Category: North

Campus Upper Galilee Day Two: Central Upper Galilee

Day two of our campus begun with a predictable early start, made all the worthwhile by one of the best (if not the best) youth hostel breakfast I have ever had. A particularly impressive array of delicious cheeses on offer!

Today was dedicated to the Central Upper Galilee and we begun our tour with a walk around Pekiin, the Druze village in which we were staying. Beginning with a look out near the top of the ridge on which the village is built, we descended to the cave which tradition says hosted Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) when he was hiding from the Romans, a story which is related in the Talmud. Here, it is said, he wrote the Zohar, one of the main books of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystic tradition.

Pekiin Synagogue
Pekiin Synagogue

We continued down the slope to the main town square, and then to the small synagogue. The Jewish community of Pekiin has been there since at least the 16th century (and according to local legend, since the destruction of the Second Temple) but fled during the Independence War. Afterwards, one family returned, and their daughter is now the last Jew in the village. The small synagogue is cute, and there is also a small visitors’ centre depicting life in the village in the 19th century.

View east from Nebi Sabalan
View east from Nebi Sabalan

We continued on the Druze theme, heading east to their second most holy site in Israel, Nebi Sabalan. He was one of the early emissaries of the Druze faith and this is considered to be the site in which he lived. Our guide also used our visit to the site as an opportunity to tell us about the history of the Druze faith while we enjoyed the spectacular view over the rolling hills.

View from the summit of Mt Meron
View from the summit of Mt Meron

Further east we continued, reaching the highest peak in the Galilee, and the second highest peak in all of Israel: Mt Meron. We enjoyed a short hike around its summit (reaching the summit is not recommended – it houses a military intelligence base) where there are wonderful views; we also learned about the local botany which is slightly different at this height to some of the other regions of Israel.

Paar Cave
Paar Cave

From Meron, we descended into the nearby Paar Cave Reserve. It was time for a geological interlude as we learned about the karst processes that built the valley and then formed this cave as an escape for the draining water. The valley was dry but our guide assured us that after rains it is an impressive sight to see the water powering into this small opening. There was of course an appropriate local legend to accompany the geology!

Inside the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi)
Inside the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi)

Following this brief interlude, we ascended to Meron again, from the other side, into the small moshav named for the mountain which houses the tomb of the Rashbi (whose cave we had seen earlier). The tomb is considered a very important holy site in Israel, and it is particularly fun to visit on the festival of Lag BaOmer when thousands of people make a pilgrimage here; there is general accompanying chaos and when I came here several years ago there was even a chassidic trance party off to the side.

Traditional Circassian dress in Rihaniya
Traditional Circassian dress in Rihaniya

From the tomb, we travelled further north to the small village of Rehaniya, home to a large amount of Israel’s Circassian minority. They have a small visitors’ centre were we received a highly entertaining presentation from our Circassian host explaining his culture and the history of the Circassians in Israel, since they came here under the Ottoman Empire. They have a good relationship with the state and in fact their sons all serve in the Israeli army.

Our final stop of the day was at the Baram Synagogue. Tinged with controversy, this was the site of an Arab village (Biram) until 1948. The Arabs were advised to leave for a few weeks to protect themselves from an upcoming Israeli army operation in the Independence War, but since then have not been allowed back. The original inhabitants now are dispersed around the north of Israel and since the 50s have been petitioning the courts for the return of their land. The courts have actually approved their return pending the final sign off from the Defence Minister; successive Defence Ministers have not done this, citing security concerns. A few years ago a compromise was reached where the former inhabitants received financial compensation, but some refused to take it, still demanding their land rights. While the dispute continues, they camp in the site each summer.

Ancient synagogue at Baram
Ancient synagogue at Baram

Amidst this is the Baram Synagogue, dating from the Byzantine period (probably in the 5th century), which was actually used as living quarters by some of the village residents. It is now an archaeological site, but our enjoyment of its former splendour was somewhat dampened by the nearby controversy. Credit to our guide who did not shy away from these issues; the role of the guide is to relate and explain, while trying to remain as impartial as possible. It is for the visitor to decide what to make of all the complexities of this country!

With this, our time in the Central Upper Galilee was concluded; we returned to Pekiin for a well-earned dinner!

Campus Upper Galilee Day One: Western Upper Galilee

After the delight of a summer break, it was time to get back into things, and how. Three days in the delightful greenery of the Upper Galilee awaited us, and although the intensiveness of it was a bit of a shock to the system after over a month without field trips, it was as fun and fascinating as always.

