I often write about terrorist attacks here in Israel, but I already posted in my Facebook account about two deadly atrocities carried out during Pessach by “Palestinians”, in one of which, a British-Israeli mother and two of her daughters were murdered in cold blood after their car was forced off the road, and in the second of which (later the same day), an Arab-Israeli citizen rammed a car into a group of British and Italian tourists, killing one and injuring seven others, so I will not write about them again here. Nor will I do more than mention two more terrorist attacks. Earlier this week, on the eve of Memorial Day, a car driven by an Arab from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Tsafafa deliberately rammed into a group of pedestrians crossing the road near the Machane Yehuda market, injuring five people before being shot dead by a bystander. One of the victims, a man of 80, is still in critical condition. The following morning, “Palestinian” terrorists carried out a drive-by shooting attack on a group of runners who were taking part in a race in memory of Israel’s fallen. But I prefer to write about positive experiences for a change. So instead, I will invite you to join me on a recreation of a field trip I took the week before Pessach (Passover) with Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the fifth in the series on Biblical archaeology which I am taking this year.
The sky was partially cloudy when we set out from Jerusalem at 8 o’clock in the morning, heading for a site which has seen many battles throughout its millenia-long history – Megiddo, or, as it is known to the many Christians who believe it will be the site of the last battle of all, Armageddon, a Greek corruption of Har Megiddo (Mt. Megiddo – although it is not really a mountain but a tell, a mound artificially created by many layers of human occupation).
The city of Megiddo already existed in pre-Israelite times. It enjoyed a strategic location, guarding the western end of a narrow pass on the ancient trade route known to the Romans as the Via Maris, which connected Egypt with the northern empires in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. It also overlooks the rich and fertile Jezreel Valley. Megiddo is one of the cities said to have been fortified by King Solomon (I Kings, 9:15).
Archaeologists are divided, however, as to whether there is any actual evidence of Solomonic building at Megiddo. And the evidence seems constantly to be changing and to be influenced by findings at other sites, as well as influencing opinions about those other sites. For example, monumental six-chambered gates have been uncovered at Gezer, Hatzor and Megiddo which some archaeologists attribute to King Solomon (10th century BCE) but others insist date from the time of King Ahab (9th century BCE) or even Jeroboam II (8th century BCE), the assumption being that similar gates must have been built round about the same time.
Some say that this gate dates to the Canaanite period, even before King Solomon.
Those who support the theory that the builder was Solomon, point to the above-cited verse, wherein we are told that “this is the account of the levy which King Solomon raised; to build the house of the LORD, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, and Megiddo, and Gezer.”
Just to complicate matters – there are, in fact, more than one monumental gateways at the site, dating from different periods. And yes – I know it doesn’t look all that big, but this is where you have to exercise your imagination. The walls would have been much, much higher, towering above the heads of the citizens, and of course, the gateway would have been roofed.
I Kings, 5:26 tells us that “Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.“
This leads us to an apparent discrepancy, since we are told in II Chronicles 9:25, that “Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen, that he bestowed in the chariot cities, and with the king at Jerusalem.“
At all events, at Megiddo, a vast network of structures that appear to have been stables, was uncovered and, as with the monumental gateway, opinions are divided as to whether or not these are the stables built by King Solomon and described in the Book of Chronicles.
In fact, two areas believed to have been stable complexes have been uncovered at Megiddo, one in the north and one in the south, including what appear to have been pillars with holes bored in them, where horses could be tied, and stone mangers or feeding-troughs. Neither appear to have been large enough to house the number of horses ascribed to Solomon, either in I Kings or in II Chronicles. However, this modern sculpture stands at the top of the tell in a nice gesture to the theory that Megiddo was, indeed, one of the “chariot cities”.
Another fascinating feature of the tell is the so-called Sacred Area, or Great Temple Complex, dating back to c.3000 BCE – the early Bronze Age.
