Israel Sites and Places
Here you will find basic background information on over 20 sites and cities in Israel you may wish to visit or learn about.
Haifa is the major port in Israel and a main town of the north of the country.
The city of Haifa, extending over the northwest flank of Mt. Carmel and overlooking the Mediterranean, had a population of about 246,000 in the early 1990s.
The first settlement in the area was a small port town, founded in the 14th century B.C.E. (Late Bronze Age) and lasting a thousand years. Jewish burial caves from the Roman period have been found nearby. The Talmud mentions it as a fishing village, and it was later known as a shipbuilding port.
There was a fierce battle every time the city changed hands. It was ruled in turn by Persia, Byzantium, the Crusaders, Saladin, the Franks, and Mamluks. Under Muslim rule there were only a few Jewish inhabitants, apart from those who made pilgrimages to Elijah’s cave on Mt. Carmel. By the Ottoman conquest in 1516, Haifa was practically deserted, but its population gradually grew to some 4,000 by 1798, when Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav spent Rosh ha-Shanah with the Jewish community.
Under Egyptian rule (1831-1840), foreign steamboats called at Haifa, rather than at Acre. The German Templars who settled in 1868 paved Haifa’s roads and introduced a stagecoach service to Acre and Nazareth. Haifa profited too when it was connected in 1905 with the railroad from Damascus to the Arabian Peninsula. But the city still had only about 1,000 Jews — some from North Africa, Sephardi Jews from Turkey, and a few Ashkenazim — in all, only an eighth of the total population. They lived in poverty in the Jewish Quarter, supporting themselves by peddling.
From the 1880s Russian Jews arrived, and many opened shops and factories. During his visit to Erez Israel in 1898–99, Theodor Herzl recognized that Haifa could become the country’s chief port. A milestone was reached in 1912, when the cornerstone was laid for the Technion, Israel’s major institute of technology.
After four centuries of Turkish rule, Haifa was captured in 1918 by the British. During the period of the British Mandate, roads and railroads were extended, and the harbor was completed in 1934, allowing Haifa to overtake Jaffa as a port. The city further prospered with the completion in 1939 of the oil pipeline to its terminus on the Mediterranean, at Haifa. The port made possible the development of many industries — such as oil refineries, textiles, glass, bricks and cement. The city’s development, however, was hampered by tension between its Arab and Jewish residents, particularly during the riots of 1936–39. When the land in the Zebulun Valley on the coast was bought from the Arabs in 1928, the Zionist movement made its first venture into large-scale city planning. The city was divided into an industrial zone, a residential area, and an agricultural belt.
As soon as the British evacuated the city in April 1948, the Haganah took over control in a lightning military action. Only about 3,000 of Haifa’s 50,000 Arab residents chose to remain in the city; the rest, following the orders of the Arab High Command, refused to accept Jewish rule and abandoned their homes.
Between the end of 1948 and 1993, the city’s population nearly tripled—from 97,000 (96% being Jews) to 246,000. Until the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, Haifa was the second largest city in the country. In 1989–90 over 20,000 Russian Jewish immigrants settled there. The coastal strip is occupied by the bustling “Steel City,” the crest and spurs of Mt. Carmel overlooking the bay are reserved for housing projects, while parks and orchards fill the gorges. The “Steel City” includes industrial works, large chemical and petrochemical industries, and a plant for producing organic fertilizers from waste. A tenth of the city’s population is employed in the port area, where Zim (Israel’s largest shipping company) also has its head office.
The port is the home-port of Israel’s fast growing navy. Piers and other port facilities have been added, such as the Dagon storage silos which can hold 75,000 tons of grain, shipbuilding facilities, a floating dock, and a jetty for Israel’s fishing fleet. In 1990 over a quarter of a million passengers passed through Haifa port and 1,762 ships called there. Things have grown somewhat in the 950 years since 1046, when the Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusrau wrote that large sailing ships were built there.
The non-Jewish Bahai sect has built a gold-domed sanctuary at its world center in Haifa, and has cultivated one of the finest and largest gardens in the country. Haifa also boasts Israel’s only subway, set up in 1959, and known as the “Carmelit.” Places of interest include Haifa University College, the Naval Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.
(C) “Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth” CD-ROM by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.
Haifa (The Galilee, Getting Israel Together, 1986)
There are many sides to Haifa. There is ‘Haifa-the-metropolis’, boasting all the attributes of contemporary urban center – including a lively cultural life, top class hotels, and an impressive concert hall where some of the world’s greatest artists appear regularly.
