Straight from Ashkelon to Your Table: The Ascalonian

July 20, 2014

“We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” (Numbers 11:5)

While Ashkelon is noted for many things, such as Philistines, the oldest arched gateway, and horrific Roman-era sewers, it has another, lesser-known claim to fame. It is also the hometown of one of the world’s most popular vegetables: the onion.

More specifically, it is famous for a particular variety of the Alum family. During the Roman era, the name Ashkelon was latinized, becoming Ascalon or Ascalonia. Among the city’s many exports, such as its famous wine, it also cultivated a smaller variety of onion that did not tend to mature to the full bulb, and was known for its mild flavor. Writers such as Theophrastus and Strabo expounded on the qualities of this humble root. And, since it was cultivated in Ascalon, it became known as the ascalonian, or escalonia. Pliny the Elder described it in The Natural History as:

The Ascalonian onion is of a peculiar nature, being barren in some measure in the root; hence it is that the Greeks have recommended it to be reproduced from seed, and not from roots: the transplanting, too, they say, should be done later in the spring, at the time the plant germinates, the result being that it bulbs with all the greater rapidity, and hastens, as it were, to make up for lost time; great dispatch, however, is requisite in taking it up, for when ripe it rots with the greatest rapidity. If propagated from roots, it throws out a long stalk, runs rapidly to seed, and dies.

As the name passed through many centuries and many tongues, it was altered slightly into the French shallot and English scallion. 


The Mighty Ascalonian

Today, scallions are still cultivated in the park, though the crops often suffer from foraging picnicking parties and barbeques. However, in forgotten corners, they have grown quite large, with huge clusters that blossoming archaeologists have to clean out of their grids with pickaxes. It is rather a disappointment to come home smelling like onions without having had the pleasure of eating them.

Clumps of Ascalonions

Clumps of Ascalonians

Grid 20 – The “Snake Tower”

July 10, 2014

While Rebekah has been digging to her heart’s content in the Grid 16 step trench, I have been mostly working in Grid 20, which we affectionately refer to as the “Snake Tower.”  As you can imagine, this name has a purpose.  It’s not that it looks like a snake or has some meaningful historical origin, but in recent times a snake or two was spotted when it was being surveyed for excavation, and as with nicknames, it caught on.

Here is a view from down the rampart slope, looking up.

Here is a view from down the rampart slope, looking up.

So how does this grid and it’s architecture factor into the history of Ashkelon?  The majority of what you see in the photo is Islamic era construction, some of it possibly Crusader.  This is much later than most of the history we have focused on in this blog related to Ashkelon (apart from historical overviews).  The grids we were in last year were from much earlier time periods (me in Grid 51 Persian layers, Rebekah in Grid 38 Philistine layers).  Grid 20, our “Snake Tower” location, was initiated this year to investigate the latter years of Ashkelon’s fortifications and how they were modified over time during the different Islamic periods (11-12th century A.D.) and the Crusader periods following.

Photo of earlier construction at the base of the tower, explained below.

Photo of earlier construction at the base of the tower, explained below.

It is interesting in the photo above, that we actually do tie back to earlier times.  This does not quite not make it back to the Persian period, but the current thought by experts is that you do see some Hellenistic (Greek) wall construction in this photo.  In the center, notice the larger blocks with white lime mortar, extending up to where the current ground level is at the edge of the trench.   The block composition and mortar style is similar to structures found some years ago in Grid 47, where the odeon (small Roman theater) was built on top of previous Hellenistic construction.  Something interesting to think about as we expose this wall and lower layers is how the original digging for the foundations for the larger and taller Islamic wall would have exposed and reused foundational elements of the Hellenistic walls.  This would have happened some 1,000 years after the Greeks were fortifying the site.  As we are digging the site today, it is some 1,000 years after the Muslims and Crusaders were occupying the site.  I wonder if, when the Muslims or Crusaders were digging their foundations, they took a moment to ponder whose wall they were coming down on and thought about it in any way as we do today, asking the questions of “who built this,” and how or why.  Of course, they may have been building as fast as possible to prevent the next invasion.  If in that mode, it does not leave much time for historical reflections.

