Herodion: Herod’s Fortress-Tomb

What an eventful few weeks the tail end of winter has been!  The end of February and the beginning of March saw lashing rains and icy winds, not to mention one of the nastiest, dirtiest election campaigns in living memory – culminating, yet again, in an indecisive result in which it seems that neither of the two leading candidates may be capable of forming a government.  In all that, I found time for another field trip with Yad Ben Zvi, and a visit to the opera.  And now we are in the midst of this awful Coronavirus epidemic. Many of you are possibly “confined to barracks” (ie. stuck at home), whether because you have been exposed to the virus and are in self-isolation, or because you live in one of those countries where restrictions of various degrees have been imposed by the authorities, or because (like me) you are afraid to go out for fear of unwittingly coming into contact with  someone who has been infected and does not yet know it – or because, with shops, schools, places of entertainment and many places of work having been temporarily closed down, there is simply no-where to go!
Whatever the reason, you now have plenty of time for reading and so I am inviting you to join me on another virtual field-trip through the highways and byways of Israel.

At the end of February, after several days of heavy rains and thunderstorms, the skies miraculously ceased their weeping on the very day scheduled for our tiyul.  It was still cold and heavily overcast, and I had a fold-up umbrella discreetly packed in my knapsack – just in case.

We were headed for Herodion, Herod the Great’s palace-cum-fortress, and eventually, site of his tomb.  Situated some 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem and 5 kilometres south-east of Bethlehem, it was built – so we are told by the Jewish historian Josephus – in commemoration of Herod’s victory over the Parthians.

Josephus describes it thus:

And as he transmitted to eternity his family and friends, so did he not neglect a            memorial for himself, but built a fortress upon a mountain towards Arabia, and named it from himself, Herodium, and he called that hill that was of the shape of a woman’s breast, and was sixty furlongs distant from Jerusalem, by the same name. He also bestowed much curious art upon it, with great ambition, and built round towers all about the top of it, and filled up the remaining space with the most costly palaces round about, insomuch that not only the sight of the inner apartments was splendid, but great wealth was laid out on the outward walls, and partitions, and roofs also. Besides this, he brought a mighty quantity of water from a great distance, and at vast charges, and raised an ascent to it of two hundred steps of the whitest marble, for the hill was itself moderately high, and entirely factitious. He also built other palaces about the roots of the hill, sufficient to receive the furniture that was put into them, with his friends also, insomuch that, on account of its containing all necessaries, the fortress might seem to be a city, but, by the bounds it had, a palace only.

(The Wars of the Jews I,21:10)


Herodion is visible for miles around, even from Jerusalem. I used to be able to see it from my old apartment.  Josephus described the hill as being shaped like a woman’s breast, although to my mind, it seems more like a volcano:



At the foot of the hill is Lower Herodion, where Herod built, among other things, a great pool, with a pavilion on an island in its centre. The pavilion was once covered by a roof, supported by columns. The water was brought to the pool by aqueduct, from the springs of Artas near the so-called Pools of Solomon, to the west (about which, more later). The pool, which was plastered, served in Herod’s time as the main reservoir for Herodion, and was also used for swimming.




And here is a view of the Lower Palace complex, seen from above:




The Lower Palace complex was surrounded by porticoed gardens, the remains of whose columns can still be seen. It served Herod for entertaining (and impressing) his friends – but it was vulnerable. Herod, as we know, was paranoid to the point of insanity – perhaps, after all, not entirely without reason. A lot of people had just cause to wish him dead. He therefore had another palace constructed on top of the hill, which rose 60 metres above its surroundings. This palace was more of a fortress – a peculiarly Herodian design, which he repeated in other places, the best known of which is probably Masada.  The design is circular.  Two massive concentric walls, with 2.5 metres between them, towered 30 metres high, and were protected by four towers. The fortifications surrounded a palace-fortress seven storeys high. Five storeys towered above the central courtyard, and two more were basement storeys.  Of the four towers, three were semi-circular. The eastern tower, built on bedrock, was circular and, at a height of about forty metres, was the largest of the four. The Royal Suite on the top floor offered a panoramic view over the Judaean desert, as well as the possibility of enjoying a refreshing breeze on even the hottest days.










After construction of the fortification around the hill, an earth rampart of considerable height was laid against its outer foundations.  This gave the hill its conical shape, as well as artificially raising its height.

Within the fortifications, stood Herod’s private palace, of modest size but luxuriously appointed. The King spared no expense.  There was, for example, a fairly lavish bath-house, consisting of two changing rooms (apodyteria), a large caldarium, or Hot Room, heated by a hypocaust,  a round tepidarium (Tepid Room) with a domed roof (the earliest of its type to have survived in Israel), and a small frigidarium, or Cold Room.  The latter included a stepped pool which may have served as a mikveh (ritual bath).

Here, you can see the domed roof of the tepidarium:



And in this picture, you can see the remains of the hypocaust which heated the caldarium:



You can see the low pillars which supported the floor, under which the hot air flowed and, if you look carefully at the wall, you can see the flue-channels in the walls through which the hot air rose to the barrel-vaulted ceiling,  heating the whole room.

Here we can see the remains of some decorated pillars:



Excavations are still in  progress on the site and new discoveries are being made every day.




One of the most interesting discoveries was the triclinium or reception hall.

It had a mosaic floor and frescoed walls and a roof supported by columns. Later, during the Great Revolt (66 – 70 CE), the triclinium was converted into a synagogue by the Jewish fighters, who added stone benches on three of its sides.  It served as a synagogue also during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132 – 136 CE).

Herodion was situated in the middle of nowhere, basically, and a major problem which Herod’s architects and engineers had to solve, was the lack of water.  I have already mentioned the aqueduct which brought water from Artas to the pool in Lower Herodion.  In addition,  cisterns below the fortress were filled with rainwater and three large cisterns were cut into the hillside, whence it was drawn by servants, in jars and water-skins, and carried to another cistern at the top of the hill, which was probably always kept full.

Here we can see part of the underground water system:


During the Great Revolt, the Jewish fighters excavated a tunnel to ensure the supply of water to the rebels in the Palace Complex, which was besieged by the Romans. This enabled them to bring water from the cisterns to the fortress, without being exposed to the enemy.

Sixty-five years later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Jewish fighters greatly expanded the underground network, and constructed a maze of high-roofed assault tunnels, to enable the swift passage of armed warriors, who could thus make surprise attacks on the Romans and disappear back “into the mountain”, before the enemy knew what had hit them. Two of the exits from this system of assault tunnels have been uncovered near the remains of what is now believed to have been the site of Herod’s tomb.



On exiting the underground complex, we came across Head Restorer Fuad Abu-Ta’a, who told us, with a grin, that he was “building antiquities” – restoring the small royal theatre where Herod would have entertained his special guests.

Here, too, a monumental staircase was discovered:



Adjacent to that, were the remains of what was identified by Prof. Ehud Netzer  as Herod’s Mausoleum.

