israel seems to have developed an obsession with trains. Whilst the train system in the north of the country is pretty efficient, in many other areas, especially Jerusalem, it certainly leaves something to be desired. Metropolitan Jerusalem now boasts its own “Light Rail” system which is really a glorified tram, but in those few neighbourhoods where it operates it does seem to do the job quite well. So much so, that Tel Aviv appears set to follow suit. However, the big news will be when the capital city is finally connected to Tel Aviv by a high speed train where the journey will take only half an hour…but we’ve got a while to wait before that happens, although work is already underway constructing the line. Like many projects these days it is both way over budget and behind schedule, but the most unbelievable story so far about the proposed new link was when it was recently discovered that two of the tunnels (the longest in Israel) were being built in the wrong place!jaffa stndownload

In the meantime, you can take a very scenic ride along the original route that first connected the two cities in 1892, but don’t expect to get there in any hurry, as it takes close to an hour and a half! The windy track which runs along the Sorek riverbed was designed to interfere as little as possible with the natural water sources along the way. For that reason the first trains went over no fewer than one hundred and seventy six bridges. The original five stops on the line were also chosen because they were close to an accessible supply of water. Today, however, it doesn’t matter in which direction you are travelling, when you reach the terminus you will be able to visit the original city station which has been renovated and gentrified to create a very nice cultural and commercial hub. Both “The Tahana” in Tel Aviv, which was the original Jaffa station and “The First Station” in Jerusalem, had a virtually identical design. They have both been restored and are once again thronging with people.

Jerusalemstation1978For those travelers on the original route, the journey between the two cities would have taken close to six hours and that was assuming there were no unforeseen delays!  Still, that was half the time it had taken previously by horse and carriage. Several well-known personalities rode the railway including Theodor Herzl, the German Kaiser Wilhelm ll, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel and Israel’s first prime minister David ben Gurion, to name but a few. When they reached the end of their journey they would have been welcomed by jostling crowds and a cacophone of noise as they made their way along the station platform. Local residents came to welcome the train and hawkers and beggars would vie for the passengers’ attention and money as they walked past. In harsh winters when there was heavy snow, travelling by train was the only way to enter or leave Jerusalem.

Another important train route that ran through Palestine was built in the early 1900’s during the Ottoman era and was called the Hejaz Railway. The Turkish sultan’s original idea was to construct a railway that would run from Damascus to Mecca to serve the Moslem pilgrims who were embarking on the Haj. A special mosque carriage with a minaret two and a half metres in height was added to the train especially for their use. The tracks eventually only made it as far as Medina due to the outbreak of World War One, much to the relief of the local Bedouin tribes who had a very profitable business ferrying the pilgrims between the two cities.

Several branch lines were added including one that ran from Haifa to Dera, on the Syrian border, where it met up with the main line to Medina. This section was called the Jezreel Valley Train and included stations at or close to Acre, Bet She’an, Afula and Tiberias. The proximity of the railway led to the development of these areas which had previously been very isolated. It also helped promote the region as a place for tourists to visit. In a recent government initiative, sixty kilometres of this historic track is to be renewed in order to connect the centre of the country with the periphery. Trains running at one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour are due to start operating on this line in the summer of 2016. The old stations in Kfar Yehoshua and Afula have already been renovated and the cornerstone laid for the new Bet She’an station.

During World War One, the British managed to gain control of the Valley railway and by World War Two there were six daily trains travelling along this route. During the period after the Second World War when relations between the Jews and British soured, the Jewish Resistance Movement, which was an amalgamation of all the various resistance groups, bombed the Valley line near Afula station. In 1946, as part of an operation called “The Night of the Bridges,” whose aim was to immobilise the British army, the Palmach blew up one of the main bridges on the line and as a result the Jezreel Valley line was completely cut off from the rest of the Hejaz railway. Further bombing raids carried out during Israel’s War of Independence crippled the line even further.662px-IL_steam_engine

Another branch line, this time to the South of the country, was initiated by the Turks during World War One. Be’er Sheva station opened in October 1915.The current mayor of Be’er Sheva decided it would be a good idea to renovate his city’s Turkish era train station too, and in the spirit of nostalgia he also wanted an authentic train to sit in it. Initially used for freight trains only, a passenger service from the station was inaugurated in 1956 with a freight train created for the British Palestine Railways. They eventually sold it to the Israel Trains Authority and for eighteen years it was used to transport Be’er Sheva residents to Haifa. Many of them still remember its distinctive whistle. Eventually it was superseded by a diesel engine which did the job much more efficiently and the original train was sent to a scrap yard.

