This partially circular hike on the outskirts of Modi'in passes the ruins of Um el-Umdan where one of the earliest synagogues in Israel has been found. It then ascends the adjacent Sher Hill. Mattityahu ben Yohanan and his sons of the Chanukah story fame lived in the village of Modi’in. The exact location of ancient Modi'in is unknown, although it was in this general area. Um el-Umdan has been suggested as a possible location although other sites seem more plausible.
Time: About 1¼ hours.
Distance: 2.6 Km.
Type of walk: Partially circular.
Difficulty: This is an easy hike with a mild incline up Sher Hill. Towards the end of the hike there is walking on bare rock, but this is not difficult. There is no WC in the immediate vicinity.
Directions, parking and starting point: The Waze direction for Um el-Umdan does not get you to the parking lot for Umm al-Umdan but rather onto the main road Sderot HaHashmonayim. Instead, enter "22 ראובן" into Waze (which is close to the parking lot) and click on 22 ראובן, Modi'in-Maccabim-Re'ut." Continue on this side of the road for about 100 meters past this house (there is a barrier in the middle of the road), and you will come to a large parking lot for the archeological site on this same side of the street. The Waze coordinate for the parking lot is 31.883547,34.998472. The starting point is the parking lot.
Public transport: There is a bus stop for bus #12 from Modi’in central bus station close to the corner of Reuven St. and Yehuda St. From here it is about a 9-10-minute walk to the parking lot for Um el-Umdan.
Ancient synagogue from Second Temple times.
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From the parking lot, go down the steps to the walkway. This walkway passes through the grounds of an ancient village known as Um el-Umdan, (Arabic for “mother of pillars”, perhaps due to the synagogue’s pillars that were visible even before the site was excavated).
This Jewish village was founded during the Hasmonean period in the 2nd century BCE and was occupied continuously until the Bar Kochba Revolt in the 2nd century CE, when it was probably destroyed. It has been suggested that this was the ancient village of Modi’in. There are, however, a number of other candidates for ancient Modi’in, particularly al-Midya, an Arab village not far from here and near Mevo Modi’in.
In the Byzantine period, the land was used for agricultural purposes by the residents of a Christian village built adjacent to the ruins. There are remains of a winepress in the orchard area on your left. There are also partially shaded picnic benches here.
The ancient synagogue is located at the far end of the village.
This synagogue was constructed in the Hasmonean period and improvements were made in the Herodian period. You cannot miss it as it is surrounded by a white frame and has a protective roof. Adjacent to the synagogue and in its former courtyard is a mikveh that was formerly enclosed in a building.
After completing your tour of Um el-Umdan, leave the site by walking to the right-hand side of the far fence. Cross over Sderot HaHashmonayim carefully for a circular hike around Sher Hill.
Turn left after crossing Sderot HaHashmonayim and very shortly you will see a dirt path on the right through a large gap in the hedge with a green sign on a pole indicating "גבעת שר." There is also a green marking on a nearby lamp post. Turn onto this path and follow the green and yellow markings until you come to a green-marked trail.
Follow the green markings through a gate and then up the hill. Close to the top of the hill you will notice two rusted metal grids on a circular rock. The grid is covering a deep cistern used for water collection.
There was no spring or other water source in the vicinity of this village, and surface runoff water was collected in cisterns during the rainy season and used throughout the year. The ruins on Givat Sher cover three periods – late Hellenistic, Byzantine and Mameluke. There is also evidence here of ancient agriculture.
As you proceed you will notice a guard tower ahead of you, constructed of stones. It is possible to climb to its top.
Guard towers of this type (known in Hebrew as "shomerot") were common in agricultural areas and allowed the farmer to guard his crop (and his livelihood) when it was ready for being harvested. It also providing him a place to sleep and store his produce. What is unusual about this site is the large number of watch towers and the absence of any storage within them. It is unclear what their function was.
From the top of the hill is a nice view of modern Modi’in. There is also a nearby abandoned orchard.
Continue to the intersection of the green, black and red trails. Turn left along the black-marked trail to descend to the bottom of the hill. (The red trail continues westward). The black markings are on the rock.
When you come to almost the bottom of the hill, you will join the green-marked trail again. Go through the gate and head left towards Sderot HaHashmonayim via the path you came on.
To return to your car, you will need to cross Sderot HaHashmonayim and walk through Um el-Umdan again.
