The Lower Galilee was bone dry when I was there around Rosh Hashanah. The soil was dark, almost scorched. The slopes of Tel Yodefat – the archaeological mound marking the location of the ancient site – thirsted for moisture. And amid all this dryness, millions of sea squills stood tall, erect, stately and fiercely optimistic. A forest of white antennas. Long protruding fingers stretching upward. My impression was that the squills might still be flourishing this month, too.
Autumn is not usually a time for outings in Israel. Spectacular gold and scarlet leaves are not exactly our strong point. Still, there are plenty of Hebrew songs and poems about this season, many of them quite lovely, most of them slow, plaintive and concerned with love. The poet Nathan Alterman wrote the marvelous lines, “If it wasn’t love / It would be a splendid autumn evening.” “The young, too, are allowed to be a bit old in autumn,” the lyricist Yechiel Mohar observed.
Tel Yodefat is the loveliest autumn outing one could dream of, especially now, when the seasons are engaged in a contest. With summer still in the ascendant, we are attuned to every hint of autumn’s advent as though we’ve found the treasure of the Queen of Sheba. In another month or so, autumn will encroach here, too, with golden leaves strewn on the earth on which we step with trepidation. But just now it’s more end of summer than fall, so Yodefat is the place to go.
Welcome to the kingdom of the squills (hatzavim in Hebrew). Nowhere else in Israel do these late-summer plants bloom as they do here. But even though they are immortalized in songs and poems and their appearance heralds the end of the summer vacation and the return to school, we don’t usually make trips to view them. Israelis are far less inclined to leave home to see squills than they are to join the popular outings in February-March to view anemones in full flower. A visit to Tel Yodefat shows how misguided that approach is. The legions of squills on the slopes here are as striking as any field of blossoming anemones in the northern Negev. My partner, walking ahead of me and thrilled by the sight of the forest of squills, said they reminded her of the Hattifatteners, creatures that appear in Tove Jansson’s “Moomin” books. These are long, thin white beings that wander about in large groups. Their great goal in life is to reach the horizon – and when they reach it, they carry on with their journey.
Signposts to understanding
On the day of our visit, 10 workers finished pouring the concrete on the path that ascends from the parking area to the heights of the tel. According to archaeologists, Yodefat was an important Jewish city in Galilee. It was here, in 67 CE, that the revolt against the Romans began. Yodefat was the site of the first battle in the uprising that would engulf the entire country. Six years later, the final encounter in the revolt took place, at Masada, far to the south. A comparison between Tel Yodefat and Masada is obviously called for, but is impossible. Masada is a myth, a national site accessible by cable car, the most popular national park among foreign tourists to Israel. Yodefat, unfortunately, is not currently on the tourism map.
Dr. Mordechai Aviam, head of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret Academic College on the Sea of Galilee, conducted excavations at Tel Yodefat from 1993 until 2000. He makes no secret of his disappointment that the site has not received the public exposure he believes it deserves. “We were able to answer most of the research questions in the course of the excavations,” he says. “Our hope was that the state would open the site and promote it, commensurate with its enormous historical importance and its unique story. Regrettably, that has not yet happened.”
But even in its “minimalist” condition, he notes, tens of thousands of people visit the site every year. They come for two reasons, he says: for the historical drama that was played out in ancient Yodefat, and for the sea squills. However, he points out, without an accompanying text or a guide, it is difficult to understand the story of Tel Yodefat. He is now pinning his hopes on signposts that will be installed at the site in the coming months. “The signposts will display reconstructions of the ancient town based on the archaeological findings,” he says. “They will also include excerpts from the writings of Yosef Ben Matityahu.”
Indeed, Yosef Ben Matityahu (Flavius Josephus), a central figure in every narrative about the events of the late Second Temple period some 2,000 years ago, is the real hero of Tel Yodefat. In 67 CE, when he was about 30, he led the revolt in Galilee. In his book “The Jewish War” he related that he fortified the town ahead of the Great Revolt, the First Jewish-Roman War, and made his headquarters there. Yodefat would be a convenient place to defend, he believed. The Romans, under the command of Vespasian, besieged the city for 47 days and bombarded it with the aid of 160 catapults and ballistas (missile-launching weapons). Yodefat apparently fell when a traitor from the city advised the Romans to launch a covert assault before dawn, when the guards were drowsy.
Aviam and his team uncovered Yodefat’s fortifications and water cisterns. The path leads up the northern slope and passes by remains of the wall that surrounded the city. The cisterns, in which rainwater was collected, are visible to the south of the wall. This was the city’s only source of water; the siege was conducted in the summer, and the defenders thirsted for water. In one room the archaeological team found an opening 1.5 meters deep cut into the rock, leading to a tunnel that accesses three subterranean spaces. The finding closely fits Josephus’ description of how the city’s residents hid in tunnels and caves. The openings to the underground chambers and tunnels are visible, but it is not possible to enter them. That’s a shame, because it’s hard to feel and understand what happened here from the exposed hilltop.
The path winds and arrives at the eastern side of the hill, where the wall was built over an oven in which pottery was fired. From there the path continues along the eastern wall to the remnants of a residential quarter. Frescoes were found in one of the homes.
On the day Yodefat fell to the Romans, Ben Matityahu and some of his people hid in a cave. After deciding to commit suicide, they split into pairs for the grisly end. But Ben Matityahu talked his partner into waiting for the Romans and surrendering to them. Though he had until that moment been in command of the revolt, he was able to persuade Vespasian and his son, Titus, that he was important and necessary to the Romans. He changed his name to Flavius Josephus, settled in Rome, and became a major historian, whose writings remain a key to understanding the history of this country. The fact that his books were preserved in their entirety accords him an unrivaled status in regard to the history of the Land of Israel in the Roman period. Talk about career change.
Many stories are told about the present-day village of Yodefat, which lies about one kilometer from the site of the ruins. I heard that many of the residents follow the anthroposophist school of thought or adhere to the teachings of Dr. Josef Schachter, but because I can’t tell the two groups apart, we looked for a café. We were tired, thirsty and a bit hungry after all the walking. We followed a large sign: “Yodefat Farmers – Outlet Store.” The store is a large space offering a range of items for sale: ceramic objects, wine, second-hand dresses and flower seeds, as well as tea and coffee. Most of the store is devoted to flower bulbs, which come in medium-sized sacks. A little soil still clings to the bulbs. Josephus probably would have written that this is an amazing, hair-raising sight. The truth is, it is pleasant to the eye.
We bought a bag of anemone bulbs, also buttercups, hyacinths, freesias, crocuses, a huge squill tuber, an embroidered sky-blue galabiya, a bottle of mineral water imported from Turkey (the only kind they had) and two paper cups of piping-hot foam-topped coffee. Sitting ourselves down next to the round table at the entrance to the store, we read the explanatory note that came with the bulbs. It said, “Growing tubers and bulbs is an easy, enjoyable part of gardening, and the spectacular results are soon apparent. The tubers should be planted in the fall or at the start of winter, when the weather turns cool.”