The ancient fortress

Masada

The word Masada means fortress in Hebrew. The ancient fortress, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, is located on top of an isolated rock plateau with steep sides. The top of the plateau is flat and rhomboid-shaped. Masada lies on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Three narrow, winding paths lead from below up to the fortified gates.                                                                          Masada fortress was the largest and most famous fortress at the time of Herods the Great. Between the years 37 and 31 BCE he built it to fortify against attacks and as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. He encircled the crest of the rock with double wall, constructed cisterns that were refilled by rainwater, built storehouses to insure an unlimited water and food supply and erected two palaces. One of the palaces with three levels, barracks, and an armory. Previous to the presence of Herod, Masada was fortified by the Hasmoneans. No remains from the Hasmonean-period could be identified during archaeological excavations at Masada.                                                                                                                                                                       

In 66 CE, a group of Jewish rebels, called the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, additional members of the Sicarii fled Jerusalem after slaughtering the Roman garrison and settled on the mountaintop. The Sicarii were an extremist Jewish group, who were against a larger grouping of Jews, referred to as the Zealots ,who carried the main burden of the rebellion. According to the Roman Jewish historian Josephus, the Sicarii raided nearby Jewish villages, including Ein Gedi, where they massacred 700 women and children.          

In 73 /74 CE, the Roman governor of Judaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, headed a Roman legion and laid siege to Masada, in what is known as the first Jewish – Roman war, by which the Roman legion surrounding Masada built a circumvolution wall and a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. Geological investigations in the early 1990s confirmed earlier observations that the 114 m high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock, which the Romans built to batter the walls of the fortress. To crush the Jewish resistance at Masada, the Romans employed the Tenth Legion, a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling up to 15,000 (of whom an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 were fighting men). A giant siege tower, with a battering ram, was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. The walls of the fortress were breached in 73 CE. According to Josephus, when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that its defendants had set all the buildings, but the food storerooms, ablaze and committed mass suicide or killed each other, 960 men, women, and children in total. Only two women and five children were found alive. Significant discrepancies exist between archaeological findings and Josephus’ writings. Josephus mentions only one of the two palaces that have been excavated, refers only to one fire. Yet, many buildings show fire damage. Claims that 960 people were killed were contested by the archeological findings as remains of only 28 bodies have been found.

During the Byzantine occupation for Masada, which was the last, a small church was built and  was part of a monastic settlement identified with the monastery of Marda. Mardain in Aramaic means fortress. In 2007, the Masada Museum was opened at the site, in which archeological findings are displayed. Many of the artifacts exhibited were unearthed by archaeologists during the 1960s. The archaeological site is situated in the Masada National Park, and there are two hiking paths, both very steep:

 The Snake Trail leaves from the eastern (Dead Sea) side at the Masada Museum and gains around 300 m (980 ft.) in elevation. A dawn hikes up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain (access via the Dead Sea Highway) is considered part of the “Masada experience”.

 

 The Roman Ramp trail is also very steep, but has less elevation gain, and is accessed from the western side of the mountain (with access by car from the Arad road).

 

Jericho:

Located at the edge of the Judean Wilderness, known as (the bad lands) of Palestine where the River Jordan enters the Dead Sea on the west side, Jericho lies at 825 feet below sea level. It is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, with the oldest known protective wall in the world. It was thought to have the oldest human-made stone tower (Pre-Pottery Neolithic) fortification in the world as well. Jericho is described in the Hebrew Bible as the “City of Palm Trees”. Jericho or the “City of Palms”, which spreads over many springs in and around the city, have attracted human inhabitants for thousands of years. Jericho flourished during the early and Middle Bronze ages, as was established by archaeologists who excavated at (Tel-es-Sultan) and discovered the ruins of ancient Jericho. They have unearthed the remains of more than 20 successive settlements, the first of which dates back 11,000 years (9000 BC), going back almost to the very beginning of the Holocene epoch of the Earth’s history. There are several major Christian pilgrimage and archaeological sites in and around Jericho:

