Benjamin and Samaria

Our trips to the West Bank are always particularly interesting. It is an area that is really right next to where I live (about 10 miles) but I hardly ever go there. For my previous job I would occasionally go to Ramallah or Nablus; I will sometimes cut through its edge to get to Jerusalem or the Dead Sea, but given the widely reported tension in the area, it is not a place which I would visit on my own initiative.

This is a great shame as the scenery is stunning and there are numerous sites of huge archaeological and historical importance; the West Bank is ironically the area first inhabited by the Israelites in the Bible and so much of the biblical narrative takes place there. For our guides and coordinator, this seems to override the political situation. It seems almost that it is irrelevant where the sites are located – they could be under Israeli control, Palestinian control, Jordanian control – what matters is the excavations themselves. I could almost imagine them wandering into Syria (if they could) despite the current troubles, even oblivious to them, in the pursuit of antiquity. It is as if archaeology is such a pure calling that it renders you invincible.

Having said that, they do remain sensitive to the political situation, but in order not to appear politicised they refrain largely from discussing it, merely pointing out the different Jewish and Arab towns as we go past and telling us a little about their history. Starting to get into politics would no doubt cause a riot in the class as there are a broad spectrum of views in the group and plenty of people not afraid to express them. So for the sake of peace we focus as much as we can on historical and geographical facts.

The day before our trip there was a terrorist incident at Tapuach junction, an important interchange in the West Bank near Nablus/Shechem which we knew we would have to cross three times the next day. We wondered if the trip might be cancelled on security grounds. Our coordinator reassured us that lightning was unlikely to strike the same place twice in 24 hours. Our fingers were firmly crossed!

View from Shiloh
View from Shiloh

Our day began at the archaeological site at Shiloh. It is actually one of a very small number of biblical locations of whose identification we are certain – an inscription was found on a mosaic in a Byzantine church at the site referring to this being the place of the community of Shiloh.

Shiloh was a very important city in ancient times; it was the religious capital of the Israelites for around 300 years from shortly after they entered the land. It housed the mishkan or tabernacle which was the non-permanent structure that pre-dated the Temple. It was also the birthplace of my namesake, the prophet Samuel, according to the biblical narrative. Having studied some of the Book of Samuel as a set text at university, it was quite exciting to be in the place where these stories unfolded, to imagine them in their setting.

There have been various finds of note at Shiloh. At the bottom of the Tel (an archaeological mound) are the remains of three Byzantine churches, one of which contains the inscription mentioned above. Going further up the hill are many more remains including a wall going back to the 16th century BCE (it seems there was a Canaanite settlement here before the Israelites arrived). Various clay jars were found containing what appear to be remnants from sacrifices and in fact remains of raisins from over 3000 years ago. These jars are now in the Israel museum.

Model of the Altar of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh
Model of the Altar of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh

No evidence has been found of the mishkan, which is not surprising given that it was not a permanent structure. However we did visit the site where it is believed to have been situated – a wide flat space fitting the measurements described in the Bible.

Unfortunately we arrived at the site a little too early, next month they plan to open a brand new visitor centre with a very impressive audio visual presentation (we saw the trailer). From the site you can see modern day Shiloh further up the hill and its synagogue built in the style of the mishkan (at least based on the biblical description – we don’t really know what it would have looked like exactly). As we looked out on the beautiful scenery everything felt so quiet and peaceful, it was strange to think that in fact there is a lot of tension in the area.

We drove north to our next stop: Mt Kabir. On the way we looked out into the fields where we could see farmers harvesting the wheat crop. I reflected on the fact that we are in the lead up to Shavuot (Pentecost), which was considered the festival of the wheat harvest (two loaves of bread would be offered as sacrifice in the Temple). Having grown up in England where the Jewish festivals do not really match the seasonal calendar, there is something special in seeing that here in Israel they do actually make sense.

Sheikh Bilal at Mt Kabir
Sheikh Bilal at Mt Kabir

We reached the peak of Mt Kabir and looked out below into Nachal Tirtza (also known as Wadi Farah). Sadly, it was largely covered in fog; a great pity as it was clearly a potentially spectacular viewpoint. We heard about the theory that this valley was the entry route for the Israelites into the area after the Exodus, and the archaeological evidence supporting the view. Although many still hold that they entered further south crossing the Jordan near Jericho. We gazed out on Mt Ebal which is in the Palestinian Authority control, so we can’t visit it, but contains archaeological remains of what was almost certainly a resting point of the mishkan (prior to Shiloh). At the peak of the mountain is Sheikh Bilal, considered the resting place of Mohammed’s companion.

Our final stop was at Mt Gerizim, the holy site for the Samaritans. We used the visit to the site to learn about the Samaritan religion, one of the smallest in the world (there are around 2000 worldwide). Mt Gerizim is their holy site and is believed to be the site of their temple which was around at the same time as the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. They only follow the first five books of the Bible and consider themselves the true adherents of Jewish tradition.

Everlasting Hill at Mt Gerizim
Everlasting Hill at Mt Gerizim

The site was vast and fascinating although most of the excavations are off limits to visitors – the slopes are steep and the Parks Authority is concerned about people falling. It is also still in use as a holy site by the community, 400 of whom live nearby after moving up the mountain from Nablus after the first Intifada. Among the holy sites there is the location of the Binding of Isaac and also the Everlasting Hill, considered to be the foundation stone of the world.

Byzantine Church at Mt Gerizim
Byzantine Church at Mt Gerizim

We continued through the ruins, most of which come from a very large settlement in the Hellenist period, probably Samaritans escaping the conquering Alexander the Great to live near their holy site. We arrived at the site identified as being the location of the temple, and wandered around the ruins of the impressive Byzantine period church which is now on the site. It seems that because of the frequent Samaritan rebellions against Christian Roman rule, their temple was razed and a church built in its stead.

View over Nablus / Shechem from Mt Gerizim
View over Nablus / Shechem from Mt Gerizim

We headed away from the site back into the town whence we enjoyed a viewpoint over Nablus/Shechem, which was slightly better than at Mt Kabir as the mist had cleared a little. Our guide pointed out the location of ancient Shechem, which is one of the oldest settlements in the area because of its strategic position at the mouth of three fertile valleys and next to one of the main ancient roads known as the Way of the Patriarchs (as it is the route Abraham would have travelled from Dan down to Beer Sheva). He then pointed out Joseph’s Tomb which is also in the heart of the city and the location of the famous Casbah (where I had some wonderful knafeh when on a work visit a year ago!).

Sadly it was not feasible to pop into Nablus for some knafeh on this occasion so it was time to draw things to a close and return to Tel Aviv. Until next time!

What do you think?