The Ancient Leopard Temple

I am fascinated with prehistoric archaeology and the Leopard Temple in the Uvda Valley, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, is one of my favorite sites. When I stand at this place, used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic sanctuary, from the Neolithic Age, (mid 6th millennium BCE) through the Chalcolitic to the Bronze Age, (mid 2nd millennium BCE), I can barely comprehend this time span of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow.

After an Israeli army tank on maneuvers in the Uvda Valley drove past some sand dunes and soldiers noticed strange formations on the ground, archaeologists excavated and cleaned the site in the early 1980’s. It consists of a courtyard, surrounded by a parallelogram-shaped, low, double wall, each side 12 meters long.

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Parallelogram-shaped courtyard, lined with stones

 

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One of the ancient altars, a pit lined with stones

In the courtyard were found four altars from different eras spanning 4,000 years, each one a shallow pit, dug into the ground and lined with stones. Using Carbon 14, the oldest carbonized remains were dated to about 7,500 years ago.  Do you get that? People like you and me were here, in the middle of nowhere, bringing and sacrificing offerings to their gods, starting seven thousand five hundred years ago. Who were these people? Who were their gods? What did worshippers ask for? Why here?

To the western side of the courtyard we find what archaeologists dub the “Holy of Holies”, a reference of course, to the most sacred chamber in the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where monotheistic Jews believed rested the essence of God. The “Holy of Holies” at the Leopards Temple is an elongated, rectangular, stone-surrounded enclosure that contains exactly 17 upright, unhewn stones. Archaeologists believed these stones represented gods or venerated ancestors.

Upright stones? This reminds me of one of the our most important Biblical stories about Jacob, one of our forefathers. Jacob left Beersheva and set out for Haran and on the way camped for the night. He took a stone and used it as a pillow. He dreamed about a stairway reaching to the heavens, with angels going up and down. At the top he saw God, who reiterated the promise He made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, whereby his descendents would be numerous like the dust of the earth and will spread out far and wide, populating the land.

(Genesis 28:16-19) When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 

Jacob called the place where he erected an upright stone Beth El, the house (or place) of God.

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The ‘Holy of Holies’ made from uncut stones and in the center are 17 standing stones representing gods

The act of placing an upright stone on holy ground, at the place where God or the gods reside, does not begin in the Hebrew Bible. It is as ancient as the Neolithic era, when worshippers erected cultic sites with standing stones on both sides of the Jordan Rift Valley, on the Golan Heights, in the Syrian Horan and in Jordan. Later civilizations such as the Nabateans also venerating upright stones, and worship at the megalithic Kaaba stone in Mecca precedes Islam.

 

Unhewn stones? Isn’t that a Jewish thing? God required Moses to build him an altar, explicitly only with stones untouched by iron. He says to Moses:

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:22)

God demands uncut stones because He knows weapons of war are made of iron. He wants no tool that is used for war to be used to build his altar, his Temple. Greg Salisbury, in his article Have You Got the Stones to Make Peace? in the Jewish Exponent (Sept 4th, 2015), writes:

The prohibition against using an iron tool to shape the stones runs like a thread through ancient Jewish history. While invading Canaan, Joshua built “an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded” (Joshua 8:31). When Solomon built the First Temple, “only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). When Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE, “they took unhewn [whole] stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one” (1 Maccabees 4:47).

So no, uncut stones go way back. What I find absolutely titillating is that these desert people who built this sanctuary and worshiped in it long ago, had much in common with our Biblical forefathers and their stories.

Lets get back to the Leopard sanctuary. To the east of the courtyard we find what gave this archaeological site its name, a series of 16 animal figures outlined in the sand with stones pressed into the ground. The row of 16 creatures is about 15 meters long and depicts female leopards (so identified because of their raised tails) and one headless antelope. Archaeologists believe this ancient religious art installation represents the story of life and death, predator and prey, the cycle of life. The leopards, probably also representing goddesses of fertility, are all facing eastwards, towards the rising sun (life, new day, new beginnings) and the antelope is facing west (sunset, death, finality).

 

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Female leopards representing fertility all face eastwards towards the rising sun

Sometime at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, ancient people began to settle down in small groups, plant crops, domesticate animals. They needed as much help as they could get as life was difficult, especially around the Fertile Crescent where much of their success depended on the amount of annual rain, the seasons and the climate.  They began worshipping in some organized manner, first the Sun and Moon and stars, and then trees, mountains and what they perceived as powerful and wise animals. These gods were called upon to bless the crops, to provide rain and to keep away evil things.

