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.


King Solomon’s Mines?

One of the hot debates in Israel’s archaeological community is on the extent of the Jewish kingdom during the time of Kings David and Solomon (read about another town involved in this debate here). Were David and Solomon rulers over a vast kingdom as described in the Bible or simply tribal chieftains with a penchant for telling good stories?

One of the places this debate is playing out is deep in the southern Arava, north of Eilat in the valley of Timna. During the past few years, researchers have gone back and forth over the designation of the copper mines there as being the famed King Solomon’s Mines, popularized by the 1885 book by H. Rider Haggard.king solomons mines

Conventional archaeology conjectured that the lack of finds from the 10th century B.C.E., the time of David and Solomon, pointed to the site being unsettled then and shattered the Solomonic mines myth. Excavations at 2 sites during the past few years using advanced technology are changing the picture once again. Discovery of preserved mule dung and left over food from the miners which were examined with Carbon 14 dating may actually shore up the Biblical account.

Site 34, Slaves’ Hill, is an ancient site of copper smelting on a flat mesa at the center of the Timna valley. According to the C14 finds, this site was occupied during the Iron Age, during which David and Solomon were kings. The production of copper carried with it a well-organized, centralized society, such as is described in the Bible under David and Solomon.  Not only that, but the food remains found in the dung show that the mule ate a diet of Mediterranean food products – the type which were found in David and Solomon’s kingdom around Jerusalem pointing to a connection between the miners and Jerusalem.

Other finds put the cessation of settlement at Site 34 to around 930 B.C.E. during the invasion of Shishak from Egypt, and the reorganization of supply lines which come with a change of sovereignty.

Nearby Site 30 was found to have a peak in copper production in the first half of the 10th century B.C.E. – exactly the time period of Kings David and Solomon.

The C14 studies in Timna bring to light archaeological questions, especially questions of societal complexity in tent-dwelling societies, which do not leave behind plentiful physical remains. Unless ancient people were engaged in unique activities, such as mining or smelting, they were completely transparent in common archaeological practice. New technologies can help to uncover these societies and contribute to a greater understanding of not only their particular social orders, but also the wider questions in archaeology.

Worms to Words

Silk is one of the most desirable fabrics. Ever since the Chinese discovered the strength, sheen and malleability of silk threads in the 4th millennium B.C.E. silk has been the textile of privilege. Although silk is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, finds from ancient times are scarce. Organic materials break down with time and do not survive for archaeologists to find them.  The drier regions of Israel, however, have an ideal climate for the survival of organic finds.

During Byzantine times, with prosperity in the Negev and open trade routes, there are a few surviving fragments. Christian pilgrims traveling to holy sites from Egypt brought silk fragments to Nitzana where 4 fragments of this rare cloth were found. In Avdat, the Nabatean Byzantine city, one fragment was found dating from before the destruction of the city in 636 C.E. This fragment’s pattern was discernible and resembles patterns of tunics found in Egypt from this same time period. Nahal Omer in the Arava Valley yielded 3 silk fragments from among 250 textiles found there from the 7th-8th century C.E. The location of the spice route from Petra to Gaza led to the opulence of these locations and the existence of people who had the means to acquire silk garments.

qarantal silkThere is another place in Israel where silk has been found which is not associated with the spice route – Qarantal, above Jericho. In Cave 38 beneath Qarantal fortress (today known as the Mount of Precipice), were found 800 textile fragments from the 9th-13th century C.E. Many of them are compound silk fragments – silk woven in with other less expensive threads. All of these 800 fragments were used and most were from repaired garments.

Who was storing old clothes in a cave above Jericho? In antiquity, clothing was used and patched until it was beyond repair, and only then discarded. Researchers believe that this was not a giant trash heap but rather a horde of raw materials for another purpose. During this time, new technology came to the Middle East. A cheap substitute for parchment or papyrus was available. Developed and streamlined in China in the 2nd century C.E., paper-making made its way on the trade routes. Using wood pulp for paper would only be invented in 1843, and ancient paper production was from fabrics. Quality paper would be made from quality textiles, like silk, which could provide durable fibers.