This is another view of the site, from the top of the ramparts, complete with excavation shades.

Typical excavation tools and setup here

Typical excavation tools and setup here

Below is a photo of a wall foundation.  What is interesting here, as with the front of the Snake Tower, is the reuse of ancient columns in medieval architecture.  In the Snake Tower itself, the use of columns looks aesthetic, but would serve as a strengthening component when used at 90 degree angles to the layout of the tower.  However, in the photo below, you can see where columns were used in parallel orientation with a wall foundation, which would actually make the wall less stable, particularity when the mortar begins to chip away.  The wall just behind this, still standing, also has some column use parallel with the wall.  Admittedly, it has been standing for over 1,000 years…so I suppose we owe the design engineers some credit.

Wall foundation

Wall Foundation

Why do you want this view?

Sunrise from the "Snake Tower"

Sunrise from the “Snake Tower”

In the parting shot for this post, it is apparent why this location was a perfect spot for ancient occupation.  Ashkelon’s ancient ring of sand dunes, with the gaps filled to create the earthen ramparts which still exist and shape the site today, provided an excellent vantage point over the surrounding land.  Philistine or Greek, Islamic Fatimid or Crusader, ancient defenses were all about vantage point.  All directions were visible from Ashkelon’s ramparts, but north and east could particularly be viewed for some distance.  Take away the modern buildings and introduce ancient cropland and barren patches, and you have the view which would have existed for centuries–just change the names of the occupants or the invaders.  But, even though their names changed, through all the transitions, the city name always seemed to stick.  Much like the “Snake Tower” for Grid 20.

Life in the Trenches–Ashkelon Grid 16

July 4, 2014

First of all, we would like to thank our readers for their interest in our photo product–we had a wonderful time putting it together during our Vagabonding Tour, and it is now linked in our sidebar if you would like more information.  As today marks our 2nd Independence Day in Ashkelon, we would like to describe what life has been like for Rebekah for the past 4 weeks.

One of the exciting aspects of field archaeology is the various experiences available: occupation levels, the nature of finds, even the methods used can vary depending on where you are digging, and what you are digging for. Last season, I had the opportunity to work in Grid 38, where we carefully traced floors and occasionally broke out the delicate tools to flake up layers of phytolith (vestiges of organic materials like baskets or grain) or carefully pedestal beautiful Philistine artifacts. However, this season, I have been in the new Grid 16. Together with my old supervisor and a new team of volunteers, we have been excavating a step trench in the North Tel of Ashkelon.

The step trench is an excavation method in which the team digs a trench into a hill or slope of a tel (or rampart) to explore the occupation levels by excavating graduated levels from top to bottom—creating a visual stairway from the latest occupation to the earliest. For us, this was a steep bit on the side of what was at first assumed to be a Crusader-era moat by our friend Richard Cornwall.

Alleged Crusader Moat

Looking from the North Tel across the “moat.”

Our first week was spent transforming what we lovingly termed “The Waterslide,” a flat, slippery grade cleared by heavy equipment, into two squares and 6 steps. Over the past 4 weeks, those steps have been deconstructed and reconstructed as massive amounts of dirt have been dug and dumped by our team, fluctuating from 8 volunteers to 6, plus our two intrepid supervisors. And in those 4 weeks, we have articulated a fantastic tumbled down tower, cleaned out an early-Islamic water channel, sorted through many hundreds of years worth of assorted and intersecting garbage pits, and lovingly cleaned several courses of an Early Bronze Age mudbrick wall.

