My Sincerest Apologies, Eilat

In addition to guiding tours around Israel,  in the past two years I supplemented my income by creating and customizing itineraries for clients of Touring Israel, a luxury private touring company I highly recommend. As I spoke to clients on the phone, custom building their Israel trip itineraries, I would sometimes get the request, “We want to visit Eilat”.

Oh, Eilat. For many of us tour guides, Eilat is like a thorn in our sides. Yes, sunny place, awesome snorkeling, but seriously, it’s a 4 hour drive* from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, way out in the boondocks, southernmost point of the country, no holy places, not much conflict, not much archaeology, no amazing architecture and innovation and therefore we desperately try to convince the first time tourist to drop it from their wish list. Why? Because tourists usually come to Israel for a short time, 7 maybe 8 days, and with all there is to do, to learn, to visit, to experience, to see in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee and Masada, who has time for Eilat?!? No, no, no.

I have visited Eilat but a few times in my life. I remember a trip there at age 8 with my parents, I visited during my army service, sleeping on the beach, I was there with my family on vacations to Israel and I was there a few times as a tour guide. I knew there was ‘stuff’ to do, and I knew Eilat was getting a bum rap. But it is so distant, so out of the way…

Ok, so here is a confession. One of our daughters, who lives in Europe, announced a few weeks ago that on her visit to Israel she would like to see Eilat. My first instinct, of course, was to say “What? No, it’s not worth it, too hot in July, too far away, too touristy, too kitchy, too whatever…” But I held my tongue and as I mulled this Eilat thing over and over, I relented. “Heck,” I thought, “Let’s do like so many Israeli families do, and go vacation in Eilat for a few days.”

So that is what we did. We packed the family in the car and drove the four hours south from Tel Aviv. But of course, this would not be MY blog without some history about Eilat.

Eilat is Israel’s southernmost city and its only port on the Red Sea. It sits next to the Jordanian resort/port city of Aqaba to the east, the Egyptian town of Taba on the Sinai Peninsula to the west and a mere 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the Saudi Arabian border. Though the borders of modern-day Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were established in the mid 20th century, the history of Eilat is quite ancient, going back at least 3,500 years.

The first written mention of Eilat tells of Moses and the Israelites passing by on their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, showing that even back when the Hebrew Bible was written, Eilat was already a known, established place.

And when we passed by from our brethren the children of Esau, which dwelt in Seir, through the way of the plain from Elath, and from Eziongaber, we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab (Deuteronomy:8)

In the 10th century BCE, King Solomon built a great maritime port in Eilat enabling him to trade with Asia and Africa.

And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir (which we believe was the Indian subcontinent), and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28)

Eilat and Aqaba were under Roman army control in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, then came the Byzantines and eventually they were conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century. The Crusaders took Eilat and then lost it in 1187 to Saladin. During Mameluke times (1267 – 1515) the site continued to be an important trading post but later, under the 400 years of Ottoman rule it became a dormant fishing village. In 1917, Lawrence of Arabia, the British spy working with the Bedouins to defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War I, conquered Aqaba and the British built a small police station north-west of Aqaba that sits in today’s downtown Eilat and called it Umm-Rash Rash.

In 1949, during the Israeli Independence War, Israeli forces managed to reach Umm-Rash Rash in a race to establish the borders of the new state. While the new city of Eilat was built in 1950 and helped with the absorption of the vast Jewish immigration to the nascent State of Israel, Aqaba remained in Jordan.

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The British mandatory police station in Um-Rash Rash

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Commemorating the hoisting of the Israeli flag in March 1949

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, Eilat is a touristy beachfront city of about 50,000 people, famous for its fabulous Red Sea coral reefs, the snorkeling and scuba diving, the desert hiking trails and the beten-gav (meaning stomach-back as in when you tan your belly and then turn over to tan your back over and over non stop). Not much else. Or so it seemed to me.

So to Eilat we headed for three nights at a hotel outside of town because I wanted peace and quiet. I also wanted to give us enough time to beten-gav as we needed the relaxation and I was bent on getting it, darn it, and the family granted me the honor of designing a day of touring as well. Yay!

And you know what? We had a GREAT time! Who knew?!?