Writing started circulating on this paper. Silk, which started as a product of worms, became at the end of their journey, substrate for words.  Worms to words.

Beit Shearim – A Gated Community?

If you forced me to pick my favorite spots in Israel, Beit Shearim would be up near the top. So I am always happy to learn and relearn about the ancient hometown of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

The name Beit Shearim was always assumed to mean “house of many sheaves”, a place of abundance. Originally given as a gift to Bereniki, a descendent of Herod the Great, by the Roman Emperor Titus, it sits overlooking the Jezreel Valley, one of the most fertile areas of Israel.  The town did not revolt against the Romans during the Great Revolt during the 1st century C.E. and so did not suffer destruction.

By the time that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi moved the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, there, the town was a thriving, wealthy Jewish center.  Beit Shearim was never a large city with many different types of people, like was the case in neighboring Tzipori.  Despite his upbringing in this Jewish shtetl, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself was rumored to be friends with the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. The town continued to exist and thrive until it was damaged during the Gallus Revolt. A subsequent earthquake in 386 further damaged the town. From the early Islamic period, the town continued to decline until it faded into obscurity sometime before the Crusader period.

Alexander Zaid, the Jewish watchman who lived and died on the land that had once been Beit Shearim, rediscovered it in 1936. His granddaughter, Tali Zaid, who still lives on the family estate, called in archaeologist Adi Erlich in 2016 before undertaking some improvements in the yard. Erlich found in the Zaid estate the remains of a city gate from the late Roman period. Most settlements of that time did not have gates because of Pax Romanus – peace throughout the Roman Empire. Certainly, a small town like Beit Shearim would not have been walled during this time.  There is no evidence of a fortress here, either.  The presumed absence of gates led to the prior explanation of the Beit Shearim’s name, due to its location and affluence.

But maybe those exact qualities necessitated gates in the city. We could perhaps see the city as a “gated community”; its affluence leading to a need for security, not against foreign armies but from resident bandits. The gate is only half excavated, so keep your eyes out for what the other half will teach about life in this Jewish town!beit shearim gate

Enough Booze to Hydrate an Army

As the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShana approaches, and families get ready for three days of eat, sleep, pray, we will start to hear the well-known phrase – Enough Food to Feed an Army. This summer, in the fields of Netzer Sereni, near Ramle in central Israel (other posts about Ramle here and here), archaeologists found the remains of Enough Booze to Hydrate an Army.

Alongside Paleolithic flint tools from 200,000 years ago were found hundreds of glass liquor bottles from 100 years ago. The nearby building housed agricultural implements during the Ottoman era and was reassigned as a garrison for British soldiers during World War I. Those soldiers, the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces, conquered the cities of Lod and Ramle on November 15, 1917, controlling them and the farmland around them in the British fight against the Ottoman Turks. Under General Allenby’s orders, the British soldiers stayed in the requisitioned buildings for 9 months before heading to targets farther north. Inside the building were found belt buckles, uniform buttons, and parts of riding equipment.

A few meters/yards from the building was the trash heap (seems the best stuff is found in the trash). This collection of discarded items gives an insight into what they did for 9 months here. Apparently, they wiled away their free time by drinking a fair amount of liquor. In fact, 70% of the trash heap was composed of liquor bottles. According to Brigitte Ouahnouna, a researcher in the glass department at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time in the history of archaeology of Israel in which an assemblage of hundreds of glass bottles from the British army camp from World War I was uncovered.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Besides providing a way to socialize and pass time, the drinks were a taste of home. All of the bottles were imported from Europe – no local brews were found.
As we are in the 100 year anniversary of the British foray into Middle East politics is being celebrated this year, get together with a friend and raise a glass. Imported liquors only, please.