There is ‘Haifa-the-beautiful-residential-city,’ as the upper slopes of the mountain host beautiful suburbs with spacious villas, abundant greenery, and panoramic views.
And there is ‘Haifa-of-the-workers,’ the Haifa of heavy industry, the Haifa which tourists are only too happy to avoid. Yet this is the heart of Haifa.
The story of modern Haifa actually begins with a visit to the village in 1898 by the German Kaiser. Impressed by its potential, he announced impulsively that Haifa, (rather than ACCO -Acre-, as originally planned) would be the Mediterranean terminus for the great railway he was building in the Middle East. This, of course, necessitated the development of port facilities. And so, by the beginning of the First World War, the village had begun to develop into a city.
During the British period, this development accelerated. Haifa’s spectacular harbor was built, as were refineries for oil from the Iraqi pipeline which ran across the desert. Thousands of Jews and Arabs began to pour in to the city looking for work.
By 1939, 70% of Palestine’s factories were located in the Haifa bay area, including the great Shemen oil factory, the Nesher cement works, the Phoenicia glass factory and the Ata textile works. Thousands of Jews and Arabs worked in the harbor, at the refinery, and on the railroad.
In 1960, one commentator wrote:
Haifa remains the prototype of a workers’ community. Fully two thirds of its inhabitants are stevedores, longshoremen, sailors, and factory, refinery and railroad workers. There are, as well, many thousands of customs and harbor employees who disdain ‘white-collar’ classifica- tion. This proletarian character explains much about the city.
Tourist’s Haifa is attractive; workers’ Haifa is not. Yet it is precisely this side – the Haifa of the large factories and the refineries, the steel works and the port, that should attract attention. Here at a glance, lies a major part of the story of the modern national Jew in Eretz Yisrael.
The settlers who came to Eretz Yisrael, determined to re-create the Jewish nation in Palestine, were committed to restoring all the elements which had fallen away. The most important element was that of a solid working most important attributes was that of a solid working class. During the last centuries of exile, the Jews had been forced into a small range of occupations. In Eastern and Western Europe, where the vast majority of Jews had lived at the end of the 19th century, most Jews had made their living by trading and commerce. They were rarely found in the centers of industry, where the new wealth of the modern world was increasingly produced. For the most part, this was because Jews were simply not allowed in, either by the government or by the factory owners. But as the future of the modern world lay in industry, the Jew could not afford being left outside.
For this reason, many of the olim felt that the creation of a strong working-class was an important priority for the rebuilding of the nation. They knew, too, that to bring the barren country into the modern world, industrialization was vital. The British, with their mandate for Palestine, knew it too. This convergence of interests came together in the peaceful bay on the Mediterranean, and turned Haifa into the central industrial base of Eretz Yisrael.
The Ein Gedi Antiquities (Getting Israel Together)
The Synagogue, a street, a Miqwe (see below) and a number of buildings are visible on the site. Some remains of the earlier Second Temple period settlement can also be identified.
Excavations at the site
In 1965, 300 meters northeast of Tel Goren, remains of a mosaic floor were discovered accidentally. The site was excavated between 1970-1972 by Profs. D. Barag and E. Netzer of the Hebrew University and Dr. Y. Porath of the department of Antiquities (today the Israel Antiquities Authority). Additional excavations were carried out in 1992 by G. Hadas on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and between 1995-1997 by Dr. Y. Hirschfeld on behalf of the Hebrew University.
The Israel Antiquities Authority Conservation Dept. preserved and restored the mosaics and the site during the years 1991 to 1996.
Historic and archaeological background
Below these evidence was found of an earlier Second Temple period Jewish settlement which appears to have covered a large area than the later Jewish settlement.
Eusebius, an early Forth century father of the Christian Church, wrote of a “very large village of Jews” at Ein Gedi. Early manuscripts tell of Ein Gedi’s inhabitants who grew date palms and persimmons. The persimmon bush (Ommiphora opobalsamum) yielded a substance from which a valuable perfume could be extracted. Agricultural terraces and irrigation systems west of the settlement attest to Ein Gedi’s agricultural past.
The synagogue was completely excavated; nearby streets and buildings were partially uncovered. Buildings near the synagogue may have belonged to Synagogue officials, or served as study halls and inn.
The synagogue, a trapezoid shaped building constructed in the Third century C.E and paved with black and with mosaic floor, contained a moveable Torah Ark. The north wall, with its two entries, faced Jerusalem.
