Dead Sea Dead

As I was researching an oft asked question about placing stones on Jewish graves, I stumbled on a connection to one of my favorite sites, Qumran.  Qumran, near the Dead Sea, attracts many visitors.  Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the life of the Essenes, and a nice pit stop-on the way to  floating in the Dead Sea all combine to make it worthwhile.  During their visit to Qumran, most pass by the cemetery without stopping, but it gives us clues to one explanation of the contemporary custom.

If you follow my blog, you already know that I like cemeteries.  In Qumran, we find an unusual Second Temple era cemetery, unusual because it is the cemetery of simple, regular folk.  The dearly departed of Qumran were not buried in lavish caves, and no elaborate monuments were erected.  The cemetery here consists of ditches dug in the ground and filled in with stones.  These are not the tombs of the rich and famous that we are used to seeing in Jerusalem.  In other places, nature and neglect erased tombs of simple folk but in  remote, dry Qumran, these tombs remained  preserved.

The casual observer will be hard-pressed to see any sign of Qumran’s cemetery – at least at first.  As we turn off the paved path, I ask people to please try to refrain from stepping on any stones.  We walk east through what could be any Judean desert landscape – that is to say, rocks EVERYWHERE.  And then we stop, and look hard.

“See that group of stones?  That’s a Jewish grave.  And here’s another parallel to the first.  And another.  And another.”

qumran-cemetery-burialsWithin a minute, one realizes that he is in a cemetery with hundreds of graves. One-thousand one-hundred graves have been identified, each marked by a mound of stones.  These are 2000 year old grave-stones, literally.  Before there were headstones, these piles of stones marked the location of the grave and kept wild animals out.  Through the normal course of time and nature, some stones would disperse.

A 15th century Jewish almanac of traditions quotes a 11th century source which states that Jewish tradition includes placing stones on Jewish graves.  The tradition goes back even earlier when a visitor to a grave had a responsibility to maintain it.  That included replacing the piles of grave-stones marking the final resting place of their dearly departed.

The next time you are in Qumran visit the cemetery, and maybe even participate in maintaining an ancient Jewish tomb by (re)placing a stone or two.

Related sites (Second Temple Burial):

  • Dominus Flevit Church
  • Absalom’s Pillar
  • Sidonian Caves in Beit Guvrin National Park


Take Out the Trash, Please

As much as anything else, the production of trash marks human lives.  What we dump in the trash tells quite a lot about who we are and what our lives are like.  Digging through trash from the past gives us a snapshot into ancient life. trash

This last year, excavations have been targeted not at the random items left behind in the ancient sites of Halutza and Shivta, but rather at organized dumps from the past.  These Negev strongholds had central areas for dumping trash which were located at the edge of town. Within these dumps, exist archaeological layers.  If we look at the heydays of these cities, late Roman through Byzantine eras, we see an abundance of trash, as one would expect in a large, sophisticated society.  Especially interesting is the appearance of different pottery types and sources.

The trash during the late Roman through the early Byzantine era (until 450 C.E.) included pottery from the area of Aqaba (Eilat) on the the Red Sea.  There was a special kind of pottery produced there for storing rations for the 10th Roman Legion which was stationed on the Red Sea.

As the Byzantine period continues, we see this Aqaba pottery disappearing when the 10th Legion disperses.  In its place, Gaza ware comes onto the scene.  This type of pottery which was imported from the Mediterranean coast  was very common for storing wine.   Gaza ware was found in the trash heap during the Middle and Late Byzantine periods but not afterwards during the Moslem period, when wine was forbidden according to Islamic law.

Over half of the pottery from the Byzantine period in Halutza was Gaza ware.  Looking around today at the parched landscape, one may incorrectly think that they needed to import pottery because there was no local production.  Byzantine Halutza, however, had its own pottery factory.  Gaza ware was of superior quality and the wealthy Negev cities could afford to have the best storage for their wine.

This wealth is evident by the remains of foodstuffs found in the trash.  The Halutza populace was eating fish from the Red Sea and mollusks from the Mediterranean, attesting to the high socioeconomic level of Middle and Late Byzantine Halutza and Shivta.

At the end of the Byzantine era, for reasons which are as yet unconfirmed, the Negev cities become slowly depopulated.  During their slow demise, the people living in Halutza and Shivta stop taking their trash to the dump.  In my mind I think about the decline in Detroit.  When a population moves out and becomes impoverished, their trash accumulates nearer to their homes.  We find that in Shivta, the residents of this slowly failing city start dumping their trash in their neighbors’ abandoned homes and cease to use the municipal dump.  Turns out  what is thrown out and where it is deposited can say something about history.  We are creating an archaeological record when we tell our kids, “Please, take out the trash.”

