Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Geography



"Woe to the one who builds his palace through unrighteousness,
his upper rooms through injustice; who makes his neighbors
work for nothing and does not give them their wages

Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Let's dig in the Royal Citadel at Ramat Rahel

On the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, overlooking the “patriarchal highway” to Bethlehem and Hebron towards the south, and the Valley of Refaim leading westwards to Philistine territory and the coast, lies Kibbutz Ramat Rahel.

Nearly a half century ago, Israeli archeologist Yochanon Aharoni excavated parts of the Tel to find the walls of a royal citadel and lovely proto-Aoelic capitals which once decorated the upper story.  On my archeological tours through the Israel Museum, I would always show the fancy royal capitals and the window balustrade from the Ramat Rahel dig.

Capitals adorning the Judean Palace at Ramat Rahel

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

These proto-Aoelic capitals once adorned the king's palace at Ramat Rahel

The king’s palace was, however, scathingly denounced by the Prophet Jeremiah (22:13,14):  “Woe to him…who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,’ and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermillion.”

At the beginning of July, I chanced to hear that after 43 years, the dig was about to resume under the direction of Dr. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University.  Curious, I drove to the kibbutz, where I have lunched with nearly every tour group for the past two decades, to check out the rumor.
A bit north of the royal citadel, two youth groups, armed with picks, shovels and spades, were opening squares.  I met Oded, who enthusiastically shared his plans for a four season dig, starting in ten days time.  He invited me to participate as a volunteer and casually asked if I knew anyone who may be interested in becoming a sponsor of the dig.

A few days later, I awoke abruptly at 4 a.m. with a thought: “Bill Creasy.”  I immediately emailed the idea and web links about the Ramat Rahel dig to Bill, with whom I have guided nearly 20 tours over the past decade.  His immediate reaction was to check out flight availability from L.A. to Tel Aviv.  Once we got Oded’s ok,
Bill was here within a week.

Dr. Oded Lipschits, director of the Ramat Rahel dig

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Professor Oded Lipschits, director of the Ramat Rahel dig

Straight from Ben Gurion Airport, we arrived at Ramat Rahel just at the beginning of the first week of the first season’s orientation to hear Oded declare, “There are some hidden antiquities waiting for us for 2,800 years.”

By the light of the full moon, we set out for the Tel at 5.15 each morning, equipped with wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, spades, buckets and gardening gloves.  We were a team of 58 volunteers, from Israel to Indonesia, Heidelberg to Los Angeles, Boston to Basel and North Africa (Tunisia) to North Carolina, all eager to tackle the mysteries of the Tel and unearth artifacts from the Iron Age/Israelite period.  We were Jewish, Christian and Moslem, all interested in the Bible and archeology.

Amira, volunteer from North Africa

Louis from North Carolina

Photo:  Bill Creasy

Photo:  Bill Creasy

From North Africa:  Amira from Tunisia

To North Carolina:  Louis from Charlotte

In Area A where I dug, our ages ranged from 19 to 70.  Among us, in descending order of age, there was a retired high school science teacher, a mail carrier, a retired UCLA professor (that’s Bill), an Israeli city engineer who was a grandmother, a biology teacher, a Jerusalemite tour guide (that’s me!), a professor of theology from the University of Heidelberg in Germany who brought undergraduates, masters and doctoral students, a Reform Calvinist Pastor, a Tel Aviv University Iron Age pottery expert (who had four daughters), a volunteer from Harvard’s Semitic Museum, and two college sophomores – one from Mount Holyoke and one from Boston College.

Excavating in Area A at Ramat Rahel

Photo:  Bill Creasy

Shahaf, Karsten, Gesina and Chuck excavating in Area A

Nirit, our area supervisor, 32, has a degree in architecture and practical experience in interior design.  After working on a number of digs, she decided she wanted to be an archeologist “when she grew up.”  Shahaf, her co-supervisor, 29, is majoring in the Chalcolithic period (the Stone-Copper Age) of about 4,000 B.C., way before the time of Abraham.

Everyone found his or her niche, according to disposition and physical prowess. Shahaf and 70-year-old Louis were the expert pick-axers – even before breakfast.
Bill was a fleet-footed wheel-barrow runner and bucket collector.  I alternated between the shovel squad and the bucket brigade.
What did we find?  Frankly, not much.  But the intuition that there is a lot buried, waiting to be discovered, sustained us.  “When we found a handle with the imprint of the potter,” said Sabina, a student of theology, “I felt history with my own hands and I felt the person who manufactured it.”

Inspecting a jar handle at Tel Ramat Rahel

"Show and Tell" with Liora at the Ramat Rahel dig

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Verena (left) & Sabina inspecting a handle

Left, Liora, our pottery expert


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It was exciting to watch a former looter who has become a key member of the Antiquities Department locate Iron Age artifacts with a sophisticated metal detector. In our area he found parts of two rings – one bronze and one iron.  In other areas he found coins.

