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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, I made my first visit to Bethlehem. We don’t go there on the tour guide course, as Bethlehem is part of what is known as Area A of the West Bank, i.e. under full Palestinian control, and Israeli tour guides are not allowed to guide there without special permission from the Palestinian Authority, which is only granted for a short and limited time in any event.
I was surprised quite how close it was to Jerusalem – I was aware that it was close – but in fact our journey seemed more like driving into a Jerusalem suburb than a new city. In ancient times of course it would have been further from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Old City of Bethlehem, but not a great deal more.
We were met at the border by a Palestinian Christian guide, who led us towards the Church of the Nativity, originally constructed by St Helena, who also was responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As with the church in Jerusalem, it is divided, this time between Greek Orthodox and Armenian groups. The Catholics do not run part of the church but do have a sizeable area at the back.
Refurbishment work was taking place in the main basilica but it was possible to get some idea of the impressive nature of the church and also to see down to some remains of an original Byzantine mosaic.
After waiting what seemed to be an interminably long time, we were able to descend into the crypt, which is believed to house the site of Jesus’ birth (marked by a star) and where his crib would have been situated. The theft of the star was actually the pretext for the Crimean War in the mid-19th century; it was cause for reflection that 150 odd years later the Crimea was again in turmoil, although for different reasons.
Our time in Bethlehem was brief, but it was interesting to have this insight into this holy city, and to have the opportunity to see its main holy site. Although we do not visit it on the course, we are taught about what we should expect to see there (also in Jericho), so as to be able to answer any questions from tourists who have visited or about to do so. Still, nothing beats seeing it for oneself!
Today we travelled south east to the area of Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc in English), a small enclave of Jewish settlements that are over the Green Line in the West Bank. It was a particularly exciting day for me as it was my turn to be ‘chanich toran’ (student on duty). We all have to take this role on a rotation basis and it meant that I was in charge of the logistics for the day – making sure that everyone was on the bus, dealing with payment at the sites we were visiting and carrying the rather heavy first aid kit bag.
Before reaching the area, however, we made a short stop at the Nacham moshav, just north of Beit Shemesh, which until 1948 was the small village of Har Tuv. Here began the story of the famed Lamed Hei (the Convoy of 35 – the letters Lamed and Hei represent 35 in Hebrew).
With the outbreak of war following the UN Partition Plan in 1947, the settlements in Gush Etzion were becoming increasingly isolated and endangered. They called for more supplies but the road to the bloc passed through the Arab towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jalla and had become impassable. In January 1948 a group of 40 reached Har Tuv with the intention of marching on overnight (using the cover of darkness) to bring the needed supplies. There was a delay in their arrival and in the end they were only able to leave at around 11pm – their commander was urged to reconsider but given the urgency of their mission he felt the need to continue.
We continued our journey following the path of this convoy, which soon became one of 35 (hence the name) as members were sent home for different reasons. As we crossed the Green Line at the Lamed Hei checkpoint, we paused to look out to the hill on which they held their final stand. Just here, they were discovered, and all met their deaths at the hands of the local Arab villagers.
We continued the short journey to their original target, the Kfar Etzion kibbutz. Here we visited a museum detailing the history of modern Jewish settlement in the area, dating back to the 1920s. The museum concluded with a powerful film about the sad events of May 13 1948, the day before Israeli Independence was declared. The Jordanian troops captured the kibbutz and its defenders; then began a massacre of the prisoners. It is unclear exactly how it happened or who ordered it but over 100 people died as a result; their bodies remained unburied until a special agreement with Jordan in November 1949 permitted the gathering of their bones; they are now buried at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem.
Before the battle the children and many of the women of the kibbutz had been evacuated to Jerusalem; after surviving the war they used to gaze out to the area of Gush Etzion and dream of a return. When in 1967 Israel seized the West Bank as part of the Six Day War, they petitioned the government to be able to return to their previous home, and were granted permission; hence Kfar Etzion was the first Jewish settlement to be built over the Green Line after 1967, although perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘rebuilt’.
From Kfar Etzion we travelled a short distance to Yeshivat Har Etzion, the first Hesder Yeshiva, which enables young religious men to combine their army service with traditional study of Jewish text. There are also many foreigners who come for one or two years before or after university, and many of my contemporaries at Cambridge had studied in ‘the Gush’. Known for its intellectualism and openness to secular scholarship (the current head of the yeshiva is an expert on Milton), it was for many of our group the first time in such a setting and all found it very interesting. We popped into the library also where of most interest where the 500 year old books we were allowed to peruse. A big thanks to Rabbi Joe for facilitating this last minute visit!
