Submitted by: Leah Garber, Director of JCCA's Israel Office
All tourists who visit Israel should include two activities on their must-do list: an archeological tour (usually in the Old City of Jerusalem) and an archeological dig.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, archaeological finds were closely tied to the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish state. The findings served as symbols of the long-lasting connection between Jews and their land. Although small in surface size, Israel is much larger if one measures its depth. Layers and layers of history have been revealed through archeological digs. Israel's archeology is dated from prehistory through three millennia. The ancient Land of Israel was a geographical bridge between the political and cultural centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and therefore a strategic area, which attracted rulers and empires throughout history.
Much can be learned about life in ancient times through archeology. The Israelite period is characterized by large findings of writings that indicate a broad distribution of knowledge among common people, a unique phenomenon in the ancient world. In addition, the rich and diverse archaeological finds attest to strong international links and trade relations.
The City of David is where the biblical King David established his kingdom, and where the history of the People of Israel was written. It is within walking distance of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. In the year 1004 BCE, King David captured the city from the Jebusites and established his capital. He united the People of Israel and brought the Holy Ark to the city. His son, King Solomon, built the First Temple there.
Today the City of David is an archeological park that tells the story of the establishment of Jerusalem, its wars and hardships, its prophets and kings, and the history of the Jews during biblical times. The remains of the city are present in the ancient stones and the thousands of shards that cover the pathways between the buildings. Among the archeological ruins are large, elaborate houses that bear witness to the high social status of the city's residents. Among the ruins found in the city were personal seals for signing letters and documents bearing the names of their owners, people who were mentioned in the Bible.
One of the most fascinating parts of the City of David is the Tunnel of Shiloh, a long tunnel carved during the period of King Hezekiyahu. Builders carved the tunnel through solid rock, beginning at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. Visitors can walk through the tunnel, which is partially filled with water, and come out at the pools of Shiloh. Although there are currently both Muslim and Jewish homes in the area, archeological digs are ongoing, and some have proposed to make the entire ridge into an archaeological park.
The Qumran caves were discovered in 1946 by a young Bedouin shepherd, who wandered in looking for a lost goat and discovered clay pots with manuscripts hidden inside. These writings became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eventually, an ancient settlement dated to the years 130-150 BCE was revealed. The discovery of the settlement of Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea ignited the imagination of both Jews and Christians. In addition to the oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures ever found, and scrolls pertaining to the ancient community known as the Yahad, numerous other objects that depict the daily life and way of thinking of Qumran's inhabitants were found. The people at Qumran were Essenes, members of a sect that saw itself as the chosen of Israel. Their separatist nature led them to the desert, although groups also lived in separate communities in cities, including Jerusalem.
Historians describe Essenes as abandoning the world's pleasures and living in a communitarian society. Their writings describe a communal meal prepared by their priests and consumed in a sacred atmosphere; scholars say the meal might have replaced sacrifice in the Temple, in which they did not believe. Although seemingly pacifist, they believed they were preparing for a great, final war in which the world would be destroyed, and that they were planting the seeds for a social revolution. Although they did not follow Jewish law of their time (and even had a different calendar), their observance of Shabbat was meticulous.
Masada, a natural fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, was where the Judaean king Herod the Great (37 BCE and 4 CE) built his palace complex in classical Roman style. The water system was particularly sophisticated, collecting run-off water from a single day's rain to sustain life for a thousand people over a period of two to three years. This achievement allowed the transformation of a barren, isolated, arid hilltop into a lavish royal retreat.
In the year 70 AD, the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The Zealots who survived the Great Revolt fled Jerusalem to Masada, where they held out for three years. In 72, the Roman legion surrounded them and made attempts to take over the mountain, using all weapons possible. Once it became apparent that the battering rams and catapults would soon succeed in breaching Masada's walls, Elazar ben Yair, the Zealots' leader, decided that all the Jewish defenders should commit suicide. The alternative facing the Zealots was known to all: the men could expect to be sold off as slaves, the women as slaves and prostitutes. The information about the final hours of Masada comes from Flavius Josephus, who grew up as a Jew and became a Roman citizen. According to Josephus, two women and five children managed to hide themselves during the mass suicide, and it was from one of these women that he heard an account of Elazar ben Yair's final speech: "Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery, and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually." Elazar ordered that all the Jews' possessions except food be destroyed, for "[the food] will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessities; but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery."
After this oration, the men killed their wives and children, and then each other. Almost a thousand men, women and children died that day. Masada today is one of the Jewish world's most powerful symbols. Israeli soldiers take an oath there: "Masada shall not fall again." Next to Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination of Jewish tourists visiting Israel. Many Bar and Bat Mitzvah services take place in the remains of the ancient synagogue in Masada.
Besides the City of David, Qumran and Masada, Israel has many more sites, from north to south, east to west, which tell the story of three thousand years, multiple cultures, traditions and narratives.