This included the huge, 5000-year-old “Great Temple”, one of the largest structures of its time in the Near East (according to its excavators,) including a sanctuary 47.5 by 22 metres. The circular structure has been interpreted as an altar dating to the Canaanite period.
Carved ivories, indicative of the wealth of the city’s inhabitants and the extent of commerce in which Megiddo was engaged, were also found. They are now on display in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and in the Oriental Institute of Chicago, so we did not see them, but they were dated to the Late Bronze Age layer of the excavations.
We did, however, see the granary and the water system. These would have been of critical importance in times of siege.
Megiddo, in fact, was supplied by two springs, the nearer and therefore more convenient one for the use of the city’s inhabitants being situated on the west, at the bottom of the mound on which the city was built. The trouble was, the spring was outside the city (a similar problem to that encountered by Hezekiah, in Jerusalem). It was therefore inaccessible for the citizens in times of siege, while providing a source of water for the enemy.
How was the problem solved?
A vertical shaft was cut from the mound on which the city sat. Within the shaft, rock-hewn steps led to a tunnel at the bottom of the shaft, which led to the spring. Meanwhile, the approach to the spring from the outside was blocked off and hidden from enemy view.
At some later period, the floor of the tunnel was lowered and hewn on an incline so that the force of gravity would cause the water to flow from the spring to the bottom of the shaft, whence it could be hauled up directly, without the need for the citizens (which is to say, probably the women and girls) to walk through the tunnel to the spring.
In the first picture, we can see a modern wooden walkway through the tunnel, constructed for the benefit of visitors.
Here we can see the spring.
And here is the way out!
I am sure nobody will be surprised to hear that the experts are also divided as to when this great water system was constructed, with some attributing it to King Ahab (9th century BCE), others to King Solomon (10th century BCE) and others yet to pre-Israelite times. Common sense tells me that it was most likely renovated several times, in different centuries.
From Megiddo, we proceeded to the Harod Spring (מעיין הרוד – Ma’ayan Harod) National Park on the Gilboa Ridge, where we ate a picnic lunch before setting out to explore the byways of history – both ancient and modern. The Park is home to the Memorial for residents of the Jezreel Valley – known in Hebrew simply as Ha’Emeq (THE Valley) – who fell in the War of Independence, and later wars. Created by the sculptor, David Plombo, it is shaped like a bridge, broken and cracked, but still standing steadfastly over the stream, and topped by two figures – perhaps burnt trees, perhaps stylised human forms, reaching out to one other but not quite touching each other.
On the wall behind the monument, metal letters spell out the opening words of David’s great lament for Saul and Jonathan: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places; how are the mighty fallen” (II Samuel 1:19).
Continuing further up the mountain, we reached the home of Yehoshua Hankin, known as “The Redeemer of the Emeq”, for his work in purchasing lands in the Jezreel Valley for Jewish settlement. Note, I said purchased. Despite the lies spread by “Palestinian” propagandists, the Zionist pioneer movement bought the land on which Jews settled prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. Sometimes, the money was donated by wealthy Jewish or Christian philanthropists in Europe or America. Much of it, however, was painstakingly collected by ordinary Jews, penny by penny, cent by cent, precisely for the purpose of redeeming land for Jewish settlement in the Land of their Fathers.
Hankin began building a house on the slopes of the Gilboa Ridge in 1934, when he was 70 years old. He hoped to live there with his beloved wife, Olga. But Olga, 12 years his senior, became ill and died in 1943. Less than two years later, her devoted husband followed her to the grave. The two of them were buried side by side in the tomb Yehoshua Hankin had prepared, hard by the house they had hoped to live in on Mount Gilboa.
The outer door, bearing the name Hankin in interlocking Hebrew letters, was also created by the sculptor, David Plombo.
Next door to the tomb stands the Hankin house, now converted into a museum, where visitors can see a short film about the life and work of the Hankins. Olga Hankin assisted her husband in his land-purchasing endeavours, but she was also was a professional midwife, possibly the first in the country. Sadly, she and Yehoshua had no children of their own.