After lunch, it was time for some archaeology, as we visited the Biyar Aqueduct, one of the sources of water for Jerusalem from the Roman period. It is incredible to think that 2000 years ago an aqueduct was constructed starting here to reach Jerusalem, 20km away. The aqueduct leads from a natural spring and some of the more hardy members of our group walked down part of the tunnel – the freezing cold water put me off – I think this is more of a July than a January activity!
We then travelled to the ‘Lone Oak’, an ancient tree that was in the middle of the Etzion Bloc in 1948. After the war, descendents of the Bloc settlements would be able to see this tree from beyond the Green Line, and would gaze out to it as marking their former homes – it became a symbol for the area and is still revered today. Estimates put it at around 700 years old.
A short walk took us along an ancient Roman road which has been called ‘Derech HaAvot’ (The Road of the Patriarchs). The bible relates stories of Abraham and Jacob being in this area – if this was a road in Roman times then perhaps it is along the lines of a more ancient pathway upon which their feet would have trodden? Certainly Jewish feet have walked along the route – we found the remains of a grand mikve (ritual bath) from the Second Temple Period – it seems pilgrims en route to Jerusalem would have used it for purification on the way.
We concluded our day Mitzpe HaElef (Viewpoint of the Thousand), located in Neve Daniel, the highpoint of the Gush. Neve Daniel contains a peak that reaches 997m high – so they built a viewing platform at a height of 3m, taking it to a handy 1000! Unfortunately electricity pylons obstructed the best part of the view but still there were commanding vistas of the Judean Hills, Herodion and Jerusalem itself.
The day was over, I had managed to get everyone home and did not need to open the first aid kit once. All in all, quite the success!
Today was a catch-up field trip. Well, almost. To say it was a catch up is not entirely precise – my course have not yet visited Herodion. However, I do already know that I won’t be able to make the scheduled visit for my course, so I was catching-up in advance, if that’s possible.
Herodian is nestled in the West Bank not far from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Here, so we believe, was the final resting place of Herod the Great, the master builder of Israel, although by all accounts also quite a tyrannical ruler. The trip came at bad timing for our guide following the publication of an academic article suggesting that the sarcophagus identified as belonging to Herod is not in fact his; still this remains a minority view amongst the experts.
The site used to be rather tricky to access but since the opening of a new road around 8 years ago it is only 15 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem city limits and there has been an explosion in tourism – we were at the site with around four other groups.
As with our other trips to the West Bank, I found it strange to look out over the mix of Palestinian and Jewish settlements dotting the landscape. It seems so peaceful, tranquil, calm. If you didn’t know that there was a conflict here, there would be no way of picking it up. But still it is a little unnerving to have that knowledge that under the peaceful facade lie many political tensions.
Similar to his other construction sites in the Judean desert, Herod built a magnificent palace/fortress here with an incredibly impressive water system; huge cisterns, bath houses, pools. It is actually the only of his fortresses which he entirely built himself – the others were all based on Hasmonean remains. Perhaps this was why he chose this as his final resting place – it was after all entirely his.
Passing the bathhouse and pool at the foot of the slope, we ascended to the upper fortress. Our guide told us how at this site, prior to any buildings being present here, Herod had defeated his enemy Antigonos for the first time in battle, having been chased out of the Galilee and Judea. This, together with its convenient location in between Jerusalem and Masada, may have been a reason for constructing the fortress.
We delved into the psychology of Herod, a man who had to show that he could achieve anything, a man who was paranoid about another insurrection; scarred by the experience of his family who nearly died of thirst while under siege. A man whose popularity was not widespread; on hearing that Herod had killed his own son, the Caesar Augustus is said to have remarked that he ‘would rather be Herod’s pig than his son’.
We explored the various stages of building at the site. The current theory is that a large palace and fortress were constructed; later Herod decided that he would be buried here so he built a mausoleum together with a theatre for his funeral ceremony and covered the rest of the structure in earth. We heard the sad story of Ehud Netzer, the archaeologist who dedicated his life to excavating Herodion and finding Herod’s actual tomb on the site. Having finally done so, he fell to his death shortly afterwards after leaning on a fence that collapsed. This was only a few years ago and his presence is very much still felt at the site.