The first of our three days was dedicated to the Western Upper Galilee, with another two days for the central and eastern parts of this region. This part of Israel, which runs along the northern border with Lebanon is ‘upper’ in two senses of the word; it is both higher physically and also more northern than the area of the Lower Galilee.

Ancient Jewish tomb at Kfar Yasif
Ancient Jewish tomb at Kfar Yasif

Our day began in the arab village of Kfar Yasif. I have been here on more than one occasion to enjoy the famous hummus at the Abu Adham restaurant. I had however failed to notice the somewhat overgrown remains of a large cemetery close to the town centre. This has actually been a major Jewish cemetery from the middle ages right into the 19th century, and we were pointed towards a couple of graves associated with famous figures, including the Rav Abraham Finzi, deputy British consul in Akko from the late 1830s.

Crusader sugar refinery at Churvat Manot
Crusader sugar refinery at Churvat Manot

After hearing a little more about the history of Kfar Yasif, we continued north and after a short hike through some relatively serious overgrowth (and a fair amount of cow pats) arrived at the site of Hurvat Manot. The ruins of a crusader fortified farm were not overly exciting on the face of it, but our guide explained that this was in fact a site for the manufacture of cane sugar. He used this as a clever segue to tell us about the history of sugar in Israel (and therefore Europe, as the first sugar reached Europe from here); how the industry was developed and expanded by the Crusaders, making them very wealthy.

Arch Cave in the Adamit Park
Arch Cave in the Adamit Park

After a quick scramble back to the road, we headed further north to the Adamit Park. We first enjoyed a spectacular view south over the Western Upper Galilee (and beyond) as our guide explained to us how the landscape in front of us was formed over millions of years. We then proceeded to the Arch Cave, where we were regaled with ancient legends about its formation while we enjoyed its beauty.

View over Montfort castle from Goren Park
View over Montfort castle from Goren Park

Our next stop was in the Goren Park where we were able to enjoy a viewpoint over the Nachal Kziv and on the opposite bank, the Montfort castle. Avid followers of this blog will recall that I visited the castle just under a year ago with a friend, and quite a splendid site it is too. Our guide told us the story of the site, which at its peak was the centre for the Order of the Teutonic Knights in Israel, until the crusaders were unceremoniously turfed out by the Mamluk invaders.

Tower & Stockade model at Hanita
Tower & Stockade model at Hanita

Having enjoyed the view, and lunch in the town of Shelomi, we visited the Hanita forest, home to a model of the tower and stockade settlement. Developed by the early Zionist pioneers, this was a way for them to build a relatively secure settlement in just one day, important at a time when there were increasing local tensions over the Zionists’ purchase of land in the area. Although Hanita was not the first tower and stockade settlement, it is one of the most famous, due to the efforts made in its construction and its location so far north, close to the border. Our guide regaled us with the story of the project and the history of the tower and stockade system of building.

Inside the grottoes at Rosh Hanikra
Inside the grottoes at Rosh Hanikra

From the closeness of the forest, we headed all the way west and north to the exposed cliff face at Rosh Hanikra, where we were able to enjoy the benefits of the sea breeze. Here is a border crossing with Lebanon (used only by the UN), but of more interest for the intrepid traveller are the stunning views down the coast and the beautiful grottoes carved out in the cliff face through millennia of erosion by the force of the sea. We took a cable car down the cliff and wandered through the grottoes, taking in the magical and mystical ambience.

Monument to the 14 (from the Night of the Bridges)
Monument to the 14 (from the Night of the Bridges)

We concluded our day on a more sombre note. First, we made a brief stop at the Monument for the 14 (Yad L’Yad), in memory of those who died on the fateful ‘Night of the Bridges’ in 1946. These was an ambitious, coordinated attack on British supply lines by the guerrilla fighters of the Palmach. While the operation achieved its objectives 14 operatives did not make it through the battle – their remains are here. Our guide told us some of their stories, as well as the details of the operation itself.

Memorial for the Yechiam Convoy
Memorial for the Yechiam Convoy

Our final stop was at another memorial, this one for the Yechiam Convoy. In 1948, even before Israel was officially declared a state, life was becoming increasingly difficult for the Jewish settlements, many of whom were under siege. The soon to be Israeli forces would try and reach them with armoured convoys; however their weapons and armoured vehicles were not very advanced. At this site, in March 1948, a convoy en route to the Yechiam kibbutz came under attack and 47 of its members were killed. As we move forward in our studies towards the more modern history we are likely to encounter more and more of these sad stories, many of them coming also with individual acts of heroism.

