It’s a common feeling among people vacationing in Israel: You know that there are numerous layers of history underfoot and archeological sites across the country, but you are unsure where to begin your explorations.
Often, there will be another factor keeping vacationers from digging around in old ruins — memories of visiting another site where they were left underwhelmed, staring at a pile of remains that didn’t mean much to them, and then trudging back to the car.
Phillip Shalom Alexander, a tour guide who gives lively explanations of ancient sites, says that archeological sites are, by their nature, confusing unless people approach them with a combination of two things: knowledge and imagination.
“It’s the nature of archeology — what looks to the untrained eye like a pile of stones looks like the water system of an ancient building to people who have some knowledge,” said Alexander. But this confusion can be overcome with some preparation, primarily reading about the site online before visiting.
As for the second ingredient for successful touring — imagination — he urges people to unleash theirs on the remains before them, as a large part of archaeology has always relied on people trying to imagine how things looked in the distant past. Plus, he says, “the more vivid one’s imagination the more fun it is visiting sites.”
One of the tricks to choosing a site that will keep you and your family interested is going for one that has remains from more than one historical era. And a good place to start is Tel Arad, near the Negev city of Arad, where you get to explore two eras at one site.
There is a lower city, which was inhabited only in the Early Bronze Age (3150 BCE to 2200 BCE), and was one of the largest cities of its day in the region. If you thought town planning is new, you have to see Tel Arad — the planning there was remarkable.
The upper city was first settled in the Israelite period (1200 BCE), and visitors can see an Israelite temple, which included a large outer sacred area, and a smaller “holy of holies.” The sanctuary is a miniature version of the Jerusalem Temple.
Arad is very conveniently located for touring. It is close to the huge Yatir Forest, which is a great place to relax with a picnic, and close to the Dead Sea, the perfect place to soak your stiff joints after a good day’s hiking.
Of course, if you head to the Negev, there is much more archaeology to see in addition to Arad. Tel Be’er Sheba is thought to be the biblical Beersheba (the modern city is nearby). In fact, you will find an archeological area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the ruins of a walled city from the Israelite monarchic period.
For another stimulating trip, head to Tzipori in the Galilee, which is said to be the place where the Mishnah was compiled. Visitors can see the mosaics of the ancient synagogue, and walking up to see what is believed by some to be the mansion of the chief editor of the Mishnah, Yehuda Hanassi. Look out in Tzipori for the so-called Mona Lisa of Galilee, an ancient mosaic formed from hundreds of small stones in dozens of natural shades, depicting a woman with an enigmatic smile and a gaze that seems to follow you.
If you want to feel like more of a participant in Israel’s archaeology than a visitor, you can actually get involved in a dig at the Archeological Seminars Institute. Its Dig for a Day program consists of three hours of digging, sifting, pottery examination and touring the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park.
Beit Guvrin-Maresha in southern Israel includes ruins of the town of Maresha from the First Temple era, and of Beit Guvron, which had particular importance in the Roman era.
Last year, due to their “outstanding universal value,” the caves of Beit Guvrin-Maresha became the newest addition to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
Beit Guvrin-Maresha is home to a maze of some 3,500 underground chambers. They “bear witness to the region’s tapestry of cultures and their evolution over more than 2,000 years,” UNESCO stated, explaining that the caves showcase history from the eighth century BCE to the Crusades.
The caves, which started out as quarries, were used for agriculture, craft, recreation, baths, tombs and places of worship, as well as hiding places during troubled times.
Tour guide Nimrod Wilner used to work at the Dig for a Day program at Guvrin-Maresha and he fondly recalls the thrill of seeing tourists delighted as they laid hands on objects that have not been touched for thousands of years. “The second people touch something it moves them,” he said.
Participating in a dig may, in fact, provide the necessary knowledge and stimulus to the imagination to help you appreciate other sites. “As soon as you get your hands dirty at a dig,” says Wilner, “it helps you to relate to every place that has been dug, understanding better the process that happened there and what has been found.”