“The largest cache of documents found in the Cave of the Letters was the archive of Babatha, daughter of Shimeon son of Menahem. Thanks to this women – who managed to survive two husbands and must have spent most of her live in litigation, either suing the guardians of the fatherless son or being sued by the various members of her deceased husbands’ families – we have come by a priceless source for the period just preceding the war of Bar Kokhba. It is full of legal, historical, geographical, and linguistic data”
(Y. Yadin, Bar Kokhba, Weidenfeld&Nicolson 1971, p.222)

The discovery of ancient scrolls in the Judean Desert sparked a race between archaeologists and antiquity thieves to find additional fragments of the past to research or sell. Every nook and cranny in the caves and canyons of the Judean Desert was combed and excavated in the hunt for ancient treasures. Papyri and other documents yielded the best prices in the markets of Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jerusalem.
The first large Israeli archaeological expedition in the Judean Desert set out in 1960. In 1961, it members combed the cliffs of the canyons south of Ein Gedi. They divided into several teams; Yigael Yadin led the team that explored the cave in the Nahal Hever canyon that subsequently was dubbed the Cave of the Letters. Yadin’s team uncovered some of the expeditions most spectacular finds in this cave, where Jews from Ein Gedi had hidden from the Romans in 135 CE, during the final year of the ill-fated Bar Kokhba Revolt. The Roman army apparently besieged the caves in Nahal Hever until all those hiding in them died. In addition to the skeletons of the Jewish rebels, this cave contained letters from the time of Bar Kohkba that seem to have been part of an archive belonging to the leaders of the rebels in Ein Gedi. They include correspondence between them and Bar Kokhba’s headquarters at Herodium. Bar Kokhba himself signed those letters with the name, “Simeon son of Kosiba,” and the title, “nasi [president] of Israel.”

Babatha was widowed twice. Her first husband was Joshua son of Joseph and they had a son who also was named Joshua. After her husband’s death, Babatha waged a long legal battle with his family.

The excavation of the Cave of the Letters also found a leather purse with documents that had been hidden in the cave. It contained 35 papyri that were organized and catalogued by topic. They belonged to a wealthy Jewish woman who lived during the second century CE and was named Babatha the daughter of Simeon son of Menahem. These documents reveal more than a few details about Babatha’s life. She was born around 104 CE in Mahoza, a small agricultural town on the southeast shore of the Dead Sea near Zo’ar, a few kilometers from the border between the Roman provinces of Judea and the land of the Nabateans.
The archive sheds light on the personal life of a Jewish businesswoman, as revealed in the ketubah from her marriage to her second husband, Judah son of Eleazar of Ein Gedi.
Babatha was widowed twice. Her first husband was Joshua son of Joseph and they had a son who also was named Joshua. After her husband’s death, Babatha waged a long legal battle with his family regarding the custody of their son, child support arrangements, and the share of his estate due to her. Babatha remarried to Judah son of Eleazar, who was known as Kthousion, and served as her son’s guardian. Judah, a wealthy Ein Gedi resident and grove owner, also was married to Miriam daughter of Ba’ayan, with whom he had a daughter named Shelamzion.
Judah became ill and died in 130 CE, without having any children with Babatha. According to their marriage contract, she inherited his palm groves in Ein Gedi as collateral for his debts to her. In 135 CE, the last year of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, Babatha was at Ein Gedi. Perhaps she moved there when the revolt began or after she married Judah. His first wife, Miriam daughter of Ba’ayan, was the sister of Jonathan son of Ba’ayan, the leader of the revolt in Ein Gedi. When the Roman army arrived in 135 CE to destroy the Jewish settlements in the Dead Sea valley, the residents of Ein Gedi fled to hide in the caves that they had prepared for just this eventuality. Babatha set out with her son Joshua, Miriam, Shelamzion, and Jonathan for the large cave hidden in the cliff of the Nahal Hever Riverbed.

Esler’s main advantage in examining the text is that prior to becoming a historian, he was a lawyer. Since Babatha’s archive contains legal documents, he approached them not only from the perspective of a historian, but also of a legal scholar.

Tombstone of Hannah. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem/V. Naikhin)

The Romans discovered their cave as well as the other caves in the Nahal Hever cliffs where rebels were hiding. They set up a camp on the top of the cliff on both sides of the riverbed. It is not clear if the Romans descended to the caves, which were accessed via a narrow stone ledge, or simply waited until the rebels died of thirst and hunger. In any case, none of the rebels in the caves survived. Yadin’s team discovered their skeletons in the caves in 1961.
Babatha apparently hid a waterskin containing the purse with documents, along with the keys to her home, a number of valuables, and cosmetic utensils in a cavity in the floor of the cave, where the excavation team found it.
Naturally, the correspondence between Bar Kokhba, from his base at Herodium, and his commanders in Ein Gedi, Jonathan and Masabala, was the discovery from this cave that won the most renown. However, Babatha’s archive, which reveals the details of the daily life of a Jewish businesswoman in the Dead Sea valley in the first century CE, attracted more than a little attention from researchers. Every detail of her life and those close to her, her property, and her legal struggles has been researched and written about in academic articles and books.
The papyri discovered in the Cave of the Letters include the marriage contract of Salome Komaise, daughter of Levy. Additional documents mentioning her were discovered later in Nahal Ze’elim, creating another personal archive of a woman from that period. Babatha and Salome lived in Mahoza, to the east of the Dead Sea. The archaeological finds indicate that they knew each other. The palm groves that they owned were next to one another, the same people served as witnesses to sign their documents, and they both died in the same cave in Nahal Hever. Beyond that, both women owned property, enjoyed a relatively high socioeconomic status, and managed complex businesses that involved large sums of money. Many people mentioned in both women’s documents were Jews, an indication that Mahoza was home to a flourishing Jewish community even though it was in Nabatean territory.
The material from their archives was published sluggishly, mainly appearing in the 1990s, some 30 years after it was discovered. Many researchers have studied the archives since then; their different interpretations of it have sparked stormy academic debates, which naturally inspired more articles and research.
The latest additions to the wealth of research on these archives were recently published. Prof. Philip Esler, of the University of Gloucestershire in England, examines the four oldest documents in Babatha’s archive in Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (Oxford University Press, 2017). Kimberley Czajkowski addresses legal aspects of life in the periphery of the Roman Empire, on the border between Judea and the land of the Nabateans, and how the residents coped with the political changes occurring around them in Localized Law: The Babatha and Salome Komaise Archives (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Mystery of the Four Documents

In 2013, Esler began reexamining the documents in Babatha’s archive. His area of expertise is the books of the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in the second century CE. That sparked his interest in Babatha’s archive since it was written during the same period. Esler’s main advantage in examining the text is that prior to becoming a historian, he was a lawyer. Since Babatha’s archive contains legal documents, he approached them not only from the perspective of a historian, but also of a legal scholar.
Babatha’s contracts were preserved as “tied” deeds. The same text was written on the papyrus twice, at the top and the bottom. After the writing was completed, the upper part of the papyrus was rolled up and tied shut. The witnesses signed the back of the document next to the strings that sealed it in order to protect its integrity as an original document. If any doubts arose about the version of the text that remained visible on the unrolled section, it was possible to untie it in the presence of witnesses to see if the part in the rolled section matched it. If they matched, that meant the text had not been tampered with.
Four documents in the archive attracted Esler’s attention. They had been written between 94 and 99 CE, almost 40 years before the Bar Kokhba Revolt. They all dealt with agreements that were signed in Mahoza. One of them was a sales contract for the purchase of a large grove of date palms by Babatha’s father. This grove later was given to her and she was registered as its owner in 127 CE according to the Roman authorities. However, the other three documents are not related at all to Babatha’s father and two of them dealt with a matter that was not related to the grove Simeon bought or to his life in Mahoza.

’Amat-’Isi gave her husband two years to return the loan without interest. If the loan were not returned within that amount of time, they would need to pay interest of 9% per year and ’Amat-’Isi could demand to be repaid in full at any time.

The first of the three additional documents outlined the terms of a loan that two entrepreneurs, ‘Abad-‘Amanu and Muqimu, took to open an agricultural business in the profitable palm groves of the Dead Sea valley. Since they lacked the means to rent palm groves, Muqimu borrowed from the dowry of his wife ’Amat-’Isi. ‘Abad-‘Amanu and Muqimu were guarantors on the loan. This loan sheds light on the rights of women in the ancient world with regard to managing their financial assets independently of their husbands. Even though a married woman was able to loan property only to her husband, she was able to demand that the debt be repaid at any given moment in order to guarantee financial independence for her and her children, mainly as protection if her husband divorced her. The document on the loan, which was signed in 94 CE, features all the aspects of loans that are in use today on modern documents such as the length of time of the loan, the repayment schedule, the interest, the penalties in the case that the loan is not returned on schedule, and the names of the guarantors.
’Amat-’Isi gave her husband two years to return the loan without interest. The two entrepreneurs apparently thought that they would be able to return the loan within two years thanks to the profits they would earn from the groves. If the loan were not returned within two years, they would need to pay interest of 9% per year and ’Amat-’Isi could demand to be repaid in full at any time.
Esler did not understand what this agreement was doing in the purse with Babatha’s documents. He decided to study the four Nabatean documents about business dealings in Mahoza further in a bid to figure out what they were doing in Babatha’s archive.
The second document, which was signed five years after the first one in 99 CE, is a sales contract for a palm grove on the shore of the Dead Sea. A woman named ’Abi-‘adan daughter of ’Aptah son of Manigares sold it to a man named Archelaus. It was an expansive grove on the shore of the Dead Sea next to a grove that Nabatean King Rabel II owned.

Nahal Hever. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Archelaus was a well-known figure in his day. He was a local who did well for himself, rising to a senior position in the service of the Nabatean royal family. His father, ‘Abad-‘Amanu, Muqimu’s partner, also served the Nabatean royal family in the army. Upon completing his army service, he returned to the village of his birth, invested in agriculture, and together with Muqimu began to expand the business by renting additional palm groves. He apparently helped his son, who also wanted to serve in the royal service, by tapping his extensive connections in the army and friends who resided in the Nabatean capital of Petra. Shortly before acquiring the palm grove, Archelaus was appointed governor of one of the provinces of the Nabatean kingdom and decided to expand his family’s holdings along the southern coast of the Dead Sea by purchasing this handsome palm grove on its shores. He saw the fact that the grove bordered the royal family’s property as a great advantage that would allow him to become even closer to the king and advance himself further.
The sales contract, as one would expect, detailed the exact borders of the grove that ’Abi-‘adan sold to Archelaus. Surprisingly, the third document in this group in Babatha’s archive, which was dated to one month after the palm grove was sold to Archelaus, is a sales contract for the same grove, with a few changes in the borders, to Simeon the son of Menahem, that is, to Babatha’s father. This raises the question of why and how did ’Abi-‘adan sell the same grove to two different people, one month after the other. The consensus among researchers is that the sale to Archelaus fell through so she sold it to Babatha’s father instead.
Esler rejected that interpretation. His close examination of the documents revealed a different story.
Simeon, Esler conjectured, wanted to buy ’Abi-‘adan’s handsome palm grove on the shore of the Dead Sea alongside the property of King Rabel II. However, when he approached her about purchasing it, he discovered that it already had been sold to Archelaus of the village of Rummon in exchange for 112 selas, which were equal to 448 Roman dinars.
Esler concluded that in the short time that passed between Archelaus’s purchase of the grove and its sale to Simeon, a number of dramatic events occurred. Archelaus’s father ‘Abad-‘Amanu apparently died suddenly and unexpectedly around the time of the sale. ‘Abad-‘Amanu, as mentioned above, was Muqimu’s partner and the two had taken a loan from ‘Abad-‘Amanu’s wife five years before the agreement between Archelaus and ’Abi-‘adan. Their agriculture venture apparently did not go well and they did not succeed to return the loan within two years, as they had hoped, and so they now needed to pay interest for three years in addition to the loan itself. The death of one of the partners and the failure of their business venture scared ’Amat-’Isi and she demanded repayment, in accordance with both the law and the loan contract.
However, ’Amat-’Isi did not turn to her husband since she knew that he was unable to repay the debt. Instead, she turned to Archelaus, the heir of her husband’s late partner. His closeness to the ruling family led people in the Zo’ar area to assume that he would have access to sources of revenue that would allow him to raise the money.
However, it turned out that Archelaus was unable to repay his father’s debt and so he asked ’Abi-‘adan to annul his purchase of the orchard so that he could get his money back and use it to pay at least part of his father’s growing debts.
Zo’ar was a small place and the gossip about the cancellation of the sale reached Simeon’s ears. However, he did not return to ’Abi-‘adan, but instead waited for her to approach him.

