Playing Indiana Jones

Smitten.  That’s what I was from the moment I saw Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.  I mean, seriously… weren’t you? Harrison Ford and archaeology became intertwined and favorites in my world. I even applied to study archaeology at the Hebrew Universtiy in Jerusalem in 1983, which never happened,  and has remained one of my life’s regrets.

A walking tour to the nearby monastery of St. Gerasimus, led by yours truly.

How else can you explain the fact that, 30 years later, I came back to Israel to became a tour guide in this land of biblical archaeology?  I even try to dress a little like Indy when I guide.

Come to think of it, I need a better hat.

However, I digress.

This past weekend, my husband and I decided to get away and spend some quality time together. I had just finished two weeks on the road and will be taking off for another twelve days of touring this week.

So where, oh where can we find a sweet place to stay? I have wanted to explore the small community of Zippori, only 10 minutes away, and asked my husband to find us a nice B&B there. Little did we know, but we were in for an Indiana Jones style adventure!

I can see Zippori National Park from my house (literaly); the Crusader citadel on the hill, giving a great vantage point to whoever controled it through the ages, also giving the place its name – Zippori, from the word ‘zippor’, Hebrew for bird – a bird’s view.  From the Neolithic era, to the Iron age, to the Hasmoneans who first build a Jewish town there, Zippori has been an important urban area, being the largest city, the capital of the Galilee during Roman and Byzantine times. It was in Zippori that the Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. Until the 7th century, it was a mixed city, inhabited by Jews, Roman pagans and Christians.

Ongoing excavations started in the 1980’s have uncovered an amazing city of synagogues, churches and pagan temples, private villas, streets and public buildings, gorgeous mosaics and exquisite evidence of Zippori’s grandeur during the Roman/Byzantine/Mishanic/Talmudic times from the 1st to the 6th centuries CE.

After the Crusaders fortified and rebuilt it in the 12th century, it was taken over by the Mamluks and became a small Muslim town for several hundred years.

Today, next to the National Park and the excavations, lies the lovely, modern village of Zippori. Nestled away among lush greenery and rolling oak hills, it includes family homes and agricultural farms, horse stables, the Rish Lakish organic olive press, and several B&Bs.

We headed to the Makom Lachlom, ‘a place to dream’, a couple of nicely furnished, quaint log cabins, equipped with luxurious jacuzzi, small kitchenette and plenty of quiet. Perfect.

However, what caught my eye was what I saw when I looked out the window of our cabin.

An ancient Roman pool ?!?

Owner Avi Hazan told the story:  When he and his partner bought the land to build a small farm and a B&B, they began digging the foundations for three log cabins. Lo and behold, they found the remains of what seemed like a Roman era pool. They called in the Antiquities Authority who immediately began a salvage dig, putting Avi’s plans on hold for almost a year and many tens of thousands of shekels over budget.

romanbath2 IMG_4785

What the Antiquities Authority found was the foundations of a large Roman bathhouse, with three pools and aquaducts leading water from one pool to another. Two of the pools were not well preserved so they were filled in and the cabins were built over them. The middle pool, however, was in good shape and was kept.

Avi told us that several families in the village had found Roman remains and even the ancient tombs of well known Jewish rabbis.

” Are there other Roman remains we can see?” I interrupted.

“Oh yes, there are ones that you can see still buried in the ground.”

“Where? Can we see the now?” I was getting more excited by the second.

“Sure. Follow the cattle fence about 100 meters, cross it and take a right. You’re looking for a large hole in the ground.”

Avi explained that a while back, some antiquities robbers had dug a large hole in the ground and found some Roman sarcophagi before they were driven off by the police.  The archaeologists don’t have the budget to propely excavate, so the site remains untouched. Avi keeps an eye out for robbers and notifies the Antiquities Authority if he notices anything suspicious.

Yitzhak and I were off like a flash. And we found it!

hole2 IMG_4777

The first thing we noticed were two sarcophagi half buried in the dirt. A sarcophagus (from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’) is the common name for an ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman coffin). Yikes!

I was so excited, my ‘Indiana Jones’ instinct took over and I immediately jumped in. With both feet. Yitzhak followed.

We found an small opening on the side and crawled in.

sarco2 sarco5

It was a family burial cave, with niches for laying the bodies of the dead. About a year later, when the flesh had rotted, families collected the bones and placed them in ossuaries, bone boxes, that were usually kept in the home. This form of burial for wealthier familes was very common in the 1st – 6th centuries CE.

sarco6burialgrave1

The limestone hill we climbed must be dotted with many of these burial caves. That was logical because we were across the small valley from ancient Zippori and these could very well be Jewish family burial caves, excavated as tradition dictated, outside the city walls.

unnamedIMG_4780

We explored some more, got dirty and LOVED IT!  We crawled in an unexcavated burial cave from Roman times, touched sarcophagi that were still buried in the dirt… real Indiana Jones moment.

