I Came, I Saw, I Conquered

Israel has seen its share of conquerors. History here is littered with a list of one power after another coming in and wresting control, usually through a bloody war. Perhaps no other empire in history is known for their brutal fighting strategies than Rome. At the heart of the Roman military apparatus stood the Roman legion. Ever since the siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., until the 4th century C.E., Roman legions fought the battles and controlled the main crossroads in Israel.

The VI Legion, Legio VI Ferrata (Sixth Ironclad Legion) was one of those legions. They are famous for winning the battle after which Caesar declared to the Roman Senate simply, “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered.” Recruited by Julius Caesar in Northern Italy, they served under Marc Anthony in Syria. After the battle of Actium which cemented Octavian’s victory over Marc Anthony, they served under the new emperor and established their base camp in the Galilee.

In the last year, this base camp of the VI Legion has been uncovered near one of the major intersectionlegiovis in the north, Megiddo Junction. Archaeologists have uncovered the principia, the heart of a Roman military base. All important functions happened here and it served as the legionary commander’s headquarters and the legion’s shrine. In the courtyard stood the legion’s standard, the sacred eagle; and it was the site for the aguere, consultation with birds for omens in preparation for battle. The principia was the site of the treasury, the armory and scribal activity of the legion. Archaeologists found a stone mark at the gate with a dedicatory inscription, including the name Flavius, perhaps alluding to Flavius Silva who was the general in charge of the battle of Masada, in which the VI Legion participated.

Soldiers came to the legion for life; and the camp near Megiddo has signs of day-to-day life. Latrines, a standard of Roman society and found in every large Roman city, were found here, as well as Roman coins, glass, potter, and animal bones (like soldiers today, they probably enjoyed a good barbecue). Death happened in the camp as well and the archaeologists found, inside a man-made cave, a Roman cooking pot with the remains of a cremated soldier.

The camp came to a well-planned end. Towards the end of the 3rd century C.E., during the reign of Diocletian, the Ironclad Legion, Legio VI Ferrata, was deployed to the eastern frontier and the base was decommissioned and dismantled.

The Legion which was famous for “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered” added “I Left” to their legacy in Israel.


Flour and Torah

In a recent article in Segula Magazine about Jews living in Beit Shean (Beisan) before the Independence War, the subject of Jews living in mainly Arab towns pre-state was examined. I looked at statistics of the Jewish population of my home town, Beer Sheva, and found that the statistics were similar: a largely Arab city (population in 1931 almost 3,000) with a very small Jewish population (11) and assumed that the story would be the same. While certain elements of Beer Sheva’s story mirror the situation in Beit Shean, many elements are different.

Firstly, Beer Sheva is a modern town, unlike Beit Shean. The first modern settlement was started in 1900 with the establishment of the town by the Ottomans. The Ottomans wanted to both control and serve the Bedouin community while establishing a military base against the British in Egypt. Interestingly, almost immediately Jews arrived to the town. Among the first residents, arriving in 1901, were 2 Jews who founded a flour mill right on the main street. Unlike Beit Shean’s Jewish population which consisted of mainly Arabic-speaking Sephardim, these two Jews, Yaacov Gordon and Meir Shnaiderovitch, were Ashkenazim. Prior to coming to Beer Sheva, they had worked in the winery in Rishon LeTzion and been fired. Beer Sheva provided them with a second chance to see what they could build up in this Arab Bedouin town.

beer sheva flour mill

Gordan and Shnaiderovitch Flour Mill building today

The Ethics of the Fathers, 3:21, states, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” and this adage was true for the Jewish community of Beer Sheva. The flour mill, pictured, was the focal point of the community, housing at one point a well, a synagogue, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a chicken coop. Bedouin preferred going to the Jewish mill instead of one of the other Arab-owned mills in the town because the Jews set a fixed price for the flour and had superior equipment to grind the flour finer.

Prayers in the community were said in the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Edot HaMizrach styles depending on who was leading and who was attending, as the population was varied.

By 1923, the Jewish community had grown to around 30 people. The population included not only a miller and a butcher, but a teacher, storekeeper, doctor, tailor, shoemaker and even a police man, with their spouses and children. Many of the Jews were related or became related. Each person made a niche, raised and educated families, and created a small Jewish community in the Land of their Forefathers. They were not your typical Zionists and were largely ignored by the large Zionist organizations, receiving almost no help or support.