The Nabateans barely left any written history. All that is known about them is derived from a small number of Greek and Roman historians who described the Nabateans’ lifestyle in general based on secondary sources.

Items of a personal nature found in the Cave of the Letters in the Judean Desert, 132-135 CE. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Moshe Ken)

This is where the fourth document in the group comes in. This document also explains why the borders of the grove changed. The grove that Simeon wished to purchase was divided into two parts: a large section that ’Abi-‘adan owned and sold to Archelaus; and a smaller section that was sold to her husband Hasmar’il. Simeon wanted to buy the entire grove, since it was a wonderful, flourishing garden on the shore of the Dead Sea. As the only buyer remaining in the picture, he conditioned his purchase on it including both parts of the grove.
As a result, in one session, in the presence of five witnesses and stakeholders, both contracts were signed together. In order to ensure that Archelaus and his heirs would not claim one day that they actually bought the grove, Simeon had Archelaus serve as one of the witnesses on the contract for his purchase of the grove.
All of these documents were handed over to the main party of interest, Simeon. Since he held the original contracts, no one could claim that the sale had not been carried out in accordance with the law. The first contract, the loan that initially did not seem to be related in which Muqimu borrowed money from his wife, also became part of Babatha’s archive as proof of what led Archelaus to change his mind about the grove that he had purchased only a month earlier.
The drama surrounding this real estate transaction, that occurred 2,000 years ago, reveals the significance of women in the financial world in those days. The web of contracts was set in motion by the loan that a woman gave to her husband for business purposes. The woman did not only demand the repayment of the debts, but also protected her husband’s reputation and tried to find creative solutions to guarantee the continued success of her investments.
Babatha would go on to expand her personal property greatly. In addition to the large palm grove that her father gave her as a present and that she registered under her name in 127 CE, she also inherited a great deal of property in the Ein Gedi groves from her second husband. She went to Ein Gedi in order to manage her property and the legal discussions regarding it. She brought along the case with the documents – certificates, contracts, and marriage contracts that demonstrate the chain of legal events in her life. They were catalogued by topic, with the documents for each topic folded together into a bundle in the case.
She apparently was forced, against her will, to flee to the cave, but intended to return afterwards to continue her life. This is why she took along the documents and the keys to her house. At an especially difficult moment, she hid everything under a stone in a cavity in the rock, where they waited for 1,900 years until Yadin’s team found them.

Nabatean art objects. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The Death of Rabel II

Czajkowski’s book looks at how the residents of the area on the border of Judea and the land of the Nabateans handled the political upheavals that roiled their surroundings. The documents in both archives date from a very stormy period in this part of the Roman empire. The earliest documents are from 92 CE and the latest documents are from 132 CE. This period includes the reign of the last Nabatean king, Rabel II, and the annexation of the Nabatean kingdom into the Roman Empire by Trajan in 106 CE.
The Nabateans barely left any written history. All that is known about them is derived from a small number of Greek and Roman historians who described the Nabateans’ lifestyle in general based on secondary sources. Other than that, Josephus Flavius writes about ties between the Nabateans and the Hasmonean kingdom and Herod. Archaeological excavations of their cities and settlements revealed additional information.
The Nabateans’ origins are shrouded in mystery. They already had established themselves in the Arabian peninsula, southern Jordan, the Negev, and around the Dead Sea by the Persian period. They were a few nomadic tribes who spoke a strain of Arabic. For a long period, they were merchants who carried spices and perfumes across the Arabian peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea via camel caravans. They also traded in bitumen from the Dead Sea, which was used in medicine and embalming. Over time, they expanded northward and wandered throughout all of Transjordan up to the Hauran.
In the second century BCE, Greek sailors discovered the secrets of the monsoon winds that enable them to sail directly from India to the Red Sea, making the Nabatean caravan routes across land redundant. In the first century BCE, the flourishing Nabatean economy floundered. The solution was permanent settlements and desert agriculture. The Nabateans made the most of their hydrological skills to develop distinctive, wide-ranging desert agriculture, from producing wine to raising Arabian race horses for Greek and Roman circuses.
Petra developed as the kingdom’s capital and the seat of the Nabatean dynasty, growing into a large, flourishing city. Apparently the transformation from nomadism to agriculture led to the rise of a royal family. The first Nabtean king that is known is Aretas I, whose reign began around 168 BCE, and the last is Rabel II, who died in 106 CE. In other words, a royal dynasty continued for some 300 years. Rabel II became king in 70 or 71 CE, around the time that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem following the Great Revolt. Rabel II was a vassal king who ruled under Roman sponsorship, but maintained a degree of independence; this apparently was the case in the Nabatean kingdom since the time of Pompey.
When Rabel II died in 106 CE, the Romans annexed his kingdom to their empire. The new province was called Arabica. It is not clear how the annexation came about and whether it involved a battle or occurred quietly. However, it is clear that it caused a dramatic change in the lifestyle of the residents of the land of the Nabateans as new laws and new customs were imposed on them.
There is no doubt that this is one of the reasons that the documents in the archives of Babatha and Salome are written in the three languages used by the three regimes that prevailed in the Mahoza area. In her book, Czajkowski examines how the residents adapted their daily routines to cope with the changing legal system. Much of the book is dedicated to the scribes who draft the various documents. She provides an entire discussion on whether Babatha, Salome, and their households knew how to read and write. This is a complex question. One document in Babatha’s archive indicates that she did not know how to read, but that might mean that she did not know how to read Greek, Nabatean, or Aramaic, but did know how to read in another language. Some researchers claim that the use of scribes to write contracts indicates that the population did not know how to write. However, that claim seems slightly misleading since even in modern times when literacy is widespread, the average person does not write a sales contract, a loan contract, or even a simple receipt, but instead turns to a lawyer. There is no doubt that in a world in which three languages were employed, representing three legal systems and resulting from significant changes in rule, drafting a contract is not a trivial matter, especially since it would need to be valid in all three systems and perhaps in a new unexpected one. That made it vital to turn to a knowledgeable lawyer, or a scribe to use the language of the day, who was fluent in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Nabatean, as well as Greek and perhaps also Latin, to formulate agreements. This was particularly important for marriages, loans, and real-estate transactions, which remain in force for the long term, so that the documentation of them would be considered valid in a court in the future if needed, even if the regime changed again.

The valleys of Safi and Zo’ar in the southern Dead Sea area. (Stephanie Gormann)

These documents date to a fascinating chapter in the history of the Jewish people: the period between the devastating destruction of the kingdom in the Great Revolt against the Romans and the total annihilation that followed the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Life for the average person continued amid these major historic events. People married, families grew, legal struggles were waged over property and inheritances, loans were extended, and agricultural ventures yielded handsome profits. Babatha and Salome were born some three decades after the Great Revolt. Their families may have settled in Mahoza in the years immediately after the revolt. They came of age in the midst of the preparations for the Bar Kokhba Revolt and continued to manage their legal affairs even after the revolt began, in between the battles. Their documents contain no mention of the revolt, they did business with both Jews and non-Jews, and their archives contain very little that is overtly Jewish or religious in nature. It is impossible to know what they were thinking in their final moments, in the cave in Nahal Hever, as the Roman Army camped above them waiting for them to starve to death or die of thirst. In those final moments in the cave, they most likely were not thinking about their flourishing palm groves, but about what whether all this extremism would give birth to anything other than destruction and devastation.

Lake and Swamp

Only in 2004, nearly half a century after the Hula wetlands were drained, did the Hula Nature Reserve begin to recover. The amendment to Israel’s Water Law that recognized Nature as a legitimate consumer of water allowed the reserve to receive clean Jordan River water together with water from the Einan Springs. The influx of the original water sources of the lake had a remarkable effect. Today the Hula Valley, with its system of canals and waterways, springs, and pools, is trying to correct the damage of what was perceived seventy years ago as an outstanding national achievement.

Interview with Yifat Artzi, Hula Valley ecologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority

The Hula Nature Reserve began to recover in 2004 when the amendment to Israel’s Water Law declared that Nature, including springs, riverbeds, and wetlands, is entitled to a fair share of the country’s water sources. The law recognizes Nature as a legal consumer of water in an amount that will enable the preservation and rehabilitation of Israel’s natural landscapes.
Until the amendment to the law, the Hula Nature Reserve’s water supply was made up of the fishpond spillage in the valley. The amount of water was barely enough to keep the reserve alive and not of the quality needed to preserve the flora and fauna that did manage to survive. The ecological well-being of the nature reserve declined year after year.
With the water law change, the reserve began receiving freshwater from the Jordan River, pumped into the nature reserve in ever-increasing amounts. Next, water from the copious Einan Springs, released into the Einan Riverbed, also began to flow into the reserve. The Einan water temperature, which emanates from deep down in the earth, is a constant 21 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit), making the riverbed a thermal haven for plants and animals in winter.
This warmth is crucial for certain fish species, tilapia (St. Peter’s Fish), for example, and water-borne plants such as Ceratophyllum submersum and London pondweed that used to thrive in the Hula. Once the water quality improved, many of the plants that had once prospered in the Hula reappeared. The natural world of the Hula Valley recovered spontaneously. Before the Hula water world’s revival, the pools and ponds had been infested with invasive species such as the dominant and robust catfish, together with carp and mullet that had escaped from the fishponds, and are not even native to the Land of Israel.
Wetlands recover rapidly, with the original flora and fauna reappearing as if out of thin air. The most famous revival example is that of the Hula painted frog, the first amphibian to officially be declared extinct. The frog had not been seen for over fifty years and was considered extinct. In 2011, Yoram Malka, the Hula park ranger, caught a fleeting glimpse of the frog as it leaped across the road. Since then, the extinct frog has been showing up all around the Hula reserve.
The painted frog is a very ancient amphibian species. Fossils of painted frogs uncovered in prehistoric sites in the Hula Valley indicate that the frog has not evolved in hundreds of thousands of years. Biologists searching for the frog’s environmental DNA have discovered traces of its existence in many ponds and water bodies around the valley. It seems that a large population of painted frogs had inhabited the shores of the Hula Lake and its swamps for thousands of years.
The return of the white-tailed eagle to nest in the Hula Reserve is another environmental success story. White-tailed eagles are an endangered species, with a worldwide population of less than 7,000. Israel was the southernmost place where these eagles nested. After the draining of the swamp, the white-tailed eagles vanished from Israel. Attempts to acclimatize them by importing eagles from Europe failed, even though, for many years, a single pair of these imported white-tailed eagles nested in the Hula reserve – but with no offspring. Eventually, it turned out that they were both male eagles. When a female eagle released into the wild as part of a project to get the eagles to nest in Israel, joined the two males, hopes soared. Two chicks hatched, but they became ill and died. Then a new female, released into the wild, arrived in the reserve. The new female paired up with one of the two males, and the couple is now building a large nest on a tree in the Hula reserve. Hopes are high that this single nest will mark the white-tailed eagle’s return to nest in the Hula Valley.