The synagogue was renovated and its mosaic floor repaired at the beginning of the Forth century. The central entry in the north was closed and converted into a nice for the Torah scroll. Columns were added in the prayer hall dividing it into a prayer hall and two aisles on the east and south. Three stepped rows of benches were built along the south wall. The synagogue that we see today was built in the middle of the Fifth century. It has a central prayer hall bordered by three aisles – on the east, south and west and along entry hall on the west. The Torah Ark was placed in front of the north wall opposite a rectangular bama. A new decorative mosaic floor with a dedicatory inscription was put down. An outer staircase on the northwest wall led to a second story balcony.
The Jewish settlement and its Synagogue were destroyed by fire; sign of which were very evident during the excavation. A hoard of line-wrapped coins was found in an adjacent building courtyard, the latest dated to the Emperor Justinian the First (527-565). Early in his reign, Jews suffered from official persecution. Argaeologists concluded that the Jewish settlement and its Synagogue were destroyed in this wave of persecution, in ca. 530 CE.
Our gratitude to the Authority for Nature reserves and National Parks for their permission to use the text from their folder for our “Live” site. The pictures by: Pinhas Baraq
The Department for Jewish Zionist Education
The Pedagogic Center Director: Dr. Motti Friedman
Web Site Manager: Esther Carciente
Updated:Wednesday 4th May, 2005.
Eilat (Getting Israel Together)
Over the years, Eilat has developed into a tourist center, attracting people to the ever-present sun, to the many hiking trails and to the sea with its world famous corals.Today, Eilat is a thriving town and one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions. It is a paradise for those who love the water and water sports. Here you can laze around the beach or take an excursion in a glass bottom boat, go snorkeling or visit the Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium or just stay in your airconditioned hotel room and admire the view from your window.
Contrary to popular belief Eilat is not just another pretty town there’s actually a thriving residential area, a lot of history and interesting sites to see.
With the exception of a lonely police station, no buildings or population existed here until the decision to create Eilat in the 1950’s.
This decision was made for two main reasons:
1) In order to establish a permanent Israeli presence in this small piece of territory between Jordan and Egypt.
2) In order to provide a port for shipping to destinations in Eastern Africa and Asia via the Red Sea.
Eilat’s port facilities were expanded during the 1960’s, in order to serve the shipping of Iranian oil. This oil was brought by tankers to Eilat, piped across the Negev to Ashkelon on the Mediteranean coast, transferred back to tankers and then shipped to Europe. However, since the Khomeini revolution which stopped the flow of petroleum, and the reopening of the Suez Canal, Eilat’s port has suffered greatly. Thus Eilat must constantly struggle against adverse conditions – economic, political and natural. Yet, Eilat must continue to exist in order to maintain Israel’s access to the sea and to strengthen national security on the remote southern border.
Degania Alef (A) and Degania Bet (B) on the Jordan plain, South of Lake Kinneret [Sea of Galilee]. The name Degania – “cornflower” – was given for the Arab designation of the land – Umm Juni.
Degania Alef was founded in 1909 by seven Second Aliyah Halutzim (Halutz), who came from Romny, Russia, on land acquired by the Jewish National Fund. Although the economically successful as a settlement, the group dispersed a year later. In 1911, the place was resettled by a group of pioneers from Russia known as the “Hadera Commune”.
Degania Alef was the first settlement based on communal living and became known as the “Mother of the Kevutzot”. Members of Degania Alef insisted on maintaining the frame of the small kevutzah, as opposed to the bigger collective settlement – the Kibbutz – and therefore, in 1920, with the coming of Third Aliyah pioneers, Degania Bet was founded. In 1932, part of the land was granted for a third collective settlement – Kibbutz Afikim.
During the War of Independence, the Syrian army reached the gates of Degania Alef, but was bravely repulsed. A burnt Syrian tank remains on the site as a memorial. The two Deganias have a combined population of about 1,000. Due to the hot climate and abundance of water, both Deganias are engaged in fully irrigated farming. Degania Bet has also a metal factory.
(C) Reproduced with permssion from “Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth” CD-ROM by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.
More – Galilee (Getting Israel Together, 1986)
The first group to be trained in Chavat Kinneret, the Kinneret Farm, left it with the aim of settling a piece of land of their own. They founded Degania, the first kibbutz, in 1910. While these young people farmed the land, they also struggled with the question of their future, personal and national, which for them were inextricably tied up.
These chalutzim (pioneers) faced a dilemma. Although they were still only in their teens, they believed themselves to be the vanguard of the Jewish nation, working to restore a Jewish national life. Whatever the ‘nation’ demanded of them, they would do; wherever the ‘nation’ needed them, they would be. The pioneers took the burden of their people’s whole history on their shoulders. They felt that their task was to correct the faults of the past and iron out the distortions that the exile had caused in the national character of their people.