Prof. Netzer (1934 – 2010) was a world expert on Herodian architecture, and the driving force behind the development of Herodion as one of the National Parks. He had searched for many years for King Herod’s tomb. Many of his predecessors had believed that the tomb was in one of the towers of the palace-fortress. Netzer believed that the mausoleum would be found outside, at the foot of the mountain.  That was how he discovered the lower city, which I described above. However, he did not find the tomb and he therefore began to search on the artificial slopes. In 2007, he began to excavate the slanted wall that encircled the mountain, halfway up its steep slope. He believed that if he dug along this wall, he would eventually find the tomb. After many months of digging, nothing had yet been discovered and so Netzer decided to take a break for a few months, clean up the excavation area and prepare the reports on the finds from Lower Herodion for publication. Reportedly, he remarked to one of his colleagues that the tomb might be cursed and that, when he finally discovered it, something bad would happen.

During the cleanup operations, a fragment of a reddish stone sarcophagus, decorated with a carved rosette, was discovered, as well as the remains of two other white stone sarcophagi, so magnificent that he was convinced they could only have come from King Herod’s tomb. Shortly afterwards, the excavation team unearthed ornamental carved stones and the remains of a monumental building. Eventually, the base of the mausoleum itself was discovered on the north-eastern slope of the mountain, facing Jerusalem and close to the monumental staircase.

The mausoleum itself, was destroyed during the Great Rebellion against Rome and the sarcophagus of the much-hated king was smashed to smithereens by the rebels, such was the loathing felt for the usurper.

On the site now is a scaled-down model of the mausoleum:



Here is the view from the windswept hill Herod chose for his final resting place:









After the discovery of the mausoleum, Prof. Netzer contnued to excavate the surrounding area – excavations which led to the discovery of a small theatre (with room for about 400 spectators) and a lavishly decorated chamber which probably served the king and his guests. Neither the theatre nor the royal chamber are open yet to visitors.

Prof. Netzer’s remark about the mausoleum being cursed, proved eerily prophetic.  On October 25th, 2010, he was surveying the site together with the curators of a projected exhibition at the Israel Museum.    He sat down to rest and leaned against a railing, which gave way, hurling him down to the theatre below, where he struck his head. He died three days later, at the age of 76.
Our guide told us that Prof. Netzer’s widow remarked that her husband had died in the very place where he would have wanted to meet his end.

I mentioned before that water for the great pool in Lower Herodion was brought from the misleadingly-named “Solomon’s Pools” in Artas. Their construction is attributed to King Solomon (10th century BCE) on the flimsy evidence of the verse in Ecclesiastes 2, 6:

I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the wood springing up with trees.

Most scholars nowadays, however, believe that the pools date from the 2nd – 1st centuries BCE, that is to say, from the Hasmonean era. The three pools are situated just outside Bethlehem, in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, so we were unable to visit them, but merely to view them from the nearest high point overlooking the reservoirs (the Israeli settlement of Efrat). The pools were part of a complex water system, the later part of which may have been built by Herod the Great, which included at least five aqueducts, as well as natural springs.  Two of the aqueducts led to Jerusalem.

Here, we can see the Lower Pool. I had to use the maximum zoom on my camera, so the quality is not all that good.


The water system continued to supply water to Jerusalem, on and off, for two millenia, including during the British Mandate and even afterwards, by the Jordanians – until 1952, according to our guide.

As I mentioned above, two of the aqueducts led to Jerusalem. One of them, the Lower Aqueduct, also known as the Hasmonean Aqueduct, includes a tunnel which cuts through the ridge separating the Armon Hanatziv neighbourhood from the Old City of Jerusalem. This section is 423 metres long. The entrance is a five minute walk from my father’s house and yet this was the first time I had visited it!

It is very narrow.  For this reason, at the entrance, visitors are required to squeeze through a gateway no wider than the narrowest point of the tunnel. Those who fail to do so are not allowed to enter the tunnel, in order to ensure that no-one gets stuck down below!

It is also very dark.
Definitely not recommended for anyone with claustrophobia, a weak heart or a tendency to panic attacks!

The tunnel’s exit is just below the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, within the boundaries of the Arab village of Jebel Mukaber:


All Jerusalem now lay before us, including the Dormition Abbey and the Old City, all the way to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and beyond:






As this was the end of the day’s tour, I now left the group and lightly tripped to my father’s house for a brief visit and thence, to my own home, a short walk away.

Our next field-trip, which was to have been last week, has been postponed till the end of April – not because of the COVID-19 crisis, but because our guide has been called up for military reserve duty.  In the meantime, I shall not be going anywhere, except maybe to the supermarket to buy (but NOT hoard) food, as we have all been asked to play our part in the war against the invisible enemy (the Corona Virus) by not leaving our homes unless absolutely necessary and keeping ourselves to ourselves, in order to minimise physical contact with others and thus help to prevent the spread of this plague. It isn’t exactly a curfew – not like in Italy. But, as I said, in any case, there isn’t anywhere to go and I certainly don’t want to risk being ill.

One thing worries me more than the virus. No, not the blow to the economy, although that too is cause for great concern. What worries me most is the Blame Game being played by so many. When the crisis started, I wondered if maybe this epidemic had been sent by the Almighty as a punishment for all the causeless hatred in the world. Then I thought, perhaps it is a test, to see if we can all overcome our differences and learn to work together. But I fear that, if the latter is the case – if it was meant to be a test – then we are failing lamentably.

What do you think?

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In Search of the Crusaders

February is often the rainiest month here in Israel, and, indeed, we seem to have had more than our fair share of downpours this month, some of them very heavy indeed. However, once again we were lucky when, on the latest field-trip with Yad Ben Zvi, at the beginning of the month, we set out to uncover relics of the Crusader kingdoms in the Sharon plain.

The Sharon plain, although possibly the most densely populated part of Israel, does not feature heavily on the usual tourist route. Indeed, on my return to Jerusalem in the evening, when I mentioned to the taxi driver where I had been all day (most of the drivers in my regular taxi company know me and my regular activities), his response was: “I didn’t know there was anything to see there!”

Our first stop was the Poleg River Reserve. The Poleg River – well, it’s more of a stream actually – runs through what remains of the Wood of Arsuf, which Richard the Lionheart’s army had to cross on their way to the fateful Battle of Arsuf on September 2nd, 1191, in which Richard’s army defeated the Saracens, ending Saladin’s reputation for invincibility and (temporarily) restoring Christian rule over the central Levantine coast, including Jaffa.

The name Poleg is derived from the Arabic name, Wadi el-Falik, meaning “the wadi that divides/splits”. It was so called because it runs east to west, splitting the Sharon plain in two. In the past, the river channel was blocked by a ridge of kurkar, a type of sandstone, and the resulting build-up of water caused swamps to develop. An opening was therefore dug in the ridge some time during the Bronze Age which again became clogged up and had to be reopened in the Byzantine Era. Of course, over the years, it again became clogged up and swamps developed once more.  It was last cleared again in 1935.

