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The valley of ella in encient times and today
In Ancient Times
The Valley of Ella, which is part of the plains of the Judean Hills, was already settled in ancient times, as the remnants of settlements, wine presses and agricultural terraces testify. The Valley was inhabited as early as the chalcolithic period (3000 - 4000 BCE); the inhabitants made clay pots and, we believe, wine from wild grapes.
The Valley of Ella is seven kilometers long with the Ella stream, which only flows in the winter, running along the middle. The Valley is called after the impressive Palestinian Terebinth trees ("ella", in Hebrew), which are still found there. In Arabic, it is called Wadi a-Sant, the Valley of the White Acacia, which one notices on the way to the winery.
The Valley offers fertile soil, a large number of wells, and is centrally located, which enabled its inhabitants to distribute their produce both to the plains and to the mountain settlements. The Valley has a long history of vine growing and wine producing. The first wine presses date approximately the year 3,300 BCE. Wine bottles from the area were found in the tombs of the pharaohs from the First and Second Dynasties. The vineyards and wines from Eretz Israel are also mentioned in Egyptian and Roman documents.
At the Time of the Bible
As soon as Noah emerges from the Ark, he plants a vineyard and even gets drunk. From then on, the Bible is full of references to vines, vineyards and wines, all of which form an integral part of daily life, religious sacrifice, as well as of the cultural and social fabric of our ancestors' life.
The vine is one of the seven species our land was blessed with, and so is the olive. In the Bible, wine and olive oil are often mentioned together, since growing them calls for similar conditions. Our country was blessed with a climate and with soil propitious for growing both these species, particularly Judea, as we see from Jacob's blessing of his son Yehuda.
The Valley of Ella served as a strategic point along the main roads linking the plains of the Mediterranean to the Judean Hills, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. The main settlements in the Valley were Azeka, So'ho and Adulam, which are already mentioned at the time of the conquest of the country by Joshua. The Valley of Ella was located on the "seam-line" between the Israelites and the Philistines, and was the scene of many confrontations described in Judges and in the Book of Samuel. This is where Samson the Hero was born and lived, and where David overcame Goliath. The latter battle took place between So'ho and Azeka, which today are two barrows (Tel So'ho is also called Lupine Hill), located close to the winery.
The Valley is also mentioned in the Book of Kings, and in the story of the Babylonian conquest of Eretz Israel by Nabuchodonosor. Azeka, for its part, is mentioned in "Letters from Lakhish", dating from the same period. Following the Return to Zion, the Book of Nechemiah speaks of the rebuilding of Zanoa'h, Adulam, Lakhish and Azeka.
The Greek and Roman Period.
Following the destruction of the First Temple, Edomites, Zidonians and Greeks arrived in the region, whose center was the town of Marasha.
This town was famous for its olive oil and its residents dug some impressive caves in the soft chalk soil, such as the Bell Cave in Bet Guvrin. After the Hasmonean Revolt, many of the residents converted to Judaism, including the family of Herod, future King of Judea.
The area flourished in the days of the Second Temple, and findings from Bet Natif (located close to Netiv Halamed He) point to the existence of a large county town. The town was destroyed during the Big Revolt, and a Roman settlement by the name of Litfa was built in its place. Close to the Adulam Junction, remnants of a Roman inn were also found.
At the time of the Great Revolt (in the year 66 CE), fierce battles were waged in the area which were successful at first, until the rebels were overpowered by Aspasianos. The same happened at the time of the Bar Kochbah Rebellion. Bar Kochvah himself made ample use of the caves located in the area as hiding places. Emperor Adrian arrived and crushed the revolt, and a road was built in his honor, linking Ashkelon to Jerusalem. This is the reason for finding millstones and carved steps in the Valley of Ella.
In the Byzantine period (4th-7th century CE), the Valley of Ella continued to prosper, with the arrival of a new population. Settlements in the area, such as So'ho and Bet Guvrin, appear in great detail on the Madaba mosaic map, located in Jordan. The Hurvat Hanut site comprises remnants of a luxurious Byzantine structure, with a mosaic painting and an ancient wine press. In those days, the wine industry in Eretz Israel reached its peak. "The Wines of Gaza and Ashkelon", named after the ports they originated from, were known as top-quality and superior wines throughout the ancient world. Wine jugs from Eretz Israel were uncovered at archeological sites around the Mediterranean, as well as in France and Great Britain.
The Moslem Conquest
In the year 634 AC, the Arab military leader Omar Ibn Al-Etz, conqueror of Egypt, defeats the Byzantine army headed by Theodorus, at the battle of Adjnadein. In fact, the name stands for "Al-Genbatin", named after two villages located close by - Al-Genaba al-Fuka and Al-Genaba al-Tahta. Remnants of these villages are found close to Tel Azeka and to the place of the battle between David and Goliath. This victory opened the way to Jerusalem for the Muslim army, which marked the completion of the Muslim conquest of Eretz Israel, lasting until 1948.
The Valley was also a strategic asset in the days of the Crusaders, as we can see from the remnants of the Crusaders' fort of Bet Itab - located close to Bar Giora - which lays on the road to Jerusalem. At the Hurvat Tanur site, we find remnants of a Crusaders' monastery.
At the time of the Muslims, the Valley of Ella comprised a large number of agricultural villages, but vine-growing subsided. On the eastern side of the Valley, a large settlement was set up, called Kfar Natif. In 1773, Dahar Al-Omar, Ruler of the Galilee, passed through the Valley on the way to Mount Hebron. According to travelers' journals, a fort was located at the entrance to the Valley - Castillo del Terebinte - which served as a toll-collecting point for people who wished to continue on their way.
In January 1948, a Palmach platoon of 35 soldiers left Hartuv on the way to besieged Gush Etzion. They were discovered as they were going through the Valley of Ella, and were attacked by throngs of Arabs from neighboring villages and were all killed in combat. In October 1948, the Harel Division conquered the area; Kibbutz Netiv Halamed He (The Road of the 35) was set up close to the place of the battle.
Revival of the Wine Production in Israel
Under Moslem rule, the wine presses were either destroyed or turned into olive presses. Wine production was totally forbidden, except for a small quantity which Jews and Christians were allowed to grow for religious purposes. It is only in the middle of the 19th century, with the growing influence powerful European countries had on the Ottoman Empire, that a number of wineries opened in Jerusalem and, later on, in the first Jewish settlements.
After an outbreak of the phylloxera, which destroyed much of Europe's vineyards, Baron Rothschild decided to plant vineyards designed for export, and established the Rishon-le-Tzion Wineries. At the end of the 19th century, the monasteries of Bet Gimal, Cremisan, Dir Rafat and Latrun planted vineyards and opened wineries. WWI and the recovery of the French wine industry meant the wine industry in Eretz Israel was once again reduced, and it is only following Independence that it was decided to grow vineyards in area of the Judean Hills, once again.
Since the 1950s, vineyards have been planted in the Judean Hills and today, they cover over 10,000 dunams in the area, which comprises 20% of the vineyards in the country. In the early 90s, wineries of different sizes and offering unique features were opened and today, there are 25 wineries in the area!