But how could they translate these soaring ideals into reality? The halutzim of Degania had decisions to make. They had dedicated their lives to the needs of their nation. But what exactly did the nation need most? Should the pioneers stay on the move, taking on one new project after another, breaking new ground at each site and then entrusting the project to others to continue? Was that what the nation demanded of them? Most of them thought so, and envisioned a future of unlimited romanticism, of constantly breaking new ground – both literally and metaphorically.
One boy, at least, stood against his comrades. “No – that’s not what the nation needs of us. That is the easy option,” he said. “Always moving, always seeking new paths – there will always be those who are ready to do that. Our task is to give the people what it lacks more than anything else. And that thing is roots. The Jew has been wandering for too long. It’s time he had a chance to rest. On his own land. In control of his own life.”
This young man was Yosef Bussel. For two years, he argued against his comrades, to persuaded them to stay in one place and to set down roots. He finally convinced them in 1912. The group decided to stay and to live out their lives in Degania. They moved into new houses that had been built by the Zionist movement, and settled down to fashion a life based on their ideals.
Through the daily attempt to live out their ideals in a new framework, the settlers of Degania laid the basis of the new society which came to be known as kibbutz. The kibbutz is a community based on total democracy, where all decisions are made collectively by all members. The early kibbutzim were based on the ideals of equality and self-labor, and reflected the creativity which the chalutzim brought with them.
The founders of Degania, while building a new form of life, put great emphasis on creating proper relationships, suitable for communal living. It was not always easy. In 1918, shortly before his tragic death by drowning in the Kinneret, Yosef Bussel penned a letter to a friend who had recently left the kibbutz. In it, he indicates the struggle among the members to reach a better understanding of one another – something that they considered to be essential for group living:
My dear Gershon, Already two weeks have passed since you left us, and this period with everything that happened in it, has passed very quickly, really without us being aware of it. These two weeks did not pass in a regular fashion.
We had an asepha [communal meeting of all the members] a week ago that continued from Thursday evening till Saturday night, with only small breaks for food and rest. On Sunday again we met for an asepha. Yes, an asepha like we haven’t had for a long time….
The asepha made a very strong impression on all of us, even if it made no concrete differences in our lives. We were trying to find out from each other answers to questions of our relationship to the meaning of life and to our future, to what we believe in. Everyone spoke very intimately and personally, opening themselves up to each other – we heard some very beautiful things indeed.
Nevertheless, on Sunday there was a difficult atmosphere and it was almost impossible to go out and work. About six of us went up to Moshe’s grave and sat and cried as we talked. Hearts poured out what had been stored in them for a long time.
A little before evening, we came back feeling slightly calmer and called again an asepha for everyone and, after a beautiful discussion, we decided to continue our weekly asephot on Shabbat. On Monday, we went out again to work; this time full of energy and enthusiasm.
Whole generations have passed since this letter was written – generations of struggle, for the body and for the spirit. Throughout, the members of Kibbutz Degania have tried to put abstract ideals and principles into practice and to create a new way of life. The Degania of today is more than 70 years old. Some of the children you may see today on the lawns, are the great-great-grandchildren of the founding members.
The Beginnings of Self-Defense
When the young chalutzim of the Second Aliyah came to Israel in the first years of the century, they were determined that Jewish settlements must be guarded by Jews themselves. The image of the Jew as a defenseless individual always dependent on others, which had developed during centuries of life in the Exile, would have to change. From now on, Jewish settlements would no longer be guarded by local Arab horsemen.The Jews would defend themselves.
Thus, in 1908, a group of the newcomers set up the Hashomer (Watchman) Association to guard the settlements. Taking their job in earnest, these shomrim (watchmen) proved, quickly and in no uncertain terms, that the Jew could guard himself.
What a strange group of people the early shomrim were! Photographs show them sitting calmly on horseback, richly decorated in a mixture of styles and looking like a cross between a Cossack and an Arab. Indeed, they perceived themselves as such: a mixture of the Cossack, the fighter that some of them knew from their lives in Russia, and the Arab, whom they saw as the incarnation of what their Jewish forefathers must have looked like thousands of years before.
The watchmen often lived under very hard conditions, moving around from place to place every few months, in accordance with the demands of their jobs. Even for the most dedicated, it was a difficult life. But the shomrim kept going, as they were serving an ideal in which they believed.
The first night I came to guard, I was told that guarding is not a joke, and you must keep all your wits about you if you don’t want to get a bullet in your head and meet sudden death. This was not the most encouraging advice – but it was very much in the practical spirit of Hashomer. And what’s more – it was correct.
