Tuesday, December 27, 2011

All not what it seems when visiting Hiriya

Several friends and relatives will be traveling off to Israel this summer, taking part in a congregational trip sponsored by my synagogue. I won’t be one of the lucky adventurers this time around, visiting all the hot, cool and happening places in the Jewish homeland.

The trip’s itinerary offers up a euphonic blend of ancient and modern sites, all simmering in a spiritual stew that promises to fill the heart and soul – Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias and Jerusalem; Caesarea, Sfat, Masada and the Kotel; the Kinneret, Jordan River and the Dead Sea; Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl and the Israel Museum.

Hiriya, however, is once again being ignored. I spotted this, ah, special place on my first visit to Israel – it’s just outside of Tel Aviv, only a few miles from Ben Gurion International Airport. Most everyone passes the site, certain they are missing out on something special.

You can spot it from the highway (photo above), a distant mountain rising up from the horizon; a surrealistic vision that captures the imagination. Certainly this must be some sort of major archaeological site, a place where our ancient ancestors once settled and lived, right?

In profile it seems to be a tel, a craggy mound of debris, created by generations of humans going about their lives. Over time, the level rises, forming a mound. Archaeologists spend years sifting through such sites, attempting to figure out the distant past.

I know all this because James Michener focused his epic novel “The Source” around a tel in Israel and the generations that called it home. Like any good journalist, I also checked out Wikipedia! But I digress.

For years I wondered about the huge mound in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. On my most recent trip to Israel, volunteering on a military base in the area, I passed the site once again – in fact, passed it at least a half-dozen times, always wondering what secrets the tel held in its guts.

For whatever reasons, I never got around to asking any of my guides about the massive mound; at least not until I was on my way back to Ben Gurion Airport, headed home after a month in Israel.

As we passed the site, I pointed it out and asked my Taxi driver if he knew anything about the mound and the work being done there. He sort of grunted and I figured his lack of English and my lack of Hebrew was the problem.

I persisted, asking if he knew anything at all about the archaeological site. This time he laughed. Then, in absolutely perfect English, he explained that Hiriya might be an archaeological site one day; maybe in another thousand years.

Truth to tell, he explained, Hiriya is a landfill that was closed about a decade ago, the place where the bulk of trash from Tel Aviv had been dumped since the 1950s. Who knew? Like many such places around the world, it has been covered up with dirt and topsoil and plans are still in the works to turn it into some sort of city park.

Despite the hard-to-define vibe – mystical, spiritual, smelly – that spills across the dump, Israelis pretty much ignore the place. Tourists continue to wonder about its secrets, but I’m thinking it will take a few centuries before archaeologists start sifting through the junk.

All that stuff – plastic bottles, tattered clothing, broken cookery; you know, garbage – will probably be worth a fortune one day. Like a really fine wine, the crap of life just needs a little time to properly age. I’m guessing it’ll all end up in a museum or whatever they’re calling e-bay in 2300.

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