Truly Extraordinary

When in Israel for the first time, or the second, or fifth, one tends to visit the same ol’ places: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed, Caesaria… and there is nothing wrong with that. Great places, wonderful experiences.

However, I  invite you to begin exploring a truly extraordinary region, a desert  unique in its beauty, its geology, wildlife, history and increasing importance in facing today’s global challenges… the Negev.

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Monotheism and the Jewish People were born in the Negev when Abraham chose to settle here so many years ago.  The Israelites wandered through on their way from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  The nomads crisscrossed these rocky sands, so did the Nabateans with their incense-laden, camel caravans journeying from southern Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean.  The Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the founding fathers of the early Christian Church, hermit monks in search of God…

Today the Negev is a desert region that encompasses almost two thirds of Israel’s land area and includes cities, towns, kibbutzim, communities, farms, Jews, Arabs and Bedouins, a world class  university and colleges,  desert studies and agricultural research centers, military facilities, and industrial parks.

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It is an arid and semiarid, rocky desert of  breathtaking beauty, incredible landscapes, fascinating ancient cities and archaeology, unique geological formations… but don’t only take my word for it.

Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013. They write:

” Look closely between the rocks of the wadis (valleys) and you will find water and even wine. The Negev Highlands region is also home to so many vineyards that it now has its own wine route. Today, ecologists from all over the world come to the kibbutzim of Sde Boker and the Arava to study solar energy and water treatment. But this isn’t new. Two thousand years earlier, the Nabataeans cultivated grapes and practically invented desert irrigation, which can still be seen at the ancient ruins of Shivta, Mamshit and Avdat.

This region, comprising 62% of Israel’s land mass, may seem sparse but it offers a world of adventure, including mountain hikes, camel treks, 4WD desert drives and Red Sea diving. “

I agree!Mamshit 036

In the next few posts I will introduce you to some of my favorite sites in the Negev.   Stay tuned…

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On being part of a UNESCO biosphere…

My friend and colleague Ihab is a funny guy, very smart, but most of all, he is a knowledgeable, proud member of the Druze faith and I find him absolutely fascinating.

The other day our Tour Guide class was exploring Mount Carmel, the mountain famous for hosting the city of Haifa on its ridge.  We toured the wonderful Hecht Museum at Haifa University, the Hai Bar animal preserve, the ancient oak groves and the historic Carmelite Nunnery. But Mount Carmel is much more!  It was actually designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996 in part because it “is rich in its biological, geological and geomorphologic diversity with contrasting landscapes, a mixture of agricultural areas and prehistoric and archaeological sites.” (see UNESCO site)

Mount Carmel was chosen as a UNESCO Biosphere because of the unique people that live there as well!  You see, Mount Carmel also houses two Druze villages, Daliat el Carmel and Usfiyye, my friend Ihab’s hometown.

The gorgeous view from Usfiyye

” I love being a part of the UNESCO Biosphere” he declared proudly as he led us  through his village, ” Makes me unique and special!” and so, ladies and gentlemen, he is correct. The Druze are a one-of-a-kind people.

The history of the Druze reaches back about one thousand years, to the days of the Fatimid Caliphate, and the founding of Cairo as their capital in 969 c.e.  The sixth Caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr al-Lah came to power in 996 as a young boy of 12 and was assigned several guardians to rule with him.  In the year 1000, he declared himself emancipated, relieved his guardians of their duties and began a series of controversial and unprecedented progressive reforms that would mark him as one of history’s most enigmatic figures.

Al Hakim ordered the streets of Cairo cleaned regularly, forbade the selling of goods at night in order to prevent cheating, and opened a new Office of Public Complaints.  He also created an advanced academic center, the Dar-al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) and invited astronomers, philosophers, theologians, historians,  mathematicians and other academicians from all over the Muslim world to join him in study.

However, he also persecuted Jews and Christians in his land, confiscated their property, forbade them to employ Muslim workers, forbade the growing of grapes for wine and forced Jews and Christians to wear identifying labels on their clothing.  So much for progress…

Getting back to our story, two of the wise men that accepted Al Hakim’s invitation to join him in  the House of Wisdom were Hamza bin Ali and Nashtakeen ad Darazi from Persia and the three delved deeply into discussions of philosophy and theology.

In 1017, Al Hakim  announced the creation of a new religion based on Islam and blending Islamic monotheism, and some Greek philosophy and Hinduism.  He appointed Hamza as the leader of the new movement, sent him and ad-Darazi out to spread the word, and the newly formed religion started accepting new believers.

The new ideas spread slowly, by word of mouth and personal relationships,  and was especially welcomed by two large tribes in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon who readily adopted the new religion.

A serious conflict soon arose between ad-Darazi and Hamza. Ad Darazi apparently wanted to take over leadership of the budding religion, was named a heretic and a traitor and was eventually put to death.

Al Hakim mysteriously disappeared in 1021, leaving no trace behind except his donkey and some bloodstained clothes. The Druze believe he will one day return…  Hamza went into retreat when Al Hikma disappeared but continued to lead the new religion from his hiding place.

In 1043 c.e., twenty four years after the new religion was announced, its gates were closed and no new converts have been accepted since.

Later historians mistakenly named this new religion Druze after ad-Darazi, even though for some adherents that is insulting since he  is considered a heretic and the first traitor to the faith. The people call themselves al-Muwahhidūn, the Monotheists.