Fish Ladders

The Hula reserve is a contrived natural space. It exists as long as human beings continue to manage it. The reserve water supply is artificial, its water level is carefully controlled, and the infrastructure of embankments and dams is maintained continuously. The reserve was created following public pressure from a few environmentalists fighting to preserve the swamp and lake’s wildlife. However, the nature reserve, established on the area that used to be the lake, could not maintain the swampland’s plants on the peat floor of the swamp.
Outside the reserve, in the drained swampland, the peat dried up, caught fire, and blew away as dust and ashes during the summer windstorms. Every year the height of the Hula Valley floor sank. The nature reserve, buffered behind its embankments, remained at the level of the former lake. Today, the nature reserve is two meters higher than the former swamp’s peat covered floor, disconnected from the rest of the Hula Valley.
The the isolation of the reserve’s ecosystem is detrimental to both the reserve and the valley’s flora and fauna. A few years ago, an area north of the nature reserve, flooded due to extreme winter rains, and was added to the nature reserve. This new area has now been connected to the valley and its water systems, with the aid of “fish ladders” – serpentine water channels that gently descend from the reserve to the Jordan River and the valley floor. The fish immediately caught on to the ladder and started using it, as did the herons and egrets that stand above the ladder trying to catch the fish.

Buffaloes vanished from Israel with the swamps. Following the Six-Day War, a herd of buffalo was discovered in the Bethsaida Valley, north of the Sea of Galilee. The animals were transferred to the Hula Reserve.

There is no doubt that the reserve must be part of the Hula Valley’s ecological system, as this connectivity is crucial to the environment. Otters are an excellent example of this. The otter population in the valley has been diminishing since fish farming was discontinued in the 1990s. The surviving otters scuttled to the nature reserve, where they could find fish in safe surroundings. Otters, which feed on fish, are timid animals and are challenging to see. Over the years, otter sightings have been occurred from self-operating field cameras and the prominent territorial markings, which they leave on stones and rocks near the water. From these sightings, it seems that the otter population occurred in the Hula Valley and the rest of the country is precarious.
Many of the surviving otters are run over as they try to cross the roads. They have to do this as the Hula Valley roads cross over the streams and canals, forcing the animals to leave the riverbed and try the tarmac, usually at night. One attempt to help the otters and other wildlife in the valley has been to create dry shelves under the bridges. These were built into the water conduits under the roads, allowing the animals to continue along the riverbed without ascending to the road.
Connectivity is a keyword in the attempt to conserve biological diversity along the waterways, from the Jordan River sources down to the Sea of Galilee. A survey conducted along the 90 kilometers of canals in the Hula Valley discovered hundreds of obstacles that partially or fully block fish passage. The modern blockages to the waterways are in sharp contrast to the description of the Jordan River in January 1869, by the Scottish adventurer John MacGregor. He had arrived at the Hula Valley with his canoe – the Rob Roy, planning to descend the Jordan from the Hula to the Sea of Galilee. MacGregor points out that “During the whole course of the Jordan from source to end there does not seem to be one notable cascade or regular fall” (The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Red Sea & Gennesareth). MacGregor’s free-running Jordan does not exist today, and fish cannot migrate during the winter from the Sea of Galilee to the Hula Valley to reproduce.

Wild Water Buffaloes

The largest animals in the Hula Swamp were the water buffalo, a large bovid that likes to wallow in the mud. Buffaloes vanished from the landscapes of the Land of Israel together with the swamps. Following the Six-Day War, a herd of buffalo was discovered, roaming in the Bethsaida Valley, north of the Sea of Galilee. The animals were transferred to the Hula Reserve. In a large swamp or lake, damage caused by buffalo churning up mud from the swamp floor is negligible. However, in the pocket-sized Hula Reserve, the damage was significant. Eventually, the herd was moved to a fenced-off area, and local Baladi cattle were introduced into the reserve to control vegetation. Baladi cattle, which had vanished from Israel with modern agriculture, were found roaming the Golan Heights after the Six Day War and in Judea and Samaria’s remote villages. Just like buffalo, Baladi cattle is good for keeping the reserve clear of invasive plants – but, unlike buffalo, they do not enter the water. It also turns out that Baladi cows are very fertile, and today Israeli cow stock is being improved with the genes of Baladi from the reserve.
The Hula Swamp was a balanced wetland. In winter, when rainwater gushed down the riverbeds, the swamp expanded, flooding the areas around it. In summer, the swamp shrank back to size. This ecosystem was beneficial for certain kinds of plants – especially papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) that formed vast swamp stands. Papyrus in the Hula Swamp, the northernmost distribution point for the plant, flourished on the swamp’s peat floor. When the swamp was drained, the papyrus shrank and never recovered.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a plan was hatched to re-flood some of the original swamp areas. The area chosen was the lowest part of the valley, a place where the peat had dried up and which frequently suffered from underground fires. This area could not be used for agriculture. The idea to re-flood this area was part of an attempt to control nitrates from contaminating the Sea of Galilee. A canal was designed to collect the excess water from the fields and divert it to the re-flooded area. To prevent water seeping from the fields straight into the Jordan River, a plastic barrier was inserted into the peat so that water would flow to the canal and not to the Jordan River.
In 1995 the canal to the Agamon, as the re-flooded area would be called, was opened, and a new lake came into being. That same year the Sea of Galilee’s water balance was overturned. Once nitrates from the peat fields were prevented from reaching the Sea of Galilee, the lake filled with massive blue-green algae areas (actually a bacteria called Cyanobacteria), some of which were toxic. It turned out that the Sea of Galilee needed nitrates for a healthy ecological balance.
The farmers of the moshavim, who had given up their lands to create the Agamon, hoped that hotels and tourist facilities around the new lake would generate a new source of income These ideas had many opponents, especially from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which managed to stall the plan for a few years. In 2007 the “Peat Convention” committed the state to keep the peat wet so that it would not catch fire; together with the Agamon its seemed that a solution has been reached to mitigate some of the damage done by the draining of the swamp. However, it soon turned out that wetlands cannot be restored by simply trying to reverse the damage caused by human intervention.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a plan was hatched to re-flood some of the original swamp areas. The area chosen was a place where the peat had dried up and which frequently suffered from underground fires.

Cranes and Pelicans

Following the creation of the Agamon, thousands of migrating cranes began arriving in the Hula Valley, Cranes summer in Eastern Europe and winter in Eastern Africa. They are strong flyers and can actually cover the whole distance from Europe to Africa without stopping. However, if they can, they prefer to break the long trip into segments, descending in flat areas where they can sleep in shallow waters and find fodder. Cranes feed on agricultural residue and eat everything. When the crops cultivated in the Hula Valley were changed from cotton and fish ponds to peanuts, corn, peas, chickpeas, and almonds, cranes discovered a food bonanza.
The first flocks arrive at the end of Autumn, feeding mainly on the residues in the peanut fields after the harvest and preventing the rodent population’ growth. However, once the peanut residues are finished, the cranes progress from peanuts to the other winter crops, causing much damage.
In the 1990s, cranes were rarely sighted in Israel. There were only a few pairs in the valleys of the north, less than one thousand cranes in total. However, peanuts and the Agamon were a blessing for the cranes. In 2020 the farmers decided to open a crane feeding station at the Agamon to get them away from the fields. The cranes loved the new arrangements, and their numbers increased dramatically. In 2017 fifty thousand cranes descended on Israel, thirty thousand in the Hula Valley alone. The crane feeding station at the Agamon soon became a major tourist attraction, with nearly half a million visitors making their way to the north to see the cranes.
More cranes meant more fodder, and soon the price of feeding the cranes became prohibitive. Initial attempts were made to cut down on the feeding, start feeding later, and change the crop rotation to diminish the number of cranes flocking to the Hula Valley. This made it difficult to predict if visitors would be able to see cranes at the Agamon. Instead of the cranes, it was the number of visitors that decreased. The crane project had turned into a fiasco. Last year, the feeding station’s operation was curtailed, and today the Hula Valley is being weaned of the cranes.

Following the creation of the Agamon, thousands of migrating cranes began arriving in the Hula Valley, descending in flat areas where they can sleep in shallow waters and find fodder.

Pelicans are a different story. Pelicans cannot, like cranes, fly over water. They keep to the same migration route from the Danube Delta to Eastern Africa year after year. The pelican is the heaviest of all migratory birds. Because of its weight, it has to stop, feed and rest along the way. In the last decades, water sources where the pelicans used to stop are dwindling in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. The Hula Valley has become one of the last resorts for the pelicans migrating over the Middle Eastern route, with the pelicans arriving exhausted, hungry, and tired.
Fifty thousand pelicans arrived in Israel last year. Pelicans fish in groups with the single pelican eating an average of 800 grams of fish a day. In the last few years, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have been monitoring the number of pelicans arriving and leaving the country. In an attempt to get flocks away from the fishponds the INPA stocks non-commercial fish in the Hula reserve and in the Hefer Valley. There are still quite a few pelicans that come to the fish ponds, but, in contrast to the cranes, the number of pelicans wintering in Israel is decreasing and efforts are ongoing to save the world’s largest migratory bird.
Wetlands carry some of the world’s widest variety of plants and animals. However, only in the last fifty years have we learned that they need to be preserved and not turned into farmland. Draining the Hula Valley was a major environmental mistake and a lesson in human humility. Today efforts are being made to try to correct the damage. However, a lot has still to be learned about intervening with Nature, even when these are attempts to repair damage already done.

Lovers of the Hebrew Stage

Lovers of the Hebrew Stage was the first theater troupe established in the Land of Israel. Founded in Jaffa in the early twentieth century, the group produced works of classical and modern theater in Hebrew. The city’s Orthodox leadership tried to stop the performances. The rabbis were against the use of Hebrew for non-religious purposes; they also opposed women appearing on a stage and the interaction between men and women in the audience. The Lovers of the Hebrew Stage persevered anyway. The beginning of Hebrew theater is an important part of the development of Hebrew culture and the home it eventually found in Tel Aviv.

by Yadin Roman

The Jewish community in Jaffa established itself following the first aliyah in the 1880s. Jaffa, the largest town in the Land of Israel and its main port of entry, hummed with young Jewish immigrants as well as youngsters who had been born at the Jewish settlements around Jaffa and migrated to the big city. They spent their time seeking work, which was not abundant, and socializing in the khans and coffee houses that lined the main streets and markets. Here, in Jaffa, the young Jewish laborer could read the Hebrew newspapers and keep abreast of the latest news, job opportunities, and social events.
Hebrew as a living, spoken language developed in the circles affiliated with the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) movement in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. One popular method of propagating the Haskalah movement’s ideas and developing a national culture was forming theater clubs that produced plays with amateur actors. These troupes soon became the spearhead for advancing Hebrew culture in Jewish centers throughout Europe. In 1904, this concept reached the Land of Israel and the first theater club in Jaffa was founded: the Lovers of the Dramatic Art.
The members of the new theater group were passionate about Hebrew so their first two productions were in Hebrew. The first play, which debuted on Purim 1905, was Uriel Acosta, which tells the story of sixteenth-century Jewish philosopher and skeptic Uriel da Costa. The play was based on the biography of him that German author Karl Gutzkow wrote in 1846. The biography had been turned into a play and translated into Yiddish. The result became a staple of Yiddish theater. The Lovers of the Dramatic Art translated the play into Hebrew and gave their first performance in an Arab coffee house on Bustros Street, Jaffa’s main commercial thoroughfare (today David Raziel Street).

