In the year 132 CE, Jews in the Land of Israel rebelled against the tyranny of the ruling Romans. When the war ended in 135 CE, the result was a massive loss of life and property.
Worst hit was Judea, which had almost fully recovered after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and was full of rabbis, synagogues, cultural centers, and a myriad of Jewish towns and villages. After the war, it was totally devoid of Jews and Jewish life.
Roman edicts issued after the war forbade Jews from even approaching Jerusalem, and Jewish rituals, including circumcision, were banned on pain of death. As a result, the entire structure that had held the Jews together for centuries collapsed.
At the time, the Sanhedrin, or supreme rabbinical council, was based in the central village of Yavne. While its members understood the importance of putting the shattered pieces together, it was clear that they would have to relocate to the Galilee, far from the prying eyes of the Romans. Although that area, too, had been hit during the war, most of the villages there were still mainly intact. So the council moved from Yavne to the remotest area it could find: the small Galilee village of Usha. There they dealt with the burning issues of the day, such as the question of how to redeem Jews that the Romans had sold into slavery.
One of the direst of Roman edicts was a ban against the ordination of a new generation of rabbis. Anyone involved in such a practice was to be killed and the city in which it took place destroyed.
One day, the elderly sage Rabbi Yehuda ben Babba led five students to the border between the villages of Usha and Shfar’am — on the outskirts of each — to perform an ordination ceremony. When discovered by the Romans, ben Babba ordered his pupils to flee, for they were the future of the Jewish nation. Tradition holds that the 70-year-old rabbi, unable to run, was stabbed to death by 300 Roman javelins. The towns, however, were not destroyed, as the ordination had taken place between the two.
As years went by, Usha developed and thrived. More and more Jews joined the Sanhedrin in the village, where residents produced large quantities of wine and olive oil for export and local use.
Two decades ago, while preparing an article on the scenic Kiryat Ata forest, we came across the Usha ruins, just east of Haifa. Aside from rocks and weeds, there was little to see. That’s why an invitation to view excavations at the site just last week was particularly exciting. This time we walked on an ancient street and explored mosaic floors, ritual baths, and presses for the production of oil and wine.
We were guided through the site by three archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA): Saar Ganor, national director of educational and tourism projects; Dr. Einat Ambar-Armon, director of the Northern Region Educational Center, and Hanaa Abu-‘Uqsa, director of excavations at Usha.
Sometime in the 19th century, a small group of Muslim families from Algeria settled on the edge of the ruins. They called their village Husha, thus retaining a semblance of the name by which Usha had been known throughout the centuries.
Coupled with its isolated (at the time) location in the Galilee and the distance from Usha to Jerusalem, it was logical to identify the now excavated site with Usha. But the defining moments came during the excavations themselves. For while all ancient Jewish sites feature ritual baths, this is the only one known to date to have one adjacent to every one of the village’s multiple olive oil and wine presses. The men working at the presses people at this site were exceptionally religious and would have “purified” themselves during every step of the oil and wine process.
After settling in at Usha, some members of the Sanhedrin moved across the Galilee, and little by little settled in cities along the route. Their entire sojourn is found along the Sanhedrin Trail, a one-of-a-kind project initiated by the Israel Antiquities Authorities. Approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles) long, it is meant to bring archeology into every home in Israel as part of the cultural heritage. Hikers, walkers, bikers and motorists are invited to travel an hour, a day, or a month through hundreds of natural, historical and archeological sites that include all the seats of the Sanhedrin: the Usha Ruins, the Israeli-Arab town of Shfaram with its ancient synagogue, Beit Shearim National Park, Tzippori National Park, and Tiberias.
Excavations begun at Usha in 2017 uncovered public buildings, a wide, main street, cisterns, four complete oil presses, five beautifully preserved presses for the production of wine and a hiding complex. Abu-‘Uqsa notes that the largest wine press at the site features separate canals through which wine flowed into two huge collecting vats. But this was not to separate the red wine from the white — they were simply necessary so that they could produce an enormous quantity of wine within two or three weeks of their harvest. All of the floors are covered with mosaic stones, with at least one mosaic black and white chessboard pattern.