As were climbed out, our attention turned to some collapsed concrete buildings that were around us. There were six or seven of them, one sitting right on top of the hole we had just climbed out of.

IMG_4782

Yitzhak and I tried to figure out what they were. Concrete doesn’t fit ancient times, so it must have been from the 20th century. Then,  we both knew.

The Arab village of Saffuriyeh was originally built by the Mamluks in the 14th century on the ruins of the Crusader town, on the ruins of the Byzantine, on the Roman/Jewish ruins. It maintained remnants of its original Jewish name Zippori, via the Greek name Sepphoris. It stood here for several hundred years, through the War of 1948-49.

After six months of civil war, the British Army left Palestine on May 15, 1948,  and then several Arab armies attacked Israel on all fronts.  The Arab Liberation Army (ALA), headed by its Iraqi leader Fawzi al Qawuqji, was headquartered only 5 kms away from Saffuriyeh, in Nazareth. In early July, the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) started its main offensive in the Galilee, named Operation Dekel, and designed to push the ALA back.

Most of the villages in the area presented little or no resistance to the advancement of the IDF.  Benny Morris, the well known historian and author of 1948 writes that, “emboldened by its successes and the weak ALA resistance” the IDF finally decides to take the town of Nazareth, al-Qawuqji’s headquarters.  “On 15 July, Golani Brigade units captured the villages of Ma’lul and al-Mujeidil… while an armored column of the Twenty-first and Seventy-ninth battalions drove straight down the road from Shafa-‘Amr, taking Saffuriya (Zippori), a large village north-west of Nazareth.” (Ch 7, pp 280-81)

The village was known to harbor ALA fighters, so as the soldiers approached, the village was attacked with mortarshell fire, causing villagers to flee their homes in panic.  Many villagers from Saffurieyh ended up in refugee camps in Southern Lebanon. Others settled in several of the villages closer to Nazareth, such as Ilut and Raame.  Four hundred villagers remained in their homes in Saffuriye and eventually received Israeli ID cards, although they were all removed from the village and made to re-settle elsewhere in the early 1950’s.  Click here to read the story of one such family, the al-Alzharis.

After the war, however, the Arab population that had fled the fighting had begun returning to their villages.  This presented a serious problem for the newly created State of Israel. The authorities worried about a fifth-column growing among the Arab villages and didn’t want to have to ‘capture the land all over again’.

Morris writes, “During the war’s first, critical months Zionist energies were directed at defending the Yishuv (Jewish community in the Land of Israel). But in mid-April, within days of the strategic switch to the offensive, the national institutions began to establish new settlements, not only to assure control of the main roads linking the Yishuv’s concentrations of populations and the border areas, but also to consolidate its hold on newly conquered territory.  Initially, the new outposts were set up on Jewish-owned land within the November 1947 Jewish state partition borders. Within months, though, such niceties were thrown to the wind, and settlements were established on Arab-owned land and outside the partition border.” (Ch 7, p 307)

Over a million Jews streamed into the newly founded State of Israel within its first 5 years, tripling its Jewish population. Finding them places to live became a high priority, and several new immigrant families founded a new Jewish village by the name of Zippori, on the lands of the Arab village of Saffuriyeh.

This beautiful land, with its layers of history and archaeology is a complex place, ripped apart by war and strife, conquests and conflict. Living among these stories, within sight of archaeological marvels like Zippori, and walking the land like Indiana Jones, knowing that somewhere beneath my feet are buried the remnants of some ancient civilization… is mind boggling. And so cool!

P.S. I send Harrison Ford my most sincere wishes for a Refuah Shlemah, ‘speedy recovery‘ after his flight mishap.  Please take care of yourself.

Advertisements

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Israel is so much more than the sum of its parts.

This piece was difficult to write. Difficult to digest. Difficult to explain. But I’m giving it a shot because its been on my mind for over two months and I feel it helps me understand why I love this country so much.

Its been a tough summer in our neck of the woods. And that is indeed an understatement.  Now the fighting is over and the negotiations have begun and we hope ‘they’ come to some kind of agreement. Both of ‘them’, Israel and Hamas.

Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are many sides, many issues of paramount importance that can be argued, discussed and learned, ad nauseum…

But for me, this time, there is one thing that has especially moved, affected and stayed with me these past few weeks. It is a deeper, more visceral understanding of the relationship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews in Israel; this dysfunctional, co-dependent drama that makes this country so special and worth getting to know.

Fact: 20% of Israelis are Israeli Arabs.

Fact: Israeli Arabs are generally divided into four groups; Muslims, Christians, Bedouins and Druze. All Israelis. With Israeli citizenship. And civil rights. And voting rights.

But what does that mean?

