Sunday, June 21, 2015


One of the items on our itinerary that I was not all that excited about was a long drive out to Beit Lehi, an active archaeological dig 22 miles south of Jerusalem. However, the drive turned out to be very pleasant:
In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain pontificated that Palestine is "a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds--a silent mournful expanse. . . . A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. . . . There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."
It's too bad that Twain visited this region in the middle of summer and right after the 1861 war between Christians and Muslims. We had the good sense to go in March when the fields were lush with new growth and there were PLENTY of cacti:
The further into the countryside that we drove, the more beautiful the scenery was:
Is this how you picture Israel?
Me neither.

It was also fun to be on the bus with friends:
. . . and family (who are also friends):
The Israeli army does training exercises not far from the dig:
The archaeological site was discovered in 1961 when a road was being built in this area and a bulldozer opened up an ancient tomb with eight intact human skeletons inside.
Since then, various groups have discovered many more tombs and other structures . . .

. . . including underground olive presses
. . . all the parts still there, including the grinding stone:

Standing behind the wine press with Geneil and Terry 
The olive press had a mikvah, or a pool for ritual cleansing, in a cave located off to the side of the main entrance. The oil-makers needed to be pure so that the oil could be sold to the temple in Jerusalem.

Our guide was Dr. Oren Gutfield, an Israeli field archaeologist and current professor of archaeology at Hebrew University who did post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan and speaks amazing English.

We were the only tourist group at Beit Lehi. It's not on the itinerary of very many tour groups, but our tour company has a unique connection. The Beit Lehi Foundation website notes: 

While investigating the cave, Dr. Joseph Ginat of The University of Haifa met a Bedouin who told him about the remains of an ancient oak tree about 1/4 of a mile away where, according to Bedouin legends and tradition, a prophet named Lehi blessed and judged the people of both Ishmael and Judah. The Bedouin told Dr. Ginat that Lehi had lived many years before Muhammad and that Arab people had built a wall of large rocks around the remains of the tree to protect it as a sacred spot, long known by Arab inhabitants as "Beit Lehi," meaning "Home of Lehi."  [Note: Lehi is the name of a Book of Mormon prophet who lived in about 600 BC, making this site of special interest to members of the LDS Church.]

Dr. Ginat shared this information with W. Clean Skousen, whom he had met while studying anthropology at the University of Utah and teaching at Brigham Young University from 1970 through 1975.

In 1983 Dr. Skousen and Dr. Glenn Kimber worked with Dr. Ginat and Dr. Yoram Tsafrir of Hebrew University to secure permission and funding to excavate the site. The first excavations began in December 1983. By noon of the first day, archaeologists found an ancient village and well-preserved mosaic floor of a Byzantine era chapel. Since that time, 'hewn subterranean installations, including columbaria, olive presses, water cisterns, quarries, a stable, and hideaways,' have been discovered along with pottery and other items suggesting that the area had been populated from 600 BC until the Mameluke period of 1500 AD. . . . 

After 1986 the site was covered to protect it until additional funds could be raised and conditions were right to continue future excavations.

In 1994 Dr. Kimber and about 40 others, including a number of students [in particular, some from Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah], joined Dr. Ginat and Dr. Tsafrir to re-open the site. Since 1994, many groups have visited the site and participated in the excavation.

Dr. Tsafrir has since retired and according to Israeli law, passed responsibility for archaeological exploration to Dr. Oren Gutfeld of Hebrew University, who continues to manage the excavation.

UVU has continued to help with funding and sends students over to work the six weeks/year that the dig is active. The President of UVU, Matthew Holland, visited this site two years ago with his well-known father, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.
Of course, the word  Lehi can also be translated as "jawbone," and as this dig isn't that far from the field where Samson slew 1,000 with the jawbone of an ass, there is some dispute over what the name really means. Like so many other places in Israel, I'm not sure there is really a way of knowing for sure.

We were able to go into several of the caves:
Chris goes in, and makes it out safely:

Tangles of barbed wire translate to "No tourists allowed":
Some of the caves were columbariums, or caves with triangle niches carved into the stone to create nesting sites for doves.
The doves were raised to be offered as sacrifices at the Temple.
One of these caves could hold as many as 1100 doves. There is a hole in the ceiling to let in light and air and through which the doves could come and go:

My favorite cave was this stable. Those who lived and worked here would lead their animals down a gently sloping path and into this cave or one like it where the animals were fed and bedded for the night:
When I think of the birth of Jesus in a stable, this is what I will envision rather than the bling-filled cave in Bethlehem.
Stan and Bob explore the stable depths:

At the far end of the dig is a truly spectacular mosaic floor that was part of a Byzantine-era chapel.

 I couldn't believe we were walking on top of these intricate masterpieces. I wanted to get some posts and ropes and make it off-limits.

The foundation of a church is still clearly visible:

True friends, no matter when or where:

At the end of the tour we had the opportunity to purchase a t-shirt from some workers at the dig. The money is used to finance operations. Bob was more than happy to oblige. In fact, I think he bought two shirts. I know I took a picture of Bob with Dr. Gutfeld and the shirt, but I can't find it anywhere. 

As I keep saying, we were so fortunate to be in Israel in March when the hillsides were a rainbow of blossoms. Beit Lehi was one of the prettiest places I have ever been:


  1. A great place to have visited all around, from the gorgeous flowers, to the stable, to the mosaic floor. You've done a perfect job summarizing the history.

  2. Yeah, Beit Lehi was one part of our itinerary I was not excited for at all. It turned out to be one of our best experiences. It really brought archaeology to life for me and illustrated how little we really know about what happened all those many years ago. Pigeon farms? Who'd have guessed. An underground stable? And like you said, why were we walking all over those beautiful mosaics?

  3. I think this is my favorite so far. Maybe it's the well-preserved (and not touristy?) spaces with interesting historical details, as Bob notes, above. That mosaic floor (amazing!)? The sun and the flowers and the beautiful scenery? A lovely day, a lovely place.