Dusk was upon us and so it was time to travel eastwards to our base for the next couple of days; the youth hostel in the Druze village of Pekiin. I had fond memories of shabbatot spent there with my friends in FZY. Before turning in, we had a special Druze dinner organised for us in the former diwan of the village mukhtar. Quite delicious! Certainly enough to set me up for the days ahead.

Tiberias

Another trip northwards, but this time to the east of the country, by the shores of the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee, to the city of Tiberias. This was a catch up trip with a course from the Jerusalem branch; my course sensibly visited Tiberias in February – visiting it in the last week of July when the heat and humidity are at their peak is not particularly wise, but still it is good practise for the future!

Our day actually began north of Tiberias, at the Sapir Station of the national water carrier. It is an extremely secure site (Israel is worried about possible attacks on the water supply) so I’m afraid there are no pictures to show you. The visit was actually extremely interesting – water is a big issue in Israel and through the presentation we received we were able to understand how the country has historically dealt, and continues to deal, with a shortage of rain fall and natural water sources.

We also learned about the construction of the national water carrier back in the 1960s, a daring and pioneering engineering project to bring water from the Kinneret to the centre and south of the country to help the farming industry. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting too much from the visit but was pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was (perhaps it was also because our guide there was particularly animated!). To visit, you need to be in a group, but they will let you join existing bookings if you are too few in number – contact them to arrange.

Ottoman period fortress, Tiberias
Ottoman period fortress, Tiberias

It was now time to head to Tiberias, together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed (Tzefat), one of the four holy cities of Israel. We began in the centre of the modern city, learning about its second lease of life, under the Bedouin ruler Daher el-Omar. Our guide regaled us with the story of this powerful man who gradually conquered huge chunks of Israel in the 18th century, making himself very popular with the locals but unfortunately less popular with the Ottomans. He made the deserted Tiberias his capital but eventually relocated in the face of numerous attacks from the nearby ruler of Damascus.

Al-Amari Mosque, Tiberias
Al-Amari Mosque, Tiberias

We explored some of the ruins from the Ottoman period, a fortress; government buildings, a beautiful mosque sadly in disrepair – built by Daher el Omar, this was once the main mosque of the city. We also learned about the Jewish community brought here from Turkey by Daher el-Omar under the leadership of Rabbi Haim Abulafia. Relations were good between the Jews and the Muslims during this period; the Jews of Tiberias were even able to help warn about an impending attack because of letters from Jews based in Damascus.

Roman city gate, Tiberias
Roman city gate, Tiberias

We continued south to the area of Roman & Byzantine Tiberias. This was really the city at its most grand. Most scholars agree that it was founded in the 1st century by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) as his capital (he ruled the area of the Galilee). Although much has been excavated and prepared for visitors, for some reason the area of the digs is not yet open for tourists. Still, as students on the tour guide course there are certain perks afforded, so the gates were opened for us to explore the city gate, the theatre and bathhouse; even the possible site of the famous Jasmin mosque built many centuries later by the Ummayid rulers of Israel.

Slightly further south and we arrived at Hammat Tiberias. The town of Hammat is actually mentioned in the bible and after Tiberias was founded the Jews in the area continued to live there; Tiberias was built on their burial site and so was impure. Fortunately, in the 2nd century the famous mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, passed through, and purified Tiberias (we’re not sure how). So the Jews began to move in and eventually the two towns effectively joined.

Mosaic at Hammat Tiberias Synagogue
Mosaic at Hammat Tiberias Synagogue

At Hammat Tiberias are the hot springs which give it its name (ham is Hebrew for ‘hot’), and in the national park it is possible to cautiously dip a finger into the water (it is rather too hot for submersion!). More importantly, the site contains an ancient synagogue, or rather three ancient synagogues built on top of each other following the destruction of the previous building from earthquakes. Thus, it is possible to stand in one place and see remnants of a synagogue from the 3rd, 5th and 6th centuries!

As with many synagogues from the period there are beautiful mosaics on the floor. Our guide explained the imagery and also regaled us with the tale of Tiberias as a centre of Judaism; indeed the centre of Judaism for 750 years. Here was written the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud (confusingly); here the Masoretes finalised the punctuation and vowels of the Torah which we still use today. As we gazed into the synagogue we imagined that perhaps here came some of the great scholars whose names we still recall and whose opinions we still cite in matters of Jewish law. A remarkable thought with which to conclude the day.