Between the house-turned-museum and the tomb, we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of one of the last Gilboa irises (Iris haynei) of the season. Had our tour taken place at the beginning of the month, as was originally planned, instead of being postponed because of the disruption caused by country-wide demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial reform (about which I am NOT going to write now, though I might at some later stage), we might have seen more of them. It flowers for a very short period only, in the spring, and is considered an endangered plant species – for which reason, it is a protected wild plant. It has often happened to us that when we have field trips designed specifically to coincide with the flowering of particular flowers, we are frequently unlucky in that excessively warm (or cold) weather has caused them to bloom unexpectedly early (or late), and so we miss them. At any rate, we did catch this one specimen. Isn’t she a beauty, in her lonely splendour?
It is no wonder that Hankin chose this spot on the slopes of the Gilboa Ridge, for his home and for his final resting place. Here is the view from the winding path leading to the Hankin Compound:
To get back to the Bible – also to be found in the confines of the Ma’ayan Harod National Park is a spring (for which the park is named) rising in a cave known as Gideon’s Cave.
Those of you familiar with the Biblical story (Judges 7) will no doubt recall that Gideon gathered an army of Israelites, 32,000 strong, to fight the Midianites, Amalekites and other tribes from the east, who were terrorising the Israelites. God knew that if the Israelites defeated the Midianites with so large an army, they would attribute their victory to their own strength rather than to divine intervention. He therefore instructed Gideon to send home all those who were afraid to fight. 22,000 men returned to their homes, leaving Gideon with 10,000 soldiers. But God told Gideon that even these were too many. Gideon therefore led his men down to the stream to drink and, as God commanded, those who lay down and lapped directly from the water, like dogs, as well as those who knelt by the brook and lapped with their hands, were sent home. Three hundred men, who remained standing and lapped with one hand (while remaining alert and able to easily draw their weapons and fight, in the case of a surprise attack), were left. With these, God told Gideon, the enemy, who “lay along in the valley like locusts for multitude“, would be delivered into his hands.
Gideon divided his remaining troops into three groups. To each of them, he gave horns and empty pitchers into which they were to put torches. Then, they crept into the outer perimeter of the enemy camp, at the beginning of the middle watch. This would be at the time when the first watch had already retired and were on their way to bed. The men of the third watch would still be asleep and the sentries of the middle watch, who had only recently woken up, would not yet be properly organised and alert. At this critical moment in time, at Gideon’s signal, the 300 Israelite warriors smashed their pitchers and blew their horns and, holding their horns in their right hands and the torches, which had previously been hidden in the pitchers (now broken) in their left hands, shouted: “The sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”.
Total pandemonium now ensued. The Midianites and their allies, taken by surprise and in complete confusion, could not tell friend from foe and began striking each other down, while the Israelites remained in their places on the outer perimeter, blowing their horns and waving their torches (whose light would have dazzled the enemy).
Why does the Bible stress the fact that the Israelites held the torches in their left hands and their horns in their right hands? To make it clear that they were not wielding weapons! The utter rout inflicted on the Midianites and their allies was accomplished by God alone.
Our next, and final, stop was the Gilboa Ridge, scene of King Saul’s final battle. As our bus wound its way up the ridge, the sky, which had been partially cloudy since the morning, became heavily overcast and almost as soon as we disembarked from the bus and continued on foot, it began to rain.
But having come so far, we were not to be deterred by a few drops of rain. What was that, compared to the obstacles that faced King Saul, on the eve of his last, fateful battle?
As the Bible tells us (I Samuel 28), the Philistines had gathered a huge army, which had encamped in Shunem, near the Jezreel Valley, north of Gilboa. The Israelite army had made camp on Gilboa.
