Life and Death in Ancient Yodfat

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BY Ava Carmel


Visit the ancient city of Yodfat in September, when the squills are in blossom.  All year round the onion-like bulbs huddle, seemingly lifeless, between the rocks.  Then, suddenly in September tall stems burst forth, each with a crown of white flowers.  This is the largest patch of sea squills in Israel, and probably in the entire Middle East, estimated at about 210,000 plants.

Bring with you the definitive guidebook, The Jewish War, by Josephus Flavius.  Born Yoseph ben Matatiahu, to a priestly, royal family in Jerusalem, he was the governor sent to Galilee, who led the Jewish resistance against the Romans in 67 CE, and was subsequently captured in the battle of Yodfat. An excellent writer, Josephus described the Roman conquest in vivid detail. Reading his account of the siege of Yodfat (or Jotapata, as he calls it) in situ is chilling.

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As you walk up the trail, you will be enveloped by an eerie silence, occasionally punctuated by the bleating of goats, or the flutter of wings, as a group of startled pigeons takes flight. You can almost hear the 60,000 Roman soldiers slowly marching towards you from the north east, just as Josephus described them - light-armed auxiliaries and bowmen, infantry, cavalry, men who clear the road and cut down obstructions, porters, officers, General Vespasian with his infantry, cavalry, and spearmen, mules carrying battering rams “and other mechanical devices”, generals, commanders, tribunes, the “standards enclosing the Eagle… the symbol of the empire”, trumpeters, foot soldiers six abreast, servants, mercenaries and “a protective rearguard of light and heavy infantry with a strong body of cavalry.”   Vespasian’s goal was to inspire terror.

As you walk up the trail, you will be enveloped by an eerie silence, occasionally punctuated by the bleating of goats, or the flutter of wings, as a group of startled pigeons takes flight.
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I wanted to learn more about life in Yodfat prior to the famous battle, so I spoke with Dr. Mordechai Aviam, senior lecturer at the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, Land of Israel Studies. He served as the Western Galilee District Archeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority during excavations at Yodfat, from 1992 to 1998, in cooperation with the University of Rochester. Moti can still be seen at Yodfat from time to time, in his hiking boots and Australian bush hat, where he is involved with the development of Yodfat National Park. I asked him what life was like in Yodfat, on the eve of the Roman conquest.

“Yodfat was a little village of 1500 to 2000 people.  Houses were constructed of field stones, piled up and held together with mud plaster.  The floors were bedrock or pressed earth and the flat rooves were beams of wood covered with mud. Each house had its own cistern, to gather rainwater.

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“We found four kilns and we have conserved one.  The potters produced cooking ware, storage jars and loom weights. Because kilns produce a lot of smoke, the potters’ quarter was located at the southern tip of the town. The inhabitants had an innate sense of ecology. 

“We also found an olive press in a cave.  Two nearby houses had mikvehs (ritual baths), so we assume that these homes belonged to people who owned the press. Because of the ancient Jewish ritual laws, the oil had to be produced by people in a state of ritual purity.

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“The inhabitants farmed in the nearby valleys, growing wheat, sorghum, chickpeas, and lentils.  On the rocky hills they grew olives, figs, pomegranates, and grapes.  They also planted grape vines by their homes, training them up to the roof to provide shade in the summer.

“Because much of the land around Yodfat is so rocky, it was unsuitable for agriculture, but adequate for pasture.  We found a lot of bones, more sheep than goats.  We think the inhabitants grew the sheep mainly for wool, but also for meat and milk. There was no cotton available at the time, and linen was expensive, so most of the clothing was made from wool.  Also, we found a lot of loom weights, the largest quantity ever found in Israel from this period.   Weaving was done on vertical looms on the roof in summer, and indoors during the winter.

The inhabitants farmed in the nearby valleys, growing wheat, sorghum, chickpeas, and lentils.  On the rocky hills they grew olives, figs, pomegranates, and grapes.

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“We know that not all the residents were poor farmers.  Potters and weavers weren’t rich, but those who pressed olive oil made a good living.  We found a large, heavy iron key from a very complicated lock, so whoever locked his house had to have a good reason.  Most people didn’t lock their homes, as there was nothing worth stealing.

“We also found small copper scale weights, and we can assume they were either for jewels, cosmetics, perfume, gold or silver.  If someone had a scale with weights like that, they must have been selling something expensive.