The Jewish community, and the flour mill, came to an abrupt end with the Arab revolt of 1929. The Jewish population of Beer Sheva fled, and the mill was sold to a local Arab. The Jews did not stay away for long though, as the 1931 census records indicate that there were 11 Jews living in Beer Sheva, rebuilding Jewish life there. The Arab riots of 1936-1939 ended the Jewish community in Beer Sheva and only a few individuals returned afterwards, leaving no signs of Jewish communal life.

There is a legend that during Israel’s Independence War, the remaining Jewish population of Beer Sheva got into a van and fled the city. There were fewer than a dozen individuals. It’s hard to believe today when looking out over the modern city with over 200,000 Jewish residents, that the Jewish life in the modern city started with such a small population. Like its pre-state community, Jews from all over the world make up a patchwork. And like for Gordon and Shnaiderovitch, Beer Sheva offers a second chance and a different kind of Zionism – a unique chance to make something new as envisioned by Ben Gurion.

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is a popular way for non-historians to learn about and relate to the past.  Whether from books like The Red Tent, Sarah, or The Dovekeepers, the world of the ancient Jewish personalities comes into the foreground on a semi-regular basis.  It is no surprise that these stories continue to surface; the bible and ancient texts introduce us to some of the best storytelling ever.

This method of interacting with the biblical text is not modern but ancient.  Ancient biblical fictional stories have been preserved not just in the Agadta – non-legal sections of the Mishna and Gemara – but also in “pop-fiction”.

These stories’ preservation was for centuries a well-kept secret.  Christian monks living in isolated monasteries included within their walls treasures of the past.  Monastic libraries, which are now coming under scholarly scrutiny, include manuscripts  composed during the end of the Second Temple Period but not included in the Jewish or Christian canons.

Pseudepigrapha are texts that were written by Jews in the Greco-Roman period and not canonized in most major religious traditions.  These writings included different genres from wisdom texts to apocalyptic documents to adventure tales.  Most include the casting of a biblical character in these stories or ascribing apocalyptic prophecies to biblical personalities.  The motives behind the authors are also varied.  Some serve to satirize contemporary Jews, some are fan fiction.

Included in pseudepigrapha is the story of Joseph and Aseneth (Osnat), which is based on verses from this week’s Torah portion.  Three copies of this story were found in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert.  The copies were written in the 10th, 15th and 16th/17th centuries but were based on much older texts.  Scholars believe that there was one original written somewhere in the late Second Temple period or late Roman period (2nd century B.C.E. – 4th century C.E.) by a Jewish author.

The basic gist of the story has all the elements of a Danielle Steele novel.  Asenath, daughter of the priest Pentephres, is an idol worshipper and reacts in disgust when her father says he is giving her in marriage to  Joseph – a lowly Israelite.  When she sees him, however, she falls in love and renounces her idols.  Some of Joseph’s older brothers,  Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher (the son’s of Bilha and Zilpa), ally with Pharaoh’s son to kill Joseph and steal Asenath.  When Leah’s sons hear, they fight their brothers and save the happy couple.  aseneth

The story of Joseph and Asenath would have appealed to the Second Temple Jews.  Here we have our hero, Joseph, living outside of the land of Israel in Egypt.  At the time, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Egypt.  Joseph was respected by the Egyptians; he found a balance between his Judaism and modern culture.  The story is crafted within the literary Greek tradition with an unlikely romantic pairing, threats to the hero’s life and a fight between good and evil.

The question remains:  Why did the Orthodox Christian monks save these stories?  They didn’t really see them as Jewish writings but rather as Christian texts since there is no mention of the major external Jewish customs: Shabbat and holiday observance, circumcision, dietary laws or ritual purity.  The Christian monks underscored the ethical concern and universalistic messages without understanding that these are core Jewish values as well.

The Jewish authors of the texts surely cared about those themes.  They also focus on devotion to God and clinging to Jewish traditions.  In order to present Judaism as a sophisticated religion which could be combined with their modern reality, they emphasized ethical aspects rather than ritual ones.  Judaism, besides being a orthopractic religion is not devoid of ethics and philosophy and these Jewish authors 2000 years ago understood how to bring these Jewish ideas to the modern reader.

Water, Water Everywhere

Israel has entered winter. The nights are cold, dipping into the single digits centigrade (30’s and 40’s Fahrenheit) and sometimes during the day it rains. During these colder, damper months it is hard to remember that Israel is now in the middle of a drought. Water issues have been a limiting factor in settlement and a cause of conflict for years. Even in the Biblical text, Abraham has disputes over water. Genesis recounts a tense situation in Abraham’s life:

And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away….And Abraham put seven ewes of his flock by themselves. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewes that you separated?” And he said, “Because of these seven ewes which you will take from me, and it will be a witness that I have dug this well.”

