Mount Nitai


We are on the summit of Mount Nitai with a beautiful view towards south, where we can see the hiding caves on the cliffs of mount Arbel. To the right was the ancient village of Arbel, to the left which is the east, we have a view of the Galilee Sea and the southern part of the Golan heights, and to the north we see the Ginosar Valley and parts of Galilee.

At the foot of the mountain, on the cliffs here bellow us, there are dozens of caves, most of them are hewn in the rock. The nearest water sources are in the Arbel brook below and access to them from the mountain is difficult due to the cliffs. The last issue yet very important to note, is that on the steep slope at the foot of the mountain cliffs was an ancient Jewish village, we don’t know for sure its name at the time, and we name it now Khirbet Wadi Hammam, it was one of the largest villages in the lower part of Galilee in Roman times.

Now, what is the logic of locating a village at the foot of a mountain when there is a constant danger of rock falls from the cliff? and there is evidence in the village that such landslides did occur, I will address this question later in the video.

What is the origin of the name Mount Nitai? So, a famous individual who lived in the 2nd century BCE in Arbel, the ancient village across the valley, and his name is Nitai of Arbel. He was the presiding judge or another description would be vice president of the Sanhedrin alongside the president of the Sanhedrin who was at the time Joshua ben Perchyah, probably during the reign of John Hyrcanus the Hasmonean. What is Sanhedrin? So, I cover it in length when we visit the cities of Tzipori and also Beit Shearim, yet it is a type of a Jewish supreme council and court having jurisdiction over religious, civil, and criminal issues. It operated during the 2nd temple period probably until the early 5th century. Nitai and Joshua were the second Zugut, Zugot in Hebrew means Pair of people. Together, they are the second pair of sages in the period called Zugot that lasted about two hundred years, during the 2nd Temple period in the first and second centuries BCE, acting as the spiritual leadership of the people of Israel.

The name Nitai was given to this mountain not too long ago, so Mount Nitai today was probably called Arbel in Roman times, so, in all probability, statements about the caves in the area and even the name Arbel – it is possible that they referred to the two locations together and maybe even sometimes, the reference was to Mount Nitai only.

The wall has nine guard towers that apart from one or two they are hard to spot. The wall is 286m long and the remains of the nine towers stand out. The distance between the guard towers is 28 meters. As can be seen, the wall was built of cultivated fieldstones.

What was the purpose of the wall and to what period did it belong? So, the wall was built to protect whoever was east of the wall, that is, whoever was in the caves on the cliffs. All nine towers are facing west – the only direction from which an enemy was expected to arrive.

In addition, the end of the wall to the north, ends in a square tower – between it and the edge of the cliff was a narrow passage – the only passage through which the wall can be passed towards the steep slope of the cliff. As you can see, the western side of the mountain is a flat plateau that is easily accessible from the west, so the guard towers turned west, where attack by Roman forces on the inhabitants of the caves was expected from.

The wall is probably part of the fortifications built in preparation for the Great Revolt that took place between 66 and 70 CE. The vast majority of the pottery found here belong to the middle of the first century CE, and another important point appears in the book of Yosef ben Matityahu also known by his Roman name Josephus Flavius. The book name is “the war of the Jews against the Romans” Book II Chapter 20 f, and I will quote one paragraph which is my translation from Hebrew – ” And in Joseph’s opinion that the Romans would ascend to the Land of Israel through the Galilee, he fortified all the high places of the land…..and there is a list of 9 locations, and then he continues…. And besides these he built walls on the caves which are around the Sea of Galilee in the part of the land called the Lower Galilee” – A perfect description of the fortifications on Mount Nitai that dominate access to the caves on the cliffs.

According to Yosef ben Matityahu books which he wrote during the first century CE, the fortifications protected caves. This wall here protects only the caves of Mount Nitai. In fact, all the caves below us are protected by this wall.

In another book named ‘The Life of Josef’, he writes about the fortification of the village ‘Cave of Arbel’. The only village protected by the wall is the one located below us in Wadi Hammam. The caves on the slope are not natural, they were hewn in advance by artificial means, so there is justification for calling the ancient village – ‘Cave Village, or Arbel Caves’, there is really no link between the caves near the ancient village of Arbel, these are the caves across the valley, and the wall on Mount Nitai.

The caves on the cliffs of Mount Nitai are arranged in two levels. Most of the caves were inspected, and access to them was limited by rocky shoulders that were difficult to bypass, and even if climbable, such a climb was virtually impossible for a military force carrying heavy combat equipment. Most of the caves were damaged by landslides. The cave complex was organized as a living unit with dedicated rooms apparently intended for cooking, sleeping and storage.

A few more words about the ancient Jewish village in Wadi Hammam that we have already mentioned today.  The connection between the Jews who fled the village Arbel and the caves on the cliffs of mount Arbel, and between the Jews who fled the village in Wadi Hammam and the caves on the cliffs of Mount Nitai, seems clear.

It is not inconceivable that the hundreds of the refuge caves at these two sites were also used by the inhabitants of other nearby villages.

Remember the question we started with it – what is the logic of locating a village at the foot of a cliff when there is a constant danger of rock falls from the cliff? – The role of the fortification on Mount Nitai is directly related to the village of Wadi Hammam and the caves on the cliffs of Mount Nitai. The fortified compound dominates the village. The only access to the fort compound from the inside is through the steep path that climbs directly from the village to the northern end of the wall, the connection between the fortification and the caves is also clear as access to the upper caves on the cliff is possible only from the protected compound. It is also possible that the protected compound here at the top of the mountain served as a kind of refuge area for a large population.

The construction of the fortification on the scale seen here is above the power of a village as the one in Wadi Hammam, and therefore was used for villages from the region to use – this strengthens the hypothesis that the fortification here was indeed built by Yosef Ben Matityahu.

The activity on the site continued in the 2nd century CE and it is possible that the towers were added at that time in preparation for the Bar Kochba revolt, since as I explain in the video on the synagogue in Wadi Hammam just below us – there is a clear identification of destruction of the village of Wadi Hammam during the Bar Kochba revolt in the 2nd century CE.

We reached the end of this video and as usual we will conclude with a question – Who among the kings of the Hasmonean dynasty, returned the land of Galilee to the Israelites – the answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Rock shelters & hiding places in Galilee during early Roman period, Author: Yinon ‏Shivti’el, Publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad
  2. Article: Arbel Haglilit, Editors: Yigal Tepper & Yuval Shahar, Publisher: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi
  3. Qadmoniot: Quarterly for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands No. 149, Publisher: Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem

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