Photo Credit: Stéphanie Gromann – Attribution
The Torah scrolls were kept in the Ark, whose base and foundation are clearly still seen.

“And in the mountain… Anab, and Eshtemoh, and Anim (Joshua 15: 48-50)”

Remains of the Synagogue that served the Jewish community from the 4th to 7th Century.
Photo Credit: — קלודיוס Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Today we are travelling to a spot seldom explored by tourists or locals, beautifully located in the Yatir forest (Israel’s largest) in the Southern Hebron Hills. Like most of Israel’s current forests, this forest was hand planted by the JNF (since 1964 they have planted more than 4 million trees here). This stunning area covers approximately 40,000 Dunims (10,000 Acres).

The Yatir forest and reservoir. Since 1964, the JNF has planted over 4 million trees including Aleppo Pines, Cypresses, Atlantic Terebinths, Olives, Figs, Carobs and Acacias!
Photo Credit: JNF
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At the southern edge of the forest, the extreme Negev Desert dramatically appears (seemingly out of nowhere). Because of the dramatic change in climate and vegetation, many universities and scientific institutions have set up sophisticated research centers, conducting important environmental experiments. Scientists have discovered that this hand planted forest has halted all desertification northwards (at a time where most deserts, such as the Sahara, grow exponentially each year). The research conducted in this “living laboratory” forest is very scientifically important.

At the very edge of this luscious forest, the mighty Negev Desert dramatically appears.
Photo Credit: Okedem -CC BY-SA 3.0

There is so much to do here, beautiful hiking trails, archeology, and a vineyard that has a world class winery.

There is so much to do here, beautiful hiking trails, archeology, and a vineyard that has a world class winery.
Photo Credit: Okedem –CC BY-SA 3.0

The most incredible archeology can be found in an ancient Jewish town (existing here for thousands of years), the biblical Anim!  This town 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.

The remains of the First Temple era fortress, likely built around the 6th century BCE.
Photo credit: Deror_avi –  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

After the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians, the Residents of Edom (just south of Israel) took the opportunity to move into the abandoned homes and lands of Southern Israel.  When the Jews first returned to Israel in the Persian era 50 years after the exile, the region around Anim and the Yatir forest continued to be occupied by the Edomites.  In 112 BCE the Jewish, Maccabean King John Hyrcanus successfully waged a campaign against them, resulting in Israel once again gaining control of southern Israel (which included Anim).

After the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians, the neighboring Idumeans (Edomites) moved into the abandoned land. They occupied it until 112 BCE when the Hasmonaean (Maccabean) ruler, John Hyrcanus, conquered the Idumeans, and recaptured the land which the Edomites had stolen in Israel’s absence.
Photo Credit: : Richardprins – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Jewish community continued to flourish during the Roman times and Byzantine period. Even after the Bar Kochva revolt, circa 132-135 CE when the Romans subsequently forbade Jews (for centuries) from living “anywhere” in Judea (and subsequently, the center of Jewish life in Israel moved almost entirely to the Galilee), somehow Jews continued to live and flourish in the cities of the Southern Hebron Hills, despite it being part of Judea. (As an important side 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 purposely chosen after the name of a nation that no longer existed. This happened many centuries before the advent of Islam, and there has never been a distinct Arab nation called Palestine).

The town became wealthy from agriculture and industry (many wine and olive oil presses in good condition can be seen here).  In the 4th Century a massive Synagogue was built here, which was in use from the 4th to 7th Century.  It was built on the highest point in town (in accordance with Jewish law). The ruins of the Synagogue and its frame are still very well preserved. The built-in benches and Torah Ark are still seen here.

The Torah scrolls were kept in the Ark, whose base and foundation are clearly still seen.
Photo Credit: Stéphanie Gromann – Attribution

In the 7th century, the town (and most of the Southern Hebron Hills) were mysteriously abandoned. This was possibly due to the breakdown of central rule at the end of the Byzantine period and early Islamic period. Since they were on the edge of the desert at a time of weak governance, living in such proximity to desert warriors may have become more dangerous (the fact that the town wasn’t destroyed physically by conquest and not many material goods were found, suggests that the people who left took their movable property with them, lending credence to this theory).

In the later Islamic period (circa 13th and 14th century) a small Islamic village existed here, and a mosque was built on top of the synagogue (during excavations in the 1980s, archeologists removed the mosque, which had been inactive for centuries, and found the synagogue under it). By Ottoman times, the town was abandoned and has since laid in ruins.

On your next trip to Israel, if you are looking to sample great wine, enjoy beautiful nature, and see incredible archeology, the Yatir forest is waiting for you!

Please visit the author’s Israel tour guiding site: https://guidedtoursofisrael.com

(All images are either free or licensed for commercial use by the author)

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Nosson Shulman, veteran tour guide makes Israel come alive for you. www.guidedtoursofisrael.com; info@guidedtoursofisrael.com;