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.