What does it mean to be an Israeli Arab during a war between the country you live in and the extended family and relatives you have across the border in Gaza?

Where do you stand? What do you do? Where do you direct your anger and frustration?

What about feelings of guilt for living in the safety of a democratic Israel, while watching Arabs in neighboring countries being slaughtered, gassed, bombed by their own Arab brothers?

What about Hamas rocket strikes against your own home? Where do you direct your anger then?

What happens to an Israeli Arab soul when at the same time he is fearful of incoming Hamas rockets, angry at Israeli bombings of Gaza, feeling guilty for living in Israel, feeling thankful for living in Israel, frustrated with the Israeli government’s inability to adequately address his community’s needs, upset with Israeli Arab leadership that has lost touch with its voters, furious at the way Arab governments kill their own people, horrified as images of dying Palestinian children are flashed over and over on TV screens as the world media cannot get enough of the suffering of the people of Gaza?

And despite of it all, life goes on here in Israel. Israeli Arabs work, study, shop for groceries, do business, raise their kids. Alongside the Jews.

The complexity of Israeli Arab life in Israel is absolutely fascinating and at times unbelievably ironic.

Cases in point. All from this past summer.


Aug. 24th – Hamas mortar shells fall at the Erez Crossing, injuring several  Israeli Arab taxi drivers waiting to transport sick and wounded Gazans from the border to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals. Three of the taxi drivers were Bedouin and one was from East Jerusalem. (Read more)


 

Aug 4th – The life of a Israeli Jewish soldier seriously injured by an Arab drive-by shooter was saved by an Israeli Arab doctor, Professor Ahmad Eid, head of surgery at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. Professor Eid insists “There’s no drama here.”

Oh yes, professor, there is. There certainly is.  Read about Dr Eid’s amazing story here.

Prof Ahmend Eid, Head of Surgery at Hadassah Hospital. (courtesy of Haddasah)

 


 

July 20th – Ghassan Alian, an Israeli Druze Arab and Commander of the elite Golani Brigade in the Israeli Defense Forces, was wounded in the first days of the military operation. His demand to be patched up quickly and to return to his troops endeared him to the Jewish majority and made his Druze community proud.  However, not all Israeli Arabs were impressed. Alian was criticized and even received death threats for his role as an Arab commander in the IDF. (Read more)

 

Golani Commander

Ghassan Alian, Golani Brigade Commander (courtesy IDF spokesman)


 

July 29 – Israeli Police decide not to investigate Israeli Arab Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi’s apparent praise for the kidnapping of 3 Jewish teenagers, whose abduction and murder ignited this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

In this article, we read of the story of Israeli Arab Mohammad Zoabi, a young, family member of that same MK Haneen Zoabi, who unabashedly spoke out on Facebook against the kidnappers of those 3 Jewish boys. His mother told the media that her son had to escape to a safe house abroad due to the threats to his life.

“My son dared to express his feelings toward the Jews who had been kidnapped,” she said. “As a mother, I am proud of him. I received many threats. One reporter wrote that my son should be kidnapped and raped. With all due respect, I am not impressed with the Israel Police. I am disappointed. They wait until something happens, and only then do they get involved.”

The Zoabi family, a very prominent Israeli Arab family from Nazareth, exemplifies the internal conflict of being Arab, and Muslim and Israeli, all at the same time. Their struggle for identity is certainly not easy. (Read more)


 

Two Israeli Arab Bedouin IDF Army doctors are being court-martialled for desertion. This is the story as far as I understand it: Two Bedouin brothers, outstanding students in school, decided about 9 years ago to follow the ‘Atudah’ program in the Israeli Defense Forces, where top students first attend university with an all paid scholarship from the IDF, then enlist for several years and serve in their corresponding profession. These brothers became the very first Bedouin ‘atudah’ doctors in the history of Israel.  They became officers and served in the IDF as doctors, providing care for all patients, regardless of their background.

This summer, as the Israeli Air Force began bombardments in Gaza after many days of rocket attacks from Hamas, these two brothers, like many other Israelis, became distraught at the media images of dead and injured Palestinian Gazans. As they knew their unit would eventually join the fighting, they became conflicted, didn’t know how to respond and where to turn, so in an act of desperation they abandoned their posts and went home. They deserted.

After a week of gut wrenching soul searching, they reconsidered, decided they had made a terrible mistake and returned to their base, apologized to their commander and asked to return to their duties. However, they were arrested and have been sitting in jail since then.

Although they had abandoned their post, deserted in fact, the story of their pain and anguish and their eventual return and regret has touched the hearts of many Israeli Jews and there are many who petitioned to have their punishment reduced. Read the latest on their ongoing trial here.


