During the First Temple Period, burial customs in the Land of Israel were quite different from those in practice today. At the time, the departed were placed on a stone bench within a cave, heads resting comfortably in a hollow, and left to decompose. In a year or so, when there was no flesh left on the bones, these were removed to a vacant spot in a space under the bench. Here, they would rest for all time alongside those family members who had passed away before them.
Over half a dozen rock-hewn burial caves that served Jerusalemites during the First Temple Period and for some time after the temple’s destruction in 586 BCE are located on the main road that once passed between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Today found behind the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, at the beginning of David Remez Street, the caves are the site of one of this country’s most important archeological finds: the earliest biblical text ever discovered.
Until recently, in order to explore the caves visitors had to go through the center. Today, however, you enter through a beautiful little park called the Ketef Hinnom Archeological Garden. Ketef Hinnom means “shoulder of Hinnom,” probably because it is on a height that overlooks part of the notorious Hinnom (Hell) Valley. Hard to believe, but it is in this valley that, in the 8th century BCE, pagans and Jews sacrificed their children to the fiery god Molocoh. Even the king of Judah, Ahaz, threw his son into the flames.
The idea for the new park originated at the Begin Center, as workers were beginning a clean-up job on the caves. Together with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Keren Kayemet LeIsrael of France, they created a lovely urban park, featuring excellent signs, a grassy knoll that covers remains of a Byzantine (4-7th century) church complex, and well-kept caves complete with their original benches, hollows, spaces below called repositories, and vestibules in which mourners could gather.
Also on site: an audio information center or masbiran, one of 350 audio guides located throughout the country that offer clear, detailed, in-depth explanations in English, French and Hebrew here, and at some locations, Russian, and other languages as well. The park is open 24 hours a day, except for the cave area which closes at dark. Unfortunately (inexplicably) for people in wheelchairs, several stairs must be navigated in order to enter. See below for a solution…
Older than the Scrolls
Excavations were carried out here sporadically between the 1970s and 1990s. Among the finds were the bones of 95 long-departed people, along with pottery, coins, ivory objects and precious earrings. The most exciting items were two tiny silver scrolls – perhaps worn as good luck charms around the neck. They contain the words from the priestly blessing recited in many synagogues today: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you…” [Numbers 24-26]. Dating back to the 6th century BCE, they are hundreds of years older than the biblical texts written on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Just beyond the park, the Begin Heritage Center is a memorial — even a shrine — to one of Israel’s most influential and complex prime ministers. Although many people strongly disagreed with Menachem Begin’s activities, policies and politics, just about everyone respected him for the honest, down-to-earth and modest human being that he was.
Begin’s story is told in a multimedia exhibit that follows the young Begin from his hometown in Poland, to his years in the pre-State Jewish underground, as leader of the Israeli opposition, prime minister, and finally to his withdrawal from public life. Menachem Begin, passionate Zionist, activist, and charismatic head of state, was prime minister during a particularly crucial time in Israeli history — an era that comes to life before your very eyes.
More or less across the street from Ketef Hinnom, Bible Hill provides visitors with impressive, 360 degree views of the city. Possibly, the hill got its name from a passage in the bible setting out the territory of the tribe of Judah. “And the border went up by the Valley of Hinnom along the southern side of the Jebusites – the same is Jerusalem…” Joshua 15:8
Bible Hill (in Hebrew, Givat Hatanach) boasts a unique location above what is called a Water Table. This means that when rain falls, water on one side of the hill rushes to the Mediterranean Sea while on the other, it flows towards the Dead Sea. Some of the water is trapped underground, which is probably the reason that this wonderful urban nature reserve (free and open 24/7) attracts many a nature buff.
On a hike up the hill in early April, we found it dotted with a few late poppies, masses of striped purple mallow, and clusters of red-and-purple viper’s bugloss. That flower’s strange name is a combination of its qualities, as “bugloss” is derived from the Greek word for “ox tongue,” something the leaves vaguely resemble, and the plant’s seeds are shaped like the head of a viper.
But Bible Hill is best known to Jerusalemites as Squill Hill. That’s because it features the first blooms to emerge at the end of our dry, hot summer — tall, flowering white squill. Because they don’t stand out in a crowd, if they bloomed in spring or summer the plain-looking squill would have to compete with far more splendid flowers for the attention of pollinating insects. Thus nature permits it to bloom only in the fall, when there may be fewer insects but there are hardly any competitors.
Squills contain a poisonous substance which can damage the heart. The ancient Egyptians would mix ground bulb leaves with the flower and use them to get rid of their rats. The poor rodents would die of a heart attack.
Legend has it that when Joshua determined the borders of the Land of Israel, he did so with squill. The reason: few animals will touch it, for it has a very sharp, unpleasant smell. Only the gazelle bothers to nibble at its dark green leaves when they poke through the ground in early winter. In fact, when Noah brought food for the gazelles into the ark, he went out and got them squill.
Begin Heritage Center Hours: Sunday and Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. 9:00-16:30; Tuesday 9:00 to 19:00, Friday 9:00 to 12:30.
Wheelchair accessible. Tours must be booked in advance. To reserve: 02-565-2011.
Ketef Hinnom is open 24 hours a day; the cave area is open from 10:00-18:00.
Wheelchair users should call the Begin Center before they come and ask staff to unlock an entrance from the side. If that doesn’t work, call security at 025652012
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.