Tag Archives: postaweek2011

Re-discovering Sussita

Today for my birthday we drove up to the Sea of Galilee, along the eastern shore until Ein Gev (highway <92>) and then turned off beside a field of banana plants on a road that winds its way onto the Golan. After a number of hairpin turns we reached a parking area and walked to the summit (350 meters above the lake) to the remains of the Byzantine city of Sussita (known as Hippos in its earlier Hellenistic incarnation).

d850370d850371With General Pompey’s conquest of Sussita in 63BCE it became one of the cities of the Decapolis, a group of ten Roman cities on the eastern frontier of the Empire. According to Josephus, Hippos had a mixed population of Christians (eight churches have been discovered), pagans and Jews (but so far no synagogue has been found).

Sussita is a remarkable archaeological site and yet is hardly known and seldom visited. Most of the building and the street paving stones are of black basalt (rather than white limestone) and the main Roman street that runs for a total length of about 500 meters like a spine across the top of the hill is not the usual Cardo but actually the Decumanus.

To the left of the site off the Decumanus is the bath-house with a great view of the lake below._D850349

Here is the view looking west along the Decumanus._D850344

To the north is a large public building with plastered columns and another church (NorthWest Church)._D850346_D850361

On the south side of the Northwest Church are two rectangular pools, the walls are plastered and there are steps leading down to the bottom. They look like they could be ritual baths (mikve) but actually these basins were used to collect grape juice. Next to the basins is a large area, the treading floor, where the grapes were placed and crushed by the feet of the workers in order to extract their juice._D850362Besides three wine presses in the area there is also an oil press and storage area for agriculture products used by the priests and monks.

In 2009 archaeologists uncovered an Odeon (in Greek, to sing), a semi-circular mini-theater with about 600 seats used for musical shows and poetry reading, the first to be discovered in Israel._D850352_D850354

Sussita and Bet Shean, both cities of the Decapolis;  small theaters; churches and synagogues; aqueducts; earthquakes that leveled cities until archaeologists re-discovered them – there is much to learn and experience with a guide.

You can read more about the excavations at their website http://hippos.haifa.ac.il or on FB at Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project

Just north of Timna continuing along the Israel trail you follow the Milhan ridge, a great area for hiking and photographs. We stayed overnight at the nearby campground, Be’er Milhan, a site that affords some protection from the wind (no toilets or running water). This photo was taken in the morning. Purple flowering bush is Spiny zilla (Zilla spinosa), a member of the brassicaceae family, you can eat the purple flowers which taste like cabbage.

Milhan well

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Lumix point and shoot camera in March (ISO 80,4.1mm, F4 at 1/320 sec).

For more information about desert wildflowers see my post at https://israeltours.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/desert-wildflowers/

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

Responsible Travel

In line with the United Nation World Tourism Organization’s Global Ethics for Responsible Tourism, I am committed to responsible tourism that benefits local communities and is respectful of the nature, religions and culture of the place.

Shmuel Browns, Licensed Israel tour guide #8203         

When you hire me as your guide you will be working with someone committed to the land, environment and people, to tikkun olam, the healing of our world. Here are some suggestions about what you/we can do.

When hiking take a plastic bag so that you can carry out your garbage. If you come across plastic bottles, bags, tins that others left behind add them to your garbage. Leave every place cleaner than you found it.

Take a spork (spoon/fork) and knife, a bowl and cup with you so you won’t have to use and then throw out disposable plastic.

Israel is hot so it is important to drink to prevent dehydration. It’s not necessary to buy bottled water (save the plastic bottle), the water in Israel is fine to drink.

Handling all the plastic (bottles, bags, packaging) puts a strain on Israel’s resources. Israel has a bottle law, you pay a deposit on wine and beer bottles, aluminum cans and small plastic bottles – these should be returned to a supermarket that will give you your deposit back and recycle the material; alternatively, leave these where people can collect them and get the money for returning them. Israel recycles large plastic bottles, paper and cardboard so make the effort to recycle these items in the appropriate wire cages and containers on the street.

Conserve water! With climate change Israel has had less rain and the Sea of Galillee, the main fresh water reservoir is low, below the red line. Shut the water while taking a shower and while brushing your teeth, use the half-flush on the toilet.

Plant a tree in Israel by contacting the JNF/KKL (to help offset your carbon footprint and fulfill the Biblical commandment from Lev 19:23, When you come to the land and shall have planted all manner of trees for food…). Since its inception in 1901, the JNF has planted over 240 million trees, built 180 dams and reservoirs, developed 250,000 acres of land and established more than 1,000 parks.

To plant a tree with your own hands in the soil of Israel contact the JNF/KKL to make arrangements for your family or group (give them at least a weeks notice) at (02) 658-3449 or via email michalh at symbol kkl.org.il  If you have less than 7 people you can call the appropriate forester directly. For planting in the Jerusalem area (Aminadav forest), contact Aviram at 054 622-6213 and for planting in the north (Lavie forest), contact Yossi at 050 546-9069. You can also check the JNF/KKL website.

To plant an olive tree at Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve, go to their website.