 

July 19 – A rocket shot from Gaza towards the Negev desert  landed in an Israeli Arab Bedouin encampment, killing Ouda Lafi al-Waj, an Israeli Bedouin man and seriously wounding his children.  (Read more) Most Israeli Arab Bedouins in the Negev live in towns but there are several tens of thousands who live in unauthorized, unrecognized encampments without adequate facilities. Because the encampments are not authorized by the government, they are considered open areas and are not included under the Iron Dome protective airspace. Crazy.  And painfully unfair.

 


May – The Israeli Defense Forces began sending draft notices to Israeli Arab Christian youth, inviting them to enlist as do their brothers the Israeli Druze and the Israeli Bedouins. This move came after several years of campaigning by Israeli Arab Christian Greek Orthodox Father Gabriel Nadaf, who believes that Israeli Christians should enlist and do more to integrate into Israeli society. In fact, more and more Israeli Christians are joining the ranks of the Israeli armed forces in an act of solidarity with the only country in the Middle East where they are free to practice their religion and are safe from persecution. Its quite scary to be a Christian in the Middle East these days and Israeli Christians struggle to define their role as Israeli citizens. (Read more)


And finally, this past Monday I attended the Galilee Arab Jewish Conference – Fighting Racism and Working for Cooperation. One of the speakers was Dr. Khawla Abu Baker, an Israeli Arab psychologist and college professor, and it was during her talk that I finally realized I was able to put pencil to paper (in this case fingers to keyboard) and write what was on my mind. I now had the words I wanted to say.

Dr Abu Baker’s specialty is the psychology of Arab Israelis, mainly their mental and emotional profile.

As she started her talk, I began to take notes and furiously translated her thoughts into my journal. I want to share some of her words, as they still resonate for me. The following are some of my notes:

Palestinian Israelis suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); they constantly struggle on the outside and from within, always angry and fearful; when the brain is under constant stress, it changes itself and adapts to its environment, always under danger; this causes psychological and cognitive changes that affect thoughts, behavior; this PTSD must be treated and if not addressed gets relived over and over; we don’t have periods of calm long enough (need to be 6 months or more) to get over our PTSD and recover from our trauma; all Israelis, Palestinian and Jewish alike.

In 1948, 85% of Palestinian Arab society had to relocate and build a new life somewhere else; they lost their place in the world; many still carry the keys to the homes they lost; every war reawakens that trauma; every war causes them to relive traumas from previous wars, never ending; leads to depression, helplessness, loss of hope; these feelings of rage bring on the need to take revenge

And now, an important personal note — Her use of the term Palestinian Israelis bothered me. When I guide tourists, I clearly state there is a difference between the Palestinians (which are those who live in the West Bank and Gaza) and Israeli Arabs (who live in the state of Israel). I find this definition helps the tourists understand how complex the situation is.

However, as I was listening to Dr Abu Baker, it dawned on me that MY defining and labeling THEM as ‘not’ Palestinian was part of the problem! They ARE Palestinian and are proud Palestinians, with a Palestinian heart and soul and language and culture, with family across the border separated from them a mere 65 years ago and then again 46 years ago. My problem with labeling them as proud Palestinians was MY problem, and if  Israeli Arabs want to call themselves Palestinian Israelis, who am I to say it isn’t so? I need to get over it. Huge aha moment for me!

And that’s when it struck me. I am also traumatized! So is my family and my community. I started this post by saying how difficult this summer has been. For all of us here in Israel. All of us.

Dr Khawla Abu Baker continued: What we have here is almost identical to a domestic violence situation; it passes from generation to generation and without treatment it becomes a cycle of violence and abuse; victims and perpetrators both develop their own ‘narratives’ to justify their behavior.

Question from the audience – “What is the medicine?”

“both Jews and Palestinians need to understand there are two sides to a coin; both have to be compassionate and accept each other’s pain and injury as real”

Compassion.

Understanding that the Palestinian – Israeli – Arab – Muslim – Druze – Bedouin – Christian is stuck in a precarious, delicate and sometimes impossible situation.

Between a rock and a hard place.

And that Palestinians and Jews will heal from their trauma only after long, long periods of calm, free of violence.

First peace. Then healing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Miracle of Life in the Galilee

Newly born neighbors

Newly born neighbors

One of the reasons I moved to the Galilee a little over three years ago was because of the diversity and daily multicultural encounters we experience here.

Jews, Bedouins, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Circassians, Druze… we all live side by side in a fragile co-existence that defies the odds.

Our small community of Hannaton is bordered by the Bedouin village of Bir el Maksur less than a kilometer to the west, the Arab Muslim town of Kafar Manda only 3 kilometers to the north, and a few more Bedouin and Jewish villages to the east and south.

A hodgepodge of people and cultures, faiths and customs, languages and traditions.

Is it perfect? No.

Are there problems? Yes.

Does it work? Actually, yes it does!