Later, rebels against the Roman regime in both the Great Revolt (which ultimately lead to the destruction of the Second Temple) and the Bar Kochba Revolt used the site, converting a reception room into a synagogue, building ritual baths and turning the impressive water system into a series of tunnels to assist them in guerrilla warfare.
We descended through these tunnels to the theatre believed to have hosted Herod’s eulogy. We did not go to visit the mausoleum, as it is currently in the Israel Museum for its huge exhibition on Herod. However, we were able to enjoy a very good film recreating the events around Herod’s death and his funeral procession, based on descriptions in Josephus.
With the rest of the group heading off to Susya and Hebron, sites I had already visited, I took my leave at Gush Etzion, just about managing to get back to Tel Aviv for lunch and catch up on my blog!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
It’s good to be back! Sadly I had an extended enforced absence due to a bout of glandular fever (that’s mono for any American readers) which kept me away from both work and studies for about 6 weeks. Thankfully things are now returning to normal and it was a great feeling to be back on the bus again with my coursemates even if it was 6.30 in the morning!
And what a return. This was one of the trips I had been really looking forward to since I signed up for the course. Hebron is one of the most ancient continually inhabited towns in the area, one of the four holy cities of the Land of Israel and site of the Cave of Machpela (also called the Cave of the Patriarchs), a place holy for Jews, Muslims and Christians as the final resting place of Abraham & Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah. In more recent times, Hebron is sadly also a place of tension between Jews and Arabs. The reasons are too complex to go into in this blog and I’m wary of getting too much into the area of politics. Our guide did a good job of sharing viewpoints of all the involved parties without pushing any particular agenda, but this was over the course of a whole day; I think it would take me several blogs to come close to doing it justice!
Modern day politics aside, it was exciting to visit the Machpela Cave for the first time; the second holiest site in Judaism, a place I had heard so much about but had never been due to nervousness about the tensions in the area. In fact, the building one enters is over the caves themselves, a later construction almost certainly by Herod. It is very grand from the outside but one feels that the later changes by Byzantine and Mamluk rulers have somewhat detracted from its interior.
Once it was possible to descend close to or even into the caves themselves but the Muslim authorities who are in charge of the complex do not let anyone do so and have not let anyone do so for hundreds of years (indeed until 1967 Jews were not allowed inside at all for around 600 years). Despite this, there was someone who did make his way into the underground tunnels in 1981. Our guide related this Indiana Jones-esque story to our amazement and showed us photos from inside; imagine our excitement when he then spotted the perpetrator wandering past; we then had the pleasure of hearing this incredible tale from a the man himself.
Sadly another sign of the tensions is that Jews and Muslims are separated inside the complex with each group getting the whole thing to themselves for 10 days a year each. Christians are allowed in both sides. This meant that we did not get to see the sepulchres marking the resting places of Isaac and Rebecca; it also meant that it was impossible to escape from the fact that this was a complicated place and I felt it was a great shame that for most of the year neither Muslims nor Jews are able to visit the whole site because of the previous actions of extremists.
We left the cave and went up to Tel Rumeida, the site of the biblical city of Hebron. We explored some ancient remains and then went to a viewpoint over the city whence our guide explained to us the historical importance of Hebron as a local economic centre; its strong local culture and the realities of life there post-Israeli control in 1967 and since the cities partition as per the Oslo peace process.
We left Hebron and headed south, still within the range of mountains known as Mt Hebron. Today’s theme was the desert frontier and to see how ancient communities coped and adapted to the trickier agricultural and security conditions associated with being so close to desert both in the east (the Judean desert) and in the south (the Negev).
Our next stop was Susya, the remains of a large Byzantine era Jewish settlement. It is something of anomaly; no one can identify a Byzantine era town or city that would fit with this location and size. Susya is the Arabic name of the area, and that is what is used for now. There is a large synagogue with a beautiful mosaic floor together with various other excavated ruins and a somewhat dated but nonetheless interesting film imagining life here.
However, on the way to the archaeological park we passed tents of people who had historically lived in the area, and indeed some were moved out of the area that is now the site. They are in constant tension with the Jewish inhabitants of modern day Susya which is in the hill facing them. While our previous trips in the West Bank had been around the edge and had pretty much avoided these tensions, here it was right in our face to see.
We travelled further south and just out of the West Bank to another ruined synagogue, this time at Anim, in the Yatir Forest. We used this and also Susya to learn more about the lifestyle on the desert frontier and here specifically about the rich agricultural pickings in the area; near Anim were many vineyards for manufacture of wine and also grape sugar, also in the Byzantine period.
