It’s hard to get a “Wow!” out of my kids. One of the detrimental aspects of being a child of a tour guide is that you go to so many amazing places and have so many experiences that sometimes you become immune to exceptional sights. So, this week, when Asaf said, “Wow!” I was a bit taken aback. We had decided spontaneously to visit Tel Ashkelon – a gem on the southern coast of Israel, after a particularly trying day at the end of a particularly trying week. What elicited his reaction was one of the hidden gems in the south.
Tel Ashkelon doesn’t make it onto most itineraries for tourists. This national park has been developed mostly for Israelis with ample picnic areas where you can have a cookout, and a manicured beach with a lifeguard for the hot summer days. Less well known, this national park, however, also has much to offer for those who are interested in history and archaeology.
On the way to the national park, we drove through fields of green – this is the fertile season in the Negev – which provided agricultural goods throughout history for the residents of Ashkelon and for export. One specialty item grown around Ashkelon was a special kind of onion which grew well in the sandy soil. This onion became so ubiquitous in the city that it became known as the Ashkelon onion. You may call it a scallion – hiding within its modern name the city of its origin.
What did Asaf find so amazing at Tel Ashkelon? Here within the national park is the world’s oldest mud brick arched city gate. Built around 1850 BCE by the Canaanites who ruled this city-state, the arch is part of a sea gate complex leading from the harbor into the city. The steep slope leading up to the city gate is only outdid by the glacis (sloped wall) that was built around the city to protect it. It’s hard for us to conceive of this period of time. It’s the time that Abraham traveled from Haran to Israel, touring and finally settling in Be’er Sheva. Abraham could have walked through this gate, although we don’t have any written record of him visiting Ashkelon or any city on the coast.
Amazingly, this gate was only in use for 250 years and then buried; perhaps this is the reason that the mud bricks survived for almost 4000 years without eroding or being washed away. Thousands of years later, in the 6th century CE during Byzantine times, a church was built over the ancient gatehouse. All that remains of the church, one of many in the sprawling Byzantine city, is its beautiful mosaic floor.
The gate looks much different now than it did on my first trip here. My interest was spurred by a National Geographic article in the early 2000’s and strengthened when I visited the site as part of my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah in 2002; the gate was barely excavated then. Access was through a fence and scrambling down a sand bank (maybe illegally). I remember pottery sherds strewn about the ground, evidence of the rich history in Ashkelon. Today, with the work of the park service, orderly access is possible even for those with disabilities. All can today enjoy this site and be as amazed by the depth of history here.
The Spring is a great time to visit Tel Ashkelon. Besides the picnic facilities, walking the beach (no lifeguards in the winter so no swimming now), and the rich history, there are beautiful trails along the walls of ancient Ashkelon filled with beautiful red and yellow flowers. There is so much here for everyone, that you can’t help but say, “WOW!”