“One of the homes we excavated had a fresco on the wall, in the same style as these found in Caesaria and Jerusalem. That means that someone wealthy lived there.  In the same home we also found a rare tubular clay oil lamp with 10 spouts, for 10 wicks, the equivalent of a 200 watt lamp today. 

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“Modern historians have developed many theories about towns and cities, for example that the poor, simple people lived in towns and the rich lived in cities; that the rich didn’t want to fight because they had too much to lose, but the poor did.  That’s nonsense. nonsense.” Tsippori and Tiberias both surrendered. “

As the Great Revolt against the Romans escalated, Cestius Gallus marched to Jerusalem with 30,000 soldiers, to restore order.  After an unsuccessful siege, Gallus marched north again and was ambushed and defeated by Jewish zealots.   The Jews were euphoric, claiming that this was a sign that God was on their side.

Josephus established an army and began fortifying villages.  By the summer of 67 CE he was ready for war.  Refugees began pouring into Yodfat from the surrounding towns, to escape the raping, plundering Roman army.  

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He whom the lot falls to first, let him be killed by him that hath the second lot, and thus fortune shall make its progress through us all.
— Josephus

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Josephus writes that he and forty of his soldiers hid in a cave.  He convinced his comrades that, rather than committing suicide, they should draw lots.  “He whom the lot falls to first, let him be killed by him that hath the second lot, and thus fortune shall make its progress through us all.” Thirty-nine men killed one another, until only Josephus and another soldier remained.  We don’t know what happened to him, but when the Romans found the two men, Josephus surrendered and asked to speak to Vespasian.  Using his charm, Josephus shrewdly told the Roman general that according to Jewish prophecy, Vespasian would be the next Emperor of Rome (which turned out to be true). So Vespasian spared Josephus, keeping him as a slave and interpreter.  

Was it by chance that Josephus was one of the last two remaining alive or was it due to his knowledge of mathematics?  This has given rise to a mathematical conundrum called the “Josephus problem”.  A group of people are standing in a circle and the first person is chosen.  He executes the man next to him, who then kills the man next to him, who murders the next in line.  The process continues around and around the circle, until only one man is left, who is then freed. For any specific number of people in the circle, where does a person need to stand in order to be that last person?

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Josephus accompanied the victorious Roman troops to Jerusalem, and later, after retiring in comfort in Rome, he wrote The Jewish War. According to the book, 40,000 Jewish soldiers were killed in the siege and 1,200 women and children were enslaved.

I asked Moti if he believes Josephus’s description is accurate.  He explained that the military history genre at that time included flourishes like the Josephus problem, to make the book more readable and entertaining.

“Josephus was in Yodfat during the siege and remembered it well. The Roman army was very well organized.  Each legion kept notes, which were available to him in the military archive in Rome.  He estimated that there were about 40,000 dead. There’s no room for 40,000 people in Yodfat.  That was the population of all of Central Galilee. I think it’s more like 5,000 or 6,000.  But the figure of 1,200 prisoners sounds right.

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“The Romans massacred the inhabitants, just as he wrote.  We found proof.  They killed people in the streets, homes, and hiding places.  Vespasian was wounded during the siege, so as punishment he didn’t let the Jews bury their dead.  A year or two later Jews who escaped or lived nearby came back, gathered the bones and buried them in the cisterns, where we found them, some with gashes from swords.  We had bones tested by an anthropologist.  All the people died healthy and there are no signs of malnutrition.  Ironically we only know that they died healthy because they were killed.

“The excavations at Yodfat proved definitively that Yodfat is ancient Jotapata.  There are remains of the assault ramp that was constructed on the northern slope, and signs that the wall was fortified during the siege, the town was conquered, set on fire, and its citizens massacred.  Jotapata was abandoned and never settled again.”

As you stand on the summit, look around you at the carpet of squills. The conditions that enabled such a proliferation were large piles of rubble from the destroyed city, and the droppings of goats and sheep over the centuries. The squills are an uncanny living testament to the ghost town, Jotapata.



The National Parks Authority has added signs with quotes from Josephus in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, as well as four marked hiking trails:

· Red: A short hike of about half an hour, with part of it accessible to the disabled, circling the summit

· Green: A medium hike of about an hour, as far as the cave with the olive press and the adjacent homes

· Black: A long hike of about an hour and a half, all the way down to the southern tip of the hill

Additional trails lead from Ancient Yodfat to Atsmon Mountain, as well as Hirbat Kana, which archaeologists claim is the true location of the New Testament village of Cana, where Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine.