Dens of Antiquity: Unearthing Archaeological Israel


Make your trip timeless by exploring the country's wealth of less-traveled historical sites.

The blazing sun overhead bakes the dun-colored, pocked paving stones running along what used to be the main street of Sepphoris, in Israel’s Galilee, where the reconstructed houses provide visitors with a window into the lives of their former inhabitants. At the crest of a hill overlooking the town stands the remains of a restored Roman-era mansion, its interior cool as a cave compared to the dry summer heat outside, its floor decorated with sumptuous mosaics. The pièce de résistance: the bust of a woman framed by garlands — the Mona Lisa of the Galilee.

Sepphoris, known also by its Hebrew name, Tzippori, is one of dozens of archaeological sites whose magnificent finds often escape visitors to Israel. The country’s Nature and Parks Authority, however, aims to improve access to these lesser-known spots and draw more visitors to Israel’s often-overlooked ancient gems.

The land’s storied history provides it with a unique variety of archaeological sites spanning thousands of years of history. As a crossroads in antiquity, few other places in the world hosted so many civilizations and cultures — Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Turks, to name a few. Each conquest left its marks, which modern archaeologists have meticulously excavated and preserved.

So many aspects of Israel are rife with controversy, but one thing almost all visitors agree on with near-universal consensus is that the archaeological sites are not lacking. Tourists might find the streets filthy and the country expensive, as a 2013 Tourism Ministry’s survey showed, but archaeological sites and tour guides found unanimous appeal. The ministry polled just over 33,000 visitors, or roughly 10 percent of the total who entered the country last year, who responded with an average 4.4 out of 5 satisfaction rating for historic places and guides. (Public cleanliness got a 3.4 and value for cost a mere 3.1.)

In addition to blockbuster sites, such as Masada, Caesarea and Jerusalem’s Old City, the countryside is peppered with fascinating, lesser-known and well-preserved places essential to understanding the land of Israel’s past. King Herod’s royal architectural masterpieces, such as Masada — site of Jewish rebels’ last stand against the Romans in 73 C.E. — and Caesarea, his royal capital and port, boast hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Off-the-beaten-path locales offer greater insight into the day-to-day of ancient life, and a respite from the roads more traveled.

Long neglected, some of these lower-tier sites are set to start receiving critical government funding to develop them as greater tourist attractions. Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist of the Nature and Parks Authority, said in a recent interview that the government’s Tamar heritage project aims to develop archaeological sites not for archaeological excavation but “for interpretation, mostly from the Jewish point of view.”

The project, approved in 2010, will pump roughly NIS 120 million ($35 million) into transforming historically Jewish sites, including Herodion, Beit She’arim, Megiddo, Arad, Sepphoris, Hamat Tiberias and Lachish, into stronger tourist attractions. The parks authority will use the funds to reconstruct central elements of the sites, such as the Iron Age temple at Arad and a synagogue at Hamat Tiberias, as well as visitors’ centers and site interpretation — the manner in which a place’s historic relevance is conveyed to tourists.

The parks authority’s master plan also includes equally impressive sites that are almost wholly undeveloped. One such site is Hippos, also known as Susita in Hebrew, an ancient Roman town in the Golan Heights.

Perched on a precipitous plateau above the Sea of Galilee, the once grand community of Hippos lies in ruin. The volcanic, grey basalt stone used for much of the city’s construction makes the entire site appear to be an old photograph come to life, until you lift your eyes and see the brilliant cerulean of the Kinneret below.

Roman historian Pliny the Elder refers to Hippos as one of a handful of “pleasant towns” on the Kinneret’s eastern shore, and one of the 10 Greek cities straddling the Jordan Valley known as the Decapolis. Its sister city, Beth Shean, lies just to the south, and is home to some of the best-preserved Roman architecture in the country.