Grid 16--Week 1

Grid 16–Week 1

Grid 16--Week 4

Grid 16–Week 4

Each day is strenuous, as we use large tools like pickaxes and turias to move dirt into gufas and buckets (which we then haul out). And after the big messes are cleaned up, our task is to brush the loose soil off our area to reveal pit or mortar lines (this is an art—it’s really all in the wrist). But it’s exciting. We’re not treasure hunting, and would have been sorely disappointed so far if we were. But we’re seeking answers to questions of what parts of the site were inhabited, and by whom and how they lived. The Crusader and Islamic levels have yielded sherds from Cyprus to China and beautifully glazed local pieces. The Byzantine and Roman levels gave us parts of oil lamps and red-glazed ware. Atticware speaks of the Hellenistic age. Most precious of all have been the few ugly sherds of Early Bronze vessels.

Hauling Gufas of Dirt with a Smile

Hauling Gufas with a Smile

Through this quest for ancient humanity, you also learn a lot about modern humanity. You live in a land with foreign customs and politics, and learn to navigate and understand them. You also get to watch a rag-tag bunch of near-strangers from all walks of life evolve into a battle-hardened team unified by pride, mutual respect, and the occasional baked goods.

Grid 16 Family Photo

Grid 16 Family Photo

Grid Foxes of Ashkelon

July 2, 2014

One of the fun things about traveling is enjoying the ecology of other lands.  For example, Trent’s fox in Grid 20, where they are exploring the Islamic and Crusader fortifications in the “Snake Tower.”  The fellow seems to be an adolescent who is more interested in playing with his rocks and dirt mounds than avoiding humans.  His interest in archaeology has also led to reports of volunteers in the trench looking up to see a fox peering down at them.

Our little friend is part of a long line of Grid Foxes that have graced us with their presence.  The whole family turned out last season to watch us sweat and toil in Grid 38 (and never offered to lend a paw).

Ashkelon Year 2 -and- Photos from Last Year’s Vagabonding Tour

June 27, 2014

Our blog has been quiet for a few months now.  This quiet time corresponds to grad school, which we started last fall with a semester abroad in Israel, and then continued back in the states this spring.  We have both been enjoying classes and the associated paraphernalia that comes with them, but it has kept us busy.

Item #1 – Ashkelon

We break silence on two accounts.  First, Ashkelon: Year 2.  As we jumped into the study of Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology last year, archaeological excavation experience was one of the items that drew us into our current program.  Hands on experience, as with many fields of study, is one of the best ways to get out of the classroom and into the real world of application.  We both benefited from last years’ experience so much we wanted to go another round, so, here we are.  Our “jobs” on the dig this year differ from last year, so we will try to share some of the new experiences, time permitting. But we are already in the third week of excavation, and have not had many moments to spare.

Until then, if you would like a recap of the general history on Ashkelon, here are a few links from last year:

Ashkelon through the Ages, Part I
Ashkelon through the Ages, Part II

The Canaanite-era ramparts at Ashkelon, and one of the oldest archways known to history (partially reconstructed in the second photo below). Above the ramparts, you can see the Philistine tower and the Hellenistic walls.

The Canaanite-era ramparts at Ashkelon, and one of the oldest archways known to history (partially reconstructed in the photo below).  Above the ramparts, you can see the Philistine tower and the Hellenistic walls.

The Canaanite-era ramparts at Ashkelon.  Above the ramparts, you can see the Philistine tower and the Hellenistic walls.

One of the oldest archways known to history (partially reconstructed).

One of the oldest archways known to history (partially reconstructed).

Looking down Tel Ashkelon from the north (photo below). From this vantage point, its citizens could watch ships coming from Egypt or Phoenicia to participate in the lively trade for which it was famous.

View south from Tel Ashkelon, along the beach.

View south from Tel Ashkelon, along the beach.


