Touring off the Beaten Trail
By Sheila Gyllenberg
THE VALLEY OF AYALON
Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,
“O sun, stand still at Gibeon,
And O moon in the valley of Ayalon."
So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies…
The valley of Ayalon is one of the fertile valleys of the Shephelah (the low, rolling hills of Judah). Through this valley passed two important ancient roads connecting the coastal plain with the central mountain ridge. Because of this strategic significance, many armies, past and present, have traversed this broad plain.
Here, Joshua struck down the five kings of the Amorites and their ally, the king of Gezer, the powerful Canaanite kingdom which stood watch over on the western side of the valley.
Again, in the days of the Maccabees and the Romans, armies marched here on their way up to Jerusalem. The important Hellenistic city, Emmaus, (from the aramaic word “Hama” meaning “hot spring”), flanked its north-eastern side, and the valley became known as the “Valley of Emmaus” (1 Macc. 3:38). The fourth century Christian geographer, Eusebius, identified this Emmaus as the one to which Yeshua and his disciples walked on the morning of the resurrection (Luke 24:13).
Today the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem crosses it, and numerous bloody battles were fought here in the War of Independence in 1948.
A twenty minute drive from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, one can easily spend a day exploring the sites around the Ayalon Valley.
The tel (or “mound”) of Gezer is made of the debris from thousands of years of civilizations. Since the town could “cut” (in Hebrew “Gazar”) the main highway, it was again and again settled and fortified. References to it are found in ancient Egyptian archives and the Pharoah gave it to Solomon as a dowry when he married the pharoah’s daughter.
The site has not been prepared for visitors, and often seems more like a practice site for young drivers with all-terrain vehicles. Car hire companies won’t thank you for taking their vehicle over the rough access road, and it is advisable to park your car at the end of the paved road in the town of Karmei Yosef (on route 44 from Ramle to Beit Shemesh), and enjoy a 25-minute stroll to the tel.
Ascending the tel from the west, enjoy the panoramic view over the coastal plain from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv. As you continue along the path, you’ll find a small footpath on the right, which will lead you to the massive Canaanite towers and gates and water tunnel. Follow the path past the gate along the south side of the tel and you’ll eventually arrive at a six-chamber stone gate, dated to the time of Solomon. Gezer, was indeed, one of the cities Solomon fortified (I Kings 9:15). Note the trough for watering the animals arriving in the city, and the ancient sewer system, which can be seen below the floor-level of the gate.
From there you can return to the top of the tel. On the other side of the central pathway there is an impressive Canaanite cultic center, of which 10 giant monolithic slabs remain. We have no historical sources documenting the form of worship at this site, but as you gaze at these massive standing stones, you may glimpse the ancient Canaanites who sought the world of the supernatural here.
The east end of the tel affords another panorama – this time of the Valley of Ayalon and the Judean Hills beyond it.
Most ancient manuscripts of the New Testament record the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus as sixty “stadia” (about 11.5 kilometers), although one of the earliest manuscripts records the distance as 160 stadia (about 30 km), the distance between Jerusalem and the Ayalon Valley.
At this ancient city, the Byzantines built an impressive church and monastery to commemorate the events in Luke 24. For 3 sheqals entrance fee, you can visit the excavations of the impressive Byzantine mosaics and the first-century Jewish tombs. The Crusaders built a church on the ruins of the Byzantine church – believing the site to be the home-town of the Maccabees.
The guesthouse here is currently run by the Community of the Beatitudes and is used by priests and laymen who feel a special drawing to learn about the Jewish roots of their faith.
Nearby is “Canada” Park where you can stroll through a pastoral olive grove, past the remains of the agricultural terraces of the ancient town. This area was cultivated up until 1967 by the Arab residents of the village of Amwas – thus preserving the name “Emmaus”. There is an interesting ancient aqueduct and well-preserved tombs from the Roman and Byzantine periods. Those with fortitude can ascend the steep hill at the end of the touring path and view the sparse remains of the walls, gates, water cisterns and two massive round towers that once guarded over the eastern rim of the Valley of Ayalon.