Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Piecing it Together

March 30, 2016  text by Louise Ribnick, photos by Judy Snitzer

We left Ein Gev bright and early. Our bus climbed up and over the Jordan River towards the mountains of the Galilee. We were driving on a road that used to be the train route from Europe through Turkey, Damascus, Haifa, Beer Sheba and the Sinai, then all the way to Saudi Arabia. What a sense of history we feel in Israel! It truly was the crossroad between three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

Our bus passed Kibbutz Degania, the first kibbutz in Israel. We saw the Kibbutz cemetery where the first Zionists who pioneered farming the land of Israel are buried. The poet Rahel is buried there as well. Again, we felt embraced in the Israeli history in the very heart of Israel. 

We passed a dam on the Jordan river, where Christian groups come to be baptized in the holy waters. This dam controls the levels of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).

Between the mountains of Gilead and the Golan there is a valley. This is where the most important agriculture in Israel is happening. This valley and the surrounding hills, lush with greenery and wildflowers provided beautiful views for us. We oohed and aahed as the bus zig-zagged up the hills.

Before the modern Zionists arrived, this land was inhabited by Bedouin tribes.  Villages were established in 1950’s to settle new immigrants. For example, Poriah, a suburb of Tiberius, was home to many Yemenite Jews. The residents stayed in the area, and it grew to be the central farming region.

Soon we found ourselves on a very old imperial road, going back to 2000 years, which used to connect Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.  We passed a battle site of the Crusaders at Horns of Hittim.

As we approached Zippori National Park, Natan explained how there were many springs in the area, and abundant water.  The Mishna conveys the story of the old men of Zippori sniffing the soil after the first rain and predicting by the smell how much rain would fall throughout the season. The lushness continues today, as evidenced by the beautiful green hills.

Finally, we reached Zippori, where the remains of a magnificent ancient city were discovered.  Zippori was known as “The Ornament of all of Galilee” and “City of Peace.” The ruins include roads, dwellings, public buildings, a theater, a synagogue and cemeteries.  There is a Cardo, a main route in many Roman cities, where spices, jewelry, and perfumes were traded.  There is a tomb said to be that of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, who edited the Mishna around 200 CE in Zippori. The Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish religious and judicial body), headed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, was located in Zippori at the beginning of the third century.

Zippori is mentioned frequently in the Talmud as a Jewish city with many synagogues and houses of study.  The Jews remained there after the Revolt of the Jews against Rome.  The people decided not to revolt but made a treaty with the Romans.  A liberal Jewish community existed there, with signs of assimilation to Roman culture including a synagogue floor with images, animals and the Zodiac, as well as the amphitheater which normally would not be found in a Jewish city.

The Christians ruled in the 4th century CE and churches were built there.  Zippori was demolished in an earthquake in 363 CE but it was quickly rebuilt. During the Arab period which followed, the flourishing city went into decline. During the Crusader times, the city was a fortress.  The Crusader army was beaten by the Saladin warriors in the Battle of Hittin in 1187 CE.Among the remains we saw was the Dionysus House.  The mosaics depicts the life of Dionysus, the god of wine and its worship.  The image of a woman of rare beauty in the mosaic floor, is referred to as “the Mona Lisa of Zippori” since she is not identified and has eyes that appear to be looking in every direction at once. 

In the Roman Villa we admired a room called the triclinium, eating would have been arranged in a U-shape around the mosaic for guests to recline as they ate, drank and socialized. Rabbi Davis pointed out that we recline at our Passover Seder in the style of the Romans.

Walking the ancient limestone pavestones, we could see ruts in the road from ancient wagons.  The Crusader Fortress was built on top of an earlier structure.  Roman sarcophagi were inserted into the corners of the ancient building below.

The Nile House with its excavated toilet, shows the sophistication of technology at that time.  (In the Mishna it is written “What is the house of a wealthy person? One that has a toilet indoors.”)  There, the “prettiest” mosaic floor displays celebrations held in Egypt when the Nile overflowed. Colorful images of people, animals and plants abound.  There are also Centaurs and Greek heroines on horseback with spears.   Close by we saw evidence of an earthquake where the floor collapsed. 

At the bottom there was an inscription: names of donor and information about the date and Governor of the time.In the center was an image of Helios, the Greek god of the sun, surrounded by the four seasons, and twelve emblems of the Zodiac.  These are not Jewish symbols. Natan hypothesized that non-Jewish artists created the floors, or that they were copied from Roman floors by artists commissioned by the synagogue.  These theories could explain the similarities in all synagogue floors. Either way the synagogue floor was refashioned in the style of the time.

Jewish elements include a picture of Aron Ha Kodesh (the Ark), and a tri-footed Menorah (seven-branched candelabra.) Animal images (usually not allowed in a synagogue) were present, but in other times had been removed and then replaced.

Natan said the Jewish people in Zippori were not extremists like the Jews at Masada.  They enjoyed pluralism and lived in peace with the Romans.

Remains of a 5th century CE synagogue were exposed in the lower city. Natan explained that the synagogue floor contains different components which were common to all synagogues at that time.

The amphitheater was originally painted in colorful frescoes, but those have long faded away. Today it is used for performances during school vacations, and weddings.

The first excavations at the site took place in 1931 by L. Waterman of the University of Michigan. There was a 20-year period of no discoveries. In the 1980’s and 90’s researchers unearthed the streets, water systems and houses.  But while they expected there to be 36 synagogues, only one was found.

Zippori today is not an active dig.  Israeli university archaeologists are satisfied with what has been found. Also, the rest of the ancient city lies beneath a present-day village, so getting permission to dig would be difficult.

Rabbi Davis led us in a discussion based on the phrase, “Ayin tachat ayin” which means “an eye for an eye.” He asked us if we could wear someone else’s eyes, whose would we choose?  Some responses from the group: children, Steve Jobs, Einstein, and an inhabitant of Israel 2,000 years ago. One person said,”After being at Na Lagaat (Please Touch) dinner in Yafo (Jaffa), I don’t want to give up my own eyes.”  Rabbi Davis wrapped it up by saying that on this trip, we are passing our glasses around, and seeing through each other’s eyes.

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Travelling from ancient to modern times, we visited a sculpture garden near Herzilya, north of Tel Aviv. We found whimsical outdoor art pieces made from recycled materials. Park Dina is an ecological garden created in memory of Dina Manheim (1951 - 2006) by her family. The park, in Arsuf Kedem, is a private collection of over 100 kinds of trees including about 40 varieties of fruit trees that provide a rich environment for people and birds all around the year. In addition, sculpture and earth works are placed among the trees and others in the surrounding landscape.

Feeling the beautiful sunshine on our faces and walking along the wild dunes near the sea added to this picturesque experience.

From there we went on to Rehovot, our sister city, where we met up with our wonderful hosts for the night.

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