Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ramla and Latrun

On Monday June 21st we visited Ramla on the coastal plain. It is the only town in the region founded by Arabs. It served for several centuries as a provincial capital of Arab ruled Palestine. This tower is one of the few remains of the White Mosque. Hiking up we found some pigeon eggs (the first time I have ever seen some) on one of the inner ledges.Looking south you can see the southern walls of the large mosque--large cisterns are found beneathIn 1948 most of the Arabs of Ramla and neighboring Lod were trucked (ethnically cleansed) east into Jordan's West Bank. Today Ramla is a mostly Jewish town as evidenced by the Star of David on the top of the minaret. To the east is the city center. Our second stop was a delightful discovery--the Cistern of St. Helena which was constructed during the reign of Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid in 789. Ramla has no natural sources of water (springs or streams--living waters as they are called in the Bible) and so it had to store large amounts of winter rain water in cisterns to survive the hot dry summers. This is one of the largest cisterns.
Most ancient cisterns are old and cracked and unable to hold water, but this one has been restored, filled and outfitted with row boats.
The cistern has 24 holes where city folks could drop their buckets to bring up water.
The water was amazing clear and clean.
We had a great time rowing around. Everyone learned how to row. It was good there were no other boaters, we were not very good at steering.
For lunch we had very good felafels. Here the mashed chick peas balls are being fried.

Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs (20% of the population of Israel) were both shopping in the old market of Ramla.
Our final stop in Ramla was the Grand Mosque. It was once a large Crusader Church.

The elongated eastward oriented church became a southward oriented mosque. In the distance you can see the apse of the church. The mihrab pointing towards Mecca and mimbar (pulpit) are on the right. You can barely see the pulpit behind the second pillar. This in an interesting example of spatial succession of sacred space.
Next stop was Latrun. This area is strategically important as it guards the entrance to the road that climbs the hills up to Jerusalem. This building was a police station during the British Mandate. It is now a tank memorial and museum.
There were scores of tanks to climb on including Sherman tanks from the US that Israel used and captured Russian tanks from Egypt.

A memorial with names of all of the members of the Israeli armored corps who have died in the many wars.
From the top of the police station there is a good view south to the Latrun Trappist monastery (mentioned in a previous post as one of the possible sties of Emmaus).
To the east of Latrun and also overlooking the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road is Ayalon (Canada) Park. Once upon a time three Arab villages inhabited these hills. Their strategic height were ideal for pre-1948 Arab attacks on Jewish convoys leading up to Jerusalem and for 1948-67 shelling from these Jordanian villages down onto Israel. When Israel occupied the West Bank, the three villages were vacated and then demolished. A park rose in their stead. Arab planted fruit trees are all that remain of the previous occupants.
For a morning excursion on Thursday the 24th we walked down and back to the Old City. This is Herod's (Flower) Gate that leads into the Muslim Quarter. Since it leads into a residential area and since this area has been prone to violence and protests in the past, this is the one gate of Jerusalem that the students are not allowed to use for entering and exiting the Old City. Yesterday this gate are ceremonially reopened by local politicians and religious leaders following a major face lift and refurbishing of the gate and surrounding walls.
Zedekiah's cave underneath the north central area of the Old City near Damascus Gate. This cave is the traditional place where King Zedekiah came to escape (he should have listened to the prophet Jeremiah) from Jerusalem during the Babylonian conquest. He followed the cave down toward Jericho where he was caught and forced to watch the killing of his sons before having his eyes put out. It is also the source of the limestone blocks use to build Herod's temple and possibly Solomon's Temple. Because of its connection with temple masons, this large part of the cavern has been used for an annual gathering by Masons.
Notice the ceiling where you can see the straight lines where blocks were quarried.
Each semester the students participate in a mock Passover Seder. It takes 3 1/2 hour for all of the readings, songs, matza breaking, dining etc. The local Israeli Professor who teaches the Judaism/Israel studies class leads the seder.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Our Sunday June 14th day trip to Jordan was delightful. We drove in a car with diplomatic plates. A much quicker and easier process of border crossings that with the usual group of 82 students. Our destination was Machaerus the hill top palace/fortress of Herod the Great and then his son Herod Antipas--who ruled Galilee and Perea. It reminds me of the Herodian southeast of Bethlehem and Masada.
We walked around the north side of the mountain along the white trail over to the start of a siege ramp on the west side. We then climb to the top and then back down the east side.
Looking west. Notice the caves along the base. A aqueduct once ran across the spur leading to the mt.and then half way up the mountain to cisterns. Humans or donkeys then carried the water to the top.
The Dead Sea is in the haze in the distance. One of the Roman siege camps was located on the lower hilltop on the skyline in the middle of the photo.
The start of the siege ramp--similar to the one at Masada--only this one was never completed.
From the summit looking down at the siege ramp. The leader of the zealots was captured and when the Romans threatened to crucify him on the siege ramp in full sight of the zealots and refugees in the fortress, he begged for mercy and then surrendered after negotiating safe passage for the zealots, but not the others.
The hill top fortress and palace complex. Somewhere in this complex is where John the Baptist was imprisoned for over a year. It is from here that he sent his disciples with questions for the Christ that they might begin to follow him. And it was here that the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod and when offered anything she wanted she fulfilled her mother's request and asked for the head of John (Matthew 14).
From the east end looking west.
Looking east from the summit. The path (parallel straight lines) of the aqueduct across the spur is visible.
A mikva (ritual bath) half way down the east side. Might John still have baptized people here?

