Another archaeological site, an ancient synagogue, a closed museum, a missed robotic cowshed, and a look at the town where the Holy Ghost met Mary.

18 superimposed layers of continuous habitation spanning 3000 years is the hallmark of Beit She’an, one of the more extensive archaeological sites in Israel.  As much history as you can dig up all over Israel, it has to be said in all fairness to other countries, that most of it is not very spectacular or attractive.  Piles of rocks and a few columns, cisterns and crumbling roads is the typical picture.  You have to be an enthusiast indeed to go from one to the other.  Not like Egypt, where every temple offers another spectacular setup or Greece or Turkey, where ancient remains are more extensive and visually impressive.

For Israel’s standards, Beit She’an stands out with an impressive Roman Cardo, a large amphitheater, and an impressive bath, aside from numerous heaps of rubble representing everything from shops to residences.  One of the best preserved areas is the public latrine; always a fun spot.  Ephesus has one of the better ones, but this one really gave you an idea how the ancients took care of their needs, squeezed between two slanted rocks, sitting side by side; public was no understatement.  There was no privacy.  Fig leaves were provided, too.

It has been raining in Israel ever since I arrived.  The beauty of the rain is that it comes with force, pours down its holdings within 10-15 minutes and then the day is as clear as if nothing happened.  At Beit She’an it was a full thunderstorm going and going this way with thunder and lightning.  I sought shelter in the canvas-covered Byzantine bath area and came to sit next to Professor Paul from Texas, who was there with a group of students.  Just like I used to travel with EMU students years ago, there were two staff members – a historian and in this case a bible-historian.  He was off duty and we started to chat about Tel Arad.

I asked him about the theory Howshua had presented to us – Tel Arad being the real Jerusalem and Jerusalem as we know it just being a “distraction”.  He had never heard of it and laughed it off.  But even he had to admit that the mainstream approach of Tel Arad as a complement to, or in competition with the main temple in Jerusalem left many unanswered questions and gaping holes.  This is part of the fun, and the danger of course, of sorting out history. You can almost always create the narrative that fits your purpose and twist the evidence your way.  There is perhaps no better example than the recent history of Israel itself.

According to ancient history, King Saul was killed here and his head was hung at the city walls of Beit She’an by the Philistines in the 11th Century BC.  Not bad for a claim to fame.

Along the way to Nazaret is one of the many Kibbutzim of the area.  This one has a similar story as the one near the Sea of Galilee which now houses the “Jesus Boat”.  Here, in 1928, two Kibbutz members came across an old mosaic which turned out to be the floor of an ancient synagogue known as Beit Alpha.  Today, a multi-media show and a small museum are part of the ways the kibbutz survives and attracts visitors; more about this mosaic in tomorrow’s blog.

A small museum of modern art was operated by the Kibbutz Ein Harod along the way, but since it was Friday, it had closed early.  It would have been fun to lighten the day with something modern after everything else we saw was old.

A brown sign indicates sites of cultural interest nearly anywhere in the world.  A brown sign reading “Robotic Cowshed” was a curiosity we could not resist.  But it took us on a  wild goose chase into yet another Kibbutz.  The roads were empty (preparations for Shabbat must have been in full swing) and there were a few cows, a few goats and a few barns, but nothing of cultural importance we could make out.  Oh well.  Get a few, lose a few…

The town of Nazaret, today home to a mixed population of Muslims and Christians, was our final stop.  Nazareth cannot compete with Bethlehem or Jerusalem but still is an important stop if you trace places important to Christianity.  After all, it is here where “it” happened.  Either it was Joseph or the Holy Ghost – you be the judge of that.  Just imagine what the world would be like without Mary’s pregnancy?  My guess is that one of the other prophets, teachers, messiahs who roamed the land at the time of Jesus would have eventually spread a similar message; social and political conditions were ripe.  But I know, this is heresy in the eyes of some, so I will leave it at that.

A tasty dinner at a small Arab diner with a nice big draught beer  and a small glass of Arak (Anise Schnapps) rounded out the day.

Good night.



A visit of the ancient port town of Caesarea.

Old and new don’t harmonize very often, but in Caesarea restaurants, bars, galleries and shops have been integrated into an outdoor archaeological museum in a way that works.  It provides the locals with a place to get away and tourists with a place to hang out.  For a mixed group like us – Maria and I will see “stone after stone” without complaint, David is patient either way, whereas Jack is demanding his frequent cappuccino breaks – this worked really well.

The archaeological part consists of an ancient Roman theater – now used for contemporary concerts and plays.  Race track, temple remains, baths, residences, and harbor fragments have been excavated and are left as is.  A not so spectacular aqueduct set against the Mediterranean Sea makes for a breathtaking site.  If it had not been quite so windy, we would have loved to go for a swim.  Instead we fought against the wind to keep our balance, were chewing sand and within minutes had a skin that felt like sandpaper from the fine dust which stuck to our sun-screened faces.

From the Phoenicians to the Ottomans, this site was recognized for its potential as a port.  In a very tacky film we watched some of its historic developments.

A few things stuck out:

Everyone in the long line of rulers over this area came in, conquered its predecessor, and then snatched the port as an asset developing it on the foundation of the predecessor.  Archaeological layers attest to that.  The Mamluks however, came in to conquer and left a wasteland behind.  We have seen that before at Akko and elsewhere.  Why?

One of the most innovative construction techniques was used by the Romans to expand the harbor:  Huge wooden grid-boxes were built containing volcanic ashes.  They were sunk into the sea and by coming in contact with water the ashes hardened and formed a solid building foundation!   That’s how they could expand construction far out into the sea; truly remarkable.

And finally – how come we no longer use any of these areas but turn them into tourist attractions?  Every place we have been to in the last few days, used to be a functional human habitat – now we stroll around here, poke our noses into the past and click around with our cameras.   Something seems really decadent about this.  But that’s the way it is.

One gallery displayed “Israeli Soft Paintings”.  I had no idea what to expect.  But a unique “painting” technique was practiced there by five artists in residence who claim to have invented this process.  From synthetic material – recycled plastic bottles and such – a felt-like “canvas” is prepared and tufts of material in different dyes are tacked into it with a needle.  The image at that point is very fluffy and three dimensional.  A tool containing 100 needles is then used to pad it all down further.  And in the final stages, a 14,000 needle “iron” does the final touches and smooths out the material into a nearly 2-dimensional “painting”.  This painting will not fade, not collect dust, not attract bugs, and will even be fire resistant; all because of the synthetic fiber.  Well, there is something new!

This was a more leisure day than yesterday as we only tackled one thing for the day.  A nice kosher neighborhood family diner rounded out the day and for once I got some blog-work done.

Good night.