Item #2 – Photos from Last Year’s Vagabonding Tour

Also, if you were reading the blog last year, you may remember our time in between the Ashkelon dig and our study-abroad semester in Jerusalem, we conducted our own personal “vagabonding” tour of Israel, brought to light in posts like this:

Project #2: Vagabonding in Israel for 40 Days (or So)

Arbel, Tiberus, Hazor, Nazareth, Jezreel Valley, Tel Jezreel, Bet Shean, Qumran, En Gedi (Photo Summary for the past week, last Tuesday – this Wednesday)

Our itinerary for these travels had a specific purpose.  We were attempting to visit the most prominent sites and landscapes mentioned in the Biblical text, which were easily accessible in modern day Israel, and provided good photographic opportunities to illustrate what the Biblical writer was seeing—or envisioning (if not directly viewing a location or landscape).

We have put together a small photo package that includes high-resolution photographs, as well as smaller presentation-sized photographs of 25 Biblical places and 25 Biblical landscapes, all within Israel.  The package is just a few dollars and is instantly downloadable (via email links, which will arrive shortly after purchase).

Here is the link to the product site:

You might ask, “Why would I purchase this when I can Google image search and scrape images from the web for free?”  Good question.  If you want free images, Google image search to your heart’s content—everybody does it.  The benefit with a packaged product like this is one downloaded package (or two, for the combination product), descriptions of the places and their relevant mentions in the Biblical text, and simple maps showing the locations or perspectives of view.  All of this with photos with good light, color, angles, and high-resolution.  All of this in a streamlined package directed toward these sites and cities of the biblical text, for only $5. You can view the locations and landscapes on the product pages. For school projects, sermons, or lectures for those who have not been to Israel, this would be a great starter package for you. Even if you have been to Israel and made your own photos, maybe you could not get good shots as part of a tour group, maybe you did not visit these sites, or maybe your photos are shot out of a bus window. These were all issues we had on or first tour to Israel. It was a great tour, but when we were on our own, we could get all the shots we wanted, and we thought others may want them as well.

That’s all for now.  Hopefully, there will be more about Ashkelon in the days to come as we continue our second season.

Southern Gateways of the Levant, Part 2 — Historical Philistia

December 16, 2013

Philistia is a rich land, but, in its early history, its population was sporadic at best.  Beginning around the Neolithic period (~8000-4500 BC), very few documented occupations are known, a trend which continued through the Chalcolithic period (~4500-3500 BC).  Most known populations were living on the “fringes” of what is now considered prime land, including the Negev and Judaean Wilderness; though, by the Late Bronze age, the Levant was thoroughly peopled. Egypt often passed through the Philistine gateway to penetrate the Southern Levant, using what is known as the international trunk route, or International Coastal Highway (in time, this would also be called the Way of the Land of the Philistines).  Then, around 1200 BC, Aegean tribes invaded the Nile Delta.  Ramses III repelled them on some level, and the interlopers settled instead in Egypt’s most valuable coastal towns south of Byblos: Gaza and Ashkelon.  These people were known as the Philistines, and adroitly adapted to their new home and opportunities.

Aegean Pottery

Examples of Aegean Influence and Imports in Philistine Pottery (Left to Right): Philistine Monochrome, Cypriot Milk Jar, Another Cypriot Milk Jar, Monochrome Bell Jar Rim and Handle

Products from Philistia eventually appeared all over the known world, as the textile industry flourished with flax and wool work.  Philistia’s access to the Mediterranean also brought harvests of the murex, the mollusk responsible for the highly desired Tyrian purple.  Archaeologists today still unearth the signature Philistine loom weights, as well as other tools for making cloth—tools, dyes, and ceramics all used for spinning and weaving, indicating the textile industry was booming (Ashkelon 1, 204-205).  However, Philistia’s greatest source of wealth and trade were still its roads and coasts.

Murex Shell

Ancient Murex Shell found in Iron Age Ashkelon

But, just as the Egyptians lost this region, so would the Philistines.  Assyria seized upon this land of opportunity and stripped it from her former masters.  Then Babylon reared its mighty head.  The juggernaut of antiquity swept through Philistia and wrought havoc, taking advantage of the very roads that had delivered such prosperity.

