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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Grecian Getaway – Day 5: Seagulls, Dolphins and the Holy Mountain

Our fifth day in Greece was dedicated to the Peninsula of Halkidiki. Setting off after breakfast on what was to prove yet another very hot day, we were bound for the coast. On the way, we stopped at Aristotle’s Park, near the town of Stageira (or Stagira). Stageira is the birthplace of the great philosopher, Aristotle, a giant statue of whom dominates the park.



Aristotle, besides being one of the Fathers of Western Philosophy, is also famous for having been the teacher of Macedonia’s Favourite Son – Alexander the Great.
Nowadays, the park is a kind of scientific theme park, which, in many ways, reminded me of the Children’s Gallery in London’s Science Museum. Dotted around the lawns are exhibits and interactive instruments recalling physical phenomena described by Aristotle in his works, such as a water turbine, a sun clock, a prism, optical discs and parabolic reflectors (or, as we jokingly called them, ancient Greek mobile phones). The latter consist of two enormous concave discs placed facing each other, a great distance apart. If two people stand in front of each one, they can have a conversation even if they whisper (just like in the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) . This happens because the  sound waves are reflected and transferred through the air, their energy concentrated in the centre so that the sound is amplified in the ears of those participating in the experiment.

Here, you can see some of the exhibits:




Also strategically placed all around the park, are stone plaques, inscribed with quotations from the works of the great philosopher-scientist, such as this one:





It reads:

…Περί δε της αληθείας, ως ου παν το φαινόμενον αληθές…

(Translation: …concerning the truth, not every phenomenon is real…)

I wonder what Aristotle would have made of a phenomenon that is widespread today – Fake News.

Besides the interactive exhibits, the park itself, though small, is very beautiful and set in enchanting surroundings.








From Stageira, we drove along a winding road to Ouranopolis on the coast, at the start of the Athos peninsula.  It is from here that the cruise boats leave for the three hour trip to Mount Athos, known as the Holy Mountain, for the many monasteries situated there. Mount Athos is an autonomous state within Greece, from which females are barred – not just women, but also female domestic animals. Since the closest women are allowed to approach the “Holy Mountain” is 500 metres, the cruise ships encircle the peninsula at exactly that distance.

I love the sea. I love being on ships. I love the salty tang of the sea breezes.

Seagulls accompanied us all the way:












And then, from the azure waters beneath us, came the dolphins.  Playful, elusive, but not at all shy, they erupted from the depths every time I put down my camera, only to disappear the moment I picked it up again. But eventually, my patience paid off:



At last we reached the Holy Mountain and the various monasteries came into sight. There were large contingents of Romanian and Russian tourists on the boat – mostly middle-aged and elderly women uniformly clad in black, whom I envisaged as having saved up for years to pay for this trip. They were very excited when we passed the Russian and Romanian monasteries and sketes.









And then, it was time to head back.






For some reason, the whole round trip took at least an hour longer than it was supposed to, and when we finally returned to shore, Spartacus the driver was fuming. His anger was compounded by the fact that some of the group brought ice creams onto the bus.  In truth, he had reason to be annoyed. Working hours of bus drivers are strictly regulated in the EU and his working day was extended by at least an hour and a half. He threatened to call the head office of the bus company and have them send another driver the following day. Someone remarked (sotto voce) that they hoped they would also send another bus, one with proper, working air conditioning.
However, he must have cooled off, because the following morning, he was there, outside the hotel, as if nothing had happened.


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Grecian Getaway – Day 4: Water, Water, Everywhere…

The following day saw us headed north-west, to the city of Edessa, known as “the City of Waters”, and famous for its waterfalls.

The city is close to the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or, as it is now officially called, to the chagrin of many Greeks, the Republic of North Macedonia). This being the case, our guide, Natalie, whiled away the journey by telling us a little about the history of the region and the dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, especially regarding the use of the name.  As this is intended to be a photo-journal of my trip to Greece, I won’t regale you with the details. If you are interested, just follow the link.

Rivers run through Edessa, and tumble over the cliffs surrounding the town to form two waterfalls, the highest of which is a spectacular 70 metres.

The waterfalls are situated in a beautiful park,  where the visitor descends, by degrees, from the head of the main waterfall, to its foot, by means of paved stairways, with viewing platforms at each level:














As one descends, one is exposed to magnificent vistas of the surrounding countryside:



























And all around is the ever-present sound of rushing water:







As you can see from the photograph above, as well as the film below, it is also possible to walk behind the main waterfall, where the rush of the water grows to a mighty roar:








See how droplets of water from the spray of the waterfall, are caught in a spider’s web spun between the foliage:




Returning to the head of the main waterfall, there was plenty of time for coffee and a stroll in the park, which contains a small museum and agricultural implements, such as this waterwheel, strategically placed between many smaller water channels:





Here is one last, magnificent view of the countryside around Edessa:





It was now time to head for the thermal springs of Pozar, also known as Loutraki Aridaias.
Here, where cold streams meet hot springs, besides the usual indoor facilities to be found in a spa, there are outdoor pools fed by minerals, in the midst of verdant nature.  For the price of a mere 2 Euros, you can bathe in the soothing waters (37 degrees Celsius), and you even get a locker to store your clothes.


