Goodwill Towards Men

Alexander Yannai, Jewish king, creator of an empire unrivaled since the time of King Solomon, is a colorful figure in Jewish history. The third son of John Hyrcanus, Judah Maccabeus’ great nephew reigned Judea from 103 B.C.E. to 76 B.C.E. We remember Judah Maccabeus from the story of Hanukkah which will be celebrated this month.

Alexander_JannaeusAfter he becomes king, a title he took along with high priest, Yannai spends much of his reign engaging in battles. On the foreign front, he enlarges Judea by conquering in the north, south, east and west. He builds a lighthouse castle in the Dead Sea to control the lucrative trade of spices which he wrested from the Nabateans. Along the Mediterranean coast, he conquers many of the ports, including Gaza and Akko. He pushes north into what is now Syria and south to control the Negev.

Many see this expansion, coupled with increased economic stability and military might staving off conflicts, as what Judea will resemble in the end of days.

However, there was a darker side to his reign, especially when it came to dissension within Judea. Both Josephus and the Peshur Nahum, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, paint a picture of a king who would not hesitate to go to extreme lengths to ensure his rule and stamp out his critics. Now archaeology may have found proof of just how far he was willing to go.

According to recent finds in Jerusalem in the area of the Russian compound, the ancient sources were not exaggerating Alexander Yannai’s cruelty. Remains from a mass burial were found by Kfir Arbiv, Yossi Nagar, and Tehillah Lieberman in a cistern. They claim that these skeletons were all from one event and deposited at the same time. Based on the bones and pottery shards which were also found in the cistern, the find is dated to the days of  Yannai.

The bones attest to a violent death and have countless signs of sword wounds on the bones themselves. Broken cheeks and severed skull bones suggest beheadings. From analysis, the bones were not just men, but also women, children and even embrionic bones.

Alexander Yannai faced opposition from groups of Jews who opposed the ruler-ship of a non-Davidic king and priesthood of someone who was not a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest and brother of Moses.  Yannai opposed the Perushim, who were one of the larger sects in Judea at his time. He also was hated by the Qumran sect, who called him the “Lion of Wrath”.

As a response to his detractors and to keep the peace, Josephus relates that in Jerusalem:

“His [Yannai’s] rage was grown so extravagant, this his barbarity proceeded to a degree of impiety; for when he had ordered 800 to be hung upon crosses in the midst of the city, he had the throats of their wives and children cut before their eyes; and these executions he saw as he was drinking and lying down with his concubines.” Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 1:4:97

This so frightened the population, that they fled Jerusalem by the thousands, according to Josephus, until Yannai died.

“So at last, though not till late, and with great difficulty, he [Yannai], by such actions, procured quiet for his kingdom.” ibid, 1:4:98

The Second Temple was destroyed, according to the rabbis, because of senseless hatred. Yannai, in destroying his opposition so brutally, procures peace for his kingdom, but stirs hatred among the Jewish people. When searching for peace, he forgot goodwill towards his subjects.


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.

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.

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


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


Running Away, But Not Too Far Away

The Dead Sea as a center of refuge was the topic of my oral licensing exam to become a tour guide and continues to fascinate me.  What pressures drive people to seek refuge in this inhabitable landscape?  Men as long ago as the Chalcolithic Period (6000 years ago) fled here and left signs in the desert cliffs above the Dead Sea.  Long before the Dead Sea scrolls were sequestered in caves, Chalcolithic man built temples in the Dead Sea area and suddenly left their habitations and fled into the caves.  Hoardes of copper ritual objects were found in the caves above the Mishmar Stream.  Whatever pushed these early settlers to “head for the hills” was so catastrophic that they did not return to claim their treasures or resume their temple worship.

