It all began with the adventurous niece of British prime minister William Pitt the Younger. Her name was Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, and in 1810 she traveled to the Middle East to fall madly in love with Lebanon. While she was living amid the Lebanese Druse, she got hold of a book (or map) describing a treasure deep inside Tel Ashkelon, a man-made hill further south along the coast.

After getting permission from the ruling Turks to excavate the tel, she headed a 150-person expedition that dug for two weeks. Discovery of a large marble statue of a Roman emperor excited her, believing she would find the treasure within. And she instructed her workers – one of whom managed to sketch the statue right after its discovery – to break it apart. But it was empty. Discouraged, she returned to Lebanon.

Over the years the Turks performed half-hearted excavations here and there, covering them up after each attempt as they were required to do by Ottoman law. And so the site remained, until the British conquered Palestine. For two years they excavated the tel, coming up with some fascinating finds. Finally, in 1985, archeologist Lawrence Stager arrived from Harvard, and with the blessing of the Antiquities Authority has been digging Tel Ashkelon ever since. Among the site’s most exciting discoveries are a forum, fabulous statues, massive fortifications and one of the only two Bronze-Age gates found in Israel. Today, Ashkelon’s ancient gate – the oldest in the country – is the only one that visitors can walk right through.

This is the second in a two-part series that marks the 50th anniversary of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Established at the time as two separate entities that united in 1998, the INPA has done a superb job preserving our natural and historic sites while developing their environs for public enjoyment.

The country’s first national park was established in the city. Ashkelon National Park, originally named after Yigael Yadin – the first Israeli to insist on physical preservation of our heritage – is a unique and remarkable site. But the antiquities in Ashkelon reach well beyond the borders of the official venue. Indeed, any visit should include, besides the park itself, several exciting attractions located well inside the modern city. Summer visitors take note: An excellent beach is accessible from the park.

Ashkelon’s wonders were revealed to us by archeologist Sa’ar Ganor of the Antiquities Authority on a half-day jaunt. Our tour began below and atop the tel, with its massive fortifications and the ancient gate. From there, we viewed the park’s other attractions, then moved into contemporary neighborhoods to visit burial sites and a variety of fascinating antiquities. We took a side trip to the newly developed marina – open seven days a week – and its just-completed 5-km.-long wheelchair-accessible promenade.

Neolithic man settled in Ashkelon about 10,000 years ago. During its long history, and until destroyed by the Mamelukes in the 13th century, it was ruled by Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Hasmoneans (Maccabees), Romans, Persians, Muslims and Crusaders.

What made the city so worthy of conquest was its excellent port. Part of the Via Maris (“the Way of the Sea”), linking Syria and Egypt, it was in the perfect spot for conducting both overland and maritime trade. Rulers over the millennia understood its importance as a commercial center, and during the Hasmonean, Roman and Byzantine eras left it alone to thrive.

Ashkelon exported world-famous wine, as well as the Ashkelon onion (probably the shallot). No wonder, then, that the name comes from the word shekel, a monetary term mentioned as far back as the Bible. And, although Jews resided there during the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras, it became a Jewish city for the first time only in modern times.

Visitors to the tel explore the Canaanite city, which was 60 hectares in size, shaped like a semicircle and practically touching the sea. Start with an enormous embankment and the glacis typical of Canaanite fortifications. Archeologists discovered a temple at the foot of the wall, which featured a little “house” for a calf that was covered in pure silver and probably worshiped at the entrance to the city.

View the site where it was discovered, then climb up and walk through the ancient gate. It was made out of mud brick that has been very well preserved.

Afterwards, walk or drive to the park’s other highlights, most of them from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. Stroll through the forum (or basilica), a huge gathering place lined with marble pillars sitting on ornamental bases. Adjacent to the forum, the odeum was shaped in a semi-circle and probably held either city council meetings or musical events – or both. A theater has not been uncovered on the tell, but archeologists have found clay tickets to performances.

Magnificent finds from the forum and the odeum are concentrated in a single area of the park. Most are made of marble, imported from areas like Carrara, Italy, and Asia Minor. Look for a statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and for a sarcophagus boasting the heads of two calves and a third-century Roman amphora that Ganor himself uncovered during excavations.

Along the road that circles the park stands the only Greek Orthodox church in Ashkelon. Dating back to the Byzantine era, it was originally graced with six pillars made of granite from Aswan in Egypt. Muslims turned it into a mosque; the Crusaders turned it back into a smaller church with only four pillars and painted frescoes on the walls. In its heyday it was full of decorations and boasted an iconostasis (wall of icons) typical of an Orthodox house of worship.