Yehudit Eisenberg Harari (left) in 1906 and Dr. Hayyim Harari (right) in 1907. (Courtesy of the Aviezer Yellin archive of Jewish education in Israel and the Diaspora at Tel Aviv University)

In an article titled, “The First Hebrew Play in the Land of Israel,” the Jerusalem-based Hebrew newspaper Hahashkafa reported: “Jews who had never before stepped into a coffee house came dressed in their finest clothes. They came from the Jewish settlements in carts, women and children sitting in the carts and men walking alongside them, to see the first Hebrew play ever produced in Jaffa. The crowd making its way to Jaffa included Menahem Gnessin, who played the lead role. Gnessin, a laborer at the Rishon Lezion winery, had taken leave for the performance and walked all the way to Jaffa…. Of the artistic value of the play nothing can be said, but the stupendous act of staging a play in Hebrew, which the audience could plainly understand, was the talk of the day.”
A play in Hebrew whose cast included actresses immediately incurred the wrath of the rabbis of the Old Yishuv, especially those in Jerusalem. When the group put on its second play, The Jews by Russian author A. Zerikov, the rabbis went on a rampage. The day the play was scheduled to open in Jerusalem, they sent messengers to all the synagogues in the city to announce that going to see the play was strictly banned. Posters also appeared in the Jewish neighborhoods denouncing the “theater where men and women appear together.”
The play encountered other difficulties, the main one being that a large part of the audience and some of the actors did not speak Hebrew. After a heated debate, the group decided to produce future plays in Yiddish since it was understood by most members of the Old Yishuv and the ultra-Orthodox population as well as immigrants from the first aliyah.
Some members of the group objected to the decision to perform in Yiddish; they withdrew from the Lovers of the Dramatic Art and created a new group, Lovers of the Hebrew Stage, to produce plays that were written in Hebrew or translated into Hebrew.

In 1909, the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage welcomed its first star: a young woman from Alexandria named Lisa Varon, who had appeared a few times with Yiddish theater troupes in Egypt. Even though she did not know Hebrew, the audience loved her acting, her voice, and her beauty.

“As the eyes of all the people are upon us, we cannot look down with disdain on our language and perform in a language that is just jargon,” the members of the new group announced.
The central figures in the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage were Dr. Hayyim Harari, a teacher and skilled amateur actor, and his wife, Yehudit Eisenberg. They were joined by Gnessin, from the winery in Rishon; Fania and Yehudah Leib Metman-Cohen, founders of the Herzliya Gymnasia in Jaffa; and Olga Hankin, the wife of Yehoshua Hankin, who would go on to buy huge tracts of land for the Jewish Agency.
Harari was born in Latvia. His father Dov Blumberg was one of the founders of the Hovevei Zion movement and instilled him with a love of Hebrew and a yearning for the rebirth of the Jewish nation in its homeland. From a young age, Harari wrote for the Hebrew press, signing his articles with the name of an ancient Talmudic sage, Ben Bg Bg. In 1896, at the age of 13, he made aliyah to study agriculture at the Mikveh Israel School near Jaffa. He joined the school’s drama club and participated in the production of plays in French, the main language used at the school. He graduated five years later, in 1901. Harari’s attempts to settle in Palestine as a farmer were thwarted when the Ottoman authorities enacted new ordinances barring Mikveh Israel’s international students from settling in the country upon graduation. Harari decided to dedicate his life to education and enrolled at the University of Geneva in Switzerland to study education, psychology, literature, and the dramatic arts. There, together with his new classmates, Chaim Weizmann and Zvi Averson, he engaged in promoting Zionism among the Swiss Jewish community.
In 1906, he returned to the Land of Israel and found employment teaching general and Hebrew literature at the Herzliya Gymnasia in Jaffa.
Yehudit Eisenberg, who would marry Harari in 1907, was born in Pinsk, Belarus. Her parents made aliyah in 1866, when she was just a few months old. During their first year in the country, the family lived in Jaffa. Then they bought a plot of land in Wadi Hanin, the future settlement of Ness Ziona. At first, the family lived in a tent among the Bedouins. After a few months, they moved to a cellar in the orchard of Reuven Lerrer, the founder of the Jewish settlement in Wadi Hanin. When the Bedouins told the family that the land of nearby Khirbet Duran was for sale, Eisenberg’s father teamed up with his friend Yehoshua Hankin to buy the land. In 1890, when Eisenberg was five, the family moved to Khirbet Duran, which grew into the town of Rehovot.
Eisenberg wrote about her experiences growing up during the first aliyah in an autobiographical Hebrew-language work, Among the Vineyards. (The character in her book modeled on herself is named Talia and her husband is named Ziv. )
“Talia grew up,” Eisenberg wrote, “amid vineyards and almond groves, between olive, sycamore, and carob trees, orange groves and eucalyptus woods, among Bedouin shepherds and farm laborers.”
From an early age, Talia was skilled in fieldwork, Eisenberg wrote, adding, “She was the best horseback rider in the village and could climb trees like a cat, swim faster in the water reservoirs than anyone else, milk cows, pick grapes, and ride a camel through the night to bring the grapes to the winery at Rishon Lezion. The other children in the village would gather to listen to her sing in the vineyard and beg her to dance the Bedouin sword dance around the fire.”

Herzliya Gymnasia founders and Hebrew actors Fania and Yehudah Leib Metman-Cohen with art teacher Abraham Aldema. (Zvi Oron)

Love blossomed early in these wild Hebrew settlements, Eisenberg wrote: “On lovers’ hill, the youngsters of the village would meet in the evening, light a bonfire, sing, and talk of the future of Jewish settlement and Jewish labor,” among other topics.
Eisenberg met Harari at the age of 13, while he was a student at Mikveh Israel. The two fell in love and when Harari left for Switzerland, she waited for him for six years, communicating via passionate letters.
A year after Harari’s return, in 1907, they married. Eisenberg gave up her job as a teacher at the Evelina de Rothschild school for girls in Jerusalem and moved to Jaffa to join her husband. A year later, she gave birth to their first and only son, Yizhar (who would become an influential member of Knesset). For an independent woman – a horse and camel rider who danced around bonfires at night – becoming a housewife and a mother was not simple.
“The summer holidays are over,” she wrote of that first year in Jaffa, “the school has opened, and Ziv is busy day and night at the school, usually returning home after midnight. Talia awaits his return and suffers from loneliness. It is a pity that she left teaching, work that she loved so much, devoting her time to the house and kitchen. She dreams of returning to the school to teach, but all the positions are taken. She is dissatisfied with her life. Why does marriage have to change a woman’s life and imprison her at home? Why do men continue to live their former lives after marriage while a woman must give up all that is precious to her?”
When she became pregnant, Talia was scared she would lose the new job she had found in Jaffa and tried to hide her pregnancy as much as possible. Her husband tried to help her with the household chores, but was busy with his public work and not always available. She was filled with despair and feelings of abandonment. The birth was difficult – a forceps birth, followed by fear of blood poisoning. Her life in danger, the doctors decided to move her to the Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem. While her husband was busy with his public activities, she was hospitalized far away, in Jerusalem, where she spent all her time “waiting for his visit.”
After she recovered, Talia returned to Jaffa to discover that the school had given her position to someone else.
“The gymnasium decided that it is better to hire a bachelor for the job instead of a married woman with a child. All Talia’s plans to continue working fell apart,” Eisenberg wrote.
The new mother did not despair. She began to give private lessons at home and filled her spare time by joining the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage, where she became one of the dominant figures in the group. Eventually, she would return to teaching at the school, but her love of Hebrew theater would accompany her for the rest of her life.

Above (right): Menahem Gnessin in 1912. (Avraham Soskin)
Above (left): Olga Hankin. (Tamar Eshel, from a family album)

Gnessin, the third founder of the theater troupe, was a scion of a rabbinic family and the brother of writer Uri Nissan Gnessin. He made aliyah in 1903 from Russia, finding work as a simple laborer in the Rishon Lezion winery. Gnessin was fluent in Hebrew and Hebrew culture, loved art, had a rare talent for acting, and had a few years of experience on the stage.
The Lovers of the Hebrew Stage’s first production was Zerubbabel, which premiered in 1907 in Rehovot. News of the play set off a storm in the settlement. A rabbi from Jaffa insisted that neither women nor men dressed as women appear on stage. The group rejected the rabbi’s adjurations so he informed the Ottoman authorities that an indecent performance was in the works. On the opening night, Ottoman soldiers arrived at the community hall where the play was about to begin and prevented the curtain from rising.
The second play that the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage produced, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, met the same fate. The rabbi informed the authorities and soldiers prevented the show from opening. However, the group would not give up. Eventually, the authorities disregarded the constant rabbinical warnings and the group began to perform its Hebrew plays in Jewish settlements, Jerusalem, and Jaffa.
In 1909, the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage welcomed its first Hebrew star: a young Sephardic woman from Alexandria named Lisa Varon. The new actress had appeared a few times with Yiddish theater troupes in Egypt. Even though she did not speak Hebrew, she was invited to join the group. Varon was a star from her very first performance; the audience loved her acting, her voice, and her beauty.
“The primitive actress who had never seen a real theater in her life, had no education, and did not speak Hebrew amazed us with her gentle, soft performance,” Gnessin wrote in his autobiography. “She was endowed with all the virtues of a great actress. She walked the stage like a princess, enthralling the audience with each dramatic gesture, with her beauty, her voice, her face. She was the first actress on the Hebrew stage who showed real acting skills.”
The Lovers of the Hebrew Stage was a success.
“Hebrew theater,” reported Ithamar Ben-Avi, the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (the father of Modern Hebrew), in Hazevi in 1910, “has arrived. We have some talents in the country. Harari, Shlomi, Hararit, Gnessin, Lina, and a few others always will be remembered as the founders of Hebrew theater.”
Despite his enthusiastic praise, Ben-Avi complained that theater remained an amateur affair, opining, “Why is there money for so many unimportant things and no money for Hebrew theater?”
Author Joseph Hayyim Brenner reported from backstage: “When the candles went out in the hall and only the tired actors remained, I found out that Gnessin and Varon are planning to leave the country. Why are they playing with us? We have finally created a Hebrew theater and now they are planning to leave.”
Brenner had predicted that this would happen. Varon’s success on the Hebrew stage went to her head and friends advised her to seek her fortune in the capitals of Europe. She left and was never heard of again.
On February 15, 1912, Ben Eliakim reported for Hazevi on another performance in Tel Aviv: “Tel Aviv is humming with people. In the light of kerosene lamps, people make their way to the theater in couples and groups. It is a festive day in Jaffa. They all are on their way to the theater – the women dressed in their best clothes, high heels tapping the floor, some speaking fluent Hebrew, some Russian, and others a jargon of Yiddish and Hebrew. Thirty minutes before the beginning, the hall is already full, sold out. A large crowd was left standing outside the ticket booth.
“There were about 1,000 people, a crowd never seen before for a Hebrew performance. The show started three-quarters of an hour late. As the third gong chimed, people were told to sit down, even those who wanted to watch the performance while standing.”
Ben Eliakim, the first Hebrew theater critic, had much to say about the performance.
“The acting is a little weak, Gnessin and Titleman are sorely missed … and all the actors in the last act did not fulfill their roles with skill,” he complained, noting one exception, the heroine of the play, Eisenberg, “was excellent.”
Despite the first Hebrew critic’s harsh criticism, he also noted, “The audience loved the play and clapped for a long time, leaving the hall fully satisfied long after midnight.”
The Lovers of the Hebrew Stage continued to perform until 1914, even after the loss of its stars. When World War I broke out, Jewish residents of Jaffa who were not Ottoman citizens were expelled from the city and the troupe disbanded.
Gnessin, who already had left the land by then, was involved in Nahum David Zemach’s attempt to create a Hebrew theater called Habimah in Poland in 1913. In 1917, he, Zemach, and Hannah Rovina tried to establish Habimah in Moscow. In 1923, Gnessin returned to Palestine and founded the Eretz Israel theater together with Shimon Finkel. When Habimah made aliyah in 1928, Gnessin joined what would become the national theater of Israel. In 1923, he acted in the first Hebrew movie, Oded Hanoded.
Eisenberg and Harari, the Metman-Cohens, and the Hankins were not only key members of the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage, but also were among the founding families of Ahuzat Bayit in 1909, the year before it changed its name to Tel Aviv. 