Uncovering lost treasures has been a driving force for modern exploration in the Dead Sea area.  Unfortunately, not all treasure-hunters are licensed archaeologists but are often Palestinian antiquity thieves.  In a recent sting operation, Israeli police arrested 6 Palestinians on their way out of the Cave of Skulls in the cliffs above Tze’elim Stream.  Habitation in this cliff shows just how far people are willing to go in the name of self-preservation.  Access to this cave is only possible by rappelling down over the cliff edge to the cave entrance.  One wonders how the ancients accessed this cave which is located 80 m (250 ft.) below the cliff top. cave-of-skulls

In order to stay one step ahead of the thieves who will inevitably return to search for scrolls and other items to sell on the black market, last summer a 3-week excavation was undertaken to scientifically study the cave again (a first dig was conducted in the 1960’s).  Among the many bones found in the Cave of Skulls, so named because of the 7 human skeletons buried there during the Bar Cochva revolt, are a few pieces of papyrus.  They have not been fully studied yet to see if perhaps they have writing on them, but this finding leaves the door open for the possibility of finding more scrolls in the Dead Sea area.

There are finds here dating from 139 C.E., several years after the Bar Cochva revolt, and show the presence of Jews in this area even as they had been banned by Hadrian from the area of Jerusalem.  The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is strong and the Jews hiding in the Cave of Skulls over 1850 years ago were not ready to give up on that.  They were willing to live under extreme conditions to keep the dream of return to Jerusalem alive.

Nearby sites

  • Dragot Stream
  • Ein Gedi Chalcolithic Temple
  • Qumran

Deathly Trade Routes

We imaging that we are sophisticated and yet the more we look into the past, the humbler we become.  Technologies, trade and ideas in the past were actually quite complex and far-reaching.  As reported recently, the world was much more interconnected in antiquity than we thought and products associated with burial were shipped around the world.

Researchers in England decided to see what they could find about Roman influence on the local culture by analyzing some Roman era graves in England.  Dating back 1700 years or more, the graves show the extent of the influence of the Roman empire.  Upon opening the tombs, the archaeologists were met with dust.  When they analyzed the dust, they found traces of frankincense.  This precious of all perfumes was from the Middle East and features in the spices used in the Temple and in the gifts of the wise men.  Frankincense kept away the putrid smells associated with the dead but apparently was also buried with them to  make their journey to the next world sweet.

asphaltThe second important find in the English tombs was thought at first to be simply tar, something which can be locally procured.  Upon further analysis, the black gooey substance used in these 4th century burials was found to be asphalt from the Dead Sea.  The Dead Sea, also known as Mar Asphaltis by the Romans, had a unique phenomenon producing pure asphalt.  Every once in a while, a block of pure asphalt would erupt from the sea bottom and float to the surface.  The Egyptians prized this product as it was used for embalming; but from this find we see that it was also important all through the Roman period and was traded as far away as England.

In today’s world, there is much concern over who controls the sources of petroleum products.  Even before the combustion engine, Israel, with no oil resources whatsoever, was square in the middle of a petroleum product – asphalt.  And some of that product made it as far as England.  Sounds like the global village – almost 2000 years ago.

Related sites:

  • Ein Gedi ancient synagogue
  • Ahava Dead Sea products factory in Mitzpeh Shalem
  • Masada

Lakes and Seas

Words are important.

When I am examining an issue, one of the first lines of clarification is, “What do the terms mean?”  I don’t know if this comes from my science background, my desire to break a problem into parts, but very often defining terms is a good first step in an effort to think clearly.  What does this have to do with water?

I often have tourists ask questions something along the line of:

How can the Sea of Galilee be a “sea” if it is fresh water?  It is too small to be a “sea” – more like a lake.

Is that the Jordan River?  Really?  I imagined it would be like the Mighty Mississippi River.

Why do some streams have water all year (like David Stream) and some streams almost never have water (Og Stream)?  How can they have the same classification?

Good questions, but they ignore the main problem with these terms – they are in English.  The bodies of water in Israel were first described in Hebrew in the Bible, with their English “translations” only coming later.  Remember, that the Hebrew of the Bible was used to describe a very specific terrain, the terrain of the Levant, and not to describe other places.  No matter what you believe about the origins of the Biblical text, one thing is for sure.  The author of the Bible was very familiar with the geography of the Land of Israel.   Thus, we can expect that this author uses geographical terms very specifically, without considering how they may be translated into English.