In World War I, Beer Sheva was a target for the British because of the well water there.

Today in Israel, wells are not sufficient to supply the population with water. Israel is forced to turn to other sources, including the development over the last 20 years of desalination.

The first desalination plant in Israel was constructed in the 1950’s for the city of Eilat. There is no fresh water source for this city and if Israel wanted to develop the town into an international port to the east, water was a necessity. The technology of this first plant was distillation, the oldest desalination technique. Distillation was even used in the 1700’s on ships to provide sailors with water. As the quote reminds us, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Distillation is costly, however, and by 1973 Eilat had switched to reverse osmosis, a process which forces salt water at high pressure through a series of filters to remove the salt. They located this plant not on the Red Sea but on above a brackish ground water reservoir. This water source was not as salty as the sea and halved the cost of desalinating Red Sea water.

Desalination remained isolated in Eilat until three consecutive years of drought (1998, 1999, 2000) forced Israel to look for solutions to a water crisis in the rest of the country. Desalination again came on the table. Technology had improved, and a new funding strategy of BOT ventures (build-operate-transfer) lured foreign corporations into the equation. A French company built the plant in Ashkelon, which came online in 2005, at a cost of $250 million with rights to collect revenue for 25 years. This plant was the largest reverse osmosis plant in the world at the time with the cheapest water cost at $0.52 per cubic meter.  The construction of the plant in Ashkelon and 3 other coastal plants  jettisoned Israel into the world scene as a leader in desalination.desalination ashkelon

There are environmental challenges in the production of water through desalination. Chemicals released through reverse osmosis and increased saltiness of the effluent released back to the ocean affect marine ecosystems. The biggest economic footprint, though, is from the energy used by the desalination plants themselves. If the energy used is dirty energy, then the carbon footprint from desalination increases. Currently, Israel relies on coal to power the coastal desalination plants. Brackish water desalination plants inland take their energy from the electric grid. Israel needs to develop new renewable energy sources to power her water crisis. Stay tuned for Israel’s emergence not only as a water-technology leader but a renewable-energy leader in the world scene.

Stones and Bones

Some people’s impression of Israel is Stones and Bones.  And indeed, for a country which has built with stone for millenia, and who celebrates her residents of the past, stones and bones is not a far-fetched description of Israel.  Four-thousand years ago, stones and bones were also important.

In the fields outside of Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee, Moshe Kagan explored and mapped the unique bronze-age. table-like structures called dolmens in the 1950’s.  Dolmens have been found from Korea to Ireland and consist of a millenia-old megalithic stone table surrounded by a heap of stones.  They most often are found in dolmen fields – concentrations of many dolmens located near each other.  Their use is unknown but most associate them with tombs.

Recently, Professor Gonen Sharon of Tel Chai College in Kiryat Shmoneh went to the dolmen field in Kibbutz Shamir to examine one especially unique dolmen.  Unlike the thousands of dolmens found in the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, this one is especially huge – a large central dolmen stands in a field of stones (tumulus) which includes 4 smaller dolmens.  The stones gathered around the central monument spread in a 20 meter radius and weigh an estimated 400 tons. The table stone of this particular dolman weighs about 50 tons!

Besides its size, researchers recently have discovered another feature not found in any other dolmens in Israel – artistic engravings.  Professor  Sharon entered the 2 x 3 meter central chamber of the large central dolmen in the Kibbutz Shamir field and looked up.  Meeting his eye was an arc of 15 drawings.  No parallels for the shapes he saw have been found in the middle east and their significance is unknown. dolmen engraving

This dolmen field has been dated to the intermediate Bronze Age (2200-2000 B.C.E.) during which we see a general decline of society.  The large cities of the Middle Bronze Age disappear and, until recently, the current theory was the civilization took a step back.  This dolmen, its size, its organization and now its art, is starting to paint a different story.  To erect such a monument, a society would need to have some sort of complex government and economy as well as some knowledge of engineering and architecture, which are generally not present in small nomadic groups.

The discovery of the engravings leaves more questions in its wake. Who made the engravings and for what purpose?  And if, indeed, this dolmen is a tomb, then who was the leader who was ensconced in this eternal monument? and what role did he/she have in this mysterious time in history?