Qumran: Things that Don’t Exist

Sometimes your story needs updating. I used to stand at Qumran and look at the caves in the rock escarpment facing the Dead Sea and tell this story: From these caves came the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). The discoveries starting in 1947 and stretching into the mid-1950’s yielded the thousand or so fragments which make up the DSS, the oldest known copies of the books of the Jewish Bible. All of these fragments were only found in 11 caves.

As my tourists stood and looked at the numerous caves, their eyes grew wide and they imagined the treasures yet to be found. I dashed those dreams by stating that all those caves had been fully explored and that there are no more fragment-laden caves. There are and only will be 11 DSS caves.

That story worked until this year. A 12th DSS cave has been discovered, but with a twist – there are no written scrolls in it. Cave 12 (Q12) is the first DSS cave discovered in 60 years and the first to be properly excavated by archaeologists. The previous explorations, more than 60 years ago, had one goal – to retrieve scrolls – with little concern for other archaeological remains.q12-remnant of scroll - qumran

If there are no scrolls, why does Q12 fit into the elite group of DSS caves? Q12 yielded many remains. A 1950’s style pick axe alludes to looting which may have occurred here. Broken, empty storage jars and lids from the Second Temple Period lead archaeologists to imagine ancient texts which may have been stored here. They also found many signs of literary activity. A piece of parchment ready for writing, a leather strap for binding scrolls, and tendons and pieces of skin for connecting parchment were overlooked by those who wielded the pick axes in their hunt for the prize – written fragments.

Being a repository of DSS was not the first usage of Q12. Chalcolithic and Neolithic flint blades, arrowheads and a stamp seal of carnelian attest to its use far in the past.

Archaeologists are excited by the discovery of Q12. The revelation of another DSS cave just underlines that we cannot know for certain the things that don’t exist.

Ideal Family

One of my favorite families in the history of the land of Israel in the early 1900s is the Bentwich family. Herbert and Susanna, their 11 children and descendants made their mark on the land and on the emerging state and it’s institutions.

I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what I find to be so interesting.  There are lots of crazy stories within the family – some of them are actually crazy.  I think what impresses me the most, though, is that the Bentwich’s are a family driven by ideals.

Herbert and Susanna, who are part of the English Jewish aristocracy in the second half of the 19th century, raise their children on 3 central tenets:  music, education and Zionism.  I used to think that the scariest part of being a parent was that, even after all my efforts, my kids wouldn’t listen to me. As I mature, I find that the most terrifying part of parenthood is that your kids actually listen to you.  These Bentwich kids did just that, each in his own way.
Susanna Bentwich was a concert pianist. She conveyed her love of music by assigning her children, in a predetermined order,  a musical instrument.   The first learned piano; the second, the violin; the third, the cello.  This pattern – piano, violin, cello – repeated for the remaining 8 children.  Nita and her husband, Michael Lange, made their home a haven for musicians and hosted many concerts.  Another sibling, Thelma founded a music school in Israel which exists until today. Grandson Daniel studied piano at Julliard.  Margery is a professional violinist.  Most of the siblings end up having a significant connection to music.

Education is also an important pillar of the family.  Besides Thelma and her music school, Norman Bentwich, the oldest son, after a stint in the British army as a major of a camel division, becomes a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  The youngest Bentwich, Joseph, becomes a teacher in  two of the most prestigious high schools in Israel – Gymnasia Hertzelia in Tel Aviv and HaReali Haifa. He then goes on to become deputy Secretary of Education in the young state of Israel.  Joseph’s son, Michael, was also a professor of Engineering at Hebrew University.


bentwichAnother pillar of this illustrious family is their commitment to Zionism.  When Susanna dies young in 1915, Herbert arranges to buy land on the Mount of Olives in which to bury her and to establish an estate.  He succeeds in bringing her body to Israel in 1921 to establish the family cemetery.  His plans for an estate on the same piece of land fail when the Ottomans refuse to give him a permit.  Instead, he donates the land to establish the Hebrew University, on the condition that they maintain for perpetuity the cemetery.  Many Bentwich family members were buried on the Mount of Olives in the family cemetery.  When Herbert finally moves to Palestine, as it is called under the British, in 1929, he already has 8 of his children living (or buried) here.

