Text and photos by MATT CHURCHILL
The oldest military campaign ever recorded is that of Thutmose III on the wall of the temple in Karnak, ca. 1468 BCE. This is where Gezer is mentioned for the first time in history. Indeed, from the top of Tel Gezer one can understand its strategic importance: it sits at a major intersection which looks down on Ayalon valley, where the Via Maris came up from the coast and the Tel Aviv/Jerusalem highway, which climbs past Gezer into the mountains. Gezer stands at a crossroads and that is exactly what its name in Hebrew implies.
This row of monoliths illustrates how the high place of Gezer was used as a cultic center where tribes could sacrifice or have covenant renewal ceremonies between different city-states in the middle and late Bronze Age.
Archeological surveys have unearthed 21 layers of civilization at Tel Gezer reaching back to the Chalcolith period until the Romans. The most impressive finds are enormous walls and a water system from the Canaanite period or middle Bronze Age, a cultic site with giant monolithic pillars representing tribes or deities, an early Hebrew agricultural calendar inscription, and what is believed to be a six-chambered Solomonic gatehouse, like the ones found at Tel Megiddo and Tel Hazor. The Book of Kings in the Hebrew bible describes how after the death of his father David around 965 BCE, King Solomon rebuilt the cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer as major fortress towns for his chariots. Also, 12 stone inscriptions have been discovered that say, "THE BOUNDARY OF GEZER". So archeologists know they are digging in the right place.
In the Hellenistic period (332 - 63 BCE), Gezer lost its prominence and nearby Latrun/Emmaus became the chief intersection. In 1 Maccabees several major battles take place here between the Greek Selucids and the Jews. Because the ruling Greeks were trying to impose their religion by force, a group of priests named after Judas Maccabi fought back and ultimately cleansed the Jerusalem Temple from heathen sacrilege. This is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Remains of a fortress built by Selucid commander Baccides ca. 163 BCE can still be seen atop Khirbet el-Aqed in Park Ayalon as an amazing witness to the literature of the Intertestamental period.
In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, there is one of the most famous post-resurrection encounters between Jesus and his disciples. Cleopas and another not named are walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but they don't recognize that it's him. Jesus asks them why they look so sad and they reply in astonishment, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem that doesn't know the things that have happened there in these days?". They go on to tell him the heartbreaking story of how Jesus was brutally crucified by the Romans. When they reach the town of Emmaus they invite Jesus to eat with them and when he breaks the bread, suddenly their eyes are opened, but Jesus has disappeared. They say to one another, "Didn't our hearts burn within us as he opened up the Scriptures?". And so they race back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.
Some of the earliest interpreters of the New Testament, like Origen, Eusebius and Jerome, place the event at Emmaus which the Romans had renamed Nicopolis, the city of victory. And an early Byzantine basilica church attests that this is where early Christians remembered the story.
In 637 CE, Emmaus/Nicopolis became the largest military and administrative position under the command of Abu Ubaida during the great Arab conquests. And in the Crusader period two castles were erected: Castellum Arnaldi and Le Toron des Chevaliers. Le Toron became confused with the Latin latros, which means thief and the tradition arose that the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus was from Emmaus and why Emmaus is also known as Latrun from the late Middle Ages.
Flash forward to the British Mandate (1917 - 1948) when Latrun became a police fortress. During the 1948 Arab - Israeli War several major battles were fought on the highway to Jerusalem and Latrun controlled the road. It was finally taken by the Arab Legion of Jordan with great casualties on both sides. Israel was able to build a bypass road, called "the Burma Road," in order to bring weapons, fuel, food, and medical supplies to 100,000 Jews besieged within Jerusalem. Latrun was later taken by Israel in the War of 1967 and the police station is now the museum and memorial of the IDF's Armored Corps. The tanks are positioned to look like the rays of the sun - a reference to the Book of Joshua, chapter 10, when the sun stands still in its place as the Israelites defeat the Amorites in the Valley of Ayalon. A Palestinian village called Imwas existed nearby until 1967, when they were deported. The Arabic Imwas also preserved the ancient name of Emmaus.
Matt Churchill is a licensed tour guide in Israel and can be reached at his website churchillisraeltours.com
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