About 45km south of Jerusalem in the Ella valley, where David fought Goliath, are the ruins of an ancient agricultural settlement beginning in Iron age II, Hirbet Midras. With the recent discovery of a Byzantine church thought to be the burial place of the prophet Zechariah* people may lose sight of the fact that the site also contained a large, important Jewish settlement that dates from the Second Temple period (3rd century BCE) until its destruction during the Bar Kokhba uprising.
The site is part of a JNF park and nature reserve covering about 5000 dunam with typical Mediterranean woodlands, Kermes oak, Atlantic pistachio, terebinth and buckthorn. When I visited there were pink cyclamen (rakafot רקפות), red anemones (kalaniot כלניות) and Common Asphodel in bloom. With the recent rains, hyssop (zatar) had come up.
There were also many clumps of mandrakes (dudaim) in bloom, the fruit, which is reported in the Bible to be an aphrodisiac, will be ready late summer, at the time of the wheat harvest.
וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ
Reuven went out and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother, Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Give me, I pray thee, of your son’s mandrakes”. Genesis 30:14
Among the remains at the site are various buildings, agricultural installations and an extensive complex of caves and tunnels, including a columbarium and tombs.
Cut out of the soft limestone is a bell cave with square and triangular niches carved in the walls that was used as a columbarium (dovecote). The pigeons were raised for food and the dung used as fertilizer. Other bell caves were used for storage and hiding during the Bar Kokhba revolt – a collection of chambers were quarried and connected to each other by tunnels. For those who like spelunking you can walk and crawl (about 20 minutes and you’ll need a flashlight and a map) from the bell cave through a circular maze of tunnels through some dozen chambers that takes you back to where you started.
At the top of the hill with a great view of the coastal plain is a stepped, pyramid-shaped structure of dressed stone, the only one of its kind in Israel. The base is about 10 meters and the present height is 3.5 meters but 3 rows of stones are missing bringing the original height to 5 meters. This structure is a nefesh or monument marking a Jewish burial cave.
There is a wall of dressed stones up the hill near the stepped pyramid and nearby part of a niche which leads scholars to identify the building as a 4th century synagogue.
On the way back down you will pass a system of subterranean burial chambers cut in the limestone. The original opening of the cave was from a square patio, the tomb opening was sealed by a large stone disc that rolled on a track in the rock.
Nearby on the western side of highway 38 is a site with Roman milestones from the third century CE, from the days of Marcus Aurelius, with inscriptions of one of the caesars names (Septimius Severus) and his achievements.
*According to Jewish and some Christian traditions the burial place of Zechariah, along with Hagai and Malachi, the last three Hebrew prophets who are believed to have lived during the 5th-6th centuries BCE is in a large catacomb on the Mount of Olives (31.783333°N 35.250833°E). Archaeological research shows that the complex dates from the 1st century BCE, when this style of tombs came into use for Jewish burial. Some Greek inscriptions discovered at the site suggest the cave was re-used to bury Christians during the 4th and 5th centuries CE.
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