Renewing the Old – the story of wine making in Israel

My friend Linda and I were hiking along the trail by the nearby village of Solelim, chatting and trying to keep my labrador, Na’ala, out of trouble (she rolls in every cow poop and splashes in every stream).  We took in the gorgeous natural beauty around us; a gnarly oak forest, colorful spring flowers, lizards, butterflies and birds galore, and the occasional dugout cave in the limestone.

“Linda”, I said, “Did you know that many of these hills have ancient wine presses carved into the limestone bedrock?”

“Really?” she answered, “I didn’t know that”.

Now, I don’t know if she does this on purpose, but being the good friend she is, Linda always sets me up to tell the history of this hill or that ancient site.  And she listens patiently. That’s what friends are for.

So I started telling her about the ancient wine production that flourished in the Lower Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine times.

When the Romans expelled the Jews from Judea and Jerusalem in the 1st and 2nd centuries and forbade their return, many of the Jewish people migrated north and settled in the Galilee. They eventually lived side by side with the Roman soldiers, developing friendships and business relationships in many small villages and larger mixed towns.  When the Byzantine Empire took control of the land in the 4th century, the Jews continued living among the growing Christian population until the conquest of the Muslim empire in 640 c.e.

The Jews have always used wine as part of their religious rituals. Vineyards are ubiquitous in the Bible; Noah planted the first vineyard, Micah’s vision of peace was when one sat under his vine and fig tree, grapes are one of the seven special agricultural species of the Land of Israel, and don’t forget Moses’ spies returning from scouting the Promised Land with a huge cluster of grapes. The Hebrew word for wine, ya’een, is mentioned 141 times in the Bible!

Moreover, wine was widely consumed by all ancient Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent peoples; Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans alike. The alcohol in the wine killed the bacteria in the otherwise fetid water they drank. The wine was diluted with water and due to its short production time, contained only around 4% alcohol.

Romans believed wine to be an essential daily necessity and made it available for everyone: slaves, peasants, legionnaires, women and aristocracy.  In fact, Roman citizens (and Jews) consumed a liter of wine per day!

Therefore, as the Jewish and Roman population of the Galilee grew, so did their need for wine. Lots of it!  Wine production was a major local industry and was exported to the rest of the Roman Empire, providing jobs, giving growers and merchants needed business and trade opportunities.

Hundreds of vineyards were cultivated in the hills of the Galilee, and each vintner needed a place to crush the grapes and ferment the  juice. Theses wine presses, some small enough for one vineyard, others large shared by several vineyards, were carved into the limestone bedrock.

As I was jabbering away to Linda about Galilean ancient wine making, we came upon a couple walking towards us on the trail.

“Are you coming from the ancient wine press?” they asked.

“What wine press? Where? Here?”

And lo and behold, they led us a few paces off the trail to a most magnificent Roman-Byzantine era wine press at the top of the hill, complete with two liquid gathering vats, and a beautiful mosaic covered grape crushing floor.

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Linda and Na’ala wait for me at the newly discovered ancient wine press. The site is dated to Roman and Byzantine times (1st to 6th centuries c.e.)

The grape-crushing platform, carved out of the limestone, sometimes had a mosaic floor like this one

We find hundreds of ancient wine presses in Israel today, from the Negev desert in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. Many of these are located close to my home in the Galilee.

For example, there is one among the ruins of Usha, a village that served as the first Galilean stop for the Sanhedrin in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

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One of the grape juice collecting vats in the wine press complex in Usha, evidence of a large wine making industry in the area

And there is also one located just a few steps from my home, on the Kibbutz Hannaton hill!

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The Hannaton wine press sits atop the hill, overlooking the Nazareth hills in the background

What is even more exciting is that not only does Kibbutz Hannaton have its own ancient Roman-Byzantine wine press, but it is also the home of Jezreel Valley Winery.

My friends Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar followed their dream of reconnecting with the land and renewing the ancient Jewish tradition of wine making by founding a new “start-up” boutique winery that is already winning prizes.

Click here to meet Jacob and Yehuda and hear their story

‘Recently acknowledged by the Terravino Wine competition with a silver medal (RedBlend 2012), the Jezreel Valley Winery wines have already been featured in leading restaurants in Israel with the most discerning wine lists, as well as served to visiting delegations from all over the world.’

I love the fact that Jacob and Yehuda purposefully chose to use grapes with a unique Israeli story for their flagship wine, the RedBlend.

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Argaman variety was developed in the Weizmann Institute in Israel in the 1990’s, making it a ‘sabra’ (Israeli born) grape. Jezreel Valley Winery is the only Israeli boutique winery that chose the Argaman as its main varietal.

The Syrah originates from southern France and is perfectly suited for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

And the Carignan? This Mediterranean variety was introduced to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century, just as the modern Israeli wine industry was in its infancy. It gave high yields cheaply and became the backbone varietal used to make the thick, sweet, sacramental wines produced for so many years by Israel’s major winery, Carmel Mizrahi.