Here, we can see the opening in the ridge:




Along the banks of the stream is a nature reserve and, on the day that we visited, there were several school groups there, include a group of kindergarteners, who came to enjoy the first blossoms of spring:





Or maybe they were the first blossoms of spring  🙂





From Nachal Poleg (nachal – נחל – a stream, in Hebrew), we drove to Qaqun, where there are the ruins of a crusader fortress, one of several dotted about the Sharon plain. People think the Crusaders came to the Holy Land simply to liberate the Christian holy places from Muslim control, but the truth is, in many cases, they were driven by lack of land in feudal Europe, where inheritance laws ensured that the eldest son inherited the entire family estate. The Crusader kings granted lands to their followers, who built castles and levied taxes from their tenant farmers, just like in Europe, while these nobles continued to owe their service to their own feudal overlords.



As you can see, Qaqun, (known then as Caco or Cacho), commanded a strategic position over the Sharon plain.














By the 20th century, an Arab village stood here.  During Israel’s War of Independence, the armies of seven Arab states invaded the nascent Jewish state, among them, units of the Iraqi army. Qaqun’s commanding hilltop position made it a danger to the surrounding Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim (who had been suffering attacks from the village since the Arab riots of 1936 – 1938). Moreover,  the invading Arab armies intended to use Qaqun as a jumping-board to slice the new state in two at its narrowest point and press through all the way to the coast. The Israeli High Command therefore decided on a mission to capture this strategic point.

It was estimated that the enemy forces comprised about 200 local Arabs, a company of professional soldiers from the regular Iraqi army, and an Iraqi armoured division.

The mission was entrusted to the Alexandroni Brigade and took place on June 5th, 1948. The fighting was fierce, in many cases, the ill-equipped Israeli forces, faced with regular Iraqi troops, fought the enemy face-to-face with their bare hands.  The fighting went on all day but by the time it died down, the Israeli force had gained the upper hand.

Sixteen Israeli fighters fell in the battle. Incredibly, it was only ten years ago that a fitting memorial was erected to their heroism.




As you can see,  the monument consists of stone “cutouts”, beside the very blocks from which they have been cut.  The empty spaces represent the fallen soldiers (the Hebrew word halla– חלל – meaning “an empty space”, is also used for a fallen soldier).

We were supposed to visit the archaeological site of Apollonia next, but these places close early in winter, and our guide preferred to take us to two less well known sites instead.  So we went first to Umm Khaled, in Netanya.

After the crusaders were driven from the Holy Land, the Muslim rulers devised a system of defence based on a chain of  “shrines” along the coast, designed to ensure a constant flow of (Muslim) pilgrims who would keep an eye out for any further Christian incursions. No matter that, very rarely, were the Muslim saints after whom these alleged “tombs” were named, actually buried there. In fact, the Muslims often simply took over Crusader  sites and “converted” them to Islam.

One such was Umm Khaled, (literally: The Mother of Khaled) in Netanya.
The site is in the centre of the oldest part of Netanya and has been grossly neglected. In fact, if we had not been on a field-trip specifically dedicated to the history of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, we would never have stumbled upon it, or, if we had, we might have simply mistaken it for a garbage dump. But a Crusader castle certainly stood on this site, recognisable as such by the remains of its square tower, thick stone walls and the remains of its pointed archways.



It has been suggested that this was the estate of a Crusader noble called Roger of Lombardy.

The remains on the site show that it had been settled for many hundreds of years before the Crusaders and that it was destroyed during the Great Jewish Revolt between 66 – 70 CE,  indicating that it was a Jewish settlement. In fact, graves found on the site point to Jews having lived there at least as far back as the Hasmonean period.

During the Byzantine period (4th – 5th centuries CE), there was a Samaritan settlement on the site, which was destroyed during the Samaritan Revolt of 524 – 529 CE.

After the final defeat of the Crusaders, the remains of the castle served as a khan, or caravan inn, for travellers on the coastal road. This was during the Mameluke period (1260 – 1517).

At all events, as I mentioned above, the Arab invaders “converted” it to a Muslim shrine, in memory of Umm Khaled, the mother of Khaled, a Muslim saint.  In the 18th century, an Arab village grew up around the site, and was named after the mother of Khaled ibn Al-Walid, one of the commanders of the Muslim army at the time of the Arab conquest of the Levant in the first half of the 7th century CE. According to Arab legend, his mother was buried nearby.

In the 1920s, a  Jewish settlement group purchased lands from the mukhtar of the Arab village which had grown up around the site, and these lands formed the nucleus of what is now the city of Netanya. For a time, the two communities existed side by side, but in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, the Arab villagers – like many Arab communities who had been warned by the Arab leadership to flee, either because they would get in the way of the advancing Arab armies, or because (so it was claimed), the Jews would surely slaughter them – disregarded the pleas of their Jewish neighbours and the nascent Israeli leadership, to stay put and live in peace with their Jewish neighbours, choosing, instead, to flee and join the Arab exodus. Later, of course, the Arab leadership accused the State of Israel of “ethnic cleansing”.

While we were there, we also saw the famous old sycamore tree which is the pride of Netanya.



The exact age of this sycamore, the circumference of whose trunk is about 8 metres, is not known – can only be known, indeed, by cutting it down and counting its growth rings. However, it is mentioned in mediaeval sources, so we know it is at least 600 years old. But, according to some, it might be as old as 1,500 years.  To know why, we have to return to Khaled ibn Al-Walid and his mother, who, according to the legend, accompanied him on all his journeys.  On one of these journeys, she grew very tired and asked her son to stop so that she could rest. A dutiful son, he paused the march, in the region of what is now Netanya, and his mother lay under a big, shady sycamore tree and fell into a deep sleep, from which she never wakened.  Grief-stricken, her formidable son, whom Muhammed himself had named Saif Allah Al-Maslul (The Drawn Sword of Allah) buried her under the self-same tree and forbade anyone ever to touch the tree or cut it down.

Our last port of call was the Sidna Ali mosque on the shores of Herzliya Pituach (an up-market neighbourhood of Herzliya), all that is left of the Arab village of Al-Haram, which stood on the site till 1948, when its inhabitants fled, for the reasons described above.  Part of the village land had been sold to Jews in the 1920s, to found what was to become the Israeli city of Herzliya.  During the Arab Revolt of 1936 – 1939 (against the British Mandatory authorities), some of the villagers were hauled before the Arab rebel leaders and condemned for having sold land to Jews.  On the whole, however, relations between the villagers and their Jewish neighbours were good and indeed, former residents of the Arab village have testified that representatives of the Jewish town had guaranteed their safety.