Ashkelon alone would take almost a century to recover from Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction. Eventually, Philistia prospered again under the Persian Empire until Alexander’s arrival, when he besieged Gaza on his way to Egypt.  After his death until the rise of the Roman Empire, Philistia was again an embattled land as armies crossed and recrossed her while the Seleucids and Ptolemies vied for superiority.  Rome, tired of the squabbling, eventually turned control of Philistia and all Palestine over to the Herodian Dynasty.  Kingdoms would continue to play a territorial tug-of-war after Rome passed away.  The Muslims would seize Philistia during their zealous expansions and the Crusaders, in turn, rolled into Philistia to retake it from the heathen.  From Ottomans to Britain, the State of Israel to Hamas, Philistia has hardly had a moment’s peace since her earliest days in antiquity.

Crusader Wall

Crusader-Era Wall at Ashkelon

Good resources for historical Philistia can be found in Amihai Mazar’s book Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10, 000-586 B.C.E. and details of Philistine material culture are described within Ashkelon excavation reports such as Ashkelon 1 (Cited above, subsection- “Case Study of Indoor Surfaces: A Philistine House.”).  All Ashkelon excavation reports (and other interesting info on Ashkelon) are available online here.

Southern Gateways of the Levant, Part 1 — Geography of Philistia

December 2, 2013

So, we have been somewhat quiet because we have been busy.  Grad school has not allowed much time for blogging 🙂  However, this semester (and the vagabonding tour) has provided great opportunities to explore the historical geography related to ancient Israel and the Biblical text.  Over this semester, we have visited several “gateways” to the land.  We hope to have a series of multi part posts, detailing a few of these gateways.  Our first one is the Southern Gateways of the Levant, beginning with Philistia.

The Philistia Gateway is part of the bottleneck of routes into and out of Egypt.  It is arguably the most important of all the routes of the Southern Levant—and mostly because the empires of the ancient world made it so in their desire to conquer the oldest and most prestigious empire of antiquity.

Philistia in Israel’s Coastal Plain region is a veritable variety show of rock and soil types. Much of the coastal plain proper is made up of dunes, both young dunes that create a rather inconvenient barrier along the sea, and ancient dunes that have solidified into kurkar. On the east, along the hotly contested boundary between ancient Philistia and Judah, the region is bounded by the rugged Cenomanian limestone (sometimes referred to as “Jerusalem Stone“), that makes up the hills of Judah and the smoother Eocene limestone lowlands of the Shephelah. Between these formations runs the Senonian chalk trough, which helped block much of Philistia’s intrusions into the Judaean Hills. This chalk addition also creates an erosion paradise in the coastal plain, as the terra rosa and rendinza soils of the Cenomanian and Sinonian rocks mix with the earthy Eocene brown forest soil.

Kurkar Dune

Ancient kurkar dune beneath Tel Ashkelon

Thus, the line of Philistia is made up rich alluvial soil, pure along its eastern border, and then mixed with the sandy dunes, coating the grains of kurkar to create brown-red sands. The result of this unique combination of soil types creates a region highly conducive to agriculture, where roots could grow deep and strong in the loose, fertile ground. Produce such as cereals abound, as well as vineyards—indeed, Philistia and especially Ashkelon were renowned across the world of antiquity for their famous wine. However, food crops were not the only yield of Philistia. The coastal geology also invited flax, and the broad, open plains could also be used for animal husbandry. Such tradable products as dairy, wool, meat, wine, and linen meant the citizens of Philistia were able to enjoy the material wealth of the ancient world.


The Shephelah is still important for agriculture today

None of this luxury would be possible, though, without rain. Regular precipitation is crucial to farmlands, and Philistia’s proximity to the Mediterranean guaranteed a much more dependable rainfall than the territories further east and south. Its temperate climate also contributed to the land’s health, where plants and animals would not be subjected to the same deadly cold the northern and mountainous regions could experience. Once again, the nearby sea would protect gardens in the summer as the humidity maintained crucial moisture in the otherwise dry air.

