Excavate at Burgin, a site of Jewish return from exile in Babylon
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Israel travels: Sukkot 5775

Excavate at Burgin, a site of Jewish return from exile in Babylon

Over Sukkot, archeologists are hosting amateurs at this resonant Second Temple-era community in the Judean Plains

  • The Bell Cave at Burgin (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Bell Cave at Burgin (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Burgin, the view from the top (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Burgin, the view from the top (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The ruins of Hurvat Patom (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The ruins of Hurvat Patom (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The cave of the column at Burgin (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The cave of the column at Burgin (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Burgin burial cave (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Burgin burial cave (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Burgin jackdaw pit (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Burgin jackdaw pit (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Burgin wine press (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Burgin wine press (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In the year 586 BCE, Solomon’s glorious Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and thousands of Jews were sent into exile. Rather incredibly, only a few decades later, Babylonian’s newest ruler allowed them to go home. Many – although not all – took advantage of the opportunity to return.

You would think (or I did, at least) that they would flock to the capital city of Jerusalem. But this was not the case, for the Holy City lay in ruins. So the people set up housekeeping, all over the country in places like Kiryat Arba, Lachish, Lod and Beersheba.

Indeed, in order to populate Jerusalem, the prophet Nehemiah, a stalwart leader who rebuilt the walls of the city, was forced to hold a lottery: “The people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts in the other cities. And the people blessed all the men that willingly offered themselves to dwell in Jerusalem.” Nehemiah 11:1-2

Among the villages and cities to which the exiles had returned was Adullam, mentioned nearly half a dozen times in the Bible. It was situated in the Judean Plains between Beit Shemesh and Beit Govrin, in an area blessed with rolling green hills, rich natural foliage, picturesque, fertile vales and stunning views.

The cave of the column at Burgin (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The cave of the column at Burgin (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

We know that area, today, as Hevel Adullam, or the Adullam Region, named for the ancient Jewish city. During the Second Temple era, when the Judean Plains were the hub of Jewish settlement two sites in the Adullam Region were among the largest of the densely populated Jewish communities. Today they are known as Itri and Burgin.

Fifteen years ago, the Jewish National Fund realized that the Adullam Region – long abandoned and neglected – needed protection if its unadulterated natural beauty and Jewish legacy were to be preserved. In cooperation with nearby settlements, the Israel Antiquities Authority ( IAA) and the Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), the JNF began developing the landscape, preparing roads and trails, and initiating excavations at Hurvat (Ruins) Itri, Hurvat Burgin and other ancient sites.

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the State, the Jewish National Fund gave prime minister Ehud Olmert and through him, the People of Israel, Adullam Park – a huge park in the Judean Plains that extends across some 50,000 dunams. Visitors to JNF’s France Adullam Park can follow easy hiking trails to amazing archeological sites dating back well over 2,000 years, drive along breathtaking landscapes, clamber through all manner of caves, and even take one of two 23-kilometer bicycle trails that lead in and out of the antiquities.

Burgin, the view from the top (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Burgin, the view from the top (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Archeological sites, like the ancient town of Itri, are often methodically excavated and compact. Hurvat Burgin was a different story. Here, archeologists hoping to get a taste of what lay beneath the ground ended up digging all over the place. What they found, among other attractions, were several fascinating caves.

Burgin has been identified with the ancient town of Bish, mentioned in both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud as a Jewish village in the time of the Maccabees. In his book “Wars of the Jews”, Josephus describes how the Fifth Roman Legion laid siege to the city of Bish (Caphatabira in the original Greek) because it had very strong walls. And although they expected to have a long wait, the army was startled when “those that were within opened their gates on the sudden … and surrendered…”

The ruins of Hurvat Patom (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The ruins of Hurvat Patom (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Quite possibly, the city capitulated after seeing Itri – only a few kilometers away – go up in flames. Yet this meant that Burgin both remained standing, and retained its position as a major Jewish center.

Visitors to Burgin take a circular trail that passes the ruins of Hurvat Patom, a settlement which was populated for at least a thousand years. Next on the trail is the Cave of the Column, created out of the soft chalky rock sometime during the Byzantine era. Inside, two Greek-style, carved pillars bear capitals that are engraved with a cross. One of the pillars was broken during a grave robbery but has been repaired. This cave was used for Christian burial – not surprising, since archeologists expecting to find a synagogue at Burgin uncovered, instead two large churches (currently being prepared for public view). Nearby, an ancient Jewish burial cave features a wide staircase descending to a beautifully carved entrance.

The Burgin burial cave (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Burgin burial cave (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jackdaw Pit, nearby, is named for the family of jackdaws (a type of crow) that nests inside. Very social birds, they are also extremely vocal. Their call sounds something like kak kak (in Hebrew they are called ka’akim). Fig trees peeking out of holes in the ground are actually growing inside of “bell caves” that were whittled out from above. Visitors who enter one of them will discover that a hard layer of nari rock tops the easy-to-carve-out chalk.

From the top of the hill on which Burgin was bit there is a lovely view that includes a sight of Tel Azeka (from the story of David and Goliath), and Gush Etzion – a pre-State developed area, lost in 1948, and today in the news quite often as it thrives and expands.

The Burgin jackdaw pit (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Burgin jackdaw pit (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One of Burgin’s most exciting attractions is a staircase carved underneath the remains of a building. The steps lead into hiding caves used during the Bar Kochba Revolt ( 132-135) and to an area that served as both cistern and storeroom. The contrast between the heat outside the cave and the cool air within is most, you will enjoy the striking in spring and summer.

Last on this fascinating trail is a well-preserved wine press. We like to imagine our forefathers stomping grapes in this very press (or in others just like it).

If you are in Israel over the Sukkot holiday, you might want to spend half a day at Burgin crawling through caves and excavating underground. Families are invited to join archeologists on Friday, October 10 from 9:00-13:00 and on Sunday, October 12 from 9:00-13:00 and 15:00-18:30. NIS 20 per participant, ages five and older.

Register in advance: Phone Hadar at 052-4284405 or send her an email: adulam@israntique.org.il Let the organizers know in advance if you do not speak Hebrew.

The Burgin wine press (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Burgin wine press (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

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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.

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