Photo credit: Stéphanie Gromann – Attribution
“And in the mountain…Anab, and Eshtemoh, and Anim (Joshua 15:48-50)”
Today we travel to a place rarely explored by tourists or locals, beautifully situated in the Yatir Forest (the largest in Israel) in the hills of southern Hebron. Like most of today’s forests in Israel, this forest was planted by hand by the JNF (since 1964 they have planted over 4 million trees here). This magnificent region covers approximately 40,000 Dunims (10,000 Acres).
At the southern edge of the forest, the extreme Negev desert appears dramatically (seemingly out of nowhere). Due to the dramatic change in climate and vegetation, many universities and scientific institutions have set up sophisticated research centers, conducting important environmental experiments. Scientists have found that this hand-planted forest has halted all desertification to the north (at a time when most deserts, like the Sahara, are growing exponentially every year). The research carried out in this “living laboratory” forest is scientifically very important.
There is so much to do here, beautiful hiking trails, archeology and a vineyard that has a world class winery.
The most incredible archeology is found in an ancient Jewish city (existing here for thousands of years), the Biblical Anim! This city was located in the tribal territory of Judah (see Joshua 15:55). A very powerful fortress, with walls 5 meters (or 16 feet) thick, was built here during the Judean Monarchy and destroyed in 422 BCE when the Babylonians conquered Israel.
After the exile of the Jews by the Babylonians, the residents of Edom (just south of Israel) took the opportunity to settle in the abandoned homes and lands of southern Israel. When Jews first returned to Israel in Persian times, 50 years after the exile, the area around Anim and the Yatir Forest continued to be occupied by Edomites. In 112 BCE, the Jewish and Maccabean king John Hyrcanus led a successful campaign against them, resulting in Israel regaining control of southern Israel (which included Anim).
The Jewish community continued to thrive in Roman and Byzantine times. Even after the Bar Kochva revolt, circa 132-135 CE, when the Romans subsequently prohibited Jews (for centuries) from living “anywhere” in Judea (and thereafter, the center of life in Israel moved almost entirely to the Galilee), one way or another, Jews continued to live and prosper in the hill towns of southern Hebron, despite being part of Judea. (As an important note, in order to punish the Jews after the revolt, the Romans changed the name of the province from Judea to Palestine. They named it after the Philistines, the biblical enemy of the Jews, to humiliate them. The name was deliberately chosen after the name of a nation that no longer existed. This happened many centuries before the advent of Islam, and there was never a separate Arab nation called Palestine).
The city grew rich thanks to agriculture and industry (many wine and olive oil presses can be seen there in good condition). In the 4e Century, a massive synagogue was built here, which was used from the 4e at 7e Century. It was built on the highest point of the city (in accordance with Jewish law). The ruins of the Synagogue and its framework are still very well preserved. The built-in benches and the Torah ark can still be seen here.
In the 7th century, the city (and most of the southern hills of Hebron) were mysteriously abandoned. This was possibly due to the collapse of central power in the late Byzantine period and early Islamic period. Since they were on the edge of the desert at a time of weak governance, living in such close proximity to the desert warriors may have become more dangerous (the fact that the city was not physically destroyed by conquest and that few material possessions were found, suggests that those who left took their movables with them, supporting this theory).
At the end of the Islamic period (around the 13th and 14th centuries), a small Islamic village existed here, and a mosque was built on top of the synagogue (during excavations in the 1980s, archaeologists removed the mosque, which had lain idle for centuries, and found the synagogue below). During the Ottoman era, the city was abandoned and has since fallen into ruin.
On your next trip to Israel, if you want to taste good wine, enjoy beautiful nature and see incredible archeology, the Yatir forest is waiting for you!
Please visit the author’s site on guided tours in Israel: https://guidedtoursofisrael.com
(All images are free or licensed for commercial use by the author)