At all events, the Mosque, which was handed back to the Muslim religious authorities in 1990, is said to mark the burial place of Ali ibn Ullim, who, according to one tradition, was killed in battle against the Crusaders near Apollonia, round about 1250. Written sources, however, say Ali ibn Ullim was killed in 1081, fighting against the Byzantines.
Tradition had it that Ali did not want a roof over his grave and indeed, any roof that was built over it, eventually collapsed. His reputed grave stands in the courtyard of the mosque.  In the wall beside the grave, there used to be a black stone, now gone,  which believers held to have the power of determining if a person was speaking the truth or falsehood. The person being examined would be blindfolded and made to stand a few steps away from the stone. He would then be told to march forward, holding his arm out in front of him. If his hand touched the stone, he spoke the truth. If not, he was a liar who must pray for forgivness and make atonement at Ali’s tomb.

At all events, we were unable to enter the mosque since, by the time we arrived, the sun had almost set and the hour of evening prayer had arrived, so we had to content ourselves with hearing about it from outside and watching the flaming sky turn to dusky purple as night fell.





















I hope you have enjoyed this trip and will join me on my next trip – (to Herodion) – whenever I find the time to write about it 😉

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A Busy Month

A famous quote by the British author, Saki would have it that “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.”
With all due respect, I believe that description fits the people of Israel even more. Hardly a day passes by without some new uproar. Wars, terrorist attacks,  visits by foreign dignitaries from all over the world which turn the lives of our citizens (at least of those in the capital, Jerusalem), upside down, leading to the lock-down of entire neighbourhoods to ensure the security of VIP convoys, not to mention three general elections within the space of one year (the third is due to be held exactly one month from today). It is no wonder that I seek respite in music, (my choir, a subscription to the opera) and in field-trips and nature rambles the length and breadth of the country.

I started writing this blog in order to bring Israel’s point-of-view to the world. As I tried to find ways to cushion myself against the political and social turmoil surrounding me, the blog itself underwent a change, focusing more and more on what I would call “the beauties of existence”.

I am beginning to wonder, however, if I have not allowed myself to be sidetracked into abandoning my original purpose. That may be the reason why I have allowed the first month of 2020 to pass without writing about TWO field-trips with Yad Ben Zvi, as well as an opera and an “internal” concert with my choir.

At the same time, I know that there are not a few of you out there, who – for reasons of poor health, disability, the great distance, or the cost – can only dream of a visit to the Holy Land, and for whom my descriptions of these tiyulim fill a genuine void.  For you, then, here is a partial description of at least some of my activities this past month, starting with a visit on January 1st, New Year’s Day, to the City of David excavations in Jerusalem.

It has been claimed by some that the excavations in the area known as Ir David (עיר דוד – City of David), which are carried out under the auspices of what the hostile international press likes to call “a Jewish settler group” are politically motivated. There is an element of truth in that. It is important that we prove, in the face of “Palestinian” lies, the long-standing and continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem. However, unlike the Muslim Waqf, which has been illegally digging under the Temple Mount mosques and deliberately destroying evidence of the Jewish presence on the site in pre-Muslim times, the City of David excavations have meticulously preserved Christian and Muslim Arab antiquities, incorporated them into their Sound and Light presentations and proudly display them to visitors.

This was not my first visit to the City of David site with Yad Ben Zvi and I have written, on this blog, about previous visits. This time, however, we were fortunate enough to be able to visit some parts of the excavations not yet open to the general public, such as the Herodian street leading from the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam/Silwan) to the Temple Mount – following in the footsteps of pilgrims who arrived in Jerusalem to visit the Holy Temple. They would purify themselves beforehand, before making the ascent to that holiest of places.

The street lies below the present-day street level.  Here, we can see an ancient manhole, at the entrance to the street, which is at present in a tunnel. still being excavated.  This is thought to have been part of the ancient water system.


We followed a tunnel which is believed to have been a drainage tunnel beneath the Herodian street. When we later emerged, into the ancient street itself, with its massive paving slabs, we could see drainage channels and more manholes.



In another subterranean tunnel, as yet not open to the general public, we saw mysterious signs cut into the floor. Various theories have been put forwards as to their significance, such as being part of a game played by besieging soldiers to while away the time, but their true purpose is still anyone’s guess.



Above ground, we revisited what Dr. Eilat Mazar believes to be the palace of King David – a belief which is hotly contested by other archaeologists.



Nearby are the remains of a a burnt room and a building known as the House of the Bullae, dating to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. These bullae were official stamps with which documents would be sealed. Some of them bear names which are known to us from the Bible, such as Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, a high-ranking official in the court of King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36: 9-12).




And here, we can see more fire-gutted remains from the First Temple period:


Descending to yet another subterranean tunnel, our guide showed us a coin dating back to the time of the Great Revolt (66 – 73 CE).


As he described the way the Romans hunted down the Jews who were fleeing the burning city through the tunnels, I could not help thinking of another Jewish revolt, almost nineteen centuries later – the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – and of the stories I have read of how the surviving Jewish fighters fled via the the sewers, and were hunted down by the Nazis, who piped gas into the sewers to ensure none escaped.

Two weeks later, we had another field trip, this time to Caesarea, and the impressive water system built by the Romans to supply water to the city, built by Herod the Great, which later became the seat of the Roman prefect of Judaea.

Caesarea is famous for its aqueduct – or rather, aqueducts. We visited Jisr e-Zarka, an Arab village whose name means “The Blue Bridge” or “Bridge Over the Blue” –  a reference to the nearby Taninim (Crocodile) River. Don’t worry – there are no crocodiles there (at least, not any more). There are, however, the remains of an aqueduct believed to be part of one which ended in Caesarea.


The second picture shows dedicatory plaques affixed to one of the supporting arches of the aqueduct. One mentions the emperor Hadrian, the other bears the insignia of the Tenth Legion Fretensis, whose engineers are preseumed to have built the aqueduct.

We were supposed to visit the Taninim River Nature Reserve, where there are other impressive remains, but it was closed, due to flooding caused by the previous few days of heavy rains. So we headed directly to Caesarea, most famous for its Roman theatre:






The theatre, which has been restored, is still used for concerts and shows.

I know my Christian readers will be interested in this replica of an inscription unearthed during the excavations of the Roman theatre. The original is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The inscription informs us that Pontius Pilate dedicated a building to the Emperor Tiberius.

Caesarea was fully Romanised, with all the amenities a Roman citizen would expect to find in a civilised city. Besides the theatre,  it boasted a stadium, hippodrome and even public bath-houses and latrines.



There were elegant villas, with elaborate mosaic floors:



And there were libraries. We deduce they were libraries from the niches in the walls, where scrolls would have been stored:







Some of the magnificent buildings went right down to the shore:











Most spectacular of all are the remains of the Great Aqueduct that runs along the sea-shore:



















The best time to walk along that shore is, unquestionably, at sunset:










And if you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse, through the arches of the mighty aqueduct, of the sun, as it sinks to rest in the Mediterranean Sea.





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In Search of the Maccabees

Hanukkah is just days away, so it was entirely fitting that this month’s archaeological field trip with Yad Ben Zvi should have been devoted to sites associated with the Maccabees and their descendants, the Hasmoneans.