Case in point:

Allow me to share an amazing event my husband and I witnessed last week on our usual Shabbat (Sabbath) hike in the fields around Hannaton.

We had put our vivacious Labrador on a leash, trying to steer her away from a herd of sheep in the distance.  We noticed a Bedouin shepherd among his flock and did not want our dog to scare and stampede the poor sheep (really, she’s done it before)

However, instead of telling us to stay away, the shepherd called and invited us (dog and all) to come closer and see something… and so began a new friendship, an amazing hour together as we shared in the miracle of life.

Click here to watch this amazing video (viewer discretion is advised, but its awesome!)

IMG_1572

An Insignificant Hill

An Insignificant Hill

Tel Hannaton 022

The view from my front porch

Looking out my front porch, I enjoy oaks and pines, vast olive groves, a beautiful Beit Netofah valley floor checkered with shades of green and brown agricultural fields,  two mountain ranges dotted with Bedouin villages and a small, green hill in the middle of it all.

In Israel, however, one can never make assumptions or think that something seemingly benign can’t have deep, historical meaning. Like this green hill. Right outside my window. The insignificant one.

Tel Hannaton may seem like a nothing hill, but the history of this artificial mound (tel) goes back over 3500 years! It happens to be located at an important crossroad; on the Via Maris, the ancient road leading from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and on the road from Damascus to Akko, an important port on the Mediterranean Sea.

We first learn of Tel Hannaton in the El-Amarna letters, 380 clay tablets (written in Akkadian and found in excavations in Egypt), used as correspondence between the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who eventually called himself Akhenaten) and Burnaburiash, king of Babylon.  Tablet number 8  translates like this:

To Akhenaton,  King of Egypt, my brother, to say:
Thus speaks Burnaburiash King of Babylon, your brother.
I am well. To your country, your house, your women,
your sons, your ministers, your horses, your chariots,
many greetings. I and my brother have signed a treaty,
and I spoke thus: Like our fathers, who were friends, we will be friends.
And now, my merchants who traveled with Ahutabu delayed in Canaan for business.
After Ahutabu set out on his way to my brother and in the town of Hanatun which is in Canaan,
Shumda Son of Baluma and Shutatna Son of Shartum from Akko
sent their men there. They beat my merchants and stole their money.
Ahutabu , whom I sent to you, is before you. Ask him and he will tell you.
Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed.
Bind them and return the money they robbed.
And the men who murdered my slaves, kill them and avenge their blood.
Because if you do not kill these men, they will again murder
my caravans and even my ambassadors, and the ambassadors between us will cease.
If this should happen the people of the land will leave you.

Don’t know about you, but I find it spectacularly fabulous that a Babylonian king wrote to an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh about wanting his money back because his merchants were robbed outside my front porch about 3500 years ago. “And if you don’t give me my money back”, he states, “I won’t be your friend no more!”

Tel Hannaton has several more claims to fame:

  • It is mentioned in the Bible (book of Joshua 19:14) , as being the northern border of the lands of the tribe of Zebulon.
  • Tiglath Pileser III

    Tiglath Pileser III

    Our dear friend Tiglath Pileser III(732 b.c.e), King of Assyria, carved the stories of his victorious military campaigns on the walls of his grand palace in Nineveh and boasted that he conquered and plundered five Canaanite cities, the fifth one being… you guessed it, Hannaton!

  • The Greeks, the Jewish priestly families, the Romans, all left their mark in the area
  • The Crusaders built an agricultural farm at Hannaton in the 13th century, during their 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It is the ruins of this Crusader building that are still visible under the ground.

    Tel Hannaton 010

    Entrance to the underground dining hall at Tel Hannaton, exhibiting typical Crusader arches and masonry

  • The Mamelukes first, then the Ottomans turned the Crusader structures into a caravanserai, a roadside inn where travelers and their animals could rest and recover from the day’s journey.
  • Tel Hannaton is called Tel Badawiyya in Arabic, from the Arabic word for Bedouin, nomad.

Tel Hannaton was partially excavated in the 1980’s but has remained untouched for many years.

Today, school children on educational seminars at the Hannaton Educational Center visit and learn about the site, and it also gets visits from occasional curious families and hikers.

Tel Hannaton 006

Israeli school children on a visit to the underground ruins of a Crusader farm building on Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton 001

Typical Crusader architecture windows provide light in the underground room

But for me, its a constant companion, the ancient hill outside my front window.

Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton

You Just Never Know What’s Down There –  the fascinating story of the Hospitaller citadel in Acco

You Just Never Know What’s Down There – the fascinating story of the Hospitaller citadel in Acco

There is a law in Israel that states that when you start digging (to build a house, to clear a field, to fix a plumbing problem) and you come upon strange looking artifacts or stones (which happens VERY often), you must contact the Antiquities Authority immediately. They arrive and start a salvage archaeological dig… because you NEVER know what’s down there!

First, a brief history…

The Crusades begin at the close of the 11th century,  and the Christian armies plunder, loot,  pillage and kill Jews in European villages along the way.  They arrive in the Holy Land in 1099 with the intention of expelling the Muslim “infidels” out of Jerusalem and reclaim it for Christendom. They manage to conquer the city, massacre its inhabitants (Muslims and Jews alike) and thus begins the 1st Kingdom of Jerusalem,  lasting almost one hundred years.

As part of the Crusader effort to take control of the rest of the Holy Land, they start conquering other cities, laying siege to Acco on the Mediterranean Coast and taking it in 1104. Acco becomes their main sea port. The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar Orders build their headquarters in Jerusalem and establish small quarters in Acco, as well.

On July 4th, 1187, the Muslim army under the command of Salah al-Din, massacre the Crusader army at Karnei Hittin and the Christians lose their foothold on the Holy Land. Four years later, Richard the Lionheart leads the 3rd Crusade back to the Holy Land and re-establishes them as the 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, they never regain Jerusalem from the Muslims and they must make do with Acco, which becomes their capital city and headquarters for the next one hundred years.

The Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar rebuild their headquarters in Acco, and here is where our story gets interesting.  The Hospitallers build a massive, magnificent citadel in the northwestern corner of the city which travelers and pilgrims  praise and describe in their journals.  The citadel includes a hospital, a sugar storage facility, dormitories, dining halls and churches, all the necessary requirements to make life easier for the Christian pilgrim.

In the end, the Mamluk Muslim army slowly drives the Crusaders out of the Holy Land and in 1291 allow the remnants to escape by sea from Acco.  To insure that the Crusaders never return, the Mamluks begin a systematic destruction of all Crusader citadels and in the process leave the city of Acco in ruins.

The magnificent city lays under rubble for over 400 years, until the arrival of Daher el-Omar (fascinating guy), who decides to rebuild it around 1750.  He and his successor, Ahmed al Jazzar resolve, and rightly so, to rebuild on top of the ruins instead of first clearing the rubble. They choose to build their palaces right on top of the Knights Hopitaller remains.

de Bruin sketch 1679

Look at the sketch above. It was drawn by Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruijn, who traveled in the Holy Land in 1679 and sketched the Hospitaller citadel ruins. Notice the stairway and the arches underneath, and the second and third stories destroyed by the Mamluks. This is the ruin that Daher el-Omar and al Jazzar filled in and built their palace over.

One hundred years later, the Ottomans convert the palace into a government center and a large prison, to which they send their choicest  prisoners.  The British, who replace the Ottomans, also use the prison to house agitators, both Arabs and Jews (and oh, the stories we can tell of this prison…)

After the creation of the State of Israel, the prison area is turned into a museum, commemorating the  imprisonment of many underground Jewish fighters and their daring escapes. In the late 1960’s, a tunnel was dug under one of the prison cells, a chamber where the visitor stood suspended on dirt and debris, almost able to touch the immense vaulted ceiling of what was believed to be the Hospitaller crypt, an underground burial site.  Many Israelis remember entering the dark, underground chamber as children on class field trips in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Archaeologists and historians knew that there was SOMETHING down there, but what?!?

citadel courtyard 2In 1992, the Antiquities Authority began the monumental task of excavating the Ottoman/British prison compound. Very slowly, the prison recreational yard, where  prisoners relaxed, played soccer and plotted escapes for over a century was dug up.

As the excavations progressed the archaeologists were becoming more and more  puzzled by the finds. They uncovered  a plethora of artifacts from the most unexpected historical eras; Early Bronze Age lying next to Crusader, Hellenistic and Persian! It didn’t make any sense.

It took a while for the story to become clear, the reason as to why all this mishmash of artifacts was being uncovered under the prison compound.  It turns out that in their effort to build the infrastructure for their palaces, Daher el-Omar and al Jazzar, in the 18th century, decided to flatten out the area by filling it with dirt and debris so as to create a stable foundation for their buildings. And where can their workers haul tons of dirt from? The nearby Tel Acco, of course, the hill where the urbanization of ancient Acco started almost 5,000 years ago!

Ancient Acco began on a hill just a few kilometers to the east of the Crusader compound, where it remained throughout the Bronze Age, Iron Age, right through to the 4th century BCE. It was only then, during Persian and Greek times,  that the inhabitants came down from the ‘tel’ and settled the small peninsula where the Old City sits today.

citadel courtyard

As the excavations proceeded, archaeologists discovered they were right in the center of the Knights Hospitaller compound, in the courtyard as a matter of fact, with a well and water reservoir, public latrines, (remember the stairway from de Bruijn’s sketch above?) magnificent stairway to the second story and some of the most beautiful Crusader architecture ever found. Restoration and conservation work began in the early 2000’s and is still going on today.

