Category: South

A Return to the Northern Judean Desert

The Judean Desert. A series of undulating hills that starts just next to Jerusalem. Beautifully tranquil, it contains some of my favourite parts of Israel. Avid followers of this blog will no doubt recall that our first field trip on my tour guide course was to the Northern Judean desert. A couple of years on, it was time to return, partly to refresh my memory on some of the sites that I had not seen for a while and partly to discover some new ones. Accompanied by my friend and fellow tour guide Ori, it was time for another adventure.

Byzantine period mosaic on display at the Inn of the Good Samaritan
Byzantine period mosaic on display at the Inn of the Good Samaritan

We began our day at the site that marks the believed location of the story of the Good Samaritan. In addition to enjoying the mosaics and Byzantine ruins that we had seen on our last visit, we enjoyed the recently produced film that you can now watch while sitting in a cave that was a home to Jews in the Second Temple Period. The film was rather kitch, but still helps explain the story of the Good Samaritan fable.

While wondering around the site, we noticed some old ruins the other side of the road. The staff told us that it was ruins of a former Herodian palace. We decided to head over and take a closer look. After some rather tricky off-roading (Ori’s little Suzuki was not really built for this but it coped admirably) we passed the remains of a Crusader fortress which protected this ancient road. We then climbed a little further on foot to explore the Herodian ruins.

Remains of a Herodian bath house - in the background is Route 1 and the Inn of the Good Samaritan
Remains of a Herodian bath house – in the background is Route 1 and the Inn of the Good Samaritan

The site seemed to be in the midst of excavations, although it was unclear by whom, and when the last time was that they had been there. Still, we were able to make out pieces of 2000 year old mosaics, and part of the hypocaust that made up the hot room in the bath house. It was rather remarkable that this site was just there, almost ignored among the other archaeological treasures in the area.

Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) at Qumran
Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) at Qumran

We continued south, arriving at Qumran. After a spot of lunch we explored the ruins, and also saw the film (which is quite good) – we had unfortunately not been able to watch it during the course due to time pressures. The ruins at Qumran are a little underwhelming, given the sites importance, but the story of the Dead Sea scrolls discovered nearby is remarkable, and it is fun to see how to match what we understand about this ascetic community with the archaeological remains at the site.

Built into the cliff face of Wadi Kelt - St George's Monastery
Built into the cliff face of Wadi Kelt – St George’s Monastery

We returned north, and after a brief stop at Kalia beach, to see the facilities (it is a popular stop for Dead Sea bathers), we returned north. Our destination was the well hidden monastery of St George, built into the cliff face along Wadi Kelt and dating to the 5th century. This was certainly the highlight of the day, as we made our way along a deserted road we eventually found the cross that marked the first view of the monastery. It is a very special sight; you are in the middle of the desert but there is a burst of greenery in the wadi thanks to the year-round stream that comes from the nearby spring. And there, almost hidden in the cliff face, is the monastery. This is certainly a place that you would come for solitude.

Ancient olive tree in Wadi Kelt
Ancient olive tree in Wadi Kelt

Eventually we arrived at the monastery gate, but from there we faced a steep descent and then an even steeper climb to arrive at the actual structure. Along the way we noted the remains of a Hasmonean aqueduct that used to transport water from the spring to various cities in the area, and many beautiful, ancient trees. The monastery itself was closed (they only accept visitors in the morning) but it was enough for us to see it from the outside and marvel at its beauty. Truly one of my favourite places in Israel.

View over Jericho and its surroundings from the Dead Sea Balcony
View over Jericho and its surroundings from the Dead Sea Balcony

We returned to our car and made a final stop in the nearby Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Here is something called the Dead Sea Balcony, a viewpoint which offers a stunning vista over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the northern part of the Dead Sea. It was a nice way to finish off the day, before returning back north.

 

Ein Avdat, Ben Gurion’s Hut and Mitzpe Revivim

Although the course may have finished, the exploring never stops – all I need is an excuse. My friend Ben happily provided that when he suggested we go on a trip down to the Negev desert, and I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity to check out a few places that I had been meaning to visit.

