Do you know the way to… Jerusalem?

Sometimes it is the small, strange twists of fate that determine how history is written and let me tell you, my friends, this Land of Israel has to be the
queen of where quirky events that changed history happened…

Take for example, the road to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for over 3000 years, and a holy pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims for countless generations, is completely surrounded by mountains. Trekking up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain has always been somewhat of a challenge.

There were several ancient roads to the city traveled by Cannanites, Israelites, and Greeks. However, when the Romans, history’s champion road builders, conquered the land, they paved a main road from the city of Lydda (Lod) to Jerusalem. This Roman road was built along a mountain ridge line, thus maintaining a relatively stable grade up to the city.

Today’s Highway 443 follows this ancient Roman road, a comfortable, divided four-lane highway up the Beit Horon grade, past the city of Modi’in and into Jerusalem. Nice and easy. “What’s the problem?”, you ask.

The beautiful Ayalon Valley on the way to Jerusalem

Well, the problem is that even though Hwy 443 is easier, shorter and a more comfortable climb to the holy city, it is not the main thoroughfare, not the main entrance to Jerusalem. Huh? I know, I know.  Strange twists in history.

There was another ancient path on the southern border of the Ayalon Valley, through the narrow Bab al Wad mountain pass, up a mountain, down a valley, twisting and turning in gullies on its route from the coastal plain through the hills, up and down a few more times and into Jerusalem. It is a longer road, a very strenuous ride for donkeys, camels and the travelers who rode on them.

However, this longer, more challenging and perilous path was the road chosen by history to be THE one and probably not by coincidence is called Highway 1 even today.  (Click here to see Hwy 443 and Hwy 1)

And here is why.

It all has to do with a small, controversial detail in an important story from the Gospel of Luke, 24:13-35.  It tells of two men and their meeting with Jesus, exactly two days after his resurrection.

“That day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about a hundred and sixty stadia from Jerusalem…”.

Jesus joins them on their walk but does not reveal his identity, accompanies them to Emmaus, where they eat and break bread together, chat and then go their separate ways. It is only after Jesus’ departure that the two men realize the true identity of the stranger who ate with them.  They then go tell the disciples that they had seen Jesus in the flesh.  The disciples realize that rumors of Jesus’ resurrection had been confirmed and he had risen.  Very important story.

Jesus breaking bread with the two travelers at Emmaus.

However, where is Emmaus? Well, that’s complicated.

Some earlier versions of Luke say “160 stadia”, (a Roman stadium being about 600 ft), and therefore 160×600 ft is about 7.5 miles, putting the event right next to Bab el Wad, the aforementioned narrow passageway on the longer, more challenging route to Jerusalem.  Great! This site was chosen as the Emmaus of Luke.

As the Christian Byzantine Empire took control of the Holy Land (4th century ce), so began the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to Jesus’ homeland and the sites made holy by his actions and sermons.

Let me paint the scene for you:

Christian Pilgrim: Hello my friend, I’ve just arrived by boat from Anatolia. I need a donkey to get me to Jerusalem.

Donkey rental attendant: Sure, no problem. This fine donkey will do, he’s made the trip several times and knows it by heart.

Christian Pilgrim: Great! Will he take me by Emmaus, where my Lord Jesus appeared after his Resurrection?

Donkey rental attendant: Well, actually no, this donkey much prefers the easier route, less time, less hills, less problems.

Christian Pilgrim: What!? Are you kidding me? I have not come all this way to make it easy on myself or the donkey. How can I show my face back in the village if I don’t visit Emmaus? I’ll be taking the long and winding road, thank you very much!

Donkey rental attendant: (sigh) Suit yourself.

Why the long and winding road?!? Why?

There you go folks, that did it. The main thoroughfare to Jerusalem was therefore switched and Christian pilgrims made their way past the village of Emmaus (Hammat in Hebrew, becoming Emmaus in Greek, Neopolis in Latin and eventually Imhaus in Arabic). But wait, there is more…

In later versions of Luke 24:13, the distance from Jerusalem was changed to ’60 stadia’ (scholars don’t know why, misprint?) and latter pilgrims  placed the event at a different location altogether.  Just to be sure, the Crusaders built several citadels on this road to Jerusalem, at Latrun (from the French Le toron des Chevaliers), at Abu Gosh,  and at Aquabella (Ein Hemed).

Through the ages, Christian pilgrims also declared and visited the villages of  Motza and Kubebah as the “Emmaus” of the New Testament, all on this same road to Jerusalem.

So which is the real Emmaus?  It’s all a matter of faith, ladies and gentlemen.

First the Christian Byzantine pilgrims, then Arab Caliphates, Ottomans, British and even present-day Israelis still use this road as the main drag into town.

Today, the government of Israel tries to dissuade commuters from taking Hwy 1, it is often congested, more dangerous and causes great traffic jams at the entrance to the city.  Trucks are not allowed on it in the mornings anymore, big signs recommend switching to Hwy 443 or other newer roads, but many of us still prefer this winding road into the city.

Tradition!

p.s. There is, of course, more to this story, having to do with the Green Line, the Ottomans, the Palestinians, the paving of 1869, today’s political climate, etc.  Great conversation over a cup of coffee.

Apollonia, fortress with a view

So if you’re a Roman or a Crusader or a Mamluk, deciding to conquer some Apollonia real estate is a no brainer.  Not necessarily for the access to the sea or its strategic location on the coast, but mainly for the gorgeous front row view of the Mediterranean in all its glory.  Beach property at its best!

