A touching statue stands just outside the beautifully remodeled guesthouse at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Created by sculptor David Polus in 1954, it depicts the matriarch Rachel, holding a torch in one hand and sheltering two young children with the other. Polus calls the sculpture “and the children returned to their homeland,” inspired by Jeremiah 31:16. Apt, indeed, when you know the history of the kibbutz.
Ramat Rachel was founded in 1926 between Jerusalem and Bethlehem by young idealists from the Jerusalem contingent of Trumpeldor’s gdud ha’avoda – a labor brigade that was instrumental in the physical development of modern Jerusalem. Three years later, when Arabs rioted throughout the country, Ramat Rachel was completely burned to the ground.
Yet the settlers returned and the kibbutz flourished. Along with chicken coops, a dairy, bakery and laundry, they created a successful trucking company. By the time the War of Independence broke out in 1948, the kibbutz counted 200 members and 150 children.
Immediately after Israel was declared a state, Ramat Rachel’s position became precarious at best. Over a short period, during fierce fighting, the kibbutz was conquered and reconquered several times. Finally, on May 25, 1948, Ramat Rachel was taken for the last time by the settlers and a Palmach unit.
A year and a half passed before 42 kibbutzniks returned to Ramat Rachel. Those few, including war widows, still believed that the kibbutz had a future. This despite the fact that Ramat Rachel was located directly on the new border with Jordan, surrounded by Arab villages, and completely cut off from any other Jewish settlement.
In addition, the dairy, bakery, laundry and chicken coops had all been destroyed during the war. The Israeli Establishment had little faith in the kibbutz’s ability to survive, says Kibbutz secretary Jossef (Joha) Engel, and offered absolutely no help. Things looked grim.
Engel arrived in 1966 as part of a group of young pioneer soldiers – the first such influx of new blood since the war. Soon afterwards, everything changed, for the Six Day War of 1967 opened up the borders and Ramat Rachel was revitalized. A new youth hostel proved astoundingly successful, so the kibbutz built a big hotel and a large sports center. Since then Ramat Rachel has been absorbing immigrants from South Africa, Israeli city folk, young military groups, all becoming part of an enterprise that has remained true to basic kibbutz values.
Along with its other attractions, Ramat Rachel boasts a fantastic archaeological site that is open to visitors all day, every day. Developed by the Jewish National Fund, the Tourism Ministry and Ramat Rachel itself, it is the only one of its kind in the country in which a private enterprise like a kibbutz invested both time and money, yet refuses to take an entrance fee.
Called the Ramat Rachel Archaeological Gardens, the site was discovered in 1954 when the kibbutz decided to build a water tower on top of an overgrown hill. Because ancient shards and a Jewish burial cave were found nearby in the early 1930s, the Israel Antiquities Authority sponsored a salvage operation at the site. It was during these excavations that archaeologist Yochanan Aharoni unearthed artifacts dating back to the time of the Judean kings.
Over the next eight years more excavations were carried out, with findings that appeared to indicate that a royal citadel had been located on the hill way back in the 8th century BCE. Aharoni concluded that it had belonged to a Judean king – perhaps Johaikim; others believed that King Hezekiah’s palace had stood at the site. And for the next half century everyone assumed that they were viewing Judean remains.
Excavations were renewed in 2004, but with astounding results: the palace was found to be much larger than was originally thought, and had been variously inhabited by the Assyrians, Persians and Babylonians. Incredibly, despite the fact that there isn’t a major water source anywhere in the area, the site features a large collection of bathing pools and cisterns.
Four rock sculptures that look ready to tumble were created in the Gardens by Ran Morin, who designed and developed the site from 1996-2002. At the time, the boundaries of the Judean palace seemed clear, and Morin placed four “toppling” rock structures at the corners of each wall. Today, of course, following excavations led by archaeologist Oded Lipschits, the site extends far beyond the supposed original boundaries.
Near the water tower whose construction was to have such far-reaching consequences, three proto-Aeolic capitals dating back to the 8th century BCE are on display. Proto-Aeolic capitals are rectangular stones featuring a central triangle and decorations on both sides. Of the 25 discovered in Israel, ten were found right here, and provide telling evidence of the ancient palace’s elegance.
When the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) came to power in the second century BCE, they destroyed the citadel and its lush gardens — apparently in a move to eradicate any trace of foreign rule in Jerusalem and its surroundings. Mikvaot (ritual baths) from a period of Jewish settlement here were fed by water that had previously irrigated the palace’s elaborate gardens.
Fifteen silver coins of a type with which Jews paid a Temple tax to the Romans were discovered inside one of the columbaria. The Jews built columbaria for raising doves that they sold to pilgrims passing here on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Engel feels that, like the kibbutz guesthouse of today, there would have been a “hotel” here for overnight lodgers.
The next settlers were Byzantines, who built churches, one over the other during the 4-8th centuries. Remains of one church, complete with mosaics, is on view at the site. Archeologists estimate that during that period there were 5,000 people living and farming in this area.
Not far from a Byzantine complex are ruins from a Roman-era villa that probably housed important Roman officials and officers. Indeed, Aharoni discovered a bathhouse whose pillars were stamped with the seal of the Tenth Legion.
Communication tunnels along the walkway are more modern remains, used from 1948 to 1967. One tragic event occurred during these dangerous years on the border on September 23, 1956. While attending the 12th conference of the Israel Exploration Society at the kibbutz, participants took a tour of the excavations. Many of them were standing on the roof of the water tower listening to Aharoni’s explanations, when a Jordanian sniper struck from his army post next to the nearby Mar Elias Monastery. Four people were killed and 17 were injured, one of whom died later as a result of what became known as the “archeologists incident.”
During their visit to the Gardens, visitors spy an oak tree that appears to be growing out of a large pile of stones. Sculptures like these are a Ran Marin trademark, and the main feature of the touchingly designed Yair (Engel) Overlook.
A third generation kibbutznik, born and raised at Ramat Rachel, Engel’s son Yair was a lover of nature, a highly promising basketball player and a gifted poet. When he was in the 11th grade, Yair’s class traveled to Poland and participated in the March of the Living. Before their scheduled visit to Auschwitz, Yair composed a poem called Six Million Brothers that was read at the camp’s central commemoration ceremony.
At 18, Yair volunteered for the Navy Seals; in 1966, after only 16 months in the military, he was killed in an underwater training accident. The Yair Overlook was inaugurated in his memory on the edge of the Gardens three years later. From this stunning lookout, there is a marvelous view of Old and New Jerusalem: You can even see the Dome of the Rock, despite all the high rises under construction, and the vastly important road between David’s birthplace (Bethlehem) and David’s final resting place (Jerusalem).
The entire site is wheelchair accessible, except for an optional staircase.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.