Change is Hard

Historical facts are presented as hard fast numbers. Historical periods start and end on particular dates as marked by large scale changes in sovereignty or policy. In reality, though, it takes some time for those policies to trickle down and become reality for people. The edges of historical periods are marked by a lot of graying when the old ways and the new ways interact and intermingle.

Case in point is the city of Hippos/Sussita. One of the cities of the famed Decapolis (which included Beit Shean) Hippos/Sussita was a thriving, pagan metropolis situated above the Sea of Galilee in today’s Golan Heights. The Roman empire united under one emperor, Constantine, who moved the seat of the empire to Constantinople in 330 BCE, becoming what we call today the Byzantine Empire, which supported Christianity. Paganism and Christianity, however, coexisted for many years in the Decapolis, as in other parts of the empire.

Recent excavation in Hippos has uncovered a pagan amulet in the Northeast Church. The hematite pendent with the Greek inscription “Digest!” was crafted in the pagan Roman period (3rd-4th century CE) but only set into the gold pendant during the Christian Byzantine period (late 6th century CE). Because of the location of the find and the other finds around it, it was believed to be worn by a high ranking cleric (who probably suffered from indigestion).


In a building adjacent to the church, a figurine of a dancing maenad, who would have accompanied processions devoted to the god Dionysus, was found. She was dated to the gray period between the Roman and the Early Byzantine era. What was she doing near the church?

Sometimes old symbols were re-purposed for new world-views. Such is the theory surrounding a fresco of the goddess of fortune, Tyche, found in a home near one of the churches. Her crown depicts the city walls of the Hippos. According to Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa, director of the expedition to Hippos/Susita, “During the Byzantine period, Tyche became a municipal emblem embodying a local patriotism that had deep roots in the classical tradition. As time passes following the transition to Christianity, Tyche and the other former religious emblems probably lose their ritualistic characteristics and become cultural symbols.”

The transition from paganism to Christianity is the last of the gradual changes which affect Hippos. The next change is sudden, as the city is destroyed and abandoned following the earthquake of 749 CE. Now, more than 1300 years later, we look back and uncover the process of change which affected the people of this great city.


Discovering Gamla

Archaeology is a young science. Three hundred years ago no one cared about digging up, studying and preserving the past. The material remains of the past were only interesting as raw materials for the present. Learning about ancient structures and artifacts was culled from books as the centers of scientific learning were far away from the cradle of civilization.

With globalization and the ability to travel relatively easily, Europeans – the champions of science in modern times – spread out over the globe. One major goal was colonization, the control of trade routes, resources and people. As Europeans became exposed to the wonders of the Old World, their interest in discovering and controlling the past grew.

During those early days of archaeology in the 19th century, identification of sites from the past, especially Biblical sites, became a target for quests. Here, finally, was a way to connect to the biblical narrative in a visceral way. The Holy Land was scoured to identify as many ancient sites as possible and match them with writings about them which had been passed down through the ages. Digs in Jerusalem, Azekah, Gezer, Beit Shemesh, Beit Shean, Ashkelon, Emmaus, Masada and many other sites in ancient Israel matched places to names found in ancient sources.

Because everything was accessible, it could be assumed that Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, would have given up all her places relatively quickly. How difficult could it be?

So it is a bit surprising that the site of a dramatic story, important at the end of the Second Temple Era, was only conclusively identified 50 years ago. Gamla, a Jewish town in the Golan Heights 2000 years ago, was described in two ancient sources, Josephus, the Jewish/Roman historian; and Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist. In Gamla, the Jewish population, revolted against the Romans; and when their defeat was certain, threw themselves from the cliffs instead of surrender. Josephus and Pliny differ in their description of the location of the town. They also refer to landmarks which existed 2000 years ago but do not exist today, and whose exact location is unclear. So, this important town with its moving story, alluded archaeologists.


