So many bad things kept happening to make me postpone telling you all about last month’s “929 on the map” field trip, that our next field trip was upon us, before I had time to tell you about its predecessor.
So, without further ado, here is the tale of our journey in the footsteps of the Ark of the Covenant, from its capture by the Philistines at the Battle of Eben-Ezer (1 Samuel, 4:11), until its return to the hands of the Israelites.
Eben-Ezer, where the Bible tells us the Israelites encamped, lay opposite Afek, on the ancient international highway between Egypt (to the south) and her northern neighbours. There is still an important interchange at the same location, the Kessem interchange. There is a fortress on the site, dating from the Ottoman Era.
The site of Eben-Ezer is in dispute, but some historians and archaeologists place it on the site of modern day Rosh Ha’Ayin,because of the latter’s geographical position relative to Afek. In Rosh Ha’ayin, there is an archaeological site called Izbet-Sartah, pointing to the existence of a small, but well-fortified settlement. Remains there date back to the 10th-century BCE, and even earlier. Like many other supposed Israelite settlements, this one also stands out for the fact that no remains of swine were found there. As the guide explained, archaeologists love finding remains of food, which can teach us how people lived thousands of years ago, including what they ate – or, perhaps even more tellingly, what they did not eat. The absence of any evidence of pork products could easily be explained by a settlement of Israelites, adhering to Jewish dietary laws, which prohibit the consumption of swine’s flesh.
The archaeological remains at this site include large houses with well-fortified walls and grain silos:
Some archaeologists believe, however, that this was one large farmhouse with outlying buildings.
A church from the Byzantine Era was also unearthed in the vicinity.
As the Bible tells us (1 Samuel 5), after the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, they took it first to the city of Ashdod, where it was placed in the Temple of Dagon. However, mysterious disasters occurred to the statue of Dagon, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, a most unpleasant plague struck the population of Ashdod, who, for some strange reason, rather than drawing the obvious conclusion and adopting the faith of the Israelites, decided instead to get rid of the Ark, which they believed to be responsible for all their woes, and quickly dispatched it to Gath. However, the plague which had beset the men of Ashdod now struck the citizens of Gath and so, like a hot potato, the Ark was sent on to another Philistine city, Ekron, much to the displeasure of the inhabitants of that city, who had already heard of what the Ark had wrought in Ashdod and Gath.
A visit to Ashdod and Gath (even supposing the exact location of the latter were known – its previous identification with the site on which Kiryat Gat now stands being due to error) would have lengthened our tour in such a way as to make it impracticable for a one day field trip. We did, however, visit the Britannia Park, from where there are magnificent panoramic views towards Ashdod and Gath – the nearest we could manage in the limited time at our disposal.
Visible signs of spring being just around the corner, could be seen in the many blossoming almond trees:
The Britannia Park includes several sites of interest, including our next stop, Tel Azeka, near which David is believed to have triumphed over Goliath, and from where there are spectacular views of the surrounding countryside:
Here, our informative and amusing guide, Uriel Fainerman, demonstrated – in his inimitable French accent – the use of the slingshot with which David would have felled the Philistine giant:
At Tel Azeka, we found an abundance of wild flowers, including species which, I am told (for botany is not my field of expertise), do not normally bloom side by side, such as marigolds and chrysanthemums:
And let us not forget the scarlet anemones:
From Tel Azeka, we proceded to Tel Batash, believed to be the site of the Biblical Timnah. As the town sat on the access route between the Coastal Plain (held by the Philistines), through the Shephelah, into the Judaean Mountains, it is logical to assume that, after the inhabitants of Ekron rebelled against the presence of the Ark in their city, and the Philistines decided to send it back “to its own place”, its route would have led it through Timnah, on its way back to Beit Shemesh, a city in the territory of the tribe of Judah which had been given to the priests.
The Tel Batash site, reached by a twenty-five minute walk through green fields, is little-known and not frequented by many visitors, but offers spectacular views of the surrounding Valley of Sorek.
Many of the archaeological remains are still surrounded by dense foliage, making it necessary to scramble over ancient walls and through overgrown bushes to reach them – such as this ancient olive oil press:
By now, the day was waning fast. There was just time for a visit to Kiryat Yearim, hard by the Arab village of Abu-Ghosh, whence the Ark was taken after its return by the Philistines (1 Samuel 7) and where it remained until it was taken by King David to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 13, 5 – 8). A small Byzantine Church was built on the site, but in 614 CE, it was demolished by the invading Persian army. It remained in ruins for thirteen centuries, until being rebuilt in 1924, as the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant. The present day church belongs to the French Sisters of the Order of St. Joseph of the Revelation and is well known to many Israelis as the venue of the Abu Ghosh Music Festival, held twice a year, at Succot and Shavuot, in which I myself have appeared several times with my choir. That being the case, it seemed that not only the Ark, but I myself had returned home, as it were 🙂
By now, it was almost dark, and it was time to end our tour and return to Jerusalem.
Stay tuned for another tour in the footsteps of the Bible in the near future.