It is the perfect time of year for hiking, pleasantly warm without being hot, and with the trees in full autumn bloom. So it made sense to take advantage of this and to head up north to hike in Nachal Amud (the Amud Stream), one of the classic hikes of northern Israel.
First, came the descent into Nachal Meiron, which flows down from the area of Mt Meiron. On route, we passed the ruins of a British police station, built to protect some of the springs in the area. We continued down the path, passing the remains of an aqueduct and also remnants of terrace farming, which has been restored to an extent to show visitors what the area would have looked like when it was actively farmed.
We continued our descent through a beautiful canopy of autumn leaves, reaching Nachal Amud, and continuing further along the stream before the trail began to loop back on its other bank.
During our ascent, we bumped into a posse of photographers; it transpires that journalist Shimon Shiffer, whose normal focus is politics and diplomacy, was doing a feature on the Israel National Trail which traverses the country from north to south; part of the trail runs along Nachal Amud. We had a nice chat and he assured me that he would pass on my regards to the British Ambassador.
We returned to the beginning of the hike, but our day was just beginning; having driven all the way up north we were determined to make the most of our time! A short drive took us to the ancient synagogue of Bar’am, one of many ruins of synagogues in the north dating to the Byzantine period.
We then drove along the stunning road that runs along the Lebanese border into the Naftali heights, which offers astonishing views into the Hula Valley. After a brief stop at Tel Kedesh, and a visit to the most complete example of a Roman Temple in the country, we continued our descent to our final destination of the day, the Agamon Lake.
We are in the middle of the migration season in Israel, where millions of birds use the country as a corridor between Europe/Asia and Africa in their search for food as the northern hemisphere cools for the winter. The Agamon offers the opportunity to see many of these birds, and at the moment there are tens of thousands of cranes in the area. Although it is possible to explore independently, we booked onto a guided tour which takes you into areas which it is impossible to access on your own. The noise of the cranes was deafening, and it was amazing to see so many of them and to be so close. We also saw many animals and birds during the trip, including nutrias (large rodents with vicious teeth), gulls, coots, ducks, pelicans and remarkably a wild boar. It was a fantastic trip and highly recommended, particularly at this time of year.
After enjoying the sunset over the valley, it was time for us to return home, after a varied and most entertaining day out.
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!
Read about our first day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the Northern Arava and the Ovda Valley) or our second day (exploring the area of Eilat and the Eilat Mountains) or our fourth day (visiting the Timna Valley).
Again, a bright and early start, facilitated by the sumptuous breakfast buffet, and off we went to explore the area of the Southern Arava Valley.
Our first stop, next to the border crossing with Jordan, was at the Eilat Bird Park. As avid readers will recall from our trip to the Hula Valley around a year ago, Israel is a major bird migration station with half a billion birds passing through the country every year in search of warmer climes and the associated increased available foodstuffs. This makes Israel the #2 bird migration centre in the world after Panama.
For many birds, Eilat is a final stop to build up energy before the long journey over the Sahara desert (or alternatively a first place to restock having crossed it travelling north) and so is a major spot for bird watching. Although we did not have time to wander through the park or sit out with our binoculars, we were fortunate that our guide had saved a few birds from her tagging that morning (they tag the birds for research purposes to try and track their migration patterns) for us to see.
We then headed north, admiring the flamingos that have taken up lodging in the nearby salt pools (albeit from a distance), arriving at the Avrona farms.
This ancient agricultural settlement dates from around the 9th century and utilised a 1.5km long network of underground tunnels to bring water here that would enable farming (the local water has a very high salt content). The technique is known in local Arabic as fugarrot (in Persia, whence it originates, it is known as a qanat system). We crawled through one of the small tunnels – researches believe they were dug by children or even a special team of dwarves!
A short jump north took us to a botanical stop at the Doum Palms. These multi-trunked palm trees are mostly found in the area of the Nile in Africa, the ones located in Israel in the Arava are the most northern instances of this tree in the world and hence are protected.
It was now time to stretch our legs and as we hiked through the Shechoret Canyon. Having made our way through the towering black granite walls of the canyon itself, we ascended to a beautiful viewpoint over the mountains in the area.
Our guide explained the geological processes that made up the multicoloured peaks and created the rift valley that is the Arava.
On our descent, we passed an ancient animal trap. We learned how it worked together with a little about the local predators. As evidenced on our first day of the campus, there used to be leopards roaming the area of the Negev, although they seem to have now died out (there are rumours that there are still some around though and it is fun to keep them going!).
