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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Packaging History

Galilee Diary #547, August 31, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

Now Yodfat is almost all of it built upon a precipice, having on all the other sides of it every way valleys immensely deep and steep, insomuch that those who would look down would have their sight fail them before it reached to the bottom. It is only to be come at on the north side, where the utmost part of the city is built on the mountain, as it ends obliquely at a plain.
-Josephus Flavius, Wars of the Jews II 7:7

During my first year at Shorashim, a neighbor took me on a visit to the ruins of Yodfat, about 15 minutes away. In 67 CE, as the Great Revolt was beginning, Jews gathered from the surrounding area in this village on a hill surrounded by deep valleys, and made their first stand against the Romans, under the command of Joseph ben Mattityahu. The siege lasted 47 hot days, and ended, inevitably, in a massacre and, perhaps, a mass suicide. It was there that Joseph betrayed his troops and surrendered; adopted by Vespasian and renamed Josephus Flavius, he left us a unique treasure of historical narrative of the events of the period. When I first visited in 1990 Yodfat was a ruin, unmarked and barely excavated, reached by a foot path from the nearby moshav. But since it had never been resettled after the defeat of 67, you didn't need to be an archaeologist to be moved and impressed by the presence of history: the same cisterns with the original plaster - perhaps even the very one where Josephus confronted his colleagues, the remains of fortifications, the silence. Even after a few seasons of excavations in the 90s, the place retained its authentic desolation. Rough paths, a few faded signs, no reconstruction, no bathrooms or souvenir kiosk, the annual progression of wildflowers that light up the hill from winter through spring. Bedouins use the cisterns - that still collect rainwater - to water their flocks. And occasional tour groups, mostly school children (quite a few of them brought there by our education center).

Over the years there have been rumblings about plans for development. Maybe a national park; maybe just a regional tourist attraction. Obviously such a plan would be good for the local economy and, I suppose, even good for those of us who engage in educational tourism, as we would be spared the problem of bathrooms, or of worrying about kids falling into open cisterns. Who can oppose making such an important and beautiful site more accessible as an educational resource? It's certainly not fair for me to object to development on account my nostalgia for the place as it is, in its unspoiled, sparsely-visited, silent historical witness. So I won't. But the sense of loss will still be there, as the history gets packaged and reconstructed, while the "real" Yodfat recedes from landscape into memory.

Meanwhile, the process has finally actually begun - a proper approach road has been graded, so buses can drive right to the base of the tel. On the ninth of Av we held our traditional public reading of Lamentations here at Shorashim, followed this year by a lecture by Motti Aviam, the archaeologist who excavated Yodfat. He is a popular speaker and drew a large crowd. His account of the history of the battle was fascinating. And he had the chance to express his enthusiasm about the planned development of the site for educational tourism - proper, safe paths, good explanatory signs, minor reconstruction - not to worry, it won't get the Masada treatment (elaborate, expensive visitor center, restaurant, cable car, etc.). A reasonable, modest, appropriate plan.

Still, it won't be the same. Yodfat will enter a new phase in its history, another layer for future archaeologists to decipher.

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