As the Israeli wine industry underwent a quality revolution in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Carignan vineyards were slowly neglected, many of them uprooted and replanted with more sophisticated varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

However, about twenty years ago, vintners noticed that the abandoned Carignan vineyards were yielding less clusters but the quality of the grape had greatly improved. Once abandoned and left to die, the Carignan grapes made an amazing comeback!

The Carignan varietal once used solely for sacramental wines in Israel is now being used to create prize winning, world quality wines. Wow!

Jacob and Yehuda have built Israel’s first successful ‘start-up’ winery, now offering all of us wine and Israel aficionados an opportunity to partner with them in this venture.

Click here to learn more about their ‘start up’

crowd sourcing campaign

The story of wine making in Israel today is a continuation of an ancient tradition, renewing the old, returning to the roots, reconnecting with the land.

L’Chaim !

 

 

 


 

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An Insignificant Hill

An Insignificant Hill

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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.

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    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.

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

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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.

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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!

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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Olives for a Better World

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Rish Lakish organic olive press… your destination

Picture this:

You are in the beautiful Lower Galilee and feel the need to get out to nature and walk among the lovely, green, oak filled  hills… not only that,  you want to end this leisurely hike in style.  Something different, something interesting, something educational and certainly tasty…

Well, do I have a suggestion for you!

Put on your  walking  shoes and head to Ha’Movil Junction, near Kibbutz Hannaton,  where you will pick up the Israel Trail for 4 mile scenic walk towards the village of Tzippori.  At this time of year, the blooming red, white and purple anemones, the wild irises,  wild orchids and lupines are spectacular.

As you walk in the Tzippori forest, you will pass a few ancient wine presses along the way.  As Christianity spread and Christian pilgrims frequented the Holy Land during the Byzantine times (4th – 7th centuries), the local valleys became dotted with vineyards.  The sacramental wine industry flourished and vintners crushed their grapes close to their vineyards, carving wine presses  from the ubiquitous limestone bedrock.

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Rabbi Yehudah Nasiah’s tomb

When you arrive in the village of Tzippori, you will come upon the grave site of Rabbi Yehudah Nasiah, president of the Sanhedrin in Tzippori from 235 – 265 c.e. His tomb is visited several times a year by believers asking for special favors.

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The rebuilt Crusader Church of St Anne

After a short visit to the tomb, one may wish to visit the Church of St. Anne, originally a Byzantine church built on the ruins of an earlier synagogue, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 c.e., rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century, destroyed by the Mamluks and finally rebuilt by the Franciscans in 1879.  Oh, and did I mention the two Argentinian monks who care for the chapel? Complex, I know, but so is this land.

But I have saved the best for last, because now you will end this wonderful hike with a visit to Rish Lakish, an eco-friendly, organic gem.

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800 yr old olive tree

Rish Lakish is a family-run olive press, where hand-picked olives are crushed using ancient and modern methods and their delicate oil extracted to make the most delicious olive oils I have ever tasted. The olives are picked from trees, (some dating back 800 – 1000 years!) surrounding the village of Tzippori and they  produce a variety of high-quality, cold pressed, kosher and organic olive oils.

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The olive press

What is there to learn about olive oil production? Plenty!

  • In order to improve the quality of the olive fruit, the Ancient Romans used to graft different types of olive branches to create new and better breeds.  We still do that today!
  • Olive trees grow in almost every kind of soil, making them the ideal fruit tree. The only soil they do not like is the swamp!
  • Suri olives make oil that is good for cooking; Nabali oil is delicious on salads; and the Rish Lakish specialty, rosemary infused olive oil, is absolutely incredible for cooking vegetables.
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The ‘green’ building was constructed of bales of hay, wrapped in layers of adobe mud. This small window shows one of the bales

The Rish Lakish olive press and small cafe are located in an  environmentally friendly, ‘green building’, that the Noy Meir family built of bales of hay and adobe mud. The menu  includes fresh, organic, vegetarian light meals and mouth watering tastings of their delicious olive oils.  One may purchase their olive oils and olive oil products in their small store, as well.

But best of all, the Rish Lakish olive oil press is involved in Olive Oil Without Borders, a three year project implemented by the Near East Foundation and funded by USAID, whose  subpartners include the Peres Center for Peace and the Palestinian Center for Agricultural Research and Development.  This project aims to strengthen grassroots, cross-border economic cooperation and to promote peace and reconciliation between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, explains the project in this video as he visits Rish Lakish in December of 2012. 

Want to learn more?

The Noy Meir family, Rachel, Micha and Ayalah would love to host you at Rish Lakish. Visits can include organized tours of the olive groves, workshops about olive oil production and ‘green building’ and, a favorite of young visitors, olive picking during the harvest season of  October/November.

Bon Appetit!

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In Search of Kings

I had the rare opportunity this week to visit the ancient city of Samaria (Shomron), the capital of the Kingdom of Israel during the 9th and 8th centuries b.c.e, and the place where King Herod built his city of  Sebaste at the end of the 1st century b.c.e.   This ancient site is located in the West Bank, a few kilometers from the city of Nablus  and usually requires an organized group visit and  special permits.