We started out under ominously threatening grey skies. In fact, I even had a fold-up umbrella tucked away in my backpack – although, as it turned out, I didn’t need it.

Our first visit of the day was to the Tel Gezer National Park.  Gezer has a very long history, dating back at least to Canaanite times.  Situated at the junction of the coastal highway  – the famous Via Maris – and the highway connecting it with Jerusalem, through the Valley of Ayalon, on the border of the Judaean Hills and the Shefelah, it was of great strategic importance. From Gezer, on a clear day, one can see all the way to Tel Aviv in the north-west, and as far south as Ashkelon and the Philistine cities on the coast.





Among the finds dating to the Canaanite period found at the site is a series of megaliths, large standing stones, whose exact purpose is unknown but which are presumed to have served some cultic purpose.  Some have suggested they are gravestones, but nobody knows for certain.


Other finds from this period include the remains of part of the city’s defenses – a tower and part of the wall on which it stood:



The Bible tells us Gezer was allotted to the tribe of Ephraim, but that the latter failed to dispossess its Canaanite inhabitants, who continued to live side by side with the Israelites, as servants to the latter (Joshua 16:10). At some time, the Egyptians gained the overlordship over the city, because the Tell-el-Amarna letters include letters from the king of Gezer, swearing loyalty to Pharaoh. At all events, the Bible tells us that when King Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter, Gezer was part of her dowry (1 Kings 9:16). Solomon then rebuilt the city, which Pharaoh had burnt, and fortified it.

A gateway, which resembles similar gateways from the Solomonic period at Megiddo and Hatzor, was identified by the Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin as being from the period of King Solomon, and is popularly known as Solomon’s Gate, but most archaeologists believe it is a couple of centuries later.





Probably the most famous artefact unearthed at Gezer, is the 10th century BCE Gezer Calendar, a limestone plaque unearthed in 1908, by the Irish archaeologist, R.A. Stewart Macalister. Written in an ancient Hebrew script, it appears to be an agricultural calendar, detailing the various agricultural activities to be carried out each month.  The original is now in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul, together with other archaeological finds (such as the Siloam Inscription) unearthed in the Holy Land during the Ottoman period. There is a copy in the Israel Museum, and another (larger) copy in situ at Gezer:



It was Macalister, also, who identified this spot as the site of ancient Gezer, when he found 1st century BCE boundary inscriptions cut on rocks, in ancient Hebrew and Greek letters, positioned in such a way that a traveller coming from one direction would see the Hebrew inscription, while someone coming from the opposite direction would see the Greek inscription.  It is likely these were markers showing the Sabbath boundaries – the distance it was permissible for a Jew to travel on the Sabbath.

Here is our guide with a picture of the boundary inscription. The Hebrew reads “Boundary of Gezer”.



Further confirmation that this is, indeed, the site of biblical Gezer, is to be found in the Arabic name for the place,  Tel el-Jazari.

Also to be found at Gezer is the largest and oldest water system of the ancient Near East. Crucial to the defence of the city, it was originally thought to date from the Solomonic period, but is now believed to be even older, probably Canaanite.  It consisted of a tunnel, down which the water carriers would descend to a spring. It was usually young girls who were sent to fetch water and the long descent down the ill-lit tunnel must have been quite scary – although one can imagine that they probably went in a group.



Fast forward to the Maccabees.  We learn from 1 Maccabees 9: 52, that the Greek Seleucid general, Bacchides, fortified several cities, among them Gazara (Gezer) and stationed troops there.  In 1 Maccabees 13: 43 – 48, we learn that Simon, the brother of Judah the Maccabee, captured Gezer, drove out the idolatrous residents – whose lives he spared – replacing them with observant Jews, fortified it and built himself a royal residence there. Testimony to the Jewish presence there in the Hasmonean period can be found in the existence of several mikva’ot (stepped pools for ritual bathing).

From Gezer, we proceeded to Modi’in. The precise location of the village or town from which the Maccabees came is uncertain, but it was in this general area. One of the candidates for the site of the Hasmonean town is the archaeological site of Khirbet Umm el-Umdan, on a hill to the north of the road joining the modern town of Modi’in with the Latrun Junction. The site was uncovered during salvage excavations carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, during development of one of the neighbourhoods of the modern town.

The excavations revealed six main settlement strata from the Persian, Hellenistic/Hasmonean, Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic periods. The major finds that were discovered – a rural settlement with a central lane flanked by residential structures and a public structure identified as a synagogue – date from the second century BCE to the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132 CE).
Also discovered were winepresses, a columbarium, water cisterns – and a mikveh (ritual bath), seen below.



Near the mikveh, two seals connected with the wine industry were discovered, indicating that those involved in the production of wine followed Jewish law regarding ritual purity.

And here, we can see the mosaic floor of one of the winepresses:



The most important find was, of course, the synagogue. Originally built in the Hasmonean period (2nd century BCE)  it is the first synagogue from that era to have been identified in archaeological research. In the Second Temple period, synagogues were, by and large, places of assembly and for communal Torah reading. After the destruction of the Temple, they became places of worship – although some scholars believe synagogues as places of worship existed even earlier.



The square slabs you can see protruding from the floor are the bases of pillars. The Arabic name Umm el-Umdan means “Mother of Pillars”. But the archaeologists who excavated the site believe it also preserves the name Modi’in.

Just outside the synagogue, to the east, is a large courtyard or assembly space.  It was on this side that the entrance to the synagogue lay. Perhaps it is fanciful of me, but it is not too difficult that to imagine that this was the very place where the officers of King Antiochus assembled the Israelites, to enforce the Seleucid king’s decree to sacrifice to the Hellenistic gods (1 Maccabees 2: 15 – 28) and where Mattathias, the priest, killed the Jew who was ready to perform the sacrifice, as well as the king’s commissioner, and fled with his sons to the hills, after raising the battle-cry: “Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah … now follow me!”

Our next stop was Emmaus, one of the fortresses constructed by the Seleucid general Bacchides around Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XIII, Chap.1, 3). The Greek name, Emmaus, was derived from the site’s Hebrew name, Hammat, meaning hot springs. Long after the Hasmoneans, the city continued to enjoy its hot springs – which may account for the  Roman bath-house found on the site.



Since, prior to its excavation, all of the lower part was below ground and only the upper floor with the domed roof was visible, local Arabs assumed it was the tomb of a sheik and called the place Sheik-Ubaidah, after Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, the commander of the invading Muslim Arab forces who fought the Byzantines, and who died of the plague in 639 CE. However, it was not until the 13th century that the site was converted into a Muslim shrine but it is in fact a Roman bath-house dating from the 3rd century CE, when the town was known as Nikopolis. Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah actually died and was buried in Syria.





