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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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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Would YOU throw your children down the precipice?

Yes, I know, its quite a bombastic title, and yes, sometimes we do want to throw our children down the precipice… however, kidding aside, would you be able to, under certain unimaginable circumstances,  kill your children?

There have been such times in Jewish history, during times of oppression, violence, pogroms and most recently the Holocaust, when parents have had to take desperate measures, sometimes throwing children from moving trains destined to slaughter, handing over their children to strangers with no assurance of ever seeing them again, suffocating crying babies in order to save Jews in hiding from detection, or killing children to avoid their being raped, enslaved or killed by approaching enemy soldiers…

I cannot imagine being in such circumstances, however, to stand on the hallowed ground where parents took such measures is deeply moving.  Let me take you to one such place…

We are in northern Israel, on the Golan Heights and this amazing site is Gamla.  The year is 67 c.e. and the Jewish revolt against the Romans is in full swing.  Since not all the towns in the Galilee and the Golan are rebelling, Gamla has filled with refugees from other battles and towns, and with zealots who in their blind rage against the Romans  have decided to take on the most powerful army in the world.  Rebel towns are falling one by one, but Gamla refuses to surrender.

Flavius Josephus, who originally led the Jewish rebel forces in the North and fortified the town, describes Gamla in his book The Jewish War:

Sloping down from a towering peak is a spur like a long shaggy neck, behind which rides a symmetrical hump, so that the outline resembles that of a camel; hence the name, the exact form of the word being obscured by the local pronunciation. On the face and both sides it is cut off by impassable ravines. Near the tail it is  rather more accessible, where it is detached from the hill; but here too, by digging a trench across, the inhabitants made access very difficult.  Built against the almost vertical flank the houses were piled on top of one another, and the town seemed to be hung in air and on the point of tumbling on top of itself from its very steepness. It faced south and its southern crest, which rose to an immense height, served as citadel, resting on an unwalled precipice that went straight down into the deepest ravine…

It is clear how Gamla, from the Hebrew ‘gamal’ (camel), received its name

Agrippa II, the local governor,  lays siege on the town for seven months with no luck; the town is still holding out, hunger and desperation prevail.

Vespasian, the Roman general, and his son Titus arrive from Rome to quell the rebellion and make their way to the Golan.  After several attempts at breaching the walls of Gamla, the Roman soldiers break through and the killing begins… rebels, soldiers, women, children, all hell breaks loose in the tight confines of an overcrowded, walled  hilltop town.

Josephus describes the scene:

Despairing of escape and hemmed in every way, they (the Jews) flung their wives and children and themselves too into the immensely deep artificial ravine that yawned under the citadel.  In fact the fury of the victors seemed less destructive than the suicidal frenzy of the trapped men; 4,000 fell by Roman swords, but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5,000.

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The precipice into which children were flung to their death

Never fails to take my breath away.

A walk around Ancient Gamla is a fascinating study of the lives of Jews during Second Temple times.  It includes one of the few Second Temple era synagogues ever found and several mikvehs (ritual baths).  Archaeological digs here also uncovered a treasure trove of Roman arrowheads, Judean coins, armor pieces, pottery, Roman sandals, ballistic projectiles, battering ram pieces, etc.  Some of these finds are beautifully exhibited in the Hecht Museum in Haifa and are certainly worth the visit.

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The ancient synagogue at Gamla, one of the oldest in the world.

Today Gamla is a Nature Reserve which combines  history and archaeology, great hikes, gorgeous ravines, waterfalls, gorges and a walk through a cluster of Neolithic dolmens.

It is also home to dozens of pairs of Griffon vultures who nest in Gamla’s cliffs, and can be viewed from the cliff-edge observation point and visitors’ center.

Do you know the way to… Jerusalem?

Sometimes it is the small, strange twists of fate that determine how history is written and let me tell you, my friends, this Land of Israel has to be the
queen of where quirky events that changed history happened…

Take for example, the road to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for over 3000 years, and a holy pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims for countless generations, is completely surrounded by mountains. Trekking up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain has always been somewhat of a challenge.

