Masada and Herodium

DSC_0288One of the exciting things about visiting historical, archaeological sites with a knowledgeable guide is that there is always something new. Two of the sites that I like to take visitors to are Masada and Herodium both which show King Herod’s genius as a builder and life 2000 years ago under Roman rule.


When visiting Masada you may notice recent archaeological excavations being carried out by Tel Aviv University across from the Byzantine church. The site was chosen to gain more information about the open area on the top of Masada and 2 water cisterns were found from the time of Herod that were reused when Byzantine monks settled on the site. This is additional evidence that the open area was used for agriculture and in fact study of the sediment not only identified fertilizing agents, but also yielded the first signs of the presence of grape vines on the southern part of the mountain-top, most likely indicating the existence of a vineyard. TAU’s archaeobotanical laboratory excavated probes in the hanging Northern Palace’s upper terrace, which had been suggested to be a viridarium, a small, roofless indoor garden that was popular in villas in Rome. Foerster has pointed out the architectural similarities between the layout at Masada and the Roman villa under Villa Farnesina in Rome which is thought to be the residence of Marcus Agrippa, Herod’s benefactor. When Agrippa visited in 15 BCE he brought Herod a gift from Augustus, a large stone carved washing stand and was so impressed with Herod’s building projects that he sent Roman artists and craftsmen. Visitors today can stand outside on the balcony of the Northern Palace, in the same way that royal guests stood, with a spectacular view of the Dead Sea, the Moab mountains in Jordan, and north to the oasis of En Gedi.


When visiting mountain-top palace/fortress at Herodium you will notice a similar roofless garden off the triclinium.


The Hebrew University is continuing its excavations inside the palace fortress, between the casement wall that defines the structure. Digging down the remains of cellars with vaulted ceilings were uncovered for the storage of wine. There the remains of ten gigantic pitoi, large ceramic storage jars (like the vats and wooden barrels used today in wine-making), were densely arranged in the storage space, probably used as fermentation tanks for making wine. Wineries of this type from the Roman period are known from archaeological finds from the Italian region and around the Empire. Wine was of great importance in the Roman period, and the production, importation and use of high quality wines by Herod was an expression of economic and cultural status. During excavations at Herodium and Masada, as well as other Herodian sites dozens of amphorae were discovered bearing shipping inscriptions and seals, indicating large shipments of fine Italian wine to Herod the King. Roman horticulture and viticulture practices further confirm Herod’s political and social ties to Augustan Rome.

Another surprising discovery, under the level of the courtyard were found remains of buildings and a large rock-hewn water reservoir that date to the Hellenistic period (mid 2nd century BCE). The remains were buried and sealed under the walls of the palace/fortress and under the layer of garden soil dumped in the courtyard. Until now no evidence had been found at the site of any activity prior to Herod.


Super Moon over Dead Sea, Israel

Yesterday I drove from Jerusalem down to Masada so as to be at the Dead Sea in the evening to see the supermoon rise over the Biblical mountains of Edom in Jordan. As a tour guide and photographer I can take you to places like this.



The technical details – the photo above was taken with a Nikon 5300 digital SLR camera and 18-200mm Nikon zoom lens at 6pm on December 3, 2017 (ISO 720, 16mm, F5.6 at 5 sec). I then shot the moon zoomed in as large as possible, 200mm (ISO 200, F11, 1/200 sec) and combined the 2 photographs, editing the image in Photoshop.

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in buying or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

One shot, two ways

When you’re taking photographs and looking for the best shot you have a choice of whether to shoot the scene in landscape (horizontally) or portrait (vertically). When looking at landscape photographs you usually expect the scene to be horizontal. Sometimes a vertical shot gives a very different view.

I was driving down to the Dead Sea to take clients for a hike in Nahal Arugot to the Hidden Waterfall and we were talking about desert, water and sinkholes. Since they were also interested in photography I decided we should stop to explore and photograph some sinkholes I’d seen near the checkpoint.

Sinkhole at Dead Sea, Israel

Sinkhole at Dead Sea, Israel

I took the same shot, two ways. Photographs were taken on November 2, 2017 with a Nikon 5300 DSLR camera with 18-200mm zoom lens. Technical details – ISO 250,  F11, 1/500 sec, the horizontal photo, 24mm, the vertical one 20mm.

If you’re interested in having a guide who also knows where to take you for some great photographs contact me.

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise).

Photo of the Week – Samaria

This week rather than driving up the Jordan valley on highway 90 I drove the Allon Road, an 87km long and winding road on my way to Bet Shean. This is the name given by Israel to routes 458, 508, and 578 in the West Bank, running roughly south-north along the eastern watershed of the Samarian and Judean mountains (I can also take you to Samaria-Sebaste). This is a view of the mountains along the route at sunrise.


The technical details – the photo above was taken with a Nikon 5300 digital SLR camera in October (ISO 400, 105mm, F10 at 1/250 sec).

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in buying or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Photo of the Week – Reflection on Sinkholes


These photographs are of reflections of the landscape by the shore of the Dead Sea that I saw by looking into a sinkhole that was filled with water. I am attracted to exploring the photographic possibilities of this strange and alien landscape. Because the water in a sinkhole is colored by the salts and minerals dissolved in it the reflection presents an image that is differently colored than the original.

Sinkhole I

Sinkhole II

Sinkhole reflection

The technical details – the photo above was taken with a Nikon 5300 digital SLR camera in October in afternoon (ISO 250, 29mm, F11 at 1/500 sec).

The third photograph is upside down! There is no clue of scale, so that is not a mountain. What looks like sky is water (in the sinkhole). At the top of photo is salt not clouds. About ½” from bottom you can make out a line which is the centre line of the reflection. Chosen as a Top Shot by the administrators of FB group Best Photographers.