Norman is employed by the British to update the laws in Palestine, incorporating Ottoman laws into the British framework; the political system he devises is the basis for Israeli law until today.

The town of Zichron Yaacov is interwoven with the Bentwich family. Many Bentwich children and grandchildren lived at Chatzer Carmel, the estate established by Michael and Nita Bentwich Lange.

Also, Jerusalem owes a debt to the Bentwich’s.  Besides Hebrew University,  the neighborhood of Rechavia benefited from the family.  The first house in the new neighborhood built in 1924 was of Eliezer and Thelma Bentwich Yellin.

They may not be actually an ideal family, but they are definitely a family with ideals.


Horned Home Security

Judaism and representative art have had an uncomfortable history. In the Bible, one of the Ten Commandments is not to make any graven image as a safeguard against challenging monotheism. Yet, already from the Byzantine period, images made their way into Jewish art in the floors of synagogues in the Galilee. Since there is no blueprint for “Jewish” style, Jewish art takes on the style of the dominant culture. These Galilean synagogues are in the Byzantine style but with Jewish themes.

Researchers have been investigating images on incantation bowls found in the 5th-7th century C.E. Jewish art of Babylonia. During this turbulent time, the Rabbis felt that the allure of Christianity would draw Jews away from Judaism. As a safeguard against this, they allowed representational art, but with a Jewish twist.

Evil forces exist in Judaism. In the Bible, these evil forces are wholly under the control of God and are part of His arsenal for punishment. In Babylonia, mythical sources of evil seem to be directly accessible to the simple person. Jews, also, take these traditionally Jewish agents of evil and give them an independent life, portraying them in art.

The most common Jewish demons which were recognized by Babylonian Jews and featured in art, are Lilith, Samael, and Ashmedai. Lilith, who is mentioned in the Bible, is pictured as a combination of two Babylonian goddesses, is accused of both killing women during childbirth and murdering infants, while at the same time seducing and murdering young men. Samael is the angel of death and tempts good people to sin. He is succeeded by Ashmadai, who slays young men before their marriage, and is depicted with horns. This is the first depiction found of a demon with horns.

incantation bowl

The incantation bowls on which these demons were drawn were part of a multi-layered protection system for inhabitants of a house. First, the demons are drawn with their hands and feet bound in order to arrest their mobility. Then the bowls are buried upside-down under the floor of the house in order to “trap” the demons and keep them from ascending into the house.

These customs were promulgated to deal with the most inexplicable tragedies of the day. Loss of those who are most vulnerable keeps even modern man scratching his head to try to understand the reasons, as it did in antiquity. The idea that a demon could be responsible for these tragedies follows mankind throughout the ages and the imagery of those demons in Jewish Babylonian homes, horned, also touches a chord and travels to Europe. Who can imagine Dante’s inferno without horned demons? It’s just interesting that that image which continues until today came from Jewish homes in Babylonia 1500 years ago.

The Making of a Zionist

I recently attended the screening of a movie which highlighted an interview in English with David BenGurion.  Interwoven with the interview are video clips and narration about BenGurion’s life.  It runs like a Tuesdays with Morrie for the quintessential Israeli leader.  One of the interesting assertions that BenGurion makes is that he was never a Zionist until he moved to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker after retiring from public life in 1963.  The man who declared the Independence of the Jewish State and masterminded the Independence War; the man who led the fledgling nation through the early years and settled Jewish immigrants.  This man claims that none of those activities were an expression of his Zionism.ben gurion sde boker

We need to ask two main questions:

  1. How does BenGurion define Zionism?
  2. What about the Negev brings out the Zionism in him?

Zionism, according to BenGurion, is the re-creation of the Jews in their land.  Re-creation implies that there was a destruction or loss.  Indeed, the Jewish people were created and had an independent state 2000 years ago; that state was lost and destroyed by the Romans; now the Jewish political entity is being re-created.

