B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The B.C. Archaeology tour of Israel and Jordan for 2015 went from the 7th to 28th November 2015. The tour included Margaret Gaydon, Margaret Weissman, William Michell, Kristy Lee Seaton, Helen Fletcher, and Sarah and Jan Chidgey. The tour was led by Michael Birrell (the author) and we had the assistance of local guides Itzik and Graeme in Israel and Hamzeh in Jordan. On the 8th November I met up with my group at Istanbul Airport and we flew from Istanbul to Tel Aviv on Turkish Airlines. We checked into our hotel and spent the afternoon in old Jaffa, the ancient and medieval port. The old town has been transformed and is now an artist colony. We saw the excavations of the old mound (tell) which includes a gate of Rameses II and walked down to the harbour where we saw a bride on the steps.

Theatre at Caesarea
Excavations at Megiddo

Next morning, we walked along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv to see old Jaffa in the distance. We then visited the Eretz Israel Museum where we saw the ancient Philistine site of Tel Qasile - this includes a series of Late Bronze Age temples. In the museum we saw the beautiful collections of ceramics and glass. We then went into downtown Tel Aviv to have a look at the collection of Bauhaus buildings along Rothschild St. In the afternoon we drove north and had a salad lunch. We spent the afternoon at the ancient site of Caesarea, exploring the ancient theatre, palace and hippodrome. There were some spectacular clouds at sunset as we walked along the beach to the Roman aqueduct. We drove north to the port city of Haifa which was our base for 2 days - we stayed at the very nice Colony Hotel.

On the 10th November we went to the Bahai Temple which looms over Haifa - it is a beautiful place with a remarkably well maintained garden. We then travelled along the edge of Mt Carmel to visit the ancient site of Megiddo. I worked on archaeological excavations there in 1998 and 2000 and it was definitely a trip down memory lane for me to remember those days when we lived on the nearby kibbutz. We had lunch at the site cafe and then headed back to Haifa to visit the Hecht Museum of archaeology. It has a good collection of artefacts including an ancient ship wreck. We had dinner at a local Lebanese restaurant.

The Crusader castle at Acco
The Late Bronze Age palace at Hazor

The next morning, we drove north from Haifa to Acco which was an important medieval Crusader port. We explored the remarkably well preserved area of the complex of the Knights Hospitaller - the courtyard, storerooms and refectory, the chapel and dungeons have recently been cleared of rubble. The authorities have yet to excavate the living quarters of the Knights which should be fascinating. We walked down to the harbour and explored the tunnels of the Knights Templar. We had a coffee down at the Sea Walls - Margaret tried a sahlab - this is a sweet milky Middle Eastern drink made from orchid root. We then drove across the north of Israel and after a felaful sandwich explored the ancient site of Hazor. This site has a rich history and is situated not far the Jordan River - the water tunnel is particularly impressive, a man-made tunnel designed to secure the city against siege. In the afternoon we drove around the edge of the Sea of Galilee to Kibbutz Maagan where we stayed for 2 nights - there was a stunning sunset as we travelled round the edge of the Sea. When we arrived we were given a guided walk around the kibbutz which gave us a sense of its history.

On the 12th November we headed up to the northern part of Israel to explore the region around the headwaters of the Jordan River - otherwise called the Golan Heights. On the way we stopped to see the river Jordan and saw many rock hyraxes. We continued to Dan where there is an ancient tell with impressive remains of the Iron Age gate and temple. From here we went to nearby Banias to explore the shrines of the god Pan and the ruins of the Palace of Herod Agrippa II near the sources of the Jordan River. We had lunch in a Druze village near the Syrian border before heading to the spectacular 13th Century Nimrod Castle built by a relative of Saladin. The view over the Hula Valley from the keep was spectacular.

The following day we left the Kibbutz and went to see a monument to the 1918 campaign of the Australian Lighthorsemen at the old Ottoman railway station on the Haifa-Damascus rail line. Helen Fletcher had a relative in the Lighthorse Brigade which made the monument of special interest. We then continued south to Belvoir Castle. This was built by the Knights Hospitaller to guard the passage of the Jordan river in the 12th Century. A much needed coffee was enjoyed at a local cafť - Bill enjoyed an Arabic style brew from a traditional style pot. From there we went to Bet Shean to see the ruins of the wonderful Roman period city. The ruins include a stunning theatre and we climbed to the top of the ancient tell for a great view over the entire city. In the afternoon we arrived in Jerusalem to see the city walls lit up as the sun set. We walked down through the Old City to the Western Wall court which was heaving with Jewish pilgrims dancing and praying as part of the Friday evening shabat celebrations. It was fantastic to watch.

The fortress of Nimrod
The classical ruins of Bet Shean

Our next day was spent exploring the ancient and medieval parts of the Old City. We saw the remains of 'Davidís City' and walked through the Canaanite water tunnel down to the Pool of Siloam. We then took an unusual route back to the Old City; we climbed up through Herod's sewer! We went inside the Davidson Centre near the end of the Temple Mount and saw the recent excavations dated to the 10th Century BC. We then went to the Jewish Quarter and saw the Burnt House (remains of a building destroyed by the Roman in AD 70), and toured the excavated Herodian Quarter houses with their Roman style mosaics and wall frescoes. We also saw the Iron Age wall of Jerusalem and the Roman Cardo street with its colonnades.

