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

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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.

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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Apollonia, fortress with a view

So if you’re a Roman or a Crusader or a Mamluk, deciding to conquer some Apollonia real estate is a no brainer.  Not necessarily for the access to the sea or its strategic location on the coast, but mainly for the gorgeous front row view of the Mediterranean in all its glory.  Beach property at its best!

The gorgeous view north from the Crusader castle. The city of Natanya is visible in the distance

The first settlers on this site were the Phoenicians  (c. 600 bce) who named it Arsuf, after Reshef, their god of war and storms.  Their main occupation was fishing for that strange marine mollusk from which they produced purple dye.  Who comes up with these things? Can you imagine that first Phoenician who crushed a poor snail’s shell to little, tiny, itsy bitsy bits to make a dye? What was he thinking?

That little murex snail made the Pheonicians a lot of money and financed much, much travel. They were superb navigators and used Arsuf as one of their many posts on the coast of the Mediterranean.

Remnants of a fancy Roman villa in town. Talk about a view!

When the Greeks arrived (400-100 bce) they renamed the town Apollonia, after  Apollo and in keeping with the theme of gods of sky and storms.  The Hasmoneans followed and then the Romans and the Byzantines. By now, Apollonia was the main port city of the Sharon Plain.

However, the most magnificent archeology left at Apollonia today is that of the Crusaders, who conquered the area in the spring of 1101 ce. They renamed the city Arsour, (a mispronunciation of the Phoenician/Arabic name Arsouf.

A reconstruction of the Crusader Fortress at its best

In 1241 ce the Crusaders began construction of a a fortress in the northern part of town, a magnificent structure with moats and double defense walls and the works.  For 24 years it stood tall, until the Mameluk Sultan Bibars decided he wanted this real estate for himself.

He lay a 40 day siege on the town before it fell.  Bibars then ordered his forces to fill the fortress moat with wooden logs, brought a ramming machine up to the walls, and constantly bombarded the fortress with cannon balls.

A pile of some of the ballistic cannonballs found in the ruins of the fortress

This ballistic diversion gave the Mamluk soldiers time to sit under the covered ramming machine and carve out the stones at the bottom of the fortress walls.  When the stones were removed, the Mamluks lit fires in the wall openings and smoked the Crusaders out.

They had lasted 3 days. So much for a fortified, double walled fortress  😦

The Mamluks took prisoners, destroyed the fortress and it was never used again for military purposes.

Someone should have thought of putting an ancient bed and breakfast here…

Its so lovely. Certainly a beautiful place to visit and enjoy.

The view south from the fortress, with Herzliya, then Tel Aviv in the distance.

Migdal Tsedek Fortress

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

Migdal Tsedek Fortress

Migdal Tsedek Fortress

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

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

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

The one who controls the hilltop, controls the valley

The one who controls the hilltop, controls the valley

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

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

Crusader arches on right, Ottoman arches on left

Crusader arches on right, Ottoman arches on left

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

Room with arches

Room with arches

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

Yours truly and the Ottoman arches

Yours truly and the Ottoman arches

Banias (Hermon Spring) Nature Preserve

Pan's Cave and the flowing Banias Spring

Pan’s Cave and the flowing Banias Spring

As our Israel studies begin, we concentrate on geology and water, the source of life.  The Banias Spring at the foot of Mount Hermon is the perfect place to start our study of Israel’s water resources. It flows over 9 km from its source at Mount Hermon to meet the Dan River and together they become the largest and most important source of the Jordan River.

The Banias Spring forms a beautifully carved karstic cave (karst=openings and underground fissures created when mildly acidic water dissolves limestone), which was venerated and used as a sacrificial site in prehistoric times.

Pagan temples carved into limestone rock

Pagan temples carved into limestone rock

The Seleucids, (a Greek empire from the Turkey/Syria area, home of that nasty Antiochus – we defeated him and got Hannuka) carved a rock temple to the god Pan (half goat-half man, god of shepherds and nature) whom they believed helped them win a great battle here in 200 bce, against their nemesis, the Ptolomaic army.

The Temple of Pan gave  the spring its name – Paneas (Banias in Arabic). The origins of words and place names is fascinating and I see that the lack of the sound /p/ in Arabic and their replacing it with the sound /b/  has created some very interesting twists.  More later…

Several other pagan temples are carved into the limestone facade, including one built to sacrifice sacred goats 🙂

Herod the Great, another one of those nice guys in history 😦 built a temple here in honor of Caesar Augustus.  Not to be outdone, Herod’s son Phillip inherited this area and in 2 bce built his capital Caesarea Phillippi near the spring.  This polis (city) has yet to be fully excavated but the Cardo (main street, north/south axis) is visible.  This allows the imagination of a lover of history to wander… how far does the city extend under your feet? what IS under all that soil?

Caesarea Phillippi has become an important Christian pilgrimage destination as the site mentioned in the Christian Bible, where Jesus awarded Simon Bar Yonah (Peter) his role as leader of the disciples. Jesus is quoted as saying,  “You are Peter (Petrus=rock), and on this rock I will build my church…) (Matt 16:16-19)

Who else hung around the Banias Springs, you may ask?

The Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and of course, the Jews and the Druze, and they all added to the architectural richness of this area.

On a lovely leisurely walk from the temples to the beautiful Banias waterfall, visitors pass a Roman bridge, an ancient flour mill,  ruins of Phillip’s capital city,

Entrance to the palace of Agrippas II

Entrance to the palace of Agrippas II

the gorgeous underground walkways of the palace of Agrippas II, an ancient synagogue and a Byzantine church.

Flowing, gushing springs, abundant greenery, a beautiful waterfall,  remnants of temples and buildings ranging from the prehistoric to the Byzantine, what a wonderful place for a hike and a picnic.