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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.