Yavne’s glamorous past and modern-day appeal
The ancient Mameluke route from Cairo to Damascus is scattered with ruins that speak to a colorful and largely unknown history. Yaacov Shkolnik’s new book celebrates its beauty and Yavne’s pivotal role.
Even if you already have a favorite getaway in Israel, Yaacov Shkolnik’s beautiful new picture book, Historical Tours in Israel, might make you consider something new. Every chapter is devoted to a different historical period, suggesting unique sites and excursions where visitors can experience the country’s history firsthand.
That’s how I ended up in Yavne, which is – how to say this delicately? – not exactly a tourist destination. I remember it as a late-night pit stop on the highway heading south. I hadn’t been to Yavne in decades until Shkolnik’s book informed me that it’s actually a Mameluke gem, part of the main route that took the Mamelukes from Cairo to Damascus. So I decided to head back – this time with Shkolnik himself.
A place of good luck: the tomb of Rabban Gamliel
In the center of Yavne is Sanhedrin Park. At the heart of it is the tomb of Rabban Gamliel, one of the great rabbinic sages in the period 10 to 220 C.E., who lived and worked in Yavne nearly two thousand years ago. His tomb is an impressive stone structure with three arches of decorated stone and large white domes. When we visited the synagogue next to the tomb, a man and a boy were reading Psalms.
Long ago, Yavne was an important city. Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabban Gamliel moved there from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple, rebuilt the Sanhedrin and the office of the Nasi there. The building, constructed of pale yellow sandstone, was built during the Mameluke period, in the 13th century, during the rule of Sultan Al-Ashraf. The Arabs believe the tomb to be that of Nabi Abu Huraira, a close friend of Muhammad.
Until 1948, about 6,000 people lived here in the Arab village known as Yibna, which was abandoned about a month after Israel’s independence. Today, the city is home to about 30,000 people.
A woman sat at the entrance of the tomb and offered us cookies left over from a circumcision ceremony held earlier. She told us any celebration could be held here because the place brought good luck. On the wall near her was a quote from the Talmud: “Since Rabban Gamliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the Torah, and purity and piety died out at the same time.”
A sweeping view of Israel’s ancient layers: Tel Yavne
A short distance away, east of Sanhedrin Park, is a hill covered in thorn bushes that conceal ancient artifacts. The broad view on top of the Tel Yavne captures much of the southern coastal plain. One can also see the remnants of the dome of the large Mameluke mosque that once stood in the heart of the town. Here too, the layers of Israel’s past are packed so tightly that it is difficult to distinguish them.
The ruins of the village of Yibna are visible, along with those of the Crusader fortress Ibelin, part of a chain of fortresses built throughout the country in the Middle Ages, as well as the ruins of a Crusader church constructed 200 years before the mosque. On the wall of the dome is an ancient Arabic inscription stating the mosque was built at the beginning of the 14th century by order of the emir, Al-Saifi Bashtak a-Natzri.
Shkolnik told me that the Mamelukes were interested in Israel mainly as a quick route between Cairo and Damascus. Yavne was but a rest stop, albeit an important one, on the way.
Deserving of more respect: Nahal Sorek bridge
At the height of summer, Nahal Sorek is completely dry, so the bridge over it is a bit less dramatic. But one can still enjoy its magnificent construction and the wealth of bougainvillea blossoms. This Mameluke bridge, with its three large arches, was constructed in the 13th century. Judging from its massive structure, the builders were prepared for powerful floods in Nahal Sorek. In the heat of July, that’s hard to image. Similarly, it’s hard to understand Yavne’s modern architects, who seem to have done everything possible to hide this treasure from view.
The bridge is part of the new promenade along Nahal Sorek and is so well integrated that no one would suspect he’s actually walking on a 700-year-old structure with an entire history embedded in its stones. Contemporary sculpture art dots the bridge, whose surfaces are paved with fresh asphalt. An ugly metal fence runs alongside and nowhere is there a sign designating the site a historical one. Elsewhere in the world, an area like this would have received a deep bow of respect.
A historical day at the beach: Palmachim
A short trip northwest from Yavne leads to one of Israel’s finest beaches, known as Palmachim Beach, next to which is the Rubin Stream National Park and Sorek Stream Estuary about two kilometers east. Entrance to the estuary is free.
The name of the park comes from Nebi Rubin, an Arab village that was destroyed in 1948. Today, a tomb sits near the remains of a mosque, about a kilometer above the stream. Some call it the Tomb of Reuben, son of the patriarch Jacob, but the connection isn’t proven. In the past, the site was a pilgrimage destination for Muslims and a place for public celebrations.
About a year ago, development of a large resort on Palmachim Beach’s wide and lovely shoreline was halted due to public outcry. Today, the place has been officially declared a national park - and the beach now carries an entrance fee as a result. Amir Hen of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who manages the park, told us about the struggle to keep off-road vehicles from destroying the beach.
Several hundred meters south of the beach is the archaeological site Minat Rubin, which served as a port and important community center for 2700 years. Some of the artifacts recovered from excavation are on display in the Beit Miriam Museum on Kibbutz Palmachim.
From there, a short walk leads to a prominent ridge, several dozen meters high, from which one can look out over the sea. About a year ago, the ruins of a fortress and a bathhouse from the early Islamic period (9th–12th centuries) were discovered there.
We stood on a recently constructed wooden terrace and Hen explained the history of the place. He added that he prays that selfish vacationers won’t strip the terrace for firewood, the way they removed signs he placed on the road leading there, thus rendering the site undocumented and its long, rich history doomed to obscurity.
How to get there?
To Yavne: Take Route 4 from Gush Dan. To reach the tomb of Rabban Gamliel, descend at the Yavne intersection and go east on Sanhedrin Boulevard. Turn right (southward) onto Independence Boulevard and drive toward Douani Boulevard. Turn right and then left immediately to Giborei Hahayil Street. Sanhedrin Park is on the left, near the German Community Center.
To Tel Yavne: Cross Sanhedrin Park and Independence Boulevard, going east. The tel is across the road, and several pathways lead to the summit.
To the Mameluke bridge over Nahal Sorek: Drive northward on Giborei Hahayil Street and turn right (eastward) on Douani Boulevard. Continue straight on HaRishonim Street toward Rehovot. Turn right on Mivtza Dani Street and park. From here, turn back on foot, cross HaRishonim Street and turn right on the promenade that goes along the channel of Nahal Sorek.
To Palmachim Beach: If you are driving southward on Route 4, turn west at the Gan Raveh intersection. From there, signs direct traffic toward Palmachim on Route 4311.