On a random Saturday in May, we were blessed with the perfect weather for a day in nature and headed down south to the Judean lowlands to meet up with friends for a nice picnic and hike. To roam among some magnificent old graves, crawl through underground tunnels bearing macabre tales, and explore some beautiful caves at the site of Khirbet Midras.
There is even an ancient Jewish pyramid to be seen here.
The site of Khirbet Midras is located in the Judean lowlands. The site is just off route no.35, about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem and/or Tel Aviv. It is on the route we took to the Negev Desert. Just write Khirbet Midras on your Waze and choose חרבת מדרס. This road will take you to the parking lot where you can park your car and have a nice picnic below some oak trees before hitting the trail.
This place is perfect for traveling with kids or people who are looking for an easy hike. It offers a circular trail, which took us a bit more than two and a half hours to hike. We were two families with toddlers and young kids. If you are planning on visiting here, estimate a nice hike of about 2-3 hours including stops and breaks. The place is also free to enter.
Note for people traveling with kids: I definitely recommend having a picnic before you hit the trail, otherwise ten minutes into the walk they’ll start bugging you that they are hungry. And just in case, bring some snacks along, otherwise, you might lose a finger or your head. Most importantly make sure you have enough water since there won’t be any place for a refill along the trail. 2 liters of water per person and 1 per kid is the minimum. On hotter days I would even take more. And don’t forget your witchy hats, Israel is a hot and sunny country.
The dead gazing on the living
Khirbet Midras is the site of an ancient village located in the Judean Foothills. Its main story begins about 2200 years ago, during what is known as the Hellenistic period, when it was part of a territory known as Idumea, mainly inhabited by a pagan population that around 125 B.C.E would be forcefully converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus of the Hasmonean dynasty.
Long story short, pagans VS. Jews, Jews won, and now there are more Jews.
One of the most famous Idumeans was Herod the Great, the King of Judea who established the Herodian dynasty. He was buddy-buddy with Augustus and Rome (not that he had much choice since Judea was subjugated to Rome), and is known as “Herod the builder”. Among his many projects are monuments in the coastal city of Caesarea, palaces, the fortification of Masada, the palaces in Jericho, and the most famous is the wailing wall in Jerusalem, a remnant from the Jewish Temple, where today you’ll find the Temple Mount.
Bottom line, if you travel to Israel to see the magnificent architecture from circa 2000 years ago, rest assured that Herod had something to do with it.
Some say he also re-founded Khirbet Midras.
Khirbat Midras was an important agricultural village during this time, on the road from Jerusalem to the coastal trade cities of Ashkelon and Gaza. This fertile area attracted many agricultural endeavors and a wealthy population who settled here. Olive pressing and winemaking, which still flourishes here today, and dove agriculture thrived here and left their mark in the abundance of industrial installations and special caves for raising doves, known as a columbarium.
Some of these you’ll be able to see along your trek.
Usually, the cemeteries were outside of the settlement, but here, in Khirbet Midras, the city of the dead was on the top gazing down upon those living in their homes on the slopes of the hills. Among these tombs, are beautiful burial caves and a special magnificent pyramid, belonging to the wealthy population living in the village.
Let’s get dirty
As you begin your hike, choose the blue trail, pointing toward Khirbat Midras, and walk toward your first attraction, a cave with underground tunnels. Kids love crawling here, so make sure to bring flashlights with you.
Our oldest boy was really keen on crawling through tunnels, so Sarel grabbed our flashlights and headed into the catacombs. The tunnels are very low and tight, luckily he is a petite man so he didn’t get stuck. Crawling through the four to five-meter long tunnel it opened up to a chamber which led to another tunnel, of approximately the same length, which, in turn, opened up to another chamber. Sarel and Tomy crawled through about four or five tunnels until claustrophobia set upon Sarel and he turned around and headed out, although Tomy wanted to continue on.
The toddlers weren’t excited to crawl in the tunnels but they still enjoyed exploring the cave with us.
These tunnels bear witness to the ongoing Jewish resistance to Roman rule and hide their devastating story and doom from about 1865 years ago.
The Jews like many other nations didn’t like being subjugated to Rome, and surprise surprise decided to revolt.
In 66 C.E, a massive revolt spread through the land bringing the doom of the Jewish state. In 70 C.E parts of Jerusalem including the Holy Temple were burned to the ground. According to some historians, the Romans didn’t intend to burn the temple, rather one soldier threw a torch and it “accidentally” burned down. Oopsy!
In some parts of the country, the revolt continued, like at the famous site of Masada. Some Jews were exiled or sold as slaves while the majority remained in Jerusalem and the country. However, their hatred toward Rome and their will for Independence didn’t die. This led to another Jewish revolt, mainly in Judea, from about 132 – 136 C.E, known as the Bar-Kochba revolt. This rebellion is filled with many gory and macabre tales but that will have to wait for another time.
During this revolt, most of the rebels’ resistance took place in the underground tunnels of Judea, where they hid and lived during the years of the revolt.
These became underground cities, connecting different cellars, installations, houses, and rooms and you can find them in other sites, mainly in the Judean lowlands. From these tunnels, attacks were carried out and families were kept safe. When you crawl inside them, think of the people who once inhabited these cells and found their deaths here, turning back into ashes and dirt. Mu-Ha-Ha.
After you’ve had your share of crawling and getting dirty, continue up the blue path toward the next stop, the Pyramid.
