Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tiyul: Bar Kochba and Tisha B'Av

Disclosure:  I am neither historian, theologian or archaeologist. What you read here is my own opinion. If a reader feels I have made errors, please click on the 'comment' icon at the end of the post, and let me know; I can check it out, and decide how best to proceed.

The story of Bar Kochba seems to me to be the final consequence of and the capstone to the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, and the Bar Kochba revolt took place app  60 years later. The tragic end to this revolt is the Roman destruction of the Jewish city of Beitar, and that moment is itself linked to the earlier tragedies of the two Temples because all three--the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple, and the destruction of the Jewish stronghold at Beitar--all took place on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, known to Jews as Tisha B'Av: a day of  national tragedies. In addition to the three tragedies above, Tisha B'Av also commemorates other national tragedies which, we discover, also occured on that same date:

 (1) the sin of the spies in the Torah who, upon returning from their mission to check out the land of Israel, spoke ill of the land. Their negative report caused panic among the people, who chose to believe them and not G-d;

(2), after destroying Jerusalem, the Roman Command ploughed under the Temple Mount in app 133CE (at the end of the Bar Kochba revolt);

(3) in 1090, on this date, the First Crusade was declared by Pope Urban II, resulting in the killing of 10,000 Jews in the Crusade's first month, and the destruction of Jewish communitites in France and in the Rhineland;

(4) in 1290, King Edward I of England signed a decree to expel all Jews from England;

 (5) in 1492, the Alhambra Decree took effect, expelling all Jews from Spain and from all Spanish territories;

(6) in 1940, Himmler presents to the Nazi Party his plan for the "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem, on this Hebrew date;

 (7) in 1942, on this Hebrew date, Nazis began to deport Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps.

(8) on this Hebrew date, 1994, the Jewish Communuity center in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 86 and wounding more than 300.

Tisha B'Av, a day of  national tragedy for Jews, indeed.

It is possible that the Bar Kochba revolt should not have happened. After all, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (also called Andrianus) made many promises to the Jews, including the promise to rebuild their Temple. But after apparently making that promise, something changed. We don't know exactly what happened. But after Hadrian announced  that he would build a new Temple, it turned out that the new Temple, to be built on the site of the destroyed  Jewish Temple, would not be for the Jews. It would be for Jupiter, King of the Roman gods.

Hmm. The Jews are going to like this idea?

In addition, Hadrian decided he would also  rebuild all of Jerusalem--and rename it, Aelia Capitolina--a nice Roman name. He decided that Jewish circumcision should be illegal, punishable by death; and, oh, yes, Shabbat should be prohibited. There were more restrictions, but you get the idea.

The Jews revolted.

Now, at this time, the Roman army was the world's greatest fighting machine. Their soldiers, their equipment and their tactics were well-known--and feared. The Romans were not known for their compassion. Instead, it has been estimated that, during the years they ruled the world,  they directly killed more that 8,000,000 people, not including those they starved to death through seige. They were the super-power of the day, and they were not afraid to rule with an iron fist. The Jews, meanwhile, were not in the same military league. In fact, they may not have been in anybody's military league. So confident was Hadrian of the Roman military superiority in Israel that he (Hadrian) kept only one Legion (comprised of 6,000 to 11,000 soldiers, depending on a number of variables) in Israel.

The revolt--the fighting-- lasted perhaps 3, or as long as five, years (depending on who you read), including up to two years of 'independence' by the Jews. At first, the revolt may not have been organized, and there may not have been many Jews fighting; instead, Jews simply resisted, hiding male children so they could be circumcised, fighting off Roman soldiers who came to a town to cause 'trouble' for the Jews, etc. Soon however, the Jews fought back. Bar Kochba emerged as a charismatic and brilliant leader, one who knew how to organize men, deploy them, pick combat leaders, prepare cities and redoubts for combat against a superior force, and develop combat tactics. He was so brilliant as a military leader that, at one point, his fighting forces wiped out an entire Legion, perhaps 8,000 -10,000 soldiers--an unheard-of accomplishment. Hadrian, of course, was not amused by this. But at first, he could not beat them. He went through at least two Generals until he found one who could do the job. During the 3-5 years of fighting, Hadrian's Legions killed more than 580,000 Jews, and wiped out 985 villages and 50 fortified cities--utter devastation. But the worst was the last, the final battle of the revolt at Beitar, to which Bar Kochba had  retreated after Jerusalem fell to the Romans. By this time, the Romans had had to increase their forces from one Legion to eight. At Beitar, the Romans slaughtered so many Jews that the Talmud says the Romans fertilized their fields for years with Jewish blood.

