A look down at the past

Some of Israel's archeological gems can be seen only from the skies.

Bet Shean 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bet Shean 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Flights into Biblical Archeology By Duby Tal, Moni Haramati, Shimon Gibson Albatross 255 pages During the past two years, I had the good fortune to be involved in work that entailed providing helicopter tours over Israel for foreign journalists, enabling me to take to the air nearly 75 times. Asked frequently if I ever tired of it, my answer was no - because this country possesses such a rich variety of geography and historical sites in such a compact space that every time I went up I noticed something different. An even more frequent helicopter flier is photographer Duby Gal, who specializes in aerial photography and has published several photo books featuring spectacular bird's-eye views of the country. His latest is Flights into Biblical Archeology, produced together with pilot Moni Haramati and archeologist Shimon Gibson, a senior associate fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem. The book is arranged in a chronological order, beginning with prehistoric sites, then moving on through different historical periods: Israelite, Greco-Roman, Christian, Roman/Byzantine, Islamic, and various sites dating from 1000 CE onward. As a reader, I would divide the entries into two basic groups: Those that the average Israeli or regular tourist is familiar with: Jerusalem's Old City walls, the Temple Mount, Masada, Megiddo, Caesarea, Acre, Nazareth, the Mount of Beatitudes, etc. Then there are those known largely to archeology buffs, and some that even those like myself haven't yet visited because of their relatively remote location. Many of those in this category are the prehistoric sites, which the Land of Israel is far richer in than most people realize. These in particular benefit from Gal's elevated perspective, since at ground level it is sometimes difficult for the untrained eye to appreciate (or sometimes even see at all) the archeology of these locations. One notable example is Rujm el-Hiri on the Golan Heights, a mysterious rune of concentric stone-built circles erected in the early Bronze Age (the third millennium BCE), whose impressive size of 156 meters across is only apparent when viewed from above. Even more familiar sites sometimes look quite different in the views offered here. I once lived in Arad and frequently visited the nearby site of the ancient biblical town, but the photo in this book provides a very rare portrait of the ruin and the surrounding Negev landscape, covered in a sprinkling of white snow right after one of the very infrequent winter storms in the area. Looking at page after page of the spectacular views here, especially of the mountaintop Crusader forts, such as Montfort, Belvoir, Belmont and Nimrud, almost had me jumping out of my chair and heading off to revisit these sites. As Tal writes in the book's foreword: "When one is flying low in the skies, a highly intimate relationship is formed with the surface of the land that is below you... I never tire of the excitement when a seemingly-unexplored place is suddenly revealed for the first time. The thrill of discovery from the air is something I believe I share with the archeologists themselves who are working on the ground." I count myself lucky enough in recent years to have known that thrill. But we're all fortunate that this book makes it possible to share in it, at least a little bit, even for those who don't have the stomach to take to the air in a helicopter.