Fundamentals in Hebron

Ownership and control of holy places is very much in the news these days in Israel.  Whether from committees sitting thousands of miles away or from local populations, hegemony over Israel’s holy sites is on the table.  Why people seek to “own” these sites is an interesting phenomenon and, I believe, fulfills a fundamental human need.

The human condition is  bleak – we are born, live and accomplish little, and die – quite depressing actually.  From the beginning, people have looked for a more optimistic picture.  The belief in something grander than oneself, whether that belief manifests itself as a religious faith or a belief in a cause, helps us overcome our own objective worthlessness.  Touching something physical which represents that ideal is a way to make tangible our connection to those beliefs.  Whether it was pilgrims chipping away at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher in the past or today’s marcher saving the flag from the most recent Gay Pride Parade,  physical reminders of our causes tie us to them more strongly.

Earlier this month UNESCO declared that the center of Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs  is an endangered Palestinian World Heritage site.  The Cave of the Patriarchs is the final resting place of the founders of monotheism:  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.  This declaration is one more step in distancing Jews from their holy sites, by declaring that Jewish hegemony  is “dangerous” to the site.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Hebron’s Old City and holy site  is (sic) under threat due to the irresponsible, illegal, and highly damaging actions of Israel, the occupying Power, which maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion.”

The battle over controlling holy sites is nothing new in Hebron.  The structure over the cave was built by Herod as a fortress with a mostly empty center.  In this courtyard, the Byzantines constructed a church.  Unique for the Byzantines, who persecuted the Jews and banned them from Jerusalem altogether, here, in Hebron, they actually allowed Jews access to a part.


On the eve of the Moslem conquest in 638 C.E., the Byzantines destroyed the church and tried to fill in and hide the entrance to the cave to prevent the Moslems from discovering the tombs.  Perhaps to bargain for some ownership, the Jews divulged the location of the cave to Omar ibn Hattib, the Moslem leader.  In appreciation, he allowed the Jews to build a synagogue in the courtyard, next to the newly-constructed mosque.

This Jewish-Moslem partnership lasted until 1100 C.E. when both the mosque and the synagogue were destroyed by Godfrey of Bouillon.  The Crusaders built a church and a monastery, and banned Jews and Moslems from Hebron completely.

History is fickle and in 1266 C.E. Baybars, the Mameluke, turned his sights on this Crusader outpost, capturing it and denying entrance to all non-Moslems.  Jews who wanted to touch the place where their forefathers were buried were delegated to ascending towards the building no farther than the seventh step.  Few Jews entered the building in the next 700 years.

After the Six Day War in 1967, the State of Israel claimed ownership and opened the building to all.  In February, 1994, a Jewish terrorist open fired into a group of Moslems praying at the site.  He was killed on the spot, and his actions denounced by the State of Israel.  Jewish religious leadership condemned this terror attack.  The State of Israel, in order to provide safety and security,  negotiated a division of the building, whereby everyone has (almost constant) access to parts of the building, but in separate areas.

In the light of history, one has to wonder what the UN’s agenda is in the matter of Hebron.  Claiming that it is Israel who “maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion” is ignoring history and distorting facts.  I think the UN should be protecting the rights of all who call Abraham their father to visit this site.   After all, touching holy places is fundamental for us all.


Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.

Montfort Castle

Last week took me to Nahal Kziv with a group of friends.  We parked near Moshav Hila, home to the returned soldier, Gilad Shalit and descended to the stream bed.  After playing in the clear, cool waters, we walked along the nahal for a long bit enjoying the shade.  We came across a confluence of paths – this was our sign to leave the stream bed and start the ascent to the Montfort castle (and the cars waiting beyond it).

As we crossed the nahal to leave it behind, we were met by a large wall.  Certain elements seemed Crusader, but I did not remember learning anything about the structure beforehand.  Turns out that my intuition was correct – Crusader period.

But let’s take a step back.  The Crusaders arrived in Israel in 1099.  As part of their compensation for taking part in these campaigns, territory in the Levant was granted to and purchased by Christian European Crusader families.  These landholdings were used as residences and farms, and usually made their owners very rich.  Once there was wealth, castles were built to store and protect that wealth.

Salahadin, a Moslem Ayubbid emperor, retook the countryside and captured the castles in 1187 in one massive campaign, lasting only a few months.

But the Crusaders were nothing if not tenacious.  They came back only 4 years later and were successful in recovering most of their territory (with the notable exception of Jerusalem).  The landholders, however, never recovered their former glory and became strapped for cash.  At around the same time, the Military Orders were established and were looking for centers for their operations and for their pilgrims.  The Hospetallers, the Templars, and the Teutons began purchasing lands that had previously been owned by individual families.

