Thursday, May 31, 2012

Holy Lands Day 21: May 30 Old pots and war ramps

Disclaimer: my blog contains personal observations and the opinions, typos, and errors are mine alone. (The guides and tour leaders know their stuff.)

"I'm not sure how I became the one doing the laundry," W says as he agitates the dry-bag full of soap, water, and soiled clothes.

"You volunteered," I reply. "You said, 'have anything you want washed?' and I handed things to you."

"You have a very good imagination," he laughs, going back to rinse the clothing and hang it up to dry. Hey, I'm not partial to who does the chores. They need doing and I hate doing them.

We have a relaxing breakfast since we don't have to be on the bus until 9am. I have time to copy part of yesterday's blog (too late last night to do it) before we head out the door.

The Psalm is #63, David in the wilderness of Judah. The tour leaders keep encouraging us to keep sharp but I feel like "something" is catching up with me as we start out. Perhaps the intense concentration on the lecture? The late night visit? Whatever, I feel completely "schlapp" or limp as far as absorbing new info. It's Wednesday, but I feel a Sabbath would be welcome!

Ilan points out a Jewish settlement in the West Bank (more checkpoints on the highway) in "the field of Boaz." Life here is complicated. Arabs, having taken over the site of the Jewish holy of holies, can hardly complain at Jews living near their towns in formerly uninhabited areas!

Across from the satellite center of Israel in the Ella Valley Ilan exclaims, "Oh look, dinner!" Lambs and sheet dot the hillside, their shepherd already on a cellphone. We pass the ruin of an ancient aqueduct of Benjamin. Ilan points out the line of stones that remain.

Our first destination is Bet Guvrin, where we meet Dr. Ian Stern, who has worked here for 26 years. The hill is riddled with hundreds of caves and open to study groups and archeaology buffs. This Hellenistic site is mentioned four times in the OT. Rehaboam fortified several sites, including Marishah here. After the sacking of the area by the Babylonians, Edomites moved into the vacuum. The Edomite (or Idumean) cosmopolitan city that resulted was the home of Herod the Great. 90% of the writing is Aramaic; the other 10% is Greek, with a smattering of Hebrew. In C2 BC, the enemy of Macabee won the battle nearby but not the city.

Josephus states that Idumeans were given a choice to convert or leave and that most inhabitants converted. Stern says it's probably that Edomites had much in common with Judaism and didn't have much trouble converting voluntarily. Strabo, the other contemporaneous historian, does not mention forced conversion. A marriage contract dated 176 BC (similar to Judaic tradition), many idols, and heaps of pottery have been found here. 

A curious find is that many vessels have a hole punctured in the base. Speculation is that they were ritually impure, but Dr. Stern wonders if they had been used for ceremonial purposes and so were set aside as sacred objects. To create a hole, the pottery has to be scraped and punctured carefully, so the holes are not incidental.

We get down and dirty. A 20-year veteran at the side, a wise-cracking, sarcastic staff member, takes us through a series of caves. We slither through narrow openings, drop through a manhole sized circle, and gaze at the openings chiseled for doves (eaten and sacrificed) throughout the cave systems. It's a challenging but not difficult scrabble through the caves, lit by candles. We emerge after 15 minutes, dusty and happy, only 30 meters from where we descended.

The next adventure is excavation of sorts. We're handed small picks, buckets, and a trowel to sift through the ground of a cave nearby. I dig against a wall, figuring that people would fling their garbage as far as possible and it would be stopped by a wall. All the artifacts are from C2 BC when the inhabitants fled with their wealth and ditched the rest down into the caves. I find about 15 pieces of pottery that haven't seen the light of day for 2200 years, including some pot rims, three pieces of a thin-walled vase and numerous other pieces of water jars and other pots. Those go in a bucket separate from all the rubble we are sifting.

It's back into daylight, a bucket-brigade handing up the pots full of debris to be sifted and checked before the dirt is dumped. We're creating a higher tel (mound) as we work. Well, actually W and I sit in the shade and watch the others hand buckets along the line. I think how clever and cool that we guests have a fun experience while these archaeologists don't have to sift through all the junk themselves. What a great way to excavate, using tourist enthusiasm to clear down the floor of the "Lumpy" cave.

After a final lecture from Dr. Stern we are sent to pick up 2200-year-old pottery shards from where the "not important" pieces are dumped. Kids, guess what we're bringing you!?

Our final stop, after an hour for lunch at a mall, is Lakhesh. Oh, W decided on McD's and I joined him. 45 minutes after giving our order, Avi (Blue tour guide) goes to the counter to demand our food. They have no pop for their "Big Meal Deal" so I get OJ; W gets grape drink. The fries are cold. The burgers indifferent. Live and learn. Thanks, Avi - we might still be waiting if not for you!

Ramp up to the city gates of Lakhesh
Lachish is important because it had good agriculture and was on Judah's East-WEst access from the coastal plain. Rehoboam started fortifications of several cities, but Judah was more isolated than Israel so less important politically and financially in international trade. Israel fell first because it was more connected. We talk about Hezekiah's attempts to align with Egypt and Isaiah's admonitions against it.

When Assyria did not conquer Jerusalem after laying siege to it, the city became arrogant and certain that God would not permit the temple to be conquered. A hundred years later, Jeremiah prophecies its demise due to the unfaithfulness of its inhabitants and was denounced as a traitor. In 597, Babylon deported leading figures, including Ezekiel. Not long after, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people exiled, ending the first temple period. Biblically speaking, Lachish is vital as it was one of the last cities in the shvila or lowlands to be destroyed.

Avi takes us to the top of the hill where walls lie in ruins. 5 year old Ellisheva Turnage runs up the hill with the front of the pack. All three Turnage kids are big and strong. They've outdone many of us in their stamina at the sites ... and from years of travel, they know the area better than some who have studied from afar. If we're stumped or miss a point, it's easy to lean over to ask one of them for info.

Avi points out the ramp built by Sennacharib to move his war machinery into position to batter the walls. Sennacharib commissioned a relief for the door of his palace in Ninevah about his victory. It's that important and was that difficult in conquering Judah. I barely have time to throw together a sketch of the city entrance before we hop on the busses again.

Mosaic floor border at the Hanot Ruin
Our last stop of the day is the Hanot Ruin, a Byzantine chapel with a beautiful mosaic floor, near the Roman road of ancient days and just off the highway for us. The busses pull up along a dusty gravel road and we pile up the little hill. The chapel is fenced off: vandals have recently defaced it with graffiti and have smashed the mosaic floor. I find a few stones in the parking lot on our way out. (Two days ago, ultra-Orthodox Jewish vandals likewise attacked a C2 synagogue in the north. They believe archaeologists are disturbing the land and hate the excavations.) I catch a piece of the pattern of the mosaic floor with its dusty reds, blacks, and white tiles. Beauty despoiled. Discouraging.

Shimon and Ilan chat in Hebrew as usual on the way back to the hotel. We pass through West Bank checkpoints, Israeli soldiers leaning casually against the booths, uniformed or in T-shirts with ammunition vests and machine guns relaxed in their hands.

We're weary after a day of physical movement, but back to the hotel by 6:15pm. W and I chat in German with Heinz, a Swiss visitor, in the dining hall about his home, job as chef, and love for Israel. This is his 14th visit, "mein Heim weg von Zuhause" (home away from home.) I miss the mandatory Q&A session at 8 to catch up on writing and clear my lungs of dust. Cough cough.

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