A stunning mosaic that greeted weary travelers as they traversed the Byzantine version of Route 6, the Trans-Israel Highway, is getting a reboot as a rest stop for hikers on the Israel Trail, after the Israel Antiquities Authority teamed up with residents during last week’s Good Deeds Day to clean up the overgrown archaeological site in the central town of Shoham.
Horvat El-Bira was built some 2,000 years ago during the Roman era as a rural villa with agricultural processing installations and homes for some of the residents.
A church was built on the site during the Byzantine period, since it was located along the main road of the Judean flatlands from Lod to Antipatis (Tel Afek/Yarkon National Park), similar to the route of today’s Route 6.
Horvat El-Bira was part of a network of rest spots along the road every few kilometers for travelers who needed water, food, a place to pray or sleep.
Today, the site is located within the Shoham Industrial Park, just steps from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s new offices for the Central Region in Shoham. It’s also next to the Israel National Trail, an 1,110-kilometer (683-mile) route that traverses Israel north to south, and will give the IAA an opportunity to have its office serve as “trail angels” who help hikers completing the trip and might need water, a cup of coffee, or some local advice.
“The needs of humans haven’t changed over thousands of years, because after a few hours of traveling I have to stop and get some water,” said Yair Amitzur, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Central Region Educational Center.
He noted that the other archaeological sites have uncovered more rest stops along the road, including Tel Tinshemet and Horvat Hani. The ancient Roman road traces a similar path to today’s Route 6, which today continues to offer rest stops for motorists.
“This spot is amazing, because you’re in the middle of an industrial area, right next to Route 6 and it feels like the most urban place, but then you climb 300 to 400 meters on top of a hill and you’re in a totally different place surrounded by nature and with beautiful views,” Amitzur said. “I’ve seen a lot of things as an archaeologist, but I’ve never seen something so drastic.”
The site was first excavated in the 1980s by professors Zeev Safrai and Shimon Dar, and showed settlement from the Iron Age (around 1000 BCE) or possibly even earlier from the Chalcolithic Age (4500-3500 BCE). The site was abandoned around the Islamic period (around 600 CE), according to Anan Azab, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Central District.
The most beautiful part of the Horvat El-Bira is a colorful mosaic floor patterned with bright red flowers that are likely kalaniyot, or anemones, bursts of color that dot the hillside in the winter.
When the IAA moved into its new regional offices in Shoham, it staff saw the site had become completely overgrown. Starting in January, they enlisted the help of local residents every Wednesday to clear away the weeds and dirt and turn the site back into a spot for travelers or hikers to take a rest.
On Good Deeds Day, celebrated in Israel on March 14, they made a big push to get the area ready to receive visitors once again, working with the Shoham Local Council and area residents to install a table and seating area under a shady tree. In the future, the IAA hopes to install signs and other information for visitors explaining the history of the site.
“It’s really important for us to connect the residents, visitors, and hikers to their heritage,” explained Amitzur.
“When you’re here in the winter there are kalaniyot and poppies in a huge concentration, and it’s really stunning,” he said. “It probably it really excited people thousands of years ago, and the flower is likely part of the local story.”
Amitzur said the IAA is looking forward to working with the town of Shoham to further develop the area for visitors, especially the flower mosaic.
“You have this beautiful mosaic on the other side of this hill, but most people didn’t know it was there,” he said.