We returned whence we came, stopping off on the way in Avigail, an illegal settlement outpost consisting of a few caravans containing about twenty families. Our guide explained how it was possible for this place to exist, and why they had so far been allowed to stay despite the fact that it was illegal under Israeli law. We tried to temporarily forget about this to enjoy the view out over the desert frontier landscape and heard the story of Abigail and David, which would have taken place in this area (hence the settlement’s name). With this, it was time to return home.
This trip was particularly interesting as it was areas that I had never seen before and, barring a tourist’s request, I think it is unlikely I will come back in the near future. On the one hand it was fascinating to see and learn about Hebron in person; to see the ancient ruins and landscape of the area. On the other hand the political situation was unavoidable and pulled me alternatively from right to left on the political spectrum. I ended the day thoroughly confused, which I actually think is appropriate – the situation in the West Bank really is confusing; absolutist and clear cut solutions to the tensions there are not readily available. Nonetheless, I still hope that peace will come to us soon.
As we move into the winter months the Jordan Valley was a welcome itinerary as it is well known for having somewhat warmer climes. We left Tel Aviv and ascended up to the Judean Hills into a dense fog, we were enveloped in an ambiance of mystique and perhaps slight foreboding as we crossed over the Green Line and headed to the town of Maale Adumim, and the Martyrius Monastery.
The Monastery dates from the 5th Century (the Byzantine period). Today we would learn about the movement of monks in the Judean desert which is said to have begun with the arrival of Chariton in the year 337. This was an extremely significant movement numbering 20 000 monks spread across 60 monasteries by the middle of the 6th Century. The first monasteries were called laura and consisted of a central cave for the head monk with smaller caves around it. They then evolved (often on the same site) into built structures for communal living known as a coenobium.
This monastery, named for the monk who was at one time Patriarch of Jerusalem, was a large structure housing around 250 monks and also offering lodgings to pilgrims on the Jericho-Jerusalem trail. As we wondered around the ruins our guide explained about how the monks would live in the desert conditions.
We then drove down the hill to the St Euthymius Monastery which has been excavated in the heart of the Maale Adumim industrial zone. St Euthymius inherited Chariton’s mantle as the major monk in the area of the Judean desert having come here from Armenia. He moved around several times but died and was buried in the site upon which the monastery was built. Much of the structure is original although some was restored at the time of the crusaders. In order to prevent his bones being removed by pilgrims St Euthymius left special instructions about a final to be placed above his tomb for them to anoint themselves on. We found the funnel, but sadly his bones were removed at some point in history and are now somewhere among the relics held by churches in Europe.
Particularly impressive was the vast cistern (one of two of this size) used to capture as much rain water as possible to survive the desert heat. We climbed down to the bottom and gazed up at this incredible structure hewn into the chalk rock. An extremely impressive feat of engineering, it even used techniques to protect it from earthquakes (which evidently worked).
To add to the ambiance, our guide played the song “El Borot Hamayim” (to the water cisterns) and handed out sheets with the lyrics. A nice sing along was had.
We moved on past Jericho and headed North up route 90 to our final monastery of the day, that of St. Gerassimos. He, like Martyrius, was a disciple of St Euthymius and was credited with pioneering the establishment of monasteries in the area of Jericho. The site was restored over the past 30 years by the Greek Orthodox church and there are now lodgings there for pilgrims together with small mosaic and candle making factories. The church has been refurbished and there are beautiful paintings of various saints and scenes from the bible, together with a brand new home made mosaic floor. The surroundings are very peaceful and shady in the desert sun although sadly they offer no respite from the desert flies.
From this monastery it was a short trip to Qasr el Yahud, an old deserted crusader period monastery on the site of a church dedicated to John the Baptist and built on the orders of Helena (mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, who also ordered the building of various churches in Jerusalem including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). Just a few meters further and we found ourselves at the bank of the Jordan River at the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, effectively founding a new religious movement. There were many groups of pilgrims from around the world quietly praying or singing hymns together; it was a very special ambience.
The site is also important in Jewish history. It is here that the Israelites entered the Land of Israel for the first time, and where they spent their first Pesach as a free people. It was also the site where the prophet Elijah passed on his leadership position to Elisha before being whisked away to heaven in a chariot of fire. It is a site associated with new beginnings.