Travel by public transportation, rent a bike and walk when convenient.

Eat at restaurants that have a Tav Hevrati, “a seal of excellence that certifies business for upholding fair labor laws and implementing handicap accessibility measures. It rewards businesses that act ethically towards their workers, thereby promoting righteousness and justice in accordance with the values of justice and ethics in the Jewish tradition.”.

Hire a knowledgeable, local guide licensed by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

Choose to take a walking tour.

Visit local conservation or social projects on your trip and find out how you could help support them.

Make an effort to learn a few words or phrases in the languages spoken – here are some basics:

Hello Shalom Saalam
Please Bvakasha
Thank you Toda Shukran
Sorry Slicha Afwan
Good morning/Good evening Boker tov/Erev tov Sabah el kheer/Masaa el kheer
How are you? Ma shlomkha? Kif halek?

You can check out this website for Hebrew and Arabic words and phrases that could come in handy.


Please visit the ResponsibleTravel website for more suggestions on how to be a responsible traveler.

Cable over Hinnom valley

Walking along Derekh Hevron towards the Old City you pass the Mount Zion Hotel on your right. Without a guide it is doubtful that you will notice the coat of arms sculpted in the stone of the building or recognize its significance. This is the emblem of the Order of St. John, a British charitable organization dating back to the time of the Crusades. They arrived in the Holy Land in 1882 and purchased land opposite Mount Zion overlooking the Hinnom valley with the aim of establishing an eye hospital. The hospital served Muslims, Jews, and Christians from all over the Middle East until WWI.

During the war the Ottomans took over the building for use as an arms warehouse and parts of the hospital were destroyed by British shelling. An earthquake with epicenter near Jericho on July 11, 1927 damaged buildings in Jerusalem, including the hospital. British architect Clifford Holiday was in charge of the renovations of the hospital in the 1930s adding two new wings, the second on the other side of the road (today the Jerusalem House of Quality, a gallery and artists’ workshops, worth a visit). Holiday also built  the nearby Scottish Church on Ketef Hinnom and the original Jerusalem City Hall.

Without a guide it is doubtful that you would notice a box hanging on a cable from the corner of one of the buildings or understand its significance. During the Israel War of Independence the terrain and Jordanian sniper fire made it difficult to move men and supplies between the western part of the city and Mount Zion, both in Israeli hands. A tunnel was dug crossing the wadi but this only provided limited access. So in December 1948 Uriel Hefetz, an engineering corps commander at the Etzioni Brigade, conceived of the idea of stretching a 200-meter steel cable across the Hinnom Valley from a room in the hospital to the Israeli post at the Eretz Hatzvi school on Mount Zion. It was used during the night to transfer medicine and arms to Mount Zion and the wounded to the hospital. During the day the cable was lowered to the ground so it would not be discovered by the Jordanians. The cable was inclined with a maximum height of about 50 meters above the wadi. The cart that ran on the cable was just large enough for one person but could carry a weight of about 250 kilos. The original room has been made into a small museum housing the winch mechanism and other period artifacts.

PetitYou won’t find this anecdote in any of the guide books, another advantage to hiring a guide. In 1987, Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem invited the French high-wire performer, Philippe Petit (earlier, on August 7, 1974 Petit had walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City), to walk the inclined cable across the Hinnom valley as part of that year’s Israel Festival. The performance,  A Bridge for Peace, drew a crowd of 50,000 people from all parts of the city who stood in amazement. An Israeli, Uri Dromi wrote an Op-Ed piece in the December 16, 2009 edition of the New York Times where he reminisces about watching Petit.

This was just few months before the first Intifada, but the excited crowd that gathered there on a sunny day had no clue of the lava ready to erupt below. Their eyes were glued onto the brave Frenchman and they held their breath for an agonizingly long time until he finally touched the safe ground on the other side.

From the hotel you look across the Hinnom valley at Mount Zion, the Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Abu Tor and the Arab villages on the surrounding hills.

“This was a very important memory for me,” said Petit. “That’s what the wire can do, when you link two mountains, you link the people who live on those mountains.”

Hiking the Makhtesh

Approximately 50km from the development town of Dimona named after the Biblical city of the same name mentioned in Joshua 15:21-22 are two examples of makhteshim or erosion cirques, unique to the Negev and Sinai deserts. So far geologists have only identified 7 makhteshim, Makhtesh Ramon, Makhtesh HaGadol, Makhtesh HaKatan and two even smaller ones on Har Harif in the Negev; there are two in the Sinai. One of the special things about the Makhtesh HaKatan is that because of its small size you can view it in its entirety, a 5km by 7km oval shaped bowl with steep walls of resistant rock, in this case limestone and dolomite that covered a softer layer of chalk and Nubian sandstone that comes in colors of pink, purple, yellow and green.