Guarding, especially in the Galil, was really no joke, and every slight lack of care could cost you your life. A person needed a lot of spiritual resources in order to become used to the demands of the night-guard. The nights were long, awfully long, full of splendor and beauty but also full of ambushes, and danger from every side. The silence of night became thickened with many different noises of animals, reptiles and insects, the rustle of leaves and grasses, and all of them mixed together forming a strange and threatening harmony.
The twinkling of stars up above, and the glimmering of fox’s eyes down below, and you, alone and lonely. And you have no idea whether behind that looming rock there is not an enemy who has managed to hide, and if the next step won’t be your last. The responsibility you have as a guard for those souls exhausted from their day’s work, sleeping their sleep, confident in your watchfulness, brings down upon you great courage but also great tension.
After a long circuit around the boundary of the settlement, you come with great relief to a secure corner to take a breather, and you feel how good it is to lay against a stone knowing that a bullet cannot reach your back. You think with sadness of home, and the pain you have caused your parents. You see the laces of your loved ones in the night before you. Your thoughts wander to the rooms of your parents’ home, full of warmth and love. How good it was there … and suddenly a noise! You clutch the rifle to your chest, listen hard and peer into the darkness. A small animal scuttles across your path and then, again, silence. Another moment of rest before you ‘sail’ out again on another long and tiring circuit.
Sometimes, I dream of leaving this life, and returning to work the land. But I hear, time and time again, the words of the leader of Hashomer, Israel Giladi, ringing in my ears. ‘(Many will be found to work the land. But only a few to guard. There is too much danger – but what will our work in Israel be worth, a we continue to rely on others to guard us? We have to take responsibility for our own security.” That is what Giladi had told me, and he was right. Our lives and property were at the mercy of others.
After a few years, some of the shomrim decided to establish a settlement for themselves, and groups of the shomrim and people close to them prepared to ‘settle down’ during the last days of the First World War. In 1916, they established Kfar Giladi in the extreme north of the ‘Galil Finger,’ the long narrow projection of land at the north-east corner of the country.
Towards the end of the First World War, it became increasingly clear that the Ottoman Empire would fall. The British and French, who had allied during World War 1 and were two of the great European imperial powers, saw a chance to extend their influence and control over territory which the Ottomans would surely lose. Thus, during the war, the British and the French signed a secret agreement dividing spheres of influence in the Middle East. But when the agreement became a reality at the end of the war, the line dividing the two spheres separated the Galilee Finger from the rest of Eretz Yisrael, leaving it in the French controlled area while the rest of the country was under British rule.
The French, in fact, never gained full control of the Galilee Finger, for the local Arabs began to fight against them. The Arabs accused the Jewish settlements of being in league with the French, despite the settlers’ repeated declarations that they were completely neutral in the struggle. Bands of Arabs began attacking the four Jewish settlements in the area, including Kfar Giladi and Tel Chai, in 1919.
Castel – Har Me’oz (Getting Israel Together)
Mount Castel rises to the height of 790 meters above sea level, and is situated beside the road to Jerusalem, 2 km. from the Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim and some 10 km. before Jerusalem. The source of the name is from the Roman period, when there was a fortress (castilium). In the Crusades period a road fortress was erected on the ruins of the Roman fortress. Later an Arab village perched on the hilltop, that commanded the main road to Jerusalem.
When it was captured by the “Hagana” in 1948, the road to the capital was opened. And this is the story of the battle that was fought there:
In March 1948 the war intensifies in the Castel – Zuba region. Mt. Castel is the vital area. The mountain and the village on it are in Arab hands. The “Hagana” forces hold the Zuba quarry to the south and the Motza and Arza at the foot of the hill to the east. On April 1st the Arabs attack the quarry and for two days a battle rages in the area. On the night of April 2-3 the “Palmach” force (a pioneers army unit within the “Hagana”) conquers the Castel. The mountain is handed over to a company from the “Moria” battalion. Local Arab forces launch counter-attacks, which continue for three consecutive days. The small force on the Castel becomes steadily weakened. On the evening of April 5th the enemy captures the entire Castel heights. With an intense effort a platoon is put together from the “Etzioni” brigade and goes up to the Castel as a reinforcement. It barely suffices to replace the fallen and wounded and take place of exhausted fighters.
