The Israeli tour guide course is long, intense and covers a huge amount of information. However, it can’t possibly cover everything, so there are still parts of the country for me to explore, and I take great pleasure in doing so!
A reasonably important one is the area of the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. There are many trails here and unusually for Israel all of them have water all year around, which is great when you are looking to cool off in the heat of the summer.
With a friend arriving who has a passion for hiking, it was a great excuse to get up north to the reserve. I picked him up from Ben Gurion Airport at 6.45am and just two hours later we were slapping on our sun cream as we prepared to hike around the upper part of the Zavitan stream, a particularly popular trail that I shall definitely need to know for the future.
As we set off, we were somewhat unimpressed by the lack of shade (with the sun already beginning to reach high temperatures. However, we soon began to reach some pleasant little creeks which provided some respite.
Continuing further, we hit the real attraction, a series of pools surrounded by basalt columns that are in various stages of erosion. The columns, caused by physical forces at work in the cooling of lava when the basalt was formed, exist in quite a few parts of the Golan, most famously at the ‘Hexagon Pool’, a little north west of us in the Yehudiya Reserve.
The site was crowded although we still found some space for a quick dip, and then continued down-stream where we found a smaller but undisturbed pool which was much more peaceful and to my mind rather more beautiful.
Continuing down the trail led us to a lovely view of a waterfall, although no doubt it is much more impressive after the winter rains. It was possible to descend down to the waterfall and bathe in the pool into which it plunged (probably less appealing after the winter rains!) and there were plenty of people taking advantage of this opportunity to cool off.
All in all, a very pleasant option for a short hike in the Golan, while incorporating some opportunities to cool off in the stream. I am sure I will be back in Yehudiya before long to explore some of the other trails, including the water hike!
We ventured north for today’s tour, beginning with a long drive as we set out to explore the area of the southern Golan Heights. The weather forecast was not promising, with heavy storms (including thunder and lightning!) predicted, but the hardy folk of the tour guide course cannot be put off by such things, so we donned our waterproofs and thermals and mentally prepared ourselves for adverse conditions.
Our first stop of the day was at the hot springs at Hamat Gader. I had been here a couple of times previously, but had only bathed in the hot springs and visited the alligator park. Little did I know that there were antiquities to be found; indeed it seems that one of the reasons for this is that the owners of the site are in a dispute with the Antiquities Authority about responsibility for the ancient remains. As such they are currently closed off to visitors.
Still, a gate is not enough to put off intrepid future tour guides. Having been first told that we should not bring tourists here while it is closed (our insurance will not cover it!) we popped over the gate, to explore the very impressive ruins. We learned that this was the site of the 2nd largest bathhouse in the Roman Empire, and the structures that remain are quite remarkable. We discussed life in the bathhouse and the ancient tourism trade to the area, which stopped after the site was destroyed in a large earthquake in the 8th century.
It took the British in the 20th century to see the potential of the area for tourism, and since then (with a bit of a break after the Israeli Independence War – it ended up in the demilitarised zone between Israel and Syria, and right on the Jordanian border) the trade is roaring once more. Sadly there was no time for us to indulge in the hot springs!
From Hamat Gader, we ascended into the Golan Heights. Avid readers will recall that we explored the northern and central parts of the Golan during our campus in the summer, but there was still plenty to see. We began with a stunning viewpoint over the Sea of Galilee, called Mitzpe HaShalom (Peace Vista). We discussed the creation of the borders of Israel, and enjoyed the dramatic view with the storm clouds sweeping towards us (although fortunately, not yet reaching us).
We then travelled further north to the 2nd temple period settlement of Gamla. So named because of its similarity to a camel hump (gamal is the Hebrew for camel), it was the site of a major battle in the Jewish revolt against Roman rule. Gamla was lost to history until it was discovered in the late 60s, after Israel had taken the Golan Heights in the Six Day War.
The story of Gamla is a brave last stand followed by a tragic massacre, not dissimilar to many other sites where Jews tried to rebel against the great Roman army. We didn’t make it down to the archaeological site which contains one of the oldest synagogues in the world, but had a good viewpoint over it as our guide read to us from the story of the battle from Josephus. The site also has a large population of large birds of prey, including the huge Griffon Vulture. We went to a look out over their nesting area and saw them soaring above us. Not too close, fortunately!