Ordinary People

As part of some research I am doing for a friend, I came across Chaim and Rachel Mittleman, two ordinary people.  Someone in their family thought to video Chaim telling the story of his life and his coming to Israel.  Their story is touching, because it is the story of ordinary people.  Most of us go through life as ordinary people, and yet, most stories which are preserved are not of ordinary folk.

Yesterday, I stood at the base of the steps leading into Jaffa from the sea.  I tried to imagine myself as Rachel Mittlemen, just arriving from Poland in 1924.  She arrived as I did, pregnant, and driven by a dream.  I don’t know much about her life, and the snippets I do know are through her husband Chaim’s words.

She was the most beautiful girl in Lubartow, Poland, and when Chaim returned, broken, from the front, he wooed her.  Her hand was not to be won by just anyone, but rather by one who would follow her to the end of the world, to Palestine.  Chaim was not a Zionist, but a well-respected carpenter like his father.  Whether it was because of her beauty, or because of Chaim’s father’s brutal murder on the road outside of Lubartow at the hands of non-Jews, Chaim agreed.   I  don’t know what drove Rachel to make this condition.  Was she a Zionist, believing in an ancient promise? or a sufferer like Chaim  of a repressive present?  The two set out and because Rachel had a cousin living in Jaffa and Chaim had a trade, they were able to receive visas from the British to come to Palestine.

When they drew near to the Port of Jaffa, Chaim tells of his wonder in new sights and new people, new lold-jaffaanguages and new challenges.  Rachel silently gets off the boat and stands with her future ahead of her and within her.

I hear the story through Chaim’s words and think of her – a simple person, one of the many anonymous personalities living and building quietly, raising families.  But anyone who makes the journey, deciding to pick themselves up from one place and move to the Land of Israel, driven by an ideal, can relate to Rachel and see themselves in her.

On Yitzchak Sadeh Street in Tel Aviv, there is a building which bears a simple plaque attesting to Chaim and Rachel Mittleman building a house there.  A simple plaque memorializing simple people and simple acts.  Those of us whose simple acts build up the country can see ourselves in their story.  And as I stood at the foot of the steps leading from the sea into ancient Jaffa, it was Rachel Mittleman who ascended with me.

Dreams of our Fathers

Our ideals lead to dreams and actions, but not always to actualization.  Israel Beck was born in Bardichev, Ukraine in 1797.  He moved to Israel and settled in Tzfat in 1831 where he opened a printing business. His medical books were picked up by the Egyptian ruler, Ibrahim Pasha, who was suffering from a high fever.

After the Tzfat earthquake in 1837 destroyed Israel Beck’s printing press, and in appreciation for his books, the Pasha gave Beck his blessing to found a Jewish farming community on Jabal al-Jarmaq, Mt. Meron.  This was the first Jewish settlement founded by Jewish immigrants in the Land of Israel in modern times. The new agricultural settlement attracted a group of about 15 Jewish families..

Unfortunately, Ibrahim Pasha, Israel Beck’s friend, fell out of power, and the renewed Ottoman leadership did not allow for the Jewish community of Jarmaq to continue.  Like today’s tragedy with the families of Amona, it was government and narrow interest groups which were the end of Jarmaq’s Jewish community. Hurvat Beck on Mount Meron

Israel Beck moved with his family to Jerusalem in 1841. He writes recalling Jarmaq:

“There were in the village, gardens and orchards, but now there is nothing but forest and large rocks…I built houses in which to live, I made gardens and planted fields, and within the year, satisfied myself with the grain of the land.  In the second year, I had cows and flocks, 6 sheep and 6 goats, horses and donkeys, and with God’s help, I observed the sabbatical year in detail.  Also all the commandments of the land, I observed in a heightened way.  My house was open wide and God’s blessing was on all the works of the house and the field, even though this is not a place of planting because of the numerous rocks.  Even so, I worked hard and God was my helpmate.  Numerous difficult factors came upon us in 1839 because of the terrible war between the Turkish sultan and the Egyptian Pasha, which, because of them, forced me to leave this pleasant village and go to Jerusalem.”