The Knights Hospitaller citadel courtyard sits today as it did 800 years ago

The Knights Hospitaller citadel courtyard sits today as it did 800 years ago

This is only one story from the Knights Hospitaller citadel compound. I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent Knights Halls, or the sugar production, or the crypt that turned out to be a refectory or the prison dungeon… and what about the Baha’is, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Ramchal, and Napoleon for goodness sake’s! And where does the name Acre come from, and the Turkish baths, and Zeev Jabotinsky, and why was Paul Newman here?

There are so many more stories and places to see and enjoy.   

Come to Acco. Its fabulous.

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

As I mentioned before,  Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013, not only for its sheer beauty, but also for the variety of interesting places, fascinating history, diverse people and the many adventures and quiet meditative moments one can experience here.

And now, after we’ve peeked into the awe inspiring Small Makhtesh, toured Mamsheet‘s ancient streets and Nabatean Market, collected colorful sands in the Large Makhtesh, we come to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the beautiful Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon.

images

First and foremost, Makhtesh Ramon is the Grand Canyon of Israel.  Created by erosion of sandstone and limestone layers over millions of years, this makhtesh is the largest such geological formation in Israel, stretching about 40 km from end to end and 2-10 km wide.  The makhtesh has been a thriving habitat for many species of animals and plants and a crossroads for nomadic people for millennia.

For tourism, activities and accommodation purposes, the town overlooking the makhtesh is Mitzpe Ramon, a small community with a lot to offer.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this post due to the great number of options and adventures available in the area.  I finally decided to create a list, a mere sample of the many wonderful things to do near Makhtesh Ramon…

What would YOU like to do?

  • Hike in the gorgeous desert with your family?
  • Sleep in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Bedouin hospitality?
  • Hunt for fossils?
  • Ride a camel along the ancient Nabatean Incense Route?
  • Take a jeep tour through millions of years of the geological timeline?
  • Learn how Israel leads the world in anti-desertification techniques?
  • Study the stars in the pitch black night of the desert?
  • Taste the delicious produce grown here and exported to the world?
  • Stay at a 5-Star hotel with the most amazing view from your personal, outdoor pool?
  • Get cozy with alpacas (?!?) who happen to thrive in the desert climate?
  • Go wine tasting at award winning boutique wineries?
  • Learn about David Ben Gurion’s dream, visit his home and his graveside?
  • Rest and relax in one of the many B&Bs in the area?

Now lets make a partial list of great experiences to be had in the Mitzpe Ramon area, not in any particular order:

1.  (hiking, archaeology) Khan Saharonim– In the heart of Makhtesh Ramon lay the ruins of one of the Nabatean caravansaries (khan) on the ancient Incense Route from Yemen to Gaza. The Nabateans were THE expert desert travelers 2000 years ago, building an empire based on the trade of incense, spices and perfumes, and here they rested their camels and their weary bodies on their months long journey.

IMG_2367(fossils, hiking) Ammonite Wall – Ammonites were large mollusks that lived in the ancient seas and became extinct 65 million years ago.   They moved around by filling their shells with air and then releasing it. When the Ammonites died, they floated and were carried toward shallower waters  close to shore. Thus, great numbers of Ammonite shells collected in one place. One of these Ammonite graveyards can be seen right outside Makhtesh Ramon.

IMG_23353. (modern Israeli history, museum) Ilan Ramon Center – Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, loved the Makhtesh Ramon area so much, that as a young pilot, he changed his family name to Ramon, in honor of this spectacular geological formation. He was one of Israel’s heroes but his life was tragically cut short when he perished with the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. A museum honoring his legacy was just opened, overlooking the spectacular makhtesh . Definitely worth the visit.

4.  (luxury, location location location)  The Beresheet Hotel –  Situated on the edge of the towering cliffs of the makhtesh and blessed with a breathtaking view, this exceptional hotel is pure luxury. 

room with a pool5. (entrepreneurship, animals, family fun)  The Alpaca Farm – One of the strangest experiences one encounters near Mitzpeh Ramon is at this farm, where one can get up close and personal with a herd of alpacas and llamas … yes, you heard it right.  IMG_2356Straight from the Andes Mountains, these camel relatives are thriving in the Negev Highlands, where the air is cold and crisp at night and the altitude is just right.  Sheep, horses and other critters make for a fun day for the whole family.

6. (astronomy)  Star gazing, anyone? – My friend Ira Machevsky leads guided, customized tours of the starry desert night, the clearest sky in the country.  No astronomy experience is necessary… just bring a warm jacket and enjoy!

