Tag Archives: Masada

Columbarium for doves

On one of the first trips on the guides course, we were driving along the southern coast with its sand dunes, from Gaza to Ashkelon. Haim Karel, the course coordinator, stopped the bus, we all got out and crossed the road to look at a large pit with rows of niches arranged in the walls built of kurkar blocks. The site is completely unmarked and not visible from the road – as the guide, you have to know where it is. Kurkar, is a kind of rock found along the Mediterranean coast, formed when the ocean spray carrying limestone glues the sand together to form rock. Haim explained that the structure is a columbarium, from the Latin columba meaning dove.

If you look up columbarium on the Internet you’ll find that a lot of the references are to cemeteries and crematorium. In his book on Masada Yadin describes  a circular “columbarium” southwest of the Western Palace from the time of Herod that they uncovered:

It is our conviction that this building, like similar though larger buildings discovered in Italy, was designed to receive the remains of cremations. It is probable that Herod built it for the burial of his servants, ministers or other members of his court who were not Jewish.

Two buildings, square not circular, but with similar niches in their walls, were found in the north-western part of the wall; it is possible that they fulfilled the same function.

Yadin even describes how Moshe Yoffe who worked on the excavation team  and raised pigeons at home brought in a very small pigeon but couldn’t cajole or force it into one of the niches.

In Jewish tradition where burial is outside the city and cremation is against Halacha (Jewish law) it seems unlikely; also, there were no human remains found here nor pottery shards, from the urns which may have held human ashes.

Another suggestion is that these caves were filled with water and used to raise fish. The consensus though is that they were used to raise doves or pigeons. The name columbarium comes from the Latin columba meaning dove. Doves/pigeons were used as a source of food and for sacrifice. My mother tells how in Israel in the 1950s when food was scarce and rationed, our neighbor kept pigeons and I was fed pigeon as a baby. The excrement makes excellent fertilizer for growing vegetables. The birds could be used for communication as they would fly back to their home.

But you don’t have to go as far as Masada, there are columbaria in other parts of Israel, for example, at Maresha/Bet Guvrin. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea in 332 BCE, Maresha developed as a diverse town with Sidonians, Greeks, Jews and Egyptians arriving and settling there. Residents of Maresha took advantage of the naturally soft limestone to quarry water cisterns, olive presses and columbaria beneath their homes.

Don’t miss the columbarium at Tel Maresha where you descend into a tremendous cross-shaped cave with niches for more than 2,000 pigeons; so far more than 60 columbaria have been found in the Maresha region.

Near Nes Harim there is a nice hike through the natural oak, pistachio and carob trees in the Judean hills that takes us to the spring at Hurvat Itab among olive, fig and almond trees. In a large cave nearby is a columbarium for keeping pigeons.

At Ramat Rahel, a burial cave, columbarium and ritual baths characteristic of the Second Temple period were uncovered by Aharoni (1962). The caves and columbarium were hewn into soft nari bedrock. On one of my visits to the archaeological site, I had climbed down into the columbarium to look around and was able to take this photo of one of the niches.

Masada at Sunrise

Masada is one of the most visited historical/archaeological sites in Israel, an isolated rock cliff in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea.

Masada cable carAlthough there is a cable car that will take you to the top of the mountain, a tradition has grown up to climb the Snake Path, a zig-zag trail, early in the morning in order to reach the summit in time to watch the sunrise – that’s what we did. The top is only 59 meters above sea level but remember that you’re starting at about 400 meters below sea level. You should be able to climb it in 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you want to do this the best place to stay the night before is the youth hostel at the base of Masada.

I recently read an article on the Israelity website about a group of 7 seniors from the Cedar Village retirement community near Cincinnati who came to Israel to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvahs and tour Israel including climbing Masada – their average age was 85 years old, the oldest was 97!

I guided two families traveling together, a group of four adults and five children, during their time in Israel. When we reached Masada and saw the mountain some were interested in climbing the Snake path. We didn’t really have enough time so one of the Dads suggested running it. At first no one took him seriously, so Chris said he’d do it. I showed him where the path started and he was off. The rest of us took the cable car and on our way up looked for Chris. I finally saw him on the last turn of the path before the summit – his time 17 minutes! For Bernie’s description of their experience check out their blog at http://keepingupwiththemounts.blogspot.co.il/2011/11/masada.html

Masada (from Arad)

Another option is a nice hike that starts at the same but splits from the Snake Path, you walk north on the red trail following the circumvallation wall built by the Romans around the mountain. You pass the 4th siege camp (northernmost) and follow the trail west and then south. As you climb there’s a great view of the Northern Palace hanging on the cliff and the water cisterns on the western side. You can go to see the cisterns and/or climb the Roman ramp to the summit.

Judean palm

The scientific name of the Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera refers to its remarkable ability to grow again and even fruit after near death due to drought.

The Judean palm was endemic to Israel. It is the one referred to when the palm tree is mentioned in the Bible and Koran and appears in Roman writing, referring to its medicinal properties, and is pictured on various coins. This would imply as well that the lulav or palm frond used for the Four Species (Arba’at HaMinim) on the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) would be the branches of the Judean palm. Looking at the barren landscape of the Judean desert it is hard to imagine this area covered by palm forests.

Along Dead Sea

The Judean palm, like the balsam plant that used to grow around Ein Gedi and Jericho, became extinct sometime after the Romans, around 500 CE. Today there are palm groves along the Dead Sea shore but these were all imported from the date groves of California or varieties smuggled to Israel from Iraq, Morocco and Egypt in the 1950s.

In 1973, during the archaeological excavations of King Herod’s palace on Masada, Ehud Netzer who was the architect  working with Yigal Yadin found some dry date pits. He passed them along to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar Ilan where they sat in a lab drawer for more than 20 years. Then in 2004 the seeds were rediscovered by Sarah Sallon of the Natural Medicine Research Center who passed them to Elaine Solloway at the NMRC cultivation site on Kibbutz Ketura to try to germinate them. A small specimen of pit was checked and independent carbon dating indicated the seeds are 2000 years old.

First Solloway soaked the seeds in hot water to make them once again able to absorb liquids. Then she soaked them in a solution of nutrients followed by an enzymatic fertilizer made from seaweed. On the auspicious date of the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat, the Jewish new year of trees, the date pits were planted.

Amazingly, one of the seeds sprouted. It is now about 40 months old, 1.2 meters high with a half dozen leaves. The sex of the sapling is still unknown (date palms are either male or female), but the researchers are hoping for a female, which would bear fruit.

Phoenix dactylifera growing after 2000 years.

UPDATE: An article in the Jerusalem Post reports that the Judean palm (grown from the 2000 year old seed from Masada) that has been growing in a greenhouse at Kibbutz Ketura is now 2.5 meters tall and in a ceremony on Thursday, Tu Bishvat (the Jewish New Year of trees) was transplanted to Israeli soil.

The palm bloomed in April 2011, just past it’s 5th birthday – it’s male.

  • Frankincense comes home for Christmas (blogs.timesofisrael.com) – Soloway has successfully grown frankincense from seed at Kibbutz Ketura, another native plant extinct here for over 1500 years.