Rite of Passage

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav’s journey to the Land of Israel was much more than a dangerous trip to a remote part of the world. It was a rite of passage for the charismatic mystic who would admonish his followers to disregard all the teachings he made before the voyage

Dan Manor

During the eighteenth century, the belief that a voyage to the Holy Land has profound mystical implications motivated many Jews to undertake the dangerous journey to Ottoman Palestine. These attributes of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, reinforced by actual immigration, played a significant role in the emergence of new ideas in the Jewish world, and especially in the development of the Hasidic Movement.
The cornerstone of the Hasidic engrossment in these voyages was the mysterious attempt of the Ba’al Shem Tov – Master of the Good Name – to travel to Eretz Yisrael in the 1740s. Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov, is traditionally accepted as the founder of the Hasidic Movement. However, his biography, as well as his trip to the Holy Land, is shrouded in legend. From Medziboz in Ukraine, the Besht, as the Ba’al Shem Tov is acronymically called, set out, with his daughter Adel and his attendant, Hirsh Sofer, to Istanbul, to take a ship to the Land of Israel.
The Besht arrived in Istanbul on Passover eve. However, when he planned to take a ship to Palestine, a mystical force held him back, warning him that he had to return to Ukraine for the good of his community. On the way back, this time by ship across the Black Sea, the vessel ran into stormy weather. Adel fell overboard; the Besht was imprisoned but managed to escape. These motives of storms, danger of enslavement, and evil forces that try to prevent the voyage all have mystical meanings that appear in many of the accounts of Hasidic journeys to the Land of Israel.

Objections for this deep spiritual ascending of the soul were considered meniyot – hindrances, sent by the forces of darkness

Even though the Besht failed to reach the Holy Land, he encouraged his relatives and close circle to settle in the Land of Israel. In 1747, probably a short time after the Besht’s attempt, his brother in law, Gershon of Kutov, led a small group of Hasidic families that settled in Hebron, and later Jerusalem. In 1764, Nahman of Horodenka, whose son married the Besht’s granddaughter, and Menahem Mendel of Premishlan settled in Safed, and later Tiberias. Thirteen years later, Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Abraham of Kalisk led the first Hasidic Aliyah, over 300 people, who settled in Safed, Tiberias, and Pekein in Upper Galilee.

Napoleon visiting his sick soldiers in Jaffa, 1799, Antoine-Jean Gros
The Ascent of the Tzadik

Half a century after the voyage of the Besht, his great-grandson, Nahman ben Simhah, known as Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, decided to set out for the Holy Land. At the age of 26, he already had eight children and a small circle of followers.
On the eve of Passover 1798, the 26-year-old Nahman ben Simhah announced his plans to depart for Eretz Israel. The declared purpose of the journey was to commune with his grandfather, Nahman of Horodenka, buried in the cemetery of Tiberias.
Objections for this deep spiritual ascending of the soul were considered meniyot – hindrances, sent by the forces of darkness to prevent Nahman from fulfilling the spiritual mission that would hasten the days of redemption.
“As long as I breathe I will deliver my soul and ascend to the Land of Israel,” he explained to his protesting wife: “You can find work as a cook, the older girls as household servants and their younger sister can be taken into someone’s house out of pity. I shall sell everything in the house to cover expenses for the journey.”
The account of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav’s journey to the Land of Israel was recorded by his closest follower Nathan Nemirov, after Rabbi Nahman’s death, and is based on recollections shared with Nathan by Simeon, Rabbi Nahman’s companion on the trip.

Rabbi Nahman later explained that this was an essential part of the journey, part of the necessary descent of the Tzadik, to prepare for the ascent to the Holy Land

Rabbi Nahman’s announcement of his decision to travel was preceded by a mysterious journey, to the town Kamenets-Podolsk, known as a center of the much-hated Frankist Movement, an extreme Shabbatean offspring. As no Frankists still lived in the town, it seems that the visit had mystical connotations of purifying the souls of the long-gone Frankists. The idea of the Rebbe, the Tzadik, as a redeemer of souls is purely Sabbatean; an ascend to the most sacred levels must start with a descend to purify the most defiled of human space.
A month after his announcement, on May 4, 1798, Rabbi Nahman and Simeon set out from Medevedka, Ukraine. They traveled overland to Nikolayev 270 kilometers to the south and found passage on a barge carrying wheat down the Dnieper River to Odessa. From Odessa they took a ship to Istanbul on a stormy four-day voyage.
While waiting for the steamship to Jaffa, Rabbi Nahman started behaving strangely. “He went about barefoot, without a belt, and without a top hat. He would go about in his indoor clothing, running around the market like a child. There he would play war games, as children do.”
Rabbi Nahman later explained that this was an essential part of the journey, part of the necessary descent of the Tzadik, to prepare for the ascent to the Holy Land. When a group of Hassidim from Ukraine arrived in the city, led by Rabbi Zeev Wolf of Charny-Ostrog, a disciple of the Maggid of Miedzyrzec, Nahman warned his disciple not to reveal his identity to them.

Above left: The name of the Baal Shem Tov [emphasized] in the census of taxpayers in the city of Medz Yavuz, 1885 (Wikicommons). Above right: The tomb of Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar in Jerusalem. The Baal Shem Tov believed that if he met Ben Atar, they could bring the Messiah together (Wikicommons). Below right: The tomb of the Baal Shem Tov (Wikicommons)
A Stormy Arrival

In May 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte set sail from Toulouse to conquer the East and sever England’s hold on India. A large French fleet, carrying an invasion force of 35,000 soldiers, made its way across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, trying to dodge the English navy under the command of Horatio Nelson. As the battle in the Eastern Mediterranean raged, the Jewish community in Istanbul announced a ban on journeys to the land of Israel.
“Our master did not pay any attention to this,” writes Nemirov, “he wanted to risk his life. He said to the one who accompanied him: know that I want to place myself in danger, even great and terrible danger. However, I do not want to risk your life. Therefore, if you want, take money for expenses and return home in peace. I shall travel on alone, unbeknown to the people of Istanbul. For I risk my life come what may.” Simeon declined and stayed on.
Following the request of a well respected Sephardic sage from Jerusalem, the Istanbul Jewish community permitted one last ship to sail for Jaffa, taking Rabbi Nahman and Simeon to the Holy Land. As they approached Jaffa, the ship ran into a storm.

Making their way to the harbor, the two Hasids who spoke no Arabic or Turkish tried to find their ship. By mistake, they boarded a Turkish battleship

“Everyone cried out to God… but our master sat in silence… when the wife of the Rabbi of Khotin, a learned woman, who had been chanting and praying all night asked him why he was silent, he said: by this, you will be tested. If you are still, the waters of the sea will become still as well.” The passengers followed his counsel, the storm abated, and a fortuitous wind blew them into the port of Jaffa. Rabbi Nahman, in his strange clothes, was not allowed to disembark. The port officials were suspicious that he might be a French spy and refused to let him off the ship. He remained on board proceeding northward and disembarked at Haifa on Monday, September 10, 1798 – the eve of Rosh Hashana.
When the Hasids in Tiberias learned that the great-grandson of the Besht was in Haifa, they petitioned him to come to Tiberias and pray with the community during the High Holidays. Nahman refused. He wanted to spend the holy days of the beginning of the year by himself in contemplation.
After the festive Rosh Hashana dinner, Nahman sunk into a deep depression and announced his wish to depart immediately from Eretz Israel. During this time of deep melancholy, a strange incident developed. An Arab in Haifa took a liking to Rabbi Nahman and began visiting him regularly at his quarters. Failing to gain Rabbi Nahman’s affection, he challenged him to a duel. Rabbi Nahman and Simeon hid in the home of the Rabbi of Charny-Ostrog, who had arrived in Haifa with them. The Arab was appeased, and Rabbi Nahman began to feel better. After a month in Haifa, he left for Tiberias, where he was joyously received.
Rabbi Nahman spent the winter in Tiberias, studying Kabbalah and praying on the grave of his grandfather, and the graves of Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yohai in Meiron, Rabbi Ashkenazi Luria in Safed, and other sages in Galilee. The news that the great-grandson of the Besht was in the land soon spread to the Four Holy Cities and Hasids from around the country flocked to hear him teach.

Praying at Rabbi Nachman’s grave. Photography from the beginning of the 20th century (exact year and photographer unknown). Courtesy of jewua.or
Acre Under Siege

Napoleon’s forces arrived in Galilee in March 1799. After capturing Jaffa, at the beginning of March, Napoleon advanced along the coast, reaching Haifa ten days later. Rabbi Nahman understood that it would soon be impossible to leave, and he and Simeon headed for Acre, arriving in the city on Friday, March 15, three days before the first French troops appeared before the walls. He hoped to find a ship flying the flag of neutral Ragusa. In Acre, pandemonium ruled. The news of Napoleon’s massacre of the population of Jaffa, coupled with the announcement of the Turkish governor of Acre, Jazzar Pasha, that all civilians should leave the town by Sunday, resulted in a rush for the harbor. In the last possible moment, on Sunday, March 17, Rabbi Nahman and Simeon managed to book passage on a Turkish merchant vessel.
Making their way to the harbor, the two Hasids who spoke no Arabic or Turkish tried to find their ship. By mistake, they boarded a Turkish battleship, that as soon as it left the harbor, was engaged by a French warship. Rabbi Nahman and Simeon, on a ship embroiled in a raging battle, hid in a small cabin afraid to be discovered by the Turkish sailors and thrown into the sea. Their only help was the ship’s cook, who took pity on them and brought them coffee and biscuits twice a day.
Once away from the shore and out of range of the French warships, they ran into a storm. The ship began taking on water, and all excess cargo was thrown overboard. The small cabin where the two stowaways were hiding began to fill with water. To escape drowning, they climbed on top of a large cabinet and prayed in terror as the sailors fought to get control of the ship.
After four weeks at sea, on the eve of Passover, the ship sailed into the harbor of Rhodes. Rabbi Nahman and Simeon, now in the hands of the ship’s captain, were ransomed from slavery by the Jewish community. The ship’s captain, they found out, had a reputation of enslaving and murdering captives he could not sell.
The rabbis of Rhodes were honored to have the Besht’s descendant among them. After spending Passover in Rhodes, they were put on a fast vessel that took them to Istanbul in three days. In Istanbul, it turned out that their papers were not in order, and they had to bribe the officials to let them continue on their way. They took a ship to Galati, ran into a storm during which most of the passengers drowned. They arrived home after traveling overland from Galati via Jassy sometime in early summer, 1799.
Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav’s voyage was a rite of passage. A dangerous journey that would reveal hidden secrets and insights reserved for the true Tzadik. The trip was a turning point in his life. It was only after his return, at the age of 27, that he agreed to become a public figure proclaiming that any teachings of his before the voyage should be deleted and forgotten. “Where ever I go, I am going to Eretz Israel” became one of his most famous sayings.

