It was lovely, Walking in the Valley of Death.
That sure sounds strange, but it was true back on my third day in Israel in January, I happily walked through the Valley of Death.
Time to resume my journey through Israel. Not only was the weather that far better than Midwest American Winter, the place I went was a park that happened to be an ancient cemetery – Bet She’arim. But let me start with a quote my diary that day, written after the fact. Even I think this is pretty poetic:
“As I first wrote this the muezzin was calling people to prayer, being sunset in Nazareth. His delight in the ‘mmm’ sound makes me smile. I hope it is live, not recorded. In my large room with large low bed and very high ceiling, the open door looks west onto a slowly fading sky.”
From there I recalled the afternoon after arriving from Haifa. I took the same bus back toward Haika. In about 40 minutes I got off at the stop recommended by Google. They needed a little help on this, it turns out.
I walk downhill and am in SoCal.
This neighborhood could be Santa Barbara or San Diego, down to the orange trees and modern bungalow houses with bricked driveways. It even smells like Socal. I miss the turn off but quickly turn around and find myself on a dirt path. Fine with me, better for the feet, and soon a great lookout onto the little valley below. Then it heads downhill sharply and I have to make sure I do not slip on the chalky water-smoothed soil. I can see the park at the bottom, aligning with my map. Between here and there are two cattle crossings and evidence of cows (stepping carefully to avoid that) and as I get there I confirm that this entrance is locked.
Now what to do?
In short order a young couple pulls over on this otherwise empty road, and offers to help. They say the park is just ahead and offer me a lift. It was not needed, as at the top of the hill the road became asphalt and I can see the park ahead. With thanks – todah raba! – I hop out.
Right about here it says “Now the church bell is ringing for evening prayer,” in my diary account. “Do they coordinate so as not to overlap?” Up here in the Galilee, Jews are the minority, especially in Nazareth, and I noted in a previous post.
Walking past an unattended kiosk, where I should pay for my visit, I soon behold the reason I came: a valley of spiritual kings, a necropolis carved from the chalk hills, that grew here in the first two centuries of the Common Era, coming here after Judah Ha Nasi (who set down the oral law, the Mishnah, which is the basis for the rest of Talmud) was interred. He was quite the hero in that time.
Some context: Jews had been expelled from Jerusalem and the region called Judea after the third Jewish War with Rome. Many settled up here Judah was prodigious in writing down what had been collected only orally before, both here and in the city of Sepphoris which I shall also visit. Though they moved to other cities, Judah asked to be interred at Bet She’arim because it was his home town. Talmud actually records the event, “Miracles were wrought on that day. It was evening and all the towns gathered to mourn him, and eighteen synagogues praised him and bore him to Bet Shearim, and the daylight remained until everyone reached his home (Ketubot 12, 35a).”
Subsequent scholars wanted to be buried near him, something found also in Christianity and Islam. I even saw it at Karl Marx’s grave in London where two of the nearest graves are of dedicated communists. I could say that social climbing knows no bounds, but let’s chalk it up to genuine admiration. The town became rather prosperous thanks to them, and living pilgrims. Both town and necropolis were slowly abandoned following yet another uprising in the 4th century.
Being in a valley, and following Jewish custom, the dead were placed in coffins that were in turn laid in stone sarcophogi which were then placed in caves carved from the chalk hills. The park contains 23 such caves, including several with multiple rooms. While the actual remains are long gone, many of the sarcophogi are still there. There are also niches for smaller interments without fancy sarcophogi. Such a spot was where the great Judah was laid, according to the signage. If you ever saw Christian catacombs you have seen this. Culturally and historically, then, catacombs are a Jewish thing, The fancy stone sarcophogi are a Greek thing by the way. Greek was the language they – the Jews of that era – used in all but religious matters. A lintel of one door into a cave was carved in Greek which was too faint for me to make out. If Greek does not seem like a Jewish thing, the word synagogue is Greek.
This little valley of spiritual kings is wonderfully quiet today as I peek into many of the dark chambers. Some are lit to show off the carvings – eagles and lambs and lions and wolves, rosettes and garlands. Not all are decorated, but all are huge as they enclosed a smaller wooden coffin. But there are smaller niches and slots for more modest burials, one of which is said to be where Judah was interred.
“The lighting is better if you turn toward the gravestone, OK?”
Not many people are here, being a Thursday, but there is a wedding couple having their album shot here: he in a tux and she in a wide skirted white sleeveless gown that seemed a bit audacious for a cemetery.
In about 90 minutes I have paid my respects. I have crouched down to enter the low doors that led into lit and dark carverns, hitting my noggin a few times, even crawling now and then. Far from creepy, though, it really has been soothing. The stone sacophagi – a word that means flesh eater – are carved with images of life and hope like flowers and stars and bulls and eagles. It’s actually rather pagan.
There is a gift shop. Gift shop? I step in and out quickly. Time to leave , but how?
Show me a (shorter) way to go home.
Back to Google, who shows me another road which, as it turns out, would be been far better to use than the one it showed me earlier. Up the switchback road I go, stopping to note the ancient stones left from the original town. A man my age., with open collared white shirt and kippah, asks me in american sounding english, “Do you know how to get into the park?” Two hours ago I did not, but with the ease of someone who takes wrong turns and remembers why, I told him to just go down the hill, making a sharp right, and you will be there. A sign in front of the ruins where we are gate says ‘no climbing,’ but the six year old girl that is part of their group did not see it and clambered merrily on the remains of the wall.
Walking on, I see an open metal gate with a sign saying it is operated by the department of antiquities. How could I not look? I found no antiquities but did find a spectacular view, and following the path a little further, a signpost for the Israeli National Trail, their Appalachian Trail, which I will walk on next week.
There is a further gate, and thinking “YOLO,” I go through.
It is a modern cemetery, with graves created from round rocks shaped and cemented into grave shaped mounds. They are all in Hebrew, but I can see that some are as recent as 2020. I can also make out that at least one was native to Jerusalem before Israel formed. They all include parental names, ‘son of Abraham and Zipporah’ for example. The family names are Ashkenazic but spelled out in Hebrew. Again, no one is here. Through the brush I can make out children’s voices playing. There is a school nearby. The view, the school, the cemetery, together make a statement of continuity and community which I would not have enjoyed without going through an ordinary open gate. A bird house hangs on a branch amid them all, a visual parable of the whole vine and fig tree thing before my eyes.
I should stop here, as the ride back was unremarkable. But for the sake of throughness I checked in and then sought supper. Following the advice of Sharif, the desk man at hostel who enjoys playing host, I went through narrow alleys strung with white holiday lights. This led into a square where a church was still fully bedecked with Christmas lights. Bells from the church played a catholic tune I remember hearing several times, “ah ley lu yah, ah ley lu yah.”
Just off the square I spy a take out place from which I bought a sandwich and brought it back to eat while writing those lines I quoted. The fries were especially good, being seasoned with a shawarma spices. They went especially well with my bottle of Tayveh beer.