Hiking Ein Avdat
Hiking Ein Avdat

We began our day at the desert oasis of Ein Avdat. It is a popular hike, because it is quite easy, and utterly beautiful. the combination of the springs with the bleak desert scenery is really very special. Unfortunately, the only way to do the whole hike is by having a car/bus pick you up at the other side (there is a section which is only one way), so we missed out on the very final part of the hike, but we certainly got to enjoy the majority of it.

An ibex in the wild
An ibex in the wild

As we were around at a quiet time, we also had the pleasure of seeing some of the local desert wildlife taking advantage of the oasis. There are many ibexes wandering the Negev and the ones we encountered were relatively unphased by our presence. It was wonderful to observe them.

Having stretched our legs, we headed up to the nearby Sde Boker Field School, which houses the graves of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, and his wife Paula. Nearby is the small hut to which Ben Gurion retired, famously choosing to live a life of relative simplicity on a kibbutz as part of his socialist ideology, instead of occupying a grand house which many felt he was due. He also chose specifically to live in the Negev, an area which he saw as the future of Israel; vital that it be developed in terms of agriculture and settlement for the state’s survival.

David Ben Gurion's Hut
David Ben Gurion’s Hut

His hut is quaint, kept as it was when he lived there. It is particularly interesting to see the gifts he received from other statesman (having just returned from a trip to Burma where we saw photographs of his visit there, it was touching to see the Buddah he received in a prominent position). The library is also quite amazing, giving you a scope of quite how well read Ben Gurion was, and how many languages he commanded. There is no doubt that he was a very impressive man.

Leaving Sde Boker, we popped in to a couple of small farms that were not too far away, both of which specialise in the manufacture of Goat’s Cheese. We particularly enjoyed the Naot Farm which also has options to stay, should you wish to get away from it all.

Mitzpe Revivim
Mitzpe Revivim

We then headed west as I was keen to check out Mitzpe Revivim, one of the first Jewish settlements in the Negev, in the modern period. This small agricultural settlement had a significant impact on the Negev being awarded to Israel as part of the partition plan; the stories that accompany it are perhaps more impressive than the buildings which remain (the modern kibbutz has moved slightly away from the original site).

We had a bit of time before heading home, so we briefly stopped off at the Besor Hanging Bridge, the Maon ancient Synagogue, and the Black Arrow memorial (read more about these in my previous blog post), before returning to Tel Aviv. It is amazing how close we live to the desert, and it was wonderful to take advantage of it. Thanks, Ben!

Beer Sheva and the Southern Coastal Plain

Today’s tour was dedicated to various sites along the southern coastal plain, culminating in a jump into the capital of the Negev desert, Beersheva. A long day, as we move forward in a final push towards the final exams and ensure that we fit in all the necessary sites in the time we have remaining.

Mazkeret Batya Cemetery
Mazkeret Batya Cemetery

Our day began at the quaint town of Mazkeret Batya, founded in the late 19th century by Baron Rothschild and named for his mother. We began our visit in the cemetery which also houses the reinterred remains of the great Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, one of the forerunners of the Zionist movement (and who pre-dates Herzl in his work for a Jewish state).

We continued into the centre of the old town, stopping at the museum, viewing some of the old buildings and hearing the stories of their residents, culminating at a visit to the Shmuel Mohilever museum. The museum is small but does a good job of recounting the story of a very impressive man, and was the highlight of our trip to Mazkeret Batya.

Philistine altar found at Tel Tzafit, believed to be biblical Gath
Philistine altar found at Tel Tzafit, believed to be biblical Gath

We then headed south to the coast, and to the city of Ashdod. Here we began our visit at the ironically named Museum of Philistine Culture. But we quickly discovered that the modern association with the word Philistine is most inappropriate – these were a most cultured people who brought many interesting customs and craftwork to the region, with Ashdod being one of their biggest cities.

The museum is small but extremely well done. We enjoyed the opportunity to reenact Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple, and various other interactive exhibits. We concluded the visit with some tasting of ‘Philistine food’ and dressing up in ‘Philistine costumes’. The latter activities are targeted at children but I can assure you that adults are equally able to enjoy themselves!

