Friday, November 23, 2007

Susiyah and Maaleh Chever

The lowest-rated American administration in memory will this month meet with the lowest-rated Israeli administration in history to negotiate the re-dismemberment of the holy land. This, of course, for the benefit of the only Palestinian government to run for election in history, an election which they actually lost over a year ago, it seems like a great time to pay a visit and see what's really happening on the ground out there in Injun Country.

Our intrepid Machon Meir fact-finding team gathered outside the front entrance to the yeshivah.

The bus, like the Yeshivas, Ambulances, concert halls, and, well, just about any public property worth over $50,000 in this country, comes with a plaque telling us which charitable souls paid the bill.

Our route today will take us near Beit Lechem (Bethlehem,) the birth city of King David, down to Chevron (Hebron,) where the Jewish patriarcs are buried, and then veer west out into the Judean Desert.

As we wind through the stony hills, some of the kids get a bit antsy.

Quit messing with the air conditioning!

Rolling along, we pass through sudden patches of green, forrests islands in the desert sea, the Jewish settlements of Maon and Karmiel, a few of the small number of places Jews have been permitted by the government to live in this contested wasteland. One can only imagine what could be done with this soil if the energy of the settlers were to be truly unleashed, without the endless decrees and restrictions from above.

Maon, through the bulletproof glass.

The same photo, after enhancement in Paint Shop Pro.

We pass through Kiryat Arba, which one might call a Jewish suburb of Hebron, or at least it will be again some day once they can tear down the fence surrounding the neighborhood and open commerce with the city again.

Vineyards and a gas station outside Kiryat Arba.

The end of our ride brings us to Sussiyah, an archaeological ruin of an ancient Jewish village which existed after the destruction of the Second Holy Temple.

Susiyah, at bottom of map.

Standing on a hill near Sussiyah, looking west towards the Arab town of Yatta, built on the remains of the ancient Jewish village of Yuttah.

Yehoshua. He looks tough now, but get him near Kryptonite.

Yonatan wanders around.

Susiyah was a Jewish city of average size. It existed from the 3rd to the 9th century, C.E.. The city was built on three hills with agricultural areas between them. The main street of the ancient city leads to the synagogue situated on the top of the southern hill. Within the city there are many courtyards and caves used as dwelling, workshops, and storage areas.

Another burial cave, this one with a cover stone to be rolled in front.

Jewish custom of the time was to bury the deceased in a field for a year, allowing the flesh to decompose. After a year, the family would then collect the bones and bury them in the family cave. The entrance area to the cave was carved out of the ground by hand, and was a traditional place for family picnics.

Beyond the caves lie the city walls.

By the time the village was founded, the Romans had centuries earlier cleansed the Jerusalem area of Jews, and the overwhelming majority of the survivors had been exiled to Babylon, or hauled to the far reaches of the Roman Empire to serve as slaves.

And now, on to the city.

Like most of the villages in ancient times, Susiyah survived on the usual staples of the region; wine, olives, and goat products.

Our guide, standing in one of the many wine presses discovered around the city, outside the city walls, describes the winemaking process.

In the distance, one of the Arab settlements that dot the region. This is one of the outskirts of "Bani Naim," which translates to "Children of Pleasantness," a bit ironic given their hostile relationship with the Jews of Judea.

In this area, the southern Judean desert, south of Jerusalem and further east of the continental divide, the climate is already far dryer. With no local river to feed the town, water was supplied mostly through freshwater cisterns which collected the rain. The streets are lined with gutters and water collection systems.

These water collection systems feed into cisterns carved from the rock. Many of the cisterns hold water even to this day. The cisterns provided and additional source of revenue for the townspeople, who could sell some of their water to passing travelers.

Yours truly on the city walls.

I'm a little too terrified of falling to smile here.
Lars leans on the city walls.

The geology of the Judean hills lends itself to two levels of construction; above-ground brick houses and buildings are made from brick hewn from the local stone. But the hard stone is only a few feet deep. Beneath is much softer limestone, which can be easily dug out. So the town was also built half underground, with the hard rock surface supporting the passing people and wagons above.

A stairway down to a sort of wine cellar.

Brick buildings.

The site still echoes with its Jewish past. Doorways show carved hollows where mezzuzot, the parchment placed on the doorposts of every Jewish home, used to fit.

Homes were also decorated with menorahs, in memory of the temple which had been destroyed a few centuries earlier.

Some of the guys tracing out the menorah inscribed into this stone, once a part of someone's home. I tried to get a shot of the inscription but it didn't come out clearly enough in the harsh light.

And next, into one of those underground rooms.