Further south in Philistia, where it intercepts with the desert, the light loess soil provided her with further opportunity. Loess, a pale and dusty soil made of loam and silt carried by the wind from the Sinai, is good, but only with enough moisture—and both the Philistines and later Nabateans seemed to know how to add just the right amount of the necessary water. Ashkelon’s wine often came from the desert vineyards irrigated using technology long forgotten, and beautiful mosaics show donkeys and camels carrying the curiously shaped pithoi (storage jars) to the city.


Some agriculture carried out in the transition between Negev and Coastal Plain of Philistia

Philistia’s geology also shaped its geography. The broad, coastal plains and low hills, as well as the broad, open valleys (emeks) belonging to Eocene formations were ideal for travel. Sources of fresh water were not difficult to find, further encouraging passage. From earliest known times, the international trunk route wove its twin ways along Philistia’s coastline on the west and through the Shephelah to the east on its way from Egypt to Syria and beyond. Her value was not measured solely for her inland charms, though. Here and there, her coastal dunes gave way and great port cities, such as Gaza and Ashkelon, which rose up to welcome travellers by sea, even despite the Southern Mediterranean’s straight-line coast. Her five greatest cities, the famous Pentapolis (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, Gaza), each served as a gateway in its own right. Gaza opened the doors of the Southern Levant to her long-time master, Egypt. Ashkelon opened Palestine to seafarers from all over the Mediterranean—Phoenicia, Egypt, and the Aegean—and exchanged riches with them. Ashdod intercepted caravans journeying from Damascus as they descended on Egypt. Across the plain, Ekron and Gath stood guard over the inland branch of the coastal highway, as well as east-west roads leading across the hill country to the Trans-Jordan and the King’s Highway. It is this combination of sea access and inland routes that brought Philistia together with her southwestern partner, the Negev, and seduced many an empire to vie for control of her riches and her access to Egypt and the world beyond.

Coastal Plain

Coastal Plain of Philistia

A few good general resources on the geology and geography of Philistia, and ancient Israel in general, are James Monson’s “Geobasics in the Land of the Bible” (more geological detail) and “Regions on the Run, Introductory Map Studies in the Land of the Bible,” (more on geography, regions, and trade routes).  Also, visiting the land is quite helpful as well.  And of course, any Biblical text referring to the lands of Philistia, where geographical details can be gleaned.

Temple Mount: Past and Present

October 23, 2013

One of the lessons we have learned during our stay here is that Israel is an incredibly beautiful land, but it’s also an incredibly complex land. Politics and religion are deeply intertwined. If you want to garner an emotional response, just ask someone how they feel about the Palestinian State or the Temple Mount.

On the topic of Palestine: We’re reserving that for our icebreaker the next time we want to make everyone uncomfortable at a party.

But, a few weeks ago, we mentioned a bit of the history of the Temple Mount, and we thought we’d go a bit more in depth about its past.

Temple Mount

The Modern-Day Temple Mount

We’re first introduced to the Temple Mount as we know it in II Chronicles 3:1, when Solomon builds his incredible temple where his father David had purchased Ornan’s threshing floor. This served two purposes: it reinforced the sacredness of the site where the destroying angel appeared to David, and his actions that stopped the plague. It also bolstered Jerusalem’s defenses—the City of David was heavily fortified, but weak to the north due to the rise of Mt. Moriah above it. An enemy could easily come down the slope against the city. The Temple Mount served as an added fortification, made all the stronger by the Divine Presence within. However, we know that same Divine Presence soon fled the temple, and it was destroyed and rebuilt, only to be rebuilt then destroyed again in 70 AD. Today, you can still see the huge stones Herod the Great used to build the Temple Mount (some as long as 49 feet), which make credible Josephus’s description of a temple of epic proportions.

One of the Temple Mount stones. This one is around 24 feet long. The longest known measures 49 feet.

One of the Temple Mount stones. This one is around 24 feet long. The longest known measures 49 feet.

Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem, and successfully triggered another revolt when he built a temple to himself and Jupiter on the ruined Temple Mount.  Later, in the 4th century AD, the Jews were allowed to again rebuild their temple. The great earthquake in 363 halted those efforts. But this did not stop them from performing sacrifices on all that was left—the great foundation stone upon which tradition says Abraham sacrificed Isaac.

Foundation Stone

The foundation stone, beneath the Dome of the Rock

During the Byzantine era, the Neo-Persian Empire retook Palestine and granted the Jews freedom to rebuild their temple. Then that was scrapped when they handed control of Jerusalem over to the Christians who, in the nature of good sports, kindly tore down the new construction and made it a garbage dump. Which is how it remained until the Muslim period. As soon as Caliph Omar captured Jerusalem in 637 AD, he made a beeline for the Temple Mount with his advisor. This converted rabbi had him build a monument over what he believed to the be the Temple’s Holy of Holies, and later where Mohammed ascended to Heaven to speak to God.  This also happened to be the same bedrock on which Jews had sacrificed before.  In 691 AD, the general structure of the Dome of the Rock was built over the sacred foundation stone, all based on the Byzantine architecture of the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The Golden Dome as we know it now was renovated in the early 90s to include the gold-plated roof tiles, donated by Jordan’s King Hussein, who personally funded the project by selling one of his grand palaces in Britain.

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock

The Quran and attending traditions say the Temple Mount was the “Farthest Mosque” to which Muhammad traveled in one night as part of a miracle. To further commemorate this event, the Al-Aqsa mosque was added to the Mount in 705, after which man vied with nature to rebuild each time one of several earthquakes would take it down, until 1033. In 1099, the Crusaders took Jerusalem and converted the Al-Aqsa into a church (naturally), and then the Ottoman Turks reconverted it into a mosque (naturally) when the Crusaders were driven out. It is said to be an architectural carbon copy of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque

The Al-Aqsa Mosque

Control of the Temple Mount more or less remained in the hands of the Muslims, with access being restricted or granted depending on who was in charge, whether Britain, Jordan, or Israel. After the 6-Day War in 1967, Israel granted control of the Temple Mount as a waqf, or sacred donation to Islam, to help establish better relations with the Arab community. Today, orthodox Jews do not ascend the Temple Mount, because the location of the Holy of Holies is unknown—and thus, the whole Mount is holy. For other visitors, modesty is strictly enforced, and religious symbols or texts (crosses, Bibles, Stars of David) are strictly forbidden. If you don’t want to go all the way up, you can visit the Western Wall or just sit on the southern steps and imagine throngs of the faithful going up to honor their religious obligations.

Shanah Tovah!

September 28, 2013

Since we started school here in Jerusalem, our September has been punctuated by near-weekly holidays. Many of these appear in the Old Testament, and it’s interesting to see them celebrated still.

We started our semester at the beginning of September with Rosh haShanah, the Feast of the Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25). The holiday begins with a series of shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) blasts. Not only does this mark the beginning of a new year, but it is also when Jewish tradition says God rises up as a judge and determines each person’s fate and fortune for the year. You will often find four main foods on a traditional Rosh haShanah table: apples and honey to dip the apples in (for a sweet year), pomegranates (for abundance), and a fish head (for staying…ahead).

The end of Rosh haShanah begins the 10 Days of Repentance, in which you try to atone for the sins you have committed by meditating, apologizing, and donating to charity. Then comes Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23:26-32), when God will decide if you have atoned properly enough to make it into the Book of Life for another year. For a 25-hour period, healthy adults must abstain from any form of work and observe a complete fast, including water.

Once Yom Kippur ends (mid-September, this year), the 7 days of Sukkot begin. To show how serious you are about pleasing God, the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:33-43) is entered into with festive zeal. Some folks will live in these pavilions, which are usually now made of tarp and PVC (with palm branches on top). Most will just eat in them, though. Restaurants will even build sukkots for their observing patrons. Prayers are said while waving the Four Species—palm, myrtle, and willow branches, and a citron (like a big lemon). The seventh day is when God writes your name in the book or not, so this is your last chance to be sorry.


