Twelve years ago, in 1996, I revised my travel guidebook Daytrips Israel for the last time. Problems in that wonderful but troubled country have since held book sales down to a point where it was no longer worthwhile spending time there to update it once again. To say nothing of the expense. But still, that edition contains a great deal of travel information that remains valid today. So, if you're heading that way, consider making the following daytrip after checking out the websites listed at the end of this posting:
(Ashqelon, Askalon, Askelon)
A Daytrip from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv
There's a awful lot to see in Ashkelon; easily enough to keep you busy all day. Squatting next to the Mediterranean, this is among the oldest inhabited towns on Earth, and has plenty of ancient ruins to prove it. But that's not all. Within its widespread boundaries is a traditional Arab town, a prosperous modern community of today's Israel, a commercial center, a complete national park, and a leading seaside resort. The tour outlined here takes you to the best of the widely scattered sites and allows enough time to thoroughly enjoy both star attractions — the Old Town and the excavated site of Biblical Ashkelon.
Egyptian texts from around the 18th century B.C. mention Ashkelon (image, right) as a Canaanite trading town, one of several along the coastal road linking Egypt with Syria. In the 12th century B.C. it was captured by the Philistines and became the most important of their five principalities. There are several Biblical references from this era, the most notable being David's lament over the death of King Saul — "Tell it not in Garth, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice; lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph" (II Samuuel 1:20). Changing hands several more times, Ashkelon flourished under Roman rule from the 1st century B.C. until the fall of the empire. According to tradition, Herod the Great was born here in 73 B.C. and later added considerably to the town's magnificence. During the 7th century A.D. Ashkelon fell to the Arabs, then briefly to the Crusaders of the 12th century. The ancient town was finally destroyed forever by the Mamluks in 1270, although the Arab village of Migdal eventually developed on a site a little bit to the east.
Buses (numbers 300 and 301 leave Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station frequently for the one-hour ride to Ashkelon, with returns until mid-evening. From Jerusalem's Central Bus Station there are hourly departures (bus number 437) for the 90-minute trip, with return until early evening. Naturally, there is no service from mid-afternoon on Fridays untl Saturday evenings, nor on some major Jewish holidays.
By Car, Ashkelon is 39 miles southwest of Tel Aviv via Route 4. From Jerusalem, take Route 1 west, then Route 3 southwest, for a total diatance of 45 miles. Use the car for getting to the sites; parking is usually easy.
Unless you have a car, you'll have to rely on local buses to reach the various sites, which are spread over a large area. Relevant bus stops are indicated on the map, and route numbers in the text. As in all Israeli towns, you pay the driver, who will also make change.
Avoid visiting Ashkelon on Fridays, Saturdays, or on major Jewish holidays, when much of the town shuts down and transportation is difficult. Good weather is essential for this completely outdoor daytrip. The local Government Tourist Information Office, phone (051) 324-12, is in the Commercial Center of the Afridar district. Ashkelon has a population of about 62,000.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Some restaurant choices are:
Afridar Café (Zephaniah Sq., near the tourist office) Light meals and desserts in a pleasant setting. X: Fri., Sat. $
Nitzahon (30 Herzl St. in the Old Town, at Tzahal St.) Old-World Romanian cuisine for over 30 years, a local favorite. X: Fri. $
In addition, you'll find excellent felafel and other Middle Eastern street foods vended along the pedestrian shopping street in the Old Town of Migdal. There is a pub-restaurant as well as an outdoor café in the national park, and that old reliable standby, the Egged cafeteria at the bus terminal.
Click on map to enlarge
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
From Ashkelon's Central Bus Station (1) on Ben-Gurion Blvd. you can either walk a little over a mile or take local bus number 4 or 5 to the Commercial Center (Merkaz Afridar) at the north end of HaNassi St. in Afridar. There you'll find the town's best source of current information and advice, the Government Tourist Information Office (2). Just across the square is the Antiquities Courtyard (3) where two magnificent Roman sarcophagi (photo, left) of the 3rd century A.D. are displayed under an open shelter. They were discovered nearby during digging operations in 1972. Afridar is an unusually pleasant neighborhood that serves as a model for some people's vision of Israel's future. It was founded in 1952 as an idealistic planned community by Jewish immigrants from South Africa, and retains much of that rather genteel atmosphere.
From the southeast corner of the same square you can take bus number 4, 5, or 7 to an entirely different kind of place, the old Arab town of Migdal. Then called Majdal, it was established in the early 19th century by Arab laborers brought here by the ruling Turks to work on the ultimately unsuccessful excavations led by Lady Stanhope, an English aristocrat who thought she knew where the treasures lay. In the war of 1948, most of the Arab residents were driven south to the nearby Gaza Strip, and the Old Town taken over by the victorious Israelis.
Get off the bus at the stop (4) near the upper end of Herzl St., the main shopping thoroughfare, and stroll north to the Ashkelon Museum (5), located in an old Arab caravanserai (khan) next to a mosque. The exhibits and audiovisual presentations here focus on the town's history from the Roman era until modern times. They may be seen on Sundays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m., on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on Saturdays and holidays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Retrace your steps on Herzl St. and continue straight ahead to where it becomes a pedestrian shopping mall (midrehov). A colorful outdoor market is held here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; and there are always outdoor cafés, restaurants, felafel stands, and all manner of small shops to hold your interest.
At the bottom of Herzl St. (6), near the post office, you can board bus number 3 or 9 for a rather circuitous ride to the national park and its archaeological excavations. Get off at the bus stop (7) on Shapiro St. and walk west on Agnon St., which becomes a footpath, and into the park. If you're coming by car, you'll have to use the north entrance, reached via Ben-Gurion Blvd.
Enter the *Ashkelon National Park via the Jaffa Gate (8), where you can pick up a more detailed map and explanation of the site. The area of the ancient city enclosed by the great walls is about 600 dunams (150 acres) in size and opens directly to the sea along its western edge. Head south until you come to an intersection with an outdoor café. Just southwest of this is the site of the *Roman Forum (9), where various antiquities have been collected and are on display. At its southern end is a sunken area filled with interesting finds including a statue of the goddess Isis and her child-god Horus (photo, below).
Continue down the road to the restored Amphitheater (10), which may have once been a well and behind which are remnants of the Crusader walls. Beyond the second parking lot is a cliff looking straight down on the Crusader Harbor (11) and a modern bathing site.
The path going past some current excavations brings you to the Marine Stores (12); digs below this have revealed remnants from the Persian period of 500 B.C. The trail leads down to the main parking lot, where there's a restaurant and other facilities. The Turkish Well (13) near here has been partially restored; there's another one in even better shape behind the café. Follow the map to the ruined Byzantine Church (14) of around 400 A.D., which has four Roman columns and a frescoed apse. Those on foot can exit the park via the nearby Jerusalem Gate (15) and head directlu back to the bus stop (7) on Shapiro St., where you can get a ride back to the Central Bus Station. The National Park, phone (051) 364-44, is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., closing at 4 p.m. on Fridays.
Copyright © 1996 Earl Steinbicker
Although some of this information is dated, it remains essentially correct. For more up-to-date information visit www.ashkelon.muni.il. This English-language website is a bit confusing, but if you dig deep enough you'll find it useful. A comprehensive website about the entire country is at www.goisrael.com. For bus schedules visit www.egged.co.il/eng/