The “Jihad Elmukaddas” command conducts the largest “Phazaa” (call to arms) in the war of independence. Thousand of armed villagers swarm to the battle area. On April 6th the Arab commence attacking the Castel. The assault goes on into the darkens and continues the following day. On April 7th. the Arab commander Abd Elkadir El Husseini arrives the Castel, to take personal command of the battle. On arriving he launches an attack. After a heavy barrage of fire the assault begins at 23.00. Towards 03.00 the Arabs captured several houses in the village and reach close to the command post. They are thrust back with grenades. At dawn Abd Elkadir and two of his men advance towards the “Etzioni” command post. They are discovered. A company sergeant major kills Abd Elkadir with a burst from a sub-machine gun. On the morning of April 8th, heavy fire is opened on the Castel from three directions. The Arabs believing that their commander has been taken prisoner, launch a massive assault in an attempt to release him. The defender’s situation is critical. A “Palmach” platoon is assembled and sets out to their aid. At 13.30 the Arabs conquer the southern part of the village. Simultaneously the reinforcement arrives. The advance party reaches the Castel command post. Now the position at the house of the “Mukhtar” (village head) falls. Some of the defenders fall back. The “Palmach” force covers the retreat of the infantry and then retreats itself. During the retreat the company commander and his deputy order: “The privates will retreat. The commanders will stay behind to give them cover”.
The Arabs do not exploit the success of their victory, most of them go to the Old City of Jerusalem to attend the funeral of their commander (Abd Elkadir Elhuseini).
Toward dawn on the 9th of April a company from the 4th “Palmach” battalion captures the Castel.
Today the Castel is a national site. The National Parks Authority, together with the committee for commemoration of the Castel Battles, prepared the site for visitors and constructed a model of the battles with signboards explaining the story.
In cooperation with the Jewish National Fund, an approach road and a carpark were laid out, and trees planted on the site.
Our gratitude to the Authority for Nature reserves and National Parks for their permission to use the text from their folder for our “Live” site.
The pictures by: Pinhas Baraq
A city on the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa, was originally known as Straton’s Tower.
It was an ancient town and was named after Straton, who ruled Sidon in Lebanon during the fourth century b.c.e. The Hasmonean king, Alexander Yannai, captured it in 104 b.c.e. and incorporated it into the Hasmonean kingdom. However, it did not remain under Jewish rule for very long. The city was captured by the Roman commander Pompey and later fell under the rule of Cleopatra.
Caesarea came under Jewish rule again only when the emperor Augustus returned it to Herod, who greatly enlarged the city and renamed it Caesarea in honor of the emperor (in approximately 13 b.c.e.). Herod surrounded the city with a wall and built a deep sea harbor, and although the population of Caesarea was half gentile and half Jewish, Herod favored the non- Jewish inhabitants and encouraged the city to become a leading center of Hellenistic culture. Later it became the seat of the Roman procurators who ruled Erez Israel.
It was in Caesarea that the clashes between the Jewish and the gentile population sparked the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 c.e. which ended in the destruction of the Temple. During the war, when Vespasian arrived to subdue the country and conquer Jerusalem, he made Caesarea his headquarters, and when he became emperor, raised it to the status of a Roman colony. Some 60 years later, when the Bar Kokhba revolt broke out (131–135 c.e.), the Roman general Severus also made Caesarea his headquarters. After the revolt was suppressed, Rabbi Akiva and other sages were martyred in the city.
During the third century c.e. Caesarea became a center of Christian learning and at the same time, one of the great talmudic centers in Erez Israel. The Jerusalem Talmud speaks frequently of “the sages of Caesarea,” and reference is also made to a synagogue there where the prayers were recited in Greek.
When the Byzantines divided Erez Israel into provinces (358–429 c.e.), Caesarea became the capital of the first province (Palaestina Prima) and reached its greatest extent; it was surrounded by a semi-circular wall and was served by two aqueducts. In 640 c.e. it was the last city in the country to fall to the Arabs.
Under Crusader rule, the town again rose to importance. It was splendidly reconstructed with strong fortifications, a new harbor and a beautiful cathedral. However, the Crusaders’ presence affected the Jewish community adversely so that by 1170 only 20 Jews remained there. Today Caesarea has become a central tourist attraction with modern hotels and the only golf course in Israel. But the past is still an integral part of the city since there are relics from practically every period of its history. The remains of towers, temples and fortresses as well as statues, mosaics and hundreds of inscriptions are being constantly uncovered in excavations and are helping archaeologists to investigate Caesarea’s rich and picturesque past. In fact, the impressive Roman theater has been reconstructed and is used for special concerts and musical recitals.
