Ancient Mysteries

The last day of our three day desert adventure this past December was incredible in several ways: it was midweek and there was no one else for miles so we were alone in the desert – a special experience; we were able to cover a tremendous amount of territory and make it to three amazing and different archaeological sites; we were trying to do it all before the predicted high winds, sandstorm and first major storm of the winter hit.

Our adventure started early in the morning at the ruins of Susya, an ancient city that was excavated from 1985-2000. On the eastern fringe of Mount Hebron, southeast of BeerSheva in the area once walked by Abraham and the Patriarchs of monotheism, settled by the tribe of Yehuda (Judah), a large town was built by Jews after the Roman destruction of Yerushalayim. It is one of the most unusual ancient towns we’ve ever visited, a town filled with mystery. Sometimes there is only so much that archaeologists and anthropologists can put together from their findings. Stones are uncovered which tell only part of a story. Without first-hand written records or documents much is left to speculation.

Susya was a fortified city built on a high plateau, excellent for defense. As in most ancient towns, it was surrounded by a high stone wall at one time. It was built after 70AD and lasted until the end of the Byzantine or beginning of the early Arabic period. After that, it seemed to have been abandoned. Why? A mystery. The town had homes separated by streets and alleys, but most of the homes and businesses (potter, forge, olive production, wine production) took place underground! Homes were connected by subterranean passageways. Many of the ”buildings” were carved out caverns. Huge underground chambers, many linked together. Why? Was it for defense? If so, from who? Perhaps because it was cooler underground in the summer and warmer in the winter? Without written documents, it’s difficult to piece together the whole story.

More than 70 of these underground spaces have been uncovered at Susya. What is known is that it was a Jewish city. Both private and public mikvaot (ritual baths used for purification purposes) were found. Such a large number of these purification baths testifies to the great importance of their adherence to Torah law.

The crown of the city is its spectacular synagogue, which is still fairly well preserved, considering its age. The entrance to the synagogue can be approached through a large arched portico surrounding a central congregating area. An enormous round stone, which can be rolled by many strong men along an outer track, can block the main entrance to the courtyard. From the portico, there are high steps and Doric columns leading into the large worship/study area.

The floor of the synagogue is covered with a well-preserved mosaic floor. The mosaics include two menorah/lampstands, a shofar, lulav branches and etrog, and an immense zodiac calendar. There are many blessings written in Aramaic including one that reads, ”remembered be for good the comforter Yeshu’ the witness and the comforter that [……]”. What does this mean? Was it an early Messianic community? Was that why they were so concerned with defense? Was it part of another group?The rest of the inscriptions are all typically Jewish. There is a raised platform or bima and a space where the ark containing the Torah scrolls would have been kept. The synagogue also had an upstairs gallery for women. But here, too, in the synagogue are escape tunnels and stones to roll across doorways to block the ebterances and exits. From whom were they hiding and trying to escape? So far, archaeology gives us no clues….Today the synagogue is used for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

The next stop on our desert adventure was at an overlook along the high cliffs of the Maktesh Kattan. A maktesh is a geological formation that only occurs in the Negev. There are three of them here, kattan meaning the smallest. It’s s a completely sunken hole, a huge round crater that was naturally formed as the ground there collapsed millennia ago. We were beginning our descent onto the desert floor. I got out of the car to take photos and John got out… well… to be John.

I really shouldn’t have been nervous at all when he scurried down to the edge of the ledge. He’s done it at the Grand Canyon. He did this at Maktesh Ramon years ago. I think he’s part mountain goat. Truly. Still, I just about had a heart attack and he got some pretty great pics: the Thelma & Louise remnants of an old car crash; the white and blue stripes signifying the Israel Trail (seriously, who would hike down this cliff into the desert?); a hidden party terrace.

The road we traveled was tortuous… a real snake path. No safety barricades on some of the cliff edges. Hair-raising! The panoramas absolutely gorgeous! Once on the desert floor, we quickly headed for the painted desert. Mineral deposits left not only lots of iron, but also copper, magnesium, manganese, sulfur. I forgot to mention that this was in the area of Biblical Gomorra….hmmm…. There were huge chunks of iron ore in the sands – and tons of white snails! In the desert sands!! Snails! Still, my first reaction when I saw the beautiful palette of colors? Make-up!!! The shades of pink, rose, purple, yellow, red, brown, orange, ochre. Nothing short of magnificent!!