“The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.”

Solid Foundation

The Foundation Stone captures our curiosity. Centered under the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, this stone has many traditions surrounding it. Moslems claim it is the site of Mohammed’s Night Journey described in the Koran. Christians point to depressions in the stone as the marks left by Jesus when he upsets the tables of the money changers. Jews see it as the place of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. This one stone is credited with the Binding of Isaac, Jacob’s Ladder, Noah’s sacrifice, Cain and Abel’s sacrifices, and the entry to the Garden of Eden, and it is no surprise that this stone is considered by Jews to be the Foundation Stone, from which the entire world was created.foundation stone

While I understand the philosophical significance behind naming a stone as the Foundation Stone, marking the seminal event which serves as a basis for a religious belief, I wondered when the foundation stone became known as such in documents. The Bible does not mention this stone explicitly. Solomon is not reported as building the Holy of Holies upon the Foundation Stone, but rather on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. Nor is the Foundation Stone mentioned in reference to any of the other biblical stories attributed to it – not in the binding of Isaac, nor in Jacob’s Ladder, nor in the sacrifices of Noah or Cain and Abel.

The Gemara, however, does attribute this stone with being the foundation of the world. In the Yerushalmi,

Rabbi Yohanan said: “Why is the stone called the Foundation Stone, because from it the world was created.”

The Mishna besides stating the above explanation, projects backwards to the time of David and Samuel who placed the Ark of the Covenant on the Foundation Stone. (Mishna Yoma 5,2)

One idea for the emergence of the Foundation Stone in Judaic thought links it to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century B.C.E. Josiah destroys not only the cultic centers around Israel dedicated to pagan gods, but also bans scattered altars used for worship of God. Josiah sees the Jewish people becoming scattered. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, has mostly been lost to exile; and as people are more mobile, there is a fear that Jewish peoplehood will be lost. A strong central institution like the Temple and Jerusalem as the center of Jewish life can help to ensure the future of the Jewish people and work against assimilation. As part of his move to reestablish the centrality of Jerusalem, he emphasizes the Foundation Stone as the focal point of the Temple. What had simply been the foundation of the Holy of Holies, now gets additional significance as being known as the Foundation Stone, and associated with other important scenes from the biblical text.

Later, during the times of the Mishna and the Gemara, the Foundation Stone as a uniquely Jewish place, remains after the destruction of the Temple. In essence, the marking of the Foundation Stone by the post-destruction Rabbis, sends a message that while the Romans can destroy the Temple, they can’t destroy its foundation.

Whether or not we believe that this exact stone is the Foundation Stone, the ideas represented within it are eternal. Whether or not the stone marks the exact spot where man connected to God, man showed his unshakable belief in God, or the entire world came into being; it does represent an eternal symbol of those themes and a focus for the Jewish world until today.

Beer Sheva to Jerusalem

Last week on October 31st, Beer Sheva celebrated 100 years since the capture of the city by the British and ANZAC forces in 1917.  And while the area around Beer Sheva was busy with streets closed, parades, thousands of visitors from Australia and New Zealand, and even a reenactment of the light horsemen’s charge, the event was scarcely remembered in the center of the country.  A one-liner on the hourly news was almost all that the event garnered in the national press.  Soon, on December 11th, we will mark 100 years since the British rule in Jerusalem, which will also be celebrated.light horsemen

Echoing the disconnect between people in the center and in the periphery in Israeli society, the two events are seen as separate.  Jerusalem doesn’t recall the Beer Sheva battle; and Beer Sheva has no idea how victory there led to British rule in Jerusalem.  These two events are, in fact, intrinsically connected.  In The Atlas of Palestine: 1917-1966 by Salman H. Abu-Sitta, the first section of the book on the British Mandate starts thus:

On the evening of October 31, 1917, with overwhelming force, the British army over-ran the small Turkish garrison in the town of Beer Sheba in a surprise attack from the south and east. The attack had been expected from the west. The Turkish flag opposite the mosque was lowered and the Union Jack was raised. Thus ended 1400 years of Arab Islamic rule….   Beer Sheba was the key to Palestine at its southern gate. Palestine now lay open to British occupation.

Interestingly, Abu-Sitta does not even mention Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem.  According to him, only because of the victory at Beer Sheva was the British mandate established.  Beer Sheva was the turning point of the war in the Levant.  After horrific losses in Gallipoli, the disheartened Commonwealth soldiers suffered 2 losses at Gaza.  General Allenby replaced General Murray and breathed fresh air into the battle theater.  His direct attack and victory at Beer Sheva would lead, finally, to conquest of Gaza and then Jaffa.