Our final stop of the day was at Umm el Kanatir, also now known as Rechavam’s Arches after Rechavam Zeevi, whose last act as Tourism Minister was to approve this project. Excavators discovered the remains of a Jewish settlement here from the Byzantine period, including a grand synagogue. Unusually, because of the site’s relatively remote location, all the stones of the original structure are still in situ. Using a computer programme and complex ultrasound techniques, the stones were all mapped into a virtual jigsaw and are now being painstakingly reconstructed. They hope to open the site in a couple of years and it already looks impressive. It is remarkable to see an original ark from 1500 years ago!
With the sun setting over the distant Sea of Galilee, and the serious rain clouds vast approaching, it was time to begin the long journey back to Tel Aviv. Next week we follow in the footsteps of those trying to break the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. Stay tuned!
Our third and final day of our travels in the region of the Golan Heights was dedicated to the Hermon Mountain. A common misconception is that the Hermon actually is part of the Golan Heights; in fact it is a separate mountain range that is completely different geologically and geographically.
The part of the Hermon in Israeli territory amounts to just 7% of its area; it is the highest peak in Israel at 2236m above sea level, but the highest peak is in Syrian territory at 2814m. Between them is the highest permanently manned UN mission in the world.
These days, the Hermon has two main functions: an Israeli army base from which to keep an eye on Syria and Lebanon on the northern border; more importantly for most Israelis, the country’s only ski resort. When the snow hits the Hermon people drive all the way even from Eilat, Israel’s southernmost point, to try their hand at skiing.
At this time of year, there is no more snow in the Israeli area (there was still some on the Syrian peaks) so we ascended the chairlift in relative solitude. At the top, we looked over into the Golan Heights as our guide explained the strategic importance of the location for Israel in managing its security, and told us the tragic story of the battle for the base here in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which sadly involved significant loss of life.
From the Hermon we descended to the tomb of Nabi Hazuri, a holy site for the Druze religion. We learned some of the stories associated with the holy man Hazuri, and also talked about the Druze people, their customs and their relationship with the state. Here is also the memorial for the Sayeret Egoz army unit; set up to infiltrate behind enemy lines and conduct guerrilla warfare. Many of the unit’s members come from the Druze community in Israel.
Close to the memorial was the Nimrod Fortress, our next stop. For many years considered to have been a Crusader fortress, it has more recently become apparent that it was built by the Ayyubid arab rulers of the region, although it seems to be an exact copy of typical crusader architecture. After the Mamluk conquest of Israel it was reinforced under the patronage of the ruler Baibars and it is possible to see a monumental inscription dedicated in his honour. We wandered through the ruins, into one of the huge cisterns that served the fortress, and exited through the secret passage, known as the poterna.
From Nimrod we returned to the Banias national park. Having visited the archaeological excavations yesterday, today was dedicated to nature, as we enjoyed a hike along the stream to a beautiful area of waterfalls and whirlpools; the spray of the cool water was much appreciated in the heat and humidity of the afternoon! The park contains a series of suspended platforms which allow you to walk right over the torrents pouring down the hillside, and it is a most pleasant experience.
We concluded the day on a somewhat sombre note, at the Helicopters Memorial. This site marks the terrible accident when two helicopters collided in 1997 on their way into Lebanon. 73 soldiers were killed in one of the worst helicopter accidents in world history. Because Israel is such a small country, it really had a huge impact on the people here; it was said that everyone knew someone who knew one of the victims.
This memorial at the crash site, lovingly constructed by the families of those who passed away, really is very beautiful; apparently even more so at night when it is lit up. But sadly the beauty cannot overcome the tragic loss of life. A member of our group had taught one of the soldiers involved at high school, and he spoke briefly about him, making the visit that much more moving.
The second of our three days in the Golan Heights was the most intense, and focused broadly on sites in the north of the Golan and the lower slopes of Mt Hermon. If you missed the post on the first day in the centre of the Golan, check it out here.
An early start meant that we arrived at the Tel Dan nature reserve before it was open! Once the wardens had arrived we entered and enjoyed the lush landscape and water flows from the Middle East’s largest karstic [formed by water flowing through and eroding porous sedimentary rock] spring. As the saying goes, the early bird catches the worm; in our case we caught a salamander; a beautifully sleek little creature. Quite a lot of them live in the reserve but they are hard to spot as they tend to avoid the tourists. A nice treat!