This is not the entire Bar Kochba story. But it will get you started. To get the full story, you'll just have to come to Israel, and take a tiyul yourself!

Hadrian had, before the Beitar slaughter (or directly afterwards--depending again on whom you read), ordered that the Temple Mount be ploughed under, to erase all physical evidence of the Jews' presence there. He even had a coin minted--a picture of which I have seen--commemorating the ploughing of Jerusalem. This turns out to be an interesting decision for Hadrian, because it has a modern consequence, something that affects Jews and Israel today: on a recent CBS 60-Minute broadcast (Feb/Mar. 2011), the Arab Muslim  in charge of administering the Temple Mount today stated that Jews have no history on the Temple Mount and, in fact, when the Muslims arrived in Jerusalem in perhaps 638 CE, there was absolutely no evidence of Jewish life on the Temple Mount. I believe he said there was nothing there except blowing grass (or, something like that). To a Jew, that sounds like an outrageous lie; but now, hearing about Hadrian's triumphant act of ploughing, that Arab administrator is correct, isn't he? When the Muslims first came to the Temple Mount, there was indeed no evidence of Jewish life--because Hadrian had had the Temple Mount turned into an open field.

What a nicely suave way to misrepresent history ! And, of course, how many Jews--and how many non-Jews--realize that this modern Muslim is ignoring for his own narrow political purposes the Roman (not Jewish) account of the Temple Mount, circa 133 CE?

To the Muslim, our ignorance is his bliss.

The realities of ancient history are never far from the surface here in modern Israel--never.

Our tiyul today starts with the very end of the Roman destruction of the First Temple, some 716 years before Bar Kochba. We start with a cave:

Zedkiyahu's cave (I prefer my spelling of the king's name) is in East Jerusalem, very close to the Damascus Gate. Zedkiyahu was the reigning Jewish king of Jerusalem at the time the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar. Legend has it that, as Jerusalem was falling, Jerusalem's King, Zedkiyahu, sought to flee; he went into a cave; his plan was to enter at one spot in or near Jerusalem, and to exit on the eastern side of Jerusalem, so he could go east, toward modern Jordan. His story has two endings; (1) he made it all the way to the fields near Jericho, perhaps 25-27 miles east of Jerusalem,  where he was captured by the Romans; and (2), he didn't get that far. Instead,  he went into that cave, all right, but the Romans were already after him. They sent troops to find him. They did not know about the cave. As they hunted him, they saw a deer--or an ibex (an Israeli deer)--and decided to chase that. They caught up to the deer at a cave exit just as Zedkiyahu emerged, and they caught him. Ultimately, he was tortured and killed.

People call this cave Zedkiyahu's cave. No one knows if that's accurate. But because this is the Middle East, everyone knows that a nice looking sign with an ancient name on it can make you money. The good new is, inside that cave, it is naturally air-conditioned.  It is absolutely correct to say that this cave is cool (sorry about that; I couldn't resist the pun).

The story of this cave has a curious modern twist; well, because this is Israel, maybe the twist is not so curious. It seems that this cave was rediscovered, as the sign in the picture above says, in the mid-nineteenth century. A man named, Dr. Barclay, was out for a stroll walking his dog one day, when the dog disappeared--into this cave. One person who took interest in the cave at that time was a British Officer named Charles Warren. If you have been to Jerusalem, and have visited the 'City of David' excavations, you may remember this man's name. His name is linked to the City of David dig-site from the 19th century, because he is the man who mapped  some of the findings there. He plays a role here, because he also mapped out the interior of this cave. During his mapping enterprise, he found this room:

This room is extremely large, perhaps 270 feet square, with 20-foot ceilings. Those two lighted areas on the left are tunnel shafts, walking corridors, really, that lead to a lower part of the cave; the lower part is well-lighted, and that is what you see there, light shining up from the lower section.