While above ground the village remains in ruins, with walls only a few feet high, and building stones still strewn about, the underground sections remain largely intact.

Underground, in the Potter's Cave. Note the charred carbon deposits on the roof, the remains of ancient fires which once warmed the room.

One relic that can be found anywhere and everywhere; pottery shards. The pots were used for storing, cooking, eating, and just about anything you can think of. After five centuries of village life, the shards of a million shattered bowls litter the ground.


The site includes a makeshift pottery wheel, a bit more modern.

Pottery in ancient times was like the bumper stickers of today. Ancient shards have been found on the site with inscriptions supporting various political factions, or with declarations of "Herut Tzion" (Liberty for Zion,) a complaint against the Roman occupation.

In this case, a more contemporary oil lamp with an inscription which simply reads "Susiyah."

Above is a shot taken in another underground room. In this case, a rainwater cistern is on the other side of that brick wall to the left. The cistern still holds water.

Yours truly, at the steps to the shul (synagogue.)

While Susiyah stretched out over three hilltops, the shul (synagogue) of Susiyah was located at the top of the highest hill, as was typical of Jewish settlements of the post-temple era.

From here, the highest point, we can look back over the ruins of the ancient settlement. The wall you see running down the middle of the photo marks where the original main boulevard of the city was.

To get a better view, Michael Harroch walked over the ruined arches for some perspective. Of course, I would never do that. It's not that I'm afraid of heights, I'm just afraid of falling and dying.

Here, we see a mosaic praising the family which donated funds to build the shul.

Inside the shul, archaeologists discovered a much larger mosaic floor. Apparently, the custom at that time was to sit on the floor and pray, much like the Muslims, rather than the contemporary arrangement of sitting on chairs.

So where did all the money needed to build this shul come from? After all, we're in the desert, not a region known for material wealth.

Well, the main product seems to have been olives, which were pressed in this cave.

The locals have rebuilt some of the olive presses, restoring them to their former glory.

Unlike the grape presses, in which juice is extracted from the grape by simply stepping on them, olives are far more tough, and have to be crushed under a rolling stone.
Here, I'll demonstrate!

The dregs are then placed in a press to extract even more oil.
We traditionally refer to the month of Cheshvan, typically in October/November, as "Mar Cheshvan," or "Bitter Cheshvan." There is a tradition that this refers to the bitterness of the fact that Cheshvan is the only month with no holidays, and it follows immediately after Tishrei, which is full of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.) But an alternate understanding is rooted in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. Cheshvan is the month where the olive pressing began. The first olives of any year are always the most bitter, hence, "Bitter Cheshvan."

There's plenty more to explore here, like this cave:

Where does it go? Who knows? Maybe the Ark of the Covenant is in there. But there's no time to crawl through it now, because Shabbat is coming soon. Our next stop is Maaleh Chever, where we will be spending Shabbat in the company of the local settlers.

We made it to Maaleh Chever a few hours before sunset. This would definitely qualify as an "ideological" settlement. Far from the closest cities of Jerusalem and Be'er Sheva, a full half hour by car, the settlement guards the approaches to the east of Hebron. In a sparsely populated, wind-whipped, dusty region, Maale Chever is a small garden in the wilderness.

The entrance to Maaleh Chever.

The Chever river, flowing from Chevron (Hebron,) passes through the Valley just below, so the government decided to name the settlement "Pnei Chever," "Facing the Chever [River.]" The residents were not consulted on the name, and wanted something more uplifting, more elevated, and so they named it "Maaleh Chever," the Chever Heights. The settlement still appears on a maps as "Pnei Chever."

We arrived and made our way to the Caravans (trailers.)

Michael immediately crashed.
Don't look directly at those blindingly white legs. They can do permanent retinal damage.

No, DON'T!

Meanwhile, the guys get ready...

... and I take a walk around the Yishuv.

Looking eastward. A decent sized playground, with well-tended flora. The white buildings and farms in the background are now-permanent Bedouin encampments which have sprung up over the last several years.

I couldn't tell if this fading poster featured right-wing activists now in prison, or victims of terror.

Looking north.

The kids are all dressed up for Shabbat already.

And the adults hang out on the lawn.

This is not a humans-only settlement.

Looking to the East as the sun sets. On a clearer day, you can see the Dead Sea from here.

The guardpost at the entrance to the settlement.

"Hey, you? Why are you taking pictures?"

Our two Dutch students, getting in a last smoke before Shabbat.

And after Shabbat, the camera comes right back out...


We did kiddush levanah (the blessing of the new moon,) and afterwards, some dancing around.

It was a good time, let me tell ya.

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