The possibility of threatening Jerusalem from the east via Hebron and from the west from Jaffa meant that the Ottoman line was stretched thin through mountainous terrain.  Allenby decided to strike from the North and cut off the Jerusalem-Nablus road.  This necessitated continuing on to el-Bireh through Shilta (Shilat), el-Burj (Givat Titura in Modiin), and Beit Ur El Tachta – Rt. 443 of today.

The fighting continued as a back and forth with a decisive battle happening on the plains below el-Burj.  There, the Australian and New Zealand troops joined with the Scots who were stationed there.  December 1, 1917 in the Judean hills was very different from Beer Sheva of October 31, 1917.  Winter had set in and the rain was falling.  (The Scots were still in their short knickers.)  Added to the inclement weather, the British troops faced “storm troopers”, specially chosen and trained by the Germans.  Only by sheer force of will and dedication did the British hold their fire when, “Allah hu achbar” was heard in the dark, cold silence.  They waited until the Turks were at point-blank range and then opened fire.  In the morning light the British troops prevailed and were able to advance up Rt. 443, cutting Turkish access to Jerusalem.

According to HS Gullett, an Australian War correspondent:

Had the enemy seized El Burj, the British would have been deprived of the use of the road leading up from Berfilya (on the western edge of Modiin), and the Beit Nuba (Mevo Horon) – Beit Sira valley would have become untenable. This would have weakened all the pressure towards the Nablus road, and exposed the left flank of the infantry which was making the main advance towards Jerusalem.

The same troops who first captured Beer Sheva were responsible for taking key positions on the road to Jerusalem.  By learning the relationship between events, we can form a more complete picture of the true connectivity of all of the land of Israel – periphery as well as center.

Bedouins and Tourism

Bedouins of the Negev are an interesting part of the Israeli landscape. Their culture and their way of life make them a curiosity for all who pass the narrow roads of the Negev Highlands.  As we become more dependent on technology, the free existence that we associate with the Bedouin entices us.  The Bedouins moved into the Sinai desert from Arabia.  Trade routes and better pasture lands lured them to the Negev.  Their traditional lifestyle – living in small compounds with their flocks – reflected the desert’s ability to sustain life for small groups and specific lifestyles. bedouin

Until the last 30 years, Bedouin encampments were rarely seen by the casual visitor.  Tribal compounds were far from the main roads.  They were self-sufficient and moved with the flock.  Large life-cycle events, such as weddings, which lasted a week, brought together larger groups of people and kept the traditions alive through an otherwise scattered group.

Some parts of Bedouin culture seem idyllic to modern man. Bedouins don’t tend to have many things, but they are masters of having enough.  Items are praised not necessarily for their intended purpose but instead for their best purpose right now.  These, combined with the perceived simplicity of life, make Bedouin culture interesting to us.  Although I think that few “downsizers” would be willing to live in a Bedouin tent, the idea of fewer possessions, living in the present and focusing on the important things are more than undercurrents in popular quality-of-life philosophy, even if most people don’t come near to fulfilling these goals.

The interest in Bedouin culture and its philosophy echo in tourism.  The manager of a Bedouin tent experience outside of Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev Highlands said that in the past 15 years he has seen a change in tourists who come to the desert.  Fifteen years ago, the desert was about pushing the limits of extreme activities.  How far can you push yourself, your bike, your jeep, to get the biggest adrenaline rush?  Today, people are still hiking, biding and jeeping, but those activities have become simply the means.  The tourist uses those means in order to fulfill the goal – arriving at far removed places to just get away from it all. Bedouins are perceived to fill that end goal; they are seen as the ultimate “get away from it all” people.  Part of the allure of the Bedouins and why people are willing to take part of their vacation to spend with them is to connect with their lifestyle – free, unattached and authentic – a departure from the tourists’ everyday stresses.

There are many sites associated with the Bedouin and many ways to explore Israel’s friendly desert, from tea in a Bedouin tent to the newly developed Negev Highland Trail.  On your next trip to Israel, consider taking some time to connect to the Bedouin culture – not just to learn, but to experience.

