The Beautiful Land

David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.

Standing just outside the oldest arched gate in the world

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.

An amazing view from where the Muslim ramparts were built

Crusader

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
Note the form of a cross chiseled into the end of this repurposed marble pillar

Muslim

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.

Being so close to the sea, they used nearby sand and shells as the grit for their mortar
From the park’s signage, describing the Muslim fortifications
Dave standing by a remnant of the Muslim wall. Note the pillar stones embedded in a later Crusader wall.

Roman

“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
Corinthian-style pillar caps
A heart-shaped corner pillar cap

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.

The two angels repositioned in the basilica
Note the angels standing on animal creatures of some kind

Mosaic

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.

An unexpected and lovely mosaic, out in the open

Canaanite and Philistine

Dotted through this area are sixty wells used to irrigate crops three to four millennia ago.

peering down into the well
From the park’s signage, showing how the ancients would irrigate their fields
See the wheel at the top

Canaanite

Gate

“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
Note the kurkar (sandstone) blocks at the base, and the lighter mudbricks above
The gate length is not as long as expected, and the arch both narrow and just high enough to allow in animals
From the park’s signage, the Canaanite fortifications provided the basic foundation for later installations
The precision is so amazing!

Rampart

“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
a greater view of the Canaanite wall
Another angle of the Canaanite wall
At the base of the wall by the gate is a raised platform where people could pay their respects to Ba’al

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