 Mount  of Temptation:

This is the mountain where Jesus fasted for 40 day, where the devil tempted Him three times by demonstrating his supernatural powers. The mountain rises about 360 meters above sea level. Since early Christianity monks and hermits lived on the mountain in natural caves. A 4th century monastery was built on the ruins of the Hasmonean-Herodian fortress, which was abandoned by the monks after the Persian invasion in 614.  At the end of the 19th century a Greek Orthodox monastery was reconstructed in the middle of the mount of temptation to look as if it is growing out of the mountain. The monastery offers a beautiful panoramic view of the area. To get to the monastery, a cable car runs up to the mountain, or there is a foot path people can on use to climb.

The Spring of Elisha: (Tell Ein es-Sultan)

Is one of the main sources of water to the city of Jericho. Below the ancient mound (Tell es-Sultan) to the east there is a spring called Elisha’s Fountain, where the Byzantines built a domed church dedicated to Saint Eliseus.

The first permanent settlement built near ancient Jericho was at Tell es-Sultan by the Ein es-Sultan spring between 8000 and 7000 BC and consisted of a number of walls, a religious shrine, and a high tower with an internal staircase. After a few centuries, this settlement was abandoned and a second one was established in 6800 BC. During the Crusaders rule they improved the water mills at Ein es-Sultan to use to crush sugar cane in tawahin es-sukkar (sugar mills) and exported the sugar to Jerusalem. They were accredited with introducing sugarcane production to the city.

The Sycamore Tree of Zacchaeus:

Is where Zacchaeus, the tax collector, climbed the tree due to his short stature to see Jesus when he was passing through Jericho.  When Jesus reached the spot he looked up into the branches, addressed Zacchaeus by name and told him to come down for he intended to visit his house. The crowd was shocked that Jesus, a religious teacher/prophet, would sully himself by being a guest of a tax collector.

 

River Jordan Baptismal Site:

 Qasr el Yahud or “Castle of the Jews “is the official name of Jesus baptismal site in the Jordan River Valley region of the West Bank. The Arabic name of the baptism site is Al-Maghtas and it is an area stretching over both banks of the river. Jordan uses the names Al-Maghtas, Bethany Beyond the Jordan and the Baptism(al) Site, while the western part is known as Qasr el-Yahud. The nearby Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist has a castle-like appearance, hence came the name (Castle of the Jews). It is believed that the Israelites crossed the river at this spot, and that this is the location where Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven.

Monastery of Saint Gerasimos: known as Deir Hajla, the monastery lies in the Jordan Valley near Jericho

Saint George Monastery: is located in Wadi Qelt above Jericho.

 

Archaeological tourism:

The archaeological sites in and near Jericho have a high potential for attracting tourists, including:

the Stone, Bronze and Iron Age cities at Tell es-Sultan

the Hasmonean and Herodian winter palaces at Tulul Abu el-‘Alayiq

the Byzantine-period synagogues at Jericho (Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue) and Na’aran

the Umayyad palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar, known as Hisham’s Palace

the Crusader sugar production facility at Tawahin es-Sukkar (lit. “sugar mills”)

Nabi Musa, the Mamluk and Ottoman shrine dedicated to Mouses (“Prophet Musa” to the Muslims)

 

Qumran:

Qumran Caves are a number of caves, some natural and some artificial, found around the archaeological site of Qumran in the West Bank. In 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in these caves in Qumran by a young Bedouin man while searching for a lost goat. The first cave contained scrolls from two thousand years ago. More scrolls were discovered in other caves. Among its contents were the Temple Scroll. In April of 1947, after the scrolls were authenticated by Samuel of the Monastery of St. Mark, they were revealed to the public.

