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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.