Akko (Acre)

Bay of Akko from the Old City
Bay of Akko from the Old City

This week we were headed north again to the coastal town of Akko, or Acre. Although the area has been settled since the prehistoric period, the town really blossomed once the Romans were in charge, although little remains to testify to their presence. It rose again to be a city of major importance during the Crusader period, particularly during the time of the ‘Second Kingdom of Jerusalem’, when Akko was actually the capital (the Crusaders did not rule Jeruasalem at the time!). Today’s old town of Akko is largely from the Ottoman period (16th-20th century) with some excavations dating back to the Crusaders in the middle ages.

Museum of the Underground Prisoners, Akko
Museum of the Underground Prisoners, Akko

We began our visit, however, reliving events from the 20th century, and the time of the British Mandate. Akko was the site of a major prison, which today is the Museum of the Underground Prisoners. Among the prisoners here over the years were several important figures from the Haganah (the precursor to the IDF of today) as well as the more confrontational Etzel and Lechi splinter groups. Perhaps the most famous prisoner is Zeev Jabotinsky, about whom there is a special exhibition in one of the towers.

The museum sheds light on life in the prison but also, through the use of different video clips, tells the story of the break out led by the Etzel in 1947. It was very well done, I thought, and a fascinating tale for anyone interested in Zionist history. The break out made big waves at the time and was seen as embarrassing the British rulers. Whether or not it made much difference to anything is debatable; still, it’s a great story!

The Sea Walls - Akko
The Sea Walls – Akko

From the museum we began a walking tour along the outer city walls (lovely views of the sea) and then into the old city itself, noting some typical Ottoman architecture en route together with the location of some Crusader ruins. Our guide explained to us that in the middle ages the city was actually divided into several walled quarters. There was a quarter for each of the rich European merchant cities of Genoa, Pisa & Venice, who had received the land in return for helping fund the Crusades. The major knights’ orders of the Templars and Hospitallers also had territory. And then some land belonged to the crown – after all it was at one point the capital!

Al-Jazzar Mosque, Akko
Al-Jazzar Mosque, Akko

We returned to the Ottoman period with a visit to the most impressive Al-Jazzar mosque. Named after the ruler of Akko who had it built in the late 18th century, it is the third biggest mosque in Israel. The interior is beautiful; our guide pointed out some of the architectural features. Under the mosque is a large underground reservoir which some believe helped the city withstand the siege of Napoleon in 1799; next to the mosque is the tomb of Al-Jazzar himself.

Treasures in the Walls Museum, Akko
Treasures in the Walls Museum, Akko

A short stroll found us at the delightfully cute ‘Treasures in the Wall’ museum. Founded and funded by two private collectors of all sorts of items (perhaps one might unkindly call some of it ‘junk’!) from the 19th and into the early 20th century, it actually is a very nice little museum; curated and laid out well. There is some beautiful old furniture from the Ottoman period and all sorts of everyday household items from the lead up to the establishment of the state which it is remarkably interesting to see. Worth the detour.

The Hospitallers' Fortress, Akko
The Hospitallers’ Fortress, Akko

After a quick lunch courtesy of the renowned Hummus Said, we descended into the depths of the Hospitaller Fortress; the base of the Order of the Hospitaller Knights in Akko in the Crusader period. Our guide explained the theories about the use of the different rooms, as well as more about the lifestyle of these very powerful knights in the ancient city. These crusaders certainly knew how to build!

On a sweltering hot day at the end of the July the last thing we had in mind was to visit a hammam (Turkish hot baths) but in the end it turned out to be a blessing in disguise – the Hammam al-Basha is no longer functioning and is in fact beautifully air-conditioned – one of the only air-conditioned moments of the day! I was really impressed with this site – it has been refurbished to give an idea of what it was like originally. However, more cleverly, it uses the pretext of short films depicting conversations in the hammam to tell the story of Akko from the time it was re-established as a major city by Daher el-Omar, the powerful Bedouin ruler in the north of Israel, in the 18th century. An unexpected delight, and great for all the family.

Inside the Tunnel of the Knights Templar, Akko
Inside the Tunnel of the Knights Templar, Akko

We continued on a bit of a walking tour, stopping at the Ramchal synagogue (named after Rabbi Haim Luzzato, a kabbalist and mystic who lived in Akko) and at the former home of the Bahaullah, the founder of the Bahai religion. From here our last stop in the Old City was to wander through the restored tunnel of the Templar Knights, which led from their quarter straight to the port – avoiding any potential confrontations by having to cross other quarters and potentially providing them with a handy escape route if needed.