There are both warm and cold pools, fed by warm and cold waterfalls, respectively:





In the foreground, you can see one of the warm pools. The waterfall in the background feeds one of the cold pools.

I mentioned the availability of lockers. Just be careful. When I emerged from my lovely, warm bathe (which did my aching neck and shoulders a world of good, I have to admit), my key got stuck in the lock and would not turn and I endured an anxious twenty minutes or so (or so it seemed – it might have been less. My wristwatch was in the locker with my clothes!) before the young man in the ticket office managed to open it and I was reunited with my belongings.

From Loutraki Aridaias, we drove to a delightful restaurant in the middle of the countryside, whose name, alas, I did not write down, where, for a very reasonable 15 Euros, we had a very late lunch (or early supper) consisting of a first course (salad or tzadziki), main course (I had trout, but I could have had chicken or meat – including lamb) and dessert (water-melon) as well as a cold drink during the meal and tea or coffee afterwards.

Then it was back to Thessaloniki, at the end of a very satisfying – and relaxing – day.


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Grecian Getaway – Day 3: Meteora

I am not so sure the following day’s activities were quite the best choice after an evening out at a taverna, after which I, at any rate, did not get to bed until almost 1 am. A four-hour drive to see the famous hanging monasteries of Meteora necessitated a wake-up call at 6:30 am, in order to be downstairs for breakfast when the dining-room opened at 7 am. By 8 am, we were on the bus and ready to leave.

In its heyday,  there were 24 monasteries and convents on the cliff-tops and natural rock pillars of Meteora.













































Today, there are only six, of which we visited one – Moni Aghiou Stefanou – the Convent of St. Stephen.  Inhabited by 28 nuns, it is the most populous of the four monasteries and two convents still active in Meteora, and the most accessible.  Indeed, these days, nuns outnumber monks in this monastic kingdom, and they are also more “visitor-friendly”.

We had been warned to dress “modestly” – no shorts or sleeveless tops for men or women. Nevertheless, at the entrance to the cloisters, women visitors were requested to clothe ourselves in wraparound skirts over our (long) trousers before entering.


Photography is permitted in the grounds of the convent, but not inside the church.




This is a pity as one of the great attractions of St. Stephen’s are the paintings and frescoes  in its churches.

The original church was built probably at the end of the 14th century and dedicated to St. Stephen. The new katholikon was built in 1798 and dedicated to St. Charalambos (I had never heard of him before either).

The church suffered severe damage during World War 2 because the Germans believed the monastery was being used by the Greek Resistance.

It is now adorned by new icons and frescoes by the contemporary painter, Vlasios Tsotsonis and might be described as a work in progress, as we could see the painter’s paraphernalia in one part of the katholikon.

While I am not, myself, a connoisseur of iconography and ecclesiastical art, it is nevertheless pleasing to know that these ancient art forms are still alive and flourishing today. And, since I was unable, myself, to take photographs inside the church, here is a link where you can get an idea of the work now taking place.


After visiting the katholikon, we strolled in the gardens of the convent.







A viewing terrace in the gardens looks out onto a spectacular panorama, overlooking the town of Kalabaka.















After leaving the monastery, we sent the bus on ahead and walked down through shady woods, past the Roussanou Monastery now run by nuns and dedicated to St. Barbara.

On the way, we met this sweet little sleeping kitty, who reminded me of my own, beautiful furbabies and especially, Caspurr.





We did not enter the Roussanou Monastery, as it was now quite late in the afternoon and we had a long drive ahead of us, back to Thessaloniki – besides which, we hadn’t even had lunch yet. So we continued our walk beneath the welcome shade of the trees (it was an exceedingly hot day), until we reached the road where the bus was waiting for us.




Oddly enough, I remember nothing about the rest of the day, where we had our (very late) lunch, and what time we got back to the hotel. As I said, I had gone to bed late the night before and arisen betimes – as had we all – and I must have dozed on the journey back to Thessaloniki. I know I had a cup of tea and some granola biscuits in my room, because the late lunch had made me disinclined to eat supper. So it was an early night for me (and, I suspect, most of the others).

Before I go, since my photos were all taken with my feet safely on terra firma, I searched on YouTube and found you this fantastic short videoclip of Meteora, taken with a camera mounted on a drone.  Enjoy!





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