One of the cisterns on the southeast side. These may also have been prison cells, but I imagine John being held up on top.

Our next stop was the expansive ruins of Um al-Rasas. It was a large Byzantine Christian city. I was amazed at all of the arches that still remain standing after 1,500 or more years.
The large white building protects the mosaic floor of one of the Byzantine churches.

One of the nicest mosaics I have seen. On each side are mosaics of all of the Christian churches in the holy land at the time. This is a nice compliment to the Madaba map of the holy land.
At some point all human faces and animal forms were disfigured. Muslims are known to have done this, but they usually just destroyed the blasphemous mosaics. These mosaics were not destroyed, but rather all of the mosaic pieces were pulled out scrambled and then put back into place in random order so that the images were not recognizable. This intentional act of literally defacing the mosaics, may have been done by iconoclast Christians who sought to remove all human images lest they be worshiped in some idolatrous, no-other-gods-before-me way.
Notice the faceless man on the left and the scrambled animals at the top. Only the basket remains undefaced.
The Holy City of Jerusalem.
This mosaic was in another section of the church complex. This man's face was spared, perhaps because it had been covered over by sand or something else. To me it looks like he is wearing John Lennon type glasses or dark glasses for the blind. Is he leading the donkey or is the donkey leading him. Is this evidence that the Byzantines used seeing-eye donkeys? :)

We had a late lunch in Madaba and then crossed back across the Jordan. It was a fun day visiting two out of the way sites I had never seen before.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Jaffa, Lod, Emmaus

Last Sunday (June 14th) three of the faculty went on a day field trip to Jordan with a member of the Tel Aviv LDS branch who works in the US Embassy and who has worked in Jordan. This day trip necessitate another day trip to the Embassy of Jordan in Tel Aviv to get a visa. Tel Aviv is a big modern city like many others that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Some day we plan to go as a family to its wonderful beaches. These photos of Tel Aviv are from the city of Jaffa. It was an Arab town up until 1948. Since then Jaffa has been incorporated into the city of Tel Aviv.
The Church of St Peter commemorates the event in the Book of Acts Chapter 10 where Peter receives a vision of unclean foods descending from heaven which teaches him that the gospel is to now go to the gentiles and not just the Jews. From Jaffa (Joppa), Peter then goes as commanded to Caesarea to teach Cornelius the Roman.
From the port of Jaffa, Jonah sets out to not go to Nineveh
From the port looking up at old Jaffa.
The old city of Jaffa is no longer Arab. Many of the homes are now shops for Israeli artists.
A sign near the main plaza in front of St. Peter's Church displays an interesting timeline. I would call it revisionist history. As I scanned down through the centuries of Arab habitation in this city I soon realized that there was no mention of Arabs and no mention of the Arab exodus in 1948--only the "liberation" of the city by the Jewish underground.
A lower section of Jaffa was being excavated. This past week orthodox Jews have demonstrated here because they think the excavations are disrupting ancient Jewish burial sites. One of the miracles about the construction of the BYU Jerusalem Center is that during its construction no burial sites were found--even though the Mt of Olives is covered with burial sites. If burial sites had been found orthodox Jews would have demanded a halt to construction.

Driving back to the Jordanian Embassy to pick up our visas, I noticed a bill board of the late Menachem Schneerson. He was a Lubavitcher Rabbi from NYC. The Hebrew writing states: "I am the King, the Messiah." I'm not sure if he ever claimed to be the Messiah, but since his death his followers have certainly made that claim and promoted it by plastering his image all over the country. (On a side note: All foreign countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv even though Israel claims Jerusalem to be its capital. This is standard international policy until the disputed status of Jerusalem is resolved. Locating an embassy in Jerusalem would indicate an acceptance of Israel's conquest and annexation of Arab East Jerusalem).
Next stop was the town of Lod--next to Ben Gurion airport. This is another former Arab town. In 1948 its Arab inhabitants were forcibly expelled and trucked to Jordan's West Bank. Our destination was the Crusader Church of St. George--who slayed the dragon. The Crusader church was once much longer, but its western end was destroyed to make way for a mosque. This is a fascinating and encouraging example of Christian and Muslim Arabs worshiping side by side.
Palestinian Christian Arabs really like St. Geroge.

In the crypt is the tomb of St. George.
The church and the mosque's place for ritual washings.
Facing the mihrab which points southward towards Mecca
The times for prayer (It is still uncertain to me why there are six times for the five daily required times for prayer--I think one is optional). The dawn prayer begins at 3:55 am! Winter prayer times are a bit more manageable. Most nights we all sleep through the dawn call to prayer, but not always. For an account of my experiences with the call to prayer go to: and scroll down to my "Call to prayer" article
The 99 names of Allah
There are 113 suras (books), 6,236 verses, 77,934 words and 223,670 letters in the Quran.
Across the parking lot was a Jewish synagogue. Synagogue, church and mosque--peacefully together (at least so it seems). Would that it were that easy between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The Trappist Monastery of Latrun is one of three possible sites of the town of Emmaus. The monastery is known for its wine production.

The account is found in the last chapter of Luke. After his resurrection, Jesus walks on the road to Emmaus with two men and teaches them. They invite him to abide with them. After he leaves they realize that while he taught them their hearts burned. A favorite story and a favorite hymn (Abide with me 'tis eventide).
Down the road a few kilometers is a second site of Emmaus, with the ruins of a Byzantine church to mark the spot. The third possible Emmaus is the West Bank Arab town of Imwas--don't think will get permission to visit that site.