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in buying or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Philip Evangelist at Ein Henya Spring

Today I bicycled about 6 km each way, from the German Colony (where I live) along the old train tracks to Ein Henya, a spring in the valley of Nahal Refaim, south of Jerusalem. Ein Henya is being developed as part of the new Jerusalem Park, 4 parks that form a greenbelt that extends over some 1,500 hectares (3700 acres), surrounding the city to the north, west, and south. They are still working on parking, landscaping, etc. at Ein Henya but you can visit.

DSC_0271I spoke to the supervisor and he said it would be about another 6 months before they’re finished and they are still discussing whether to fill the two pools when they are done (currently the water is flowing but rerouted and the pools are empty). So for the time being you will have to find other springs and pools in the area to enjoy.

DSC_0269The spring is typical of those found in the Jerusalem area, consisting of a dugout chamber on the side of the hill where the water flows through the water porous limestone layer and comes out when it reaches a layer of marl and clay that is more impervious to water.

DSC_0268A 39 meter underground tunnel channels the water to the ruins of a building, the apse of a 6th C Byzantine church, where it cascades down into a small pool in front of the apse framed by two pilasters. The apse gave the spring its Arabic name because henya is a round niche carved out of stone.


One tradition is that the church is named after Philip the Evangelist according to the story in Acts 8:26-40.

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

There he met a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia in charge of her entire treasury who was sitting in his chariot reading from the prophet Isaiah. He had come to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple and was returning home. The official/eunuch asked Philip to explain what was written and was so moved that when they came to the spring he requested that Philip baptize him there.

For another possible site where Philip could have baptized the Ethiopian see Ferrell Jenkin’s post.

Naharayim – Two Rivers

Driving along the Jordan valley between Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee you pass a kibbutz called Gesher (Hebrew for bridge) because on the site of the original kibbutz was a bridge that crossed the Jordan river joining Israel and Jordan. Actually there are the remains of 3 bridges, one a Roman bridge built of basalt stone, one Ottoman train bridge and one British concrete vehicular bridge.

Old Gesher

The el-Mujami Bridge (Arabic for meeting, the meeting of the 2 rivers) built in 1904 holds the record as the earth’s lowest railway bridge at 257.5 metres below sea level. The line ran from the port at Haifa following the Jezreel valley (hence in Hebrew, rakevet haemeq), with the last stop at Hamat Gader before joining up with the main part of the Hejaz railway. [The line was unused for decades until 2011 when a new standard gauge rail from Haifa to Beit She’an along roughly the same route as the historic valley railway was constructed and began passenger service in October 2016.]

One of the stops was Naharayim, the station in Bauhaus style, constructed near the hydroelectric power plant built in 1927 by Russian Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg. Rutenberg (1879 – 1942‎‎) was also a canny businessman and political activist. He was involved in two Russian revolutions, in 1905 and 1917 when he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Freed in 1918 he travelled via Moscow, Odessa, Constantinople, Marseille to UK and on to Palestine. He was a contemporary and friends with Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor and founded the Jewish Legion and was sent as an emissary to the United States. While in the US, Rutenberg completed a detailed design for harnessing Palestine’s water resources for irrigation and electrical power production.

[This is an interesting question that I was asked. “When were residents of Palestine first given citizenship?” Rutenberg became the first Palestinian citizen after the British had enacted a law creating Palestinian citizenship in 1925.]

Palestine Airways - Lachs 1937Rutenberg endorsed the Labour party and cooperated with David Ben-Gurion. He was involved in the establishment of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary during the British mandate period. He founded Palestine Airways which flew between Haifa and Lydda (today Israeli-Arab city of Lod, 15 km. southeast of Tel Aviv) 3 times a week. Shortly after it moved its base to the newly built Tel Aviv Airport (in 1940 renamed Sde Dov) and flew the Tel Aviv to Haifa route, even on to Beirut.

After submitting a plan to the Zionist movement for the establishment of 13 hydroelectric power stations and securing financing for the plan Rutenberg was awarded a concession by the British Mandatory government to produce and distribute electric power and in 1923 founded the Palestine Electric Company (later, the Israel Electric Corporation).

This site was chosen because it is the juncture of two rivers (in Hebrew, nahar is river, naharayim would be 2 rivers), where the Yarmuk river which runs along the border between Jordan and Syria flows into the Jordan river.

Dam on Yarmuk

A zero degree canal connected it to the Sea of Galilee that could be used as a reservoir, to store excess water in winter to be released in drier summertime. Construction began in 1927 and continued for five years, providing employment for 3,000 workers. A model community, Tel Or, was built for the Jewish workers who supervised the plant on 6000 dunams of land in Jordan authorized by Abdullah in exchange for electricity.

Rutenburg's power station, Naharayim

Here is an incredible photograph of the Naharayim site taken by Zoltan Kluger in 1937 as part of a set of 40 aerial photographs of pre-state Israel commissioned by Zalmen Schoken for his 60th birthday.

Hydroelectric plant Naharayim - Kluger 1937

Hydroelectric plan at Naharayim – Kluger 1937. Credit: National Library Photo Collection

In violation of international law and a November 1947 agreement between Golda Meir and Abdullah, the Arab Legion’s 4th Battalion launched a mortar and artillery attack on the Tegart police fort and Kibbutz Gesher on April 27-29, 1948. After protests to the British Mandate administration the shelling was halted – Abdullah was reprimanded for “aggression against Palestine territory.”

When an Iraqi brigade invaded Naharayim on May 15, 1948, in an unsuccessful attempt to take the kibbutz and fort, the power plant was occupied and looted – it never functioned again. To prevent Iraqi tanks from attacking Jewish villages in the Jordan Valley, Israel opened the sluice gates of the Degania dam and destroyed the bridges that joined Israel and Jordan.