After a spot of lunch our trip took a more sombre turn as we visited the Jordan Valley monument. Designed by the artist Yigal Turmakin and constructed from old parts of armoured vehicles, tanks and guns, it serves as a memorial to the Israeli soldiers who died in the area, particularly as a result of the period known as the period of pursuits. Once Israel took control of the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinians began to infiltrate from Jordan and carry out attacks. Many soldiers lost their lives to this guerrilla warfare and they are commemorated here.
The site also commands an impressive view over the Jordan valley and into Jordan itself. Our guide pointed out the sites of former strongholds of the Jewish Hasmonean kings in the area together with modern agricultural settlements.
From the monument we took the winding road known as the Alon Road (after Yigal Alon, a former army commander and politician) deep into the Samarian hills. The scenery was stunning although it was also a little eerie; much of the area was deserted. Occasionally we would pass small villages or other signs of human life such as olive tree groves and a herd of goats with their shepherd. As we went through our guide pointed out sites mentioned in the bible or of significant excavations. There is a great deal of history in these hills.
Eventually we reached our destination at the Mabua spring in Nachal Perat. The spring is unusual as due to its unpredictable flow. There is an underground cave which fills with rainwater seeping down through the rock. When the water reaches a certain level in the cave, due to a sort of U-bend eroded in the work, the water bursts out into the spring.
As dusk fell we walked into the Nachal noting the remnants of what used to be a vast system of aqueducts across the desert, carrying water from the various springs to the Hasmonean fortresses. Now they are in ruins and merely serve as a playground for rock squirrels. We concluded with a little more of group sing song by the spring and with the sound of music in our ears it was time to return home.
And so it begins. After some logistics and forms the night before, we gather as the sun rises over Tel Aviv at Arlozorov bus station, ready to set out on our first trip on the guiding course. The previous night, our rakaz (coordinator) had instilled the fear of God into everyone, promising that the bus was leaving at 6.30am and if you were not on it, then tough. And then he said it again, several times. Obviously, the last thing you want to happen having already woken up at the crack of dawn is to make it all worthless by missing the bus, so it was that when I showed up half an hour early there were already about half the course there to meet me. And yes, we did leave on time.
Our first journey took us south into the North of the Judean desert. But before we could get to our first site of the day, we had about 90 minutes of travel time. I pulled out my travel pillow, looking forward to catching up on those lost hours of sleep. This went well for about 5 minutes before our guide grabbed the microphone and started pointing things out as we travelled down the road, and of course we were writing this all down.
One of the things that I love about this country is the incredible concentration of sites of interest. I must say, however, that this can be a mixed blessing; when on the guiding course one receives far more content than one would on a normal tour, to equip us for every situation and eventuality, so significant concentration is required. “On the left, an ancient archaeological site; on the right, the site of Israel’s first soap factory; look at the rock here which is a reddish colour because of the copper, etc”. And I dutifully listened, and looked, and noted, and worked out some of the more complicated Hebrew words (limestone, flint, aqueduct, weaving ant, to name but a few of the additions to my lexicon on this trip).
We passed Jerusalem and began the descent into the Judean desert. I love the desert. Israel has two: the Judean Desert, and South of it the Negev. Both are rocky (there is a small area with some dunes). The craggy rocks, the undulating hills (Israelis call them mountains, but having spent two and half years in Switzerland, I’m not sure), the weaving valleys, I find it all so incredibly beautiful. And tranquil. An amazing tranquillity in the desert. A place to enjoy the aesthetics, to think and absorb the beauty of nature. And lots of historical, geographical and geological information too, on this occasion.
There are of course many sites of interest, and our first stop was at the Inn of the Good Samaritan. According to tradition, this is the site of the famous Good Samaritan parable told in Luke’s gospel. In the 6th century a church was built here, and you can visit the partial reconstruction. There are also a variety of artefacts and stunning mosaics (like the one above) from around the area (partly in an air-conditioned museum). The museum also contains a very interesting display on the Samaritans (the original sort, not the British charity), who still exist in Israel although latest numbers put them at under 1000. We will learn more about them as the course progresses.
Back on the bus and a short hop down route 1 to this stunning viewpoint over Wadi Kelt. The view was so breathtaking that it required a moment’s reflection before turning to the important matter at hand of identifying the sites of interest; I can now point out a variety of locations from the viewpoint; from Jerusalem to Jericho; from a palace of Herod to the birthplace of Robert Kennedy’s assassin. Just in case you were wondering, of course.