His children and grandchildren, however, raised listening to their father and grandfather, received his Living Will and continued Israel Beck’s mission to rebuild the land.  His son, Nissan Beck, famous for the Tiferet Israel synagogue in Jerusalem, also built the first Hasidic community outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Batei Nissan Beck, near Damascus Gate.  Israel Beck’s grandson, Shimon Rokach, was among the founders of Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa.

Israel Beck never moved from within the Old City once he arrived, and lived out his days in Jerusalem.  His settlement on Mt. Meron stands until today a ruin and a monument to his dream.  His contribution can be best expressed not by that heap of rubble but by his dream. Building the Land of Israel lay beyond the grasp of Israel Beck, yet it was achieved through those who sat at his feet and understood their role in continuing his dream.

Last of a Line

People tend to think that tomorrow will be like today.  It is very difficult to predict the end of an era unless there is a clear end point.  Most crises hit on random Tuesday afternoons when we are least expecting them; and just like that, one era finishes and we walk into the next.

gargiliusGargilius Antiquus certainly didn’t take the job of Roman Prefect of Judea knowing that he would be the last.  This life-long Roman politician was unknown in the history of Judea until January 2016.  While conducting an underwater archaeological expedition near Tel Dor on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, scientists found a Roman base which names  Gargilius as the Roman prefect of Judea.

Dor was an ancient city which stood on a small headland just north of a protected inlet on the Mediterranean.  The first Canaanites settled in Dor in the Bronze Age.  For the next 3000 years, this space would continue to be occupied.  It was under the influence of the Phoenicians during the Iron Age – one of a string of coastal towns.

During the 5th century B.C.E.,  an alliance between the Athenians and the Egyptians to protect their trade route saw Dor separated from the larger Phoenician centers to the north, to become a Greek outpost.  When the Romans took over the cities of Phoenicia, Dor was again included with them and absorbed into the province of Syria; it was not part of the province of the Jews, Judea.

At the end of the 1st century C.E., Dor was transferred to the Jewish province of Judea.  Could it be that the Jews fleeing revolt and destruction in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. settled in more far-flung places like Dor and made them more “Jewish”?

The statue base which was found at the bottom of the ancient harbor and its 7 lines of text provide a link between Judea, Gargilius and the office of Roman prefect.  Such a base could have helped to cement the inclusion of the city of Dor in Judea in the eyes of the population.  It is like a billboard which says, “Hey! You’re part of Judea now and Gargilius is your ruler.”

The period when Dor was under the Prefect of Judea was short-lived. After the Bar Cochva revolt in 135 C.E., Hadrian eliminated the prefects of Judea.  He changed the name of the region and absorbed the former province into the province of Syria.

There was no way for Gargilius Antiquus to know that he was to be the last prefect of Judea; and his forgettable reign  sank to the bottom of the sea, as did the recently found testament to his term.  Although Hadrian tried to erase Judea, even the sea brings forth signs of Judea, the land of the Jews.

Board Crusaders

“I’m bored,” is a phrase uttered by children and a thorn in the side of many overwhelmed parents.  How can children be bored when there is always so much work to do?  When my children told me they were bored, I answered, “Excellent!  That is your brain signalling you to do something else.”  Of course, if they needed suggestions, I was happy to supply them with any number of household tasks. They usually, when faced with the choices, were able to busy themselves, very often with games.  We are a family who loves their games and in that sense are not much different from Crusader knights.  It’s amazing that in the modern world of computers, ample free-time, and massive technology that people still get bored.  How much more knights stationed at the Crusader fortress of Montfort.  I have written before about Montfort here, but I want to focus on the lives of the knights and the governor who were stationed here as seen through archaeological finds.

Montfort defended nothing, is surrounded by no farmland, and is located on no road.   Despite this relative solitude, it was built to the highest standards of luxury for its time.  The head of the Teutonic order, for which it served as a base, lived here and tried his best to stay out of the way of the Italians and Hospitalliers in Akko.  There was nothing to do here, and surely the knights were bored.  Recent archaeologic finds give us some answers to what the residents of Montfort did with their time.

Many pig bones were found among the castle ruins.  Were some of their eating habits linked to boredom?  Perhaps.  One of the remains left by Crusaders in all of their castles was a large refectory or dining hall, where Crusaders could gather and whittle away the hours.  We know that unlike the Jews and the Moslems, pigs were enjoyed thoroughly by the Christian Crusaders.