We still had two places to visit. No time to dally! Back in the car and on to Tamar Fortress in the Arava part of the desert, about 30 miles or so south of the Dead Sea. Tamar was once just an oasis, a desert watering hole where the Moabites and Edomites used to frequent. Mayaanot, underground springs surrounded by date palms, or tamar in Hebrew (yes, my Hebrew name means date palm). The place was well known to the ancient Israelites. It is mentioned in the Scriptures. During the reign of King David, it was the southernmost outpostfor the tribe of Judah. King Solomon built a fortress here, serving not only defensive purposes, but it was strategically positioned to monitor caravans traveling to and from distant places in the east, and to protect the southern copper mines. We read in the book of Kings that King Josiah destroyed the pagan idols that had been set up there. Archaeological remains are always confirming the words of the Bible. It is an irrefutable claim that the Jews inhabited the land of Israel from ancient times. Tamar Fortress (excavated by archaeologist and adventurer, T.E. Lawrence ”of Arabia”) is an incredible fortified walled city. Strata upon strata of different civilizations have built layer upon layer. Ancient Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Mamelukes, Ottomans. And at the top of the hill, the offices for the generals of Great Britain during the period of the British Mandate in the early 1900s. Today it serves as a museum to the history of the area.

It was getting on in the afternoon, one of the shortest days of the year. The trip had been an incredibly hard one for me, as I was still in the process recovering from an extensive spinal surgery. I was exhausted. My legs stiff and heavy. The wind was picking up and a dusty haze was limiting visibility. We had one more stop: the Nabatean city of Mamshit (pronounced MomSHEET). So we pressed on.

Mamshit was a Nabatean city. The Nabateans were spice traders. Their caravans of camels traveled from what is now Saudi Arabia, through Jordan, through Israel to the Mediterranean laden with frankincense, mhyrr, spices and jewels. Mamshit sits at a crossroads on the spice route. A permanent settlement was established here in the first century BC. It consisted of villas for its wealthy inhabitants as well as khans, or inns for travelers!and large and extravagant stables. It is believed that they were also breeders of stallions from the stables and implements they found in situ. By the second century AD Mamshit had been annexed by the Romans. The extravagant building projects continued.

The Nabateans were converted from their polytheistic idol-worshipping religion to Christianity by the third century. At the beginning of the fifth century, two magnificent churches were built here: the Western Church and the Eastern Church (named for their locations in the city). They were in use until the Arab conquest in 636AD. After that time, Mamshit ceased to exist. The Western Church was a basilica shaped church, built at a high point in the city. It was entered through a colonnaded courtyard or atrium. The main part of the church was divided into three parts: a central nave and two side aisles. At the front was a semicircular apse marking the sire of the altar and the direction of prayer. The floor was paved in mosaics featuring geometric patterns, birds, two peacocks and inscriptions.

The day was growing short. The wind was whipping sand through the air. I was most exhausted, but we wanted to see the other church and the ”Nabatu house.” John and I (foolishly) split up. He was more able to make the long haul and climb the stepped ruins up to the Eastern church – and he was able to get some great photos of the frescoed walls and mosaics. He said there was also an incredibly deep baptismal pool there as well and that the mosaics here were incomparably beautiful and really well preserved.

Iwent to visit the largest villa, known as the Nabatu house as well as a three room bathhouse next to it. The public bathhouse ( because you know – Romans!) was made of three rooms: the caldarium, a forced air steam sauna and hot pools; a frigidarium, a cold water pool from the reservoir for a quick plunge after the sauna; and a forum or dressing/social room. The furnace room consisted of red bricks heated by a massive fire and clay pipes through which the hot air flowed. It was all very interesting.

I really don’t know what happened next. I was walking with two crutches. The pavement was really quite uneven. Theres a metal pole sticking up from the ground about three inches. It was very windy and getting very cold. My legs were very heavy and my body aching. My back was screaming at me. I was trying to take pictures… and I went down. Really hard. I felt whatever surgery corrected in my back completely shift. I screamed, but there was no one else around. And that marked a dramatic end to our Negev adventure. The drive home was dusty with limited visibility. We made it just in time- through a sandstorm and before the rains hit. Since then I’ve been laying low, literally, and have been enjoying our rainy season. The winter has finally arrived with storm after storm. We made our trip just in time. It was totally worth it. Until the next adventure –

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