On the 15th November we went to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem - this contains a stunning collection of artefacts from Israel's history. We started with the enormous model of the city in the time of Herod the Great and then saw the Dead Sea Scrolls which are housed in the Dome of the Book. The following day was a free day to explore Jerusalem - some of the group went to see the Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem) while others were more energetic and explored the Mt of Olives and Gethsemane.

The walls of Jerusalem
The stunning Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount

Our exploration of Jerusalem next day took us down to the Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) which is the platform built by Herod to support his reconstruction of the Jewish Temple. We went through the tunnels under the Wailing Wall accompanied by a local guide. We came out in the Via Dolorosa and were almost knocked down by a huge crucifix being carried through the street by devout pilgrims! We saw the Crusader Era Church of St Anne and experienced some wonderful singing by groups from around the world (the best were the Russian Orthodox pilgrims). We saw St Stephens Gate (the eastern gate of the Old City) and stopped for a much needed coffee and sweets in the Arab Quarter. We then ascended to the top of the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock - the sky was gloomy but the sun came out to illuminate the golden dome of the 8th Century Byzantine inspired architectural masterpiece. We had some lunch in the Old City and in the afternoon explored the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which was full of pilgrims. We also saw the Citadel - this Crusader stronghold was the residence of the Kings of Jerusalem in the 12th Century. A superb view of the Old City could be seen from the Phazael Tower.

The 18th November was our last full day in Israel. In the morning we drove from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. We stopped to see the spectacular desert landscape and then headed to Masada, the fortress palace built by Herod. We took the cable car to the summit to explore Herod's Palace and some of the group proved their fitness by walking down from the summit (clearly they have far too much energy!). After lunch we headed to En Gedi to see the springs (and some very tame rock hyraxes) and then had a swim in the Dead Sea in the late afternoon. Margaret and Jan covered themselves in Dead Sea mud!

The palace of Herod at Massada
The classical ruins of Jerash

The following morning we left Jerusalem, stopping to see Damascus Gate and the wonderful view of the Old City from Mt Scopus. We descended to the edge of the Dead Sea and went to the site of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1940s and 50s. Afterwards we went to the Baptism site on the Jordan River - because of recent rains the river was up. We went through border customs and were then driven across the Allenby Bridge to Jordan where we met up with our new guide Hamzeh. We drove up out of the Jordan Valley to Mt Nebo where Margaret Weissman introduced us to a Franciscan Father, one of only 3 at the monastery. He kindly let us see the 6th Century Byzantine mosaics in the Church of Moses - this is currently under restoration and has been closed to tourists so it was a very special treat. He also kindly insisted on giving us a tour around the site. We then continued up to Madaba where we saw the famous mosaic map of the Holy Land (late 6th-early 7th Century) before heading on to Amman.

On the 20th November we went to Jerash in northern Jordan, one of the most spectacular Classical ruins in the Mediterranean world. Developed in the Hellenistic period it became a major and prosperous provincial centre in the Roman Period. It is set in the fertile hills of the Gilead, the region to the east of the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. It was called Gerasa in antiquity. During the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD, during the pax Romana, Jerash developed into a grand metropolis adorned with fine civic and religious buildings. We had a huge late lunch at the site (which meant we needed no dinner) - there was a beautiful sunset as we made our way back to Amman. The next day we did a tour of the Ummayad desert forts to the east of Amman. A cool desert wind was blowing at Qasr Hallabat and later on we were glad to have our lunch in the Bedouin tent at Qasr Amra. I always enjoy visiting the black basalt Azraq Castle where Lawrence of Arabia planned the advance on Damascus in 1918. It warmed up in the afternoon when we visited the 8th Century palace at Qasr Haranna.

We explored the antiquities of Amman the following day. In the morning we went to the citadel where we saw the impressive Roman Temple of Hercules, and the massive Umayyad palace (8th Century AD). We visited the Amman Acropolis Museum and then saw the Roman theatre and odeum at the foot of the Acropolis. In the afternoon we visited the wonderful new Jordan Museum which has relatively recently opened (I had not seen it before and our Jordanian guide had not been there before either!). It has very good displays of the antiquities of Jordan. We also went for a walk through the markets of Amman and a felaful lunch downtown. It was Helen Fletcher's birthday - we had dinner in the hotel for supper and they provided an interesting improvised birthday cake! We left Amman the next day and headed down the desert highway, passing through scenic desert country. We stopped to see the Hejaz Railway train and Bill got into the driverís seat. We had our picnic lunch in the spectacular Wadi Rum - this is a wonderful wild place of scenic beauty and we explored some of the main highlights. It is a very beautiful place. In the evening we drove to Petra where we checked into the pleasant Petra Moon Hotel.

The stunning Wadi Rum
Exploring Petra

We had two wonderful days exploring Petra. It is such a magnificent place! We walked down the famous siq and then up to the High Place of Sacrifice. On the way back we explored the Royal Tombs. The following day we saw the wonderful new site museum which contains a fantastic range of artefacts from Petra. We walked back down to the site and saw the theatre and Byzantine church. A much needed coffee revived us for the ascent to 'the Monastery', in reality of Nabataen mortuary complex, located at the top of a ridge. We all huffed our way to the summit (I would have taken a mule but felt I should lead the way ... cough cough). The 26th November was the last day of our tour. We had a crusader day. In the morning we drove the short distance north of Petra to the 12th Century Shobak Castle which is located in a desolate place. We then headed to the magnificent Kerak Castle. Constructed by the Crusaders in the 12th Century it was greatly enlarged by the Mamelukes and it remains a magnificent piece of military architecture. The following day we left Jordan for our return to Australia.

Michael Birrell

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