As similar trains were still in use in Turkey until as recently as thirty years ago, the mayor entered negotiations to buy one from there. However the strained relationship between Israel and Turkey was a deal breaker. Not willing to give up his search so easily, the mayor discovered that train enthusiasts in England had already purchased a steam locomotive from the Turks just like the one that was used in Be’er Sheva. Their goal was to ensure it was preserved for posterity. The Brits were prepared to sell their engine for a not inconsiderable sum, on condition the Israelis didn’t let Turkey know they were selling the train to Israel, so as not to cause a diplomatic incident. In the end the mayor’s tenacity paid off and earlier this year the train was shipped to Israel from England and proudly installed in its new home in Be’er Sheva.Bsheva bridge

It was the Zionist visionary, Theodor Herzl, who first posited the idea of a suspension railway in Palestine in his 1902 utopian work “Altneuland”. We haven’t quite got there yet, but every so often as you are travelling around Israel you will be able to catch a glimpse of one of the bridges used by these long defunct lines. They stand as testimony to the entrepreneurial spirit that has become a hallmark of the country and an affirmation of Herzl’s dictum “If you will it, it is no dream”.

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Head South

It recently occurred to me that many of the locations mentioned in the Old Testament have become popular tourist sites. However, one place that is very accessible and is mentioned no less than thirty four times both in the bible and later writings, just doesn’t manage to draw in the crowds. I am talking about Be’er Sheva.  I hope to convince you that there is actually plenty to do and see in the city and its environs, which today assumes the title capital of the Negev.

Be’er Sheva served as the southern limit of ancient Israel. “From Dan to Be’er Sheva” is quoted numerous times throughout the narrative of the Jewish people (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20; etc.). As a number of different borders are given for the country, biblical historians posit that this was the actual physical area in which the tribes of Israel settled. The name of the city has two sources which are related in the book of Genesis. The first account (in Genesis 21:31) tells of the pact that was made there between Abraham and Avimelech, the king of nearby Gerar. The Hebrew word for “oath” is “sheva” and the treaty had been made after a dispute over the ownership of a well (“be’er” in Hebrew). Abraham plants a tamarisk tree on the spot to commemorate G-d’s name. In a later episode, his son Isaac has a similar experience and after another dispute over water rights makes a new covenant with Avimelech. On that same day Isaac’s servants discover water and he names the new well “Shiva”, “therefore the name of the city is Be’er Sheva to this day.” (Genesis 26:33)Abrahams Well

You can visit the traditional spot of Abraham’s well which is about three metres wide and twenty six metres deep, the lower part of which is cut into the bedrock.

The site of the biblical city is not accessible and is considered to be located beneath the middle of the busy Be’er Sheva market area. However, four kilometers east of the modern city is Tel Sheva, a location which was settled from Canaanite times, through the Israelite, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Turkish periods. As you would expect, there are several layers to this much excavated site and some exciting discoveries.

As you enter the courtyard, one of the first items you see is a horned altar. Unlike the one that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem and against biblical instructions, it is made out of hewn stones, with the image of a snake engraved on one of them. It was likely used for burning incense, an idea which appears to be supported by the blackened top layer. The altar was actually found in pieces and was reconstructed by Ze’ev Herzog who excavated the site in 1976. Archeologists conclude it was probably destroyed during the reforms of King Hezekiah (mentioned in 2 Kings 18:22).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring the First Temple Period, Be’er Sheva developed into an important pilgrimage site; it seems the ceremonies conducted there didn’t always conform to biblical traditions. The worshippers were influenced by foreign customs and that may well be why the prophets cautioned about what went on there: “Do not seek Bet El, nor go to Gilgal, nor cross over to Be’er Sheva…” (Amos 5:5). The Be’er Sheva altar is of great archeological significance as it gives us a rare insight into religious rituals carried out in a Judean city other than Jerusalem.