Most exciting, perhaps, was the discovery of the ritual baths next to every single press. Ganor emphasizes that purity was of paramount importance when preparing the wine and olive oil. People believed that the time would come when the Temple would be restored and their products would be used for worship at that holy site.
Christians took over the site during the Byzantine era, and with no need for the purifying baths, completely sealed them off.
For the lively and enthusiastic Ambar-Armon, the best part of the Sanhedrin Trail lies in the fact each and every excavation along the trail is carried out by volunteers under the sharp eyes of archeologists from the IAA. Most of the volunteers are pre-army teens who by participating in a dig are exposed to the world of archeology and to their ancient heritage. One group of 100 teens found 12 pieces of an oil lamp during a recent excavation. When the youths pieced them together, working as if they were doing a puzzle, they discovered that they had found an entire lamp.
While the excavations are exciting and unique, a stroll along the trail can reveal some surprises, as well. One day three hikers discovered a gold coin. This amazing find, decorated with the face of the Roman/Byzantine emperor Theodosius II who banned the Sanhedrin around 425 CE, is on display in the Sanhedrin Trail Exhibition at Kibbutz Ginossar near Tiberias. The exhibition, a small but succinct treasure of a museum, manages to beautifully capture the spirit of those ancient times. On display are 150 different artifacts made of clay, glass and metals like bronze, copper, silver and gold. Ambar-Armon, the exhibit curator, emphasizes that all were found at different sites along the Sanhedrin Trail.
Among our favorites was a shard from a Shabbat lamp stand inscribed with the word Shabbat, and Ambar-Armon’s explanation of innovative ways in which Jews of the time were able to stretch out the few hours in which oil would light up their homes. For instance, they would clean out an egg and place it in a typical oil lamp. The oil would drip into the lamp little by little and keep the light going for several extra hours.
We were also taken with a 1,500-year-old amulet that was meant to offer a Jew protection from the evil eye. It was found by a woman near the area of the ancient synagogue at Arbel (a mountain village above Tiberias). Stashed away in her cupboard, it was only discovered half a century later when her son was packing up his late mother’s possessions.
Since death is such an integral part of life, included in the exhibits are several coffins or portions of tombstones. One of the most interesting belongs to a Jewish woman named Kartiria, buried at Beit Shearim. In the Greek inscription, which features a menorah in the top center, daughter Zinovia praises herself for arranging the burial.
One of the hoards on exhibit contains silver and bronze coins that were hidden during the Bar Kochba Revolt by a family living along what would become the Sanhedrin Trail. The family that stashed the money away probably assumed that they would return after their Jewish brethren had vanquished the Romans.
Especially interesting are two items that were discovered next to each other in Tzippori. One is a bronze pagan figurine depicting the god of fire, Prometheus. The other is a lead weight belonging to a Jew named Shimon, who was in charge of overseeing the markets in the city.
Many portions of the Sanhedrin Trail follow trails that already exist, avoiding the necessity to disturb the natural scenery. At the moment, the IAA is waiting for the Signposting Committee to complete its deliberations, after which every portion of the trail will have its own markers.
Although Usha has not yet been prepared for the public, the road to the site is paved. Ganor says that visitors have been coming in droves to see the excavations, from which they can join the Sanhedrin Trail.
According to Ambar-Armon, the Sanhedrin Trail and Exhibition mirror one another, making them a two-way experience.
So which one should you visit first? It depends on whether you need to see for yourself the artifacts that have been discovered on the trail before you walk in the footsteps of the Sanhedrin. But perhaps your experience will be richer if you take the trail (or a portion thereof), and only afterward view some of the wonderful artifacts discovered along the route.
The Sanhedrin Trail and the excavations at Usha would not have been possible without the support of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the help of the Zebulun Regional Council, the Nature and Parks Authority, Keren Kayemet Le-Israel – Jewish National Fund, and a slew of other organizations. We’d also like to give a special mention to archeologist Yair Amitzur.
Usha is located inside the Kiryat Ata Forest. Look for signs for Usha Archeology.
Hours at the Sanhedrin Exhibit: Open seven days a week, 8:00 a.m – 5:00 p.m.
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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