The gorgeous view north from the Crusader castle. The city of Natanya is visible in the distance

The first settlers on this site were the Phoenicians  (c. 600 bce) who named it Arsuf, after Reshef, their god of war and storms.  Their main occupation was fishing for that strange marine mollusk from which they produced purple dye.  Who comes up with these things? Can you imagine that first Phoenician who crushed a poor snail’s shell to little, tiny, itsy bitsy bits to make a dye? What was he thinking?

That little murex snail made the Pheonicians a lot of money and financed much, much travel. They were superb navigators and used Arsuf as one of their many posts on the coast of the Mediterranean.

Remnants of a fancy Roman villa in town. Talk about a view!

When the Greeks arrived (400-100 bce) they renamed the town Apollonia, after  Apollo and in keeping with the theme of gods of sky and storms.  The Hasmoneans followed and then the Romans and the Byzantines. By now, Apollonia was the main port city of the Sharon Plain.

However, the most magnificent archeology left at Apollonia today is that of the Crusaders, who conquered the area in the spring of 1101 ce. They renamed the city Arsour, (a mispronunciation of the Phoenician/Arabic name Arsouf.

A reconstruction of the Crusader Fortress at its best

In 1241 ce the Crusaders began construction of a a fortress in the northern part of town, a magnificent structure with moats and double defense walls and the works.  For 24 years it stood tall, until the Mameluk Sultan Bibars decided he wanted this real estate for himself.

He lay a 40 day siege on the town before it fell.  Bibars then ordered his forces to fill the fortress moat with wooden logs, brought a ramming machine up to the walls, and constantly bombarded the fortress with cannon balls.

A pile of some of the ballistic cannonballs found in the ruins of the fortress

This ballistic diversion gave the Mamluk soldiers time to sit under the covered ramming machine and carve out the stones at the bottom of the fortress walls.  When the stones were removed, the Mamluks lit fires in the wall openings and smoked the Crusaders out.

They had lasted 3 days. So much for a fortified, double walled fortress  😦

The Mamluks took prisoners, destroyed the fortress and it was never used again for military purposes.

Someone should have thought of putting an ancient bed and breakfast here…

Its so lovely. Certainly a beautiful place to visit and enjoy.

The view south from the fortress, with Herzliya, then Tel Aviv in the distance.

Tel Afek

As we leave Migdal Tsedek Fortress behind, and move across the narrow Afek Pass, about 2 km wide, we reach the next fortress on our journey. The Afek Pass, this particular point on the Via Maris (the Way of the Sea) was historically swampy and created serious problems for those armies traveling from Egypt to Mesopotamia. On the other hand, it was great for the defenders and one can clearly see the advantage of controlling a fort on either side of the pass.

A little about the history of Tel Afek:

Earliest remains on this site date back to the Chalcolithic period (c. 4000 bce) and the first walled city was established in the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000 bce)

The Egyptian governor’s house

Tel Afek is first mentioned in the Egyptian Execration texts (c. 1900 bce), when this was a fortified city with palaces.  Later, it became a royal Canaanite City and is mentioned in the writings of Thutmoses III, who actually rode his chariot by on his way to attack Meggido!

The remnants of the local Egyptian governor’s palace have been partially excavated and are evidence of Egyptian rule.

The most important archeological finds found here are the clay tablets, inscribed in different languages, Sumerian, Akkadian, Canaanite. What a crossroads this place was!

Some of the archeological finds. On the top left is one of the cuneiform tablets with Akkadian writing

Tel Afek is mentioned in the Bible as the place where the Philistines camped on their way to encounter and battle the Israelites, who camped on the other side of the swamp.  The Israelites lost that battle  😦

The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, then the Umayyads and the Crusaders, all had a hand in creating Tel Afek’s history. And then the Ottomans built a large fortress as well. Oh, and the British built ‘pillbox’ guard towers here to protect the railroad bridges.

What I found most interesting was the close relationship Tel Afek’s historic names have had with the natural surroundings. Water!

The waters of the Yarkon River emerge here and slowly meander 28 km to the Mediterranean Sea, creating the historically important swamps mentioned above.

Afekum = river bed, comes from the Akkadian (Mesopotamia), the international language of those days.  Afik = river bed in Hebrew as well.

Later, during the Hellenistic period, the city was named Pagae (Springs in Greek).

When the Ottomans arrive, they name the place Pinar Bashi (head of the springs in Turkish) and that name was eventually changed to Binar Bashi by the Arab speakers of the area. (Remember that Arabs have no /p/ and change it to /b/).

In more recent times, a town called Ras el Ayin (head of the springs, Arabic), sprung up 🙂 and eventually the Jewish city of Rosh HaAyin (head of the springs, duh! in Hebrew) was built.

The only exception to this water theme was, of course, our dear friend Herod the Great, who went and built a Roman town on the ruins of the Greek Pagae, and named it Antipatris, in honor of his father. Go figure.

Ottoman fortress built right on top of the Roman street stones

However, the Roman Antipatris gives us a few other interesting tidbit:

The Ottoman fortress sits on top of the cardo (the north/south main axis street of the Roman town) and one can walk the same path, touch the same paving stones, as Romans did 2000 years ago. Can you beat that?

Not only that, but the stores that lined the cardo and made up the Roman downtown shopping district are also visible and there is a lovely,  little odeon (small, intimate theater) nearby.

Go shopping downtown, then to the theater… nice. Can’t you just see a pair of young lovers spending a romantic night out on the Antipatris?

The odeon at Tel Afek

Roman shops lining the cardo