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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!