Another finding from Montfort is a Nine Men’s Morris game board. This game was invented at least 1000 years before the Crusaders during the Roman period.  Although it is a solvable game, it is complex enough to take some skill to master.  Nine Men’s Morris isn’t a long game and so can be finished rather quickly if duty calls, which would make it attractive to knights keeping watch. It was a board game for bored Crusaders.9mens-morris

I tend to think that people in the past are pretty much like people today.  It is interesting that Crusaders living 800 years ago in today’s Upper Galilee region turned to games to fill time and connect to others similar to how my family uses games today.

And playing games has always been much more fun than dusting.

Nearby sites:

-Akko Knights halls
-Park Goren
-Yechiam fortress

Looting Masada

One of my favorite sites is Masada.  The drama of the story and the messages coupled with the extensive archaeological finds and the desert landscape make Masada a “must see” on most tourists itineraries.  So, it was with much excitement that I approached a recent paper by archaeologist Steven Garfinkle titled “Roman Military Adventurism and the Fall of Masada.”  Dr. Garfinkle has a unique angle on answering some of the pesky technical questions which are asked at Masada.

Why did the Romans bother with such a small group of Jews left on Masada?  About 1000 Jews lived on Masada during winter 73 C.E.  This number does not present a military challenge, especially when only about 250 were fit to be fighters.

Why did the Romans commit so many troops to the battle? Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian who provides us with the narrative of Masada, states that as many as 15,000 trained and battle-hardened soldiers came to Masada for the battle.

Why did the Romans build such an extensive siege camp?  The camp includes a siege wall 4.5 km (2.7 miles) in circumference, 8 separate camps for soldiers, and a siege ramp. masada-ramp

According to Garfinkle, these questions can all be answered by looking at Masada from a different perspective.  Josephus encourages us to look at the Masada battle from a Jewish perspective – the last remnant from a destroyed Jerusalem facing off against the most powerful army of the time.  Garfinkle looks at the situation from the Roman general’s perspective.  War is expensive.  After putting down the Jewish rebellion and destroying the Temple, the Roman army sought to “mop up” what was left and collect the spoils from any lingering Jewish community in the area.  A refugee is likely to take his most valuable possession with him.  Masada, home to nearly 1000 refugees and the administrative center (and treasury) of the rebels, was a profitable target.

According to Roman military law, the spoils from a town which surrenders, go to the commander; whereas a city which is sacked, has its spoils taken by the individual soldiers.  The Roman general, Silva, therefore has a vested interest in the Jews’ surrender.  To this end, he brought many soldiers and built impressive siege structures in order to scare the Jews into giving up.  Silva’s greed is why the soldiers, after breaching the wall, do not ascend to the summit at night as it would be hard for Silva to monitor the collection of spoils under the cover of darkness.  Because there are no Jews left to battle in the morning, it is not counted as a sack but rather a surrender, and therefore any spoils found must go to Silva.  From the Roman perspective, this is just another looting mission to line the pockets of the Roman general.

Exploring different perspectives adds another layer to the complex story of Masada and offers some answers to questions which arise from the narrative.

Nearby sites:

  • Herodian
  • Mt. Sedom
  • Dead Sea


Leaving Home

Archaeology is, in many ways, the guide book for leaving home. As the song reminds me, “There must be 50 ways to leave your lover,” so too, there are many ways that people left their homes. A unique example has been examined for the past 2 years by archaeologists studying Shivta in southern Israel.

Although we have pottery evidence from the 1st century C.E. of a Nabatean Spice Route town, the earliest buildings in Shivta date to the 4th century C.E.  This era saw the transition of the Roman Empire from pagan beliefs to Christianity (what we call today the Byzantine Empire).  Under the Byzantines, Shivta grows into an agricultural city and a stop for pilgrims on their way to St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Peninsula
Some things changed in this formerly thriving Negev town between the 7th and 9th centuries C.E.  We don’t know whether it was plague, earthquake, climate change (an earlier climate change in the Negev is here), conquest or internal changes, but during those 300 years, Shivta went from a bustling city to an empty ruin.

During the 7th century C.E., the city begins this change and many areas were abandoned.  Those optimistic residents cannot believe that the hardships which are forcing them from their homes will be long-lived.  They block off the entry ways to their homes, with the hopes that when times get better, they will be able to return, reclaim and reoccupy them.  Not every home is abandoned at once and there is no mass exodus.  The decision to leave is one that is made on a family level.  We can only imagine the enormity of abandoning one’s home for an uncertain future.

What were the pressures affecting each family’s decision?
How did they justify their decision to their friends and neighbors?
What drove their hope for return?
How did the families who stayed behind feel about their neighborhood emptying out?