Entry taken from “Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth” CD-ROM
by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter
Bet Guvrin National Park
Upon entering the park you might wonder why we brought you here – aside from a beautiful view there doesnt seem to be anything here. But, that is precisely the beauty of this site – underground is where you will find everything of interest. Archaeologists have found caves and water cisterns that date as far back as the 3rd Century BCE! So far they have found over 20 oil presses, a number of water cisterns that served private homes, burial caves, columbariums (thats where you raise pigeons) and hundreds of storage caves.
This area encompasses the ancient cities of Maresha and Bet Guvrin and was obviously once a major metropolis. The cities developed alongside the rivers and the valleys were suitable for cultivation. The cities of Bet Guvrin and Maresha both served travelers going between Jerusalem and Hebron and the coastal plain. Maresha is mentioned in the Bible in the time of Judah and subsequently fell into the hands of each new ruler. Excavations have produced remains from the Persian, Hellenist, Roman, Crusader and Arab empires.
Bet Guvrin seems to be a little more modern and dates back to the Second Temple when it flourished as a Jewish center until the Bar Kochba revolt. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the city was reestablished and Jewish life flourished. The remains of A Jewish cemetery and a synagogue from the Roman and Byzantine empire have been found. In addition remains of churches have been found from the Byzantine period.
Today not far from these remains stands Kibbutz Bet Guvrin established in 1949 immediately after the creation of the State.
Throughout your travels around Israel you may wonder how we know so much about ancient history. The truth is we get most of our information from archaeologists and books. Archaeologists study the history of a place and then search the area for remains of prior eras. A dig can last for years in one place until the archaeologists feel that they have uncovered enough information – coins, remains of buildings, documents, pottery… Youd be surprised at how much a piece of pottery can tell you – what type of people lived here, Jews, Arabs, Bedouins; What century they lived there; Was the community poor or wealthy; and more….
On a “dig for a day”, Israel experience participants participate in an ongoing dig and try their hand at finding some hidden relics.
An ancient city in the Lower Galilee, near the modern town of Kiryat Tivon on the Nazareth-Haifa road. Although settlement at Bet She’arim apparently started in Bible times, the city is first mentioned at the end of the Second Temple period.
During talmudic times, important scholars lived there. Bet She’arim reached great prosperity in the late second century when Rabbi Judah ha- Nasi went to live there and made it the seat of the Sanhedrin. From the beginning of the following century, it became the central burial place for Jews of Erez Israel and the Diaspora. The city was destroyed by Romans during the suppression of the Jewish revolt in 352 c.e. However, a small settlement continued there during the Byzantine period.
The city of Bet She’arim extended over the summit of a hill — an area of 25 acres, 450 feet above sea level. It was surrounded by a wall, two sections of which have been discovered. Remains of large buildings, including a large synagogue, have been found, as well as a glassmaking shop and about 1,200 bronze coins struck in the first half of the fourth century. An oil press used mainly in the Byzantine period was found nearby.
Rock-cut catacombs that were prepared to provide burial places for sale to people outside Bet She’arim were found in all these areas. The soft limestone rock of the area was easily carved, and many simple decorations were found on the walls of the burial chambers. Most favored were religious symbols and ritual objects, especially the seven-branched menorah and the Ark of the Law, with columns and steps. Also the shofar, lulav, etrog and an incense shovel of the Temple were depicted. Heavy ornamental stone doors were decorated to imitate wooden doors, complete with panels, nailheads and knockers. Among others, many rabbis and sages were buried in these chambers. Two-hundred and fifty epitaphs in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic were found, and one of them reads: “He who is buried here (is) Simeon, son of Johanan, and on oath, whoever shall open upon him shall die of an evil end.”
Is a city with a very long history. It is situated on a main crossroads about 25 miles south- east of Tiberias and is 390 feet below sea level. The excavations of Tel Bet She’an proved the importance of the place as a station for caravans and a center of Egyptian rule probably as early as the 15th century b.c.e. An Egyptian basalt stone found there, dating from the late 14th century b.c.e., has an inscription which mentions the Habiru (thought by some to be the ancient Hebrews), who disturbed the peace and undermined government authority in the region.
The valley of Bet She’an was the portion of the tribe of Issachar, but the tribe of Manasseh extended its settlements to this territory. During Saul’s reign the city was in the hands of the Philistines, but in the time of Solomon it was again under Jewish rule. The wall, the gate, and the style of stone-cutting in the hill belong to the Solomonic period.
By the first century b.c.e., many Jews lived in Bet She’an.
During the Hasmonean period Bet She’an became an important administrative center, and Alexander Yannai built ramparts around the city. In 63 b.c.e. Pompey revived the Greek way of life, and the city became the capital of a group of ten Greek cities called the Decapolis Alliance.