On your way you will probably notice more caves, some with little alcoves inside, those are burial caves used by the Jewish population that lived in this area back in the day. While some caves would be simple caves, others were magnificent works of architecture visible from far away, telling their dwellers stories, like the pyramid.
Keep an eye out for holes in the ground. They’ll usually be fenced off and can be recognized by fig trees growing from inside.
Jewish burial practice
In ancient Judaism, the act of secondary burial was practiced. In the Bible, we hear of “rested with his ancestors” in 1 Kings 11:21, Judges 2:10: “gathered to their ancestors” and other places. These passages talked about a burial rite practiced during the first temple period (before the Babylonian exile, aka 586 B.C.E) of secondary burials in caves. After the bodies finished decomposing over rock-cut shelves inside the burial cave, and only bones remained, they were transferred to a niche or room inside the cave where the bones of other members of the family rested. You can see an example of such practice in the burial cave of Ketef Hinnom in the valley of Gehenna in Jerusalem, which I plan to visit and write about in the near future so make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to be notified when it’s out.
Later, mainly from the first century B.C.E and until the destruction of the temple, the secondary burial practice was carried out inside burial caves, simple and monumental alike. The practices were versatile but the main and most prevalent, especially among the higher classes, was laying the deceased on a shelf or a niche for a primary burial. After the decomposition of the flesh, the bones were transferred inside an ossuary, a stone chest, ornamented with intricate designs from the Jewish belief repertoire with the name of the deceased carved into it. These ossuaries would be placed inside small niches, on benches used for the desiccation of the corpse, or rest on the cave floor. You will meet some of these caves on your hike in Khirbet Midras.
Visit a pyramid
The walk toward the pyramid from the tunnels was the “hardest” part of the hike since it was a bit uphill, but I think it felt so since the kids got a bit tired from the tunnel crawling, and guess what, they got hungry again. Luckily there were plenty of Oaks around the Pyramid, so we just sat there for a break. Bring some snacks with you and just chill until you are ready to hit the road again.
The Pyramid in connection to burials is known from all corners of the world in different settings, of which the most famous became those in Egypt. In Judea, these became pretty famous among the wealthy during the Hellenistic and the second temple period, (about 2200-1900 years ago). While they weren’t as big nor similar to those in Egypt, they were burial caves, like those mentioned before, adorned with a monumental pyramid on the top, called Nefesh (meaning soul). Examples of these you’ll find in Jerusalem, and other villages in Judea of which the largest is here at Khirbet Midras.
This pyramid, aka Nefesh, indicated the burial cave beneath and next to it and was built somewhere toward the end of the second temple period for one wealthy family that lived in this picturesque village.
Going forward on the trail you will come upon a monumental structure, whose nature is still under debate. However, an ongoing excavation at the site might shed some new light on it soon, and I might spend a day there digging. If I return and don’t turn to ash from the heat, I’ll make sure to write more about it and the experience, so stay tuned.
Continue down the blue path toward an amazing, beautiful burial cave. As you approach it, the trail will curve right and in between the oaks and other greenery, a cave beautifully carved in stone will reveal in front of you.
Hanging out in Jewish catacombs
The cave is a perfect place for you to rest and let the kids (or you) explore its’ burial niches where flesh once decomposed and bones rested, and pretend to be a rising vampire rising from its’ day sleep, ready to feed upon the living as you reveal yourself from the stone-cold sarcophagus, placed on the burial shelf inside the main chamber. Mu-Ha-Ha!!!
Later, during the days of the Bar Kochba revolt, a tunnel was dug from the cave, leading to some secret rooms, though not so secret today. A great attraction for kids, though I recommend crawling there with them since some areas might be slippery.
After trying to raise the dead with no luck, since they already all fled a long time ago, we crawled and climbed around a bit we headed to our next stop, a peculiar cave.
From this point, turn right and connect to the green trail, which will lead you to a bell cave. These types of caves with small triangular niches are very common in the area and were used for dove agriculture. They are called columbaria.
While today, columbaria are known as mortuary structures used for public storage of funerary urns with cremation remains, back in the day this term described nesting boxes for pigeons and doves. These pigeons were a common food staple during the Roman period in Judea and the Middle east.
However, the story of the village wasn’t over with the revolt. After the Roman subjugation of the Jewish population living here, they emphasized their presence throughout the entire lowland area, which had been predominantly Jewish. Jews weren’t allowed to settle here anymore, and to show their strength and conquest the Romans placed legions in the area and built monumental structures, such as the Amphiteatre at Beit Guvrin.
Come Christianity, the Pagan nature of the cities and villages, gradually changed and a church was built in the Village of Khirbet Midras. This was a beautiful church with intricate mosaics crafted by Byzantine artisans and was destroyed in the horrendous earthquake in 749 C.E. It was resettled 500 years later. Unfortunately, after it was opened to the public, in 2011, a group of religious vandals decided to destroy the beautiful mosaics, shattering them and leaving the church to decay. From this day, the archaeologists and the nature reserve decided to cover the church in the hope to restore it in the near future.
Today, it’s buried under the weeds, and only when you get closer you can see some of the architectural elements lying around, hinting at the site’s magnificent history.
From here, continue on the red trail until you finish your hike, leading you back to the parking lot. To our kids’ surprise, there was an ice cream truck just standing there, so we enjoyed some ice cream and headed back home.