 

Nablus:

This city lies to the north of Jerusalem and is located between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. It is the capital of the Nablus Governorate and a Palestinian commercial and cultural center.                                                  

Its biblical name in Hebrew is Shechem and in Greek Νeapolis. The city was named by the Roman Emperor Vespasian in 72 CE, since then; Nablus has been ruled by many empires over the course of its almost 2,000-year-long history. In the 5th and 6th centuries, conflict between the city’s Christian and Samaritan inhabitants climaxed in a series of Samaritan revolts against Byzantine rule. They were violently crushed in 529 CE, thus drastically decreasing the Samaritan community’s numbers in the city .

In 636, Neapolis, along with most of Palestine, came under the rule of the Islamic Arab Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab; its name was Arabicized to Nablus. In 1099, when the Crusaders took control of the city for less than a century, they left its mixed population of mixed Muslim, Christian and Samaritan population relatively undisturbed. In 1187, Islamic rule was reestablished with and continued under the Mamluks. Followed by the Ottoman Empire in 1517, Nablus was designated as the capital of Jabal Nablus (Mount Nablus).

Jacob’s Well: also known as Jacob’s fountain and Well of Sychar(Samaria). It is a deep well, cut in solid rock, and  is related in religious tradition with Jacob for roughly two millennia. It is a short distance from the archaeological site of Tell Balata, which is thought to be the accurate site of biblical Shechem (Nablus). The well currently lies within the complex of the Orthodox Church. Jewish, Samaritan, Christian, and Muslim traditions all associate the well with Jacob. In the Gospel of John, the well is said to be where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman (Photina) for a drink and offered her the “living water”. The well lies in the crypt of the Greek Orthodox church at Nablus. The site is counted as a Christian holy site.                      For Jews and Muslims, the importance of Jacob’s well is due to its ancient connection to the patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. After a dispute with his brother Esau, Jacob spent twenty years with his relative Laban in Paddan-aram (Iraq). When he returned after twenty years he came to the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan, he camped before the city. He then bought for a hundred pieces of money from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel. The well that was found on his land was either dug or purchased by Jacob.

Tell Balata:

This is the site of the remains of an ancient Canaanite/Israelite city in the area of Balata, and is today a Palestinian village and a suburb of Nablus, which covers about one-third of the tell, and overlooks a vast plain. The site is listed by UNESCO as part of the Inventory of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of Potential Outstanding Universal Value. Experts estimate that the towers and buildings at the site date back 5,000 years to the Chalcolithic (4th and 3rd millennia BC) and Bronze Ages.

 

Sabastia:

This is a Palestinian village located some 12 kilometers northwest of the city of Nablus. It is the home of Nabi Yahya Mosque, a former Crusader cathedral. The original name of the town was Shomron, before King Herod renamed it in honor of Augustus Caesar. The Greek sebastos, “venerable”, translates the Latin epithet augustus. Many important archaeological sites are found in Sabastia. One of the ancient site of Samaria-Sebaste is located directly above the area of the modern-day village on the eastern slope of the hill. The ruins on the hillside comprises of the remains from six successive cultures, which dates back to more than 10,000 years: Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine.                                                         

The city was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, and was destroyed again by John Hyrcanus in 108 BCE.Pompey rebuilt the town in the year 63 BCE. In 27 BCE, Augustus Caesar gave it to Herod the Great. Herod expanded and renovated the city, bringing in six-thousand new inhabitants, and named it “Sebaste”, meaning “Augustus”, in the Emperor’s honor. Herod the Great had his sons Alexander and Aristobulus brought to Sebaste, and strangled in 7 BCE after a trial in Berytus and with the approbation of Caesar.[15] During the Crusader Rule, Sebastia was the seat of the bishop in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The tombs of John the Baptist and his father Zakariyyah, with many other prophets and holy men are found there. In modern-day Sebastia, the Nabi Yahya Mosque stands within the remains of a Crusader cathedral that is believed to be built upon the tombs of the prophets Elisha, Obediah and John the Baptist, beside the public square. There are also Roman royal tombs, a few medieval and many Ottoman era buildings, which survive in a good state of preservation. Jordanian archaeologists had also restored the Roman theater near the town.

 

 

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