The tel is thoroughly fortified, extremely well organized and has an impressive water system. However it is small, which suggests it was probably built for strategic purposes. Some historians propose it was the headquarters for the governor of Israelite southern Judea. It also has a very strange feature, a well outside the city gate, in addition to the internal water system. As we are talking about a desert location it is important to remember the huge significance of water. We saw earlier just how much trouble Abraham and Isaac had in asserting rights of ownership to their wells. It was only natural that fights between local tribes would continue throughout the ages. By positioning an accessible water source outside the city gates the Israelites managed to appease thirsty travellers and prevent them from entering the city to commandeer their water supply. 

After exploring the tel it is worthwhile visiting some of the other attractions in the area too. One of them is located almost opposite the tel and that is the Lakiya Negev weaving project. Here you can meet local Bedouin women weaving traditional rugs, pillows and wall hangings. Their creations are spun on authentic spindles and looms which they make themselves. The cooperative, established about fifteen years ago, was set up in order to empower local Bedouin women and give them a chance to improve their socio-economic position. You can also enjoy some local culinary delicacies or go on a tour to visit the surrounding Bedouin villages and see what life is like there. This is currently a very hot topic, as the government is trying to come to an agreement with the Bedouin over land issues and persuade them to live in legally recognized villages and towns. Heated discussions are underway regarding land rights, as the Bedouin lived in the Negev and the area surrounding Be’er Sheva long before the state of Israel came into being. However, in most cases they do not have any record of ownership of the land and as tribal conflicts are rife, do not want to be pushed into living on lands that they claim belong to other clans. Conversely, the government is trying to stop the Bedouin from encroaching on greater amounts of land and is attempting to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. The process is anything but uncomplicated.cochin synagogue

A short drive brings you to moshav Nevatim, home to a community of Jews originally from the Indian city of Kerala or Cochin. A visit to their heritage center and synagogue is a very rewarding experience. The Cochin Jews claim to be one of the oldest communities in the world, traditionally having reached the shores of India as traders during the reign of King Solomon. They have painstakingly recreated an exact copy of the beautiful synagogue they left behind in India when the whole community came on aliya in 1954. It serves as a regular functioning synagogue for the moshav.  If arrangements are made in advance, one of the local families will host you for a genuine Cochin meal.

air-force-museum-Southwest of the city, in the Hatzerim air base is the Israeli air force museum. Standing on the tarmac are over 140 aeroplanes and helicopters. These include Israeli planes and missile launchers as well as enemy aeroplanes captured during battles, including Soviet Migs. There are displays of combat equipment and emergency gear and explanations about all of the aircraft, including useful instructions how to use the ejector seat. Both older and younger generations will find plenty of interest in this very exciting museum.

Getting back to the main city, Thursday is when the market comes to town. In the past it was a genuine Bedouin market, whereas today it is more of a general open air market with a few authentic stalls with nargila pipes, darbuka drums and other traditional items. It is fun to wander around and soak up the atmosphere.

Be’er Sheva is definitely on the way to becoming a more popular tourist destination. It has a thriving university with the best student life in the country, the recently opened Negev museum of Art in an old Turkish building from Ottoman times, the Ilan Ramon Centre planetarium and stargazing experiences and a recent 30 million dollar donation to establish a science museum. So, if you find yourself wanting to explore somewhere off the traditional tourist track, you could do a lot worse than head south.

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The Hills Are Alive

The country is currently a hive of activity. It doesn’t matter where you are geographically there is some excitement going on. From music, dance and food festivals, to wine, beer, art and theatre extravaganzas, Israel is buzzing with energy. Even nature is attuned to all the action with juicy clusters of grapes dangling from the vines and succulent passion fruit, pomegranates and mangoes at their peak. The streets are filled with holiday-makers and restaurants and cafes are overflowing onto the pavements.

This is Israel at its best, vibrant and colourful, passionate and noisy, focused on relaxation and fun. In fact, throughout its history this land has never been a dull place, there has always been action of some kind going on. Sometimes it has not been of our choosing and many times it has involved blood and guts and gore, but it was never boring. Often, when taking tourists around the country, I have to impress upon them that they should not view the remains of our history in the monochrome colours they see today.

The earliest references to colour come in the book of Exodus when G-d enumerates to Moses the donations he should receive from the people in order to build the tabernacle in the desert and make the priestly garments: “And these are the gifts you shall accept from them: gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins…lapis lazuli and other stones..” Exodus 25 (iii-vii).

