A makhtesh… a what? A makhtesh!

As we continue in my series of posts on the beautiful Negev, we arrive at the point where we need a short lesson in geology.  I know, not all of us love geology, so I promise a short and easy-to-understand explanation.

The Negev cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the unique and fascinating geological processes by which it was shaped and formed.

One of the  extraordinary landforms of the Negev is the makhtesh, of which there are 3 in close proximity, all very similar in their characteristics and all formed in essentially the same way. The geology lesson begins here, as we try to understand the makhtesh

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A makhtesh is sometimes translated as a ‘crater’ but that is misleading, as craters are usually created by volcanic eruptions or meteorites hitting the Earth’s crust.  A makhtesh is none of that… it is a  geological formation unique to the Negev and the Sinai, created by erosion, the slow process by which soil and rock is removed by wind or water flow, then transported and deposited somewhere else.

It all started hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth’s crust was repeatedly covered with layers of sediments.   For millions of years,  these sediments would be of tiny grains  of sand, made up of quartz and feldspar and other minerals  eroded away from massive granite mountains that had been created by magma emerging to the surface of the Earth.  These sand deposits eventually hardened and became different types of sandstone.

Then, with shifts in the tectonic plates, the area would be covered by an ancient ocean for millions of years, and  skeletons and shells of billions of marine creatures would sink to the sea floor, laying layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3 for those chemistry inclined), eventually creating limestone and chalk.

This geological process repeated itself over and over again. Hard limestone layers and soft sandstone layers, accumulating on top of each other over the millenia.

Stay with me, it gets better.

The Negev (and most of the areas of Europe and the Middle East) was covered by an ancient body of water called the Tethys Sea about 100 million years ago. As it began to  recede,  immense geological pressures started pushing and  shoving the terrain into folds, eventually becoming mountain ranges that  all extend in the same direction,  from the southwest to the northeast.  These ranges are clearly visible today and reach from the Sinai to the southern Dead Sea.

רשים מכתש1As the folds, now mountain ranges,  began to rise, deep cracks were created in the top hard limestone.

Rainfall found its way into these cracks, and over time made them deeper. As the cracks became bigger, the water reached the deeper sandstone layers and began to erode the sand away.תרשים מכתש

The harder top layer of limestone eroded slower, the softer sandstone underneath eroded faster, and over several million years, a large cavity in the ridge formed,  and voila… a makhtesh!

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The Makhtesh HaKatan is a beautiful site, an almost perfect bowl,  carved into  the colorful sandstone of the Negev. It is still drained by only one stream and has attained a balance of sorts,  not growing and not shrinking.

It is the smaller of the three makhteshim in the Negev and the first you should visit in order to fully understand this geological phenomenon.

Sitting on the edge of this beauty is quite breathtaking.

This makhtesh is only accessible by foot and walking its many hiking trails is an amazing experience.  The sandstone walls are gorgeous, painted different colors by the amount of oxides in the sandstone; iron makes red, copper makes green, manganese makes orange… there are also browns and purples and whites and yellows, quite a kaleidoscope of colors.

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We will visit the other two makhteshim and go on other Negev adventures in my upcoming posts.

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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…

Jewish Continuity

Every once in a while you come upon a place that moves you in inexplicable ways.  Its not its beauty, nor its history, or its people or the food… its the combination of it all that makes you pause and think  “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this place!”

Well, Pki’in is one of those places.  This village of about 4,500 inhabitants lies high above the Pki’in Valley, the geological divide between the Western and Central Upper Galilee in Northern Israel.

The mountainous Upper Galilee has always been somewhat remote, more so in the past, where those who wished to get away escaped to in their time of need.  Many found refuge in these gorgeous mountains and their out-of-the-way villages; Jews, Druze, Muslims and Christians.

