The story began just before this past Chanukah, when two busloads of Russian-speaking Israelis - new immigrants, veteran immigrants, and some tourists - made their first visit to the site known as Joshua's Altar near Shechem (Nablus).

Security concerns notwithstanding, the visitors - many of whom had never been to the area - came away greatly inspired, and some were even moved to tears. Secular Jews found themselves reciting special blessings and prayers appropriate to the novelty of the experience.

What was so special? "To see the actual altar that Joshua built, by Divine command, on the day the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel, is simply overwhelming," one participant tried to explain.

The trip was organized by the Maof organization - helping Russian-speakers get to know the Land of Israel - and ex-MK Uzi Landau's Machatz (Zionist Camp), whose Eretz Nehderet (Beautiful Land) program does the same for people all over the country. The two buses were targeted by a small bomb hurled by Palestinian terrorists in the region, but no damage was caused.

Prof. Adam Zertal, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, was the man who discovered and excavated the area and determined that it is the remnants of Joshua's Altar. He appeared recently on IsraelNationalRadio,

speaking with hosts Yishai and Malkah Fleisher.

"How do you know that this was in fact Joshua's altar?" Yishai asked. "Perhaps it was built by other peoples over the years, for instance."

The Kevesh, the ramp by which the ministering priest would ascend to the altar

Prof. Zertal, author of " A Nation is Born: The Mt. Eval Altar and the Beginnings of the Nation of Israel," appeared not to know where to start, given the amount of evidence he can provide. He began with the discovery itself:

"We discovered this place, all covered with stones, in April 1980. At that time I never dreamt that we were dealing with the altar, because I was taught in Tel Aviv University - the center of anti-Biblical tendencies, where I learned that Biblical theories are untrue, and that Biblical accounts were written later, and the like. I didn't even know of the story of the Joshua's altar. But we surveyed every meter of the site, and in the course of nine years of excavation, we discovered a very old structure with no parallels to anything we had seen before. It was 9 by 7 meters, and 4 meters high, with two stone ramps, and a kind of veranda, known as the sovev, around."

The Sovev, the veranda on which the ministering priest would sprinkle the blood of the offering onto the coals

The Torah itself, in Deut. 27, 4-8, recounts the command to build the altar on Mt. Ebal (Eval) when the Jewish People would cross the Jordan River into the Holy Land. The command stipulates that the stones should not be hewn by iron, and that sacrifices should be brought there.

Joshua 8, 30 states that Joshua fulfilled the command and, in fact, built the altar on Mt. Ebal. This occurred, according to traditional chronology, in the year 2488 to the creation of the world, or 3,252 years before Zertal began his excavation of the site.

A very critical piece of evidence cited by Zertal in support of his identification of the structure as Joshua's Altar appears to be the animal bones found there:

"There were more than 1,000 burnt animal bones - exactly of the type that were used for sacrifices. It was clear that this was not the remnants of some village, but rather a cultic site. But the critical turning point [in our excavation] came when a religious member of our team showed us the Mishna describing the altar of the 2nd Temple period - 1,200 years later than our discovery. The description was very similar to what we had found - meaning that the Mishna was clearly and definitely a continuation and prototype of the one on Mt. Ebal. They both have ramps, just as the Torah stipulates, for the High Priest to ascend to the altar without going up steps, and the sizes matched, and more... The architecture itself was the evidence."

"We found 1,000 bones in the site, and another 2,000 around it - representing something like 700 animals," Prof. Zertal said. "We sent them for analysis to the zoology department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and all the males were young males around one year old - as the Torah commands - and were of the four animals that were brought as sacrifices: goats, sheep, cattle, and fallow deer. In addition, most of the bones had been burnt in open-flame fires of low temperature."

Explaining why the area around the altar is so barren, Prof. Zertal said, "Both in Deut. 27 and in Joshua 8, the implication is that the altar will serve for a one-time ceremony, as opposed to becoming a permanent holy area such as the Temple in Jerusalem... Afterwards, it was covered up with stones in order that it not be desecrated, and the people moved southward, to Shilo, and then further south, to Jerusalem, where the final eternal Temple was built."

The Talmud (Sotah 45b), in fact, agrees that the altar was quite temporary, and that Joshua took it apart and moved the stones to the Gilgal area. The Talmud states that this happened on the same day the altar was built, and the Medrash adds that another altar was built on Mt. Eval some 40 years later.

Asked if he had found the 12 stones on which the Book of Deuteronomy was written there (Joshua 8, 32), Prof. Zertal said that this would be a hard task. He explained that the exact location of the stones is not clear from the Biblical account, and that in any event, "The words of Torah were written on plaster that covered the stones, because iron tools were not allowed to be used on the stones... But we did find 60 pieces of plaster near the altar; this is unusual, as usually they did not plaster the structures. The pieces are very fragile, but we are trying to see if we can find something."

The Mandrake plant, known in the Torah as Dudaim, is found close to the altar.

As with many archaeological theories and findings, Zertal's has its detractors as well. Zertal is not fazed, however. In response to claims that the structure was a residence, he notes that "there was neither a floor nor an entrance" and it was "obviously not regularly lived in." Neither could it have been a watchtower, he asserts, because all transportation routes avoided the area, nor were there any Iron Age settlements nearby, "such that there was nothing to guard."

The Special First Day

Another local scholar, Lt.-Col. (res.) Nechemiah Perelman of Kedumim, has a different approach. He says that whether or not the stone structure on Mt. Eval is actually Joshua's Altar, it is more important "for us to remember and instill in our national consciousness all of the events that happened on that day. That was Israel's first day in the Holy Land!"

Specifically, Perelman said, "The people of Israel miraculously crossed the Jordan River; they took 12 stones out of the river, and then replaced them with 12 other ones - and the significance of this must be studied; they gave up their share in a plot of land that Jacob had purchased in order to provide a burial spot for Joseph; Joseph was buried; the blessings-and-curses ceremony at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval took place; and the altar was built. Each of these special events must be studied carefully - especially by us, the generation that has returned to the Land of Israel - in order that we understand their full significance."

Midreshet Shomron, an institution in the nearby community of Shavei Shomron, also organizes periodic trips to the area. However, the trips are often thwarted by the terrorists in the area. One ill-fated tour, in October 2000, ended with the death of Rabbi Binyamin Herling, one of several hikers who left the main route and were shot at by Palestinian terrorists in Shechem. The army was widely accused of not taking offensive action to save the hikers when the terrorists pinned them down with long-range but accurate fire.

The community of Elon Moreh can be seen from Mt.Ebal

Another trip to the same area this past Chanukah was canceled by the army with just two days' notice, because of intelligence warnings of another planned terror attack. However, the people of Midreshet Shomron, Maof and Machatz all agree that they will continue to organize the trips and cement the bonds between the people of Israel and their Land.