The Ancient Sea Road (Via Maris)

It is the day before our weekly field trip and Israel is in the midst of its worst storms for ten years. The main motorway in Tel Aviv is flooded and closed. The trains aren’t running. Snow is forecast in the Golan and in Jerusalem. Amongst these fierce winds and torrential rain, some of the course members contact our coordinator. Surely tomorrow’s field trip is cancelled? It seems that it is not. Disbelief. And the beginnings of a mutiny. But in our night class, our coordinator makes it clear: “the tour guide course goes out into the field, even through fire and through water” (I think it sounds better in Hebrew). He was almost seeming to relish it. The rebellion was quashed.

So it was that we assembled, as usual, at 6.30am at Arlozorov bus station. Except this time we were all looking somewhat larger due to the multiple layers of clothing and waterproofs. Spirits were surprisingly high. We were in this together, “through fire and through water”. And off we set.

Our trip was to be connected to the Via Maris, the ancient Sea Road connecting the two great regional empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the end, only some of the sites were connected to this road, but the majority of the day dealt with those that were. Remarkably, as we headed north the skies began to clear. A miracle?

El Ahwat
El Ahwat

Nonetheless, the ground was extremely muddy at our first stop at El Ahwat. An archeological site dating from the Bronze age, some believe that this is the home town of the biblical character Sisera who famously met his end when Yael bashed a tent peg into his head. There seems to be a connection in the architecture with the Nuragic culture of Sardinia, and a theory is that the people who lived here came across the sea bringing their culture with them. Unfortunately the site was rather inaccessible as it was effectively a very large bog. But we got a bit of an idea. Sadly the bus driver was not so appreciative of the mud adorning our boots.

Katzir Viewpoint
Katzir Viewpoint

We carried on a short drive to the small town of Katzir where we enjoyed a viewpoint over to the Carmel. Our guide pointed out key sites including the route of the Via Maris and the topographical features of the area. With this overview we moved on to the site that was to form the largest part of the day’s itinerary, Tel Megiddo.

A Tel is an archaeological mound. At some point in ancient history a group decided that point x was a good point to settle. Perhaps it was close to water, had good fields for agriculture, was easy to defend etc. Over the years the settlement might be destroyed, or deserted, and then later rebuilt, each time over the previous ruins, rising up and up to form a Tel. Israel is full of these Tels, each of which is an archaeological treasure trove of different periods of history. And one of the richest is Tel Meggido.

Model of the Israelite city at Tel Meggido
Model of the Israelite city at Tel Meggido

The site was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005 and has been under excavation since the beginning of the 19th century. And they’re still finding more and more. It had a prime location at a key junction on the Via Maris, close to arable land and a constant water supply, leading to many battles for its control. Eventually the Israelites wrestled control of it from the resident Canaanites and most of what is visible in the excavations is a mixture of the Canaanite and Israelite periods. Most impressive are the series of Canaanite temples on the east side of the Tel (facing the sun).

Sadly our excursion on the Tel was somewhat hampered by the darkening skies followed by hail. Yes, hail. Despite this, we gallantly continued around the site through bouts of being pelted by ice pellets. And our brave guide managed to impart to us a great deal of useful information. I think though, it will be worth a return visit in better weather.

View from the east side of Tel Meggido
View from the east side of Tel Meggido

Also of note is that Tel Meggido has been identified with the end of days vision of John at Armageddon. Har is Hebrew for mountain/hill; Har + Megiddo and the connection makes sense. Furthermore, a few hundred metres away has been unearthed a mosaic floor containing an inscription with the earliest known reference to the Christian religion. Hence there were a few groups of Christian tourists also braving the weather with us, and they have my full respect for doing so!

View from Tel Jezreel
View from Tel Jezreel

From Meggido we moved on to Tel Jezreel, another archaeological mound along the Via Maris. Our guide took us through the generations of occupancy of the mound from the Israelite period through to the Romans, Crusaders (the ruins of a church have been uncovered here) and the Arab village that was here for 100 years prior to 1948. We learned about the battle that took place here between the Israelites and the Philistines as recounted in the Book of Samuel, and then the later battles that took place here in the Israeli War of Independence. On the way out of the Tel we passed the monument for the soldiers who died in the battles to control the mound in the modern era.

Ancient Beit Alfa Synagogue
Ancient Beit Alfa Synagogue

It was time to leave the Via Maris and our next port of call was at the ancient synagogue at Beit Alfa (somewhat confusingly located not in Kibbutz Beit Alfa, but in Kibbutz Heftziba, next door). The ruins of this ancient synagogue from the time of the Second Temple have been loving restored including a stunningly impressive floor mosaic. Interestingly, the mosaic includes the signs of the zodiac and an image of a foreign god. I doubt they would be allowed in synagogues today but it seems that in these ancient times they were just perceived as decoration (and indeed something that the people who made the mosaics knew how to do). Inside the synagogue you can watch a rather cute film which acts out the hypothetical story of the mosaic’s creation. It is a cute and creative way to explain what is before you and makes the site much more engaging, certainly for children but for adults alike.

View from Mt Barkan on the Gilboa
View from Mt Barkan on the Gilboa

We concluded the day by driving up to the Mt Gilboa ridge at the edge of the Samarian hills. As we went up the steep ascent we were treated to stunning views of the valleys below bathed in sun with the streams running full of water (many of the streams in Israel are dry most of the year) and the fields rich colours of green and brown. We arrived at our first lookout point at Mt Barkan, the highest point on the ridge, but sadly the explanation of what we were seeing was curtailed by another hailstorm, this time the hail was around half a centimetre in diameter and it really hurt! Our guide bravely struggled on but eventually had to concede that our exposed position on the mountain top was not perhaps so wise in the current conditions. Still, we briefly enjoyed the view.

View from Mt Shaul on the Gilboa
View from Mt Shaul on the Gilboa

We carried on a little further along the Gilboa scenic road to Mt Shaul. The hail had turned to light rain so we alighted and enjoyed the stunning views while our guide read to us the sad story of the first Israelite king, Saul. He is said to have fallen on his sword at this point. It is also apparently a very good spot for paragliding. The clouds parted so we took advantage to walk a short trail around the peak before returning to the bus, homeward bound.

What do you think?