The Rashbi’s cave – not much space for two people for 12 years + 12 months, but its a good story

The Talmud tells the story that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) hid here with his son Elazar as they escaped the wrath of the Romans after the Bar Kochba rebellion of 135 ce.  They lived in a local cave for 12 years, where the Rashbi composed his famous kabbalist work, the Zohar, and were fed by a secret spring and a carob tree.  Elijah the Prophet came to tell them of the death of the Roman emperor and to encourage them to emerge.  However, as they looked around and saw that the village people were going about their daily business, they complained and became very annoyed and in return for their arrogance, were punished by being commanded to return to the cave for an additional 12 months.

And yes, you too can pay a visit to this legendary cave! Follow the signs down the hillside stairs and with LOTS of imagination you can re-enact the whole story…

Archaeological evidence  shows the first permanent settlements here began during the Iron Age (circa 1000 bce) and the first recorded Jewish inhabitants begin to arrive towards the end of  Second Temple times (1st century ce).

As a matter of fact, what put Pki’in on the map, so to speak, was that very Jewish presence…  In the early 20th century, as Jews started returning to the land of Israel, trying to build their Zionist dream, a call went out to document continuous Jewish presence in the land for the last 1800 years, from the exile of the Jews till the 20th century.

A lovely, colorful, picturesque village

Yitzhak Ben Zvi, a historian who later became the 2nd President of the State of Israel,  leads a research project to find these pockets of Jewish continuity. He believes that the obvious choices would be Jerusalem, Safed, Jaffa, Nablus, towns with hundreds of years of Jewish presence. However, he soon realizes that none of the bigger cities qualify, since at one point or another, Jewish people were forbidden from living there.

Turns out that only two places had a continuous Jewish presence for 1800 years, the southern Judean hills, around Hebron and Arad and the small villages of the Eastern Upper Galilee, such as Pki’in.  Ben Zvi decides to concentrate on Pki’in because in the early 1920’s, it still had a small Jewish community.  (In 1931, the British census counted 52 Jews living in Pki’in among its 799 inhabitants).

In 1922, Ben Zvi publishes a research paper called “The Jewish Community of the Village of Pki’in” and in it he declares that Pki’in was indeed a symbol of Jewish continuity in the Land of Israel, a symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness.  Pki’in receives instant celebrity status, and becomes a pilgrimage destination for youth organizations, school field trips and curious travelers.

The village center square, where the ancient spring still flows

Whether Yitzhak Ben Zvi was correct in his assertion that Pki’in has had a continuous Jewish presence for over 1800 years is still controversial, and adds to the mystique of this place.  However, we do have the writings of Italian Rabbi Moses Basola, who traveled to Jerusalem from 1521-1523  and on his way documented his meetings with the Jewish people of Pki’in.

Pki’in’s first Druze inhabitants arrive around 900 years ago with the birth of their new religion and its dispersal around the the mountains of the Galilee and the Golan.  The village’s first Christians arrive in the 14th century.

Margalit Zeynati, Pki’in’s last Jewish resident

Life  in the Upper Galilee during the 19th century was harsh and many of its inhabitants, including the Jews, leave for better pastures. In 1900, only twenty Jewish families remain in Pki’in and after WWI the number dwindles to around twelve.  During the 1936-1939 Arab rebellion, the Jews are evacuated and only three families return.  As of 1949, the Zeynati family is the only Jewish family left in Pki’in, desperately clinging to  hundreds of years of Jewish continuity in the village.

Today, Pki’in is a mixture of cultures, 70% Druze, 28% Christians, a few Muslim families and one Jew… an elderly woman named Margalit Zeynati.

Margalit is the sole remnant the Zeynati family. She has been taking care of the ancient Jewish sites and the synagogue for years, and now she is tired. Very tired.

She has never married and has no children.

Now what?  Who will keep the doors of the synagogue open? Who will sweep the courtyard and welcome the tourists with large tubs of berries from the overgrown tree?

Will this really be the final chapter of  the ‘symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness’ of Jewish continuity?

Kinda breaks my heart… I am sure Yitzhak Ben Zvi is quite upset as well.