It was at Emmaus that Judah the Maccabee, with only 3000 ill-equipped troops, defeated the vastly superior Seleucid forces commanded by Gorgias (5000 infantry and 1000 cavalry),  taking them by surprise after an all-night march, appearing from the east with the rising sun at their backs which dazzled the enemy forces (Josephus, Antiquities XII, Chap.7 ,3-4).

Emmaus is also of importance to Christians, being the site where Jesus, after his resurrection, is said to have met two of his disciples who did not recognise him, but who bade him stay with them for the evening was drawing near. According to Luke 24, 13 – 35, he did, indeed, go with them and broke bread with them, whereupon they recognised him, just before he vanished.
For this reason, Emmaus-Nikopolis became an important site during the Byzantine period, the seat of a bishopric. Two basilicas were built there, in the 5th and 7th centuries. Destroyed in the Arab invasion in the 7th century, the church was rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Crusader church was known as the Church of the Maccabees, according to the Franciscan Custos (Guardian) of the Holy Land, Boniface of Ragusa, Bishop of Ston, in his 16th century manual for pilgrims.



There is also a small museum on the site, where mosaics found there are displayed – some of them quite extensive and well-preserved:





Not all the mosaics are in the museum, however. Some remain in situ:



The site is now the home of the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes, which seeks to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Our last port of call was the nearby Khirbet  el-‘Aqd, or Horvat Eked, a hill to the east of Roman Emmaus, where there are remains of what are believed to have been the fortifications of Bacchides:



As you can see from the photographs, the site commands a wide strategic view of Modi’in and Beit Huron to the north, the Shefelah to the south, the Judaean Hills to the east,  and the Valley of Ayalon to the west.



And it was as the sun sank slowly over the Valley of Ayalon that we took our leave of the Maccabees and headed back to Jerusalem.












We shall meet the Maccabees again next week. Sunday night marks the start of Hanukkah. Two nights later is Christmas Eve. To all of you who are celebrating either – or both – of these festivals, I would like to wish a hearty Chag Sameach – HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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Autumn Attractions

After the excitement of the High Holydays, life could seem a little flat. Fortunately, November saw the start of the new academic year, with two new Open University courses – one, on music (The 4 Symphonies of Brahms) and one, continuing my exploration of the Bible. This year’s course deals with the northern kingdom of Israel, concentrating on the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Moreover, I signed up for another course of field trips with Yad Ben Zvi. This time, I chose a series of archaeological tours, focusing on the latest archaeological discoveries in Israel.

The first field-trip took place on a sunny Wednesday in mid-November, in the middle of a heat wave. The temperatures were between 28 – 30 degrees Celsius as we drove north to the Beit Shean valley, which is, in any case, one of the hottest places in the country.


We started the day with a visit to the Crusader fortress of Belvoir, or Kochav Hayarden (כוכב הירדן  –  Star of the Jordan) as it is known in Hebrew.  During  the Roman and Byzantine periods, there was a Jewish settlement nearby, known as Kochav or Kochava (Star) and that name is preserved also in the Arabic name of the fortress, Kawkab al-Hawa (Star of the Winds).



On approaching the site, the first thing one encounters is a sculpture garden, exhibiting the works of Yigal Tumarkin.



Strangely enough – or maybe not – the shape of the sculpture featured above echoes the shape of the pointed archways of the fortress.



The fortress was built by the Knights Hospitaller in 1168, on a plateau 500 metres above the Jordan River Valley, which commanded the approaches from Gilead, on the eastern side of the Jordan, to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here, the Knights held off Muslim attacks even after the crushing defeat suffered by the Crusader armies at the hands of Saladin on July 4th,1187 in the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, in October of that year.  But after a siege lasting a year and a half, the Saracens succeeded in breaching the eastern wall of the fortress and its defenders decided to surrender, on January 5th, 1189.




We travelled next to the nearby Beit Shean National Park, which encompasses both Tell Beit Shean, the site of the Biblical city, and the later Hellenistic and Roman city of Scythopolis.

Beit Shean, strategically situated at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley, was allotted to the tribe of Menasseh, but owing to the military superiority of the Canaanite inhabitants,  they were unable to dispossess the latter (Judges 27:28). After the defeat of the Israelite army led by King Saul, on Mount Gilboa, where Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, met their deaths, the victorious Philistines stripped his armour, cut off his head and nailed his body and those of his sons, to the walls of Beit Shean. When they heard what had been done to the body of their king, the men of Jabesh-Gilead, east of the Jordan, came stealthily by night and took down the bodies, which they then took back to Jabesh-Gilead for honourable burial (1 Samuel 31:6-13).

Alas, I have no pictures of the Tell, the earliest part of the city, because after we had climbed it, in the hottest part of a very hot day, I felt faint and had to sit down and close my eyes, so I missed this part of the tour 😦

At any rate. the city eventually fell to King David, whose son, Solomon, made it an administrative centre for the region (1 Kings 4:7-12). With the conquest of the Galilee by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, in 732 BCE, the site was destroyed by fire, as we can tell from the layer of burnt debris and pottery vessels dating from this period, which was excavated by archaeologists from the Hebrew University, led by Prof. Amihai Mazar, between 1989 – 1996.

In the Hellenistic period (3rd – 1st century BCE), a new city was founded on this spot, and named Nysa-Scythopolis.  Local legend has it that Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, buried his nurse, Nysa, here and then settled the region with Scythians from among his followers. The story about Dionysus, we can, of course, dismiss – but it is possible that Scythian mercenaries from the army of one of Alexander the Great’s successors, settled there as veterans and gave the city its name.

At the end of the 2nd century BCE, the Hasmoneans conquered the city and expelled its gentile residents. The city remained predominantly Jewish until the Roman conquest in 63 BCE, when the Jews again became a minority. The city itself became the most important city in northern Israel, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis.    Magnificent public buildings were built, adorned with statues, decorated with mosaics and engraved with inscriptions.

Here is a panoramic view of the ruins, seen from the steps descending from the Tell:



And here is the theatre. Built in the 1st century CE, it could hold 7000 spectators, in three tiers of seating, of which only the lowermost was preserved intact.















Behind the theatre, you can see one of the main streets, known as Palladius Street, a 150-metre-long colonnaded street which crossed the city from the slopes of the Tell to the theatre.



It was built during the Roman period and renovated during the Byzantine period, when the portico was added. This was in the days of the provincial governor, Palladius, as we know from a dedicatory inscription which archaeologists found in the portico mosaic – which is why they called the road “Palladius Street”.



In the centre of Palladius Street was a semicircular concourse, dating to the Byzantine period, surrounded by rooms which might have been shops – one of which, at least, may have been a brothel. Several of the rooms were paved with coloured mosaics.




One mosaic depicts Tyche, goddess of luck and fortune (hence her Latin name, Fortuna),  the guardian goddess of the city, wearing a crown representing the city walls and bearing a cornucopia.



It is likely that the “golden Jerusalem” which Rabbi Akiva bestowed on his wife, Rachel, was something similar.

At the end of the street, we can see an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and modern art.



