A Trip to the Shephelah

During the Shiloh excavation, I went on several weekend excursions with some of my teammates. With everything that was going on during the dig, I never had time to write about these excursions before. Today’s blog post is about the first of these weekend adventures.

The Adventure Team

There were five of us because there are five seats in my car. Charles was the adventure planner, Tim was the navigator, and I was the driver. Melody was our cheerleader, and Gary provided practical wisdom.

Our goal was to explore the Shephelah, the low hills that lay between the central highlands of Israel and the coastal plain. Charles planned an ambitious list of sites for us to visit. We tried to include at least one site that each of us had never visited before.

Kiriath Jearim, the pre-adventure adventure

Kiriath Jearim

We headed west from Jerusalem. Before we even reached our first planned stop, we realized that we were passing Kiriath Jearim, and we made a split-second decision to stop there. Kiriath Jearim is where the Ark of the Covenant ended up after the Philistines captured it and then returned it (1 Samuel 7:1). Today, a monastery sits on the summit of the site, commemorating the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.

A joint archaeological excavation between Tel Aviv University and the College de France has excavated at the site in recent years.

We wanted to see what they had excavated. We found the monastery and then went in search of the archaeological excavations. We finally found the correct spot, but it turned out that the excavators had back-filled their excavation areas, so there was nothing to see there.

Ayalon, where the moon stood still

Moving on, we headed toward our first planned stop: Ayalon. This is one of the sites mentioned in the biblical account of Joshua’s conquest where the sun and moon stood still (Joshua 10:12). It later became one of the cities allotted to the tribe of Dan (Joshua 19:42).

One of the Ayalon caves

The site is now an extensive park and wilderness area. We drove through the park trying to get as close to the archaeological part of it as possible. The paved roads turned to dirt roads, and finally the ruts were too deep for me to risk driving any further. We hiked the rest of the way.

At the top of the tel, we found what looked like a crusader fortress. We explored the rooms and staircases that were still standing, then, looking at the view, we saw that a nearby hill was dotted with caves. We hiked back down the tel and headed toward the caves.

Exploring caves at Ayalon

It ended up being a long, steep hike up the cave-laden hill. I poked my head into every cave that we passed. It was clear that some of them were natural caves while others were man-made.

We didn’t find any archaeological remains from the biblical period, but it was a fun stop.

The Elvis Cafe

Lunch at the Elvis Cafe

By the time we finished with Ayalon, it was already lunch time, and we had only made one of the stops on our list. It was Shabbat (Saturday), so our lunch options were limited. We headed to the nearby Elvis Cafe, a retro-style diner dedicated to the memory of Elvis Presley. There, we ate burgers and listened to Elvis songs.

Gezer, which Solomon fortified

Our first stop after lunch was Gezer. It turned out to be a difficult site to access, which seemed odd, since it is a national park. Our first attempt led us to a closed gate. We turned around and tried another access point. We ended up driving on dirt roads through a farm, but we finally arrived at the tel.

The Gezer standing stones

Gezer is an important biblical city. According to Joshua 16:10, the Israelites were not able to conquer Gezer during Joshua’s conquest, and the Caanites continued to live there. Later, it became part of Solomon’s kingdom and one of the cities that he fortified (1 Kings 9:16).

Several archaeologists have excavated at Gezer. The site is probably best known for its cultic standing stones. These massive stones were likely part of the Canaanite religion at the site.

In another area, the city gate and fortification wall were visible. There were storerooms built up against the city wall that reminded me a lot of the storerooms at Shiloh. I am always looking for comparisons to what we find when we excavate!

The Gezer water system

Perhaps the most impressive archaeological excavation at Gezer is that of the water system. A massive tunnel descends deep into the earth. We went down the water system. It was a long hike down, and although we descended as far as we could, we only reached as far as the excavators had been able to dig. It is clear that the ancient shaft continues deeper still, but the lower part is still full of dirt and stones. There were bats in the tunnel. We could hear their high-pitched calls adding to the spooky atmosphere of the dark tunnel.

Tel Batash, where Samson found a bride

Looking for a way to cross the stream at Tel Batash

Our next stop was at Tel Batash. This is mostly likely biblical Timnah, where Samson’s bride lived (Judges 14:2). There are other mentions of Timnah in the Bible, but some of them may refer to a different city with the same name.

We drove on dirt roads through a farmer’s orchards. Finally, when we got as close to the site as the car could go, we got out and walked. To our disappointment, we found that a stream separated us from the tel. It wouldn’t have been a problem to cross the stream, but an impenetrably thick hedge of vegetation lined the stream, making it impossible to access the tel. We walked up and down the stream, but couldn’t find anyplace to cross. We finally gave up and moved on to our next and final stop.

Beth Shemesh, where the ark of the covenant went

Beth Semesh is another ancient site. Like Gezer, the biblical account of Joshua’s conquest notes that the Israelites did not conquer this site, and that the Canaanites continued to live there (Judges 1:33). This site also ties in with the story of the Ark of the Covenant. After the Philistines captured the ark, they put it on a cart and sent it back to the Israelites. It arrived at Beth Shemesh, where the people unwisely opened it and looked inside. As a result, the Lord struck down a large number of people. This made the people of Beth Shemesh afraid to keep the Ark of the Covenant, so they sent it to Kiriath Jearim (1 Samuel 6).

Ruins at Beth Shemesh

Our adventure had come full circle. We started the day at Kiriath Jearim and ended it at Beth Shemesh, the two sites associated with this same event.

The modern highway runs through the site, and archaeological remains are visible on both sides of the road. We explored the ruins on one side of the road, but didn’t really know for sure what we were looking at. We saw ruins of buildings from several periods. There was a large cistern that we were able to go into. It had a central room with spaces branching off of it forming a cross-shape.

Ruins at Beth Shemesh

The archaeological excavations on the other side of the road were more recent, and they were protected by a fence. There was, however, a hole in the fence, which we took as an invitation to enter. These ruins were quite extensive and mostly looked like they dated to more recent periods, perhaps the Byzantine or Islamic period. I think that there were older ruins there too, but not so many.

By this time it was getting late. We still had several sites on our list, but we knew that we wouldn’t have time to visit them all. We headed back to Jerusalem, bringing our adventure to an end.

6 responses to “A Trip to the Shephelah”

  1. What a great day of exploring the land! Thanks for sharing your adventure and the pictures. I was glad to see that there are steps going down the water tunnel at Gezer. Interesting that there are water tunnels at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer—all Solomonic fortress cities.

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    1. This was the first time I was able to go down the water system. And yes, there are many similarities between those three cities.

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  2. I’m so glad I could be a part of this adventure and many more! Reading this post now, I can’t believe we visited so many sites in one day! Good times!

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  3. That was quite an adventure. You did a great job driving that saved a lot of steps but according to my phone I still did nearly 20,000 steps.

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    1. Yes! We did a lot of walking that day.

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