Mosaic at Or Torah Synagogue, Akko
Mosaic at Or Torah Synagogue, Akko

Our day was almost done but we had two stops outside the walls of the Old City before we would head home. The first was at the quite amazing Or Torah Synagogue. The project of one man, the synagogue’s founder and gabbai (beadle), Tzion Badash, the building is covered in stunning mosaics. And when I say covered, I mean all the floors, walls and ceilings; inside and out. It is quite astounding. Some are modern, original designs; others are replicas of ancient maps and motifs; all are connected with Judaism and Israel. It can be difficult to visit (you need to arrange in advance or arrive at the time for a service) but well worth the short diversion.

Home of the Bahaulla, Akko
Home of the Bahaulla, Akko

To conclude our time in Akko, we made a brief stop at the Bahai Gardens known as the Bahji. Here the Bahaullah spent the last of his days, and here is his tomb. As a result, the site is actually more holy than the shrine in Haifa, although it seems it is less well known outside of the Bahai faith. As with the gardens in Haifa, it is remarkably beautiful and tranquil.

Haifa

Today’s trip was dedicated to Haifa, the third largest city in Israel and the largest city in the North of the country. Located on the Carmel Mountain, where its steep slopes meet the sea, it was a tiny settlement eclipsed by its northern neighbour Acre (Akko) until the British decided built a major port in the 1920s; it is now the largest port in Israel and an important gateway into the Mediterranean.

Celebrating our 40th field trip: half way through!
Celebrating our 40th field trip: half way through!

The day began with a small celebration; this was our 40th field trip out of 80 on the course; our half-way point. One of our class put a lot of effort into making a cake to celebrate which was served with wine for a l’chaim, putting everyone in a good mood at 8am in the morning!

View over Haifa from the Louis Promenade
View over Haifa from the Louis Promenade

After enjoying a look out over the city from the Louis Promenade high up atop the Carmel mountain, we visited the city’s main attraction, the Bahai Gardens. These beautifully designed and maintained gardens dominate the hillside from a distance; consisting of several terraces and a large shrine in the centre. Inside the shrine are buried two of the most important figures in the Bahai faith, the Bab and the Abdul Baha.

Bahai Gardens, Haifa
Bahai Gardens, Haifa

As we descended through the immaculately tended gardens we learned about the Bahai religion; its establishment in Iran and the persecution which led to its relocation in Israel. Adherents of the faith are now spread out across the world but these gardens in Haifa are the main holy site together with another location in Acre. Sculpted gardens are a very unusual site in Israel and also contrast starkly with the industrialised scenery of the port – it is a beautiful area of serenity within the hustle and bustle of a busy city.

Our kind host at the Centre for Ahmadiyya Islam in Israel
Our kind host at the Centre for Ahmadiyya Islam in Israel

Having descended to the shrine, we left the area of the gardens and drove further up the mountain to the Centre for Ahmadiyya Islam in Israel. We visited the mosque and learned about this minority Muslim group, adherents of which were brought from India to Israel by the British to help construct the port. Their leader’s message of peaceful coexistence was well received although we were saddened to learn that they are persecuted within the Muslim world to the extent that going on the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca which every observant Muslim man should do once in his lifetime) is actually often too dangerous to attempt.

Stella Maris Church, Haifa
Stella Maris Church, Haifa

Continuing the theme of different religions, our next stop was at the Stella Maris church, belonging to the Carmelite Order, a group of monks and nuns who since Crusader times have been connected to the Carmel Mountain. Inside the church is a cave believed to have been frequented by the prophet Elijah; there is also a small display of artefacts excavated on Carmelite land on the Carmel.

Outside the church, our guide discussed the history of the sanctity of the Carmel, which seems to go back to an association with Helios, the sun god of the Greeks and Romans, from the second century BCE. Helios has a close association with Elijah (the name; the fact that they both ride in fiery chariots) and it seems that Elijah’s association with the Carmel may have been inherited from Helios as a result.

We also learned about Napoleon’s campaign in the 18th century, which passed through the area of modern day Haifa, and indeed the church was used as a hospital for his wounded following defeat at Acre.

Cave of Elijah, Haifa
Cave of Elijah, Haifa

We hiked a short trail down the hill to arrive at the Cave of the prophet Elijah. A holy site for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze (as opposed to the Stella Maris, which is holy for Christians), it is believed that Elijah spent time praying here before challenging the prophets of Baal (referred to in 1 Kings 18) at the Mukhraka. We discussed the life of Elijah, a (literally) fiery character, and noted the ancient pilgrim graffiti inside the cave.