There were several ancient roads to the city traveled by Cannanites, Israelites, and Greeks. However, when the Romans, history’s champion road builders, conquered the land, they paved a main road from the city of Lydda (Lod) to Jerusalem. This Roman road was built along a mountain ridge line, thus maintaining a relatively stable grade up to the city.

Today’s Highway 443 follows this ancient Roman road, a comfortable, divided four-lane highway up the Beit Horon grade, past the city of Modi’in and into Jerusalem. Nice and easy. “What’s the problem?”, you ask.

The beautiful Ayalon Valley on the way to Jerusalem

Well, the problem is that even though Hwy 443 is easier, shorter and a more comfortable climb to the holy city, it is not the main thoroughfare, not the main entrance to Jerusalem. Huh? I know, I know.  Strange twists in history.

There was another ancient path on the southern border of the Ayalon Valley, through the narrow Bab al Wad mountain pass, up a mountain, down a valley, twisting and turning in gullies on its route from the coastal plain through the hills, up and down a few more times and into Jerusalem. It is a longer road, a very strenuous ride for donkeys, camels and the travelers who rode on them.

However, this longer, more challenging and perilous path was the road chosen by history to be THE one and probably not by coincidence is called Highway 1 even today.  (Click here to see Hwy 443 and Hwy 1)

And here is why.

It all has to do with a small, controversial detail in an important story from the Gospel of Luke, 24:13-35.  It tells of two men and their meeting with Jesus, exactly two days after his resurrection.

“That day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about a hundred and sixty stadia from Jerusalem…”.

Jesus joins them on their walk but does not reveal his identity, accompanies them to Emmaus, where they eat and break bread together, chat and then go their separate ways. It is only after Jesus’ departure that the two men realize the true identity of the stranger who ate with them.  They then go tell the disciples that they had seen Jesus in the flesh.  The disciples realize that rumors of Jesus’ resurrection had been confirmed and he had risen.  Very important story.

Jesus breaking bread with the two travelers at Emmaus.

However, where is Emmaus? Well, that’s complicated.

Some earlier versions of Luke say “160 stadia”, (a Roman stadium being about 600 ft), and therefore 160×600 ft is about 7.5 miles, putting the event right next to Bab el Wad, the aforementioned narrow passageway on the longer, more challenging route to Jerusalem.  Great! This site was chosen as the Emmaus of Luke.

As the Christian Byzantine Empire took control of the Holy Land (4th century ce), so began the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to Jesus’ homeland and the sites made holy by his actions and sermons.

Let me paint the scene for you:

Christian Pilgrim: Hello my friend, I’ve just arrived by boat from Anatolia. I need a donkey to get me to Jerusalem.

Donkey rental attendant: Sure, no problem. This fine donkey will do, he’s made the trip several times and knows it by heart.

Christian Pilgrim: Great! Will he take me by Emmaus, where my Lord Jesus appeared after his Resurrection?

Donkey rental attendant: Well, actually no, this donkey much prefers the easier route, less time, less hills, less problems.

Christian Pilgrim: What!? Are you kidding me? I have not come all this way to make it easy on myself or the donkey. How can I show my face back in the village if I don’t visit Emmaus? I’ll be taking the long and winding road, thank you very much!

Donkey rental attendant: (sigh) Suit yourself.

Why the long and winding road?!? Why?

There you go folks, that did it. The main thoroughfare to Jerusalem was therefore switched and Christian pilgrims made their way past the village of Emmaus (Hammat in Hebrew, becoming Emmaus in Greek, Neopolis in Latin and eventually Imhaus in Arabic). But wait, there is more…

In later versions of Luke 24:13, the distance from Jerusalem was changed to ’60 stadia’ (scholars don’t know why, misprint?) and latter pilgrims  placed the event at a different location altogether.  Just to be sure, the Crusaders built several citadels on this road to Jerusalem, at Latrun (from the French Le toron des Chevaliers), at Abu Gosh,  and at Aquabella (Ein Hemed).

Through the ages, Christian pilgrims also declared and visited the villages of  Motza and Kubebah as the “Emmaus” of the New Testament, all on this same road to Jerusalem.