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav’s voyage was a rite of passage. A dangerous journey that would reveal hidden secrets and insights reserved for the true Tzadik

The tomb of Nathan Nemirov, Rabbi Nahman’s closest follower. (Wikicommons /Ishpashout)

Nathan Nemirov, in his account of the trip, details his Rabbi’s reasons for making the voyage; “The hope of receiving some revealed knowledge at the grave of his grandfather – and also some higher form of insight and illumination that can be had only through a journey to the Holy Land.” The dangers encountered along the way gave the voyage a higher spiritual meaning.
In 1802 at the age of 30, Rabbi Nahman settled in Bratslav, where he spent most of the remaining eight years of his life. In 1810, stricken with tuberculosis and ailing, he journeyed to Uman, where he had chosen to be buried. Despite his illness, he celebrated Rosh Hashanah with several hundred followers. During the first day of the festival, his situation deteriorated seriously, and he coughed large quantities of blood. Nevertheless, despite his great weakness, he gave his traditional teaching on the second evening, speaking for many hours. It was to be his last lesson. Eighteen days later, on October 16, 1810 – the fourth day of the festival of Succot – Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav passed away. He was buried in the old cemetery of Uman.
On the last Rosh Hashana of his life, Rabbi Nachman stressed to his followers the importance of being with him for that holiday in particular. After his death, an annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage to the Rabbi’s gravesite was initiated. Until 1917, the pilgrimage, called the Rosh Hashana Kibbutz, drew thousands of Hasidim from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and even Poland. Following the Russian Revolution, the pilgrimage was outlawed, and only a few followers managed to clandestinely get to the grave on Rosh Hashana. Following the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, the gates were reopened, and since then, over thirty thousand Hasids attend the Rosh Hashana Kibbutz every year.
This year, due to Covid-19, authorities in the Ukraine and Israel prohibited the gathering. The Hasids waited for a miracle. Still, none appeared to prevent what Rabbi Nahman would have considered a miniya.

Tel Armageddon

Josiah, the King of Judah, initiated a massive reform for return to the true worship of God. However, his piety was not enough to save him when he set out to meet the Pharaoh. The prophet Jeremiah’s Righteous King Josiah, died at Megiddo. The tragic death of the King transformed Megiddo into the site of the apocalyptical battle of good against evil, at the end of days when God will open the seven seals of the scroll in his right hand – the battle at Har Magedon – Armageddon.

Relief fragment from the Black Obelisk, British Museum. (Steven G. Johnson)

For nearly two centuries, the expansive Assyrian Empire ruled the ancient world. From Syria and Iraq, its armies reached down into Egypt and stretched up into Iran. For the first time in history, the entire Fertile Crescent was controlled by one empire.
After establishing control over the areas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, modern Iraq, southern Turkey, and Iran, the new Assyrian King Shalmaneser III (858-824 BCE) took the world’s best trained and well-organized army, armed for the first time with iron weapons, chariots, and battering rams, to expand the empire to the west. Opposing him, and well prepared for the Assyrian attack, were 12 monarchs of the “Kingdoms of the Sea,” led by Hadadezer King of the Aramean kingdom of Damascus. One of the twelve was Ahab, King of Israel.
Shalmaneser claimed victory: “These twelve kings he brought to his support, to offer battle and fight, they came against me. Trusting in the exalted might which Assur, the lord, had given me, in the mighty weapons, which Nergal, who goes before me, had presented to me, I battled with them. From Karkar, as far as the city of Gilzau, I routed them. 14,000 of their warriors I slew with the sword. I rained destruction upon them. I scattered their corpses far and wide… I made their blood to flow down the rivers of the land. On their bodies I spanned the Orontes, as with a bridge. I took from them their chariots, their cavalry, their horses, broken to the yoke” (Stela of Shalmaneser III).
It was no victory. The Kings of the Sea managed to stop the Assyrians from completing their conquest of the west for another decade. In 841 BCE, following the rebellion against Hazael King of Damascus, and the military coup of Jehu against the House of Omri, the alliance of the Kings of the Sea fell apart and Shalmaneser managed to conquer many of the coastal kingdoms, including Israel and Judah, who were forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians.
Damascus held out. Only in the days of Tiglat-Pileser III (745-727 BCE) was the Assyrian conquest of the western Levant complete. Tiglat-Pileser initiated a policy of mass deportation of rebellious people, among them the leadership and upper classes of the Kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE.
When Shalmaneser V came to the throne, the empire was divided into local administrative areas, and rebellious kings were replaced with loyal Assyrian governors. When Hosea ben Ela King of Israel, together with the King of Damascus, and with the aid of the Egyptians tried to organize a rebellion, Shalmaneser besieged their capitals, and his successor, Sargon II, captured Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, exiling most of the population to Mesopotamia. With the encouragement of Egypt, Sargon’s sudden death once again aroused the spirit of rebellion among the remaining kingdoms. In spite of the prophet Isiah’s warnings that Egypt was not to be trusted, Hezekiah King of Judah, joined the rebellion.
The new Assyrian King Sennacherib had to deal first with a Babylonian rebellion further to the east. However, in 701 BCE, once this was over, he returned to the west with a vengeance. The whole coastal plain from Sidon to Gaza was taken over by the Assyrian Army. The Egyptians sent an army to the south of the country however the army was quickly beaten back. All the cities of the Kingdom of Judah fell into the hands of the Assyrians and Jerusalem was placed under siege. Hezekiah managed to save himself by stripping all the treasures of the temple and all the riches of the kingdom, and handing them over to the Assyrians, as well as reinstating the Assyrian gods in the temple.
In the days of Esarhaddon, the Assyrian empire reached its zenith. His successor, Ashurbanipal was the last of the strong Assyrian kings. With his death, in 631 BCE, the empire was racked with succession struggles, and rebellion especially by the Babylonians and Medes. The Assyrian armies were recalled to the east, to protect the Assyrian heartland and suddenly, over a very short time, the powerful and fearsome Assyrian empire was no more. Egypt filled the vacuum left by the Assyrians, and even set out to help its former enemy against the Babylonians, so that Assyria would be a buffer between the Levant and the growing power of the Babylonians.

All the cities of the Kingdom of Judah fell into the hands of the Assyrians, and Jerusalem was placed under siege. Hezekiah managed to save himself by stripping all the treasures of the temple and all the riches of the kingdom

King Hezekiah. (Unknown author)

Good King Josiah
Hezekiah did not survive for long after the rebellion against Assyria. His religious reforms were well received by the prophets: “He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah; and he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made. for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it” (II Kings 18:4), but, even with national repentance against the evil of the former kings, the rebellion against Assyria was a disaster that cost the kingdom all its treasures.
It was this penniless kingdom that Hezekiah left to his son, Menashe, who ascended the throne in 697 BCE at the age of 12. With astute diplomatic insight Menashe cultivated his relations with the Assyrians, and during his 55-year reign, the longest of any of the kings of Judah or Israel, the kingdom flourished. Following the exile of the Kingdom of Israel many refugees flocked to Jerusalem expanding the city’s population 10-fold. Menashe cancelled his father’s religious reform, promising freedom of worship to all and reinstated the gods and idols in the temple. Menashe’s son, Amon, ruled for only two years, until he was murdered by unknown elements. The murder was avenged by “Am ha’aretz” – “the people of the land”, a term that appears 14 times in the bible, referring to a special social group within the Kingdom of Judah. Amon’s eight-year old son, Josiah, was crowned in his stead (640 BCE).
Josiah initiated a far-reaching new reform in Judah centered around the “discovery” in the Temple of a book of the Bible, perhaps the book of Deuteronomy, which describes the golden age of the united kingdom of David and Solomon, when the people of Judah and Israel were one. Josiah dedicated his reforms to erasing the worship of foreign gods and focused religious practice on the temple in Jerusalem. The Bible gives a detailed description of the force of Josiah’s reform: “And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the Asherah, and for all the hosts of heaven; and he burned them in the fields of Kidron… And he put down the idolatrous priests… And he brought out the Asherah… and burned it… and stamped it small to powder…And he broke down the houses of the Sodomites… and he broke down the high places of the gates … And he defiled Topheth… And he broke in pieces the pillars… and he burned the high place… And he slew all the priests of the high places” (II Kings, 23). It was bloody, ruthless, and forceful – “And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him,” reports the book of Kings. But the biblical text adds, as if trying to explain what is about to happen: “Notwithstanding the LORD turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations wherewith Manasseh had provoked Him.”
Could not Josiah’s repentance save Judah and Jerusalem? The King sent messengers to the prophetess Hulda to see if his actions could turn God away from his anger. Hulda’s message was that it was too late, however she added: “I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil which I will bring upon this place.” (II Kings 22: 20). It was a divine promise that was not kept.

Could Josiah’s repentance save Judah and Jerusalem? The King sent messengers to the prophetess Hulda to see if his actions could turn God away from his anger

King Hezekiah prays for forgiveness from God. (Adolf Hult)

The sudden disappearance of Assyria prompted Josiah to try and take control of the areas of the former kingdom of Israel. The extent of his success is not clear, but the attempt to take over territory that was controlled by Assyria was contrary to the intentions of the Egyptians.
As an aside… after the glowing description of Josiah’s reforms, the Bible adds two verses: “In his days, Pharaoh Necho, King of Egypt went up against the King of Assyria to the river Euphrates; and King Josiah went against him; and he slew him at Megiddo, when he had seen him. And his servants carried him in a chariot dead from Megiddo, brought him to Jerusalem, and buried him in his own sepulcher.”
The narrative is unclear. Why did Josiah set out to do battle with the might of Egypt? He could have ignored the Egyptians at Megiddo and let them continue to the north. From Chronicles we learn that Necho announced that he had no intention of fighting Josiah in battle. Nevertheless, Josiah was killed, and Judah lost its independence.
The book of Kings is silent as to the reason for this. It appears that this was a tragedy of such magnitude, that the author prefers not to mention it. Even Jeremiah, who described Josiah as the Righteous King, does not talk about it.

The death of King Josiah. (Francesco Conti)

Did Josiah cultivate Hezekiah’s connections with the rising Babylonian kingdom? The book of Isiah reports that the King of Babylonia sent messengers to Hezekiah when he heard that the King was sick. Isiah warned Hezekiah not to ally himself with the Babylonians against the Assyrians, but the connection existed. Could it be that Josiah set out to Megiddo to stop the Pharaoh from coming to the aid of the Assyrians against the Babylonians?
The Book of Kings is silent about the battle between Necho and Josiah. But Chronicles, which was written at a much later date, presents a different version to the dramatic meeting. Josiah set out to battle Necho who asked him to refrain. Josiah positioned his army in the Valley of Megiddo and was then hit by an arrow. Wounded, he was taken to Jerusalem where he died. This is contrary to the description in the Book of Kings where Necho ordered Josiah to appear before him at Megiddo, and then “killed him when he saw him”.
The Bible testifies to Necho’s intentions to take control of the Land of Israel. After Josiah’s death, the people of Jerusalem placed his son Jehoahaz on the throne. He ruled for three months until Necho had him imprisoned, and also fined Judah for going against his wishes. Necho put Eliakim, Josiah’s second son, on the throne, changed his name to Jehoiakim and exiled his brother Jehoahaz to Egypt, where he died (II Kings, Chapter 23). So ends the biblical narrative of the most righteous of the kings of Judah, who reformed the temple and was put to death by the Pharaoh.