Reconstruction of the ancient synagogue
THE MACCABEAN REVOLT AND THE STORY OF CHANUKA
The Hellenistic period of Jewish history followed Alexander the Great’s bloodless conquest of Judea in 322 BCE. Alexander died at a young age and his vast empire was split up between his generals. The Ptolemaic kingdom was centered in Egypt and the Seleucid kingdom in Syria and Babylon. Judea was in the middle and the two kingdoms struggled for its control over the next 150 years. Judea was originally under the control of the Ptolemaic Empire but then passed to the Seleucid Empire. Following his death, Seleucius was succeeded by his brother Antiochus IV, the villain of the Chanukah story.
The story surrounding the Jewish festival of Chanukah is about the struggle of the Jewish people against two enemies – an external enemy, the Seleucid Empire, and an internal enemy, Hellenized Jews, many of whom were determined to bring Greek ways into Judea.
The Greek way of life was the antithesis of Judaism, but was attractive to many Jews. Its focus was on the centrality of man and the human body, and included physical sports, nudity, lack of sexual restraint, warfare, and also literature, drama, poetry and architecture. The Greeks believed in a pantheon of squabbling gods, and although this belief was waning among the intelligentsia the worship of these gods was culturally important to them.
Antiochus appointed high priests to the Temple and they brought in pagan practices. The Temple riches were raided and Antiochus began a campaign to stamp out Jewish practices and supplant them with pagan worship. Why did he do this? It could be that he considered Judaism a threat to the homogeneity of his empire. An interesting suggestion is that belief in Greek paganism was waning and Judaism was becoming attractive to many people in his empire. This would have been a threat to the Greek way of life.
When Greek soldiers approached the village of Modi’in in 166 BCE, Mattisyahu ben Yochanan killed the Jew who was about to worship at the pagan altar set up in the town square and the soldiers sent to the town. With his words “Whoever is for God – let him come to me!” the revolt against the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenist supporters had begun.
An army of 6,000 volunteers gathered in the Judean Desert. Mattisyahu was an old man and he died a year after initiating the rebellion but his sons continued the struggle. Leadership of the Jewish army passed to Judah Maccabee (Judeus Maccabeus). He was singularly successful in defeating a number of armies sent by the Seleucids despite being outnumbered in these battles. Eventually, he was able to liberate Jerusalem and purify the Temple. However, this was not the end of this struggle and 5 years after liberating the Temple he was killed in battle and Jewish forces were forced to abandon Jerusalem. Leadership of the revolt now passed in turn to his brothers Yochanan, Yonasan and Shimon. Not until 137 BCE was Shimon able to assert complete control over Judea. The Maccabean dynasty lasted until Herod the Great came to power in 37 BCE as an agent of Rome as a result of a civil wall between the Hasmonean rulers.
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, demonstrates the tenacity of the Jewish people in fighting to preserve Judaism.
THE SYNAGOGUE IN ANCIENT TIMES
When was the synagogue invented? From its earliest years, Judaism was focused on cultic worship in the Sanctuary or Temple. Following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Jewish exile to Babylon, the Men of the Great Assembly, the religious leaders of their times, put together the basic outlines of prayer. This corresponded to the fixed times of the sacrificial sacrifices in the destroyed Temple. Before this formalization of the liturgy, prayer had been spontaneous.
Synagogues in Judea did not become a fixed institution until just before the destruction of the Second Temple. However, even before this, public buildings were used for religious activities. The earliest archaeological evidence of a synagogue comes from Egypt where dedication inscriptions on a stone synagogue dating from the 3rd century BCE show that synagogues already existed by that date. The synagogue at Um el-Umdan is the second oldest synagogue in Israel.
These early synagogues were used for Torah study sessions, communal activities and perhaps for hosting visitors. At this early stage, prayer was not one of their functions. Functionally and architecturally, synagogues and town halls may have been one and the same. This synagogue/public building in Um el-Umdan is originally from the Hasmonean period and has later features from the Herodian period. Its design is typical of ancient synagogues throughout Israel consisting of benches around the sides of the building and columns supporting the roof towards its center. Hence, people were facing each other, although some people’s views would have been obstructed by the columns. This was basically a set up for listening rather than seeing.
Adjacent to the synagogue is a mikvah or ritual bath that was then contained within its own building. Ritual baths are not found in First Temple times but were used throughout the Second Temple period, and numerous ritual baths have been found throughout Israel.