There Goes the Neighborhood

– By Cliff Keller –

Ir Ganim’s community multi-year archaeology project was about much more than finding artifacts.

One morning not too long ago, for what seemed like the thousandth time, I glanced out a rear window of our Jerusalem home in Givat Massuah.   Across the notch that separates that hilltop neighborhood from the next, lies Ir Ganim and its curious bald dome, a barren, brown and oddly undeveloped high place that towers above hundreds of nearby modest homes. Acting upon my longtime curiosity, I hiked that way to take a look and made the first of several discoveries.

 

What I found, after a climb of almost 200 steps from the base of the neighboring hill, was a gravesite. After a little research, it seems that I had climbed onto what I later learned archaeologists call a “tumulus,” a mound of earth and stones that mark an ancient burial place. I had no clue at first. There were no headstones, markers or other signs that I was standing upon a hilltop cemetery, but I did notice, beginning about 20 feet below the peak, several of what the Israel Antiquities Authority calls rock-cut installations.

These rock-cut installations—ancient remains of wine presses, caves and cisterns—were arranged on five distinct terraces below the peak and had once been objects of study by Israeli archeologists, the site having been named by them, רוגם גנים (Rogem Ganim), where the Hebrew word “rogem” can be rendered in English as…

cairn: a mound of rough stones built as a memorial or landmark, typically on a hilltop or skyline

which is exactly what I had stumbled upon. The flat-topped peak, almost invisible to those close by, is marked plainly on Google Maps and, along with the neighboring hill upon which my wife and I live, sits at over 2,500 feet above sea level, one of the highest places in Jerusalem.

According to an article at JSTOR, an online digital library containing thousands of back and current issues of academic journals, the hilltop site dates to the Iron Age, Persian, Early Roman and Islamic periods, although a few retaining walls up there “are associated with pre-1948 Palestinian agricultural activity.”

Activity at the site began during the Iron Age when, apparently, the tumulus was built. Archaeologists also found Persian period ceramics and winepresses. Winemaking continued atop the hill into the Roman period. There is evidence that the cisterns that remain date from Early Islamic times.

Where once, 2700 years earlier, Jerusalemites set signal fires during the heydays of the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires to announce phases of the moon, Ir Ganim residents follow paths across the site’s abandoned lower terraces as shortcuts to school, the park or the grocery. Bus lines 12, 20 and 29 drive circles around the peak, which now overlooks a modern strip mall and playgrounds at Mexico Park.

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli organization which “protects ancient sites as public assets,” hosts an excellent video on their website entitled Rogem Ganim: The Past on our Doorstep (Hebrew with English subtitles) detailing a summer spent on the hill at community excavations.

“For years, there was a dump in the heart of the Ganim neighborhood in Jerusalem,” begins Emek Shaveh’s description. “It was an eyesore for its residents and a paradise for local junkies. Until one day local ‘greens’ got together with an archeologist and a few visionaries and began to clean up the dump. Soon, an area rich in antiquities was exposed, and the cleanup operation developed into community archaeological excavations. The local people themselves wanted to excavate the area and then turn it into a public park that would revive the ancient terraces and wine presses hidden beneath the layers of history and dirt.

“The film follows local residents digging up the past of their neighbourhood, which goes back 2,700 years. Two archaeologists help them to understand their finds. Hard work, excited discoveries and interactions between the veteran residents and recent immigrants from Ethiopia create a colourful mosaic of a summer spent at community excavations.”

As you will see if you watch the video, Ir Ganim is not a wealthy neighborhood. Many of its residents are immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia. Toward the end of the film, during a break, one of the archaeologists explains to the residents, young and old, who had volunteered their time and labor to assist in the project, that the dig was about much more than just what they might find there.

“It is about this neighborhood,” the archaeologist told them.

Having watched the film—and I recommend that you watch as well—I must agree.*

Photos labeled as “figures” and much of the information are from the article: Excavations at Rogem Gannim, Jerusalem: Installations of the Iron Age, Persian, Roman and Islamic Periods, Raphael Greenberg, Gilad Cinamon, found online at JSTOR and Published by: Israel Antiquities Authority.