Temple interior

Later on, in the book of Kings, we read about King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and the marble and gold and colourful materials he used to make this glorious structure. The Second Temple was apparently also an exquisite edifice, so much so, that the sages of Israel recorded in tractate Sukka 51b of the Babylonian Talmud: “Whoever has not seen the Holy Temple built by King Herod, has never in his entire life seen a beautiful building”.

As different cultures occupied the land they brought with them their own unique artistic contribution, and, with a little bit of imagination it is not too difficult to reconstruct what might have been. If, for example, we take the well known sites of Masada, Caesarea and Jerusalem’s Old City, present day visitors are wowed by the views and archeological remains. But when wandering through those remains of times long gone, it is important to remember that life was no less colourful then than it is now.

Each civilization that passed through this land painted its own palette on our landscape. The Romans, flamboyant as they were, had a tremendous sense of aesthetics. Whilst for the most part we are left with brown or grey stones as testament to their architectural prowess, every so often we come across a hint of more. Whether it is in the skillful and colourful mosaics, the few remaining frescoes, or the opus sectile floor tiling, their life was lived in glorious technicolour, using the latest fashionable shades imported from Rome.Fresco

In his book “The Jewish War”, the historian Josephus talks about the marble pillars on Masada. Modern archeologists think he was mistaken; there were no real marble columns there. However, there were columns which were plastered and painstakingly decorated to look like the real thing.

Scattered throughout the mountain-top fortress are the remains of wall paintings which have survived largely due to the dry desert climate. These are the best examples in all the country, although we also have evidence of similar decorations in Caesarea on the walls of the hippodrome and in the Herodian Mansions in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, to name but a few.  These artworks probably owe their longevity to a technique the Romans used to create these paintings. Known as frescoes, the colours were painted onto the still wet plaster so that they would be better absorbed into the wall and last for longer. We know the Romans who inhabited this land were well acquainted with the trends in Rome and imported them to the Levant. The newest pigments were shipped over so that the local nobility could decorate their homes in the contemporary style like their compatriots in Europe. In Jerusalem we see one particular room was repainted three times in order to keep up with the latest fashion!

Temple Mount 046The early Moslems brought with them their own colour scheme which endured throughout the different periods they ruled over the land. It incorporated a lot of greens and blues and largely non-representational imagery and intricate calligraphy. The beauty of this art is evident even from the most cursory look at the exterior of the Dome of the Rock today. During a later period (1260-1517), the Mameluks contributed the attractive red and white ablaq pattern of alternating colours, that is a striking characteristic on the outside of their structures. It has even been incorporated as a feature in many of the country’s modern buildings.

Crusader influence can be seen all over Israel. The years of their rule (1099-1271 in the Holy Land) span two major architectural periods. At first they built in the heavy solid Romanesque tradition, which later gave way to the much more delicate Gothic style. They too plastered the walls of their structures fleur de lysand created paintings and mosaics which have endured. Unfortunately the colourful stained glass for which they are well known for making into an art form has not survived.

One Crusader decoration which we can still view today is in the impressive Crusader complex in Acre. Some believe it is the original depiction of the fleur-de-lis, which went on to become the symbol of the French royal family. In 1148, Louis VII of France visited the city and many preparations were made in advance of his arrival. The refectory of the Knights Hospitaller compound is built with heavy thick Romanesque pillars and walls. However, the king was a fan of the new lighter Gothic style and in honour of his visit the building was converted. That is why when we go there today we see a mixture of light Gothic rib vaulting sitting on heavy three metre thick walls. Perhaps in an attempt to make the walls more attractive they were decorated with carved lilies of the Sharon, a local flower. It seems the French king was so taken with the design he went on to incorporate them in his royal coat of arms.

So next time you find yourself visiting one of the many tels or national heritage sites in Israel, try a new approach. As well as marveling at what you can see, take a few moments to reconstruct what ancient life might have been like. Enjoy the colours, the textures, the noise and smells, of what could have been. Allow the nuances of the distant past to soak in and then let your imagination run riot.




