Israel, Part I: History, Touring

I’ve just arrived home from four weeks in Israel. My circadian rhythm is in the middle of a 180. Thanks to the regularly early wakeup times combined with a significant difference in time zones between Fort Worth and Tel Aviv, I woke up at 2:30 am and crashed at 5:30 pm yesterday. My brain is fried, my eyes won’t stay open, my stomach is churning, my muscles are sore, my hands are calloused – but my heart is full.

I’ll start by giving an out-of-order run-down of the pre-dig tour, which lasted for a week before the start of the excavations at Legio and familiarized us with Israel’s rich archaeological history. Israel’s “old stuff” makes the United States’ and Europe’s seem young in comparison – it’s not just from one time period but from many. It’s probably impossible to throw a rock and not hit a tel, an artificial hill consisting of layer upon layer of civilization. On our dig, we found not only Roman ruins but also bits of material culture from the British Mandate period, the Ottoman occupation, and the Early Bronze age.

Case in point: Beit She’an is a small mountain of 18 distinct layers of human occupation. Eighteen!

Beit She’an was not the only tel we visited. We also observed the current excavations at Tel Kabri, a site where a large palace and evidence for large quantities of wine have been found. We hiked around the Tel Dan reserve with its massive fortress and arched gate known as Abraham’s Gate. And we were given a tour of Tel Hazor, with Late Bronze temples and administrative buildings that had been destroyed around the time of the Bronze Age collapse.

Tel Dan

Tel Hazor

The cities from the Hellenistic and Roman time periods helped us get an idea of what we would be looking for at Legio. We got a tour of Omrit, a complex of temples built in multiple phases. Hippos-Sussita, a town on top a mountain in the Golan Heights overlooking the blue Sea of Galilee, was a real feat of engineering with its water system and gate carved of basalt. Caesarea Maritima, Herod’s tribute to Augustus on the Mediterranean, is still impressive to this day and must have been especially so before its destruction by tsunamis. Sepphoris, one of my favorite places we visited on the tour, had lots of beautiful mosaics that have survived nicely. One of them the mosaic in the temple which depicts biblical characters and a menorah alongside a zodiac wheel around a sun god, is an interesting example of religious and cultural syncretism between the Romans and the local population.

Omrit

Hippos-Sussita

Caesarea. The above picture is Herod’s swimming pool. I’m a little jealous.

One of Sepphoris’ main roads

One of the many mosaics at Sepphoris. Are they hugging? Wrestling? Waltzing?

A representation of the Nile and all the life that springs from it

Known as the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. Isn’t she lovely?

Zodiac wheel in the synagogue

Games carved into the road. Wish the Romans had left behind the instructions.

To round out the survey of Israel’s history we also saw examples of Crusader-era architecture. The fortress and tunnels at Akko were fun to explore, and so was Nimrod’s Fortress with its narrow spiral staircases, archer’s loops, pathways between mountaintops, and spectacular panoramic views.

Tunnels in Akko

Inside the fortress

Nimrod’s Fortress

Stay tuned for part 2 for pictures of the holes I spent three weeks in and part 3 for stories from my weekend excursions and overall reflections!

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