DSC_0326-300x2007. (entrepreneurship, wine tasting, food) Rujum Winery – When the Nabateans converted to Christianity in the 3rd century CE, they turned their agricultural efforts to the growing of vineyards in the desert in order to supply wine during the Byzantine Era.  The high desert plain actually produces excellent grapes  due to the loose soil, bright sunshine and extreme temperature differences between night and day and the seasons of the year.

gallery_20-300x2008. (eco-tourism)  Eco Desert Lodge – “We are not a 5-Stars, we are a million stars” is their motto. I love that!  Check out this amazing lodge with different desert accommodation options. Romantic  🙂

camels9. (culture, Bedouins, food)  Bedouin Encounters – If you are interested in the REAL thing, an authentic encounter with Israeli Bedouins, this is the place.  Stay at a Bedouin village, sleep communally in a Bedouin tent, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared in front of you, ride camels, chat with Sheikh Salman, leader of this Bedouin clan.  Spartan conditions, unforgettable experience!

And we haven’t even made a dent in the myriad activities and experiences to be had in the central Negev, let alone in the Arava Valley to the west or the magnificent Eilat Mountains and beaches to the south.

Lonely Planet is right. The Negev is THE destination of choice for the travel aficionado!

They should have spelled it ‘Mamsheet’…

They should have spelled it ‘Mamsheet’…

800px-Mamshit_IMG_6193Funny how some Hebrew names just do not sound well in English. Take  for example the boy’s name Dror,  or the girl’s name Osnat, beautiful names in Hebrew, but in English? No.   Such is the fate of an amazing place in the northern Negev called Mamshit.

Let’s get one thing straight, it should have been transliterated to Mamsheet on all the English brochures, but go figure.  Guess no one thought of it.  Its actually pronounced Mamsheet…  you gotta ‘sheeeeet’ when you say it.

So now that we’ve got the  pronunciation right, let’s get to business.

When visiting the Negev, do not miss this gem!

Mamshit 024Mamsheet  (which is how I will spell it) is a beautifully restored ancient Nabatean city, that is not only a delight to visit because of its fascinating archaeology, history and architecture, but also because twice a year, during the 7 days long holidays of Sukkot and Passover, the ancient city comes to life with a fun, not-to-be-missed, ethnic,  Nabatean market… but first, a little history.

Mamsheet sits on the Nabatean Incense Route which ran from the southern Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean.  The Nabateans were masters of the desert, controlling the  important incense and spice trade routes from about the 3rd century b.c.e to the 3rd century c.e.  They accumulated great wealth as they transported myrrh and frankincense,  cinnamon and nutmeg, and other luxury commodities from the East to the shores of the Great Sea.  They built great desert cities, oases for their camel caravans,  not only in the Negev but also east of the Jordan River, with amazing Petra as their capital.

Mamsheet was built in the 1st century c.e. and was the only walled ancient city in the Negev, protecting its wealthy residents from nomadic intruders.

The Romans coveted this wealth and Emperor Trajan finally annexed the Nabatean Kingdom in 106 c.e., charging them high taxes and creating the province of Arabia Petraea.

By the 4th century and the start of the Byzantine era, the Nabateans had settled down,  developed unique desert agriculture techniques and began to breed Arabian horses. They eventually converted to Christianity and later, with the arrival of the Arab empires,  they blended into the local population and disappeared as a culture.

Although Mamsheet is the smallest of the Nabatean cities of the Negev, it has been beautifully  restored.

Mamshit 027The city walls, one built in the 1st century and the second built by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century, still enclose the town. Today one can enter the city through its ancient gate.

Mamshit 033Several of Mamsheet’s  streets have survived intact and visitors can enter rooms in luxurious homes, courtyards and even see troughs and stalls in the ancient horse stables.

There are two well preserved Byzantine churches in Mamsheet, exquisiteMamshit 023  examples of   basilica style churches;  nave, aisles, atrium, apse, elaborate mosaics… the works!Mamshit 031

Nabatean Market Days

Walking through a beautifully restored Nabatean city is one thing, but visiting Mamsheet during  Nabatean Market Days is FUN!

Arts and crafts, pottery, ceramics, antiques and ‘not so antique’ finds, funky clothes, delicious food, colored glass, sand paintings, ethnic jewelry, amazing music… and all by authentic Nabateans! Well, maybe not Nabateans but a delightful mixture of artists of all backgrounds…

Mamshit 018

Mamshit 048

Mamshit 020

Mamshit 019

Usually on Thursday nights during Nabatean Market week, the market is open till the late hours of the night.  It is an absolutely enchanting place to be and an unforgettable experience.

Mamshit 046

So, come visit the Negev with me, and on our visit to Mamsheet, you can stay at their campground.  You may camp under the desert stars, sleep in lovely bungalows or large bedouin tents, stay in spacious, comfortable cabins, any way you want.  Camping in the desert sure adds to a wonderful experience…

Mamshit 014