Ummayid fortress of Ashdod Yam
Ummayid fortress of Ashdod Yam

We headed further out towards the coast, to the impressive remains of the Ashdod Yam fortress. Dated to the Ummayid period in the 7th century, it seems that it was constructed to help protect local residents from sea pirates who would launch raids in order to kidnap people for the slave trade.

Ashdod Port
Ashdod Port

Our final stop in Ashdod was at the visitors’ centre at the port. Built in the 60s, and rendering the ports at Tel Aviv and Jaffa irrelevant, Ashdod port is now a key part of Israel’s economy. The visitors’ centre was quite fun with all sorts of interactive quizzes, and we were then driven around the port area to marvel at the huge ships and their accompanying machinery.

Rutenberg Power Station, Ashkelon
Rutenberg Power Station, Ashkelon

We drove south to Asheklon, and a visit to the Rutenberg Power Station. This huge facility provides about 20% of the electricity for Israel and the Palestinian territories. We drove around the site and learned also about the history of electricity in Israel – Rutenberg (after whom the site is named) had the vision to electrify the country and succeeded in doing so – a hugely impressive feat that helped drag the area into the 20th century.

Abraham's Well (?), Beer Sheva
Abraham’s Well (?), Beer Sheva

We then traveled south to Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev desert and actually the geographical centre of the country. We first visited the relatively recently opened Abraham’s Well site, where a 3D film that tells the story of Abraham (who first settled in the area of Beer Sheva, according to the Bible); on the film’s completion it is possible to visit an ancient well which may perhaps be connected to the one Abraham dug on arrival.

British Military Cemetery, Beer Sheva
British Military Cemetery, Beer Sheva

We continued with a wonder through the historical centre of the city (although it is not so old – the city was only reestablished in 1900 under the Ottomans). We heard the stories of the difficult battle for the city between the British and the Turks in 1917, and visited both the British military cemetery and the memorial for the Turkish fallen, together with a quite magnificent mosque which was constructed early in the 20th century.

Monument to the Negev Brigade
Monument to the Negev Brigade

With the setting sun, we finished the day at the Monument to the Negev Brigade, a unit of the Palmach who were instrumental in protecting the vital water pipeline that supplied the southern Jewish settlements in the 1940s, and also in securing the Negev all the way down to Eilat in 1948.

The monument commands an impressive view over the Negev and the southern parts of the Shfela, and Mt Hebron. The symbolism employed is both impressive and meaningful, the brutalist architecture jutting out from the peaceful countryside as a reminder of the losses in the battles for this area. A moving conclusion to a long but as always fascinating day.

The Sea Peoples

The Sea Peoples are the term now used to refer to a grouping of peoples which the Bible seems to refer to collectively as the Philistines. Based largely around the southern coastal plain, these people, whose origins seem to be somewhere in the Aegean, were the perennial enemies of the Israelites in the biblical narrative.

Philistine ruins at Tel Qasile
Philistine ruins at Tel Qasile

Evidence of their presence exists around the country and today’s trip was largely based on following their footsteps. We began close to home in Tel Aviv, inside the grounds of the Land of Israel museum, on what is known as Tel Qasile. Situated along the Yarkon river, this seems to have been a Philistine city dating back to the 12th century BCE. Of even more interest, next to the Philistine settlement are a set of buildings with clear characteristics of the Israelite culture. It seems that these two cultures lived in very close proximity, if not together, for a brief period of time although the reasons for this remain a mystery.

View from Izbet Sartah
View from Izbet Sartah

We drove north east to the area of Rosh Haayin, and the archaeological ruins of Izbet Sartah. There is not a huge amount to see at the site, but here was found a piece of pottery containing an ancient Hebrew writing exercise – some of the earliest Hebrew script ever found. It is now in the Israeli museum. Izbet Zarta is identified as maybe being the site of biblical Even Haezer, site of a fateful battle between the Israelites and the Philistines as described in the book of Samuel. On defeating the Israelites, the Philistines capture the sacred Ark of the Covenant, causing a major existential crisis on the losing side. The location of the settlement near Tel Afek would seem to fit with the biblical description.

