What can you give your country for its 70th anniversary? For thousands of school pupils and volunteers, the answer is the sweat of their brows as they worked to prepare a new public 70-kilometer (43-mile) walking path called the Sanhedrin Trail.
As a byproduct of their backbreaking work, they also stumbled upon a priceless 1,400-year-old intact oil lamp engraved with an eight-armed menorah, remains of important glass industry, and an extremely rare gold coin from Suleiman the Magnificent.
In the Galilee, where Jewish life was re-established 1,900 years ago after the bloody fall of the Second Temple, thousands of Israeli students and volunteers have created a “smart” trail connecting the different centers in which the Great Sanhedrin sat under the rule of the Roman Empire.
After its inauguration on April 22, tourists will be able to walk and learn about the archaeology, nature, and historical surroundings through high-tech milestones, which transmit information and activities directly to hikers’ smartphones.
“There is no other a trail in Israel that utilizes such an application, and in this respect, we, the archaeologists, are making history,” said Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Yair Amitzur in an IAA press release.
According to Amitzur — the brains and much of the brawn behind the project — the pupils were “100 percent partners” in its development.
“It is the first place in Israel that is being founded as a site with GPS capabilities through the ‘smart stones,'” Amitzur told The Times of Israel. (He acknowledged the name is a nod to the Hebrew translation of the Harry Potter books, as well as the traditional alchemist notion of a stone that can make gold.) Eventually, said Amitzur, the stones will also transmit augmented reality and 3-D visuals at each site.
“The Sanhedrin Trail is a huge project incorporating within it the values of nature, environment and history and is where the cultures of all of today’s populations in the Galilee meet,” said Amitzur in an IAA press release.
He told The Times of Israel that the people and history of all three major monotheistic religions are represented along the trial, which makes use of newly renovated preexisting walking paths in as much as 80 percent of the route. In some places of mutual interest such as in Arbel or Kfar Kana, for example, the Sanhedrin Trail intersects with the popular 65-kilometer Jesus Trail. Another spot of international renown is the Horns of Hattin, the site of the infamous 1187 battle between the Crusaders and the Ayyubid sultan Salah ad-Din, Saladin.
Amitzur, who from personal experience says hiking the entirety of the trail takes about five days, hopes that in the future there will be organized camping sites along the route (so hikers don’t need to sleep in the rough as he did). In the meantime, the IAA’s Sanhedrin Trail website can help Hebrew-speaking travelers arrange their route and point to accommodations.
Uncovering the past today, to prepare for tomorrow’s future
While developing the trail, pupils participated in archaeological excavations at sites including Usha, the first seat of the Sanhedrin in the Galilee following the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-136 CE. Previous excavations of the small Galilee town site, as documented by the IAA’s Hadashot website, have uncovered remains of a thriving community, including building foundations, a mosaic floor, rock-hewn tombs, wells, wine presses and an oil press.
“Based on the finds it was determined the site was continuously inhabited from the Roman period until the Ottoman period,” according to a Hadashot report filed by Abdallah Massarwa following salvage excavations ahead of the construction of the Route 6 toll road.
During the recent excavations with the school pupils, more evidence of settlement was discovered, including an intact 1,400-year-old oil lamp engraved with an eight-staffed menorah, such as one would use during the holiday of Hanukkah. The menorah of the Temples, and the symbol of the State of Israel, only has seven staffs.
IAA archaeologist Dr. Einat Ambar-Armon, an expert on ancient clay lamps, said, “Unlike the modern day symbol of the state in which the Temple’s menorah is depicted with seven branches and a single broad base, the menorah engraved on the ancient lamp has eight branches and a three-legged base. The discovery of a lamp decorated with a menorah, a symbol of the Jewish people, is without doubt exciting, especially at a site with such a unique heritage in part of the Sanhedrin Trail.”
The menorah, said Amitzur in an IAA video about the project, “connects us to the continuity of the population here, which begins with the establishment of the Sanhedrin on the site, and continues with their descendants until the 7th century when we find this lamp as a distinctly Jewish symbol.”
Additionally, said Amitzur, the team uncovered clear signs of the glass industry that is recorded in ancient Jewish sources as having been located in the vicinity of Usha.
This glass manufacturing was one of the most important centers of glass manufacturing during the Roman Empire, he said. Its quality was considered very fine — the discovered blocks are still crystal clear — and would have been exported throughout the empire.
After Usha, the Sanhedrin moved on to Shefarʽam in 140 CE, then to Bet She’arim and Zippori in 163 CE, until it was finally established in Tiberias in 193 CE.
There’s gold in them thar hills
While helping to connect the dots along the route, high school student Ilai Yonah, a student at Ha-Moshava High School in Zikhron Yaʽakov, uncovered a gold coin bearing an inscription from the period of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire and builder of Jerusalem’s city walls, who died in 1566. Only two others exist in the State Treasury.
“As I was walking I was looking at the ground,” said Yonah in the IAA video. “I saw something gold. I saw it was some kind of coin with Arabic writing. I brought it to one of the archaeologists. I thought it was something ancient, but not to this extent.” Another student who spotted the coin along with Yonah laughed and said, “We thought they [the archaeologists] were trying to fool us.” “That they put it there on purpose,” added a stunned Yonah, holding the coin.
According to Amitzur, the coin is but one artifact depicting the “variety of periods, cultures and stories” found along the trail.
“This is a flagship project that connects the future generation preparing the trail to its heritage and to the Jewish people’s great and inspiring leaders. The trail is a groundbreaking endeavor utilizing state-of-the-art technologies in order to connect with our roots” said Israel Hasson, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a press release.
The IAA received help to bring the educational-tourism project to fruition from the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage – Landmarks Project, Finance Ministry , National Religious Education Administration (Hemed) and the Shelah Department of the Education Ministry, municipalities, local and regional councils, Nature and Parks Authority, Jewish National Fund and others.
For the students, they now have a unique connection to the land they worked. The “gift” of this new impressive path to their country was given right back to them.
“We learn a lot in class,” said Tal Dothan from Neve Dekalim Ulpana in Nitzan. “But in practice, when does it sink in? When you walk the trail, when you feel it. When you dig with a pickax and blaze a trail in the country, you appreciate the country much more.”