We know how important the Negev is in BenGurion’s vision of the success of the Jewish State.

“It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested – For only with a united effort of a volunteering people and a planning and implementing State will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish.  This effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind.”

This describes Ben Gurion’s theory of Zionism for the Jewish people as a collective, but not for one individual – David BenGurion.

How does moving to the Negev  re-create David BenGurion?  When BenGurion was a young man, he moved to the land of Israel. Here he holed up in Sejera with the likes of Alex Zaid. He learned farming, although not so successfully, and worked the land. This had been his childhood dream – BenGurion created himself.

During his years in public service, he lost that direct connection with the land. It was a loss for a greater good – the Jewish people needed a leader. Only after he leaves public life can he re-create himself and return to his personal connection to the land. Where does this transformation happen? Naturally in the Negev. 

“It is in the Negev that the youth will be tested – its pioneer strength, vigor of spirit, and creative and conquering initiative.  Will it take advantage of the greatest, and most precious and rarest opportunity in the history of the entire nation – to create anew and to be fully immersed in creative enterprises, which necessitate infusion of the special and most wondrous properties locked and hidden in the recesses of the soul of each human being, the properties of creative valor which gain control of nature’s strongholds, and fashion the destiny of a people and its country.”

BenGurion re-creates himself, returning to the ideals of working the land which he espoused as a youth.

Many groups I take to the Negev desert experience the renewal which comes from being alone in the desert. Especially there you can strip off the trappings and become as bare as the surroundings. You can connect with your core, the driving ideals which steered you when you were young, and re-create yourself.

There, you can be a true Zionist, BenGurion style.

Hole in the Wall

The gates of Jerusalem’s Old City are not only ways to get inside the city. Each one is a site with a history of its own. How the gates developed, why they were built where they were, and how their names came about is a fascinating topic written about in this site here and here. Building a strong defense depends on controlling access, but there are sometimes holes in that defense. One of those holes centers around a story of a building and a mission from 1000 years ago.

Just to the east of today’s New Gate, a complex was built 1000 years ago and served pilgrims during the Crusader period. The Monastery of St. Lazarus was built by the knights of the Order of St. Lazarus. Originally not a military order at all , the monks who maintained this facility catered to lepers not only from the Christian pilgrims but also the local Moslem population. The first mention of this order’s existence is in 1137 during the reign of Melisende and Fulk d’Anjou, who gave money towards its maintenance. The location of the leper house was documented in 1172 by Theodoric,

“Whoever makes a circuit of the city walls beginning from the Tower of David will find next to the western corner the church and habitations of the lepers, which are furnished and well ordered.”

The hospital accepted all lepers and became a haven for leprous knights from other orders as well. It was this outside influence which, over time, led to the Order of St. Lazarus becoming not just an association for catering to the sick but also an agent in war.

St. Lazarus

The complex was abandoned on the eve of Salahadin’s advance against Jerusalem in 1187, and the colony was moved to the south in the area of today’s Zion Gate on Mt. Zion. After the conquest, the order’s headquarters were moved to Akko and only a branch remained in Jerusalem to resettled in the original location. The knights were allowed by the Ayyubid conquerors to open a small gate, a postern gate, to allow access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher inside the city, as Christians were forbidden to enter the city through the Jaffa Gate or the Damascus Gate. Six-hundred years later, it was through this postern gate that the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef entered to visit the newly constructed Austrian Hospice, and becomes the first Christian ruler to enter the city since the days of the Crusaders.

Today, in the Old City of Jerusalem, the issue of who is allowed to enter and where is a hot topic. It isn’t a new topic, however; and even emperors in the modern era entered the city through a hole in the wall.