Wildlife was the subject of our next step as with the sunset approaching we arrived at the Chai Bar. Again, avid readers will recall that we visited the northern Chai Bar during our trip to the Carmel Mountain at the beginning of the course! This is the southern version of this impressive project to research species that used to be in the area, which are now extinct, and to gradually reintroduce them.
We enjoyed a safari drive through the park and then visited the predators section; our guide had arranged for us to arrive at feeding time which meant we were able to see some of these impressive animals in action.
Our final stop, with darkness fast approaching, was at a desert kite. These large structures were first identified by RAF pilots in the 20th century; they are found all over the region – Syria, Jordan, Israel etc and were so called because of their resemblance to a toy kite: two walls sloping in to meet at a point.
In fact, they were anything but toys – research shows that the ancient inhabitants of the land used them to catch large herds of animals and then slaughter them. The remains themselves were not particularly impressive (viewed from a height, one gets a better idea of the scale of the things) but it was interesting to get an insight into how our forebears had a good understanding of the local wildlife; and managed to develop frankly ingenious methods to catch them.
We returned to Eilat, and it was time for a small celebration! Tonight was the first night of the festival of Chanukah and we concluded the day together with a communal candle lighting, followed, appropriately, by significant doughnut consumption!
Read about our first day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the Northern Arava and the Ovda Valley), our third day (exploring the Southern Arava) or our fourth day (visiting the Timna Valley).
After rising early and having a hearty go at the ample breakfast buffet, it was time to recommence our trip, with today being broadly dedicated to the area of Eilat itself and the Eilat mountains.
We began the day at the area of Umm Rash Rash, the forerunner to the city of Eilat. The area does not have a long history of settlement due to the lack of water resources (the ancient city of Eilat and later Ayla is modern-day Aqaba, across the bay in Jordan), but at some point in the Ottoman period some fishers from Aqaba began to base themselves out here and in the early 20th century an Ottoman army outpost was built to prevent any future British shelling of Aqaba. After WWI, the outpost was taken over by the British.
Here we heard the story of Operation Ovda (Operation ‘Fact’ – the idea being that it would create facts on the ground), the last operation of the Israeli War of Independence. The majority of the Negev desert was not under Israeli control and the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, saw it is strategically vital to do so, both in order to secure extra space for the pending waves of immigration, and also to have access to the Red Sea for trade purposes.
However with the war in its final stages and ceasefire negotiations ongoing, the position was tricky. Hence Ben Gurion ordered the Israeli army to take the area of Um Rash Rash with two sets of troops approaching from the east and west, without firing a shot.
Our guide told us the remarkable story of how this was achieved, culminating in two jeeps of soldiers arriving at the deserted Umm Rash Rash post. Here was Israel’s Iwo Jima moment – there happened to be a photographer in the jeep who snapped the historic moment of the raising of their homemade ‘ink’ flag; now there is a sculpture at the site in memory of the occasion.
We then headed north, along the border with Egypt, deep into the Eilat mountains, for a hike in what is known as the Red Canyon. There is a great deal of red sandstone in the Eilat mountains, formed by erosion of local granite. The hike was just the right level of challenging for me with some lovely views and occasional explanations from our guide about local flora, fauna and geology.
Today was to be the most physically exerting of the campus as we travelled south for a hike through Nachal Shlomo, culminating at the peak of Mt Tzefachot. Our course coordinator had specifically scheduled the Eilat campus at this time of year so that we would be able to enjoy the area in comfortable temperatures (Eilat is the hottest part of Israel) but we were rather unfortunate in that our visit coincided with a ham sin (a heat-wave). Hence we found ourselves making the at times rather steep ascent in temperatures of around 32C!
Still, the physical effort was worth it, the view from Mt Tzefachot is quite simply outstanding. Looking north, one sees the many colours of the Eilat mountains; south the view expands over the bay of Eilat. It is also known as the ‘Four Countries Viewpoint’ as in addition to a view over Israel you can see deep into the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt), have a good view of Jordan and can even see the northwestern parts of Saudi Arabia. We sat in silence for a good few minutes at the top, enjoying the rush of the wind and the breathtaking view. No pictures can do this justice!
Having finished the hikes, our final stop of the day was at the Eilat Underwater Observatory – the first underwater observatory in the world! There is a beautiful coral reef along the edge of the Red Sea and using the observatory it is possible to descend and look out on multi-coloured coral and the beautiful fish that live together with it. The site also has an aquarium of local fish and various other attractions – I remember enjoying previous visits as a child with my family so there was a bit of nostalgia here. A nice treat to end the day!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
After the previous week’s adventures in the north of the country, it was time to travel south into the area known as the Shfela (or the Judean Lowlands), an area of hills that lies between Jerusalem and the coastal plain.
Today’s focus was on three sites: Tel Maresha (also known as Marissa), Beit Guvrin and Horvat Midras, spanning from the Hellenist period (2nd/3rd century BCE) until the Bar Kochba Revolt in the 2nd Century CE.
Our day began at Beit Guvrin National Park, at the upper part of the site, which is actually the ancient remains of Tel Maresha. This was originally a Jewish town in the First Temple Period, and it is still possible to see part of its original wall. Later, in the 2nd/3rd centuries CE, it was settled by Edomites who hailed originally from the area south of the Dead Sea (hence the Edom mountains in Jordan) but over the years they were joined by Phoenicians from Sidon (now in Lebanon) and retired Greek soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great, once he had conquered the region. The dominant culture seems to have been Hellenist, based on architecture that has been found.
The vast majority of the city does not remain, however there are a huge amount of underground caves to explore. These originally functioned as quarries but over the years were converted to form columbaria (pigeon coops), olive oil presses, cisterns, storerooms, even hideaways and living quarters. The attention to aesthetic detail is quite remarkable and the caves are extremely impressive. It was also pleasant to be hidden away from the searing summer heat. Our guide had helped excavate the site and it was nice to hear his anecdotes.
There is a still a lot of the site to excavate and for those who are interested in helping out, there is the Dig for a Day programme. We paid a visit to the sites they are currently excavating; I have participated myself on a couple of occasions and it is good fun, particularly as you always find something. Even if it is just a shard of 2000 year old pottery, it is still quite exciting to have discovered it yourself!
One of the more impressive caves is the Phoenician burial cave. Discovered last century, the beautiful painted scenes and inscriptions have faded away since being exposed to light, so 20 years ago they were restored.
With this we left the Hellenist period of Maresha and moved forward to the Roman settlement in the area. There was a Jewish town from the 2nd temple period called Beit Guvrin which the Romans took over and developed into a major city named Eleutheropolis (City of the Free). We visited the bell caves which were large quarries in the Roman period, and then popped over the motorway to the other section of the national park.
In this second section it is possible to see an oval amphitheatre; until recently considered unique in Israel (the others were circular; converted hippodromes) although they have just discovered one also in Caesarea and are busy excavating it. We wandered through the ruins and also part of what was once a huge bathhouse covering 4000m2.
To conclude our time at the site we visited the Crusader church which was later converted into a Mamluk fortress; the quality of the soil and water sources in the area meant that it was a popular place for continued settlement.
From Beit Guvrin, we travelled north to Horvat Midras. Here we learned about the guerrilla warfare developed by the Jews involved in the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century. They adapted or dug tunnel systems under towns to hide within; every now and again bursting out to surprise and attack the enemy. The Romans were unused to this and for a time had no way of dealing with it; however they eventually adapted and the Revolt was quashed. There are little remains of the town of Midras, but it is possible to crawl through the tunnels used by those involved in the rebellion; to see their hiding places and to experience a little what it must have been like to hide down there. A warning: not for the claustrophobic; not a good place to take your best new clothes either!
With this experience our day was over; next week we turn to the impact of the Crusaders on Jerusalem.
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.
The first time I went to Ein Gedi, the oasis of the Judean Desert on the shores of the Dead Sea, I was 16 years old, a participant in a month long group trip with my peers. It was August, boiling hot, we were in the middle of the desert, and we were going to do a hike. Things could have looked better. Little did we know that as we walked up the David stream we would soon come upon plunge pools where we would be able to have a much needed cool-off. It is the starkness of its surroundings that makes Ein Gedi so remarkable. A veritable oasis it was, and I will forever associate it with these fond memories.
We began our day at the Ein Gedi Field School, where we saw some ancient artefacts unearthed during excavations in the area. From a viewpoint over the nature reserve we learned about the different inhabitants of the area, dating back to the Chalcolithic period (that’s 5000-6000 years ago), moving through the period of the Israelite kings to the Byzantine era, when the area was famous for its production of the legendary afarsimon oil. This scented oil was so precious in the ancient world that both the Roman historians Pliny and Josephus make reference to how important it was for the Roman rulers to ensure they protected its production during the Jewish revolts. The knowledge of how to make this perfume was lost, but experts believe they have finally identified the plant from which it was sourced. Hopefully we would get to see it later.