Hippos was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E., and today the pillars of its churches and temples and the walls of its homes strew the ground. Despite its desolation, the main street remains intact — and better paved than some in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Philadelphia. After over a decade of excavations, archaeologists have uncovered a once-bustling forum and a Greek theater, both evidence of the Hellenistic city that once thrived under Roman rule. Adjoining the forum — the social and economic heart of the city — stands the remains of the basilica, a many-columned public building whose capitals rest atop stumps of their former selves.

Although it is a short drive from some of the major Christian and Jewish attractions around the lake, few tourists, if any, venture to Hippos. Hippos, along with a handful of other historic treasures, like the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Shivta, south of Beersheva, are on a short list of parks authority sites the government aims to develop.

“Those places are not well developed now,” but are part of “our program for the future,” Tsuk said.

The Galilee — long an epicenter for Jewish thought and culture — retains some fragments of its glorious past, but the Negev Desert, Israel’s southern expanse, is also home to an untold multitude of archaeological sites virtually unknown to the ordinary visitor.

Which is where people like Steve Rubin come in. Rubin, a Philadelphia native who is a licensed Israeli tour guide. With the jawline of a young Tom Cruise and the air of a Harrison Ford character, I half expect him to break out a fedora as we sit for coffee. He says he aims to bring some of the passed-over sites, in Israel’s South in particular, out of obscurity.

He lamented the comparative difficulty for tourists to access the more remote sites Israel has to offer. When travelers seek to explore the far-flung locales in Jordan, Turkey or Egypt, he noted, a multitude of guides are on hand to hawk their services for transporting, feeding and watering customers during the trek, and to share their intimacy with the place.

While major sites such as Masada and Caesarea are conveniently accessible, Israeli services allowing travelers to visit remote treasures are limited. Websites offering tourist services for these sites abound, but “if you’re looking for information about it in English, there’s nothing there,” Rubin said. “There’s a whole sector of archaeological tourism that’s waiting to be developed.”

One such diamond in the rough is situated near Israel’s border with Egypt, roughly halfway between the Gaza Strip and Eilat: Mount Karkom. More than 20 miles from the nearest town and surrounded by Israel Defense Forces firing ranges, the mountain was a Paleolithic cult center, and is covered with ancient shrines, altars and tens of thousands of petroglyphs and geoglyphs — giant icons in stone visible from the air, like the Nazca Lines of Peru.

Rubin aspires to help revolutionize the industry and bring inaccessible sites like Mount Karkom into reach for tourists.

“Israel has the rare fortune to sit at the crossroads of civilizations, and possesses a diverse multitude of cultural relics in an excellent state of preservation,” he explained. “At this point, we’re only showcasing a tiny fraction of what there is to offer.”

Israeli cities are also investing huge sums in developing their historic districts. While the Tourism Ministry survey published earlier this year found that the vast majority of travelers visited old Jerusalem and Jaffa, other, less-frequented cities are trying to put themselves on the map.

Ramle, for example, is situated just 10 miles from downtown Tel Aviv, and was founded in the early eighth century as the first Arab capital in ancient Palestine. It served as the largest and most important city in the region during much of the Muslim period. Having fallen into disrepair over the centuries, Ramle now boasts a revitalized open-air market and restored buildings exhibiting paragons of Islamic architecture from a variety of periods.

“It’s probably the best way to see a microcosm of Israel with its multifaceted cultural and religious face,” Rubin asserted. “All of the major sites can be visited on a walking tour. History, food, culture, location and archaeology make it the perfect way to see the history of the Holy Land over the last 1,300 years. Whenever people finish a day in Ramle, they’re usually shocked about how they never knew it was such an historically and culturally rich place to visit.”

For a country reliant on tourism for roughly 6 percent of its gross domestic product, Israel stands to gain immensely from developing untapped parts of its rich cultural heritage. As it does, a vista into the land’s broad array of historic landmarks will open up for visitors to enjoy.

Ilan Ben Zion is a reporter for the Times of Israel. This is his first Inside piece. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.


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