Druze men in traditional dress

The Muwahhidun are unlike the other three monotheistic peoples of this region in some unique ways. I am certainly not an expert, but I find the following beliefs to be the most interesting:

  • All Muwahhidun souls reincarnate, men into baby boys and women in baby girls. No souls are lost, they come back into a Druze baby somewhere around the world. Everyone alive today is the reincarnation of someone who lived before therefore the population of Muwahiddun has remained constant since 1043.
  • Because the Druze believe in reincarnation,  they are buried in simple, name-less  graves and there are no grieving or remembrance rituals for the dead.
  • The Druze faith accepts no converts, no matter how much you want to join. The gates were open for one generation and are now sealed.
  • The Druze argue that individuals who believe that God will forgive them if they fast and pray, will commit transgressions in the expectation of being forgiven – and then repeat their sins. The Druze therefore eliminated all elements of ritual and ceremony from their daily life. There is no fixed daily prayer, no holy days, and no pilgrimage obligations. The Druze believe they live in the presence of God at all times, and need no special days of fasting or atonement.

Druze women in traditional dress

  • The Druze faith is secretive, not only to the outside world, but also to its own uninitiated. The children are not required to follow any rituals, ceremonies or do any learning until the age of 15. From the age of 15, a Druze MAY choose to join the uqqal (“knowers”) at any age, and to learn and follow the ancient tradition. Only around 15% of the Druze eventually make the commitment and join the uqqal.
  • Druze parents do not require their children to learn the religion. Period. (As a Jewish mother, all I have to say to that is… W0w!)
  • A Druze may choose to live a ‘secular’ life and be a part of the juhal (“ignorant ones”) as long as they want. No pressure.  (double Wow!!!)
  • The Druze faith discourages nationalism  but instructs the Muwahhidun to live under whichever government rules their land and as a result the Druze do not seek independence.  The Syrian Druze feel Syrian, the Lebanese Druze love Lebanon and the Israeli Druze identify themselves as Israelis.
  • Israeli Druze feel a very strong bond with Israeli Jews, a ‘Blood Bond’ as they call it,  as the Druze serve in the Israeli military and many have died alongside their Jewish army buddies.

The Druze flag with a Star of David, symbolizing the Blood Bond with the State of Israel

Today, the Muwahhidun live mostly in the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel, although there are Druze communities all over the world.
The lovely village of Usfiyye  is one of two (the other is Daliat al Carmel) that remain from about 22 Druze villages founded in the area starting in the 16th century, the two southern-most Muwahhidun villages in the Middle East.  They are both famous for their strong ties with the people of Israel and their legendary Druze hospitality.  As a matter of fact, Ihab’s grandparents graciously hosted all 45 of us in their home where we were fed a delicious breakfast.

The only remnant of the 5th century synagogue mosaic floor visible today, located in a local home’s front yard!

Usfiyye was built on the ruins of the Jewish village of Husseifa which dates back to the 5th century c.e.  Remnants of an ancient synagogue mosaic floor with the inscription “Peace upon Israel” were found in 1930 in the front yard of one of the local homes!

Not only that,  but a local farmer found a treasure stash of about 4500 ancient Jewish coins from Roman times buried underground, and knowing they were worth much money, sold them slowly, one by one to help his family. The coins  eventually ended up in a museum.
There is more I want to write about the Druze and some of their other villages. For now, this will suffice…
Ihab knows I am writing about him and it embarrasses him slightly. However, he wants me to be sure and invite all visitors to Israel to his beloved Usfiyye. He’ll arrange for a host family to take you in for a delicious meal and who knows, maybe you’ll end up at his grandparents’ home!
Trust me.
Its a treat.

House numbers in Usfiyye, displaying “Peace Upon Israel” image from the ancient synagogue floor

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

Migdal Tsedek Fortress

“Wow, the view from here is absolutely fantastic!” was my first thought, and then I entered the white fortress and smiled to myself as I realized this is a perfect place for kids to explore. Oh yeah, you gotta bring the kids!

Migdal Tsedek Fortress

Migdal Tsedek Fortress

As part of our study about water sources in Israel, we came to the Sharon region, a division of the Coastal Plateau and as it turns out, home to some awesome fortresses!

Migdal Tsedek is a fortress on a hill overlooking the ancient Via Maris (the Way of the Sea), the road which led from Cairo in Egypt to Damascus in Syria. Anyone who was anybody in the Ancient World and wanted to conquer this land came through here; Philistines, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans, the British, you name them, they were here.

Thutmose III, Pharaoh of Egypt (1479 to 1425 bce),  rode by here on his chariot on his way to attack the city of Meggido!

The one who controls the hilltop, controls the valley

The one who controls the hilltop, controls the valley

Which makes standing on this hill and looking out towards the Mediterranean, so exciting. It is perfectly clear why this place was chosen, over and over again, generation after generation. If you want to control the roads, you set up right here…

The road in the background is Hwy 6, a modern highway built along the ancient Via Maris. The cities on the horizon are Petah Tikva, then Ramat Gan and eventually Tel Aviv. It was a beautiful day and we were even able to see the high rise buildings along the Mediterranean shore, 14 km away.

Crusader arches on right, Ottoman arches on left

Crusader arches on right, Ottoman arches on left

The present citadel was built by the Crusaders and named Mirabel, and it exemplifies classic Crusader architecture, 4 large walls, large inner patio and beautiful arches. When the Ottomans took it over, they rehabbed with smaller stones, added some rooms and a bit of flurry to their arches.

Room with arches

Room with arches

I enjoyed climbing the staircases, exploring small rooms with arched windows, taking in the view from every possible angle. This newly refurbished citadel is a delight!

Yours truly and the Ottoman arches

Yours truly and the Ottoman arches