Historic Ramat Rahel

Enjoy a fabulous view of both old and new Jerusalem.

Kibbutz secretary Jossef Avi Yair Engel stands amid proto-Aeolic capitals (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Kibbutz secretary Jossef Avi Yair Engel stands amid proto-Aeolic capitals
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
When Yair Engel was in the 11th grade, his class traveled to Poland and participated in the March of the Living. Before their scheduled visit to Auschwitz, Engel composed a poem called “Six Million Brothers” that was read at the camp’s central commemoration ceremony.
Engel was a third-generation kibbutznik, born and raised at Ramat Rahel. A gifted poet and lover of nature, he was also a highly promising basketball player. At 18, he volunteered for the naval commandos; after only 16 months in the military, in 1996, he was killed in an underwater training accident.
Three years later, an unusual overlook was inaugurated in his memory, high on a hill at Ramat Rahel.
Designed by environmental artist Ran Morin, it offers a marvelous view of the surroundings.
VISIT MITZPE Yair (the Yair Overlook) as part of a family stroll through the Ramat Rahel Archeological Gardens, built on a site discovered in 1954 when the kibbutz decided to build a water tower on top of an overgrown, deserted hill. Because ancient shards and a Jewish burial cave had been found nearby in the early 1930s, the Antiquities Authority sponsored a salvage operation at the site.
During the excavations, archeologist Yohanan Aharoni unearthed artifacts dating back to the time of the Judean kings. Over the next eight years, more excavations were carried out, with findings indicating that a royal citadel had been located on the hill way back in the eighth century BCE. Aharoni concluded that it had belonged to a Judean king, perhaps Jehoiakim; others believed that King Hezekiah’s palace had stood at the site.
For the next half century, visitors, including yours truly, assumed they were viewing Judean remains.
But in 2004, excavations were renewed – with astounding results: The palace was found to be much larger than originally thought, with the earliest inhabitants not Judeans, but Assyrians, Persians and Babylonians. In addition, and despite the fact that there isn’t a major water source anywhere in the region, the site boasted a surprisingly large collection of bathing pools and cisterns.
Begin and end your outing at the large parking lot above the kibbutz swimming pool. Yair’s father, kibbutz secretary Jossef Avi Yair Engel (Joha), points out that the modern pool is located only 100 meters from pools dating back thousands of years. He adds proudly that the site – developed by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, the Tourism Ministry and Ramat Rahel – is the only one of its kind in the country in which a private enterprise invested both time and money, yet refuses, for ideological reasons, to take an entrance fee! The first sign on the walkway provides a general description of the site and a map showing you how to find specific attractions like the royal palace and the Roman villa. Look down and to your right to view the remains of a Persian wall.
Agricultural implements on the left side of the path include a pair of grindstones, an olive-oil pit, a winepress and other trappings from the Byzantine era (fourth to eighth centuries CE). This is not surprising, as the whole mountain is full of terraced slopes on which grapes and olives flourished for millennia.
Ascend the walkway on the right to view a rock sculpture that looks ready to tumble. It is one of four created here by the environmental artist Morin, who designed and developed the site from 1996 to 2002.
At the time, the boundaries of the Judean palace seemed clear, and Morin placed four “toppling” rock structures at the corners of each wall. Today, of course, following excavations led by archeologist Oded Lipschits, the site extends far beyond the supposed original boundaries.
The oldest constructions at the site were a tower and administrative buildings. Later on, a grand pagan palace – perhaps the most monumental in all Judea – appeared, together with a royal garden featuring pools and exotic trees. An additional wing was erected sometime after the destruction of the First Temple.
When the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) came to power in the second century BCE, they destroyed the citadel and its lush gardens – apparently to remove any trace of foreign rule in Jerusalem and its surroundings.
Mikvaot (ritual baths) from a period of Jewish settlement here were fed by water that had previously irrigated the elaborate gardens. Jewish settlers built columbaria for raising doves that they sold to pilgrims passing through on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Engel feels that like the kibbutz guest house of today, there would have been a “hotel” here for overnight lodgers.
The next settlers were Byzantines, who built churches, one over the other, during the fourth to eighth centuries. One of them, complete with mosaics, is found below you and to the right. Archeologists estimate that at one time there were 5,000 people living and farming in the area.
Communication tunnels you pass at this point and at various other locations are more modern remains, for until 1967, Ramat Rahel was located directly on the border with Jordan, surrounded by Arab villages and completely cut off from all Jewish settlement.
KIBBUTZ RAMAT Rahel was founded in 1926 by young idealists from the Jerusalem contingent of Trumpeldor’s gdud ha’avoda – a labor brigade that was instrumental in the physical development of modern Jerusalem. Only three years later, when Arabs rioted throughout the country, Ramat Rahel was completely burned to the ground.
Yet the settlers returned and the kibbutz flourished.