However, in honor of Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, the new exhibit at the Israel Museum, the archaeological sites related to King Herod were open to all visitors for two days this week, no permits required.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance to see ancient Israelite palaces, walls, Herodian temples and many upturned stones.

I was not disappointed.

It is in a place like Samaria that one can begin to ‘walk the land with a Bible in the hand’, for it is in the 9th century b.c.e. that many events mentioned in the Bible begin to match up with historical and archaeological evidence.

(I Kings 16:23) In the thirty-first year of King Asa of Judah, Omri became king over Israel — for twelve years.  He reigned in Tirzah six years.  24 Then he bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver; he built a town on the hill and named the town which he built Samaria, after Shemer, the owner of the hill.

King Omri built his new capital city from scratch and named it himself.  At Samaria, one can walk through the ruins of Omri’s palace, dating back almost 3,000 years.

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King Omri and King Ahab’s palace in Samaria
9th and 8th centuries b.c.e.

Omri’s son, King Ahab, also ruled from Samaria and also lived in the palace.

(I Kings 20:1)  King Ben-hadad of Aram gathered his whole army; thirty-two kings accompanied him with horses and chariots. He advanced against Samaria, laid siege to it, and attacked it.  2 And he sent messengers to Ahab inside the city 3 to say to him, “Thus said Ben-hadad: Your silver and gold are mine, and your beautiful wives and children are mine.”

Long story short, King Ahab (with the help of God), defeated the nasty Ben-hadad and the Arameans.

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King Omri and King Ahab’s palace

One of the most important finds in Samaria were the Ostraca of Samaria, 64 legible clay potsherds with early Hebrew characters written on them with ink.  These ostraca were found in the treasury of Ahab’s  palace and date back to around 850 b.c.e.

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One of the Ostraca of Samaria dated
to King Ahab’s times

Samaria is mentioned over and over again in the book of Kings, as the Israelites battle the Arameans.  And then, the Assyrians arrive in 722 b.c.e and destroy the city. They exile much of the royalty of the Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrian capital, while many of the Israelites scatter, some to other places in the Assyrian empire, others southwards towards Judah and Egypt and Africa.

According to inscriptions from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad, the inhabitants of Samaria were deported to Assyria.

[the Samar]ians [who had agreed with a hostile king]…I fought with them and decisively defeated them]….carried off as spoil. 50 chariots for my royal force …[the rest of them I settled in the midst of Assyria]….The Tamudi, Ibadidi, Marsimani and Hayappa, who live in distant Arabia, in the desert, who knew neither overseer nor commander, who never brought tribute to any king–with the help of Ashshur my lord, I defeated them. I deported the rest of them. I settled them in Samaria/Samerina. (Sargon II Inscriptions, COS 2.118A, p. 293)

The Assyrians kept peace in their kingdom by transferring whole populations around, placing them wherever they felt they would do the most good and the least harm.  In this way, the Israelites were transferred eastward to Assyria and a new population was brought in to rebuild the city of Samaria.

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Hellenistic tower

When Alexander the Great came by on his conquest of the world, he placed hundreds of Macedonian soldier-veterans here and thereby Samaria became a Hellenistic town.  They built huge, massive, round towers around the city for protection.

In the year 108 b.c.e. the Hasmonean king John Hyrkanus ordered the destruction of the city of Samaria, however, his successor Alexander Yanai seems to have rebuilt it.

And this is how we finally get to King Herod…

Herod built some fabulous palaces and fortifications in Samaria in the year 30 b.c.e.  He chose to dedicate the newly refurbished city to his mentor, Emperor Augustus and named it Sebaste (the feminine form of the Greek Sebastos, which means Augustus).

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The colonnaded east-west street led from the Herodian gates to the marketplace

The city eventually became  a Roman town, complete with a cardo (north-south colonnaded street), decomanus maximus (east-west colonnaded street) and a large forum (marketplace) at the junction where these both met.

The many columns at Sebaste still stand as testament of the city’s grandeur.  It had a large basilica, a theater, an underground aqueduct providing water,  4 kilometers long city walls which encompassed the town, with large  gates and towers.

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The columns marking the forum, marketplace, center of commerce and trade

And, of course, Sebaste had a hippodrome, a stadium for one of Rome’s favorite pastimes, horse racing.

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The Roman hippodrome is outlined by still standing columns in the middle of the agricultural fields

But what impressed me the most, was the Augusteum, a temple to Emperor Augustus, which Herod built at the very top of the city, in the acropolis. This Roman temple was built over  the ruins of the palace of Kings Omri and Ahab.  It was 25 meters high, with huge round columns, large  steps leading to the inner sanctum and a courtyard which surrounded the building.

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This is what the Augusteum looked like

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The massive columns of the Augusteum fell over in the earthquake of 363

The overturned, massive columns that lay silent today were witness to an imperial cult,  an extraordinary Roman city in the heart of the land of Israel, built by a Jewish king who wanted to please a higher Roman power, over the ruins of palaces of  previous Israelite kings…

This land is such a crossroads of history…