A Good Day To Be Alive

Today – like yesterday, and the day before – dawned crisp and clear, with achingly blue skies and not a cloud in sight. But cold. Bitterly cold. The lack of cloud cover makes for a quicker loss of heat when the sun goes down. I had to leave one of the taps dripping overnight to make sure the water didn’t freeze in the pipes. Still, it’s a lovely day. In the Klingon universe, the exhortation before battle is “Today is a good day to die”. In a reality in which, any day, I could go out, be waiting at a bus stop and get rammed by a terrorist-driven car, or stabbed by a 14-year-old “Palestinian” schoolgirl, or be ambushed in a firebombing, stone-throwing, or shooting attack on the road, I prefer to declare, as my father did: “It’s a lovely day – and one in which it’s good to be alive.”

It’s also a good day to finally tell you all about our second field trip in the series “929 on the map.

As you can imagine, under the circumstances, it was not without a certain amount of trepidation that we boarded our bus (with its specially-reinforced bullet-proof windows) for a tour in the footsteps of the prophet Samuel and King Saul, along what is essentially Highway 60, scene of many of the past two month’s “Palestinian” terrorist attacks.

Highway 60 runs from Beersheba, in the south of Israel, to Nazareth, in the north, traversing Judaea and Samaria , the so-called “West Bank”. Because it follows the path of the ancient highway along which our forefathers travelled, it is also known in Hebrew as Derech Ha’Avot  (דרך האבות – “The Way of the Patriarchs”).

Officially, this field trip was supposed to take us in the footsteps of Saul, who went to seek his father’s lost asses and instead, found a kingdom (1 Samuel, 9). However, with such a knowledgeable tour-guide, and with so much to tell, we also learned a great deal about the prophet Samuel, about Joshua, about other characters from the Book of Judges, about the Crusaders – and about General Allenby’s campaign against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine, during World War 1, and the nascent IDF’s battles during the War of Independence.

Our first stop was at Nebi Samwil – or Navi Shmuel, as it is known in Hebrew. This place has long been associated with the prophet Samuel and, hence, also with Hannah, his mother (thus, there is a spring there, known as Hannah’s Spring). The most prominent building there is a Crusader Church (this being the spot from which they allegedly caught their first glimpse of Jerusalem). The Muslims added a minaret and converted it into a mosque, from whose roof there is a spectacular panorama, while below is a synagogue, in which is a covered tomb, supposedly that of Samuel.

20151125_092303חנוכיה ראשונה שהוצב בכותל אחרי 1967

The menorah you can see in the foreground is the first menorah which was placed at the Western Wall after the Six Day War in 1967, for the first public Hanukkah candle-lighting in the liberated Old City of Jerusalem, a tradition which has continued every year since then and will do so this year also, starting last night, the first night of Hanukkah.



The picture above shows the view from the roof of the Crusader church in the direction of Ramallah. If you are planning on visiting, I should warn you that, even when it isn’t a particularly cold day, it is very windy up there.

And here is a view in the opposite direction, towards Jerusalem:

In the following pictures, you can see some of the archaeological excavations taking place at the site:

Some of the ruins date back to the time of the Hasmoneans:

20151125_112318חפירות חשמונאיות בנבי סמויל
As I mentioned earlier, there is also a spring, rather dubiously ascribed to Hannah, Samuel’s mother:

20151125_110350 מעיין חנה בנבי סמויל

Nebi Samwil’s strategic importance, overlooking Jerusalem, was not lost on later generations, such as Allenby’s army, or the nascent IDF, which failed to capture it during Israel’s War of Independence. It was not till the Six Day War that Israeli forces managed to restore Jewish control of this strategic site.