Ancient fortress of Migdal Tzedek
Ancient fortress of Migdal Tzedek

We continued onwards to the nearby fortress known as Migdal Tzedek. A large amount of the ruins are from the Ottoman period but its foundations are from Crusader times when it was known as Mirabel. The fortress is currently closed for repairs but should be reopened in the future for visits; meanwhile we enjoyed the commanding views of the area.

Canaanite ruins at Tel Afek
Canaanite ruins at Tel Afek

From here, it was a short journey to Tel Afek, also known as Antipatris. This beautiful national park houses the remains of a settlement dating back to the Canaanite period, occupying a key strategic position on the ancient Sea Road. We explored the ruins through the different periods of history, including a very nice set of roman ruins from the time it was established as Antipatris by Herod (who named it after his father, Antipater). We also learned about the plethora of springs in the area, which the British harnessed to supply Jerusalem with water, and the Israelis later extended to provide the first piped water into the Negev desert.

Stunning Roman sarcophagus in Ashkelon
Stunning Roman sarcophagus in Ashkelon

From Tel Afek, it was time to journey south along the route of the ancient Sea Road (pointing out various ancient settlements on the way) before arriving at the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. After a brief stop to visit some really rather impressive sarcophagi discovered from the Roman period, we ventured towards ancient Ashkelon, in the form of the tel.

The ancient archway at Tel Ashkelon
The ancient archway at Tel Ashkelon

The bible names Ashkelon as one of the main Philistine towns, and the remains of the fortifications from this time are very impressive, including the second most ancient archway in the world (after Tel Dan)! The Ashkelon national park also contains impressive ruins from the Roman and Crusader periods; it seems there is still a great deal of excavating to be done and no doubt more exciting finds are to come in the coming years.

View over the Ashdod port at Givat Yonah
View over the Ashdod port at Givat Yonah

We concluded the day slightly further north on a hill known as ‘Jonah’s Hill’, due to a tradition that the prophet Jonah had been buried there. We had a nice view over the twinkling lights of the Ashdod port, and heard the story of the nearby Tel Mor which seems to have been an industrial centre for the manufacture of clothing dye in the Hellenist period. As always, with the sun setting, it was time to return reluctantly to Tel Aviv. Next week our adventures shall resume!

Campus Negev Day 3: from Ovdat to Mamshit

Click here to read about Day 1 or Day 2 of the campus.

A slightly more relaxed day for me today – not every course does the sites in the same order and I had already covered a good chunk of today’s itinerary with my own group, meaning I could relax a little more than on the previous days of the campus.

View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon from our field school accomodation
View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon from our field school accomodation

First things first though, and we reluctantly took our leave from the Ramon Crater, enjoying the final views before it was time to head north and continue our journey.

Havarim Cistern
Havarim Cistern

Our first stop of the day was at the ancient Nabbatean city of Ovdat. I had been there previously with my course but had not had time to visit the nearby Bor Chavarim, a Nabbatean cistern. These wily desert travelers were careful about hiding their water sources so that only they could navigate the arid landscape.

Hiking Ein Avdat
Hiking Ein Avdat

We then moved north to Ein Avdat. Located near Kibbutz Sde Boker, this series of three desert springs provides a remarkable oasis in the middle of the Negev desert. We hiked up the valley through which the water flows, enjoying the beautiful scenery and the freshness of the water, while learning about the geological formations before us.

Graves of David & Paula Ben Gurion at Sde Boker
Graves of David & Paula Ben Gurion at Sde Boker

On completing the hike, we ascended to the kibbutz and visited the grave of the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. He always emphasised the importance of settling the Negev desert, and of making it bloom. To this end, he moved to Sde Boker on his retirement and requested to be buried there, next to his wife Paula.

View over the Zin valley from Sde Boker
View over the Zin valley from Sde Boker

The grave / memorial site has a stunning view over the Zin valley. The Israeli deserts already bloom considerably more than most and hopefully one day they will bloom in their entirety thanks to the ingenuity of Israeli engineering, thereby realising Ben-Gurion’s vision.

With this, there was time for a brief stop at Mamshit before heading back home to Tel Aviv. With all the campuses now complete it is time for the final strait as we head up to the exams!

Campus Negev Day 2: The Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon

Click here to read about Day 1 or Day 3 of the campus.