We hastened onwards to the archaeological remains around the ancient tel. At Tel Dan, they discovered what is thought to be the oldest arch in the world, made from mud bricks, almost 4000 years ago. Until its discovery it was thought that the Romans, or at the most the Greeks, invented the arch. But in fact it seems early forms existed many years previous in the Middle East.
Having heard how the tribe of Dan conquered the site, we whizzed forward in time to the remains of the Israelite city from the 9th century BCE. Particularly impressive was the huge gate structure; we also continued to the site of the temple which they found here; it is possible to see the base of the altar. This corroborates the story in the Bible (1 Kings 12) about the breaking up of the Solomon’s kingdom; with the temple in the Judean temple in Jerusalem the Israelite king Jeroboam constructed his own in Beth-el and here in Dan. We also hold the story of the steele found here; an ancient tablet containing an inscription referring to the two Jewish kingdoms and one of the kings coming from the House of David; a find of huge importance for those seeking archaeological evidence for the biblical narrative.
From the archaeological site we enjoyed a lovely walk hopping on stepping stones across the brooks in the reserve; enjoying the refreshing feeling of the spray of the cool water and the general lush greenery; quite an unusual landscape for Israel. Israelis really do love being around flowing water and I am beginning to understand why; it is something that we take rather for granted in the less arid parts of the world.
Afterwards, we traveled a short distance to the nearby Beit Ussishkin Museum which has a great little exhibition about local archaeological finds and expansive displays on local flora, fauna and geology.
From Tel Dan, we ascended to Banias. When the Hellenists arrived in this area over 2000 years ago, they identified it with being the home of the god Pan and named it Panias in his honour. We visited the area of their temple to Pan which was later expanded by the Romans; many remains are still visible. Later it was expanded into a large capital by Herod’s son Philippus, called Caesaria-Philippi. The area is important in Christian theology as here Peter recognised Jesus as the messiah (Mark 8 27).
We walked a short way along the stream flowing from the springs to the ruins of the palace of King Agrippa, dating to the 1st century. We wandered through the impressive remains to reach the former city walls (and indeed the remains of a later Crusader fortress), to conclude our time at the site.
From Banias we travelled deep into the centre of the Golan Heights and ascended to the peak of Mt Bental. The whole region of the Golan was formed from volcanic activity and lava flows over millions of years; the peaks standing out in the landscape tend to be extinct (or perhaps dormant) volcanoes; Mt Bental is one of these. Apart from the rather cheesily named Coffee Anan café (they claim to have existed before the previous UN Secretary General rose to fame; anan in Hebrew means ‘cloud’); there is a wonderful view over the Golan Heights, and deep into Syria.
Our guide told us some of the background to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and described the sad and bloody battle that happened in the fields in front of us. Remarkably, one of my classmates had actually participated in the battle, and gave us more details. It is a very sad but also moving part of being in this country that the wars are so much more recent and personal; it makes you realise that it is much more than just words in a text book and also helps contextualise other wars in history.
From the viewpoint, we descended to Kibbutz El Rom (which boasts that it is the highest kibbutz not only in Israel, but in the world…!) to watch a film about the Yom Kippur War, and then travelled a short distance to the memorial for the Valley of Tears. The Valley of Tears, which lay before us, was the site of the most difficult and lengthy battles of the war, a tank battle pitting the Israelis against a Syrian army which was both more numerous and more technologically advanced. We heard some stories of the personal heroism and sacrifice which eventually led to an Israeli victory.
We ended the day with a bit of geology. We stopped briefly at a site of paleomagnetism; a common phenomenon in the Golan Heights where the volcanic rock has locked in ancient magnetism from when the magnetism of the globe did not come from the north. You can put a compass on the rock and watch it spin.
From here we visited Jubat el-Kabeira (the Big Juba). This is a sort of crater in the ground, formed by volcanic activity (although there is some dispute as to exactly how). Because water flows into the juba, it is very lush and green, although sadly there was no time to enter and explore.
Our final stop was at Birket Ram in the Druze village of Masade. This large pool was also formed as a result of volcanic activity, although again geologists dispute the actual details. It is also an important archaeological site; here were found tools of prehistoric man dating back hundreds of thousands of years, including the Venus of the Galil.
We concluded the day at the youth hostel, and enjoyed a traditional kumzitz; a bonfire with a good sing song and plenty of liquid refreshment to encourage proceedings. It turns out that we have some very talented guitarists and singers in our group! It certainly helped the group bond and I was even persuaded to do a little rapping, which fortunately was well received…!