Biblical quotation on the lintel of a building in the German Colony, Haifa
Biblical quotation on the lintel of a building in the German Colony, Haifa

After a spot of lunch we turned to the topic of modern Haifa and had a walking tour in the area of the German Colony. Founded in 1868 by a group called the Templers, consisting of German Christians, it largely consists of a beautiful wide avenue straddled by buildings that were clearly not built by local architects. All the buildings have a biblical quotation above the doorway, and the German member of our class kindly obliged with translations! We learned about the history of the Temple Society, some of the key figures, and its influence on the technological innovation in Israel, particularly with regard to the early Zionist pioneers.

Water pool at Ein Meshotetim in Nachal / Wadi Siach
Water pool at Ein Meshotetim in Nachal / Wadi Siach

We concluded the day in Nachal (or Wadi) Siach, a small valley that lies between two spurs of the Carmel Mountain on which the city is built. After a steep climb we were able to see the remains of a British Mandate period bathhouse and garden, based on channeling the springs further up the slope. As we continued further we found the remains of a Crusader church, believed to be the one in which the Carmelite order was founded. The area is currently not in a very good state but apparently the municipality has plans to refurbish and develop the area which could make it a very pleasant stop on future Haifa tours. Still, it does not stop the locals from coming here to cool off in the springs and pools during the hot months of the summer.

A day of multiple religions, modern and ancient history, and even a little hiking. Next week we will travel slightly further north to the ancient port city which Haifa usurped in importance: Akko (Acre).

Campus Golan Day 3: Mount Hermon

Read about day one and day two of the Golan Campus.

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.

View over the Golan Heights from Mount Hermon
View over the Golan Heights from Mount Hermon

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.

Nabi Hazuri
Nabi Hazuri

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.

View over the Hula Valley from the Nimrod Fortress
View over the Hula Valley from the Nimrod Fortress

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.

Waterfalls at Banias
Waterfalls at Banias

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.

Helicopters Memorial
Helicopters Memorial

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.

Campus Golan Day 2: the Lower Hermon and the Northern Golan Heights

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.

Salamander at Tel DanAn 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!

The world's oldest arch at Tel Dan
The world’s oldest arch at Tel Dan

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.

Tel Dan hike
Tel Dan hike

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.

Beit Ussishkin Museum
Beit Ussishkin Museum

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).

Agrippa's Palace at Banias
Agrippa’s Palace at Banias

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.

View towards the Syrian border with Israel from Mt Bental
View towards the Syrian border with Israel from Mt Bental

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.

Valley of Tears Memorial
Valley of Tears Memorial

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.

Jubat el-Kabiera (the Big Juba)
Jubat el-Kabiera (the Big Juba)

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.

Birket Ram
Birket Ram

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.

Campfire songs at our kumzitz
Campfire songs at our kumzitz

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….

Campus Golan Day 1: Central Golan Heights

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.

Waterfall in Nachal Jilabun / Gilabon
Waterfall in Nachal Jilabun / Gilabon

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.

Wine tasting at the Golan Heights Winery
Wine tasting at the Golan Heights Winery

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…

Byzantine period Synagogue at Ancient Katzrin
Byzantine period Synagogue at Ancient Katzrin

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.

'Venus of the Galil' at the Archaeological Museum of the Golan Heights in Katzrin
‘Venus of the Galil’ at the Archaeological Museum of the Golan Heights in Katzrin

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.

Memorial at Mitzpe Gadot
Memorial at Mitzpe Gadot

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.

Memorial at Tel Faher (Mitzpe Golani)
Memorial at Tel Faher (Mitzpe Golani)

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.

Belvoir Fortress and Beit Shean

Today we headed north to visit two significant sites just south of the Sea of Galilee; Belvoir Fortress and Beit Shean (also known as Scythopolis). This trip was a catch up; there are a certain number of trips which you need to complete to finish the course and to take the exam. I missed quite a lot when I was sick and over the next few months need (and also want!) to go through them all; fortunately the place where I am studying has several courses running in parallel in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa so it is not too complicated to join a trip with another course. Today was a bit of a treat – there is an English speaking course in Jerusalem and I was joining them. Although I enjoy the challenge of studying in Hebrew it certainly made my life a lot easier to spend the day in English!

