B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The B.C. Archaeology tour of Israel and Jordan for 2016 took place from the 3rd to the 24th April. The tour group was a select group of history buffs which included Shyam Lee-Joe, John Burke, Nola Thompson, Catherine Doherty and Kay Rocavert. The tour was led by the author (Michael Birrell). In Israel we were joined by our local guide Itzik and in Jordan we enjoyed the fascinating local knowledge from Safi.

The beach front at Tel Aviv
The ancient gateway at Megiddo

We arrived in Tel Aviv on the 4th April after a long flight from Sydney via Istanbul - we travelled Singapore Airlines to Istanbul and Turkish Airlines to Israel. We met Itzik and transferred to our hotel near the waterfront of Tel Aviv. We had a pleasant afternoon walk along the seafront at sunset and fish and chips for supper. The following morning, we explored the medieval quarter of old Jaffa which has been recently developed and walked down to the harbour. After a much needed coffee we explored the nearby ruins of the ancient Philistine town at Tel Qasile which includes some rare ancient temples of the 12th Century BC. We also saw the beautiful collection of ancient glass which is on display at the Eretz Israel Museum. After lunch we headed north along the coast where we stopped to see the ruins of Herod's port town Caesarea. We explored the ancient aqueduct which brought water from the Carmel Range to the north, wandered through the theatre and saw the ancient ruins of Herod's Palace. It was nice to see all the wild flowers out amongst the monuments.

The Beautiful Hall in Acco
The Middle Bronze Age gate at Tel Dan

In the afternoon we headed to Haifa where we stayed two nights in the very pleasant German Colony Hotel. On the 6th April we went to Megiddo to see the ancient city ruins - I excavated there twice with Professor Israel Finkelstein and co from Tel Aviv University (1998 and 2000) and have fond memories of my time in Israel. We saw the city gates, ancient temples and remarkable water tunnel. We then went to see the Hecht Museum at Haifa University (a very good collection) and stopped to see the view over Haifa from the Bahai gardens.

Our tour took us to Acco the following morning - this is a coastal medieval walled city in northern Israel. We explored the impressive compound of the Knights Hospitallers and the 18th Century fortifications of the city. We had an enjoyable lunch of felafel and salad near the Mosque. In the afternoon we drove across the Galilee to visit the ancient archaeological site of Hazor which has views up the Jordan Valley to the Golan Heights. We checked into Kibbutz Nof Ginosar at the north end of the Sea of Galilee and had dinner.

On Friday the 8th April we went to northern Israel and the Golan Heights. The countryside was very green after unusual late winter rains. We saw the ruins of ancient Dan and then went to the sources of the Jordan River at Banias. After lunch in the local Lebanese café we visited the beautiful ruins of Nimrod Castle - this was built in the 13th Century by relatives of Saladin. That evening we had shabat dinner at the kibbutz with traditional Jewish rituals making for a fascinating cultural experience.

Exploring Nimrod Castle
On the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

The next morning, we went to see the 'Galilee Boat' which was dug out of the northern shore of the lake in the 1990s. It dates to the 1st Century AD and is remarkably well preserved. We then headed to Belvoir Castle which looks over the Jordan Valley - it was built by the Knights Hospitaller and guarded the approach to Samaria. We spotted some rock hyraxes around the castle (strange tree climbing creatures which look like giant guineapigs). In the afternoon we headed to Bet Shean - this is a spectacular classical city located at the base of an ancient tell mound which has layers of civilisation going back to the Neolithic. As a special treat we stopped to see the ruins of the 6th Century synagogue known as Bet Alfa - the floor mosaic is very unusual as it combines classical scenes of mythology with biblical ones. We then drove through the West Bank to Jerusalem where we had an extended stay.

We spent our first day in Jerusalem in the Old City. We started our walk in Mt Zion and passed through the Armenian Quarter to the Crusader Period Citadel where we saw the History of Jerusalem display. We then walked down through the suqs on David Street. We explored the Burnt House which was destroyed during the Roman sack of the city in AD 70. We had a shawerma sandwich (kebab) in the Jewish Quarter. We then explored the Herodian Quarter houses which date to the 1st Century AD and preserve some wonderful Roman mosaics. We walked down to the Temple Mount and saw the City of David excavations. This included walking through the Canaanite water system which secured the water of the Gihon Spring.

We went to the Israel Museum on the 11th April. We started off by looking at the massive model of Herodian Period Jerusalem and then saw at the Dead Sea Scrolls. The movie about the Qumran community was interesting as it suggested John the Baptist was an Essene. We then saw a wonderful exhibition of 'Egypt in the Levant' with many pieces borrowed from European collections; a seated Akhenaten statue was wonderful. We then saw a temporary Hadrian exhibition which included three beautiful bronzes of the Emperor. We toured the Jewish artefact collection of Torahs, illuminated manuscripts and rescued synagogues. In the afternoon we had a look at the extensive collection of antiquities from Israel.