Western Wall Sukka

The Western Wall was busy, but hungry visitors could eat in the large sukka in the plaza. You could also see a variety of sukkot on college campuses, restaurants, and balconies.

Simchat Torah is the 8th day of Sukkot, in which the Torah is brought out and everyone celebrates. The last bit of Deuteronomy is read in the yearly reading cycle, immediately followed by Genesis 1 to start the cycle over again. Much dancing is involved—both with one another and with the Torah itself.

Other holidays include Hanukkah in late November or early December, an 8-day celebration of the Maccabean victory, and God’s hand in helping the cleansing of the Temple. Then there’s Purim in February or March, to celebrate Esther’s successful campaign to save her people. This is a time to enjoy food and give gifts. Some traditions also say you should drink enough alcohol that you can’t tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai; others, just till you fall asleep.

Passover (Pesach) in late March or April is the classic celebration of Israel’s deliverance from captivity, in which all leavening is purged from the home for 7 days (Leviticus 23:4-8). On the first night, everyone has unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and four cups of wine. Prayers follow. So does the counting of Omar—49 days are counted before…

Grain Harvest

Grain ready for harvest (photo courtesy of Steve Klein)

…Shavuot! In May or June, the Feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:9-14) celebrates the end of the grain harvest, which began on Passover, and is the day that observers would have brought their tithe to the Temple. As the language transitioned from Hebrew to Greek in the first century, this day became known as Pentecost. A day of first fruits, indeed.

Project #3 — Back to School

September 15, 2013

About 2 weeks ago now, we ended our nomadic days of vagabonding and began our third and final project—Project #3.

First, a bit of background.

We took our first international trip to explore historical and archaeological Greece and Italy in March of 2011, and we never really came home. We began realizing there was something better just within our reach, and we started considering the logistics of returning to school for our Master’s degrees. Something along the lines of an MA in History was sounding intriguing. Studying artifacts from the Bible Lands was also evolving from a mere hobby into a passion.

The Colosseum on a Cool Night in 2011

The Colosseum on a Cool Night in 2011

And then, we visited Israel for the first time.

We joined Ferrell Jenkins on one of his really excellent tours through Israel in September of 2012. We were dazzled by the amount of archaeological work going on in the land. From Israel, we continued on in our travels, but something began growing. Upon our return home, we attended some of Ferrell’s lectures at a nearby Church and asked him for advice concerning schools and degree programs for Biblical archaeology.

Trent and Rebekah at Jericho being Nerds

Trent and Rebekah at Jericho being Nerds

Within a couple of months, we had applied at our top choice college. Two months later, I called Trent at work and told him to check his email. Waiting in both our inboxes were notes that we would be receiving an acceptance package in the mail. We tried to make a show of deciding whether this was really the right decision or not, but it was sort of a farce. Victory dances ensued.

Within 1½ months, Project #1 was underway, finding us up to our elbows in glorious, glorious old dirt at Ashkelon. For 6 fantastic weeks, we participated in our MA program’s Summer Field Study. Then, Project #2 began as we explored the country of Israel for 5 weeks, until time for Project #3 to begin.

Trent & Rebekah at Ashkelon

Celebrating a Successful Dig

On August 30, we moved onto campus at Mt. Zion to begin our Fall semester abroad. The college has a strong historical geography department, and has been the employer of great names like Rasmussen, Rainey, and Barkay. Sort of the Hollywood of Biblical archaeology. Now, we’re neck deep in ancient languages, history, geography, and archaeology. We couldn’t be happier.

Project #3 will continue even after we return home, when we will move ourselves, our library, and our cat to Chicago to finish the next 2 years of our Master’s program.


Books and cats. One must have their priorities, after all.

We would be remiss in not noting this has been a great blessing, and we are deeply thankful for it. We hope you’ll stay with us as we begin our foray into Biblical archaeology.