Tour through southern Israel

And then it was time for the excavations to end. Here’s my final email of that first season, written on July 11th, 2007.

There’s not much more to tell about the dig. On the last few days we swept the whole excavation thoroughly and took photographs. You wouldn’t think how difficult it is to sweep dirt. It won’t ever get totally clean and of course those footprints always have to be wiped out again. I even had my first modelling experience: two of us had to crouch on walls for the official photographs of the dig site. As photographs have to be taken at first light before sunrise we still had to get up early but did not work full mornings. I just saw the first draft of the wall map of the excavation. Seeing it like that makes so much more sense.

On Tuesday afternoon a few of us went for a walk looking at old ruins of a Jewish settlement from the Byzantine period. The most interesting building was the synagogue. Quite a few of the nicely decorated stones have been reused by bedouins for their sheep pens. We also looked at a few tombs. All the time we were watched by a shepherd leading his flock over the newly harvested fields.

As I did not want to go on a tour of some of Israel’s greatest sights, but rather intended to see more of the South, I decided to contribute to the great haze and rented a car. When catching the bus to Beersheba to pick up the car I noticed that most other passengers were middle-aged women. For most of the time I was the only man on the bus apart from the driver. Maybe it’s beneath a man’s dignity to use local bus services. That afternoon I looked at more ruins with plenty of caves and wells. Judging by the reaction of the local dogs not many visitors come here.

On Thursday we finished off quite early on the tell, so I went to Mareshah with two others. A whole underground network of cisterns, columbaria (that’s were the pidgeons were kept for meat and eggs) and processing and storage facilities has been carved in the rock there. It’s really cool clambering from one cave to the next. They have even reconstructed one of the olives presses by adding the wooden parts (which would not have withstood time). And who said showers are a modern invention? Back then you could even shower in a cave with a slave pouring the water into the spout from the other side of the wall. To build the city in the Byzantine era (360 AD onwards) shafts were sunk into the ground to quarry the limestone. This quarry operation resulted in huge bell-shaped caves. Remains of a Roman amphitheatre and a crusader castel and church are also across the road. People from all ages have left their mark.

As I had read a bit about the area, I wanted to specifically see a few sites in the Judean foothills. So on Friday I walked from Tel Goded to Azekah and return. This is all part of Park Brittania, a large recreation area. Unfortunately dirt-bike riders have taken over some of the tracks. Most of the area is now forested so the walk’s not too bad. Over the ages this ridge has been intensely settled. Every kilometre I stumbled upon more ruins hidden in the forest. Some settlements have only been abandoned in the last 100 years, others date from 2000 or more years ago. Not that I can necessarily tell. I came across cisterns, wells, bell caves and even a wine press. It’s also strange to walk up the terraces which have been used over thousands of years to grow crops. Now they start to crumble as they are no longer maintained. Azekah is a prominent hill with a good view over the Elah Valley. Down there David fought Goliath. A stream meanders peacefully through the valley, but the steep hills enclosing it, give it a certain dramatic appearance. Azekah is also well known from the Lachish letters (Babylonian campaign 590 BC). The official sending the letters states that he can no longer see the signals from Azekah which had presumably already fallen under the Babylonian attack.

On Shabbath, I went to Ashkelon. It’s a nice place with a good beach, but I had hoped I would be able to see a bit more of the ruins, especially the Canaanite and Philistine cities. The ruins that stand out the most in the park are from Roman times. In the afternoon I went to the Judean foothills again and explored a bit more. I watched the sunset from Tel Goded and lay down for the night. Only right on top of the tell was the ground sufficiently clear of thistles to spread my mat. Gunfire from a nearby training ground was a bit disconcerting at first but I quickly got used to it. More difficult to ignore were the mosquitos. Even though I had applied insect repellant, they still got me. Bats were flying right over me catching the little things. And when I got up the next morning an owl was gliding silently across the hill. I really wanted to go to Jerusalem on Sunday morning but got stuck in a traffic jam instead. So I explored the Soreq valley a bit. The railway follows the valley to Jerusalem, but there are also plenty of ruins to look at. I even had a few plums growing on the abandoned terraces.

Rather than spend another night with the mosquitos, I decided to go to Jerusalem that evening. Leaving the car in Beth Shemesh I took the train. The bus ride from the Jerusalem station to the old city took longer than the train ride and was nearly as expensive. At least I got a good tour of the new city. I spent a good morning in Jerusalem doing the things I wasn´t able to earlier on, like walking through Hezekiah´s tunnel. Jerusalem is an innternational city and I certainly got to use all the languages I know. In the morning I listened to a few tour guides in Spanish (not always correct) information), at noon I went to prayer at the German Lutheran church where I represented one third of the congregation. And in the afternoon I took an Ecuadorian back to the kibbutz so Spanish was back on. And in an old city like Jerusalem my bits of Latin and Hebrew came in handy, too. On the last day I went to Caesarea and experienced congested Israeli motorways.

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