Jonah and the Whale

Yom Kippur is one of the central holidays of the Jewish people and during that day the book of Jonah is read in its entirety.  The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the epic tales of all times.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the places associated with the Jewish prophet are sought out and revered. Here in Israel there are several spots along the coast which are associated with Jonah. The port of Jaffa from whence he departed is one. As to where the whale deposited Jonah after he agreed to go on God’s mission, there are 3 candidates: Tel Yonah next to the Rishon LeZion beach, Givat Yonah overlooking Ashdod, and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

After his predicament in the whale/fish, Jonah does end up going to prophesy against the people of Nineveh, and they repent, making this an appropriate reading for a day associated with repentance.

What happens to Jonah afterwards, however, is a mystery. The biblical account does not follow him to the end of his life.  One tradition posits that Jonah stayed around Nineveh, dies and was buried there. A shrine in Mosul, known as the Nebi Yunis (Prophet Jonah) shrine marks a spot that is revered by both Christians and Moslems. It occupies a place of importance on one of two mounds which made up the ancient city of Nineveh.

Tragically, in 2014, the shrine along with many antiquities in Mosul were destroyed by ISIS, their treasures destroyed or sold off to fund the terror organization.  (See before and after in inset.)

nebi yunus -1After the Iraqi government recaptured Mosul, archaeologist Layla Salih came to the site to do emergency archaeological work. She found that the ISIS terrorists did not just destroy and loot that which was visible, but also dug tunnels in order to harvest even more antiquities, hundreds of objects according to Salih.

This story is not just tragic, though, for in digging these tunnels, they unwittingly discovered that the shrine to Jonah sat on an earlier building, a 7th century B.C.E. palace. There had been earlier excavation at the site during quieter times; the Ottomans headed an expedition in 1852 and the Iraqi government revisited it in the 1950’s, but neither reached as deep as the palace.

Among the finds was a marble cuneiform inscription describing King Esarhaddon. He was the son of Sennacherib who destroyed cities in Judea and set siege on Jerusalem in approximately 701 B.C.E. Archaeologists believe that the Royal residence of Assyrian kings was initially built for Sannacherib himself. Sometime during Esarhaddon’s reign (681-669 B.C.E.), the palace was expanded and renovated. A later renovation was during the reign of Ashurbanipal (669-627 B.C.E.). In 612 B.C.E. Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians and, with the city, the imperial palace. In the 7th century C.E. an Assyrian Church stood on the hill and that church became associated with Jonah. Sometime in the 8th century C.E. a mosque and shrine took the place of the church.

The wheels of time have a way of turning history upside down. Jonah the prophet was sent to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh, and in so doing, preserved the city when the residents repented. In modern times, the destruction surrounding Jonah’s tomb, reveals the ancient palace and makes possible preservation of the site.

Turtle Soup

Turtles are one of the first wild creatures to which kids have a connection. It is a wild animal that moves slowly enough on land that any fairly coordinated 3-year old can capture it. Additionally, its ability to retract its head and legs makes it a custom crafted “toy” for the younger set. My summer vacations in northern Minnesota inevitably including taking our turtles into town for a race, an interesting endeavor since turtles neither move quickly nor care about getting to the finish line.

As we grow older, we learn that turtles are some of the most ancient animals alive today. As soon as early humans found turtle meat under those hard shells, turtles began to be hunted and eaten. One million years ago in Africa, people hunted and ate turtles. As they moved out of Africa, they took their hunting skills with them. In the Qesem Cave, tortoise shells attest to their inclusion in the prehistoric human diet 400,000 years ago.

turtleResearcher Rebecca Biton, who 3 years ago discovered an extinct frog species in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, has been examining sites there for signs of amphibious life. She discovered in a Middle Paleolithic site (60,000 years ago), next to the paleo-Lake Hula, evidence of hunting of the freshwater Western Caspian Turtle which is indigenous to Israel. Sixty bones from sites in this area have been identified as having been from freshwater turtles.

Interestingly, when we think of harvesting food from lakes, we first think of fishing, not hunting. Fishing, however, only started in the Upper Paleolithic era, 40,000 years ago. These turtle bones predate fishing and suggest that freshwater turtles were hunted in the water much as their cousins, Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoises, were hunted on land. Both land and freshwater species have been found by Biton in various sites in the area.

Protein requirements consisted mostly of  deer, gazelles and cows during the Middle Paleolithic period in Israel.  There is some thought that turtles provided a sort of “canned food” option which rounded out people’s diet.  Everyone likes some variety in what they eat – even thousands of years ago.

Considered a delicacy in some Chinese communities today, Turtle Soup was apparently also enjoyed by our human ancestors in Israel 40,000 years ago.