Raiders of the lost synagogue

jerusalem | First you squeeze backward through a narrow opening in the synagogue’s corner, and enter an underground chamber. Then look for a small hole in the wall on your left, and crawl through it. Never mind that you can’t see very far, just think … ancient treasure, human bones, Indiana Jones.

You can imagine you are a Jewish rebel fighting with Simon Bar Kochba in 135 CE, while being pursued by Roman soldiers in the waning days of the Second Revolt. Or you can pretend you are a modern-day antiquity sleuth in pursuit of grave robbers.

Ironically, it’s because of these grave robbers that the Antiquities Authority, together with the Jewish National Fund, opened the ancient village in the Judean hills south of Beit Shemesh.

Two thousand years ago, these hills were the “Gush Dan” of the nation. Virtually every hilltop was inhabited by Jewish villages and farms. Most were vanquished by the Romans. A sprinkling of villages continued to be inhabited by the Byzantines, Crusaders, Arabs and ultimately Jews once again.

“But this is the hottest area in the country for plundering ancient sites,” says Amir Ganor, 35, the country’s chief archaeological cop.

As head of the Antiquities Authority’s Unit for Prevention of Theft, Ganor says his dozen armed agents face a daunting task, since there are an estimated 50,000 archaeological sites ripe for plunder in the Holy Land.

“One of them is right here,” Ganor says, leading the way to Hurvat Itri, today a magnificently restored village from the Second Temple period. A hilltop like many others, it seemed to be a major draw for the grave robbers. Night after night in the late 1990s they dug up its ancient stones in search of treasure. In 1999, at least three gangs from the West Bank just two kilometers away were caught and jailed, but the looting continued. Driving them was a desire to find rare coins from the Bar Kochba revolt. Known as a selah in Hebrew or bawabeh in Arabic, each silver coin could fetch anywhere between $40,000 and $350,000.

In 2000, the Antiquities Authority began excavating the site, which yielded a wealth of undisturbed finds as well as what archaeologists call the “missing link” to Jewish life here 1,870 years ago.

Access is through the so-called Israeli Tuscany. Take Highway 38 south of Beit Shemesh for 12 kilometers and turn east directly across from the entrance to the well-known Mitzpe Massua lookout. Take the winding road through olive groves and wheat fields for about four kilometers and follow the signs. Parking is at the bottom of the hill and a trail is well marked.

In the heart of the Adullam Cavern Park, near Moshav Tzafririm, the site contains beautiful ruins, including numerous ritual baths, decorated burial caves and an amazing network of subterranean tunnels.

Ganor and archaeologist Boaz Zissu led excavations for two years with the aid of unemployed locals — and even reformed grave robbers. One, named Sayid el-Amneh, proved to be invaluable in helping discover a total of eight underground tunnel networks. Three of these had not been touched since the Bar Kochba rebels hid there.

“It was the first time I was able to see a sealed tunnel network,” Ganor says. “Items were lying on the ground where the rebels had left them. We simply had to come and gather them up. It was all very exciting.”

There are about 6,000 known coins from the Bar Kochba period, nearly all discovered by grave robbers. In 1986, the Antiquities Authority did not have even one discovered in situ. Zissu and Ganor were able to find 1,000 from various periods on this site, including three extremely rare silver sela coins.

As valuable a find as it was, the place did not even have a name. It was referred to as Khirbet Hoch, after a family from Tzurif. But the mystery was solved when an ostracon was unearthed with the name Atra. From this, archaeologists deduced that it was Kfar Atra, or the Caphethra mentioned in Josephus Flavius’ historical account.

Apparently, one day in the summer of 69 CE, Cerealius, one of Emperor Vespasian’s officers, led a small force of cavalry and foot troops and ravaged the village of Caphethra. The event was such a minor affair in the midst of the great revolt that Josephus recalled Caphethra as a place “which calls itself a town,” adding that Cerealius vanquished it “in his stride and set it on fire.”

After destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem and carting off some of the survivors to slavery, the Romans were content. They did not cleanse the villages of the Judean Hills — a strategic mistake that would come back to haunt them 70 years later, when Bar Kochba organized his revolt from there.

Survivors rebuilt the village on a smaller scale and farmed grapes and figs. The hillside is speckled with numerous vats where the grapes were pressed. But the community added something new: a synagogue. At least this is what archaeologists believe to be the purpose of a large hall facing Jerusalem.

Ganor believes the synagogue at Itri is the “missing link” between Second Temple structures (Gamla, Masada and Herodion) and those of the second and third centuries, which include Sussiya, Maon and others in the Hebron hills.

“We never knew what existed in the interim. Now we have for the first time archaeological proof of that missing link.,” Ganor says.

As further proof, he notes that the structure is large and centrally located, and that it was built on top of three ritual baths. In Jewish law, ritual baths could only be destroyed for something greater, like a synagogue.

And at one point, the Jews prepared for the second revolt. They dug tunnel systems under the houses. Historians speak of bloody, merciless battles, but Itri provides the gruesome proof. Ganor says that during the excavation they came upon a huge ritual bath that had been filled with ash and debris, and the skeletons of at least 20 people.

“The Roman veterans from Beit Guvrin were given this place as a land grant in 201, and simply threw everything into this pit,” he says. “We called the anthropologist from the Antiquities Authority to examine the remains, and he asked if someone had used a hoe in the excavations. We told him no. He explained that it looked as if the dead had been decapitated by a sword; the bones of the spine had been cut. This was a very common method of execution by the Romans, but finding evidence of this is very rare. No other evidence of this has ever been found in Israel.”

The site was initially settled in the Persian period in the fourth century BCE and reached its peak during the first revolt against the Romans. After quashing the Bar Kochba rebels, the Romans lived there for a while, until completely abandoning it in the third century.

While all that seems long ago, the site continues to give birth to mysteries. Clearing out debris from one large ritual bath, excavators were jolted to discover a skeleton — a modern one, also missing its head. Police determined that the victim had died only 50 or 60 years ago.

Sayid, the reformed grave robber, heard this and started shaking, Ganor recalls.

“I know who the dead guy is,” he exclaimed. “It’s my brother!”

Sayid then told the story of his older brother who, back in 1949, belonged to a gang that would sneak into Israel to rifle abandoned Arab villages looking for valuables.

Ganor quotes Sayid as saying, “‘One time he went and never returned. A few days later someone brought back his head in a sack. You found a body without a head, then that’s my brother. He was murdered by the other gangs.’

But Ganor says the mystery is still not solved.

“We checked the skeleton and it turned out to belong to a female,” he says.

Itri is not mentioned in the Bible. Famous people may have been born in nearby hills, or may have passed by, but no one famous ever came from here. There are no spectacular archaeological discoveries.

Why, then, is this place such a must-see? Because it’s fun. Crawling inside the tunnels, you will come very close to seeing what modern grave robbers see. And remember — only 20 percent of the site has been excavated. There are still many treasures, and possibly more skeletons, waiting to be discovered.

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