The Ella Valley in Ancient Times
The Ella Valley connects the coastal plain to the Judean Hills and has been populated since ancient times, as indicated by remnants of settlements, wine presses and many agricultural terraces. Humans lived here beginning in the Chalcolithic (copper) Age (4,000-3,000 BC) and it is reasonable to assume that they made wine from wild grapes.
The valley is about seven kilometers long and the Ella River, which only flows in the winter, passes through its center. The valley is named after the impressive terebinth trees (“ella” in Hebrew) which are still found there. In Arabic it is called Wadi es-Sunt, after the white acacia trees which can be seen on the way to the winery. The valley is exceptional for its fertile soil, abundance of springs and central location, which has enabled it to supply its produce equally to the valley and hill cities. The valley has a long history of growing grapes and producing wine. The first wine presses were from around 3,300 BCE and wine jugs from the area were found in the tombs of the Pharaohs from the first and second dynasties. The Land of Israel’s vineyards and wines are also mentioned in Egyptian and Roman documents.
Immediately upon Noah’s exit from the ark he plants a vineyard and even gets drunk. From here on the Bible is filled with mentions of grapevines, vineyards and wines, as an integral part of daily life, religious ritual and the cultural and social world of our ancestors.
Grapes and olives are two of the seven fruits with which the land of Israel was blessed. In many scripts wine and olive oil are mentioned together, since the conditions necessary for olive groves and vineyards are similar. The land of Israel was blessed with a climate and geology that are appropriate for both, particularly in the area of Judea, as the blessing of Jacob for his son Judah indicates: "He ties his foal to the vine, and his donkey's colt to the choice vine; He washes his garments in wine, and his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are dull from wine, and his teeth white from milk.” (Genesis, chapter 49).
The Ella Valley served as a strategic junction of the main routes connecting the coastal plain to the Judean Hills, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Its main cities were Azekah, Sokho and Adullam, which were mentioned at the time of the conquest of the Land of Israel by Joshua. The Ella Valley is located on the border between the Israelites and Philistines and has served as the backdrop for many incidents described in the books of Judges and Samuel. The hero Samson was born and lived here, and David fought Goliath here – the battle took place between Sokho and Azekah, today two Tels (archeological hills) not far from the winery (Tel Sokho is known today as “Givat Ha’Turmusim”).
The valley continued to play a role in the book of Kings and in the story of the Babylonian conquest of the Land of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar, and Azekah is mentioned in the “Lachish Letters” of the same time period. After the return to Zion (Shivat Tzion), the book of Nehemiah tells of the reestablishment of Zanoah, Adullam, Lachish and Azeka.
The Greek and Roman Period
After the destruction of the First Temple, Edomite, Sidonite and Greek peoples came to the region, whose center was in the city of Maresha. The city was known for the production of wine and its inhabitants dug impressive caves, like the bell caves at Beit Guvrin, in the chalk rock. After the Hasmonean rebellion many of the inhabitants converted to Judaism, among them the family of Herod the Great, later to become the king of Judea.
The area flourished in the Second Temple period, and findings from Beit Natif (near Nativ Ha Lamed-Heh) indicate the existence of a large provincial city. The city was destroyed during the Great Rebellion and a Roman settlement, Beit Litfa, was built in its place. Near the Adullam interchange, remnants of a Roman inn were found.
During the time of the Great Rebellion (66 AD) intense battles were waged in the area until the rebels were overcome by Vespasian. During the Bar Kochva Revolt, people made great use of the hiding caves in the area. The emperor Hadrian came to suppress the rebellion (130 AD) and in his honor a road was paved from Ashkelon to Jerusalem. The remains of the milestones and gradations excavated from the rock from this road are to be found in the Ella Valley.
In the Byzantine period (the fourth to seventh centuries) the valley continued to flourish, with a new population. On the Madaba map, settlements from the area, such as Sokho and Beit Guvrin, are shown in detail. On the site of Hurbat Hanut are the remnants of a magnificent Byzantine structure with a mosaic and ancient wine press. During that period the wine industry reached its zenith in the Land of Israel. “The wines of Gaza and Ashkelon”, which were named after their ports of origin, gained a reputation for quality and luxury throughout the entire ancient world. Wine jugs from the Land of Israel were found in archeological digs across the Mediterranean basin and even in France and in England.
The Islamic Conquest
In 634 the Arab military general, conqueror of Egypt, Amr ibn al-As, defeated the Byzantine army led by Theodore at the battle of Ajnadayn. The name is a corruption of ‘El Janbatin’, named after two nearby villages, Al Jeneba al-Fuka and Al Jeneba a-Tahta, whose remnants are found near Tel Azekah and the location of the battle between David and Goliath. The victory cleared the way for the Islamic army to Jerusalem and the completion of the Islamic conquest of the Land of Israel, which continued until 1948.
The valley was a strategic asset in the days of the Crusaders as well as the remnants of the Crusader citadel at Beit ‘Itab indicate (near Bar Giora), which overlooked the road to Jerusalem, at Hurbat Tanur where the remains of a Crusader monastery can be found.
During the Islamic period there were many agricultural villages in the valley, while grape cultivation declined. In the eastern side of the valley, a large settlement, Kfar Natif, was established. The ruler of the Galilee, Zahir al-Umar, passed through the valley with his army on his way to mount Hebron in1773. According to travelers’ reports, in the 17th century a fort, Castillo de Valle del Terebinte, was built at the entrance to the valley and charged a passage toll.
In January 1948 a platoon comprised of 35 fighters of the Palmach brigade set out from Hartuv on its way to besieged Gush Etzion. In the Ella Valley they were discovered and attacked by Arab mobs from the surrounding villages and all the fighters were lost in battle. In October 1948 the area was conquered by the Harel Brigade. Near the location of the battle, Nativ Ha Lamed-Heh Kibbutz was established.
Revival of Wine Production in Israel
During the Islamic period the wine presses were destroyed or turned into oil presses. Wine production was absolutely forbidden, except for limited production for Jews and Christians for ritual purposes. Only during the mid-19th century, with the rise of the influence of the European powers on the Ottoman Empire, were a number of wineries opened in Jerusalem and later on elsewhere.
Due to the phylloxera disease which severely harmed European wineries, Baron de Rothschild decided to plant vineyards for export and established the first winery in Rishon Le’Tzion. At the end of the century, vineyards were planted and wineries opened at the monasteries of Beit Jamal, Cremisan, Deir Rafat and Latrun. The First World War and the recovery of the wine industry in France limited the industry yet again and only after the establishment of the State of Israel was grape cultivation renewed in the Judea region.
Since the 1950s vineyards have been planted in the Judea region, and today there are more than 10,000 dunams (2470 acres) of grapevines there, approximately 20% of all the vineyards in Israel. In the early 1990s wineries of various sizes and of unique characters began to open in the region; today there are no less than 25 wineries operating in the area.