An early rise to enjoy dawn breaking over the crater and a surprisingly good breakfast in the field school. Today’s tour was dedicated to the area of the Makhtesh Ramon, or Ramon Crater, the largest of these geological phenomena in Israel at a length of 40km.

View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon
View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon

We began our day at the newly refurbished visitors’ centre in Mitzpe Ramon. The refurb was funded by the family of Ilan and Asaf Ramon (the name being the same as that of the crater is purely coincidental) in memory of Israel’s first astronaut and his pilot son, who both died in separate tragic accidents.

Replica of Ilan Ramon's spacesuit in the Ramon Crater Visitors' Centre
Replica of Ilan Ramon’s spacesuit in the Ramon Crater Visitors’ Centre

As such, the beginning of the museum tells the story of Ilan Ramon, and a little about Asaf. It is not really connected to the crater but the tale is moving, and one cannot begrudge the family the desire to create a memorial to these two very impressive individuals, and it is done extremely well.

The rest of the centre has a fantastic film/moving presentation about the formation of the crater and another very good film about wildlife in the area. In short, if you plan to visit the area, I really think the visitors’ centre is a no miss.

Khan Saharonim in the Ramon Crater
Khan Saharonim in the Ramon Crater

It was now time to descend into the crater. We journeyed quite a way on dirt roads until we reached the area of Khan Saharonim. Here, next to a small spring, were the ruins of a Nabbatean khan (inn) along the famous spice route that they used to transport merchandise from the area of Yemen to the port at Gaza, sending it across the Roman Empire.

After exploring the area a little; learning about some of the local flora and fauna, we travelled a short distance to Nachal Ardon. It was possible to see the damp ground from the recent flash floods, and the plants that were newly blooming as a result of the rains.

Dykes in Nachal Ardon
Dykes in Nachal Ardon

We soon reached our goal during this short walk – the dykes that lined the walls of the river bed. These are formed by molten rock pushing into cracks in the existing rock; the magma cools and forms a different type of rock to that surrounding it, causing it to erode at a different pace.

The 'Carpentry Shop' in the Ramon Crater
The ‘Carpentry Shop’ in the Ramon Crater

We returned to the northern side of the crater, and the area known as the ‘Carpentry Shop’. Due to volcanic processes, this small hill has formed into a series of small pieces of rock that look similar to wood-chips, hence the name. We learned about the formation of the hill and enjoyed the view out over the landscape of the crater.

Porcupine in Bio Ramon
Porcupine in Bio Ramon

Our final stop was back in Mitzpe Ramon, at the Bio Ramon. A significant sample of the animals that live in the crater are kept here, and it is possible to see them up close and learn about their habits and lifestyles. Night was drawing in, and they were beginning to get active. For us, it was time to return to the field school and prepare for the final day of our campus which awaited us on the morrow.

Campus Negev Day 1: The Negev Mountains

Click here to read about Day 2 or Day 3 of the campus

Time for the final campus of the course, one which I unfortunately missed last year due to sickness, but was eager to attend now – three days of touring in the area of the Negev desert.

The Negev, in the south of the country, consists of around 55% of Israel’s territory, but due to its barren nature and its relative inaccessibility, it is much less frequently visited than the tourist hot spots of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Judean Desert & the Galilee.

Indeed, there is much less history here than in the north of the country, but there are a great deal of stunning landscapes, fascinating geological features, and also the odd archaeological site for the historians among us.

The Yerucham Dam
The Yerucham Dam

Our first day was dedicated to the area of the peaks of the Negev mountains in the north east of the region. Our first stop was in the Yerucham Park. We visited the ancient well and then the more modern dam and man-made lake, learning about the modern history of the area and the struggles of Yerucham to break away from its development-town status. Unemployment is a major problem in the Negev in general and the government actively encourages business to relocate to the area in the hope of encouraging more people to move and improve its status.

From Yerucham, we travelled east to the area of the ‘Large’ Makhtesh. A makhtesh is an unusual type of crater, formed through a lengthy process of erosion and weathering. There are only around 8 in the world and 5 of them are in the Negev (others are in the surrounding area – the Sinai and in Jordan) and their unique nature means the word Makhtesh has now entered international geological parlance as the word to describe this phenomena.