So this is my ode to Eilat. Here are a few sites and activities I recommend:

THE DOLPHIN REEF(link to their website) A unique site in Israel and throughout the world where visitors can enjoy an unusual opportunity to meet and observe dolphins in their natural habitat. A group of bottlenose dolphins was rescued from the Black Sea and released here about 20 years ago. Their descendents maintain a daily routine of hunting, playing, courting and socializing and are free to choose between human company or their daily life in the open water. The fact that many times the dolphins choose to come close to the trainers and visitors show the true bond created between cetaceans and humans.

Visitors can get an introductory snorkeling or scuba lesson and then take a guided session in the water but are NOT allowed to touch the dolphins. Those not wanting to get wet can enjoy getting close to the dolphins from the floating piers and observation points. My family spent the day at the Dolphin Reef, we relaxed, took a snorkeling session, loved the magnificent dolphins and had a wonderful time.

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My girls getting ready to snorkel with dolphins

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These beauties kept us company as we snorkeled

SNUBA (yes, with an N) is a form of underwater diving that uses what looks like an umbilical cord connected from the diver to a floating raft on the surface that holds the air tank. This is different from scuba diving, where the diver’s breathing equipment is completely self-contained and there is no link to the surface.  The origin of the word “Snuba” may be a combination of snorkel and scuba, as it bridges the gap between the two.  (Snuba in Eilat info)

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Your’s truly and the hubby

My family tried snuba and loved it. We dived about 18-20 feet, were able to check out the coral reef up close and personal and swim with the colorful schools of fish that make this place so amazing.

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We found Nemo!

THE UNDERWATER OBSERVATORY MARINE PARK (Check out their website)

The Underwater Observatory Marine Park offers visitors a rare chance to enter the natural and abundant marine kingdom of the Red Sea. The park has over 800 species of fish, coral, mollusks, stingrays, sea turtles, and other animals from the Gulf of Eilat and a large walk-through shark tank. Very cool! The observatory is a tower situated off-shore, without any fences or cages, with a rare underwater view of the Red Sea, with its bright colors, tones, and the marine life in the Gulf of Eilat. The observation halls are submerged at a depth of 12 meters, giving visitors a natural view of the coral reef’s spectacular beauty through huge plate-glass windows.

Yeah, we liked that too. Put it on your list.

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You can watch the shark and stingray feedings

Ok, enough with the water activities, now let’s see some other places.

HAI- BAR YOTVATA NATURE PRESERVE (Their website)

At a 25 minute drive north from Eilat you’ll find the Yotvata Salt Flats, one of three large salt flats in the southern Arava (the others are the Evrona Salt Flats and the Eilat Salt Flats, from which only a few vestiges remain). Even though the annual precipitation is only 25 mm rain, this is a habitat with a rich variety of vegetation and animals, and that it why it was selected for an amazing restoration project to bring back some of the wildlife that went extinct in Israel and to reinforce endangered species. At the beginning of the 1970s an area of 12,000 dunams was fenced in on the Yotvata salt flats, and large herbivores that had become extinct in Israel were brought in (including a few species that had never been in Israel but were endangered in other parts of the world), among them the Asian wild ass, addax (white antelope), the Sahara oryx (Oryx dammah), the white oryx, the African wild ass and ostriches. In the mid-1980s, another few thousand dunams west of Road 90 were fenced in order to protect the last population in the world of acacia gazelles (Gazella gazella acaciae), a sub-species of the mountain gazelle that is endangered worldwide, and is under constant surveillance.

At the Hai-Bar, one drives the family car on a designated path through the salt flats, watching the varied, gorgeous animal herds in their natural habitat. This family visit was priceless as our car was accosted by some curious ostriches causing us to giggle and laugh until we could barely breath. It is awesome!

 

 

Seeing as we were in Eilat in July for only 3 days (and it was HOT) we briefly visited these sites; the rest of the days we got in some relaxing beten-gav. In the evenings we enjoyed the restaurants and strolled the touristy pedestrian mall with all the Vegas style lights, crowds and commotion.