From Navi Shmuel, we proceeded north, to the Land of Benjamin and the hills of Ephraim, via Givat Shaul (the Hill of Saul) and Nachal Michmas, scene of a daring two-man commando raid by Saul’s son Jonathan, and his armour-bearer, who took the Philistines completely by surprise and wreaked havoc in their ranks (1 Samuel, 14). Almost three thousand years later, Jonathan’s daring also inspired a junior officer in the British army during their WW1 campaign against the Turks. The unnamed officer, who was accustomed to read the Bible every night, remembered the story of Jonathan’s surprise attack, alerted his Commanding Officer and thanks to their rediscovery of the ancient path through the ravine, the British were able to outflank the Turkish position and take the town.

We were now deep in Samaria and thus we came to Shiloh, where the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle) was set up by Joshua (Joshua 18:1) after the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land. There it remained for 369 years, the first Israelite capital.

Shiloh is now the site of a thriving modern Jewish “settlement”, re-established by a handful of families in 1978. There, they built a synagogue designed like the Biblical Tabernacle . There is also a Visitors’ Centre and, in a modernistic building known as Migdal HaRo’eh  (מגדל הרואה – The Seer’s Tower), an exhibition showcases some of the archaeological finds from the site, while on the upper floor, from where there is a splendid panorama of the surrounding countryside, one can see a multimedia presentation of the history of Shiloh.

However, it was ancient Shiloh that we had come to see.

Here, for example, is the courtyard of a later structure from the Mameluke period, known as the Jama al  Yatim – the Orphan’s Mosque. Some people have said that this refers to the orphaned Ichabod, son of Pinchas, one of the two sons of Eli the High Priest, whose mother died giving birth to him. He was born on the same day that his father was killed in the battle with the Philistines at Eben-Ha’Ezer and the Ark of the Covenant was taken into captivity (1 Samuel, 4: 10 – 22). Unsurprisingly, the mosque was built on the remains of two Byzantine churches, the remains of whose beautiful mosaic floors can be seen in the next picture:

20151125_135131Djama el-yatim

The excavations are still in progress. Underneath the Byzantine ruins, yet another layer has been discovered – a synagogue (what a surprise!), and the archaeologists are wrestling with the problem of how best to uncover the earlier building without destroying the beautiful Byzantine mosaics.

A Danish archaeological team carried out excavations at Shiloh between the years 1926 – 1932 and unearthed the remains of a Byzantine church dating from the 5th-6th centuries C.E.. They partially reconstructed the basilica, but the mosaic shown below is from the original church. Bear in mind that the Magen David (Shield – or Star – of David) was not always an exclusively Jewish symbol.

Magen David in Shiloh Byzantine basilica
You might be wondering how we know that this is actually the site of Biblical Shiloh. Well, for one thing,  the Bible gives a very precise description of its location – ” north of Beth-el, on the east side of the highway that goeth up from Beth-el to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.” (Judges 21:19). The location of the points of coordination, especially Shechem (Nablus) are known. Moreover, the Arabic names of surrounding villages preserved the Biblical place-names. Thus, the name of Lebonah (Levona) is preserved in the name of the Arab village Al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya   (known to the Crusaders as Lubanum) and the name of Shiloh has been preserved in the Byzantine name of the town – as is shown by an inscription found in the Church which stood on the site of the Orphan’s Mosque previously mentioned, praying for the welfare of the residents of Seilun. In addition, the Arabic name for the site is Khirbet Seilun.

A rectangular area approximately 25 metres (50 cubits) wide, running from east to west and enclosed on the north and south sides by low rock walls, has been suggested as the site of the Tabernacle. The width and direction match the instructions in the Bible for the Tabernacle courtyard (Exodus 27: 9 – 13). You might ask, why has no archaeological evidence of the Tabernacle itself been found,  but you must remember that until Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, the Tabernacle was a temporary structure made of wood and fabric, rather than stone and if, as has been assumed, (although the Bible does not specifically say so) the Philistines burnt the town of Shiloh after their victory at Eben-Ha’Ezer, one would not expect to find  remains, as one would, had the Tabernacle been made of stone.