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The Glass Half Full

July has arrived and with it the Hebrew month of Av. Traditionally thought of as a gloomy period because the first nine days are spent in mourning recalling the destruction of two temples, culminating with a 25 hour fast, I think it has got an unfairly bad press! Just a few days later on the 15th of the month we celebrate the traditional grape harvest with a festival of love. The rest of the month is spent enjoying the summer, often going from festivity to festivity as wedding season is in high gear.

This contrast between joy and sadness is one of the fixtures of the Jewish calendar and maybe the secret to the longevity of the Jewish people. Our history is chequered with highs and lows, with destruction and rebirth. Perhaps our understanding that even when it looks like all the chips are down there is still hope, is what has ensured our survival. Ironically, even though life in Israel is rigidly compartmentalized, with everyone placed squarely in a particular box, it is precisely that ability to think out of the box, not to be beaten by circumstances, but to come up with original ideas, which makes Israeli innovations such a success in the modern world.

One of the industries in which we had a head start on most of the rest of the world was wine making. Wine has been part of our tradition from the very earliest biblical episodes. The first reference we have to wine in the Bible is in the ninth chapter of Genesis, which relates the story of Noah planting a vineyard after he came out from the ark and getting drunk. In a later event, in the book of Numbers, the scouts who came on a pilot trip to the Promised Land return to Moses and their fellow Israelites with a huge cluster of grapes, so big that it needs to be carried by two people. Neither of those two incidents had a great outcome. Nevertheless after a somewhat rocky introduction to the fruit of the vine, it became a vital part of life here in ancient Israel.

According to Deuteronomy, chapter 20, any man planting a new vineyard was exempt from military service and in the book of Isaiah there are clear instructions given how to plant said vineyard. A different prophet, Micha, even paints an idyllic scenario of every man sitting under his vine and fig tree. The Kings of Judah owned vast areas of vineyards and King David employed two officials to manage them. Kings Solomon and Herod built temples financed by international trade and winemaking in ancient Israel was at its peak in the Second Temple Period. It was a major export and the economic mainstay of the area. Grapes and vines were also frequent motifs on coins and a symbol of the fertility of the country.

Inscriptions and seals found by archeologists in Israel indicate that wine was traded in Ashkelon, Dor and Jaffa, the port areas of the country. Pottery and ancient seals have also been found in England dating from Roman times, belonging to wine sent from here. Every church and many synagogues had mosaics depicting grapes, harvests and wine related scenes. Hundreds of wine presses have been found throughout the country. Wine from the Holy Land was a brand name product!

So what happened? How did we end up with the reputation that Israeli (read kosher) wine was to be avoided at all costs? That sickly sweet pungent liquid produced by Israeli wineries was to be used for religious ceremonies only and even then you shouldn’t drink too much of it unless you wanted a hangover! From a world leader in the industry how did we fall so low?

Unfortunately, none of the ancient varieties of grape that were used in this country from biblical times onwards survived, because they were uprooted after the Moslem invasion. The vineyards were not immediately attacked because actually there is no explicit ban in the Koran against drinking wine. Various warnings are issued about the dangers of drinking, but that is as far as the text goes. In fact, according to some, Mohammed himself is said to have drunk wine, although there are some differences between commentators in this matter. There are those who say his drink was indeed made from grape juice and others who say it came from apples, presumably some kind of cider. Regardless of what refreshment the Moslem prophet originally drank, as Islam became more and more extreme, wine was outlawed. Although Jews and Christians could make and drink it they were not allowed to sell it to Moslems.

When the Crusaders were in charge there was a brief respite and even an increase in local wine production, but once the land came under Moslem control again this waned. The Mamlukes, who conquered the country in 1291, were the most extreme of the Moslem rulers and they decreed anyone who drank wine would be hung. They burnt all the vineyards and that is why none of the ancient varieties of grapes for producing wine are still in existence.

carmel winery baron3Nevertheless, wine remained deeply rooted in the Jewish psyche and, in the 1800’s, when the Jews managed to gain concessions from the Turks after the Crimean War, a few home wineries, started up. There were said to be over twenty wineries in the Old City of Jerusalem alone. They relied on varieties of grapes intended for eating, which are different from those used for making wine, but that was all they had. However, the industry was really given a new lease of life at the end of the nineteenth century, during the time of the First Aliya, with the investment of Baron Rothschild in the Carmel Wineries. He spent a great deal of money importing new strains of grapes from Europe in order for the local wine industry to develop. Even so, the winemakers did not have the expertise of their forebears and the wine they produced was Kiddush or sacramental wine, known in Hebrew as “yayin patishim” (hammer wine) for its not so subtle qualities and it was a far cry from the superior Chateau Lafitte produced by the baron’s French vineyards.

