Unique Sites of Israel: Biblical Aphek: From the Ark of the Covenant to Alexander the Great | The Jewish Press – JewishPress.com | Nosson Shulman | 28 Iyyar 5782 – 29 May 2022

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Photo credit: Dr Avishai Teicher – Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

Well-preserved Ottoman fortress in Tel Afeq (Aphek) National Park built in 1573. This rarely visited site has many well-preserved ruins from most of the empires that controlled Israel over its 4000 years!

Today, we explore a unique site that has everything a passing tourist would like to see! It’s very central, has incredible historical significance (the events that happened here are stranger than fiction), and is kid-friendly. The nature here is beautiful, and there are ponds with combat boats, plenty of parking spaces, and it’s even inexpensive to visit! Additionally, this marvelous place has well-preserved ruins of the multiple empires that have ruled the country over the past 4000 years, an extreme rarity (although Israel is well known for having well-preserved archeology from the various empires, it is rare to find them all on one site). You would think tourists would be clamoring to visit, but that is not the case. Tourists rarely visit here, and even most Israelis ignore this place among themselves. So let’s explore this site together now!

In Tel Afeq (Aphek), nature trails, ponds and archeology combine to create breathtaking landscapes!
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The obvious question is why are there so many buildings and fortifications from different eras here? The answer is that this location sits on an extremely strategic road. At one time, Egypt and Mesopotamia were the superpowers of the world, and the ancient highway that led from one to the other passed through here.

Although the whole route had to be protected, the empires prioritized controlling this particular section (known as the Aphek Pass) because this place was very narrow (only 2 km long). The Yarkon River begins a few meters west of Aphek, making the land swampy, barely a place to build a road. A short distance to the east was the mountainous region of Samaria. So that was the only place where a road could be built, and whoever controlled that fort essentially controlled ancient travel.

Entrance door to the house of the Egyptian governor, circa 1450 BCE to 1100 BCE. The walls in the background (with the flags) would be built millennia later by the Ottoman Turks.
Photo credit: Bukvoed – Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

The first to build here were the Canaanites (see Joshua 12:18). In the 15e century BC, Pharaoh Thutmose III invaded Israel and conquered many cities, including Aphek. For the next 350 years (which overlaps with the period when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt), Egypt ruled the land. They allowed the kings of the Canaanite cities to continue their rule as long as they did not rebel, although they appointed Egyptian governors to oversee them.

The house of the Egyptian governors of Aphek which was used around 1450 BCE-1200 BCE. His job was to make sure the local Canaanite kings wouldn’t go out of bounds!
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Several ancient documents written in cuneiform (the old international language at the time) have been found here.

Egyptian documents discovered in the excavations

When the Children of Israel left Egypt and Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea (see Exodus 14), Egypt lost control of its overseas empire, including Israel, and once again all 31 Canaanite city-states gained independence. When Joshua entered Israel, he fought 31 kings. Although he defeated the king of Aphek, the city itself was taken by the Philistines, setting the stage for arguably the most dramatic battle in biblical history!

Map of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. Although he defeated the army of Aphek (in the red circle), the city itself was conquered by the Philistines.

In the time of the prophet Samuel, the Israelites made war on the Philistines (the former camping near Ebenezer and the latter at Aphek). The battle was a disaster for the Children of Israel, with around 4,000 soldiers slaughtered. To turn the tide of the war, the Israelites went to Shiloh, then home to the Tabernacle to recover the sons of the High Priest (with the Ark of the Covenant) as merit in battle with them (see 1 Samuel 4 ). Gd, however, had other plans. Thousands of Israelite soldiers were killed, the Ark of the Covenant was captured, and Eli’s sons were killed (in fulfillment of Gd’s promise in 1 Samuel 3). The Ark of the Covenant would be dramatically returned to the Israelites several months later (see 1 Samuel:6. For more on the return of the Ark to the Jewish people, click here).

The Ark of the Covenant.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

During the time of Alexander the Great, one of the most shocking events in world history happened here! At the age of 20, Alexander became King of Macedon and began his hugely successful campaign to conquer the known world (c. 336 BCE). After conquering Lebanon, he entered Israel and the Kutim (Samaritans) wrongly told him that the Jewish people were revolting against Greece and that it would be in their interest to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple (they hoped to rid the country of the Jews so they can take control). Hearing this, Alexander was furious and went to Jerusalem to punish the “traitors”. The leader of the Jewish people and high priest at that time was Simon the Just. When Simon heard that Alexander was coming, he put on his high priest’s robes and marched all night with his entourage towards the powerful ruler carrying torches (according to Jewish law, the high priest is generally forbidden to wear his robes of service outside the vicinity of the Temple, since it was a matter of life and death, it was permitted and even required). The two sides met in Aphek, where Alexander dismounted and did something that shocked everyone; he prostrated himself before the High Priest! Greek generals who witnessed this were shocked and disgusted by it, asking “Your Majesty, why do you bow down to a Jew?” Alexander replied, “He is not a simple Jew, but someone with the appearance of an angel. Before going into battle, when I must be victorious, his vision appears to me. Shouldn’t I bow to them? Alexander then asked her “Why did you come to see me?” The High Priest wisely replied, “Is it possible that the very Temple where we pray for you and your empire is destroyed because of the deceitful demands of these idolaters? “. Alexander (upset that he was lied to by the Kutim) told the priest “I place them in your hands to do with them as you please.” To celebrate, Alexander demanded that a statue of him be placed in the Temple (which is prohibited by Torah law). Simon the Just bravely replied that if he could not honor this request, he would decree that every Jewish boy born that year be given the name Alexander (this is how it became a Jewish name that is still used in Torah-observant communities today).

Alexander bowing to the high priest dressed in his temple service garments

The city reached its peak during the Roman period when the infamous King Herod (Rome’s puppet king of Israel) greatly expanded it with large building projects in 9 BCE. He renamed it Antipatris after his father (he particularly chose this region because of its rich soil, abundance of water and strategic location).

Because the city was conveniently located on the Jerusalem-Caesarea road (the two most important cities in Israel at that time), this city played an important role in the Great Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). When the Romans were on their way to suppress the rebellion in Jerusalem, they were attacked here and severely defeated. The following year, the general (and later Roman emperor) Vespasian came here to settle scores. After a three-day battle, the Romans finally conquered it and destroyed the city (although they would soon rebuild it).

Remains of the Roman Odeon (small theater but VIP).
Photo credit: Shutterstock

After the restoration of the city, it seems that it retained a significant Jewish presence. According to Jewish sources, the righteous sage Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students between the cities of Geva and Antipatris. The city continued to prosper until Byzantine times, when a massive earthquake destroyed it (along with most of Israel). He would never recover, although in 1573 a massive Ottoman fortress was built to protect the Damascus-Cairo highway on which it stood (with 100 cavalry and 30ft soldiers stationed here).

The interior of the well-preserved Ottoman guard tower of the fortress built in 1573.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Because Tel Aphek sits atop the source of the Yarkon River, the British (who took control from the Ottoman Turks in World War I) built an elaborate pumping station to deliver its water to Jerusalem (to this day , it is still the main source of fresh water for Jerusalem, although the original British system is no longer used).

The park has a lot to offer tourists of all ages and interests. If you’re looking for something off the beaten path on your next trip to Israel, I highly recommend visiting here!

(All photos are either licensed by the author or available for public use)

Please visit the author’s website: https://guidedtoursofisrael.com

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