A Tel-ing Tale

You’ve been waiting months for this opportunity, and now it’s happening. You’re finally a contestant on the 640,000NIS Question – your category being “Ancient History.” So far the questions have been relatively easy, but you know they’re going to start getting harder as the prize money gets bigger. “For 320,000NIS, name the three most important Canaanite cities.”You start to think. Hatzor (that’s easy!) Ummmmmm……… Megiddo! One more…… What’s the third???

The quiz master offers a clue. “The name of a vegetable.”

You think to yourself, “Kishuim” (zucchini), broccoli, melafafon (cucumber)?”

“Your time is up. I’m sorry. The correct answer is Gezer.” (“carrot” if you’re shopping at the shuk). Ohhhhh! If one had only paid attention when the teacher was going through the first book of Kings (Malachim Aleph).

A tour group at Tel Gezer

Gezer. The third largest Canaanite city back in the day; not so well known today as the other two. Nonetheless, the national park where Gezer used to be is a good place to visit, a dozen of us, led by our intrepid leader, Ezra Rosenfeld. I know I’ve mentioned him before in previous articles (on the old blogsite). Ezra left his desk job at the Zomet Institute of Halacha and Technology because he saw a niche that simply HAD to be filled: tours centering around events and places in the Bible – but in English, our glorious mother tongue. He founded Tanach Tiyulim in 2008, and then went about getting his tour guide license (not the easiest exam to pass), so he could be both the organizer and the guy leading his tours.

If you hang around Ezra as long as we have, certain facts and concepts get stuck in your mind. For example, prior to Tanach Tiyuulim, I had no idea what a “tel” was, but after going to a lot of them, I can “tel” you all about it. Here’s what happens: people come to populate a certain small area. Because the homes and other buildings are not the sturdiest, they collapse, and other ones are built on the ruins. Or there’s an earthquake – not uncommon in the region – and again a whole new layer of construction begins on top of the rubble. Or an invading army comes along and wreaks havoc, so when years later, the place is repopulated, once again another stratum of civilization goes on top of what was there before. And this process of building, one layer on top of another would continue until one day, everyone moves away, never to return. So a tel, then, is an artificially created mound with a few or a lot of layers of civilization neatly stacked one on top of the other, waiting for the modern-day archaeologist to locate and uncover the remains of civilizations that have, without intending to, left us a record of who did what, when, and with what.

Waiting for the modern-day archaeologist…. There are archaeological digs underway throughout The Land these days, and they are by and large conducted by universities. Hordes of eager students and other volunteers are trained to carefully, oh so carefully, remove a small amount of debris and sift through it. You don’t want to miss anything, to damage anything, or to disturb anything around or below where you’re digging. After a few months, the digging and sifting stop, and the archaeologists in charge collect the data, analyze it, and write up their findings in articles for publication in one of the appropriate journals. Then the next year, the process starts all over again. There is mercifully no room today for the Macalister method of doing business.

R.A.S. Macalister was not the first person to happen on to the site of Tel Gezer, but he was the first to start digging there at the beginning of the 20th century. His method was simplicity itself. Dig a trench twelve feet wide half-way up the side of the tel and take out whatever you find. Never mind that everything on top of what you’ve dug out will collapse. What other mischief can we do? We’ve removed everything from the first trench. Let’s dig a second trench and everything we take out from that, we’ll put into the first trench. Then we can dig a third trench………

Modern day scholars are surprisingly nonplussed by their predecessor’s methodology. (Techniques were more primitive then. He was unaware of the actual significance of this site. Blah, blah, blah.) I have a simpler theory. Maybe this guy was just a M-O-R-O-N? Think it through. You’re in one of these mega-markets back in The States. You walk in and there is this enormous, gigantic pyramid shaped stack of tuna fish cans near the entrance. On sale, so you want six cans of albacore. If you can’t reach the top, you may carefully, gingerly, take a few items from the edge of the stack down below because you’re not a M-O-R-O-N, and you know that if you try to remove an entire layer from the middle, the whole mountain of cans will come tumbling down, probably on your head, and errant cans will roll away into adjoining aisles, with store clerks in hot pursuit. And you don’t want that to happen, do you?

Should you be so foolish, you will certain incur the wrath of the store manager, who had spent hours arranging the display. Plus, the cans with a pull date of June 2016 were placed on the top of the stack, to be taken first, and the ones with a pull date of December 2016 on the bottom. Try to recreate that order!

The value of excavating a tel is that there are consecutive civilizations neatly stacked one on top of the other, a huge amount of history nestled in one contained area, and with a little effort, everything can be dated – more or less. Absent that ability, all you have is an enormous pile of rubble buried under the ground. Fortunately for us, despite Macalister’s best efforts to create the biggest baligan he could , there was still a lot left for today’s archaeologists to excavate and evaluate. What’s particularly special about Gezer is that they have uncovered some thirty levels, spanning some 4,000 years of habitation. If you go to one side, looking west towards Rehovot (and further to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean), you will see a row of stelae, standing stone columns – probably used for pagan worship. Turn around and walk back to the other side, and you will be in the ruins of the gate of the city as it stood in the time of King Solomon. Pretty neat.

So you might wonder, what was so inviting about this spot – or any similar spot –that caused people to keep building and rebuilding on it? Ezra knows. There are four essential ingredients that made a location desirable for people to live there back in the day. 1) Accessibility to water. 2) Suitability for agriculture. 3) Closeness to a trade route. 4) Defensibility against invaders. Any ancient city that was around for a while would have had to score well in each of these four criteria.