Other must-see sights include the Tomb of Mameluke Sheikh Awad, located at the northern end of a colorful and accessible promenade above the sea, and a mosaic floor inscribed with the date (498 CE) and featuring an amphora and floral decorations. The floor belonged in a Byzantine church. Today it is found next to the road, out in the open, across from the Holiday Inn Hotel on Yekutiel Adam Street.

Along the southern coast, it was impossible to bury people in caves. Poor people were interred in the sand; rich families built mausoleums in the dunes. If you take Moshe Dorot Street, stop well above the marina and facing away from a large apartment complex with rounded balconies. Then climb a small hill to reach two such burial sites. One is completely closed, to protect wall and ceiling frescoes that may be one of the most impressive in the country (future plans include a periscope so that visitors can get a look inside). The frescoes depict several goddesses, a flute player, the entire process for manufacturing wine and much more.

The second burial enclosure was brought here from nearby Eli Cohen Street, and its faded frescoes can be viewed from outside. See if you can make out some of the decorations and the images in the alcove frescoes.

From here, head for one of the city’s loveliest neighborhoods where, smack in the middle of Zvi Segal Street, you will find the beautiful remains of a Byzantine church. It was erected in basilica style, and its pillars and capitals have been well preserved.

Last but definitely not least, the Sarcophagus Courtyard in the Afridar neighborhood on Bar-Kochba Street features both a large grassy area for kids and grandkids to run around, and possibly the most decorative sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel. Dating back to the Roman era, made of imported marble, they depict the battle of Troy, lions fighting with bulls, the abduction of Persephone (who became goddess queen of the underworld) and two lions guarding a funeral urn.

Open Sunday to Thursday 8:30 to 3:30 and Fridays 8:30 to 1:30; closed on Saturdays.

Ashkelon National Park is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and in the summer you can stay until 10 p.m.

With its shady picnic sites and great beach, the park is a perfect summer venue.

Here are a few more parks/reserves in the Center and South of the country that are either underground, indoors or let you cool off in the water.

Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve
Discovered in 1968 by workers blasting in a nearby quarry, the Stalactite Cave is a wonderland of enchanting formations. Stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave have their own particular beauty as do stalagmites growing up from the ground. Often the two fuse together to create even more magical shapes and figures.

The cave is approximately 86 m. by 60 m. and full of surprises. Visitors see a short production about stalactites and stalagmites (possible with English subtitles) and take part in guided tours (in Hebrew) that leave every 25 minutes.

Hours: Saturday to Thursday 8 to 5; Friday 8 to 4.

To get there take Highway 38 from Sha’ar Hagai to Beit Shemesh.

From Beit Shemesh, follow Highway 3866 about five kilometers to a junction featuring a large monument commemorating the Challenger spacecraft. Follow the signs to the left.

Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park – partially wheelchair accessible
Since its destruction 2,000 years ago, the biblical city of Maresha seems to have become only dried shrubs and scattered stones at the foot of a hill. Under the earth, however, lies a treasure house of caves, including massive “Bell Caves,” actually man-made quarries that were dug out to extract soft chalk rock for construction.

The park sports hundreds of underground caves, many of them open to visitors. They house cisterns, spectacular burial chambers, columbaria for raising doves, homes and a large underground interconnected system of caverns.

Two months ago, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the park a World Heritage Center.

Located off Highway 35 opposite Beit Guvrin.

Hours: Saturday to Thursday 8 to 5; Friday 8 to 4.

Coral beach nature reserve – wheelchair accessible to bridge over the water
Israel’s portion of the Red Sea’s 4,500-km. coral reef is the most northerly in the world. Stretching from the Gulf of Eilat to the Egyptian border at Taba, it parallels the Eilat shoreline.

Most of it can be perused at no cost and at your leisure. But the part richest in marine life is located within the Coral Beach Nature Reserve where visitors have a wonderful time weaving near and around a plethora of fascinating underwater creatures. You do not need to be a great swimmer or diver to see the fish up close; nonswimmers can simply rent a life jacket and float.

Hours: Saturday to Thursday 9 to 6; Friday 9 to 5.

September events at national parks included in entrance fee: Hai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve, International Eagle Day – September 6, 10 to 3.

Ein Hemed National Park, Day of the Bat – September 13, 11 to 3.

Beit Guvrin National Park, Kites on the Hill – September 27, 10:30 to 3.

For additional events and information call *3639. Or view the Hebrew site: www.parks.org.il (the English site is out of date).

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