On Friday, 24th March 2023, the second archaeological excursion of the students of the STS Jerusalem campus of the Salesian Pontifical University took place. All visited places during this excursion were somehow connected to Herod the Great. Herodion, a megalomaniac project of Herod that after his death was turned into a monumental mausoleum; then Hebron, with its well-preserved wall around the Cave of Machpelah, which is also Herod’s piece of work; and finally, Mamre, where Herod built an enclosure wall.
Starting from our Jerusalem Ratisbonne-based campus at 7:30 am, the students, guided by the archaeological scholar Fr. Yunus Demirci OFM Cap, first visited the Herodion National Park southeast of Bethlehem. After seeing one impressive documentary and one multimedia show about the history of the site, the life, and death of Herod the Great, the students visited the theatre, mausoleum, and fortress on the top of the hill, which is partly artificial, called the Upper Herodium. As Herod was an exceptional architect and sensualist, the fortress also contained a Roman bath. We did not visit the Lower Herodion, supposed to be the palace, but we had a beautiful view of the excavated remains from the hilltop.
Although the weather was favourable, the cultural aspects were not. The next stop was Hebron, the tombs of the Patriarchs. Unfortunately, it was Friday and a few days after the beginning of Ramadan. The staff did not allow us to enter the sacred site, neither from the Jewish nor the Muslim side. So we had just the opportunity to touch and admire the refined wall construction of Herod. Not of small importance for students from all around the world was the opportunity to observe and absorb on the spot, the political and religious situation between Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims.
Finally, we went to visit places associated with the life of Abraham and Sarah. There are at least two traditions connecting different places with them. In the 18th chapter of Genesis, we can read about the visit of God to Abraham in the form of three angels. Abraham treats them very generously and receives a promise of a child from Sarah. In the same chapter, we read about the intercession of Abraham to God wanting to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. One tradition associates the Oaks of Mamre with today’s Elonei Mamre, north of the tombs of the Patriarchs. This archaeological site contains the remains of Herod’s enclosure and the Constantine basilica, one of the four basilicas spoken of by the ancient pilgrims – one was the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, one was the Basilica on the Mount of Olives dedicated to the Ascension, the Nativity Basilica in Bethlehem and finally Mamre. Unfortunately, the site was closed, but we were able to see the outside excavated area.
Unluckily in the nearby mosque, a noon prayer was taking place, and the gathered believers blocked our bus with their cars so we were unable to leave after our visit. However, this proved to be a great experience for many students to see the Muslim prayers during Ramadan: seeing pious men of all ages bowing down on their knees and touching their foreheads on the ground, was impressive. We stood there in silence, contemplation, and some in animated talks with nosy children.
Another tradition conserves an old oak tree claimed to be Abraham’s Oak on the only Christian property in Hebron, belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. After a long and perseverant knocking, the door was opened and we were allowed to enter the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. We had lunch just a few meters away from Abraham’s Oak in the shadow of the surrounding trees. Some explanation was given to us by a Russian volunteer in the monastery, Denis, a theology bachelor graduate. Following this, our driver Omar brought us safely back to Jerusalem, around 4 pm.
Matej Fabian SDB
March 26th 2023