But there is more to the Eilat region, so even though we as a family did not get to them on this trip, they are still awesome places I recommend:

FUGAROT AT THE EVRONA SALT FLATS

During the early Muslim period in the 8th and 9th centuries, a farming village was established here on the salt flats. Using a technology developed by the Persians sometime in the early 1st millennium BCE, the farmers built a sophisticated irrigation system known as fugarot, or chain wells. It is composed of several vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels which dig east into the aquifer below the Edom mountains. The tunnels become aqueducts and those carried water to a small reservoir that supplied water to the farm. This farm was an important stop on the Muslims’ yearly pilgrimage to Mecca as pilgrims coming from the west needed rest as well as water and food before continuing on their journey.

I find this place fascinating, but will concede that it is mostly for archaeology and history buffs. I have gone down one of the shafts, crawled through the tunnels, marveled at the 1,200 year old irrigation system in the middle of the desert. Yup, loved it.

 

TIMNA NATIONAL PARK

Timna is a wonderful place to discover and explore. First and foremost, it is the site of ancient copper mines, with thousands of ancient mining shafts and the remains of smelting furnaces dating back to the late Bronze and early Iron ages (12th – 8th centuries BCE), when Egypt ruled the land and King David and King Solomon reigned over the United Kingdom of Israel. Archaeological excavations indicate that the copper mines in Timna Valley were probably part of the Kingdom of Edom, however mining continued throughout the Roman period in the 1st and 2nd centuries and then by the Ummayad caliphate in the 7th century.

Not only copper mines, but at Timna you’ll find remnants of ancient Egyptian presence at several archaeological sites such as the Temple of Hathor, goddess of copper miners.

Timna Valley has beautiful geological formations carved out of the stone and sand by eons of water and wind erosion. Although predominantly red, the sand can be yellow, orange, grey, dark brown, or black, and near the copper mines one finds light green and blue in the stone cliffs. The hiking or biking trails are fabulous and it is not uncommon to see ibex herds roaming among the acacia trees and other arid-land vegetation.

To Timna I would go in the winter, spring or fall and camp for a few days to take advantage of the hiking and bike trails, the stars in the desert night sky, the spectacular dawn and sunset colors…

LEOPARD TEMPLE IN THE VALLEY OF OVDA

I am enamored with prehistoric archaeology, and the Leopard Temple, about an hour’s drive from Eilat,  is one of my favorite sites. Would you appreciate standing in a sanctuary used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic site?  I can’t even fathom that number of years of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow. If this wets your appetite, then this a must visit for you.

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Stone outline figures representing female leopards and their ibex prey, life and death

To do it justice, I’ll have to write a separate post about it. The remains of this prehistoric temple just blow my mind. Please read about the Leopard Temple here.

THE BIRD SANCTUARY AT THE EILAT MARSHES

Israel is a major crossroads on the bird migration flyway from Asia to Africa and back and Eilat is the southern-most rest stop. The only overland bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel is a bottle-neck that serves hundreds of millions of migratory birds every year.  The birds flying into Eilat are preparing themselves for the most challenging task of crossing the foodless and hostile Saharan desert for their winter station.

birdsVisitors can explore the different habitats at the Bird Sanctuary and walk along the trails and birding hides. There is a fresh water lake that holds waterfowl, herons, kingfishers and waders, saltpans with flamingos, gulls and waders, saltmarsh with warblers, rare species of sparrows and shrikes, reed beds with crakes and reed warblers and a forest with a wide diversity of species. One can take a guided tour or  explore on their own. Just delightful!  Check out the Eilat Birding Center here

CAMEL RANCH   

And, if you’re already in the Arava Valley and the Negev Desert, why not take a camel trek? The Camel Ranch is a few minutes out of Eilat and the kids will love it.  Their website

HIKING, BIKING, RAPELLING, JEEPING GALORE

Outdoor enthusiasts, listen up: in the winter, spring and fall, don’t miss the myriad trails in the Eilat region, as well as jeep excursions and rapelling adventures. Google these, there are many companies that offer these experiences, or you can do them on your own. Enjoy!

And finally, I hereby convey my sincerest apologies to Eilat. I appologize for ignoring you, I’m sorry for disparaging you, dismissing you without really giving you a chance. Mea culpa. I’m now a changed woman, and I can’t wait to get back down to visit you in the fall.

 

* Ok, for all you purists, one can also take the 45 minute flight to Eilat. However, the total time spent is the same: go through passport control, wait to board, board, fly 45 minutes, deplane, go through passport control and customs, drive to hotel. 4 hours. Ugh.

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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.

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.