The next day we had a free day in Jerusalem - some people went to the Holocaust Museum. I went to the Bible Lands Museum which has a huge collection of artefacts from the ancient Near East (and you can now photograph as much as you like, which I did). On the 13th April we had another day exploring the Old City of Jerusalem. We went to the Temple Mount where we saw the 8th Century masterpiece known as the Dome of the Rock. Built on the site of Solomon's Temple, it is a Byzantine inspired masterpiece. We walked to St Stephen's Gate and saw the beautiful 12th Century Crusader church of St Anne. We walked along the Via Dolorosa, saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then explored the Western Wall area. In the afternoon we went to see the Roman Cardo and visited a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter which our guide Itzik has long frequented.

The beautiful valley of En Gedi
Hadrian's Gate at Jerash

The next morning, we drove from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. We went to see the waterfalls at the En Gedi oasis - we also saw many rock hyraxes up the trees. We climbed up through the gorge to the David Waterfall which was in full flow. We also went to see a 5th Century synagogue with interesting mosaic floor. We continued south and after lunch caught the cable car to the top of Masada, the palace complex built by King Herod. The view was stunning, particularly over to the hills of Jordan and the on-site museum is very cleverly done with full life figures. In the afternoon we paddled in the Dead Sea.

Lunch in Amman
Exploring the Wadi Rum

On the morning of 15th April we left Jerusalem for Jordan. Before leaving Jerusalem we went to Mt Scopus for a wonderful view of the Old City and the Dome of the Rock. We then drove down through the Judean hills to the ancient ruins of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We had a walk through the site which has great views over the Dead Sea. We then went to the Allenby Bridge border crossing and passed over the Jordan River into Jordan where we were met by our Jordanian guide Safi and driver Ali. We ascended the other side of the Jordan Valley to see the historic site of Mt Nebo. This is the place where Moses traditionally saw the Holy Land and died before crossing the River Jordan. In the afternoon we had a short drive to Amman, the capital of Jordan, which was to be our base for 4 nights.

We went to see the Roman site of Jerash in northern Jordan the next day - this is a very beautiful place set in rolling countryside and very green after recent late winter rain. We had the unusual experience in the ancient theatre of hearing Jordanian soldiers, dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes, a remnant of British colonial influence. On the 17th April we spent a day in Amman - we went first to the citadel which is the ancient tell of the city. The upper part is dominated by the Temple of Hercules and the Omayyad Period palace complex. We then went to the new Jordan Museum with a wonderful collection of artefacts including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran. We had lunch in a well-known café and in the afternoon we walked through the downtown where we visited the impressive Roman theatre.

The next day we explored some of the historical monuments in the eastern desert of Jordan. Most of these are from the Umayyad Period (8th Century AD) and include the beautiful Quseir Amra which is an Islamic bath complex with remarkable frescoes. We also saw some isolated Roman frontier forts including Qasr Azraq where Lawrence of Arabia lived during the Arab Revolt in 1917. On Tuesday 19th April we travelled south from Amman down the desert highway to the Wadi Rum. We stopped to see the Hejaz railway train which was repeatedly attacked by Lawrence of Arabia. After lunch we explored part of the desert by 4-wheel drive including a Nabataean temple from the 1st Century AD. The scenery is stunning and everywhere you look there are spectacular landscapes. We then drove to Petra where we stayed 3 nights.

The beauty of Petra!
The walls of Kerak Castle

On our first day in Petra, ancient capital of the Nabataeans, we walked down the beautiful dry valley known as the siq - there is a wonderful atmosphere as one makes the famous approach to Petra. We enjoyed time soaking in the grandeur of the Khazneh or 'Treasury' (in fact a royal mortuary temple of the Nabataean Kings from the 1st Century AD). Some of us climbed up to the High Place where sacrifices were made to the sky god Dushara - there is a beautiful view over the ruins. For our second day in Petra we did it the easy way by taking horse drawn carriages all the way down to the bottom of the ancient city - Kay and I then took mules up to the stunning Nabataean mortuary complex known as 'The Monastery' while Nola and Catherine walked all the way up (very impressive!). The views were spectacular.

We had a busy last day in Jordan. We drove from Petra to Shobak Castle which was built in the 12th Century. It lies in an isolated desert valley with views to the Wadi Arabah. We then headed to Kerak Castle, a spectacular Crusader fortress which was enlarged and refortified by the Mamelukes. After lunch we crossed the stunning Wadi Mujib, an enormous desert valley draining into the Dead Sea. We had enough time to make an unscheduled visit to the ruins of the Herodian fortress of Machaerus where Salome traditionally danced (perfectly recreated on site by Catherine) and where John the Baptist was said to have been imprisoned and beheaded (this was not recreated). We stayed in Madaba overnight to see the famous mosaic map and to make a quick trip to the airport the following morning.

Michael Birrell

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