King Herod had a problem: Nobody liked him.
Handpicked by the hated Romans to rule the land of Israel, and so paranoid that he kept murdering his loved ones, Herod had done his best to win over the Jews in his kingdom.
He had even built a temple that “appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white.” (Josephus Flavius in Wars of the Jews.)
And still he was despised.
The Sanhedrin (council of Jewish sages) claimed that he wasn’t even Jewish – even though his family had converted during the time of the Maccabees. And when there was a problem, the Jews listened to the Sanhedrin, and not to their king.
So Herod tried again.
Jerusalem had grown so fast that there was never enough water to provide for her residents, and to supply the pilgrims that came to worship thrice every year. The gardens were drying up and, most importantly, the Temple priests were desperate for enough water to carry out their rituals.
That’s it, thought Herod. I will give the city water. Hopefully, they will be so dependent on my good graces that they will start listening to me – and, besides, I will be able to control the goings-on at the Temple.
Herod chose an area in the Judean Mountains – today’s Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion) – for his project: Located high above Jerusalem, it got plenty of rain and snow every year, and was filled with springs. And that is how, 2,000 years ago, the Biyar Aqueduct was born.
I heard this interesting version of events from Gadi Haimov, a guide at the Kfar Etzion Field School. My husband and I had been invited for an overnight in Kfar Etzion’s extremely well-appointed guest accommodations, to be followed by a wildly diverse tour of the area.
We started out on ATV’s from Deer Land, across the main road from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Zooming up and down mountains, enjoying the wind blowing through my hair and, at times, gripping the side of my seat to keep from falling out, the benefits of riding an ATV became clear: You can take in a heck of a lot of sights off the track within a very short time. From our vantage points nearly a kilometer above sea level, we could see the coastal plains and all the way from Tel Aviv to Gaza. We also had a tremendous view of Betar Ilit, an extraordinarily well-planned all-haredi city which has grown from a population of 5,000 to over 50,000 in less than ten years.
At one point we stopped at the beautiful Dog Spring (Ein Kalb) where, according to legend, a man once tied his dog to a pole stock in a rock. The dog pulled so hard on the pole that it split the rock and created a spring. Later, we viewed another spring. It was situated on the site of Old Revadim, founded in 1947 and razed to the ground by the Arab Legion on May 13, 1948. The site of a bitter pre-1948 dispute between two kibbutzim that both needed its water, the spring was located deep inside a cave.
Back in civilization, we zoomed up a steep hill to Alon Shvut, established on the site where a major battle between the Greeks and the Maccabees was fought over two millennia ago. We were headed for Givat HaHish (the HISH Hill), 971 meters above sea level and a few hundred meters from the main Jerusalem/Hebron road. Volunteers from the pre-State Field Corps Forces whose acronym was HISH, manned a post on the hill during the War of Independence and until the fall of Gush Etzion on May 14, 1948.
On January 14th that year, nearly a thousand Arabs attacked Gush Etzion in the first major campaign of the war. Commanded by their revered leader Abdul Kader el-Husseini, the Arabs fully expected to win the battle in what they believed was a “jihad”, or holy war. Yet despite the planning that went into the operation, and their overwhelming numbers and equipment, they suffered such heavy casualties that they were forced to retreat.
Following this ignominious defeat, el-Husseini changed his tactics and decided to wage a battle for the roads. Since Gush Etzion was the only Jewish enclave on the road between Arab Hebron and southern Jerusalem, the bloc’s four tiny colonies – although under siege by the enemy — became a huge strategic asset.
In early April, the bloc’s defenders were told to make an extra effort to harass Arab traffic traveling between the two holy cities. Then, at the end of the month, a furious battle for southern Jerusalem broke out in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood and the San Simon Monastery. Defenders at Gush Etzion were ordered to do everything in their power to prevent Arab reinforcements and weapons from reaching Jerusalem.
And, indeed, during the famous and bloodthirsty battle for San Simon, when practically every Jewish soldier had either been wounded or killed and whoever could do so was told to retreat, a miracle happened: the reinforcements from Hebron that the Arabs were anxiously awaiting failed to appear.
Their commander fled the scene, followed by his troops. The soldiers holed up in the Monastery were saved; southern Jerusalem was in Jewish hands. And on November 17, 1949, when the bodies of those who fell in the Etzion Bloc were lain to rest on Mt. Herzl, prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared that “If there is a Hebrew Jerusalem today, our thanks go . . . first and foremost to the defenders at Gush Etzion.”
A short walk along the hill led us to antiquities dating back to the Second Temple era, when early Jewish settlers grew pigeons in the two-storied columbarium. Settlers would send the pigeons off with messages, eat them and their eggs, or take them to the Temple to be sacrificed. Nearby, the settlers’ mikve (ritual bath) is carved into the rock, with wide steps that narrow at the bottom and lead into a plastered pool.
From here we took the main road to a 700-year-old kermes oak just outside of Alon Shvut. Known as the Lone Oak, the tree stood at the center of the Bloc’s four little pre-State kibbutzim until, on May 12, 1948, Kfar Etzion fell to the Arab Legion and almost every defender was brutally massacred. The three other settlements quickly surrendered and their defenders were taken prisoner.
After all four communities were razed by the Arabs, only the Lone Oak was left standing. Until the region was returned to Israel during the Six Day War, it was a symbol of Gush Etzion that survivors and their children would gaze at from afar. Today the site is beautifully landscaped as a touching memorial site with an audio information center telling the story of Gush Etzion.
We headed next to the Russian Monastery, off Route 367, – or rather its ruins, for the friendly Russian Orthodox who lived there had permitted Jewish troops to position themselves on the roof. Here we learned about a vicious Arab attack on May 4th, with much of the fighting taking place right here. During the final battle for Gush Etzion, eight days later, the monastery was captured and demolished.
While there are ruins to explore and a picnic site on the hill, it is the area underneath the former monastery that is most exciting. A path leads into a cave holding remains of a large oil press that dates back 2,000 or so years. Then, further inside, you walk a long, narrow and dark corridor with tiny side niches offering barely enough room to sit down. Carved out by the Russians a century or so ago, this is where a monk would go when he felt the need to be alone.
Our last stop was the Biyar Aqueduct, located near Elazar Junction. Inside the enormous Roman-era cave that houses the source of the aqueduct, we took a short stroll on top of the channel, but could also have chosen one of two longer water walks.
Experts differ on the actual author of the aqueduct (the Maccabees/Herod/Pontius Pilate?), but whoever was responsible made sure it would remain clean and functioning. The Romans especially had strict rules about how close to the aqueduct you could plant a tree or grow a crop. And in those days anyone who damaged the aqueduct – in use until the 1970’s – was liable to be put to death.
For information on trips with the Kfar Etzion Field School and overnights at their beautiful new zimmerim, call +972 2 9935133 (except Shabbat). For Deerland call +972 50 5388705.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a photographer and licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.