There are a few different Hebrew words used for bodies of water:

Agammediterranean sunset
Nahar (and Yaor)

I have done a fair amount of research on these terms and their meanings.  This post dives into the meaning of the first two:  agam and yam.

These terms are used in the Bible for bodies of water that do not have a clear vector component.  In other words, they are not “going anywhere”.  In English, you may translate them as lake, sea, or even man-made reservoir!

The difference between an agam and a yam, has to do with a related word agamon which is a reed.  An agam is a body of water, without a vector, which has the possibility for growing reeds, ie. shallow enough that much of its surface could be covered by reeds.

“And the parched land will become an agam, and the thirsty land springs of water:  The home of jackals shall become a pasture for cattle, an enclosure of reeds and rushes.”  Isaiah 35:7

Agam is not used as part of a proper noun in the Bible but rather as a descriptive concept.  The current Agam HaHula in the northern part of Israel is aptly named.

The topography of Israel dictates that agamim are not prevalent. Most of the water in Israel’s interior is “on the move” as Israel is a hilly/mountainous (leave those definitions for another time…) land.

A yam, by comparison, is a much larger body of water (still with no vector component), and much deeper.  There are many examples of yamim in the Bible:  HaYam


HaAcharon (Mediterranean Sea), Yam Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Yam HaMelach (Dead Sea), Yam Suf (Reed/Red? Sea), and many others.  There is no differentiation between salt and fresh water bodies of water, as long as the size dictates a large percentage of clear water.  Yamim can have islands, depths, shores, and are generally much more prevalent (and important) in the Bible than agamim.

“Then sang Moshe and the children of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke saying:  I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the hourse and his rider has he thrown into the yam.”  Exodus 15:1



“To whom it may concern,

Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program – Invitation to public meetings”

Thus read my invitation to presentation of findings on the 6 year study on the proposed Red-Dead canal.  As I have a special love for the Dead Sea and a fascination with all different kinds of topics associated with it, I wanted to hear what the World Bank has to say about this potential solution for the dropping water level.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned at this summary meeting.

The World Bank is interested in this project for three reasons.

dead sea hotels from dredging1.  To Save the Dead Sea

2.  To desalinate water and generate electricity for local governments

3.  To provide a symbol of peace in the region.

The Study is not funded by the World Bank, however.  The World Bank provides management and coordination but the funding came from 8 different countries.  It looked at whether the Red-Dead is feasible, as well as its effects on the environment, alternatives, and modelling of both the Red Sea environment and the Dead Sea environment.

Where does the idea come from?  The Dead Sea is in trouble.  The inflow to the Dead Sea, once 1.3 billion m3/year has now dwindled to about 100,000 m3/year.  This has led to the dramatic drop in the level of the Dead Sea and threats to the environment around it.  The idea of the Red-Dead is to transfer water from the Red Sea in the area of Eilat and Akaba to the Dead Sea.  The drop in elevation from sea level to 427 m below sea level would power hydroelectric plants.  Somewhere along the way, some of the transferred water would undergo desalination and be piped to population centers (mostly in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority), where the need for water is great.

Sounds good?  Maybe.

What the study found, however, is that this plan is costly ($10.6 billion) with 20% of the cost going towards transfer of desalinated water to consumers.  It does not generate any electricity to the grid as all electricity would be expended powering the desalination plants.

Although the technical extraction of water from the Red Sea was evaluated and a possible plan with the smallest environmental footprint was suggested, the effects of transferring a large quantity of sea water to the Dead Sea are unknown.

There are other plans.  The Med-Dead (Mediterranean-Dead Sea pipeline), and restoring the Lower Jordan by a combination of purchasing water from another country (Turkey), desalination, and conservation are the two main contenders.

We could also do nothing.  If we do nothing, the level of the Dead Sea will continue to drop.  At some point, the chemical plants will probably stop pumping, as the cost of pumping will rise as the water level in the northern basin drops (the chemical plants are in the southern basin).  The level of the Dead Sea will stabilize at 550 m below sea level – a full 120 m below the level of today.  We have no idea what kind of damage will be caused by such a dramatic decrease or if the Dead Sea and the environment around it will ever be able to recover.  It could be that endemic species become extinct; that sinkholes threaten population/vacation centers; that industries which provide significant income to both Israel and Jordan are forced to close.