In the 1970’s, a visiting US professor of wine, from Davis University in California, remarked that the Golan Heights looked like the perfect terrain on which to plant vines. A few enterprising kibbutzim took him up on the idea which led to the formation of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. They are credited with revolutionizing the Israeli wine industry and seriously upgrading the quality of Israeli wine. They brought over American wine expert Peter Stern to work for them. As well as being chosen for his expertise, he was picked for his Jewish sounding name. Even though he turned out not to be Jewish, he stayed on as their wine advisor for the next 20 years!

Today there are over 200 wineries in Israel ranging in size from the big five (Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Binyamina and Tepperberg) who each produce over one million bottles a year. Then come the medium size and boutique wineries and the smaller “garagistes”. They are included in the boutique category and in many cases literally operate out of garages or other home facilities. Israeli wine is collecting prizes in international competitions and slowly moving off the “kosher wine” shelves and inaugurating an awareness of “Israeli wine”, as consumers begin to appreciate the quality and variety of wines Israel now has to offer.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Israeli technique is a fusion between the two styles of wine making known as “Old World” and “New World” and as a result is coming up with some very impressive wines. “Old World”, primarily refers to wines made in Europe, but can also include other regions of the Mediterranean basin with long histories of winemaking such as North Africa and the Near East. The phrase is often used in contrast to “New World” wine which refers primarily to wines from New World wine regions such as the United States, Australia, South America and South Africa.

Old World wine making is influenced by tradition and terroir, with the emphasis on how well the wine communicates the sense of place where it originated. Terroir, is the terrain or growing habitat where the grapes are grown and can be affected by soil composition, altitude, wind, temperature, climate change and a host of other details. Old World winemakers pride themselves on largely determining the quality and taste of the wine as a result of their work whilst the grapes are still on the vine and have yet to be harvested.

New World winemakers are not so constrained in their ideas and are more open to experimenting with scientific advances and initiate more involvement during the fermentation stage. Using strains of cultured yeast or enzymes to influence the flavor of the wine are just two of the methods they may consider. Israel is very much a mix of old and new world techniques. On the one hand we have the tradition going back over 2000 years, on the other, we are not frightened to combine this with the latest developments. If the medals we are collecting at international wine tastings are any indication, it seems to be a winning combination.

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Small But Beautiful

According to the latest figures produced by the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s population stands at just over 8 million people. Of those, 75% percent of them are Jewish, 20% are Moslem Arabs and 4.6% are Christians, leaving just over 4% of the population classified as “other”.  I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of these religious minorities.

The reason I have chosen to concentrate on the Bahai, even though there are very few of them in Israel, is because the Bahai gardens and shrine, stretching approximately one kilometre up the slope of Mount Carmel, are one of the better known tourist sites in the Haifa area. Although far less is known about the Bahai themselves. Modern Bahai claim they have nothing to do with Islam and consider themselves a twenty-first century religion still in the process of developing and open to new ideas. Its roots nevertheless stem from the nineteenth century when they were considered a heretic off-shoot from Shiite Islam. Today it is considered the second fastest growing religion in the world with over 7 million followers.

The break happened in 1844 in Persia (today’s Iran) when Mirza Ali Muhammad declared himself the “Bab” or “Gateway”. He proclaimed that he had been sent by G-d to pave the way for someone even greater to follow and he was the gate through which this person would come. The “Bab” also declared that his teachings would supersede those of the Quran, and he considered “pure” many things that the Quran declared to be “impure”. This was a severe break from mainstream Islam and predictably the local Shiites were none too happy about this turn of events. The Bab was imprisoned in total darkness and was eventually executed in Shiraz in 1850.  He was only 31 years old. The 2,200 lamps in the gardens, each of them with a 7 watt bulb like a candle are turned on at nightfall each day. This light is to counter the 6 years the Bab was imprisoned in the dark. He had asked for candles and was refused. It is to make sure he will never be in the dark again. 

