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

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Where Past and Present Meet

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.

.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Friend of My Enemy

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Harry Potter and the Slave Boy Warriors

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

Posted in bible, Idi Amin, Jerusalem, Jewish, Judea, Judean Desert, mosaic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Wanna Go On A Lion Hunt?

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Menorah Mystery

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”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Other Side of the Tracks

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Head South