Gezer? One of the joys of going on these tours is that invariably you get to climb down into holes in the ground, usually on steps that wouldn’t pass any decent home inspection.. Sometime back in the Bronze Age (meaning, the digging tools then were perhaps a little stronger then than the plastic spoons we would use today with a yogurt cup), the Gezerites dug down to bedrock (fortunately, they were digging through limestone) and found a spring of water, right in the middle of the settlement. So the location passed the first test. Today, the spring is

buried; only the entrance to the tunnel has been uncovered. Still, it’s a way down for us; be very careful where and how you step.

Agriculture? Plenty of fertile land in the valley all around. Trade route? Somewhere between the tel and the coast was the Via Maris (the sea route), the north-south trade route from Egypt up to Mesopotamia. Exactly where was this road, the single most important passage way for thousands of years? Even Ezra doesn’t know for sure. But it was down there in the valley somewhere, and if you were in Gezer, you would be able to block access to all the traders going that way, set up your own private toll booth, and collect more money than they do on the Jersey Turnpike.

Defensible? Someone thought to ask an obvious question. Right next to the national park, on the next hill, is the small, very wealthy community Kerem Yosef, which we had to go through (admiring the large, fancy houses on the way) to get to the tel. That community is actually on a higher hill than Gezer. So why didn’t the ancients build their city on that hill? Ezra knows. Kerem Yosef may be on a hill, but one side is a gentle slope up from the valley. A piece of cake for any invading army to climb. Gezer rose straight up on all four sides. Difficult, but given the number of times it was conquered, not impossible to be defeated.

Then there were other questions. How many people would be living in a city the size of Gezer? Ezra knows how you figure it out. You can arrive at an approximate number: x per square dunam or per square acre = y. (The thing is, I don’t remember the answer. I was probably wandering off taking photographs.)

There was one question I remember distinctly – probably because I asked it. OK, Ezra. This tel was populated for thousands of years, going back to the pre-Canaanite period. It was conquered and reconquered, settled and resettled. In the time of King Solomon and in the time of the Maccabis there was a Jewish presence on this site. Then came the destruction of the Second Temple and…… the site, for all intents and purposes, was abandoned. What happened? The spring water was still there; the land was no less fertile than before; there was still a trade route. So what happened that no one wanted to live there any more – or in other ancient cities like Hatzor or Megiddo?

Hard to say exactly. But Ezra figures that one factor was technology. At a certain point, cities didn’t need to be situated on top of a hill to be defensible. The Jews who remained in The Land after Jerusalem was sacked could live just as safely down in the valley. Maybe.

Maybe there’s a point here, a lesson we can learn if we choose to: the fallacy of the “If you build it, they will come” approach to life. I’ve always maintained that the opposite is more realistic: If you build it, they will abandon it.

Ezra Rosenfeld and his tour group at the gates of Gezer

With a little imagination, you can picture yourself at the grand opening of the new city gate at Gezer – part of the newly reinforced city walls. Instead of having two rooms on each side of the entrance (where municipal business would take place), there are three. There is even a place in one of the rooms where travellers can wash their hands and feet. Plenty of space outside the gates for a marketplace where nearby tradespeople can come twice a week to sell their goods. People have been wondering if Shlomo Hamelech himself would be coming for the grand opening. It seems that he’s not, but lots of other important people are showing up. On one side of you, there’s a man who keeps repeating, “Ain’t nobody getting through those gates, if we don’t want them to…” On your other side, another man is telling his son, “See those walls, they’re going to protect us for a very long time.”

I’m sure the residents of St. Elmo, Colorado had much the same idea in mind – that their town would be around for awhile – back in the 1880’s, when The Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad stopped there. Plenty of work in the mines; plenty of wine, women, and song for the miners to spend their money on. Over 2,000 people enjoyed life there, and nobody was thinking ahead to a time, not so far away, when the mines would be shut down, and the railroad tracks sold for scrap metal.

With minimal effort, anyone can search the Web and find lists of the hundreds of similar communities – “ghost towns” – all across the U.S. that once were but are no more – victims of new roads that bypassed them, old railroads that went belly-up, new technologies that left them in the dust – places that no longer had any reason to be.

And speaking of not coming….. or not staying. Think of all the opulent synagogues and temples that once were not so long ago in The Bronx, the Lower East Side, Newark, or Jersey City. Some of these buildings may still be standing, but the men who davened in them every day, the women who came faithfully every Shabbat, the boys who learned to read their bar mitzvah portion – they are long gone. Think of the former synagogues in Europe and elsewhere, now museums to a vanished way of life, streets with names like Jüdenhof or Jüdengasse – without a Jew in sight, and, most appropriately, Jewish cemeteries with no one to care for the gravestones.

Now that the music conservatory, the concert hall, and the aptly named restaurant, Piano, are open for business here in Ma’ale Adumim, the next local buzz is about the soon- we-hope-to-be-open branch of Sushi Rehavia, opposite our mall. When I expressed skepticism on Facebook about the viability of such an enterprise here in a community of schwarmaphiles (a word I just made up), one of our fellow residents – more optimistic than I am – offered to treat me to lunch there when it opened (to which I will bring some fine bourbon). If we do meet up, we can discuss (he being in real estate) the likelihood that the projected twenty story towers slated to go up opposite our building will ever get built.

Facts on the ground. It’s always a good feeling when something comes to fruition that might make our lives a tad better or at least a little more enjoyable. And we are forever optimistic that every new fact on the ground will increase the chances that Ma’ale Adumim – with its forty or so synagogues, its library, museum, conservatory, mall, parks, beautiful landscaping, and its 40,000 residents – will remain a thriving, Jewish community for a long time to come.

Maybe. We don’t want a tour bus to pull up sometime in 2116 to view the remains of what was once a thriving community on the hills a little bit east of Jerusalem…..

One thought on “A Tel-ing Tale

  1. I always enjoy your writings. I pass them on to friends at our former employer. I retired as well. Keep on writing.


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