Most early archaeologists gave more credence to the accounts of Pliny and went by his description in the hunt for Gamla. Only after the Six Day War in 1968, did the search for  Gamla, come to an end. The Golan Heights underwent a proper archaeological survey after the war. Shmaryahu Gutman was surveying the land with kibbutznik and history buff Yitzchaki Gal.  As Gutman recalls,

“One day, Yitzchaki climbed up a certain height in the Golan, he examined his surroundings and decided, ‘Here was Gamla.’ He brought me to the village Deir Kruch and turned my gaze westward, into the Daliyot stream which splits into a southern branch and a northern branch; and in the distance – the Ginnosar Valley. We saw a spine with a northern slope, a southern slope, a cliff to the west and the possibility of a footpath going down to the east – exactly as Josephus wrote.”

Archaeologists spend most of their time today examining finds and rethinking ancient structures. They dig new areas of old sites or apply new technologies to get a more in-depth picture of the past.

It is refreshing to think that there still might be new frontiers in archaeology;  still places waiting to be discovered for those who open their eyes and read the texts carefully. Abraham, to whom God told to walk the land to really understand it, and archaeologist Adam Zartal, may his memory a blessing,  who said, “There is no high-tech solution for walking the land, meter by meter, with your own two feet,” give a model for discovery using the best tools we have – our feet, our eyes and our open mind.

Synagogue on the Heights

In this week’s Torah reading, we have one of the examples in the Pentateuch of stories which happen in the land of Israel. Jacob and his family cross into the land after many years living near today’s Turkey/Syrain border in the home of Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law.  They cross over the Jabbok stream on their way towards Shchem/Nablus.

The Jabbok stream today separates the Golan Heights from the country of Jordan.  Archaeology shows that this area of the Golan Heights  was an important area of Jewish settlement.  With the inclusion of larger territory under the rule of the Romans and freedom of movement, Jews were free to spread out and follow opportunity.  After Hadrian exiled Jews from Judea, these peripheral areas became more important for preserving Jewish community.  One such village in the Goaln Heights in the region of Sussita, one of the cities of the decopolis, was Um el-Kanatir.

Perhaps it was the spring which first drew Jews to live there as early as 23 C.E.  The name of the site today comes from the arched building  which once protected the spring.  The town continued to thrive and used the spring as a resource for the flax industry which developed there.  Being close to the major Roman town of Sussita was also a benefit for this community.

But it isn’t  the spring that makes this place a site for visitors today, but rather the memory of the Jewish community who once lived there.  Jews not only lived and worked here, but also celebrated their religious beliefs and the eternal connection to Jerusalem.  They built an impressive synagogue in the 6th century which has been unearthed.

In 1884, Lawrence Olefant and Gottleib Schumacher were taken to this pile of stones by a local Arab sheik.  There they saw what remained of the 6th century synagogue after it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E.  Olefant and Schumacher were impressed and identified it as a synagogue but they did not excavate there.  (The land of Israel has a plethora of sites and there simply are not enough resources to properly excavate them all.)  The “neglect” of the site for over 100 years after its discovery allowed for modern archaeological techniques to be implemented to rebuild this synagogue. um-el-kanatir-wall

In the past 14 years, under the archaologists Yehoshua Drey, Ilana Gonen and Chaim BenDavid, the ancient synagogue of this small Jewish town on the outskirts of Sussita is being rebuilt stone by stone.  The stones are tagged and measured and computers figure out from their physical attributes and location, where they sat in the synagogue.  This synagogue is not yet open for bar mitzvahs and weddings, but has been developed so that we can visit this site of Jewish life from the past.

When Water Flows Uphill

I wrote in a previous post about an aqueduct that I came across while hiking in the Golan above Nahal Zevitan.  The technology involved in the building of this aqueduct is interesting.  The question is as follows:  how do you get water from a spring in a gully to the top of the hill where the flocks are?

First, a bit of topography.  The Golan is a raised, flat plain which is cut (along tectonic faults) by streams.  The streams are fed by springs.  North of the Sea of Galilee, the Golan plain slightly slopes to the south, providing a relatively constant decrease in elevation as you move from the Golan to the estuary of Beit Zaida on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee.  This is the area of Nahal Zevitan.  The spring which feeds the Nahal cuts a deep gorge through the plain on its way to the Sea.