The prophet Samuel was dead by then, and Saul had lost God’s favour after he disobeyed the heavenly command to destroy all the Amelekites by sparing their king (a decision which was to boomerang on all Israel, centuries later). Now, when he sought counsel of God, there was none to be had. In despair, he ordered his servants to find for him “a woman that divineth by a ghost” (what we would call “a medium”) – even though he himself had executed or exiled all those who divined by ghosts or familiar spirits, as we are told earlier in that chapter. His servants told him of a sorceress possessed of this ability, living at Ein-Dor, at the edge of the Jezreel Valley. So the king disguised himself and, taking with him two servants, made his way by night to Ein-Dor. To do so, he must have either skirted the enemy lines, at close quarters, or gone right through them, situated as they were in the Valley.
At first the sorceress feared her nocturnal visitor was setting a trap for her, as sorcery had been banned – but Saul gave her his word that she would not be punished and commanded her to bring up Samuel. When she did so, the sorceress recognised her visitor as Saul (why did she not recognise him as soon as he asked her to bring up Samuel? – Ed.)
At all events, Samuel – who, it appears, was not best pleased at being disturbed, told Saul that as punishment for his disobedience in the matter of the Amalekites, not only would he and his sons die on the morrow, but the Israelite army would also be defeated by the Philistines.
Saul collapsed in exhaustion and despair, because he had not eaten all day and had, moreover, just made a perilous nocturnal journey behind enemy lines.
The sorceress and Saul’s two companions, with great difficulty, persuaded him to eat, after which the three of them returned to the Israelite camp.
There is a Midrash which says that Saul also asked Samuel what would happen if he were to flee – and Samuel replied that if he were to do so, his life would be saved. In spite of that, Saul, who knew what his non-appearance would do to the Israelite army, pulled himself together and chose to return. He knew that he was destined to die, and his sons with him. He knew that the Israelite forces were destined to suffer a calamitous defeat. But he knew, also, that they would recover from this defeat and that a new leader would arise to lead them to eventual victory. If, on the other hand, the Israelite forces were to awaken the following morning to discover their king – the first king of a united Israel – had fled, the battle would be lost before it even started, the army would scatter, and it might be generations before the Israelite tribes could unite once more (if they ever could). So he chose to put his fear behind him and become, for one last time, the man whom God had chosen and whom Samuel had anointed all those years ago.
As we listened to the story, sitting on the top of the Gilboa Ridge looking down into the Jezreel Valley below, the rain stopped and the skies began to clear. And then we saw that it had been worth pressing on in the rain – because, without rain, you cannot have a rainbow. And this one was a beauty – a complete arc, stretched out over the Jezreel Valley.
Our guide, Efrat, read us a poem by Natan Alterman, inspired by Saul’s last battle. Originally published in 1945, as World War 2 was drawing to a close, when the first news of the true extent of the Holocaust was becoming known, its message was that even in the face of what seems like total disaster, one must not lose hope but must rise above it and carry on. For this reason, the poem became closely identified with the establishment of the State of Israel, three years later. Set to music by the composer Mordechai Zeira, it was first recorded by Shoshana Damari in 1960. Since then, it has been performed by many of Israel’s most famous singers, including Nechama Hendel and Yehoram Gaon, and has become a staple of the Memorial Day ceremonies and radio broadcasts that take place the day before Independence Day. It was even translated into English – not the most literal translation, but you get the general idea.
Was Alterman thinking of David Ben Gurion when he wrote that goosebump-raising last line, I wonder?
As Efrat read, I started humming the song under my breath. She asked me if I would like to sing it for everyone. I agreed to do so – but only when we were back in the bus and I could use the microphone. It was far too windy on the mountain-top for me to be heard. That might have been a mistake. I discovered that it is not easy for a singer to breath correctly when seated in a bus that is bumping and bouncing as it negotiates the twists and turns of a mountain road!
It was now time for us to head home. I will leave you with the song performed by a far greater singer than I, one whose voice could stir battalions – Shoshana Damari, though in a later recording, from the 1970s, unless I am mistaken. A less bombastic arrangement than the original, this is my favourite of the many versions I have listened to over the past few days.
I hope you have enjoyed this virtual tour and that you will join me for many more.