Along with chicken coops, a dairy, a bakery and a laundry, they created a successful trucking company. By the time the War of Independence broke out, the kibbutz boasted 200 members and 150 children.
Immediately after Israel was declared a state, Ramat Rahel’s position became even more precarious. Over a short period, during fierce fighting, it was conquered and reconquered several times. Finally, on May 25, 1948, Ramat Rahel was taken by the settlers and a Palmah unit, and has remained in Jewish hands ever since.
A year and a half passed before people returned to live at Ramat Rahel – and even then, they numbered only 42.
These few, including war widows, still believed that despite its location as an island surrounded by Arabs, the kibbutz had a future. But the dairy, bakery, laundry and chicken coops had all been destroyed during the war, and the establishment had little faith in the kibbutz’s ability to survive – and, says Engel, offered absolutely no help. Things looked grim.
Engel arrived in 1966 as part of a group of young pioneer soldiers – the first such influx of new blood since the war. And soon afterward, everything changed, for the Six Day War opened up the borders and Ramat Rahel was revitalized. A new youth hostel proved astoundingly successful, so the kibbutz built a big hotel and a large sports center. Since then, it has been absorbing immigrants from South Africa, Israeli city folk and young military groups, all becoming part of an enterprise that has remained true to basic kibbutz values.
The fortifications on your right were built in 1954; on your left are defenses dating back thousands of years. Called casement walls, they consist of parallel exterior and interior walls separated by partitions that were filled with houses.
Swing left at the roundabout for a better view of the casement walls and, further on, a Byzantine complex. Before entering the central courtyard, backtrack to the walkway and continue to the Roman-era villa.
The elegant villa probably housed important Roman officials and officers. Indeed, Aharoni discovered a bathhouse whose pillars had been stamped with the seal of the Tenth Legion. Walk through the villa courtyard to view a large oval pit, once a reservoir used by occupants of the royal palace.
Back on the walkway, head left to reach a columbarium and burial cave from the Second Temple period. Also visible are several mikvaot, proof that there was a Jewish presence at the site.
At the T-junction, turn right to discover fortifications from the 1948 war, then gaze straight ahead at an oak tree growing out of a pile of stones. Sculptures like these are a Marin trademark, and the main feature of the touchingly designed Yair Overlook.
Enjoy a fabulous view of both old and new Jerusalem.
You can even see the Dome of the Rock, despite all the high-rises under construction. The quarry spread out below the overlook undoubtedly provided stones for the ancient citadel.
Backtrack on the walkway, then take the left fork, and after that the path to the right. Ruins on your left, as you walk, are from the citadel, well outside the boundaries of the palace discovered by Aharoni and marked with sculptures by Morin.
Just past the steps, stone-carved drainpipes and canals belong to installations that supplied water to the palace pools and gardens. This is quite remarkable, for no one seems to know where the water came from. If you can, ascend the steps for a better view, and climb again to read the signs next to the ruins: They offer a visual reconstruction of the palace and the gardens – full of water – which were located all around you.
Continue strolling toward the water tower and the large plaza, which served as the central courtyard.
Standing on poles are three proto-Aeolic capitals dating back to the eighth century BCE. Proto-Aeolic capitals are rectangular stones featuring a central triangle and decorations on both sides. Of the 25 discovered in Israel, 10 were found right here and provide telling evidence of the palace’s elegance.
WALK BACK to the parking lot, but just before you get there, take a path to the right. From here you have a good view of the water tower and a large sign in memory of the victims of a Jordanian attack on September 23, 1956.
While attending the 12th conference of the Israel Exploration Society at the kibbutz, participants took a tour of the excavations. Many of them were standing on the roof of the water tower listening to Aharoni’s explanations when a Jordanian sniper struck from his army post next to the nearby Mar Elias Monastery. Four people were killed, including Yaakov Pinkerfeld, famous for his archeological survey at David’s Tomb. Seventeen were wounded, one of whom died later as a result of what became known as the “archeologists incident.”
Continue on to view oil and wine presses used from the second to the 10th century CE, and remains from a Byzantine-era village.
Several mikvaot were discovered in this area, along with a large columbarium. Inside the columbarium, 15 silver coins were discovered; they were of the type Jews used to pay a Temple tax to the Romans.
Don’t leave Ramat Rahel without visiting the beautifully remodeled guest house. Inside the lobby are some fascinating archeological displays and a “slik” – a hidden weapons cache from the British Mandate period, when it was illegal for Jews to defend themselves.
Outside stands a statue representing the matriarch Rachel. Created by sculptor David Polus in 1954, Rachel holds a torch in one hand and shelters two young children with the other. Polus calls the sculpture And the Children Returned to their Homeland (Jeremiah 31:16). Indeed.
The entire site is wheelchair accessible, except for an optional staircase. Open to all, all day.