Each order had their own specialty; but all strove to combine a monastic lifestyle with defense of Christian sites and pilgrims.   An earlier castle existed in the current-day town of Me’iliya called Castellum Regis.  This castle was seat of the Galilean Crusader kingdom dominated by the Franks.  It was in the territory of the De Milly family until the
knight, Joscelin III of Courtenay, married into the family and inherited the castle and the surrounding countryside.
In 1220 the entire area was sold to the Teutons who began construction on the Montfort castle in 1226 – leading to the decline of Castellum Regis.  The Teutons, who had started in Akko, decided to build in the surrounding countryside a spur castle.  It is not known exactly why the location of Montfort, on a mountain spur, not on a major road, not near lush farmland, was chosen for the main castle of the order.  It could be that the knights wished to distance themselves from the competing (and sometimes hostile)
Templars and Hospitallers.  It could be that they wanted to have a remote location for their archives and treasury.  It could be that it was simply built as a lavish retreat for the Grand Master, who, it seems was a permanent resident, much in the sense that Masada was built as a refuge for Herod.

The castle was built with all the normal elements, donjon, moat, watch tower, 3 surrounding walls, and also with some creature comforts such as a waste chute.

The structure below in the Nahal which I happened upon last week is thought to be a guest house and a mill.  The streambed of Nahal Kziv forms part of the Sea-to-Sea hiking trail of today.  (I hope to hike this trail next summer with some friends/kids.)  Most likely, the path also served Crusader pilgrims trying to get from the coastline to the Christian sites in the interior.  They would not have wanted to make the arduous climb up to the castle (as my companions and I did last week – all 1200 steps up!).  It would have been much more comfortable for them to seek shelter close to the stream.

The fate of Montfort was similar to that of all the other Crusader castles of the Second Crusader kingdom.  On the 8th of June, 1271, Baybars lay siege on the outpost.  Ten days later after Baybars breached the outermost wall, the parties signed a truce which allowed the Teutonic knights free passage to Akko in exchange for the fortress.  The Mamelukes destroyed the castle and pushed remnants into Nahal Kziv.  It is thought that approximately two-thirds of the stones from the complex are now in the Mediterranean.

After hiking for 7 hours, we returned to our cars, tired, sweaty and hungry, with a bit more of Eretz Yisrael under our feet and in our souls.


Today, I had  another Places in Your Neighborhood trip  – this month, to Ramle.  We all met by the Interior Ministry local office in the mall and headed to our first stop – the Great Mosque of Ramle.
When I went to do my research in anticipation of this trip, I barely squeaked inside to see this magnificent building.  I had gotten there at 10:25 a.m. and despite the sign, the mosque is only open until 10:30.  But after repeatedly ringing the doorbell, and calling the number on the sign posted at the entrance, an elderly gentleman let me inside.  My friend and I quickly removed our shoes at the entrance to the mosque and went into the cavernous building promising to be quick and out in 5 minutes.  As we exited, I asked the caretaker what was necessary to come and visit the mosque with a group.  He replied that I needed to get there on time and then I should just ring the bell and someone would let me in.
So, today, at 9:25 I arrived with my group.  As I rang the bell and patiently waited, I started to ask them if they had ever been to a mosque before and explained that we just needed to wait for the caretaker to open.  After ringing the bell twice more, I called the number listed on the entry sign.  When someone finally answered, I was told that the caretaker is ill today and not coming to open up.  The telephone answerer was at a doctor’s appointment and couldn’t make it there for another half-hour or so (if at all).  Thus started my day in Ramle.
Ramle doesn’t run at the same pace as other places.  Yes, there is just one person to open the mosque, one person who sits at the White Tower, and a few more who work at the Pool of Arches.  If they are sick, have a doctor’s appointment, or for whatever reason can’t come to work, the sites are closed.  Calling ahead and making a reservation increases your odds of actually being able to get into the sites, but there is no guarantee.
An interesting phenomenon happened within the group after being denied access to the mosque.  They accepted Ramle for what it has become – an interesting place with a lot of history, but left in a different time.  And every site we arrived at after the mosque, and had someone there to let us in, was seen as a fortuitous event.
Downtown Ramle today is not a streamlined, modern city, but a kind of ramshackle of buildings from across the centuries.  Some of the old buildings are really decrepit, falling apart, and in some instances falling down.  We saw a building which collapsed only 2 weeks ago.  Obviously renovated in the 1950’s on a more ancient foundation, we saw how they used clay jars to fill in the spaces between the first floor arch and the second story.  Antique cars filled the streets alongside more modern buildings like the courthouse.  There are even a few buildings in the International (Bauhaus) style.
But back to the Mosque.   The Great Mosque in Ramle started as a Crusader Church.  It is one of 3 Crusader churches still standing in its entirety today in Israel (the other two being in Abu Ghosh and  in the Moslem Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City).  The style is typical Crusader Basilica architecture with a long central nave flanked by two side aisles.  Small, latticed windows, combed stones with some mason’s marks designate this building as a Crusader structure.  The Crusaders captured Ramle (without a battle) on June 2, 1099 on their way to Jerusalem.  Thinking that Ramle was the site of Ramatayim Tzofim or perhaps Rama (two towns associated with King Saul), they stationed a bishop here.  The church was constructed in the first half of the 12th century to commemorate another personality, Joseph of Aramathea (apparently Ramatayim Tzofim was equated with Aramathea) who requested that Jesus be buried in his personal burial plot.
The Mameluke Baybars conquered the area in 1266 and  in the late 13th century the church was rededicated as a mosque.  The transition from church to mosque necessitated a few changed to the interior and exterior structure.  The entrance to the church was from the short end of the rectangular building in the west, as direction of prayer in early churches was almost without exception to the east.  In contrast, entrance to mosques is from the long side with prayer being directed towards Mecca (in Israel this is to the south).  The Crusader doorway was filled in and new doors were opened in the north wall.  A prayer niche (michrab) was added to the southern wall of the church, as well as adding a minbar (raised platform from which the imam  gives his sermon on Fridays).  A women’s balcony was added, pews were removed and carpets cover the floor.  The bell tower was converted to a minaret.  Recently, green metal beams were added to shore up the building. The actual stones, the capitals, the arches, and the stark Gothic interior remain  and can be seen until today.