On the small hill next to the Leopards Temple are the remains of circular grain threshing floors and a few structures used as living quarters. Historians believe that ancient farmers cultivated wheat and other grains here during the winter and used the water from flash floods to irrigate the crops. It is believed the farmers left after the harvest, only to return the next year for the next planting. Perhaps these farmers created the sanctuary to honor not only their gods but the powerful predators of the desert, the leopards. Were they asking them for divine help? For protection? For their blessing for a plentiful grain harvest? For ample rains in the high desert that would spill to the valley? Who were these people?

I love a good archaeological mystery.

 

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My Sincerest Apologies, Eilat

In addition to guiding tours around Israel,  in the past two years I supplemented my income by creating and customizing itineraries for clients of Touring Israel, a luxury private touring company I highly recommend. As I spoke to clients on the phone, custom building their Israel trip itineraries, I would sometimes get the request, “We want to visit Eilat”.

Oh, Eilat. For many of us tour guides, Eilat is like a thorn in our sides. Yes, sunny place, awesome snorkeling, but seriously, it’s a 4 hour drive* from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, way out in the boondocks, southernmost point of the country, no holy places, not much conflict, not much archaeology, no amazing architecture and innovation and therefore we desperately try to convince the first time tourist to drop it from their wish list. Why? Because tourists usually come to Israel for a short time, 7 maybe 8 days, and with all there is to do, to learn, to visit, to experience, to see in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee and Masada, who has time for Eilat?!? No, no, no.

I have visited Eilat but a few times in my life. I remember a trip there at age 8 with my parents, I visited during my army service, sleeping on the beach, I was there with my family on vacations to Israel and I was there a few times as a tour guide. I knew there was ‘stuff’ to do, and I knew Eilat was getting a bum rap. But it is so distant, so out of the way…

Ok, so here is a confession. One of our daughters, who lives in Europe, announced a few weeks ago that on her visit to Israel she would like to see Eilat. My first instinct, of course, was to say “What? No, it’s not worth it, too hot in July, too far away, too touristy, too kitchy, too whatever…” But I held my tongue and as I mulled this Eilat thing over and over, I relented. “Heck,” I thought, “Let’s do like so many Israeli families do, and go vacation in Eilat for a few days.”

So that is what we did. We packed the family in the car and drove the four hours south from Tel Aviv. But of course, this would not be MY blog without some history about Eilat.

Eilat is Israel’s southernmost city and its only port on the Red Sea. It sits next to the Jordanian resort/port city of Aqaba to the east, the Egyptian town of Taba on the Sinai Peninsula to the west and a mere 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the Saudi Arabian border. Though the borders of modern-day Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were established in the mid 20th century, the history of Eilat is quite ancient, going back at least 3,500 years.

The first written mention of Eilat tells of Moses and the Israelites passing by on their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, showing that even back when the Hebrew Bible was written, Eilat was already a known, established place.

And when we passed by from our brethren the children of Esau, which dwelt in Seir, through the way of the plain from Elath, and from Eziongaber, we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab (Deuteronomy:8)

In the 10th century BCE, King Solomon built a great maritime port in Eilat enabling him to trade with Asia and Africa.

And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir (which we believe was the Indian subcontinent), and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28)

Eilat and Aqaba were under Roman army control in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, then came the Byzantines and eventually they were conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century. The Crusaders took Eilat and then lost it in 1187 to Saladin. During Mameluke times (1267 – 1515) the site continued to be an important trading post but later, under the 400 years of Ottoman rule it became a dormant fishing village. In 1917, Lawrence of Arabia, the British spy working with the Bedouins to defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War I, conquered Aqaba and the British built a small police station north-west of Aqaba that sits in today’s downtown Eilat and called it Umm-Rash Rash.

In 1949, during the Israeli Independence War, Israeli forces managed to reach Umm-Rash Rash in a race to establish the borders of the new state. While the new city of Eilat was built in 1950 and helped with the absorption of the vast Jewish immigration to the nascent State of Israel, Aqaba remained in Jordan.

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The British mandatory police station in Um-Rash Rash

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Commemorating the hoisting of the Israeli flag in March 1949

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, Eilat is a touristy beachfront city of about 50,000 people, famous for its fabulous Red Sea coral reefs, the snorkeling and scuba diving, the desert hiking trails and the beten-gav (meaning stomach-back as in when you tan your belly and then turn over to tan your back over and over non stop). Not much else. Or so it seemed to me.