In 1863, nineteen years after the Bab’s original declaration, Mirza Hussein proclaimed himself the “Baha’ulla” or “Glory of G-d”. As expected, he was also not embraced by the religious leadership. Possibly because he came from a wealthy family he was not executed on the spot, but was exiled from Iran, eventually finding himself incarcerated in the Ottoman prison in Akko (Acre) in 1868. Through his prison window he could see Mount Carmel and he had a vision of gardens on the slopes of the mountain. His followers wanted to fulfill his prophecy and that is how the gardens were conceived.

The Baha’ullah’s son, exiled together with his father, accompanied him to Akko. From there he carried out his father’s wish to transfer the bones of the Bab to Haifa. They arrived on March 21st 1909 and since then the Bahai celebrate that date as their new year. The golden shrine in the Bahai gardens contains his tomb. The Baha’ullah is buried in the lesser known Bahai gardens in Akko, but his son (Abdul Baha) is buried next to the Bab.

The land in Haifa was already purchased in the time of the Baha’ulla, but work on building the gardens did not start until 1987 and they were opened to the public in 2001. They cost $250 million to construct, all of which came from Bahai donations. A gift of $1 million offered by Amram Mitzna, then mayor of Haifa, was rejected because the Bahai do not accept donations from non-Bahai. For that reason, the gardens are open to the public free of charge. However, they did request a change to enhance the view from the gardens. In 2001 a street in the German Colony of Haifa was moved 168 cm to the left, to maintain a symmetrical line between the golden shrine and Akko where the Baha’ulla is buried.

Neither the Quran or the Bible are included in Bahai scriptures and the religion is based on books written by the Bab and the Baha’ullah. They are a monotheistic faith and believe G-d sent new prophets or messengers to earth. They believe in all of the prophets including Moses and Jesus, Buddah and Krishna, but maintain that the Baha’ullah was the last one. The Bahai took their name from him as “Baha” means “glory”. Men and women are considered equal and acceptance of the Bahai religion is a voluntary act carried out in one’s teens. There is a tremendous emphasis on unity with a belief that the globe is one city and one day it will be united and speak a universal language. Once a day every Bahai is required to pray and faces towards Akko to do so.

The Bahai year consists of 19 months, each of which is 19 days, which makes a total of 361 days with 4 left for holidays. At least once in a lifetime a Bahai must make a pilgrimage to Akko and to Haifa. Both alcohol and drugs are forbidden, although cigarettes and medications are permitted. Charity is obligatory and the whole movement is supported by these donations.

Every year there are elections where voting is carried out over the internet. Out of up to 200 candidates only 9 leaders are chosen. These leaders choose 9 counselors and they in turn choose 180 counselors for the whole world. The 9 leaders and 9 first counselors work and live in the Universal House of Justice which is one of the buildings in the gardens. In addition, 800 volunteers come for two years to work in the gardens and the complex. They are assisted by a small number of paid gardeners. Apart from this population there are no Bahai in Israel.

In the gardens there are 18 terraces which equal the number of leaders and first level counselors. The number 18 is significant because it commemorates the original group of followers of the Bab. Recycled rainwater circulates underneath the terraces. Visitors are allowed to descend the steps, climbing up is only for Bahai. As the Bahai pilgrims ascend, the running water is supposed to relax them and provide a meditative mood so that they can contemplate the pain and agony that was the path of the Bab until he was executed. It is interesting to note that all the colours are shades of green and orange.

One of the buildings in the gardens is the library which has seven  floors, including several below ground, which contain Bahai writings and teachings. The Baha’ullah’s book has been translated into 700 languages.

However, despite the beauty, aesthetics and symmetry of all of the grounds, one’s eye is inevitably drawn to the Shrine of the Bab which is decorated with 12,000 gold plated tiles. It can only be visited by Bahai and on the wall of the shrine is inscribed “The Tablet of the Visitation” which every visitor reads.  Next to it is the shrine of Abdul Baha.

The gardens were designed by Fariburz Sahba, a Bahai architect born in Iran, now living in the US and Canada. He also designed the Bahai LotusTemple in New Delhi. He said “The Shrine of the Bab is envisaged as a precious gem, for which the terraces provide the setting, like a golden ring for a precious diamond”. Tours of the gardens are given in various languages throughout the week. Reservations are not required. The Bahai gardens in Akko are also open to visitors.

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