There are two access points into the makhtesh, Maale Hatzera on the northern wall is more gentle, an ancient camel pass and Maale Eli. We started our hike from Maale Eli a route originally discovered by local Bedouin that traverses the steep limestone (from the Cenomanian epoch 100 million years ago) walls of the makhtesh connecting the floor of the makhtesh with Hatzera Ridge. I’ve heard various reasons for the name – Eli means upper from the same root as ascend; Eli means pestle to the bowl-shaped mortar of the makhtesh. In fact, it is named after Eli Ben Zvi, son of Rahel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi who was the second president of Israel. Eli was wounded during a training exercise with the Palmach in the makhtesh in the 1940s and this ascent was discovered in evacuating him to the nearest road joining Beersheva to Maale Aqrabim, the Scorpion Ascent built by the British. Like Masada the Makhtesh HaKatan became a symbol of knowing the desert and the land of Israel by a people who had come home after 2000 years of exile.

We descended the steep walls of the makhtesh on a serpentine trail with the aid of rungs and railings, 400 meters to the floor of the makhtesh. From there we followed the red trail east (also marked as part of the Israel trail) passing hills and cliffs of colored sandstone to the mouth/exit of the makhtesh. The colors are produced by iron oxides, the sand from erosion of the Arabo-Nubian Massif carried all the way here by riverbeds. The hike is suitable for good hikers and should take about 4 hours.

By the paved road that leads to the exit is an electricity tower and piled at various levels are branches that look like the nest of some large bird – they were deposited there in 1994 and 2004 when there were torrential rains and the water reached that high.

For those looking for a long day hike you can follow the Israel trail starting at the Tamar fortress and descending into the makhtesh at Maale Hatzera. You walk south on the blue trail to the mouth of the makhtesh and when you get to the water pumping station you take the red trail west across the makhtesh climbing up at Maale Eli. Continuing another 10km to the Makhtesh HaGadol will take you past the spring of Ein Yorqeam, definitely worth a visit.

The British figured that it would be worth drilling for oil in the makhtesh, erosion has already gotten rid of the hard rock and hundreds of meters of sand. They did not find any but for the same reason it is worth drilling for water. The sand in the makhtesh acts as a large aquifer though the water is quite salty. The water is piped to a reservoir on Mount Tzafit from where it is used by industries on the Rotem Plain.

Kathisma Church

Aerial photo of Kathisma site, IAA

Despite the many people traveling along the main road to Bethlehem (or Gilo or Gush Etzion) before the turnoff to Har Homa and Herodium few notice the ruins of a 5th century Byzantine church and monastery. Discovered by chance in 1992 when the road was paved and excavated briefly in 1999 by Rina Avner, the site is worth exploring but lies abandoned due to lack of money, time and initiative. Called the Kathisma church, after the word in Greek for seat (καθισμα), according to Christian tradition it is where Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem just before giving birth to Jesus.

Most Byzantine churches are in the shape of a basilica, a rectangular plan with a central nave and two aisles, with a semicircular apse at the far end. Not exactly a church, the Kathisma is a martyrium, a special structure that functions as a church (or mosque) and marks the site of a holy event. Rather than a basilica, the church is octagonally shaped and built over a flat, protruding rock in the center. There are 3 concentric octagons, the innermost one around the rock, the second a walkway (ambulatoria) with one chapel and the outer one made up of 4 chapels and smaller rooms.

The floors are covered in mosaics in geometric and floral designs in white, black, yellow, green and red stone tesserae. The mosaics have been mostly covered with felt mats and sand to protect them.

Kathisma palm mosaic from Arab period, IAA

One of the finest mosaics is from the Arab period, an ornate mosaic of a date palm in the southeastern corner. According to the Koran, Mary sat and rested under a palm during the onset of her labor.

There are ruins of another octagonally shaped church at Capernaum. The remains of a 5thC church were uncovered that consist of a central octagon with eight pillars, an exterior octagon with thresholds still in situ, and a portico. Later an apse with a pool for baptism was constructed in the middle of the east wall. The central octagon was placed directly on top of the walls of Simon Peter’s house with the aim of preserving its exact location.

The floor of the portico is a geometric patterned mosaic. In the area of the external octagon, the mosaics represented plants and animals in a style similar to that found in the Basilica of the Heptapegon at Tabgha. In the central octagon, the mosaic was composed of a strip of flowers, a field of fish with small flowers and a circle with a peacock in the center.

Another church that is octagon-shaped and crowned by a copper dome though enclosed in a rectangular envelope is the church on the Mount of Beatitudes. The church is from 1938 and was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in neo-Renaissance (Byzantine) style.

He chose the octagonal shape to match the eight beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-5) and on the eight stained glass windows beneath the dome are verses from the Sermon.

There are only a couple of other churches that have been built over a rock, the Basilica of the Agony and the Basilica of the Heptapegon but neither is an octagon.

According to our understanding the Kathisma church was renovated in the 6thC and used as a mosque in the 8thC after which it was destroyed. A mihrab, or prayer niche facing Mecca was built into the southern wall of the outermost octagon. This means that the church was not destroyed during the Persian conquest and existed at the time of Abd el-Malik who commissioned the building of the Dome of the Rock, a martyrium in octagon shape over a rock – it may have been the inspiration for what has been called the earliest example of Islamic architecture.