View over the Jordan Valley from Belvoir Crusader Fortress
View over the Jordan Valley from Belvoir Crusader Fortress

Our first site was the old crusader fortress of Belvoir, dating to the 12th century. It was clearly an extremely impressive fortification, commanding a fantastic view (hence its name) over the Jordan Valley to the Gilead mountains in modern day Jordan. The fortifications were necessary when Saladin attacked; in fact it took him two attempts to take the castle and respected the knights so much that he gave them free passage to Tyre. The fortress was only destroyed around 50 years later, and its bottom floor has survived largely intact.

Crusader pointed arches at Belvoir Fortress
Crusader pointed arches at Belvoir Fortress

It was extremely impressive to see such a complete crusader fortress and our guide painted a very good picture of how it would have been to live in and defend it, bringing the story of the site very much to life.

Our secondsite of the day was the ruins of Scythopolis, or Beit Shean. We entered in the back late, ascending to the ancient tel. The earliest settlement on the site seems to have been from the 5th millennium BCE; on the top of the tel you can see some remains dating to the Egyptian conquest of the area in the 15th century BCE; this was the centre of the administration for the region and there are column bases in what would have been the governor’s house dating to this period.

View over the ruins of Beit Shean (Scythopolis)
View over the ruins of Beit Shean (Scythopolis)

As we came over the top of the tel, the excavations of the Byzantine city were laid out before us. It was quite simply breathtaking (the 44C heat may have also had something to do with that, but still the site really is quite awesome). The excavations cover a significant part of what was believed to be the city centre, although based on archaeological surveys they estimate that they have only unearthed around 2-3% of the Roman city of Scythopolis.

The ancient shopping street (cardo) of Beit Shean (Scythopolis)
The ancient shopping street (cardo) of Beit Shean (Scythopolis)

Scythopolis was the Roman capital for the northern part of the country, known as Palestina Secunda. It was a flourishing city, although most of what is visible today is from the slightly later Byzantine period. It is possible to wander through two of its bathhouses (including enjoying one of the best preserved Byzantine toilets in the world, its main shopping street (cardo), and perhaps most impressively, its theatre, which is nearly entirely original and is still used for concerts today.

View into a theatre at Beit Shean (Scythopolis)
View into a theatre at Beit Shean (Scythopolis)

It is also quite remarkable to see the results of the huge earthquake that hit the area in 749. Whole facades have collapsed into the earth; huge columns have smashed into paving stones. It’s almost feels as if the earthquake just happened and you are wondering through its wreckage.

As a side note, I mentioned that it was an extremely hot day. We were suffering in the heatwave, but as we have been told before, the tour guide course goes out into the field, even through fire and water (or, as we experienced in December, hail). Our guide made the point to us that if a tourist comes to Israel for a short trip and that is the only time they have, then that is when we will need to guide them. So part of our studies is getting used to dealing with the heat, and thinking about where and how to deal with the hottest parts of the day. This course is as physically demanding as it is mentally!

All in all, a really fascinating trip, and both sites are definitely well worth a visit for anyone heading to the north.

Christianity Around the Sea of Galilee

Our journey of discovery into the world of Christianity continued with a day based around important sites along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, known as the Kinneret in Hebrew. We swapped the rolling hills of the lower Galilee for the calm and beauty of the lake shores.

Jesus Boat at Ginosar / Gennesaret
Jesus Boat at Ginosar / Gennesaret

Our day began at Kibbutz Ginosar and the museum named after one its most famous former inhabitants: Beit Yigal Allon. The museum is about man and nature in the Galil but of particular interest for Christian visitors is the ‘Jesus boat’. This 2000 year old boat (matching the time period of Jesus’ life) was found in 1986 covered in mud along the shores of the Kinneret. After a major restoration programme it was put on display in this museum. Although there is no evidence directly linking Jesus to the boat, given that many of his disciples were fishermen, and Jesus himself lived along the Kinneret shoreline for a time, it gives a unique insight into his way of life. There is also a short movie explaining the find and the complicated restoration process (2000 year old wood is quite delicate!).

Church of the Beatitudes
Church of the Beatitudes

We left the kibbutz and travelled north to the Mount of Beatitudes. This is considered the site of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount and is so named after the blessings, or beatitudes, that are contained within the address. The site is managed my Franciscan nuns and the modern day Church of the Beatitudes is built a little up the hill from ruins of the 4th century Byzantine church marking the same event.

View over the Sea of Galilee at the Mount of Beatitudes
View over the Sea of Galilee at the Mount of Beatitudes

There are commanding views over the Sea of Galilee and the church has been built with wide windows to allow the visitor to be inspired by the beautiful scenery and to try to imagine the surroundings within which Jesus would have spoken to his audience.

Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha
Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha

We headed down the hill to Tabgha, site of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. This site, managed by German Benedictine monks, commemorates Jesus feeding 5000 men (and therefore around 20 000 people, with their families taken into account) with just two fishes and five loaves of bread. We entered the church and were impressed by the beautiful Byzantine period floor mosaic commemorating the event; one of the most famous mosaics in Israel as it directly connects a miracle to a site. I reflected on when aged seven my teacher gave us fish fingers and pieces of toast in class to commemorate this miracle. Sadly, no fish fingers were available on this occasion, but we had been promised some St Peter’s Fish for lunch, so there was something to look forward to.

Church of the Primacy of St Peter at Tabgha
Church of the Primacy of St Peter at Tabgha

We continued by foot to the Church of the Primacy of St Peter. This church is really right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee and as our guide told us the story behind it we watched pilgrims washing their feet in its holy waters. We heard the story of how Jesus appeared here to Peter and the disciples, charging Peter with looking after his flock in his absence. Inside the church is a rock called Mensa Christi (the Table of Christ) which is considered the rock upon which Jesus laid out the food for his apostles. As with many other churches in the area, it is also built on the ruins of a Byzantine site, proving that this has long been considered the location of this miracle.

We continued on to Kfar Nachum, or Capernaum, via a brief stop for a lunch of some St Peter’s Fish (so named as it is believed to be the species of fish that appeared with a golden coin in its mouth to Peter in the story in Matthew 17.

Church of the Twelve Apostles at Capernaum
Church of the Twelve Apostles at Capernaum

Jesus moved to Capernaum after being expelled from Nazareth, living with Peter and his family. While here he performed several miracles and gave many important sermons. Our first stop was in the Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles, close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a small but pretty building with an interior decorated with beautiful murals in the byzantine style, showing various important scenes in the life of Jesus and his followers.

View into St Peter's House, Capernaum
View into St Peter’s House, Capernaum

We then visited the part of Capernaum owned by the Franciscans. Here is the Church of St Peter’s House, a modern structure built over the remains of a Byzantine church, which itself is built on the remains of a very interesting structure. In the vicinity excavators have found many houses from the Second Temple period (i.e. the time of Jesus) and one of them with a very interesting difference from the rest. In one of the houses, one room was covered in plaster at some point between 50-100 CE and became an early place of Christian worship. Later layers of plaster contain Christian graffiti and the room was enlarged in the 4th century (once Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion). This type of site, one of Christian ritual before the establishment of church buildings, is called a domus ecclesia. There are not many of them around and this is considered the oldest one in existence. As the oldest site with evidence of Christian practice, it is very significant. And it is believed that the ritual began here because it is the site of Peter’s house.

Synagogue at Capernaum / Kfar Nachum
Synagogue at Capernaum / Kfar Nachum

There are also excavations of a synagogue in Capernaum. It was clearly rather large and may even have had a second floor. Most of the site is reconstructed so it is unclear if it is similar to the original structure, but it was still impressive to see.

Byzantine church ruins at Kursi
Byzantine church ruins at Kursi

From Capernaum we continued around the Sea of Galilee to Kursi. This site is quite unusual in that it is a holy Christian site owned by the Israel Parks Authority. This is because it was actually discovered very recently, when after the 1967 Six Day War meant that this area became more secure, Israel decided to build a road. When digging for its construction they discovered the ruins of a Byzantine period church, and up the hill a small chapel by a large boulder, together with a monastery. This site is considered the location of the Miracle of the Swine, when Jesus banished evil spirits into a nearby heard of pigs. We heard the story from the New Testament and enjoyed the delicacy of the ancient mosaic floor, although sadly it had undergone an iconoclasm in the Muslim period so many of the animals had been defaced. The actual site of the miracle is considered the large boulder by the small chapel.

Baptism ceremony in the Jordan River at Yardenit
Baptism ceremony in the Jordan River at Yardenit

Our day was drawing to a close and our final stop was in the south of the Kinneret where the River Jordan flows out and south towards the Dead Sea. Here is Yardenit, a relatively new site where many Christian pilgrims come to be baptised in the holy waters of the Jordan. We were privileged to witness a ceremony by some visitors and also heard the tale of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist.

It is a beautiful and calm place and a nice site at which to complete what had been rather a hectic day. Next week our Christian odyssey continues in Jerusalem.