The aqueduct which you meet on the path of Nahal Zevitan was built by Bedouins.  They diverted the water from the spring into the aqueduct, which has a very slight slope downwards.  The aqueduct has such a slight slope, in fact, that the slope of the plain above is greater.   The water flows down, but the elevation of the surrounding land decreases faster.  In this way, the water from the aqueduct “climbs out” of the gorge to the flocks and animal sheds on the plain.  Love the technology!

Zevitan Hike

This week school will start for Gideon and Hill.  We spent last week squeezing the last bits out of summer while trying to prepare for the upcoming year.  As part of that effort, we went hiking in the Golan – something that was missing from our summer until last week. In previous summers and vacations throughout the years, we have hiked most of the more popular hikes in the area, and last week we repeated one of the good hikes – Upper Nahal Zevitan.

What makes it a good hike?

First of all, it needs water, preferably enough water in which to swim.  Nahal Zevitan and its continuation in Nahal Meshushim have pools surrounded by the black hexagons which characterize this stream system.  The pools are cool and deep – I could not stand up even at the edge of the pool at which we stopped to swim.  The stepped hexagonal prisms provide a “diving board” up to 12 feet above the surface of the pool.  Everyone had a chance to jump into the cool water, and most did.  About 4 million years ago, Golan volcanoes covered the limestone crust with igneous basalt.  This basalt cracked due mostly to tectonic activity as the Golan lies on the upper end of the active Dead Sea Fault System.  The Zevitan Stream lies on a major surface fault and so the canyons are very steep.  Water erosion carves narrow canyons through the basalt.  When these canyons fill with water, very deep, narrow pools form.

Secondly, a good hike requires a bit of nature.  Our first foray into the Zevitan system a few years ago led to our first experience with Sabra (Prickly Pear) fruit.  Boaz convinced us that we could safely pick, peel and eat a sabra right from the cactus with only a pocket knife and a bandana.  Anyone who has tried this knows that this is almost impossible.  But the fruit looks so alluring, so juicy, so wonderfully edible that you can’t help but try.  After picking prickers out of peoples hands, arms, lips, tongues, we realized that we should leave the sabra-picking to trained professionals (or at least those with leather gloves).  The Golan is also populated by rock hyraxes which you can often see along this trail.  And the views.  The views through the crevasses toward the Sea of Galilee were exquisite.  The winding stream bed, which gives Nahal Zevitan its name, covered in low trees and bushes and yellow grasses framed the blue water in the distance from the sea – just beautiful.

The third factor in a good hike is a bit of history.  We walked for a bit in an aqueduct.  The issue of water has been a major factor in the development of history in Israel.  Here, in the Golan, the control of water is key.  In 1964, the National Water Carrier opened, pumping water from the Sea of Galilee as far south as the Northern Negev.  As a response,  Syria and Lebanon started plans for a Diversionary Canal which would take water from the headwaters of the Jordan and carry them to the Yarmuk Stream bypassing Israel. The tensions which resulted, and the tank and artillery exchanges which took place between 1964 and 1966 provide a backdrop for one of the causes of the Six Day War in 1967.  Even in ancient times, control of the water meant that you could water your fields and your animals.  In this part of the world, water is connected to survival and prosperity.  It appeared to us that the aqueduct in which we walked was modern, being lined with cement, possibly to bring water to a nearby Syrian farm, whose remains we came across later in the hike.

The last major factor in a good hike is a bit of challenge.  The beginning was filled with climbing over rocks and through pricker bushes.  My feet got totally bruised and reinforced that it really was time for new hiking boots.  Next time we do this one, we will dedicate more time to it and climb down to the base of the waterfall and continue on to the Sea of Galilee.  I like that – the plan for “next time” and how we can improve our experience and push just a little farther.  It is one of the things I like most about hiking with this group of friends.  We will be there for each other and there will be a “next time”.  The walk from the overlook of the waterfall back to the Yehudiya parking lot was, quite honestly, a bit boring, with the biggest challenge being how long it would take to hitchhike from the parking lot back to the car.  My hitchhiking karma bank must be doing o.k. – it only took Gavi and I five minutes to get a hitch.  After another 15 minutes of walking on the road, we were back to the car.

It was a fitting hike for the end of summer, with all the factors of a “good hike”.