The Hula Valley is in the North of Israel; North of the Kineret (the Sea of Galilee) and on the way to the Golan Heights. While I have definitely passed through it on a few occasions, I think this was my first time actually visiting the sites in and around the valley.
I was familiar, however, with our first stop of the day, the First Aliyah town of Rosh Pina. Although I hadn’t been there for 10 years. We began our day at the lovely lookout point of Mitzpe Nimrod, but sadly it came with an upsetting story. Nimrod Segev was called up for reserve duty in the Second Lebanon War, and never came home. His family built the lookout in his memory, and we heard briefly from his father. It is a sad reminder of the fragility of life in this region.
We heard about the history of Rosh Pina, and learned about the First Aliyah. This was the first wave of mass immigration to Israel from the Diaspora in more recent history, beginning in 1882. These new arrivals were not the young socialist ideologues of the kibbutz movement; rather religious bourgeois families looking to make a new home in Israel. Sadly, it seems that life here was very difficult indeed. Our guide told us the stories of the inhabitants through the restored buildings of the old town and the memoires of the town’s founder, David Shuv. The former office of the Baron de Rothschild’s clerks is now a small museum with a surprisingly interesting film about life in the early days of the town. The old town itself is quaint and has a few cute little cafes; it will be nice to pop back here at some point, there are a couple of hikes in the area and a nice rustic café would be the perfect ending.
We moved on to the Castle of Chastellet, the ruins of a Crusader fort which was destroyed after just ten months of existence by Saladin’s forces. Our guide painted a picture of the battle and the political ramifications of this fortress next to an important crossing of the Jordan River: Jacob’s Ford. The young King of Jerusalem was pressurised into building the fort by hawkish knights in his administration; even though it broke an agreement with Saladin not to try to seize control of the Jordan’s crossings. Saladin offered twice (with increasing amounts) to pay the king not to build the fort, but construction went ahead and deconstruction followed… The history was interesting, but also of note was that this fort is built right on the line of the Afro-Syrian rift which runs up the East of Israel. The evidence of this was that you could see how half of the North and South walls of the fort had moved gradually ahead of the other half; now there is up to 2 metres’ difference, after just 1000 years. In geological terms, that’s almost light speed. Quite fascinating.
After this brief interlude in Crusader times we returned to the (relatively) modern day with a stop at the memorial for the Mishmar Hayarden settlement. This was also founded in the First Aliyah period. Due to the murder of one of the residents during the Arab revolt in the later 1930s, a small group of youths affiliated to the right-wing movement Beitar arrived to help with self-defence and also to assist with the farming. Then, in 1948, the Syrian army came over the border. Once they were repelled South of the Kineret they tried moving in North, and Mishmar Hayarden was the first settlement they encountered. The 20 families who lived there were no match for the Syrian army complete with tanks and air force and the town was captured and most of its citizens taken prisoner. The Haganah (soon to be the IDF) did not try and protect the town; after the war the prisoners were released but were not given the support of many others in similar situations and were not allowed to return to their land by the Israeli government. Some have said it was because Mishmar Hayarden was associated with the Right (because of the Beitar presence) and with the vast majority of Israel (and particularly the government) on the left, they were not afforded the support they should have had. Indeed, the site remained empty until the Begin government of the late 70s (Israel’s first right-wing government) when the memorial was built out of the stones of the former buildings.
On this slightly depressing note we headed further North and finally reached our destination of the Hula Valley nature reserve. Before going into the reserve we went to the Oforia [a cunning pun on the Hebrew for bird, off, and for euphoria] exhibit, which talked about the geological formation of the Hula valley and the animals and birds within it. It was somewhat overdramatic but really rather fun, particularly the interactive trivia quiz at the end and then the 3D film about the migrating birds with moving seats.
Having enjoyed this most interactive of exhibits we entered the reserve and learned about the modern history of the Hula Lake. At the turn of the 20th Century this area contained lakes and swampland. As one of the early grand Zionist projects, the Israelis famously drained the water away. This was to help combat malaria (although it is unclear if malaria was still an issue at this point) and to free up land for agriculture. There was also the desire to put bases there against the threat of a future Syrian invasion.
It really was a marvellous feat of human ingenuity and engineering. Sadly, it was also an ecological disaster. The Hula was home to a vast array of flora and fauna, whose habitats suddenly disappeared. And there was also a problem of underground fires starting with the bare earth suddenly exposed to the strong sun, rendering the soil unusable for agriculture and also having the small problem of fire popping up all over the place.
So, parts of the area have been returned to their original lake and swamp condition, and we are able to enjoy them (almost) as they originally were. Having wandered around the reserve we popped slightly further North to the Agamon reserve, also a man-made lake. This is particularly good for observing birds.
Every year half a billion (!) birds migrate through Israel. This huge number is caused by the fact that Israel is a land bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, and birds like to travel over land as the thermals mean they do not need to expend as much energy in flapping their wings. It is currently migration season and we arrived at the Agamon site at dusk. There was an incredible moment when I realised that the approaching clouds on the horizon were actually vast flocks of birds; a veritable swarm who took their turn to land in our around the lake in order to spend the night there, accompanied by a veritable cacophony of squawking and screeching. It really was quite magnificent, as I stood there I was overwhelmed by the forces of nature before me. It was a perfect ending to the day; soothing, contemplative, serene.