Coming soon: Day 3 and our travels around Mt Hermon….
As part of the course, we have four ‘campuses’ – trips of 2-3 nights to more far-flung parts of the country to enable us to make the most of our time. Last week we spent three days in the area of the Golan Heights and Mt Hermon, in the north east of Israel; as each day was effectively its own field trip I’ll be dedicating three blog posts to the campus over the next couple of weeks.
The region is not without controversy; the vast majority was given to the new state of Syria in 1946. In 1967 Israel took a significant portion of the Golan Heights, and a small amount of the Hermon range in the Six Day War, with the argument that it would help protect its citizens from the constant Syrian sniping in the intervening years. In 1981 Israel effectively annexed the area and awarded citizenship to those citizens who had not been given it since 1967. Unlike the West Bank and Gaza however, the area is calm (apart from the occasional stray shell from the Syrian conflict across the border) and the largely Druze population cooperate with the state although not to the extent of their kin in the Galil, as those living in the Golan still maintain loyalty to Syria. The reasons for this are far too complex to go into in this blog post, but in summary, there are no problems of note between the different peoples living in the Golan Heights and all have full rights as Israeli citizens.
Our day began with a hike down the Jilabun stream, a great way to stretch the legs after a lengthy bus ride. To my slight disappointment we have not done a great deal of hiking on the course so it was nice to get into nature; to enjoy the green surroundings and the sound of the water; to hop along stepping stones as we crisscrossed the stream as we descended towards the valley below. The hike afforded some lovely views of the Hula Valley and also of a couple of waterfalls; in a country so devoid of water all very much appreciated the opportunity to revel in the wonders of nature.
After a welcome rest in the air-conditioned bus (37 degrees is not ideal hiking weather!) we travelled to the city of Katzrin, the capital of the Golan and its largest city, with an almighty 7000 residents! Our first stop was at the Golan Heights Winery for a brief tour and then a more lengthy tasting session. The winery has won many international prizes under their Yarden brand and the muscat particularly appealed to my sweet tooth; I picked up a bottle of their new 2T ‘port-style’ wine which I am looking forward to trying. The downside was that concentrating during the afternoon was slightly harder…
Having treated our taste buds we visited the Talmudic Village of Katzrin. Based around ruins of a village from the Byzantine period, the idea is to give visitors the chance to experience ancient life; it is possible to have workshops in pressing olive oil; grinding flour or treading wine using ancient methods. We made do with verbal explanations and also enjoyed the ruins, particularly the ancient synagogue.
From there it was a case of popping over the street to the Antiques Museum of the Golan Heights. Human settlement in the area goes back up to 800 000 years and one of the most ancient artefacts is the ‘Venus of the Galil’, a small rock found with tools belonging to prehistoric man which is said to resemble a female figure. The museum also contains an interesting presentation on the strange stone circles at Rujm el-Hiri and many remains from the Roman & Byzantine period; there is a good film about the siege of Gamla by the Roman forces during the Great Revolt.
We whizzed forwards through thousands of years in time for the final sites of the day. We drove from Katzrin to Mitzpe Gadot; a former Syrian bunker. We learned a little about the famous Israeli spy Eli Cohen and about the reasons why it was in Israeli interests to control the Golan Heights – we could easily see from our position how easy it was to fire into the Israeli villages and kibbutzim below. Our guide told us some of the tragic stories from the years 1948-67 when the area was far from peaceful.
We then descended into the Hula Valley and went up to the northern part of the Golan for our final stop at Tel Faher. This was another Syrian base; we heard the story of the battle to control it and the two bases below it in the 1967 war. It was a battle of immense heroism and tragic losses, but in the end the Israelis managed to take control of the hilltop and it was a very important step in the war. We paused at the memorial as our guide told us some of the stories of the soldiers who had died here. Our guide was a great story teller and really managed to conjure up the images of the battle; unfortunately this made the atmosphere rather sombre.
From the Tel, we continued up into the Golan to our accommodation in the Hermon Field School. After dinner, the course steering committee (aka the vaad) had organised a showing of the Life of Brian; the historical period is relevant to our studies! It was a bit surreal to watch it with Hebrew subtitles but it remains a great film; unfortunately after a 5.30am start my eyelids were drooping so I turned in, looking forward to a packed day on the morrow.