Day 5: Bet Guvrin, Bet Jamal Monastery, Caesarea

Trip Start May 04, 2012
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Trip End May 27, 2012


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Where I stayed
Smadar Inn and Winery
What I did
Bet Guvrin National Park

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Experiencing Israel is like peeling an onion. There are so many layers and as each is lifted another appears.  Sometimes this awareness occurs in times when we are ready and open.  Four years ago we went on an archaeological dig at Bet Guvrin and we had a blast on a live dig in the underground caves.  I even have some discarded 2,000 year-old pottery chips that we were allowed to take with us on our coffee table at home to remind me of how we can connect with people & their culture through time.  When I was planning this trip, it wasn't until I opened a picture book about the top archaeological sites in the Holy Land did I realize how much more there was to see and learn about Bet Guvrin (The Holy Land: Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan by Fabio Bourbon and Enrico Lavagno).  Today we are revisiting it with a private guide, Madeleine Lavine, who we didn’t hesitate to contact after her expert guiding in Jerusalem on our last trip.  We have engaged her for today as well as another day later in our trip in Jerusalem.  Madeleine’s information: email: madl@zahav.net.il  blog: www.touringwithmadeleine.blogspot.com

The Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park has within its boundaries the ancient cities of Bet Guvrin and Maresha.  The bedrock here is soft limestone and the area is honeycombed with hundreds of underground chambers.  The rock quarried was used for building stones and the hollowed out spaces were used as water reservoirs, storerooms, keeping cattle and as burial caves.  The history goes as far back to Maresha being a city around 10th Century B.C.E.   We have really been looking forward to this day – archaeology intrigues both of us.  I took lots of photos and you are welcome to follow along on our tour if you like.   Simply click on the photo link at the end of this day’s text below.    

I will be writing notes about this fascinating site under the photos in the slideshow, but I want to share a few comments here. 

The sites in the national park are quite spread apart, so we use Madeleine’s car to get from place to place.  She’s planned out our route, has maps and documents that explain and inform as we move about.  Madeleine knows that I’m keen on plants and trees so she points these out as we walk including the capers, carob trees, almond and olive trees.  When we pass a huge stand of the prickly pear fruit, we talk about the Hebrew word for it, "sabras".  But more interesting to note is that sabras is slang for native Israeli Jews.  What do native Israelis and prickly pear fruit have in common?  Both are tough and thorny on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside.  We consistently find Israelis friendly and helpful.  When Harvey tries to speak Hebrew, as soon as they notice my camera (and that we are tourists) Israelis switch to English.  Everyone is from someplace else and everyone has a story.  Like the beekeeper who has set up a stand to sell honey, spices and olive oil from the Bet Guvrin olive trees.  His grandparents are from Russia, his parents left Egypt to come to Israel where he was born.  We learn that he has 2 tablespoons of olive oil per day for health reasons and that this is quite a common practice.  I decide to get an Egyptian spice mixture called DOA that combines coriander, sesame, peanut, cumin, zatar and sea salt.   I haven’t quite figured out what to do with it yet.  Maybe put it on hummus?  I love when we have these sort of unexpected encounters!

The Columbarian Cave is the largest and most beautiful in the country with more than 2,000 niches for raising pigeons.  They were used for cultic purposes and for food and their dung was used as fertilizer.  The columbarium when out of use at the end of the 3rd century B.C.E.  when they were then used for storage.  Just one of many sites at this location!



The Bell Caves consist of a series of 80 large caves which the ancient inhabitants connected by passageways.  As you can see, they are really deep and we feel so small!  These caves were dug out as quarries; they got their name because the digging was done in the shape of a bell.

The Roman amphitheatre was constructed in the late 2nd Century A.D. and has an estimated seating capacity of 5,000.  Here’s a piece a surprising piece of history from the “The Holy Land An Oxford Archaeological Guide from the Earliest Times to 1700”:  “Simeon ben Lakhish, a well-known Jewish gladiator of the 3rd Centry A.D., may have been among those who fought here.  He ended by becoming the intellectual sparring partner of his brother-in-law, Rabbi Johanan ben Nappaha of Tiberias, in the formulation of the Palestinian Talmud.  The emperor Arcadius forbade gladiatorial displays.  The amphitheatre then became a marketplace.”  I didn’t think any gladiator ever lived beyond the arena.

It is also some kind of special day at the park with informative exhibits about birds and locals selling food and produce.  As we look at an exhibit of bird photography, Madeleine informs us that the Hula Nature Reserve in northern Israel in the area of the Galilee has some billion birds passing through in migration (that is not a typo) – we immediately think of our friends John & Susie who are avid birders and for me, I can’t even imagine the spectacle!  Madeleine advises us to check when the movie in English is showing as she says it worth seeing when we are in the Galilee.   I guess if you can’t be there to see the migration live, seeing the movie would be the next best thing.  Who knows, maybe we’ll come back to Israel during the bird migration season next time.