Restoring the Dead Sea is inexonerably linked to tackling water issues in the area in general.  The Dead Sea level continues to drop because we are pulling too much water out of the system.  This is the real challenge, not only to our immediate area but to the entire region.  In Syria where there is a problem with allocating water to agriculture, much of the rural population left their farms and went to the cities.  The resultant strain on city resources is one of the causes of the revolt and bloodshed happening right now in Syria.

“To whom it may concern,”

Solving the crisis in the Dead Sea concerns each and every one of us.  What are you doing for the Dead Sea today?

The Mighty Jordan

As we start the new year, we complete the cycle of reading from the Torah.  The last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, is Moses’s instructions to the people of Israel before entering the land of Israel.  What is considered the land of Israel here?  Everything across the Jordan.  So in honor of this entrance, here is a bit  about the Jordan.

The Jordan is the body of water mentioned most times in the Biblical Text.  In the Tanach (Jewish Bible), the Jordan is mentioned over 170 times. So central is The Jordan to the narrative, that it is never called by any other name than “The Jordan”.  It is not a nahal (loosely translated as a stream) and not a nahar (loosely translated as a river).
The first thing which makes The Jordan special in the history of the Land of Israel is its size.  It is the longest flowing body of water in the area.  The headwaters of The Jordan come from the area  around Mt. Hermon.  Three streams feed into the Jordan north of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) – Nahal Hermon, Nahal Dan, and Nahal Snir.  Up until the  draining of the Hula Lake in 1954, the Jordan fed into the Sea of Galilee and emptied out the other side.  Now, in the area of the Hula, the Jordan is fed into irrigation channels on the east and west sides of the valley to continually water the peat soil and the crops which grow within it.

After passing through the Hula Valley, the channels of the Jordan are reunited and continue through the Corazin heights.  This part of the Jordan is called the Mountainous Jordan as the power of the water cuts a deep channel through the raised plain of  basalt rock.  Long ago, at the northern end of the Mounainous Jordan existed a huge waterfall (300 m high!).  The power of the water serving to further cut away at the hard basalt.  The Jordan empties into the Sea of Galilee.  It is from this  lake/sea that Israel gets most of its non-reclaimed/desalinated water.

The Jordan: synagogue Mosaic in Akko

But after this point is where the Jordan gets really interesting.  The Jordan then transverses the next 100 linear kilometers by  meandering for over 200 kilometers through the Jordan Valley.  And sometimes the course of the Jordan changes.  By international agreement, the border between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan along this stretch is determined by the mid-point of the  Jordan.  So, our border with the neighboring country is not a steady, GPS-able line, but a line which is dictated by nature – how  much rain there is, how many rainy days we have, etc.

After meandering through the Jordan Valley, the waters flow into the Dead Sea.   In antiquity, it is estimated that 1.3 billion cubes of water entered the Dead Sea in the average year, most of that from the Jordan. The Jordan today is a shadow of its former self with only about 100 million cubic meters of water entering the Dead Sea.  The building of the dam at Deganya by Pinchas Rottenberg in the 1930’s attempted to control the flow of water into this section of the Jordan.  After the dam was out of commission in 1947, however, the Deganya dam was used to concentrate the waters of the Upper Jordan in the Sea of Galilee for Israel’s new engineering project, the  National Water Carrier.  Today, because of extended drought, the  Deganya dam is never opened, cutting off the major source of water to the section of the Jordan in the Jordan valley (and ultimately to the Dead Sea).

Syria and Jordan also prevent water from entering the system by overtaxing the water aquifers surrounding the Jordan valley and diverting other streams in the area, especially the Yarmuk Stream which historically provided 400 million cubic meters of water a year to the system.

Israel has made a pledge to transfer 30 million cubes of water into the Jordan valley between the Kinneret and the Dead Sea.  It is a drop in the bucket but shows a willingness to start to deal with rehabilitating the Jordan and the Dead Sea.  We are waiting for others in our neighborhood to show the same committment to natural habitat.