So which is the real Emmaus?  It’s all a matter of faith, ladies and gentlemen.

First the Christian Byzantine pilgrims, then Arab Caliphates, Ottomans, British and even present-day Israelis still use this road as the main drag into town.

Today, the government of Israel tries to dissuade commuters from taking Hwy 1, it is often congested, more dangerous and causes great traffic jams at the entrance to the city.  Trucks are not allowed on it in the mornings anymore, big signs recommend switching to Hwy 443 or other newer roads, but many of us still prefer this winding road into the city.

Tradition!

p.s. There is, of course, more to this story, having to do with the Green Line, the Ottomans, the Palestinians, the paving of 1869, today’s political climate, etc.  Great conversation over a cup of coffee.

Tel Afek

As we leave Migdal Tsedek Fortress behind, and move across the narrow Afek Pass, about 2 km wide, we reach the next fortress on our journey. The Afek Pass, this particular point on the Via Maris (the Way of the Sea) was historically swampy and created serious problems for those armies traveling from Egypt to Mesopotamia. On the other hand, it was great for the defenders and one can clearly see the advantage of controlling a fort on either side of the pass.

A little about the history of Tel Afek:

Earliest remains on this site date back to the Chalcolithic period (c. 4000 bce) and the first walled city was established in the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000 bce)

The Egyptian governor’s house

Tel Afek is first mentioned in the Egyptian Execration texts (c. 1900 bce), when this was a fortified city with palaces.  Later, it became a royal Canaanite City and is mentioned in the writings of Thutmoses III, who actually rode his chariot by on his way to attack Meggido!

The remnants of the local Egyptian governor’s palace have been partially excavated and are evidence of Egyptian rule.

The most important archeological finds found here are the clay tablets, inscribed in different languages, Sumerian, Akkadian, Canaanite. What a crossroads this place was!

Some of the archeological finds. On the top left is one of the cuneiform tablets with Akkadian writing

Tel Afek is mentioned in the Bible as the place where the Philistines camped on their way to encounter and battle the Israelites, who camped on the other side of the swamp.  The Israelites lost that battle  😦

The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, then the Umayyads and the Crusaders, all had a hand in creating Tel Afek’s history. And then the Ottomans built a large fortress as well. Oh, and the British built ‘pillbox’ guard towers here to protect the railroad bridges.

What I found most interesting was the close relationship Tel Afek’s historic names have had with the natural surroundings. Water!

The waters of the Yarkon River emerge here and slowly meander 28 km to the Mediterranean Sea, creating the historically important swamps mentioned above.

Afekum = river bed, comes from the Akkadian (Mesopotamia), the international language of those days.  Afik = river bed in Hebrew as well.

Later, during the Hellenistic period, the city was named Pagae (Springs in Greek).

When the Ottomans arrive, they name the place Pinar Bashi (head of the springs in Turkish) and that name was eventually changed to Binar Bashi by the Arab speakers of the area. (Remember that Arabs have no /p/ and change it to /b/).

In more recent times, a town called Ras el Ayin (head of the springs, Arabic), sprung up 🙂 and eventually the Jewish city of Rosh HaAyin (head of the springs, duh! in Hebrew) was built.

The only exception to this water theme was, of course, our dear friend Herod the Great, who went and built a Roman town on the ruins of the Greek Pagae, and named it Antipatris, in honor of his father. Go figure.

Ottoman fortress built right on top of the Roman street stones

However, the Roman Antipatris gives us a few other interesting tidbit:

The Ottoman fortress sits on top of the cardo (the north/south main axis street of the Roman town) and one can walk the same path, touch the same paving stones, as Romans did 2000 years ago. Can you beat that?

Not only that, but the stores that lined the cardo and made up the Roman downtown shopping district are also visible and there is a lovely,  little odeon (small, intimate theater) nearby.

Go shopping downtown, then to the theater… nice. Can’t you just see a pair of young lovers spending a romantic night out on the Antipatris?

The odeon at Tel Afek

Roman shops lining the cardo