So to Eilat we headed for three nights at a hotel outside of town because I wanted peace and quiet. I also wanted to give us enough time to beten-gav as we needed the relaxation and I was bent on getting it, darn it, and the family granted me the honor of designing a day of touring as well. Yay!

And you know what? We had a GREAT time! Who knew?!?

So this is my ode to Eilat. Here are a few sites and activities I recommend:

THE DOLPHIN REEF(link to their website) A unique site in Israel and throughout the world where visitors can enjoy an unusual opportunity to meet and observe dolphins in their natural habitat. A group of bottlenose dolphins was rescued from the Black Sea and released here about 20 years ago. Their descendents maintain a daily routine of hunting, playing, courting and socializing and are free to choose between human company or their daily life in the open water. The fact that many times the dolphins choose to come close to the trainers and visitors show the true bond created between cetaceans and humans.

Visitors can get an introductory snorkeling or scuba lesson and then take a guided session in the water but are NOT allowed to touch the dolphins. Those not wanting to get wet can enjoy getting close to the dolphins from the floating piers and observation points. My family spent the day at the Dolphin Reef, we relaxed, took a snorkeling session, loved the magnificent dolphins and had a wonderful time.

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My girls getting ready to snorkel with dolphins

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These beauties kept us company as we snorkeled

SNUBA (yes, with an N) is a form of underwater diving that uses what looks like an umbilical cord connected from the diver to a floating raft on the surface that holds the air tank. This is different from scuba diving, where the diver’s breathing equipment is completely self-contained and there is no link to the surface.  The origin of the word “Snuba” may be a combination of snorkel and scuba, as it bridges the gap between the two.  (Snuba in Eilat info)

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Your’s truly and the hubby

My family tried snuba and loved it. We dived about 18-20 feet, were able to check out the coral reef up close and personal and swim with the colorful schools of fish that make this place so amazing.

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We found Nemo!

THE UNDERWATER OBSERVATORY MARINE PARK (Check out their website)

The Underwater Observatory Marine Park offers visitors a rare chance to enter the natural and abundant marine kingdom of the Red Sea. The park has over 800 species of fish, coral, mollusks, stingrays, sea turtles, and other animals from the Gulf of Eilat and a large walk-through shark tank. Very cool! The observatory is a tower situated off-shore, without any fences or cages, with a rare underwater view of the Red Sea, with its bright colors, tones, and the marine life in the Gulf of Eilat. The observation halls are submerged at a depth of 12 meters, giving visitors a natural view of the coral reef’s spectacular beauty through huge plate-glass windows.

Yeah, we liked that too. Put it on your list.

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You can watch the shark and stingray feedings

Ok, enough with the water activities, now let’s see some other places.

HAI- BAR YOTVATA NATURE PRESERVE (Their website)

At a 25 minute drive north from Eilat you’ll find the Yotvata Salt Flats, one of three large salt flats in the southern Arava (the others are the Evrona Salt Flats and the Eilat Salt Flats, from which only a few vestiges remain). Even though the annual precipitation is only 25 mm rain, this is a habitat with a rich variety of vegetation and animals, and that it why it was selected for an amazing restoration project to bring back some of the wildlife that went extinct in Israel and to reinforce endangered species. At the beginning of the 1970s an area of 12,000 dunams was fenced in on the Yotvata salt flats, and large herbivores that had become extinct in Israel were brought in (including a few species that had never been in Israel but were endangered in other parts of the world), among them the Asian wild ass, addax (white antelope), the Sahara oryx (Oryx dammah), the white oryx, the African wild ass and ostriches. In the mid-1980s, another few thousand dunams west of Road 90 were fenced in order to protect the last population in the world of acacia gazelles (Gazella gazella acaciae), a sub-species of the mountain gazelle that is endangered worldwide, and is under constant surveillance.

At the Hai-Bar, one drives the family car on a designated path through the salt flats, watching the varied, gorgeous animal herds in their natural habitat. This family visit was priceless as our car was accosted by some curious ostriches causing us to giggle and laugh until we could barely breath. It is awesome!

 

 

Seeing as we were in Eilat in July for only 3 days (and it was HOT) we briefly visited these sites; the rest of the days we got in some relaxing beten-gav. In the evenings we enjoyed the restaurants and strolled the touristy pedestrian mall with all the Vegas style lights, crowds and commotion.

