The Beautiful Land
David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
This time, we decided to visit those places less frequented—Ashkelon and a Canaanite Tel, Ashdod and the Museum of Philistine Culture, Tel Be’er Sheba and Abraham’s Well. We will spend time in Arad, at the base of Masada, then climb that great mountain to see Herod’s magnificent fort, the last holdout to Roman siege and battle. From there we travel to a kibbutz by the Dead Sea, then head to Tel Lachish and points northward in the Galilee, visiting some of the more lovely national parks in all Israel, such as the mouth of the beautiful Dan River, coursing through bowers of trees and flowers aptly named the Garden of Eden.
We hope to spend some time in the Golan, perhaps reading some of the Christian tombstones piled in the corners of a number of archaeological sites, revisit Magdala and a few other ancient Galilean towns, then make our way to Akko for our last night before Dave heads home and I remain in Haifa for another four weeks.
First Day: Ashkelon National Park
We walked on a lovely hiker’s trail circling the park—the ranger’s recommendation—and agreed she was absolutely right. The view was breathtaking! And the park itself holds the remnants of several key eras.
European knights marched through the Holy Land seeking to re-open Jerusalem and other cities for Christian pilgrimages. One of their battles briefly wrested Ashkelon from Muslim hands, where they remodeled an early Byzantine Church from a six-pillared domed structure to a four-pillared cruciform building, and repurposed the extra pillars as stones in an edifice.
“The walls of Ashkelon, whose impressive remains still stand, were built by the Fatimid Muslims in the 12th century, to fortify the city against the Crusaders. The wall had four gates: Jerusalem Gate, Gaza Gate, Jaffa Gate, and Sea Gate, named for the directions in which they left the city. To the east of the Canaanite gate is an impressive section of the wall rising above a deep moat. The waves have destroyed part of the sea wall, affording impressive views of sections of the wall in which columns and other architectural elements from earlier buildings have been incorporated.”The Ashkelon National Park site
The remnants of impressive ramparts and a great wall attest to Muslim conquerors sweeping through the Levant. In 629 A.D., when Muhammad was still alive, the Battles of Mu’tah marked the beginning of a military campaign to bring the area under Muslim control. Two years after Muhammad died in 632 A.D., led by Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab (the first two Rashidun caliphs who succeeded Muhammad), the Levant was brought under the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate and developed into the provincial region of Bilad al-Sham.
“In the center of the national park are the remains of a columned structure from the Roman period (2nd century or beginning of 3rd century CE). This was the city’s basilica – a courtyard surrounded by rows of columns, whose walls and floor were made of marble. The length of the row of columns was 110 m. The basilica was the focus of public life in the city.”The Ashkelon National Park site
There are two enormous stone angels that must have been carved at a later time. Still under construction, the basilica is in the process of being conserved, the pillars reset, and the angels placed to give a sense of the grandeur and expanse of the original structure.
Not listed on our map, so we came to it quite unexpectedly, is a beautiful and well-preserved mosaic which we think might be Roman, or at the very latest, Byzantine.
Canaanite and Philistine
Dotted through this area are sixty wells used to irrigate crops three to four millennia ago.
“The Canaanite gate in Ashkelon was built of mud and kurkar bricks. It is dated to 1850 BCE, and is considered to be the oldest vaulted gate in the world. The gate is built in the form of a 15 m long corridor, almost 4 m in height and more than 2 m wide. It appears that carts, laden with goods and drawn by oxen and donkeys, passed through it on their way to and from the port. The gate was in use for some 250 years, and was then buried under a new earth rampart. A city gate was built elsewhere, in a location that is as yet unknown.
“Outside the gate, on the slope leading down to the sea, a small temple was found in which there was a statuette of a calf, 10.5 cm high, made of bronze – one of the most beautiful finds from ancient Ashkelon. Worship of the calf is identified with the ritual of El or Baal, the father of the Canaanite gods.”The Ashkelon National Park site
“The ruins of Ashkelon are surrounded by an enormous earthen rampart. The rampart marked the borders of the settlement, in the form of a semicircle that is around 2200 m in length. This is a huge earth wall, rising to a height of 15 m, and over 30 m wide at its base. The earthen rampart was the basis for a system of fortifications and a glacis. The glacis was built of a mixture of mud bricks and kurkar, and its exterior wall was built of chiseled kurkar.
“To the west there is no existing rampart, either because it was destroyed by the waves, or because it never existed at all in its land-side form. The rampart was built in the Middle Bronze Age (2000 – 1550 BCE), and served the residents of Ashkelon for over 500 years.”The Ashkelon National Park site