Our picnic lunch was under almond trees.  Madeleine had brought along assorted treats to share and our garlic salami which had been in the trunk for hours was like a soft perfume around us! 

We car caravan to the Bet Jamal Monastery to our first stop on our tree pilgrimage to meet a 2,000 year old olive tree, thought to be the oldest in Israel.  In the earlier post “Ancient Trees Tell Their Story”, I describe my pre-trip research into finding unique trees to visit.  I want to say a special thanks to Oz, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Organization of the Ministry of Agriculture.  He described the locations where old trees are typically found and I knew I had found a tree person when I read these words “I cannot recommend specific trees as they are all beautifully sculptured and each has its own “personality”…  Oz also attached a copy of the Mature Tree Project ebook and acknowledging that it was available only in Hebrew, he inserted English into about a dozen entries for me.  What a thoughtful and considerate person!  Several days later, I received another email from Oz referring me to Yizhar, a PH.D. student involved in their project, who might be able to direct me to specific locations.  How thoughtful is that – and to a complete stranger?

At Bet Jamal Monastery, I produce a picture of this ancient olive tree that I found on the internet.  Madeleine talks with a young man at the refreshment area who sells drinks, honey and ice cream and he advises us to find a particular monk near the chapel and ask for the key to the monastery gate which will give us access to the general area of the tree.    When we get to the chapel we are told that the monk is taking a nap.  I am saying it’s okay, I’m happy that I met the 1,200 year-old olive tree in the courtyard.  But Madeleine and Harvey are not deterred.  They see the young man again who had given us advice and he is just incredible.  He leaves the refreshment stand and walks with us to the gate, he takes out his key to the lock and then finds a big stone to bang against the metal so the door will open, and would you believe hands the key to Madeleine and tells her to be sure to lock the door on our return!  Madeleine comments that if we’re not back fairly soon, please come looking for us! 


Before leaving us the young man points in the general direction of the tree.  On the hillside there are no paths, just foot tall grasses and weeds between trees.  There is something like sticky brambles that attach themselves to our socks and shoes.  We explore the hillside and wonder if we’re going in the correct direction.   Harvey, who has the photo from the internet in his hand, and finally yells out that he’s found it!  We are like kids crawling all over it and taking photos.  At one point, I walk around the back of the tree and find a moment of silence with it.  I wonder what it has seen from its vantage point on the hill.  I wonder why this tree in particular has had such a long life and others in the immediate area seems so much younger.   I put my hands on the tree and just listen.  There is a whisper the contents of which I will write down later.  I am just exhilarated!  Harvey, Madeleine and I are just grinning from ear to ear and really happy.  Any tiredness from traipsing around in the heat at Bet Guvrin is now gone.  What a thrill.

The return trip to the gate is a breeze as we know the way and have a feeling of jubilation.  We ceremoniously use the key to open the gate, lock it and return it to the young man who so graciously and with trust helped us to make this happen.  How can one really say thank you to an individual such as this?

We say “so long” to Madeleine – as she will drive back to Jerusalem and we are off to Zichron Ya’acov.  It’s been a great day with Madeleine and I’m glad that we had arranged for her guiding services.  We’ll see her in a little over a week in Jerusalem.

It’s an easy drive north about 1 hour and 15 minutes north to Zichron Ya’acov, a small charming town where we will be spending the next two nights.   Zichron is 22 miles south of Haifa, situated at the southern end of the Carmel Mountain rainge and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.  We’re staying in the old section of town and this is now when I truly appreciate the sim card in the cell phone providing us access to Google maps.   With all the curving roads and one-way streets up the mountain, I’m not sure how we would have found our Smadar Inn and Winery without the Google maps.  Mote greets us, shows us our room and how all the gadgets work and makes some suggestions for dinner.  We can’t wait to take a hot shower and clean up.   We stroll down the street to Manuala’s for homemade red pasta with shrimp, olive oil, garlic and parsley and a salad.  And now we learn two words from the waitress that sound very similar but have very different meanings:  mitzuyan (means excellent) and bizayon (means horrible).  We keep confusing them and we’d like to get it right when someone asks us, so how was your meal?

Wait, the activities for the day aren’t over!  We are meeting Reut, Elan and Keren of the Kigel family for a concert at ancient Caesarea, in the restored outdoor ampitheatre. The town was originally built by Herod the Great about 25 – 13 B.C.E. and here we are joining 5,000 Israelis dancing in the aisles and swaying to the Israeli Mizrahi music of Shlomi Shabbat.  Maybe the photos can give some feel of the experience – I can’t find any word other than “exhilarating”!  There is also a video so you can have a taste of Mizrahi music.

What a day.  In the morning we sat in the Bet Guvrin ampitheatre where people fought animals. We end the day at a contemporary pop music concert in the Caesarea ampitheatre where people fought animals and it’s now a sound stage.  Sandwiched in between is the meeting with the 2,000 year-old tree that has seen so much history from its perch on the hill.


One of those “only in Israel” days!  

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