The death of Josiah at Megiddo will become the rallying cry for the final battle of Gog and Magog at Har Magedon, which in Greek translates “Armageddon”

Josiah kills idolatrous priests Josiah’s Reformation.

The Apocalypse
The death of the Righteous King was a shock. “…and Jeremiah wept over Josiah, and all the ministers wept over Josiah to this day” (II chronicles, 35). The sages of the Talmud identified Jeremiah’s lament with Chapter four of the Book of Lamentations. The prophet Zephania, son of Kushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amira the son of Hezekiah also lived in the days of Josiah. According to his genealogy depicted in his short three chapter book he was close related to Hezekiah, and thus also to Josiah. Zephania is the first to describe “the day of the Lord” when those that are not loyal to God will be punished. This motive of the final “scene”, the day of the end of time, is described in detail in the book of Zechariah when “on that day the lamentations in Jerusalem will exceed the lamentations of Hadadrimmon in the Valley of Megiddon.”
Ezekiel expands on this even more, “And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face against Gog, in the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him. And say, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal: And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords: Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them; all of them with shield and helmet: Gomer, and all his bands; the house of Togramah of the north quarters, and all his bands: and many people with thee” (Ezekiel 38).
The final battle, against Gog of Magog and all his hordes appears again in John’s book of Revelations, where the forces of good shall gather at “the place that in Hebrew is called Har Magedon” (Revelations 16:16).
The death of Josiah at Megiddo will become the rallying cry for the final battle of Gog and Magog at Har Magedon which in Greek translates “Armageddon”.
Thus, we come full circle. Josiah’s death at Megiddo in 609 BCE is just the opening phase of the eschatological ultimate destiny of humanity, which will end in the Lord’s victory, after which a messiah from the House of David will reappear. The dramatic event in Megiddo, the killing of Josiah in the Assyrian palace, is rooted in Judeo-Christian belief to this day.

Since the Flood

Legend has it that Noah’s son Japheth founded Jaffa. While that cannot be proven, there is no doubt about the antiquity of this port city, which appears not only in the Bible, but also in the annals of the pharaohs of Egypt and Greek mythology. Hasmoneans, Romans, Crusaders, Turks, French, and British fought over it, each leaving their own mark on the city.

Early Christian pilgrimage literature describes Jaffa as the city that Noah’s son Japheth established after the flood and cite that as the source of its name and the name of its main thoroughfare (Yefet Street). Other sources claim the name stems from the Hebrew word for beautiful (yaffeh).
Long before the Christians arrived on the scene, pharaoh Thutmose III listed Jaffa among the cities he captured in his campaign against the Canaanite kings in 1478 BCE. He conquered the city with a ruse similar to the famous trick behind the fall of Troy. When the Egyptian army failed to force its way into Jaffa, it feigned a retreat and left 500 large wicker breadbaskets outside the city walls. The starving people of Jaffa carried the baskets into the city. When night fell, Egyptian soldiers who had hidden under the bread in the baskets emerged and opened the city gates to allow the rest of the army in.
The el-Amarna letters, the royal Egyptian archive from the time of Akhenaton, reveal that ties existed between Egypt and Jaffa in the fourteenth century BCE as well. The archive includes letters the king of Jaffa sent to the pharaoh.

Demolished street in Jaffa in the aftermath of the Arab Revolt in 1936 (Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

This connection continued in the following century, judging by the monumental city gate bearing the name and title of Ramses II that excavations of the ancient tell of Jaffa revealed. Another interesting source from the time of Ramses II is the Papyrus Anastasi I, an ancient parchment that the British Museum acquired from a Greek antique dealer named Giovanni Anastasi. It contains a detailed account of a high-ranking Egyptian official’s journey from Egypt to Lebanon. The official stopped in Jaffa on the way and provided a report about the city over thirty-three centuries ago.
Despite the legend, the first time Jaffa is mentioned in the Bible is not in relation to the flood, but much later as a border marker for the tribe of Dan (Joshua 19:46). Hiram, king of Tyre, demonstrated his loyalty to king Solomon by sending his contribution towards the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the cedars of Lebanon, via the Jaffa port (Chronicles II 2:16). The Book of Ezra relates that the cedars for the Second Temple followed the same route (3:7). The prophet Jonah also set sail from Jaffa for his fateful meeting with the whale. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria mentioned in the Bible, lists Jaffa as one of the cities he conquered during his military campaign in the year 701 BCE.
It is unclear who resided in and ruled Jaffa during this time. It could have been Phoenicians from Sidon who controlled the coast as far south as Jaffa or perhaps Philistines, who arrived in the vicinity in the thirteenth century BCE. In the fifth century BCE, the archaeological record indicates that Eshmunezer, king of Sidon, ruled Jaffa, at least according to an inscription on his memorial stone. The city seems to have remained in Phoenician hands for some time as a Canaanite inscription found in Jaffa documents the building of a temple there dedicated to the Sidonite god Ashmun. The Roman historian Pliny, writing in the first century CE, described Jaffa as a city of the Phoenicians.

The “tranzila” train that led from the harbor to the railway station (Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

The conquests of Alexander the Great, in the fourth century BCE, rearranged the population and kingdoms along the coast. Alexander’s troops captured Jaffa in 333 BCE, on the way to conquering Egypt, and Greek colonists soon settled in the city, calling it Ioppe in honor of the mythological daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. Also known as Cassiopeia, she was famous for her beauty and was the consort of Cepheus, king of Ethiopia. Jaffa and Cassiopeia are the central figures in one of the most famous of ancient Greek myths. Cassiopeia, according to one of the many versions, proclaimed her beauty to be greater than that of the Nereids, the daughters of the sea god, Nereus, and the consorts of the sea god, Poseidon. The Nereids’ complaint prompted Poseidon to send a sea monster to ravage the shores of Ethiopia. In desperation, Cepheus turned to the oracle of Delphi for help. The only way to placate the sea god, the oracle proclaimed, was to tie his and Cassiopeia’s beautiful daughter Andromeda to the rocks in front of the harbor of Jaffa as an offering to the monster.
Accepting this as her fate, Andromeda was chained, naked, to the rocks off the coast. Before any harm befell her, Perseus caught sight of her while flying, on his winged horse Pegasus, above the city on his return from slaughtering the gorgon Medusa. He quickly approached Cassiopeia and Cepheus and struck a deal with them: if he slayed the sea monster before it killed Andromeda, they would give him her hand in marriage. Perseus defeated the monster and returned to Ethiopia with Andromeda to plan the wedding. However, the princess had been betrothed to her uncle Phineus, who asserted his right to marry Andromeda.
A battle ensued. Cepheus and Cassiopeia sided with Phineus. Outnumbered, Perseus understood that he had no choice but to slay his challengers and used Medusa’s head to do so. Following their deaths, Poseidon placed Cepheus and Cassiopeia among the stars, hanging Cassiopeia upside down as punishment for her vanity.
Perseus then wed Andromeda. Their seven children became the rulers of Mycenae. One of their descendants was the Greek hero Hercules.
There are countless versions of this legend. It has inspired many works of art over the ages, and a number of movies, as well as speculation over which of the many large rocks at the entrance to Jaffa harbor was Andromeda’s rock.

Jaffa well-house, 1920s (Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

Peter’s Vision
After Alexander’s death, his generals split the huge empire he had created. Jaffa became part of the inheritance of Ptolemy and the Ptolemaic empire that he founded in Alexandria. The next two centuries were rife with battles between the Ptolemaic empire centered in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire based in Syria. The latter eventually gained control over Palestine. In the second century BCE, the Seleucids weakened and succumbed to the growing power of Rome, enabling the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom to develop as an independent entity. At the time, Jaffa was an affluent Greek port city and its people did not view these developments favorably. Both the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius and the Book of Maccabees recount that Jaffa’s Jewish population was massacred by its Greek neighbors. In retaliation, Judah Maccabee attacked the city in 160 BCE, but was not able to gain control of it. Thirteen years later, Judah’s brother Jonathan launched another attempt to capture the city. The frightened population opened the city gates to the Jewish forces, but again the Hasmoneans did not manage to remain in control of Jaffa. Finally in 143 BCE, Simon, the third of the Maccabee brothers, captured Jaffa and turned it into the Hasmonean kingdom’s outlet to the sea.
Jaffa remained in Jewish hands for 106 years, until 37 BCE, when Pompey and the legions of Rome conquered it. A large Jewish community of seafarers and merchants remained in the city after the conquest.
A Talmudic tale relates that during the reign of Herod the Great, in the first century BCE, Nicanor, a wealthy Jew from Alexandria, had two huge copper gates made in his hometown for the Second Temple in Jerusalem and sent them there via the Jaffa port. A storm broke out while the ship carrying the gates was at sea, leading the sailors to throw one of the gates into the ocean to lighten the ship’s load. They were about to cast the second gate overboard when Nicanor stepped between the sailors and the gate, insisting that they throw him into the water before the gate. Nicanor’s dedication was rewarded by the immediate abatement of the storm. Furthermore, when the ship docked in Jaffa, the discarded gate miraculously washed up on the shore.
This story, which inspired the name of Jaffa’s The Gates of Nicanor Street, may have some basis in reality. According to Josephus and the Talmud, the outer gate of the Second Temple was known as the Gate of Nicanor. In 1902, a sarcophagus was discovered in Jerusalem with the inscription: “The remains of the children of Nicanor of Alexandria who made the gates.”
Christian sources also mention Jaffa, assigning it a key role in the development of Christianity. The Book of Jonah inspired the concept of the “sign of Jonah,” a sign that Jesus gave in Jerusalem as testimony to his divine mission. Furthermore, just as the biblical prophet Jonah passed through Jaffa, the Christian apostle Simon, the son of Jonah who became known as Peter, visited Jaffa. The New Testament relates that the faithful invited Peter to Jaffa after Tabitha, a god-fearing young girl, died. Peter entered her chamber, asked the mourners gathered there to leave, and “kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:40-42).
Peter “tarried many days” (Acts 9:43) in Jaffa, staying at the home of another Simon, Simon the Tanner. There are a variety of traditions about where exactly in Jaffa Simon’s house was located; the Armenian church believes it was on the street in the Old City today known as Simon the Tanner Street, Catholics believe it was where St. Peter’s Church stands today, and the Russian-Orthodox church believes it was in the Orthodox church of Saint Peter near Jaffa in Abu Kabir.
While in Jaffa, messengers arrived from a Roman officer stationed at Caesarea, inviting Peter to visit him. The Roman officer, Cornelius, a god-fearing man, had a vision telling him to summon Peter. At that time, however, Jews did not stay in non-Jews’ homes because of the dietary laws, which created a dilemma for Peter over whether to accept the invitation. The Book of Acts describes the vision that shaped his decision: “Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as if it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time. What God hath cleansed, call not common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven” (Acts 10:9-16). The message was clear and Peter made his way to Cornelius’ house. This opened the doors for non-Jews to join the church.
The Christian era came to an end in Jaffa in 638 CE, with the Muslim conquest. The new regime established a new regional capital in Ramle and Jaffa’s proximity to Ramle made it a significant port. However, when the power of the Muslim Umayyad dynasty waned and the Abbasid dynasty arose in its stead, the new rulers moved the main capital of the Islamic world from Damascus to Baghdad, turning Palestine and its surroundings into a remote province of the empire.

