few kilometers beyond the city of Beit Shemesh, the road wends its way among flowering green fields to the Valley of Elah. Here alongside the satellite dishes, as we enter the Adulam Forest, we find blossoming flowers and trees spreading out in all directions. After meandering through the greenery, the road ascends a hill and we arrive at an ancient site built of ashlar stones. A sign welcomes us to Hurvat Itri—the Ruins of Itri.
At this point, we leave our vehicle and set out on foot amidst the oak trees and thorn bushes, until we come to the remains of a small village dating back to the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash. The first thing we see is a row of buildings that appear to be a complex of houses and courtyards. The walls are made of huge quarried stones designed to protect the inhabitants from uninvited guests. Between the courtyards there are ancient wine and olive presses as well as a columbarium, also carved from stone, for raising pigeons.
In the center of the village is a large building whose floor contains three square stone bases that once supported round columns and capitals. There is also a bench going around the lower part of the room. This was apparently the heart of the village, the beit knesset where the residents gathered every morning and evening for study and prayer. Not far from it is a large mikvah, hewn from stone and plastered smooth, with white steps descending into the bath.
In these ruins, archaeologists have found coins, wine casks, oil lamps bearing images of a menorah, and fragments of pottery with markings indicating that the local population grew large quantities of figs. Small potsherds used for writing, known as ostracons, bear the name “Itri,” the name of the settlement. When researchers found this inscription, there was great excitement, for it meant that they were finally able to identify the village; it was none other than “Atra,” whose name is mentioned in the writings of Yosef ben Matisyahu, also known as Josephus.
The houses of the Jews who lived here were made of cut stone covered with roofs of straw and wood. These people were shepherds who grazed their sheep on the hillsides and who also grew grapes to make wine. They wove cloth on looms and raised pigeons, whose droppings were used to fertilize the fields.
All of this is quite interesting, but our guide, Yossi, wants to show us something else that he promises we’ll find even more fascinating. In a corner of the synagogue is a small opening no larger than a crawl space. Equipped with flashlights, we bend down and peer inside. It’s a small space, with barely enough room for a slender person to fit through, but when we shine our flashlights around the interior, our mouths drop open in astonishment.
Beyond this inconspicuous aperture is a large underground space with tunnels leading away in all directions. Most of the tunnels have been blocked, but it is clear that they extended over a large area. We are told that they once connected the houses of the village. Yossi surmises that there might have been a cabinet or wooden bench above the opening to conceal it so that no one would ever suspect its existence.
The secret tunnels date back to the days of Bar Kochba, when the Roman army laid siege to much of Eretz Yisrael. When the Jews stood up to Rome—which had the strongest and most advanced army in the world—they managed to hold them off and resist for quite some time, thanks to the tunnel system they’d devised.
“In the days of Bar Kochba,” says Talmudic scholar and guide Rabbi Yehuda Landy, “our ancestors were utilizing underground tunnels in their war against the enemy. Thanks to various excavations and surveys that have been conducted all over the country, we are aware of an enormous number of tunnels that were dug by Bar Kochba’s forces. To date, we have found more than 350 networks of caves and tunnels, and thousands of meters of channels and passageways hidden right under our feet.
“It was once believed that these tunnels existed only in the Judean Plain, Beit Shemesh and the Galil,” he says, “but we have since uncovered many others in the Shomron, which was part of the Roman province of Judea during the Bar Kochba era, as well as in the Binyamin region of southern Samaria.”
For many years, the despised Roman Empire ruled over the Jewish people living in their own land. Its governors placed idols in the Beis Hamikdash, imposed cruel edicts and banned many Jewish rituals and customs. King Herod and his descendants were installed as sovereigns over Judea, until a revolt broke out against the Roman occupiers.
Known as the “Great Revolt,” led by hot-blooded young men dubbed “biryonim” by our Chachamim, the rebellion didn’t have much chance of success, and the Chachamim were against it. In response to the revolt, Titus, the Roman general in charge of Yerushalayim, defiled the city’s holy sites and burned the Beis Hamikdash, leaving Jerusalem desolate and in ruins.
But the residents of Itri, as well as their neighbors from nearby villages, had also participated in the revolt. Roman soldiers entered the village, attacked its inhabitants and burned their houses. It took a while for the exiles and those who had been taken captive to return, and for the village to recover from the assault. The Chachamim, led by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabban Gamliel, settled in Yavneh, from which they continued to spread Torah to the people of Israel.
The pain of the destruction of Jerusalem still burned in their hearts, but the residents of Itri found solace in their small synagogue, where they engaged in Torah study and tefillah with newly written prayers of hope and return. Years passed, and a new generation grew up that did not remember the splendor of the Beis Hamikdash shining on Har Hamoriah.
In those days, the nation was led by Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of Israel, whose yeshivah in Bnei Brak attracted countless talmidim. In the meantime, the Romans continued to harass and persecute the Jews, imposing religious restrictions and periodically sending their army to search the Jewish warehouses for items to tax; the inhabitants of Judea had no choice but to grit their teeth and bear it.