As we continued on towards the Dead Sea we had a short nature break; I was thrilled to bump into an old friend and very experienced guide who had been advising me about the career transition, Mike Hollander. It was something of a heart-warming moment and seemed to me to be a good omen.
The next step, via Lido junction (the lowest point on land in the world), was the site of the Ashlag factories, the first factories at the Dead Sea, used to mine potassium. The story of the Russian tourist who happened upon this area, had the idea to start mining, and nagged the British authorities for nine years to let him do so, was quite remarkable. But it was also sad to realise that the Dead Sea waters used to come up to this spot, but are now several kilometres away. More on that later. This site fell into Jordanian hands in 1948, and was then taken by Israel in 1967, at which point it became an army base. An evidently very bored officer on reserve duty took a crusader map of the Jordan valley and painted it on the walls (cheekily adding in the local Lido junction). It is actually pretty impressive, an extract is pictured below.
Onwards South we went with the next stop being Einot Tzukim, the ‘lowest nature reserve in the world’. I’m not sure that is particularly anything to shout about on its own, but that should not let anything be taken away from the nature reserve. Based around 130-170 fresh water springs in the middle of the desert, King Abdullah of Jordan was so taken with the area that he designated it for his use only, when it was Jordanian territory. When it was no longer Jordan, Israel made it a nature reserve, and it was remarkable to see the freshwater springs and also to learn about the extensive wildlife, set right in the middle of such an incredibly barren and unwelcoming landscape. The reserve also encompasses an archaeological site; the theory is that it was used to make the mythical afarsimon oil, known to have been an extremely valuable commodity in ancient times. No one knows what afarsimon was for sure (the word exists in modern Hebrew and means persimmon, but it is not the same fruit) but the search continues. There is also some modern history – the day of declaring the state Ben Gurion came here with his wife for a bit of ‘me time’ before heading up to Tel Aviv to make history. No doubt he was enjoying the serenity of the desert before what he knew would be complete chaos. And so the ancient and modern worlds connect.
Slightly further South we braved the oncoming traffic to cross over route 90 (the longest road in Israel) and visit the Ruins of Mazin. This consists of the remains of what was an ancient ship yard on the Dead Sea, with evidence that it was an economic resource even in ancient times – a stash of coins nearby probably used to pay for asphalt brought up by the ships.
We then began the journey in the direction of home, slowing to take in the rather depressing Palestine Exploration Fund (P.E.F.) Rock. The P.E.F. was founded in 1865 and still exists, with the purpose of exploring, mapping and excavating the land of Israel, which was at the time under Ottoman control (they may have been gathering intelligence on the side, cheeky things). The rock marked the height of the Dead Sea at the beginning of the 20th Century. 100 years later and it’s quite sad to think that it is now some distance away from even touching the rock. It’s caused largely by a huge increase in the use of the tributary, the Jordan River, for water by all its surrounding countries. Hopefully the scientists and politicians can find a way to fix it.
Our penultimate stop was at Qumran. I remember stopping at Qumran once before; a family road trip to Eilat. Dad saw the sign and decided that he wanted to stop there; I think everyone else wanted to get home (it’s quite a long drive). I vaguely remember it being closed in any event. This time, I certainly appreciated it more. Qumran is the site around which many of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found; their discovery is quite an incredible story. Some of these scrolls date back to the 2nd Century BCE, and are the oldest copies of the books of the bible in existence. I studied them a bit at university, and this context always adds more to visiting a historical site. It is thought that here lived a group of Essenes, a sort of ascetic cult that broke away from the mainstream Judaism in the Second Temple Period. There is a good explanatory film and small museum and then you can walk around the site. I always find it amazing to wonder around these ancient places, to imagine people walking those same paths thousands of years ago. It must have been tough in Qumran, in the middle of the desert, an unforgiving place where it sometimes rained once in two years. They must have been pretty committed.
Eventually we were thrown out at closing time. There was time for just one more brief stop on the way home, Nabi Musa, the site where Muslims believe Moses is buried. Night was falling and prayers were beginning so we didn’t stay long; a quick peek at the shrine and some history outside before heading home, arriving at Arlozorov at 6.45, just over 12 hours after we had left.
Quite an intense first day! In addition to all the general information, we also received lots of useful practical tips, such as good places to stand and address a group in a particular site; good routes; ideas about how to integrate sources. One has to pay just as much attention to the way the material is delivered, as to its content. At every site I was thinking about how I would relate it when my time to guide will come; plenty of food for thought. All in all, very enjoyable, although completely exhausting. Looking forward to more to come!