Jaffa orange orchards and packing houses, 1920s (Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

Crusaders, Mamelukes, and Turks
In the spring of 1099 CE, the knights of the First Crusade advanced along the coastal plain on their campaign to wrest Jerusalem and the holy land from the Muslims. After capturing Caesarea, the Crusaders turned inland and camped near Ramle, inspiring fear in the Muslim population. The residents of Ramle and Jaffa fled and a small Crusader garrison occupied the cities to control the route linking Jerusalem to the sea.
The first Crusader kingdom lasted for 88 years, until the fateful battle in 1187 at the Horns of Hattin, where Saladin defeated and destroyed the Crusader army.
A third crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, king of England, and Philip II, king of France, set out from Europe to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Crusaders managed to regain a foothold along the coast and take Jaffa, but failed to gain control of Jerusalem. The capital of the new Crusader kingdom was set up in Acre instead.
Richard had left his brother John to rule in his stead while he led the Third Crusade. However, when word of his brother’s misconduct reached him, he prepared to return to England. He met with Saladin in Ramle to sign a peace treaty that delineated the borders of the second Crusader kingdom. Jaffa became the southernmost town of the new kingdom and was reinforced with massive walls and fortifications. Archaeologists have discovered inscriptions in Jaffa that report on the fortifications set up by German emperor Fredrick II. Louis IX of France also contributed fortifications, as well as churches and monasteries.
The days of the second Crusader kingdom were numbered. After Baybars led his fellow Mamelukes, a caste of Egyptian warrior slaves, to victory over the Mongol hordes in the Harod Valley in 1260, he became the new sultan of the Mamluke Empire. Baybars focused his attentions on eliminating the Crusader kingdom. Jaffa fell in 1268. The Christian population of the town was massacred and Jaffa was razed to the ground. All that remained was a small, sparsely populated village on the hill overlooking the small anchorage between the rocks.
The Mamelukes systematically destroyed the cities along the coast so that the Crusaders would not be able to use them as a beachhead. In 1516, when the Ottoman army passed through Jaffa on the way to capturing Egypt, it was reported that the city was unoccupied. The few Christian pilgrims who landed in Jaffa on their way to Jerusalem in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, described the place as a ruin with one or two guard towers and caves in which pilgrims used to huddle in fear, while waiting for a caravan to take them to Jerusalem.
In the eighteenth century, the number of pilgrims arriving in Jaffa grew steadily as did the frequency of Christian pirate raids on the coastal plain. The Ottoman authorities responded by fortifying some of the coastal settlements. In 1703, they built two large towers at the entrance of the Jaffa harbor and garrisoned Ottoman soldiers in it. The improved security measures brought an influx of new settlers to the area. By 1763, Jaffa could boast 400 houses. This growth attracted the attention of Galilee strongman, Daher el-Omar, who occupied the city in 1773. Two years later, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad Bey Abu Dhahab, besieged Jaffa and massacred its population.

Jaffa street and harbor scenes, 1930s (Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

The Modern Era
In February 1799, after conquering Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte set his sights on the holy land. His forces crossed the Sinai Peninsula, seized control of Ramle, and on March 3, 1799, set up camp in front of the walls of Jaffa. Three days later, the French army launched its attack on the city. At 4 p.m., Napoleon’s soldiers breached the wall and stormed into Jaffa, where the local garrison engaged them in a fierce battle. Fighting raged from house to house, claiming the lives of hundreds of Ottoman troops. After the battle ceased, the French massacred the surviving inhabitants.
The next day, an epidemic of Bubonic plague broke out in Jaffa, infecting some of the French troops. Napoleon left the wounded and sick soldiers behind in the Armenian monastery in Jaffa and continued his march northward to Acre. Even though Napoleon successfully fought some of his most dazzling battles in the following weeks, Jazzar Pasha, the octogenarian Ottoman governor of Acre, with the aid of the British fleet, stemmed Napoleon’s tide of success. Napoleon was forced to retreat to Egypt. When he passed through Jaffa in the midst of the retreat, he ordered that the wounded and sick soldiers there be poisoned. What happened next is unclear. The French military surgeon allegedly refused to follow his orders and so an Ottoman doctor who had been taken prisoner was entrusted with the gruesome task, which he probably did not carry out. British troops, fighting alongside the Ottoman Turks, who arrived in Jaffa a few days after Napoleon took flight, reported finding the wounded and sick still alive.
After Napoleon’s retreat, the new Turkish governor, Abu Marek, began rebuilding Jaffa. In 1807, Muhammud Abu Nabut was appointed to replace him. Cruel and ruthless, he not only rebuilt the city walls, but also added new wharfs to the harbor, a fort and fortifications, and Jaffa’s main mosque, the Mahmudiya, named in his honor. Nabut’s term in office lasted 11 years, until 1818, and he brought stability, security, and prosperity to Jaffa. The number of vessels calling at the harbor grew annually, together with the number of pilgrims and volume of cargo landing at the port.
In 1831, the ambitious governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, and his son, Ibrahim Pasha, seized control of Palestine. He settled families from Egypt in a series of agricultural communities around Jaffa and invited Jews from Turkey and North Africa to settle in Jaffa.
With English assistance, the Turks managed to evict the renegade governor in 1840. However, British aid came with a price; the Ottoman sultan was forced to open his territory to foreign influences. Jaffa subsequently became a center of activity for European powers, the main port of Palestine. With the discovery that the local thick-peeled orange has a long shelf life and can easily be exported, Jaffa turned into a booming center of expanding citrus groves, packing centers, and export warehouses dedicated to the world-famous Jaffa orange.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought about another surge in shipping traffic to the Jaffa Port. In 1892, the railroad between Jaffa and Jerusalem began operating. Jaffa became the economic heart of Palestine and home to an expanding business community and a modern intelligentsia.
Economic prosperity aided the development of new neighborhoods outside the Old City walls. Ajami and Jabaliya rose to the south, Manshiye to the north, and Nuzha and Salame to the east. In the 1870s and 1880s, the walls of the Old City were demolished to accommodate the expanding population and enable additional construction.
The growing prosperity of Jaffa attracted new populations to the town: Christians from Lebanon and Malta; Muslims from Syria and Egypt; Jews from Europe, who were part of the first wave of immigration inspired by modern Zionism, together with Jews from North Africa; and various Christian European organizations that established churches, hospitals, and schools.
In the early 1850s, several Christian families from Germany and the United States founded a small settlement northeast of Jaffa, naming it Mount Hope. An American group from Philadelphia, led by Clorinda Minor, joined them. The members included Johann Adolf Grosssteinbeck, the grandfather of author John Steinbeck. In 1858, Arabs attacked the settlement, murdering the men, raping the women, and burning the buildings. In 1866, another group of Christian Americans followed the charismatic preacher George Jones Adams to the holy land, purchased property near Jaffa, and attempted to establish an agricultural community. This attempt too was unsuccessful and the group sold its land to the Templers, a group of German Christians who founded a series of successful agricultural settlements across the country that flourished until the British expelled the Templers, at the outbreak of World War II.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Jaffa become the center of Zionist settlement activities in Palestine. Hovevei Zion, B’nai B’rith, and the Zionist Organization all opened offices in Jaffa. The first Hebrew secondary school, the Herzliya Gymnasium, was established in 1905, the same year that the future mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, established the Geulah Company to purchase real estate. In 1908, Arthur Ruppin opened the Zionist Organization’s Palestine Office on Jaffa’s main street. Earlier, in 1887, Jews from Jaffa built the first Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City, Neve Tzedek. Dozens of new Jewish communities followed. In 1909, the neighborhood of Ahuzzat Bayit was established; it eventually became Tel Aviv.

Jamal Pasha Boulevard, 1920s (Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

The Twentieth Century
On the eve of World War I, the Ottoman authorities appointed Hassan Bek governor of Jaffa. He led the efforts to transform Jaffa into a modern western city. Old alleyways were expanded and new roads constructed. The Jamal Pasha Boulevard was built together with a new mosque in the Manshiye neighborhood. When the war began, Bek expelled all Jaffa residents who were citizens of enemy states, including many Russian Jews.
The British captured the city in 1917. Under their stewardship, Jaffa became the largest Arab city in Palestine and the center of the Palestinian national movement. Its population grew from 32,000 on the eve of World War I to over 100,000 on the eve of the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Meanwhile, the development, side by side, of a Jewish and Arab national movement, both with aspirations to the twice promised land, caused relations between Arabs, Jews, and British to deteriorate. The Arab riots in 1921 and 1929, in which many Jews were killed, led many of Jaffa’s Jewish residents to move to the new Jewish community of Tel Aviv. The riots ultimately brought about an official separation of Tel Aviv from Jaffa and its recognition as an independent municipal entity.
Tensions escalated further into the Arab revolt that began in 1936 and changed the face of both Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Striking Arab workers temporarily shut down the Jaffa Port, inspiring the Jews of Tel Aviv to build a new port of their own. In an attempt to bring the revolt to an end, the British bulldozed wide corridors through the narrow, old alleys in the heart of Jaffa’s Old City, so armored cars could access the innermost hideaways of the leaders of the revolt.
In 1947, the British turned the issue of the Palestine Mandate over to the United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to accept the United Nations’ Partition Plan for Palestine, which recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states and a special international regime in the city of Jerusalem. Jaffa was to become an Arab enclave inside the Jewish state.
As hostilities between Jews and Arabs grew in late 1947, sniper attacks and gunfire intensified along the outskirts of the neighborhoods between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The British tried to manage the conflict by erecting barricades manned with armed guards between the two cities, but to no avail.
In January 1948, the Lehi underground group, known in English as the Stern Gang, blew up the Saraya building, the Arab administrative headquarters in Jaffa. The blast claimed 21 lives. In April 1948, the Irgun (IZL), another Jewish underground group, set out to take over Manshiye, Jaffa’s northernmost neighborhood. The British intervened to prevent Jaffa from falling into Jewish hands. Even with British protection, Jaffa’s Arab residents feared for their safety. The ensuing weeks saw a mass exodus from Jaffa: by land to Ramle and Jerusalem, and by sea to Gaza and Lebanon.
On May 13, two days before the establishment of the State of Israel, the remaining leadership of Jaffa surrendered the city. The 3,600 remaining Arabs were concentrated in Ajami.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, Jaffa filled with Jewish immigrants and its harbor became a major entry port for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants pouring into the country from Europe and the Arab world.

In 1950, Jaffa was officially reunited with Tel Aviv. A large part of the Old City was destroyed together with the entire Manshiye neighborhood. When a modern, new port opened in Ashdod, the old Jaffa port became redundant and only a handful of fishermen continued to use it.
In 1961, the Old Jaffa Development Corporation was established to renovate the Old City and turn it into an artists’ colony. Jaffa soon filled with galleries, nightclubs, restaurants, and souvenir shops. But as the years passed, the artists aged and demanded that the nightclubs close and the tourists stop disturbing the tranquility of the alleys under their studios. Entertainment moved to Tel Aviv, leaving Jaffa to deteriorate into poverty.
When Ron Huldai was elected mayor of Tel Aviv in 1998, he decided to make the development and restoration of Jaffa a priority, establishing the Governance of Jaffa to plan and implement the process.
In recent years, Jaffa has been changing. Like many old cities around the world, development of the inner core of the city attracts a more affluent population and causes real-estate prices to rise, making it difficult for the existing population to afford to live there. This process of gentrification is also happening, on a large scale, in Jaffa. Since the new affluent population is largely Jewish, while the existing population is predominantly Arab, political issues are added to the socioeconomic friction.
Jaffa remains one of the most fascinating places in Israel. Even though many of its ancient buildings have been destroyed, there is still much to be seen. The city has a long history, a myriad of architectural styles, and a wealth of trendy places to shop, eat, and barter while gaining new insight into the entwined history of the two peoples residing in this land.