View over the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) from Mt Avnon
View over the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) from Mt Avnon

Enjoying a stunning view from Mt Avnon over the ‘Large’ Makhtesh (in Hebrew: HaMakhtesh HaGadol), we learned about the theories about how these craters developed.

Fossilised / Petrified trees in the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol)
Fossilised / Petrified trees in the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol)

Descending into the makhtesh, we stopped to sit on some unusually shaped and coloured rocks, only to learn that these were in fact fossilised (or petrified) tree trunks. The huge size of these rocks are testament to a completely different climate in the area many tens of millions of years ago; indeed the large amount of the campus that was dedicated to geology helped put into perspective the tiny amount of time man has impacted the planet. One analogy was that if all of the earth’s history was represented by a calendar year, the time man has existed amounts to the final hour!

Ein Yorkeam oasis
Ein Yorkeam oasis

We continued our journey through the crater, nothing the different coloured sand layers and the rugged scenery. Exiting the other side, we proceeded to the spring at Ein Yorkeam, a desert oasis with ruins from the Roman period and an accompanying story of a grand Palmach trek in the 1940s.

View from the top of the Scorpions' Ascent
View from the top of the Scorpions’ Ascent

Our final stop for the day was a lookout over the Zin river bed and the twists and bends of the Scorpions’ Ascent which leads from the mountainous region of the Negev down towards the valley of the Dead Sea. Here we heard the tragic story of a terrorist attack on a tourist bus in the 1950s; this led to new roads being laid through the Negev down to the Red Sea at Eilat, meaning that today the area is almost deserted.

With the sun setting on our first day in the Negev, we travelled west to our hostel at Mitzpe Ramon to prepare for the following day’s adventures.

Masada

For today’s tour, we took a break in our current historical narrative (1948 and all that) to travel back 2000 years in history with a visit to the desert fortress and palace of Masada. One of Israel’s most famous destinations, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is certain to be a place we shall visit regularly in our future careers as tour guides.

As part of the course, we sometimes have to practice guiding ourselves, and the majority of the site was divided up between members of the class. At this relatively advanced stage in the course, everyone did a good job of relating their specified information or story, and it made for a varied and interesting day.

Huge cistern at Masada
Vast cistern at Masada

I worked out that this was my seventh visit to Masada, but coming with the course really opened my eyes to parts of the site that I had never noticed before! We began on the western side of the mountain, and before ascending the Roman ramp, headed left to explore the network of cisterns. There are no natural water sources at Masada, but when Herod developed it into a major fortress, he constructed a huge network of channels and cisterns to capture the waters of the annual desert flash floods. This made the fortification even more secure – those above had up to two years’ water supply in storage; the nearest water supply for any besiegers (who anyway would have to deal with the strong desert sun and heat) was around 20km away.

After climbing the ramp, we heard the story of the last stand of the Jews who had begun the revolt against Roman rule some seven years previous. Numbering only around 500, they had to face the might of the Roman army’s troops (estimates around 10 000) with significantly superior training, armour and weaponry. A dramatic tale indeed!

Stunning Herodian mosaic in the Western Palace at Masada
Stunning Herodian mosaic in the Western Palace at Masada

We toured the mountain top, starting with the 5th century Byzantine church (which I must confess I never previously noticed!), containing a beautiful mosaic, moving south through the grand western palace (containing some of the oldest mosaics in Israel) and to the southern wall fortifications.

View from the southern wall of Masada
View from the southern wall of Masada

Along the way, we learned about life on Masada, both in the time of Herod and then later during the time of the revolt. Many remains were found on the site testifying particularly to the final days of the families who lived up there; their narrative is important for Israelis as they were the last independent Jews until Israel was established in 1948.

Masada Synagogue - one of the oldest in the world
Masada Synagogue – one of the oldest in the world

After taking in the outstanding view from the Northern Palace, and hearing about its history (and the amazing archaeological finds there), we visited one of the world’s oldest synagogues and learned the final fate of the Jewish rebels. For those who have yet to visit the site, I shall not give the game away!