Another important feature of the Greco-Roman city was the bath-house. At least two have been excavated in Beit Shean.

Here is one, featuring a typical Roman heating system. Yes, 2000 years ago, the Romans had central heating and hot, running water – thanks to the hypocaust.   See the link for an explanation of how it worked.





When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 CE, the Jewish citizens of Scythopolis were slaughtered by their gentile neighbours.

During the Byzantine period, the city, which had previously had a mixed population of pagans, Jews and Samaritans, became largely Christian, with a population of between 30,000 – 40,000. However, after the Arab conquest, the population dwindled and the city’s importance declined, until 749 CE, when a severe earthquake dealt the city a blow from which it did not recover until modern times. The name Scythopolis sank into oblivion and was replaced by a small rural settlement nearby known as Beisan – the Arabic name preserving the ancient, Biblical name.

Meanwhile, the once thriving city lay in ruins, its mighty columns and carved capitals lying where they had fallen, struck down by the implacable forces of nature, until archaeologists began researching the ancient city in the 1920s.  So far, only about one tenth of the city’s area has been uncovered.




















Our last port of call was Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, to see the replica of a mosaic inscription found at nearby Tell Rechov. The original is in the Israel Museum. The inscription is worded similarly to portions of the Jerusalem Talmud relating to mitzvot (religious obligations) which are only relevant and binding in the Land of Israel, such as tithes and the Seventh (shmita) year, when the land was to lie fallow.  The inscription, therefore, can tell us a great deal about the boundaries of the Land of Israel at the time the inscription was made.



We sat there, listening, fascinated, as our guide, Eran (whose in-laws live on the kibbutz) expounded on the Halakhic (religious-legal) significance of this find, while flocks of birds flew overhead, as the sun slowly set.





It was completely dark by the time we left, and drove back to Jerusalem, under a full moon.

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Grecian Getaway – Day 7: All Good Things Must Come to an End

The following day was to be the last of our tour.  After breakfast, we loaded our suitcases onto the bus and set forth for Veroia or Veria. Here, too, there was a Jewish community as early as the 1st century CE (possibly earlier), to which the Apostle Paul preached (Acts of the Apostles 17, 10). In the New Testament, the town is called Berea.  Our first stop was the synagogue, which is no more than 200 years old, but which, tradition has it, was built on the site of the same synagogue where Paul is supposed to have preached and is thus of interest to Christian visitors. For Jews, however, it has more recent, tragic associations.

There were about 600 Jews living in Barbouta, the Jewish Quarter of Veria, at the start of World War 2.  In May 1943, the occupying Germans locked up some 424 of them in the synagogue, where they were held for three days without food or water, before being deported, first to Thessaloniki and thence, to Auschwitz.  None of them survived.
136 Jews escaped deportation by fleeing to the mountains and joining the Resistance. 123 returned after the war, to find their homes occupied by Greek Christians. Most of the survivors left Greece, for Israel or the United States.


There are no longer any Jews in Veria, but a handful of non-Jews are determined to keep alive their memory. One whom we met, quite by chance, outside the synagogue was the operatic soprano, Sonia Theodoridou, herself a native of Veria, seen here with Yours Truly, on the steps of the synagogue.


Sonia related to us how she had come to learn the tragic history of the Jews of Veria and how she was determined to see the memory of that history preserved – a promise on which she made good this autumn at the Thread of Memory event.

We wandered through the picturesque streets of the Jewish Quarter, where many houses still bear evidence of their original inhabitants, such as Hebrew inscriptions:


This inscription, for example, reads:  “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning”, together with the Hebrew date 5619 (equivalent to 1858/59 CE).




The river Tripotamos runs through the town, although it is more like a stream than the river its name (meaning “three Rivers”) would suggest.




This inscription reads “In Memory of the Destruction”, 5642 – 1882.




Another non-Jew helping to preserve the memory of the Jews of Veria is a local teacher and lay-preacher whose young daughter, Efgenia, impressed us all by reciting, in Hebrew, the lineage of all the Kings of Israel and Judah and who, when we took our leave, joined us in singing the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope).





Next, we headed for nearby Vergina, (or Aigai, as it was known in ancient times), site of the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, founder of the Macedonian Empire.
The unlooted tomb was discovered and excavated in 1977 by the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos, and a museum complex was constructed around it, in the shape of an ancient tumulus, so that entering the museum is like entering a tomb. Photography is forbidden in the museum and while, left to my own devices, I would probably have disregarded the prohibition, we were accompanied by an official guide, which made it much more complicated. He was, I must say, a very good guide, who took us round all the important exhibits and explained everything in such a way as to bring it all to life.

Some of the exhibits, such as the golden wreath-like crowns which adorned the heads of Philip and one of his wives, were quite exquisite. There were also gold-threaded burial shrouds, jewellery, weapons and armour, including King Philip’s ceremonial shield, cooking implements, eating and drinking utensils, statues and figurines, all wonderfully preserved.  And, most important of all – the tombs themselves – not only of Philip, but also of his ill-fated grandson, Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great and the Sogdian princess Roxana.  The young prince, rightful heir to his father’s kingdom, was murdered together with his mother by Cassander, who had married Alexander the Great’s half-sister Thessaloniki (after whom that city is named) and who seized the throne of Macedon for himself.

Since, as I said, visitors are not permitted to take photographs in the museum, Here is part of a BBC documentary programme about it the discovery of the tomb, its relics and their significance:


For the archaeology buffs among you, here is a link to a full length documentary about the ancient tombs and the relics found there.

As we had a plane to catch at 6:50 p.m. it was now time to head back to Thessaloniki, enjoying some last views of the beautiful Macedonian countryside on the way.













After a very late – but very necessary – lunch in the food hall of one of the city’s largest shopping malls, we headed for the airport.
It did not take long to complete the formalities of check-in, security, and passport control.
The flight home was short. However, because I had relied on another member of the group who lives in my neighbourhood, who swore she could get us a taxi home for no more than 200 NIS, I had not made arrangements with my usual taxi driver, who would have done it for 250 NIS.

Big mistake.  All the taxi drivers at the airport wanted between 320 – 350 shekels. After what seemed like an eternity, we found one who was willing to take “only” 300 shekels.

I got home shortly before midnight.

Did I go straight to bed? By no means. My cats had strewn litter all over the place and I could not – absolutely could not – go to bed before cleaning up a little bit, at least.  After that, I thought I might as well at least start unpacking my suitcase. Consequently, it was nearly one o’clock before I retired, exhausted, to my bed, where I fell asleep almost immediately.


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Grecian Getaway – Day 6: Jerusalem of the Balkans, Madre de Israel

There has been a Jewish presence in Thessaloniki (or Salonika, as it was known to its mostly Sephardic, Ladino-speaking Jewish citizens) for over 2000 years.  According to some researchers, Jews have been there since the city’s foundation, in 315 BCE.  Others believe that Jews from Alexandria who arrived circa 140 BCE, were among the first Jews to settle there. There was certainly a Jewish community there by the middle of the 1st century CE, when the apostle Paul preached before them on three consecutive sabbaths (Acts of the Apostles 17, 1 – 2).