That is, if the caretaker comes to work.

Touch the Divine

As you turn off of the main road in the Moslem Quarter, Rechov HaGai, a sudden stillness fills the air.  You can hear yourself think as you take the widely spaced stairs leading up.  On the left you pass a door with the seven species prominently displayed and a mezuzah in the frame.  A few more steps leads you into a dark covered passageway with a golden door – a sign that the occupant has made the Haj.  Coming out of the dimness, you pass a majrasa on the right, with beautiful ablaq and mukarnas hanging down from the Mameluke structure.  Straight ahead is a small door – you would have to bow to go through the Iron Gate – the closest gate to the Dome of the Rock.  Non-Moslems are not allowed through the gate, and there is an Israeli army official who ensures that you do not enter and disrupt the delicate balance of Peace in the Old City.  As you approach the Iron gate, you can see another passage to the left which leads to one of my favorite spots in the Old City of Jerusalem – the Kotel HaKatan – the Small Western Wall.

The Kotel HaKatan is a continuation of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  Herod enlarged the tenemos which held the Temple by building arches and covering them with an expansive platform.  By the time Herod’s project was finished, the Temple Mount plaza covered 144,000 square meters.  In order to support such a massive area, he enlarged and rebuilt the walls surrounding it.  The Western Wall of today is one of those walls which supported and enclosed the Temple Mount area.  At the base of the Western Wall ran the main market of Jerusalem through the Tyropean valley.

During the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the supporting walls of the Temple Mount tenemos were toppled and pushed down onto the street which ran through the valley, destroying the stones of the street and rendering it unusable.  Jews were exiled from Jerusalem unable to live anywhere in viewing distance by decree of the Roman rulers.  Despite their physical distance, Jews throughout the world continued to remember Jerusalem and her Temple.

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”

Ruling power after ruling power continued to build and modify the city of Jerusalem.  New, Moslem structures were built on the Temple Mount, including the Dome of the Rock which sits, according to most, on the site of the Temple.  In the days of the Mamelukes, as an outgrowth of a desire to be near the Dome of the Rock, the area near the Western Wall underwent what today would be called gentrification.  The rubble, pushed down by the Romans during the destruction of 70 C.E. was smoothed over, the Tyropean valley was filled in and new houses and religious schools (majrasas) were built adjacent to the Temple Mount and at the same level.  The Western Wall itself was used as one of the walls in the structures built in this new neighborhood.

Against all odds, through the ages, Jews continued to visit Jerusalem, to cry by the Western Wall, to yearn for a return to Zion.  They traveled from far lands, over dangerous seas, through hostile peoples to reach Jerusalem.  They came on pilgrimage, to pray, pour out their souls, connect to Jewish history, national suffering, and touch the Divine.  Upon arrival, the Western Wall they found was not the Western Wall of Herod’s time with its glorious street and shopping area.  What they found was not the wide expanse of today’s Western Wall Plaza, with her myriad torah scrolls, prayer books and tour groups.  They did not meet crowds, people from all walks of life and corners of the world.  Instead, they found a small, narrow, quiet alley, very often filled with debris and trash.  Here they were alone with their thoughts, the stones, and G-d.

As you take the passage to the left of the Iron Gate, you are met with a small space open to the sky.  If you stand sideways, you can almost reach the wall which parallels the Western Wall.  Yes, these are the same stones, the continuation of the Western Wall which is the focus of the Western Wall Plaza.  Here, at the Kotel HaKatan, you feel the solitude of the pilgrims throughout the ages.  You connect with their reality – the reality of Jerusalem in the hands of another power.  You start to face the fact when the army tells you not to go into the Iron Gate – entrance here to the holiest site in Judaism is forbidden to non-Moslems.  When you breathe in the silence, and take in the enormity of the place, you can feel the weight of the ages upon your shoulders.  The centuries of yearning, the centuries of loss.  And in just one minute, you feel your prayers, your hopes, your dreams melding with those of all the pilgrims who have come before you as you, too, reach to connect to Jewish history and touch the Divine.