View north from Masada towards Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. Note the remains of the Roman camp on the left.
View north from Masada towards Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. Note the remains of the Roman camp on the left.

We concluded the visit with a stop in the Masada museum, which boasts fantastic displays of many of the artefacts found in the excavations, including everyday items of the Jewish rebels and the Roman soldiers. The dry desert air helped their preservation and it really is a remarkable collection.

If anything, this tour proved that even if you have been somewhere six times previously, there is always something new to see and learn. So, even if you have visited Masada many times before, perhaps the time has come for a repeat visit.

The South in 1948

Last week’s tour was dedicated to the battle for the road to Jerusalem in 1948. We finished the day learning how the siege of Jerusalem was finally broken, a significant victory for the nascent Israeli state. However, the south of the country had been cut off completely by the Egyptian army. With Jerusalem now accessible and resources freed up, the attention began to turn southwards. Likewise, we would now journey south for a tour on the theme of the south of Israel in 1948.

Memorial to the fallen at Ad Halom Bridge
Memorial to the fallen at Ad Halom Bridge

We began the day at the Ad Halom Bridge, formerly known as Jisr Isdud, located next to Ashdod. This was the northernmost point reached by the advancing Egyptian armies, only 34km south of Tel Aviv. Fortunately the Israelis had managed to blow up the bridge, preventing further advancement, and we heard how a mixture of Israeli attacks (ironically complete failures, but psychologically damaging) combined with poor Egyptian intelligence meant that they progressed no further, instead opting to travel eastwards and cut off the south of the country from the centre. As such, the bridge was renamed ‘Ad Halom’, a very literary way of saying ‘up to here’ – a reference to the fact that the Egyptians progressed no further north.

We heard the story of the battles here, together with several acts of heroic individual bravery. This was also the site of the first mission of the nascent Israeli Air Force, if four planes could be called an airforce! The country has come a long way since 1948…

The 'Palace' House - site of the last stand at Kibbutz Nitzanim
The ‘Palace’ House – site of the last stand at Kibbutz Nitzanim

We continued south to the original site of Kibbutz Nitzanim. The Egyptians had not given the kibbutz too much trouble on their push north but with the decision to entrench they returned to clear their lines. The defendants of the kibbutz were hugely outnumbered and did not even have enough guns for one each; their communications device also failed and they were cut off from Israeli HQ – they had no idea if their SOS had been received and if back-up was on the way. They did their best to hold on heroically but eventually surrendered.

This surrender was pilloried at the time but once the facts became clear after the war, those involved in the battle were recognised for their bravery. The site is now also the site of the Women of Valour Centre, a memorial to all female soldiers who have died in battle. This site was chosen as in the last minute evacuation of women and children, 10 women refused to leave, insisting on taking their part in the defence of their home. Three of them were killed by Egyptian fire.

We journeyed further south, although back in time chronologically, to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. Sadly passing by the sign for the bee & honey experience (they make a lot of honey on the kibbutz), we visited the museum of the kibbutz where we heard the story of the battle here in 1948. Unlike at Nitzanim, the Egyptians made a point of conquering the kibbutz on their way north, as it occupied a strategic position on the coastal road.

Statue of Mordechai Anielewicz at Yad Mordechai Kibbutz
Statue of Mordechai Anielewicz at Yad Mordechai Kibbutz

The Israelis bravely held out for a few days but eventually fled in the face of overwhelming Egyptian superiority in numbers and weaponry. We heard of some of the acts of heroism while visiting the cemetery for those who died in the war. Eventually the IDF took back the kibbutz in its push south, and it became the effective border with the Gaza Strip (which was controlled by Egypt after 1948).

The kibbutz is named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. The museum also contains information on life in the ghetto and details of the revolt.

Our final stop of the day was at Kibbutz Negba, which became the Israeli southern front against the Egyptian army. After spreading east from Ashdod, they had reached this area, but did not manage to conquer Negba. As we again sat in the military cemetery, we heard how the kibbutz remarkably held out in the face of ferocious attacks, being vastly outnumbered and with inferior weaponry. It was really quite remarkable.