The Jewish community continued to exist in Thessaloniki during the Roman and Byzantine eras. These Jews were known as Romaniotes. They spoke Greek and had Hellenized their names.  In the 14th century, Jews began to arrive from other parts of Europe – first from Hungary, then from the Iberian peninsula and from Provence, and later, from Italy,  fleeing persecution in those countries.

But the greatest influx came after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, in 1492. By this time, Thessaloniki, like the rest of Macedonia, was under Ottoman rule, having been conquered by the Turks in 1430. By the 16th century CE, Sephardic Jews constituted more than 50% of the population of the city. So great was their influence that non-Jewish residents who had to do business with Jews learned to speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and the city became known to Jews from other countries as “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. For the Ladino-speaking Jews of Salonika, their city was La Madre de Israel – the Mother of Israel.  The Jews were active in all walks of life, they were merchants, bankers, industrialists, lawyers, teachers, fishermen, peddlars, seamstresses and stevedores. In fact, well into the 20th century, when the city was already once more under Greek rule, the Port of Thessaloniki was closed on the Jewish Sabbath.

In 1917, five years after the restoration of Greek sovereignty over Thessaloniki, a massive fire devastated the city, leaving 52,000 Jews (who had been concentrated in the area of the city worst hit by the conflagration) homeless.  Most of the synagogues, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions were also destroyed in the blaze. Moreover, vast numbers of  Greek Christian refugees from Asia Minor flooded into the city, boosting the efforts of the Greek government to “hellenize” it. For them, “Greek” meant Greek Orthodox Christian.  Antisemitism began to rear its head and the status of the Jews (who had lived in the city for far longer than most of the new “Greek” residents) began to decline. Jews were accused of not wanting to blend in with the rest of the Greek population and in 1931, there was even an antisemitic pogrom in which an entire Jewish neighbourhood was burned, leaving one person dead and 5oo families homeless. By the time World War 2 broke out, the Jewish population had declined from about 93,000 to only 53,000.   Many of these took part in the war against the Italian invaders, but on April 9th, 1941, the Germans, who had occupied central Macedonia, marched into Thessaloniki. For the city’s Jewish population, it was the beginning of the end.  About 3000 of them managed to escape to other parts of Greece. The rest were rounded up and sent to the death camps, most of them to Auschwitz. It is estimated that fewer than 2000 survived.

The Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki, housing half a million graves, was also desecrated by the Nazis, with the active help of the municipality, which had, for years, wanted to expropriate the land. It was never returned to the Jewish community and today, the site is occupied by the Aristotle  University of Thessaloniki.

As you can imagine, today, there is no longer much physical evidence of the once great Jewish community, Jerusalem of the Balkans,  Madre de Israel.  There are a few mansions, built for the wealthier members of the community, such as the Villa Bianca, commissioned by the Jewish industrialist Dino Fernandez-Diaz in Art Nouveau style. The owner’s daughter, Aline, eloped in 1914 with a Christian officer in the Greek Army, creating a great scandal which provided food for the Press for many weeks.  But the marriage lasted until the couple died just months apart, fifty years later.  The building now houses the Thessaloniki Municipal Gallery.



Another mansion, the Villa Allatini, built for the Jewish mill-owner Charles Allatini, today is home to the Regional Authority of Central Macedonia, while the Macedonian Folklore Museum occupies the Modiano family mansion.  The Modiano family originated in Livorno, Italy and settled in Thessaloniki in the 16th century. One of its sons, the architect Eli Modiano, was responsible for the design and building of the Modiano Market and also of the Thessaloniki Customs House.

We started our tour of Jewish Thessaloniki with a visit to the Monastirioton Synagogue, so called because it was constructed in the 1920s with funds contributed by Jews who had fled from Monastir, in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, during the Balkan Wars and World War 1.
Several members of our group with antecedents hailing from this part of the world, were moved to find their own family names commemorated in the synagogue.





The synagogue also has a small museum attached.  However, most of the exhibits relating to the Jewish community of Thessaloniki are to be found in the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, where, unfortunately, photography is prohibited.


Strict security protocols are in place at the entrance to the museum – a sad testimony to the rise in both antisemitism (as manifested in Greece’s Holocaust-denying, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party) and Islamic terrorism against Jewish communities in the Diaspora, seen as “proxies” for Israel. One has to pass through double doors, and only when the outer door has been closed behind the visitor does the inner door open – and vice versa.

After the museum, we visited the railway station from which the Jews of Thessaloniki were deported to the death camps  in freight cars which must have been very similar to the ones pictured below:




Here, we held a brief memorial ceremony and one of our group recited the Kaddish.
I was asked by our guide, Natalie, to sing something (she had been asking me for a song ever since learning I sing in a choir). Although almost choked with tears, I sang a song in Ladino, in tribute to a community that was once and is no more.

Our final stop on our tour of Jewish Salonica was Eleftherias (Freedom) Square – the place where, on Saturday July 11, 1942, (known as “the Black Shabbat”) all the Jewish men of Thessaloniki between the ages of 18 – 45 were forced to gather and were publicly tortured and humiliated by the Germans. Today, it is the site of the Holocaust Memorial:



I have mentioned before, in a previous post, the Israeli singer Yehuda Poliker, son of Holocaust survivors from Thessaloniki.  Here he is, once more, singing, in Greek and then in Hebrew, “Wait for Me, Saloniki”.




The Holocaust memorial is almost on the waterfront. From there, we went to see the iconic White Tower, symbol of the city:





Proceeding along the seafront promenade, we came across this ship, which is, in fact, a cafe:



Finally, we reached the imposing statue of Alexander the Great,  6 metres high and sculpted by Evangelos Moustakas.


















We now made our way back to the centre of town, where we passed by the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda:















And finally, there was also the Bey Hamam (Loutra Paradisos), the first Ottoman public bath built in Greece, by Sultan Murad II in 1444:


Eventually, we reached the market:










Here, I had lunch, in the same restaurant where I had eaten on the first day of our tour  –  a very light meal, because we were planning on going out to a taverna again that evening, our last evening in Greece.

This taverna, the Palati Taverna,  was more expensive than the one to which we had gone on our second evening and the food wasn’t quite as good or as plentiful, but I thought the music was better. The band was good, the bouzouki player was a virtuoso:


And, as if to reassure us that Jewish life is returning to Thessaloniki (or perhaps in tribute to those 700,000 Israelis who are expected to visit Greece this year), the lead singer regaled us with what seems to have become quite a popular number amongst Greek taverna singers (the singer at the Ladadika taverna also sang it) – Halleli Yerushalayim Et Adonai (Praise the Lord, Oh Jerusalem):

It was a fitting end to the sixth day of our tour.


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