Other archaeological discoveries at Tel Shiloh (the ancient site) included the Canaanite wall, beyond which the Israelites expanded the city after conquering it. They then used the wall as a foundation for further building, such as the storehouses shown below, in which archaeologists discovered dozens of intact earthenware vessels in a layer of ash, testifying to a mighty conflagration which had apparently destroyed the city. These vessels served to contain food supplies. Charred raisins found on the site were carbon-dated to the middle of the 11th century BCE. This would be round about the time of the Philistine victory over the Israelites at the Battle of Eben-Ha’Ezer mentioned above.

20151125_142111 Israelite storehouses outside the Canaanite wall of Shiloh
The days are very short in Israel in winter. By 5 pm, it is already almost dark, so we had not time to see much more. Our last stop was Ma’aleh Levona, named for the ancient Israelite village of Levona (Lebonah) which stood nearby and whose name is preserved in the name of the Arab village on that site,  Al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya.

From the hilltop is another spectacular view:

20151125_160856view from maale levona
Ma’aleh Levona overlooks the mountain pass which was the scene of the first hand-to-hand battle between Yehuda Ha’Maccabee (Judas Maccabaeus) and the Seleucid army, in which the Maccabees scored a resounding victory over greatly superior Syrian-Greek forces and Yehuda personally killed the Seleucid commander, Apollonius, taking his sword for himself (1 Maccabees 3, 10 – 12).

Today, being the first day of Hanukkah, this first victory of the Maccabees over the forces of tyranny and assimilation seems to be a fitting point on which to end this field trip, and indeed, after our brief visit to Ma’aleh Levona, we headed back to Jerusalem.

I hope you have enjoyed our tour, and the accompanying pictures and hope you will join me again, later this month, for another virtual trip to the Land of the Bible. Meanwhile, let me wish you all a Happy Hanukkah.

About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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10 Responses to A Good Day To Be Alive

  1. ShimonZ says:

    Thank you for offering us a taste of the beautiful tour!

  2. Thank you and Happy Hanukkah to you as well. Stay safe.

  3. Carolyn R says:

    What a terrific tour! I went to quite a few of those places! It’s lovely to do it again, even if virtually!

  4. Very interesting indeed. If we aren’t aware of history we cannot build the future.

  5. Ian G says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Just one small point; from David’s time(Saul and Jonathan) to the First War would be nearly three thousand years. But I’m still green with envy. Do continue to keep us informed. I hope that you are keeping well, every blessing, Ian.

    • You are absolutely correct, Ian! I can’t imagine how I let a blooper like that creep past me! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I have now corrected it.
      I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and will find the time to join me on my latest virtual tour. 🙂

      • Ian G says:

        As a lawyer, you are no doubt a detail person. My wife worked for quite a long time as the personal secretary to the senior partner of one of the better law firms in West Bromwich and then for various other senior people. As a teacher and preacher of the Bible, so much hangs upon the detail and with my wife’s eagle eye on my written work, I like to get things right. I am annoyed if I get it wrong, but I’m even more annoyed if it is not corrected when it’s wrong.I’ve always had this thing about truth and accuracy.

        Christmas was not so hot. Early December, I was in hospital for a repair job to the surgery I had five years ago for a perforated appendix.The original surgery and the repair proved to be bigger operations than expected. I then spent Christmas Eve in hospital with a swelling of fluid on the site of the operation. It’s not been a good December. Strong winds, fallen fences,loose roof tiles, car insurance claims….

        You virtual tour was a much needed bit of interest and joy. I also particularly liked the setting of Psalm1. I love that Orthodox stuff, but the setting is a much more modern take on it.

      • Poor Ian, you have been in the wars and no mistake! 😦
        If my humble scribblings have in any way made you feel a little better, I am glad.
        Here’s wishing you a better start to the New Year than the ending of the old one.

  6. Pingback: Not What I Planned To Write | THE VIEW FROM THE PALACE

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