But there is more to the Eilat region, so even though we as a family did not get to them on this trip, they are still awesome places I recommend:

FUGAROT AT THE EVRONA SALT FLATS

During the early Muslim period in the 8th and 9th centuries, a farming village was established here on the salt flats. Using a technology developed by the Persians sometime in the early 1st millennium BCE, the farmers built a sophisticated irrigation system known as fugarot, or chain wells. It is composed of several vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels which dig east into the aquifer below the Edom mountains. The tunnels become aqueducts and those carried water to a small reservoir that supplied water to the farm. This farm was an important stop on the Muslims’ yearly pilgrimage to Mecca as pilgrims coming from the west needed rest as well as water and food before continuing on their journey.

I find this place fascinating, but will concede that it is mostly for archaeology and history buffs. I have gone down one of the shafts, crawled through the tunnels, marveled at the 1,200 year old irrigation system in the middle of the desert. Yup, loved it.

 

TIMNA NATIONAL PARK

Timna is a wonderful place to discover and explore. First and foremost, it is the site of ancient copper mines, with thousands of ancient mining shafts and the remains of smelting furnaces dating back to the late Bronze and early Iron ages (12th – 8th centuries BCE), when Egypt ruled the land and King David and King Solomon reigned over the United Kingdom of Israel. Archaeological excavations indicate that the copper mines in Timna Valley were probably part of the Kingdom of Edom, however mining continued throughout the Roman period in the 1st and 2nd centuries and then by the Ummayad caliphate in the 7th century.

Not only copper mines, but at Timna you’ll find remnants of ancient Egyptian presence at several archaeological sites such as the Temple of Hathor, goddess of copper miners.

Timna Valley has beautiful geological formations carved out of the stone and sand by eons of water and wind erosion. Although predominantly red, the sand can be yellow, orange, grey, dark brown, or black, and near the copper mines one finds light green and blue in the stone cliffs. The hiking or biking trails are fabulous and it is not uncommon to see ibex herds roaming among the acacia trees and other arid-land vegetation.

To Timna I would go in the winter, spring or fall and camp for a few days to take advantage of the hiking and bike trails, the stars in the desert night sky, the spectacular dawn and sunset colors…

LEOPARD TEMPLE IN THE VALLEY OF OVDA

I am enamored with prehistoric archaeology, and the Leopard Temple, about an hour’s drive from Eilat,  is one of my favorite sites. Would you appreciate standing in a sanctuary used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic site?  I can’t even fathom that number of years of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow. If this wets your appetite, then this a must visit for you.

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Stone outline figures representing female leopards and their ibex prey, life and death

To do it justice, I’ll have to write a separate post about it. The remains of this prehistoric temple just blow my mind. Please read about the Leopard Temple here.

THE BIRD SANCTUARY AT THE EILAT MARSHES

Israel is a major crossroads on the bird migration flyway from Asia to Africa and back and Eilat is the southern-most rest stop. The only overland bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel is a bottle-neck that serves hundreds of millions of migratory birds every year.  The birds flying into Eilat are preparing themselves for the most challenging task of crossing the foodless and hostile Saharan desert for their winter station.

birdsVisitors can explore the different habitats at the Bird Sanctuary and walk along the trails and birding hides. There is a fresh water lake that holds waterfowl, herons, kingfishers and waders, saltpans with flamingos, gulls and waders, saltmarsh with warblers, rare species of sparrows and shrikes, reed beds with crakes and reed warblers and a forest with a wide diversity of species. One can take a guided tour or  explore on their own. Just delightful!  Check out the Eilat Birding Center here

CAMEL RANCH   

And, if you’re already in the Arava Valley and the Negev Desert, why not take a camel trek? The Camel Ranch is a few minutes out of Eilat and the kids will love it.  Their website

HIKING, BIKING, RAPELLING, JEEPING GALORE

Outdoor enthusiasts, listen up: in the winter, spring and fall, don’t miss the myriad trails in the Eilat region, as well as jeep excursions and rapelling adventures. Google these, there are many companies that offer these experiences, or you can do them on your own. Enjoy!

And finally, I hereby convey my sincerest apologies to Eilat. I appologize for ignoring you, I’m sorry for disparaging you, dismissing you without really giving you a chance. Mea culpa. I’m now a changed woman, and I can’t wait to get back down to visit you in the fall.

 

* Ok, for all you purists, one can also take the 45 minute flight to Eilat. However, the total time spent is the same: go through passport control, wait to board, board, fly 45 minutes, deplane, go through passport control and customs, drive to hotel. 4 hours. Ugh.