When the Jewish War broke out in 66 c.e., 13,000 Jews were murdered in Bet She’an.
A beautiful Roman theater, built in 200 c.e. is again in use for concerts. During the mishnaic and talmudic periods Bet She’an was inhabited by Jews. They made fine linen and grew field crops and olives. Bet She’an was then a world center for making and exporting textiles.
An excavated synagogue, dating from the fourth century, had a beautiful mosaic floor of geometrical design. The synagogue was burned down in 624.
From the beginning of the 20th century, Jews started to resettle in the area and in the 1990s, Beit Shean is a predominantly Sephardic development town with 14,800 inhabitants, despite the shelling that has taken place from time to time from beyond the Jordan River. Visitors travel to Beit Shean to view the extensive archaeological remains in the city, especially the Roman Theater which holds up to 7000 spectators and is one of the finest archaeological sites in Israel.
Beit Alpha (Synagogue)
As you stand inside the synagogue at Beit Alpha, the first thing you should do, strange to say, is to look at the floor. There you’ll see a beautiful mosaic, full of pictures and scenes from the Bible, such as the sacrifice of Isaac. But the most impressive part of the mosaic is the large zodiac wheel with the names and pictures of the familiar twelve signs .
We do not know the identity of the craftsmen who made the floor, nor of the patrons who commissioned it. We know nothing directly about the community which gathered in this synagogue. Indeed, had the mosaic not been uncovered by chance (by kibbutzniks who were digging a ditch for drainage pipes!), we might never have known that there was a community here at all.
What can be said about the community? From the writing in the synagogue referring to the Emperor Justinian, we can date the community to the beginning of the sixth century. The floor itself indicates that the people who lived here must have been influenced by the culture of the society around them, for mosaic floors were common in Byzantine churches. No doubt the style was copied.
But, a Zodiac? The Zodiac is not a Jewish symbol!
The fact is that the Zodiac was imported to Palestine from Persia, together with much other astrological lore. Although condemned by the prophets, astrology made much headway among the Jews (as among other nations) during the first centuries of the common era . Even today we can still find echoes of astrological beliefs in Jewish culture; for example, the expression Mazal Tov which wishes good fortune or luck, contains the word ‘mazal which means an astrological sign.
But just as they had done with Canaanite and Greek cultures before, the Jews did not just swallow the foreign Persian culture whole – they assimilated it and changed it. The signs of the Zodiac were given specifically Jewish meanings and associations: the lion became the royal lion of David, the twins became Cain and Abel, etc.
Here we see the chameleon effect: the Jews often took on the cultural colors of their environment while retaining their essential Jewish identity. This enabled them to survive as Jews in a host of different environments, and to adapt to the times without sacrificing their essential Jewishness. And that’s what a Zodiac is doing in the middle of a nice Jewish floor.
The Chameleon Effect
From the time of the Great Revolt against Rome (66 C.E.), the Jewish community in Israel was forced to respond to a number of different crises. Each time, they managed to devise a means of survival. But the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire found the community without an adequate response, and the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael declined dramatically.
But the community never disappeared completely. Small groups of Jews, clinging tenaciously to their land, kept their identity even while bending to the prevailing influences and absorbing much of the foreign culture which surrounded them.
Beit Alpha and Peki’in, in different ways, point to this phenomenon. The Jews of Beit Alpha were influenced both by the building styles of the Christian church and by other cultural influences of the time such as astrol- ogy. Both of these influences can be detected in their synagogue. But the Jews took these influences and refashioned them in a way which reflected their identity as Jews. They were not overwhelmed by the surrounding culture. They assimilated it – it did not assimilate them.
The Peki’in Jewish community held fiercely to their identity through the generations, but adjusted to their environment and were able to live as a minority in the surrounding culture. They might have surprised Jewish travelers by resembling Arabic-speaking peasants more than Jews, but they passed their traditions on from generation to generation. To them, the fact that they had stayed on their land, was an immense source of pride.
In the wake of the Bar Kochba rebellion, when Jews were forced to leave Judea (the area around Jerusalem) and move to the Galil, the following saying was coined, to voice disapproval of those Jews who left the land completely:
A man who is exiled from Judea to the Galil; or from the Galil to Judea is not regarded as being in Exile. When is it called Exile? When he is exiled from Eretz Yisrael to other lands.
If it had not been for the tenacious determination of Jews like those of Peki’in and Beit Alpha, the Jews’ link to Eretz Yisrael might have snapped completely.
Pictures by: Pinhas Baraq