If you're like us, you've probably passed the sign to Ein Yael dozens of times on your way to Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and promised to check it out at some point. After years of excuses, we finally made good on that promise, and our one big regret was that we waited so long.
Ein Yael, just across the road from the zoo, bills itself as a "living museum." Located on the site of an ancient spring and agricultural settlement cultivated by the Israelites during the First Temple period, its terraced hills still house the remains of a second century Roman villa, complete with bits of gorgeous mosaic floors. To give visitors a taste of life as it was lived here back in the day, museum staff, often dressed in togas and Roman-style sandals, deliver workshops on ancient handicrafts and agricultural techniques.
We began our visit with the pita-making workshop, where kids are given a bowl with flour and water, a bit of olive oil, coarse salt and rosemary, and instructed to sift, mix, knead and roll out. They then take their flattened pieces of dough to the nearby taboon, where in a matter of minutes, delicious toasty flatbreads are ready for consumption.
Our hunger satiated for the moment, we made our way up the hill to the craft-making workshops. Because the basket-weaving workshop seemed somewhat overcrowded, we opted for the flute-making class, where we were told to pick up a piece of raw bamboo from the ground, peel it and cut it into five small pieces of different lengths. A word of warning: a pretty sharp knife is required for this cutting work, and sometimes, because of the shape of the bamboo, it slips. Fortunately, the museum seemed to be well equipped with first-aid products to handle the occasional accident. Once the pieces are ready, a museum staffer secures them with rope, and voila, there's your flute. Make sure, however, to ask the instructor to demonstrate exactly how to hold the instrument and blow into it because it doesn't work the same way as conventional flutes do.
From flute making we moved on to pottery making, where we were given a quick lesson in using a pottery wheel. While we waited for our mugs to dry, we attended sessions on mosaics and fresco painting and dabbled in these art forms as well.
Taking a break from art, we headed toward the winemaking area where dozens of children seemed to be having the time of their life stomping on huge clusters of grapes in a pool with their bare feet. Our brood, however, preferred to pass on this one, a bit overwhelmed by all the noise and wild gestures.
A definite highlight of the day was the archery workshop, delivered by a toga-clad instructor, who shared fascinating bits of trivia about this ancient form of hunting and combat, as he gave each child a couple of tries at hitting the bulls-eye.
If you visit Ein Yael, plan on spending the better part of a day there, since there's so much to do, and depending on your pace, each activity can take anywhere from a half hour to an hour. And that doesn't even include the guided tours of the archeological sites. You don't need to worry about the heat that much, even in the summer, since most of the area is quite shady. We were surprised to hear from the staff that most visitors to Ein Yael typically come from Jerusalem, Modi'in and the surrounding area, with very few from Tel Aviv and the north. There also appeared to be a good dose of tourists - in fact, on the day we visited, English seemed to be the predominant language.
Most of the activities are suited to children 7 and up, some appropriate for even younger children as well. The instructors were remarkably patient and friendly given that the crowds, particularly the children, could get very pushy and demanding at times, especially at the craft and food-making workshops.
Aside from ice cream, popsicles and drinks, there's no food for sale on the premises, so it's a good idea to pack your own lunch and sit down for a bite at any of the many picnic tables scattered on the premises. When we were there, quite a few visitors hadn’t bothered to clean up after themselves, though it’s hard to tell if this characterizes visitors generally. Quite a shame, considering what a gem this place is.
Another thing you should definitely consider bringing along is a box to store all the crafts you're going to be taking home with you.
Address: Nahal Refaim, Jerusalem (right across from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo)
Reservations and information: 02-6451866
Hours: Open Sunday through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is only open to the general public during the summer school break and during Chol Hamoed on Sukkot and Passover. Groups, and even just families, interested in visiting at other times can do so by making reservations in advance.
Cost: NIS 40 for children and NIS 25 for adults