The parallels in the modern world are plentiful.  Whether you think about Syria or inner-city Detroit, decisions made by individuals to abandon their residences or to remain in an increasingly hostile area are some of the hardest to make.

Shivta survives Islamification in the 8th century  but after about 100 years, whatever forces started the decline and the compounding forces of a collapsing city, claim the last residents.  Shivta is filled with boarded up houses and hangs out its “closed for business” sign in the 9th century C.E., never to return.

There are many ways to leave home; but here, in Shivta, is a haunting example of a heartrending way – leaving begrudging and with an unrealized hope for return.  Today, Shivta remains one of the most remote national parks in Israel; its isolated location only compounds the questions surrounding her flourishing life and spiraling demise.

Nearby sites:

  • Ramat Negev Desert Agro-Research Center
  • Ramat Negev Winery
  • Ben Gurion’s Tomb

Chalcolithic Climate Changes

Climate change is a hot topic today.  How is man impacting his environment and what can we expect in the future if the current trends continue?   Deep in the heart of the Negev comes evidence of another climatic change from pre-historic times.

The Chalcolithic era lasts from about 5500-3300 B.C.E. in the area of Israel today.  Chalcolithic means copper/stone and marks the transition between the technology of the stone age and that of the bronze age.  During Chalcolithic times there were many settlements in places which today are considered the fringe of civilization.  The Negev region is one of them.  In June 2016 as part of road works extending Rt. 6 to Shoket Junction, there was a discovery of a Chalcolithic settlement in a region which today has less than 200 mm of rain per year.  That little amount of rain is not even enough to support wheat, and so could not provide a community’s food needs.  The dig in this location uncovered a Chalcolithic agricultural settlement as indicated by its grain storage pits which existed through all 4 layers of settlement.   If it was an agricultural settlement, this is a sign that at that time there was more rainfall than there is today.

Not only grain pits were found but also water cisterns for catching flood waters from Nahal Hebron were found at the site.  During one period the entire site was covered by a layer of loess from Nahal Hebron indicating a much wetter climate where alluvial material to a depth of 1-1.5 m was deposited over the site.  After this period, the cisterns got even larger necessitating steps.  Buildings during this time were made of mud bricks, just like those found from the same time period at Tel Sheva; mud bricks can only be made if there is abundant water.  However, during the latest settlement period, the cisterns were filled in and the settlement drastically shrunk in size.

What led to the collapse of this settlement and others like it in the Negev during the Chalcolithic time?  Does the filling in of the cisterns show a lack of water?  And if the climate changed and caused the abandonment of the settlement, what caused the change? Besides learning about the past, studying these climate changes can help us to understand what may happen if we experience a drastic climate change as perhaps the people of ancient Shoket junction did. negev-water

Nearby sites:
  • Tel Beer Sheva National Park
  • Yatir forest
  • Lakia Bedouin crafts

2% Cave Men

Israel has always been a bridge between cultures.  Its unique location between Europe, Africa and Asia positioned it at the center of transportation and exchange of goods and ideas.  This function goes way back to prehistory.  In the last few years, paleo-archaeological sites in the Negev are reaching back into time to uncover a colossal meeting between Neanderthals and homo sapiens (modern man).

Scientists believe that Neanderthals were being forced out of Europe because of environmental changes.  At the same time, sub-Saharan African homo sapiens were spreading out and heading north.  The exact route of these journeys is hard to determine exactly.  The only remains that were found in the Negev to date are their technologies so its hard to create a narrative of their meeting.  Genetics today shows that 2% of non-sub-Saharan human DNA comes from Neanderthals, so there must have been some sort of contact.

flintThe Negev would have been a rich source of flint for spear heads for early man.  Today, even the casual visitor comes across areas of concentrations of flint shards on the ground.  Careful examination of the technology involved in forming spear heads and their shape provides a clue into what this meeting between Neanderthals and Modern Man looked like in the Negev and whether it occurred here at all.  A recent archaeological dig in Boker Tachtit, within the National Park of Ein Avdat, aims to look into this past.  At the site are 4 layers of human settlement between 55,600 and 42,850 years ago.  The results are still being examined at Weizmann Institute in Rechovot.  Next time you are hiking in the Negev and you come across a seam of flint, look for shaped stones and wonder whether this was shaped by a Neanderthal, a homo sapiens, or like most of us, someone who has some of both.

Related Sites:

  • Ein Avdat
  • Ein Ekev
  • Weizmann House and Institute