We concluded by learning about the modern era; the kibbutz that was founded here by somewhat reluctant pioneers (they arrived in the middle of the summer heat) but they stayed, as they were commanded by Ben-Gurion to do so himself (I don’t think that Israeli prime ministers carry that sort of weight any longer!). We heard about the crops, the difficult balancing act of living with nature in the desert and not using too much of the spring water, and as our guide was a member of the kibbutz he was in the perfect position to talk about some of these tensions. All fascinating background information regaled over a stunning backdrop.
We moved into the nature reserve, hiking up the David stream to the David waterfall. It is named for David as the book of Samuel refers to him hiding there. Along the way, we paused to learn about the different plants and wildlife in the reserve; their origins and their uses. Our guide taught us about the geological processes which formed the rocks that we were seeing. Sadly, there was no time for a reprise of the plunge pool adventures.
We turned back and took a steep climb out of the valley to the top of the surrounding cliff. On the way up, we passed signs of ancient civilisation; trenches that acted as an irrigation system for crops built on terraces on the cliff face cisterns and the like. And enjoyed the sweeping views over the Dead Sea valley. Positioned on the top of the cliff was an ancient Chalocolithic temple. Only the bottom stones of the wall remain but you can clearly make out several rooms within the structure. We learned about its probable uses and imagined that in this place, over 5000 years ago, man was coming to pray to his god(s).
We concluded the hike with a more gentle descent past the Ein Gedi spring and a Mamluk period flour mill, arriving at the ruins of an ancient synagogue.
The synagogue dates from the 3rd Century. The floor contains a beautiful mosaic which has several unusual features compared to similar mosaics from the same period. It also makes a cryptic reference to a curse that would befall any member of the community who reveals its ‘secret’ to an outsider. Many people have posited that this ‘secret’ was with regard the manufacture of the afarsimon perfume. However our guide had a theory that in fact this community, because of its isolation in the desert, was able to hang on to various more mystical beliefs and practices that some Jews had brought with them to Israel from the Babylonian exile, but that the Pharisees (the rabbinic Jews, who had been in a power struggle with the priestly elites) had ruled out from the mainstream. His evidence was compelling; the mosaic makes reference to the three companions of the prophet Daniel (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah). In the rabbinic literature (midrash tehillin) it says “we say that the world is based on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; others say the world is based on Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah”. Not conclusive, but interesting nonetheless.
Around the corner from the synagogue we encountered a hut made entirely of woven palm leaves, situated in the date palm groves. We paused here to learn about the ancient culture of the date palm in the Land of Israel, which was so prevalent that it was also known as the Land of the Date Palm. These trees had a huge variety of uses: food, construction materials, baskets, clothing, cleaning implements. This culture is largely lost but a member of the kibbutz had visited a village in Morocco where it is still alive to learn the techniques and had constructed the hut and its contents. Ben Gurion also saw importance in restoring the culture of the Date Palm and brought to Israel experts from Iraq and Italy to help build new plantations in the early years of the state.
From there, we headed across Route 90 to observe some of the sinkholes along the shore of the Dead Sea. It is dangerous to walk there, but as our guide was the leading expert in the country on these sinkholes, he knew how to tread. I’m pleased that I only found out later that he once fell into one and thought he was going to die (read his somewhat harrowing journal here – in Hebrew). Sadly, the Dead Sea is shrinking at a rapid pace. It used to be up to the rude and is now some distance away; the pace was that it was going down 1m a year; now it is 1.5m. This is largely caused by the use of the main tributary, the River Jordan, as a source of water for drinking and agriculture; also by the removal of water by the Dead Sea factories to manufacture minerals. The sinkholes are one of the unfortunate side effects of this; caused by a resulting loss of underground pressure. They are though quite beautiful, in a bleak sort of way. Our guide introduced us to the ‘Dead Sea Diamonds’ which are buried in the clay around the sinkholes; these beautifully formed cubes are actually made of salt. So, in this case, I imagine the diamonds (sadly) are not forever.
Our final (and brief) stop as the sun rapidly set was in the botanical gardens in the Ein Gedi kibbutz. There, among other things, they have tried to research and collate the spices mentioned in the biblical book The Song of Songs. Most exciting was the opportunity to see Gilead’s Balsam, the plant from which it is now believed the legendary afarsimon perfume was manufactured. It is still unclear how to make the perfume from the plant, but it really does have a very strong and unique fragrance. We ran our hands over its leaves and the scent accompanied us all the way home to Tel Aviv.