Now, before I tell you about this room, you have to understand something about Britain and Palestine in the 19th century. Until the end of World War I (1918), Israel, called Palestine, was part of the Turkish Empire. The Turks, in other words, owned the place. They ruled the Middle East. But it seems(I have been told) that they were not an attentive ruler. Apparently, several countries noticed this inattentiveness and decided that it would be to their own advantage to secure a foothold in the land so that when--not if--the Turks fell, they could use that toehold to expand their presence to something more significant. So, during the late 19th century, the Russians, Germans and British all built churches, orphanages and/or hospitals--anything to get 'feet on the ground'. The British, through our hero Charles Warren, also, it seems,  came up with a narrative to help bind the connection between Britain and Palestine: Freemasonry. You see, Charles Warren was a Freemason. I do not know anything about Freemasons, but I am told that they are a somewhat secretive fraternal organization which believes in three things: Freedoms of religion and speech; G-d; and being a loyal citizen to your country. I have heard that 53 of the 56 signers (or, something like that) of the US Constitution (in Philadelphia, 1776) were Freemasons; the Freemasons, apparently, see Solomon as their 'original' Freemason, the original architect of stone who built the greatest of masonry buildings, the Holy Temple of the Jews. The British were, therefore, happy to call this cave, Solomon's Quarries, to help link Palestine to the Freemason narrative--and to attract annual Freemason meetings in this gigantic room.

The bottom line here is that starting in the mid-late 19th century, Freemasons held an annual meeting in this cave's 'hall'. These meetings brought Britishers here, and helped to tie Palestine (at least in some way) to Britain. I'm certain that the Freemasons who came here felt  really cool (again, sorry: I couldn't resist the pun).

Of course, when World War I ended, the Turks were gone, the Germans were on the losing side (with the Turks), the Russians were engulfed in a civil war that distracted them as Communism was born--and the British--with help from the French-- ended up as the sole occupiers of Palestine. Pretty good deal for the British, eh?

Today, the cave is being refurbished to accommodate tourists.

Almost next door to the cave, perhaps 200-feet away is Damascus Gate.

Damascus Gate is in East Jerusalem, an Arab enclave. The vendors are all Arab, and I'd say that 100% of the other folk you see in this picture are also Arab.

Damascus Gate gets its name the same way Jaffa Gate gets its name: it faces the direction you would travel if you walked out of the Gate and travelled straight ahead. Jaffa Gate faces West--towards Jafo, or modern Tel Aviv; Damascus Gate faces North--towards, you guess it, Damascus.

However, you must remember, this is the Middle East. Just because I have given you some good information about Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate does not mean that you can now deduce something about the other gates to the Old City wall. In practical terms, this means that the Golden Gate does not lead to gold, and the Dung Gate does not lead to....well, you get the idea.

That's the way it is here, in the Middle East. When you walk out into the sunlight, you never know where you're headed: North, West, Gold, or...

The Damascus Gate has an interest to us because of what we had learned from the story of King Chizkiyahu and the Assyrian attack against Jerusalem some 2700 years ago: the North is the City's weakest point, the most logical place for an enemy to attack.

You might see why here. Can you guess?

Damascus Gate is below street level. Its positioning is awkward. An attacking army gains height to fight from the street level.

Its a curious place to put a Gate. But there was a gate here, because we have evidence of Hadrian's celebratory building. First, look at an archway built into the wall below today's modern Gate--which is itself, as you saw above, below street level:

Do you see the clothing hanging above? They hang on a walking bridge that takes you into Damascus Gate. You saw that picture above. This level is a good 25 feet below that, or perhaps 40-50 feet below the street.

Here is a placard near the archway of the above picture. It explains what the arch represents:

The picture on the placard shows what the Gate had looked like. The real-life archway you see is the only archway extant-- the small archway to the left of the main entrance in the placard-picture.

This surviving archway is from Hadrian:

At this point in our tiyul, the battery in my camera drained. No more pictures. The rest of the tiyul covered Jerusalem dig-sites that reveal Roman city-building as Hadrian and then the Byzantians rebuilt Jerusalem to Roman standards. If I can get back to those places on my own, I'll take pictures and add to this story.

I wish to thank tiyul guide Ezra Rosenfeld ( for taking me around Jerusalem with Tanach in hand.

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