Memorial to the fallen at Kibbutz Negba
Memorial to the fallen at Kibbutz Negba

Here we learned about Operation Yoav, named for one of Negba’s fallen. It was this operation, launched after the Jerusalem siege was broken, that finally broke through the Egyptian lines into the Negev. The decisive battle took place a few kilometres away from Negba.

With the Egyptian army now surrounded, the Israelis opened talks about a ceasefire and withdrawal; 90 days later the Egyptians acquiesced and left; the largest of the Arab armies that had invaded Israel in 1948 had been repelled, and the south had been freed.

Campus Eilat Day Four: Timna

Read about our first day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the Northern Arava and the Ovda Valley), our second day (exploring the area of Eilat and the Eilat Mountains) or our third day (exploring the Southern Arava).

With mixed feelings, we arrived at the last day of the campus. On the one hand, the tour had been very enjoyable, very interesting and the breakfast and dinner buffets were rather marvellous. On the other, we were exhausted! They push you hard on the tour guide course!

Still, there was one final trip before heading back north, a visit to Timna, also known as King Solomon’s Mines. I was excited to visit the park, a major site in Israel which to my recollection I had never been to previously (my mother later told me that I had been there as a very young child), and I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint.

We began our visit with a short film about the site (it was cute, although it was badly tinted green due to a projector problem – I thought perhaps related to copper oxidisation – ho ho!) and then proceeded into the park, a large valley formed by ancient geological turbulence in the area.

Arch at Timna
Arch at Timna

We began our visit at the site of the Arches. Although not as impressive as my visit to the Arches National Park in Utah a few years ago, the effects of the weathering on the local sandstone were still rather beautiful. We went on a short walk through the largest arch and descending to a former copper mine. Everywhere we went it was possible to see specks of green in the rock; signs of the wealth of copper in the area. We had a good crawl through the ancient mine (dating up to 7000 years ago!).

Crawling through an ancient copper mine in Timna
Crawling through an ancient copper mine in Timna

From here, we visited the site known as the mushroom, another geological weathering formation. At the lookout were replicas of the tools used in ancient copper manufacture, and our guide explained the process to us from start to finish. It really is impressive that these ancient men managed to work out the complicated chemical process to extract the copper from the ore. No doubt a huge amount of trial and error was involved as they refined the process over time, eventually stumbling on the idea to combine the copper with tin, forming bronze, and ushering in the Bronze Age.

Copper ore in Timna sandstone
Copper ore in Timna sandstone

We learned that the peak of Timna’s copper production was under Egyptian stewardship in the 14th-12th centuries BCE, although they did so in partnership with locals. Copper was very important for the Egyptian pharaohs both for personal and ritual use.

Ancient hunting scene etched in the rock at Timna
Ancient hunting scene etched in the rock at Timna

On the Egyptian theme, we travelled a short distance to see an ancient wall inscription of a hunting scene from the 12th century BCE. It is unclear whether it was done by a bored worker or was commissioned as a piece of art, but it was quite remarkable to see these etchings still on the rocks thousands of years later.

Ancient temple / ritual site in Timna
Ancient temple / ritual site in Timna

A short drive then took us to an ancient ritual area, used jointly by the Egyptians and the local workers of the mines, with both kinds of gods and rituals present. It is unclear who these locals were although the leading theory suggests that these were the Midianites, a tribe that the bible tells us used to live in the area. In this temple was found a copper snake, similar perhaps to the one famously used by Moses. It is now in the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv.

View over King Solomon's Pillars, Timna
View over King Solomon’s Pillars, Timna

Leaving the temple, we ascended into the cliff face, noting the large seal of the Pharaoh Ramses III hewn into the rock, before descending to the area known as King Solomon’s Pillars. Here, our guide explained to us the link with King Solomon and Timna which developed in the 19th century. There was evidence found there of mining in the 10th century BCE, which is believed to be the time of King Solomon. As we know there was a great deal of copper in the temple, perhaps this was his main mine.

This theory was dashed when it was discovered that the real peak of the mining here was in the Egyptian period, but discoveries last summer reopened the question. I shall look forward to sharing the full details with tourists in the future!

On that mysterious note, it was time to begin the long journey back to Tel Aviv. Next week we return to the normal routine (and weather). Of course, I shall continue to keep you posted!