Iron age artifacts at Ramat Rahel

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Iron Age/Israelite period artifacts found with a metal detector

When I returned to visit the dig the following week, volunteers in Area B had found a seal on a jar handle with an Iron Age inscription, “Ahaziayahu / Tanhum.”  He may have been a minister serving one of the Judean kings in the time of Isaiah or Jeremiah.  His inscribed seal has been found also at Lachish, Beth Shemesh and Tel en-Nasbeh (Samuel the Prophet’s Mitzpeh).  Who knows what is still hidden in the soil, just waiting to be unearthed by eager Bible students of all ages.

Water system in Area C at Ramat Rahel

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Part of a water system with 4 pools and a tunnel uncovered in Area C

If this dig appeals to you, and you are available for at least one week – Sunday through Friday, during the month of August 2006, you may want to consider becoming a volunteer.  Age does not matter – what counts is physical stamina, curiosity, motivation and a highly developed sense of adventure.

If you are planning a pilgrimage this year, let me know when we lunch at Ramat Rahel if you’d like to visit the dig and hear the story from a first person perspective.  The Royal Citadel with its magnificent capitals is also a perfect place to contrast the intrigues and excesses of the Judean kings, with Jeremiah’s demands for social justice and accountability.

Bethlehem from Tel Ramat Rahel

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View of Bethlehem from Tel Ramat Rahel


View of Jerusalem to the north of Tel Ramat Rahel

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View of Jerusalem from Tel Ramat Rahel

Note the Dome of the Rock in the middle, a bit to the left


When I told my good friend Bracha that I had dug at Ramat Rahel, she excitedly told me that she and her high school class had excavated there as volunteers back in 1963.  At the time, Ramat Rahel was right on the border with Jordan.  I asked her what she remembered after 40 years.  Bracha wrote,

“When I met with some of my high school girlfriends and asked them about the dig at Ramat Rahel, everyone had memories.  Mainly we remembered the director, Yohanon Aharoni, thin, bespectacled and very quiet, red-haired Meir Ben Dov [who later dug at the Ophel, outside the Temple Mount], and Yigal Shiloh, [director of the dig at the City of David], who was quite conceited.  What we particularly remember is that they taught us to work with very small tools and brushes in order to carefully expose and not break the objects.  We remember racing with the big black rubber buckets.  We also remember the Jordanian Legionnaires [on the other side of the border] who would make catcalls and that we would answer back.

“We were 16 years old and at night we slept in Jerusalem’s Shneller army base.  We were in a paramilitary framework.  The ideology back then was that high school students need to prepare for army service, so every week we had a one-hour lesson in topography, navigation, how to survive outside, camping skills, and even fighting with big sticks.  It was as if the British hadn’t left the country yet and we had to be ready to fight them from the underground!  Part of it was also a Zionist indoctrination – our connection with the Land.  And here the archeological excavation comes into the picture.  We were raised knowing that archeology documented the Bible.

“We all agreed that the dig was fun and since then we’ve been interested in archeology, some more, some less, and it’s more than forty years afterwards!  We all remember this experience as truly significant.”




More Archeology:

Let's follow Abraham all the way to DAN

Let's look for the clay tablet treasure at Hazor

Let's ramble through Hippos, a Decapolis city

Dan / Mud-brick gate   

Hazor / the royal archive?

Hippos / Decapolis city

Let's find Herod's tomb at Herodion

Let's saunter through Solomon's Stables at Megiddo

Let's lament King Saul at Beth Shean

Herodion / Herod's Tomb   

Megiddo / Solomon's Stables

Beth Shean / Scythopolis

The Ramat Rahel Archeology Team led by Professor Oded Lipschits will be excavating at Tel Azekah starting 2012.  Tel Azekah hasn't been touched by the archeologist's spade in over a century.  Read about the site in "Let's scan David and Goliath's battlefield from the Philistine camp at Azekah."
Gila Yudkin, who calls herself a Connecticut-born Yankee living now in King David's Court, has been guiding since 1978.  This is her second dig.  More than two decades ago she was a volunteer at Yigal Shilo's City of David dig.  Gila thrives on showing veteran tour leaders new, authentic, biblical sites.  Give her an opportunity and your sermons will be enriched and your colleagues envious....
"Let's dig at the Royal Citadel of the Judean Kings" (as text without the photos) is one in the series of free quarterly e-letters sent on request to tour leaders, pastors, clergy, teachers, Bible students, colleagues and friends.  If you'd like to receive "Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights" please contact Gila. 

Copyright 2005 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.




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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin