Category: North

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.

Christianity in the Galilee

Today’s trip came with a fair amount of nostalgia. A large proportion of the many tourists who visit Israel every year are Christian pilgrims, so a significant chunk of our studies are dedicated to learning about Christianity and Christian sites in order to be able to help them to make the most of their visit. I went to a Church of England primary school for seven years and as a result am relatively familiar with many of the key moments in the life of Jesus, so it was quite fascinating to begin to visit the locations attributed to these events in the bible and remember the stories from when I was a child.

View from Mount Tabor
View from Mount Tabor

Our first stop was at Mt Tabor and the Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration on its peak. It was the first of what was to be several churches and with each one our guide used the same structure. First, we would learn about the event the church commemorated and would hear the story from the bible. Second, she would tell us about the reasons for identifying the event with the location. Third, we would learn about the history of the building on the site and its architecture. This structure helped us organise the large amount of information we received throughout the day.

Church of the Transfiguration, Mt Tabor
Church of the Transfiguration, Mt Tabor

The Transfiguration was a significant event when before three of his disciples Jesus begins to shine brightly with a heavenly light and he speaks with Moses & Elijah. The impressive church was constructed in the 1920s under the design of Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian architect who designed many of the churches in Israel. Our guide explained to us how he always tried to incorporate the event commemorated at the site into his design, together with any archaeological remains – in this case historical churches on the site from the Crusader period and as far back as the Byzantine period in the 4th century. We entered the church and enjoyed the atmosphere. Near the altar it was possible to look through a glass window in the floor down to the bed rock upon which the miracle would have taken place.

Catholic Church of the Wedding, Kana
Catholic Church of the Wedding, Kana

We travelled north to Kfar Kana, identified with the site of Kana in the Galil as referred to in the Bible. Here is the place of Jesus’ first miracle, narrated in the Gospel of John, where he turns water into wine at a wedding feast. We visited both the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the site which both contain ancient stone water pots and both claim to be on the site of the wedding. Underneath the Catholic church archaeologists found remains of a synagogue; it makes sense that this would have been the location of a wedding in the town. However the churches are close to each other and it is also entirely feasible that the festivities would have spread over a large area, so it is plausible that both could be on the site of the wedding.

Orthodox Church of the Wedding, Kana
Orthodox Church of the Wedding, Kana

Also in Kana we passed the Church of St Bartholomew, locked all year except on his saint day, as according to the Bible he came from the town of Kana. In Kana and throughout the rest of the day we witnessed many groups of pilgrims – we were travelling shortly after Orthodox Easter and also Catholics consider May a holy month for Mary, Jesus’ mother. It was quite fascinating to see all the groups, to hear the variety of languages from Russian, Polish and Czech to Spanish, Italian, Tigri and of course English.

Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

We continued south west to Nazareth. In the time of Jesus, Kana was the large city of which Nazareth was a small satellite village. Now, because of the fact that Nazareth has become a holy site, it is Kana which is part of the Nazareth municipality. Our first site was the colossal Basilica of the Annunciation, one of the most important churches in the world. This church marks the site of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would give birth to the son of God.

Mary's Home: inside the crypt at the Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Mary’s Home: inside the crypt at the Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

The church is modern, having been constructed in 1969, but like most of the churches in the area is built over ruins from a crusader and Byzantine church. In fact, there is even evidence of pre-church Christian ritual in excavations in the crypt. The crypt contains the cave which is considered the home of Mary and has been dated as a dwelling cave to the right time period. It is a quiet, dark and sombre space; after visiting we went up the stairs to the main basilica where we witnessed part of a mass for a visiting group of pilgrims.

Home of the Holy Family: Church of St Joseph, Nazareth
Home of the Holy Family: Church of St Joseph, Nazareth

Close by, in the same complex, is the significantly smaller Church of St Joseph which was constructed over another cave, considered to be the home of the Holy Family on their return to Nazareth and the location of Joseph’s carpentry shop. Here you cannot really see directly into the cave but on descending into the crypt you can see glimpses of it through some bars.

Church of the Synagogue, Nazareth
Church of the Synagogue, Nazareth

We walked into the narrow alleys of the market to our next stop, the confusingly named Church of the Synagogue. This Orthodox church is located on the site traditionally associated with the synagogue of Nazareth. Here, according to the story in Luke 4, Jesus read a prophecy from Isaiah and announced to the congregation that he was here to fulfil it. Unfortunately they were not ready to receive this news and reacted rather badly, expelling Jesus from the town, even about to throw him off a cliff, although fortunately they did not follow this through.

Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Our final brief stop in Nazreth was at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The church is located over the Nazareth spring (known as Mary’s spring) and is based on a story from the Gospel of James, part of the Christian apocrypha. Here we learn that the Annunciation actually happened in two stages: first the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary while she was drawing water at the spring, but she was frightened and ran back home, where he appeared to her again and delivered the full prophecy. In the crypt of the church it is possible to look down on the spring (the only spring in the city, so it is also the spring from which the Holy Family would have drawn their water) and it is also possible to touch the holy water through a pipe system.

View over Nazareth from Mount Precipice
View over Nazareth from Mount Precipice

We then left Nazareth for our last stop of the day at Mount Precipice. This cliff, located just outside the city, is considered the site to which Jesus was expelled following his problematic announcement in the synagogue which I mentioned earlier, and indeed there is a sheer cliff face from which he may have been thrown. The site commands outstanding views of both the Jezreel Valley and Nazareth; it was with these stunning vistas that we wrapped up the day.

View over the Jezreel Valley from Mount Precipice
View over the Jezreel Valley from Mount Precipice

I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my first Christianity field trip. I felt that I learned a lot about an important world religion (33% of the globe identify as Christians) and it was moving to see the pilgrims many of whom were really quite overcome with being in the holy sites. Regardless of belief, there is something rather exciting about being in a site identified with a historical event (in this case as told in the Gospels) and reading the story in situ. I’m looking forward to the rest of our Christianity excursions!

The Ancient Sea Road (Via Maris)

It is the day before our weekly field trip and Israel is in the midst of its worst storms for ten years. The main motorway in Tel Aviv is flooded and closed. The trains aren’t running. Snow is forecast in the Golan and in Jerusalem. Amongst these fierce winds and torrential rain, some of the course members contact our coordinator. Surely tomorrow’s field trip is cancelled? It seems that it is not. Disbelief. And the beginnings of a mutiny. But in our night class, our coordinator makes it clear: “the tour guide course goes out into the field, even through fire and through water” (I think it sounds better in Hebrew). He was almost seeming to relish it. The rebellion was quashed.

So it was that we assembled, as usual, at 6.30am at Arlozorov bus station. Except this time we were all looking somewhat larger due to the multiple layers of clothing and waterproofs. Spirits were surprisingly high. We were in this together, “through fire and through water”. And off we set.

Our trip was to be connected to the Via Maris, the ancient Sea Road connecting the two great regional empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the end, only some of the sites were connected to this road, but the majority of the day dealt with those that were. Remarkably, as we headed north the skies began to clear. A miracle?

El Ahwat
El Ahwat

Nonetheless, the ground was extremely muddy at our first stop at El Ahwat. An archeological site dating from the Bronze age, some believe that this is the home town of the biblical character Sisera who famously met his end when Yael bashed a tent peg into his head. There seems to be a connection in the architecture with the Nuragic culture of Sardinia, and a theory is that the people who lived here came across the sea bringing their culture with them. Unfortunately the site was rather inaccessible as it was effectively a very large bog. But we got a bit of an idea. Sadly the bus driver was not so appreciative of the mud adorning our boots.

Katzir Viewpoint
Katzir Viewpoint

We carried on a short drive to the small town of Katzir where we enjoyed a viewpoint over to the Carmel. Our guide pointed out key sites including the route of the Via Maris and the topographical features of the area. With this overview we moved on to the site that was to form the largest part of the day’s itinerary, Tel Megiddo.

A Tel is an archaeological mound. At some point in ancient history a group decided that point x was a good point to settle. Perhaps it was close to water, had good fields for agriculture, was easy to defend etc. Over the years the settlement might be destroyed, or deserted, and then later rebuilt, each time over the previous ruins, rising up and up to form a Tel. Israel is full of these Tels, each of which is an archaeological treasure trove of different periods of history. And one of the richest is Tel Meggido.

Model of the Israelite city at Tel Meggido
Model of the Israelite city at Tel Meggido

The site was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005 and has been under excavation since the beginning of the 19th century. And they’re still finding more and more. It had a prime location at a key junction on the Via Maris, close to arable land and a constant water supply, leading to many battles for its control. Eventually the Israelites wrestled control of it from the resident Canaanites and most of what is visible in the excavations is a mixture of the Canaanite and Israelite periods. Most impressive are the series of Canaanite temples on the east side of the Tel (facing the sun).

Sadly our excursion on the Tel was somewhat hampered by the darkening skies followed by hail. Yes, hail. Despite this, we gallantly continued around the site through bouts of being pelted by ice pellets. And our brave guide managed to impart to us a great deal of useful information. I think though, it will be worth a return visit in better weather.

View from the east side of Tel Meggido
View from the east side of Tel Meggido

Also of note is that Tel Meggido has been identified with the end of days vision of John at Armageddon. Har is Hebrew for mountain/hill; Har + Megiddo and the connection makes sense. Furthermore, a few hundred metres away has been unearthed a mosaic floor containing an inscription with the earliest known reference to the Christian religion. Hence there were a few groups of Christian tourists also braving the weather with us, and they have my full respect for doing so!

View from Tel Jezreel
View from Tel Jezreel

From Meggido we moved on to Tel Jezreel, another archaeological mound along the Via Maris. Our guide took us through the generations of occupancy of the mound from the Israelite period through to the Romans, Crusaders (the ruins of a church have been uncovered here) and the Arab village that was here for 100 years prior to 1948. We learned about the battle that took place here between the Israelites and the Philistines as recounted in the Book of Samuel, and then the later battles that took place here in the Israeli War of Independence. On the way out of the Tel we passed the monument for the soldiers who died in the battles to control the mound in the modern era.

Ancient Beit Alfa Synagogue
Ancient Beit Alfa Synagogue

It was time to leave the Via Maris and our next port of call was at the ancient synagogue at Beit Alfa (somewhat confusingly located not in Kibbutz Beit Alfa, but in Kibbutz Heftziba, next door). The ruins of this ancient synagogue from the time of the Second Temple have been loving restored including a stunningly impressive floor mosaic. Interestingly, the mosaic includes the signs of the zodiac and an image of a foreign god. I doubt they would be allowed in synagogues today but it seems that in these ancient times they were just perceived as decoration (and indeed something that the people who made the mosaics knew how to do). Inside the synagogue you can watch a rather cute film which acts out the hypothetical story of the mosaic’s creation. It is a cute and creative way to explain what is before you and makes the site much more engaging, certainly for children but for adults alike.

View from Mt Barkan on the Gilboa
View from Mt Barkan on the Gilboa

We concluded the day by driving up to the Mt Gilboa ridge at the edge of the Samarian hills. As we went up the steep ascent we were treated to stunning views of the valleys below bathed in sun with the streams running full of water (many of the streams in Israel are dry most of the year) and the fields rich colours of green and brown. We arrived at our first lookout point at Mt Barkan, the highest point on the ridge, but sadly the explanation of what we were seeing was curtailed by another hailstorm, this time the hail was around half a centimetre in diameter and it really hurt! Our guide bravely struggled on but eventually had to concede that our exposed position on the mountain top was not perhaps so wise in the current conditions. Still, we briefly enjoyed the view.

View from Mt Shaul on the Gilboa
View from Mt Shaul on the Gilboa

We carried on a little further along the Gilboa scenic road to Mt Shaul. The hail had turned to light rain so we alighted and enjoyed the stunning views while our guide read to us the sad story of the first Israelite king, Saul. He is said to have fallen on his sword at this point. It is also apparently a very good spot for paragliding. The clouds parted so we took advantage to walk a short trail around the peak before returning to the bus, homeward bound.

The Lower Galil

The green and hilly region of the Galil in the North of Israel is divided into two, largely based on topography. The Lower Galil is lower in two senses of the word; it is both further to the South and has lower hills (affectionately referred to as mountains in Hebrew).

The Galil is a beautiful place to visit. The rolling green hills make a beautiful backdrop; they are filled with hiking trails. It is also an area of great historical significance. The Galil contains the city of Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, and a lot of the miracles he performed took place here. From a Jewish perspective, it became one of the main Jewish centres after the second temple was destroyed; there were several towns here which hosted the Sanhedrin, the Jewish parliament, and indeed the Mishna (Oral Law) was codified in one of these towns, Tzippori.

But neither Tzippori nor Nazareth were the focus of today’s trip. Rather, we were to get an overview of the region. This overview began at Tel Chanaton. A tel is an archaeological mound. This means that it was a dwelling place for man over several centuries, and was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Each time it was rebuilt, the new settlement was constructed on top of the remains of the old one, and the mound grew.

Tel Chanaton was a dwelling place of man from the Bronze age up until the end of the Persian rule in Israel, roughly a period of 3000 years, and then intermittently afterwards. It is mentioned in ancient sources including letters between Canaanite kings and indeed the bible. From our lookout on the tel we learned about the topography and geology of the Galil in addition to the importance of its situation close to several ancient trade routes. It was a place for people to stop off while travelling and restock food and water. In later times it was also used to collect taxes from travellers.

Remains of Crusader Fortress at Tel Hanaton
Remains of Crusader Fortress at Tel Hanaton

Israel is full of these mounds and many have been extensively excavated, but Tel Chanaton has not yet. Some excavation has taken place though and you can squeeze into a small tunnel that takes you into the remains of a Crusader fortress that was based here. There is something quite remarkable about being inside it, knowing that it was not originally buried in the earth. It helps understand the other mounds you see, knowing that all the remains were originally like this.

We moved on from the tel to the Muslim Arab village of Kaukab Abu al Hija. This village is named after the great Husam ad-Din Abu al-Hija, a lieutenant of Saladin. He was known as a righteous man, a man of the people, who encouraged good relationships between Jews and Muslims. We heard a couple of the legends of his time in charge of the area.

In more modern times, this village stood out in the area by embracing the arrival of new Jewish villages. While other Arab villages protested, the mayor of Kaukab Abu al Hija argued in favour of the new arrivals saying that they brought with them better infrastructure and services to the area. He participated in cultural festivals that they organised and tried to develop his village for tourism. To this end, it was the first Arab village in Israel to have a ‘tzimmer’ (a sort of boutique BnB retreat) and they also developed a sculpture garden in the 1990s using work from Jewish and Arab artists in Israel.

Sculpture Garden at Kaukab Abu al-Hija
Sculpture Garden at Kaukab Abu al-Hija

There were many interesting sculptures in the garden, many connected with thoughts and hopes of peace. I found particularly striking the sculpture pictured of flowers of the symbols of the three major faiths against a stunning backdrop. Sadly our guide told us the flower with the Star of David was frequently broken (you could see where it had been restored); and the flower with the cross was torn down after the Pope made a speech a couple of years ago which was understood to have slandered Mohammed. Although this is sad, the encouraging thing is that the village council has consistently restored the sculpture. And hopefully it will endure.

View over Ancient Yodfat
View over Ancient Yodfat

We moved on to a viewpoint over a small hill (not a tel, we were told) which used to house the ancient city of Yodfat, where we heard the story of its demise. When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 AD, the military commander Vespasian was dispatched with his son Titus (of the arch’s fame) to subdue them. He set out into the Galil to destroy Yodfat which was a key centre for the rebels, under the command of man called Yosef ben Mattityahu. The Romans broke the city walls after 47 days; most of the town had committed mass suicide but Yosef ben Mattityahu survived. He returned to Rome with Vespasian and latinised his name, taking on the surname of his new mentor. The new Josephus Flavius became the official historian for the Roman empire in this region and his accounts are vital for us today in understanding what took place here under the Romans and indeed in locating important archaeological sites.

Chapel at Lavra Netofa
Chapel at Lavra Netofa

Our next stop was at the communal village of Hararit, where the inhabitants are followers of Transcendental Meditation and meditate together as a community. We passed through the village though to the fields behind it and to the Lavra Netofa. We heard the story of two Christian monks who came here to live an acetic lifestyle in isolation, with a few followers. They found a Byzantine period cistern which they converted into a small chapel which was beautifully decorated for Christmas. It was incredibly peaceful and calm, and an appropriate setting for the story of the monks. The last of them passed away in 2005 but the chapel and community is now maintained by a group of nuns who moved here on their request for this purpose.

We left Hararit and travelled a short distance to the communal village of Avtaliyon. Here we heard the story of the programme to encourage more Jews to move to the area of the Lower Galil in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, the traditional founders of new communities, the kibbutz, moshav and youth movements, were waning in their strength and influence. So a new concept, that of the communal village, was created. The idea was that people would form a group based on shared interests; perhaps it would be Transcendental Meditation, as in Hararit. There were other new communities created by graduates of the Technion, or employees of Rafael. These communities have remained small but now exist in the Galil and all over the country. Our guide argued that they had helped transform the Galil into an area not known for a good standard of living to an area with a good lifestyle, good education and good employment.

Oil Press at Avtaliyon
Oil Press at Avtaliyon

Here, we also learned about the manufacture of olive oil. 90% of olive oil in Israel comes from the Lower Galil. It is all made in the Arab villages except for in Avtaliyon, were they have their own press. Sadly, there was no time for tastings; a return visit is probably warranted.

Our final destination was the Muslim Arab village of Deir Hanna. The Arabic name translates as Monastery of John the Baptist, as a tradition says that he was born there. It is a large Muslim village with the ruins of an 18th century fortress at its centre. The visited the fortress and heard the story of its ruler, a local Sheikh called Daher el Omar who stood up against the Ottoman rulers, making himself an intermediary in their tax collection, and while doing so transformed the Galil region. There was barely a place around here that he did not influence, for example he built the city walls in Tiberias, in Akko, and even took a small village called Haifa, fortified and enlarged it.

Sadly for Daher el Omar, the Ottomans had enough of him after around 50 years and having grown in strength they sent a military force to wipe him out. No one replaced him and the Ottomans remained in full control until WWI.

Traditional Arab Home in Deir Hanna
Traditional Arab Home in Deir Hanna

While in the village we visited a local home where the family hosts tourists and explains to them about traditional Arab culture, accompanied by traditional Arab cuisine (not to be sniffed at!). We learned about the traditional way of living and enjoyed some homemade olives (our course fees did not stretch to baklava and coffee, sadly). As the sun set, the call to prayer sounded around the village, and it was time for us to head home.

Hula Valley

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.

View over Rosh Pina from Mitzpe Nimrod
View over Rosh Pina from Mitzpe Nimrod

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.

Original Synagogue at Rosh Pina
Original Synagogue at Rosh Pina

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.

Evidence of the Afro-Syrian rift in action at the Castle of Chastellet
Evidence of the Afro-Syrian rift in action at the Castle of Chastellet

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.

Mishmar Hayarden Memorial
Mishmar Hayarden Memorial

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.

Trivia Test at Oforia
Trivia Test at Oforia

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.

 

Catfish in the Hula Valley Reserve
Catfish in the Hula Valley Reserve

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.

Migrating Birds Land at the Agamon
Migrating Birds Land at the Agamon

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.

Nachal Kziv and Montfort Crusader Castle

Not part of the course, this one, but such a wonderful day out that I think it is worth writing about. A friend recently popped over to Israel for a few days and I said that we should go on a trip. I asked him for his interests and they were as follows: food, hiking and history. After a bit of research, I decided on an itinerary, and off we went.

We headed North from Tel Aviv, our destination for the beginning of our hike the small village of Mitzpe Hila, recently made famous as it is the hometown of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who last year returned home after being held a prisoner by Hamas for several years. Our business was just outside the entrance of the village, however, the trail head down to Nachal Kziv, the longest stream in the Galilee.

Serving the hummus at Abu Adham
Serving the hummus at Abu Adham

First however, there was an important stop – a small turn off from route 70 took us into the village of Kfar Yasif, famous as the home of the hummus restaurant of Abu Adham. This small hummus place became so famous in Israel that it has spawned a franchise with a few Abu Adhams now appearing in Tel Aviv. However, in my opinion, nothing beats the original, whether in terms of simplicity of menu, price, or (most importantly) taste [with thanks to hummus101.com for the picture].

Our bellies mightily full, we headed to the beginning of our hike. We went gradually down the bank of the stream, thankfully covered in thick woodland which shaded us from the afternoon sun. Every now and again there would be a break in the trees and a glimpse of a beautiful view over the Galil, such as the one below.

View from South bank of Nachal Kziv
View from South bank of Nachal Kziv

After quite a steep climb down, pausing to let a local goat herder pass with his flock, we arrived at Ein Tamir, a small spring that contributes to the Kziv stream. This was a great place to cool off and have a quick paddle while doing our best not to disturb the fish swimming around our feet, a quite pleasant sensation. A nice reward after such a steep descent.

Ein Tamir
Ein Tamir

We continued down the river, criss-crossing via stepping stones when every now and again we ran out of river bank (the trail helpfully pointed us in the right direction when we needed to do so). It would probably have been more practical to have done this as a water hike and just walked through the stream; unfortunately neither of us had brought appropriate shoes on this occasion. However, it was quite fun to jump along the stones, trying to identify the best route, avoid wobbles, and a good feeling of achievement on safely reaching the other bank.

Hiking down Nachal Kziv
Hiking down Nachal Kziv

After a while we arrived at what appeared to be a mini canyon; erosion having taken its toll on the surrounding rock. It was really rather beautiful.

Nachal Kziv
Nachal Kziv

Eventually we exited the shade, fortunately the heat of the day was already abating and it was very pleasant to be in the sunshine. We continued along the stream, continuing to cross over every now and again, and passed the ruins of an old flour mill, testifying to the impact of mankind on the area. The ruins were somewhat forlorn, although aesthetically pleasing in a rustic way; it felt a bit of a shame though to encounter this evidence of human construction as part of the beauty of this trail was the fact that we were almost alone; for the city dweller this isolation gives a certain sense of freedom and connection with nature; the mill reminded us that we were not so far from civilisation as we imagined.

Ruins of a flour mill along Nachal Kziv
Ruins of a flour mill along Nachal Kziv

Eventually it was time to begin our climb back up the river bank, and we could already spy our prize. Outlined against the setting sun was the Montfort crusader fortress. The ascent was steep and unkind on our tired legs but we pushed on and my, was it worth it. We had the stunning ruins of Montfort to ourselves, the remains of an 800 year old defence against the Mamluks. The remoteness of the castle, the fact that we were the only ones there, really gave us a sense of adventure, a sense of exploration. I can’t really explain how, but the castle retained a sense of majesty and might that could still inspire awe.

Among the ruins at Montfort
Among the ruins at Montfort

As if this was not enough, the backdrop was a spectacular panorama over the Galilee. In most directions the scenery remains woodland, I suppose that it is much the same as it was 800 years ago. Standing on the viewing platform, I tried to imagine the crusader knights rushing around the castle, looking out over the same hills below that I was looking over now.

Panorama from Montfort Caste
Panorama from Montfort Caste

We concluded our hike with a bit of a scramble over some rocks back up to where we had left the car, arriving just before darkness set in, and just in time to enjoy the colours of the sunset. The hike took about four hours in total, going at a leisurely pace and allowing for a nice splash in the spring and a good wander around the castle. We returned to Tel Aviv, happy with an excellent day out.

For anyone interested, details of the trail can be found here on the Tiyuli website.

Mount Carmel

After our desert adventures last week it was now time to head northwards to the somewhat leafier region of Mount Carmel. I’m beginning to appreciate the unearthly hour at which I have to leave the house for the day trip. We are between times in Tel Aviv, as it were. The late night revellers have made their way home; the gainfully employed are yet to start their commute; and so the city rests, tranquil, the odd street cleaner pottering about here and there. A rest before the craziness begins once more.

Mount Carmel is actually less of a mountain and more of a mountain range. Or rather, more of a large hill range, as at its high point it reaches just 546m above sea level; even Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, is over two times taller. It is an offshoot of the Samarian hills, geographically speaking, although it is not directly connected, at least anymore, thanks to various bits of tectonic activity and weathering.

Panorama over Nachal Oren from Mishmar HaCarmel
Panorama over Nachal Oren from Mishmar HaCarmel

We began our day with a panoramic view over the Oren stream (note that most streams in Israel don’t actually contain water during most of the year) from the Mishmar HaCarmel Nature Reserve. We learned about the geographical features of the range, the Mediterranean Woodland that one finds on its slopes (largely evergreen, meaning that we have a landscape that consistently retains a lush, green appearance), and the history of its settlement. Due to the lack of fresh water (only three springs on the mountain) it was largely devoid of human settlement until recent times; even now it is mostly woodland and large swathes of the range have been designated as a National Park which means that further building is prohibited.

We continued on our way, sadly witness to scenes of devastation still present from the terrible forest fire of December 2010. I remember driving up to Netanya and seeing the huge plumes of smoke billowing towards the heavens. The fire raged for four days, claiming 44 lives, and reached temperatures of up to an incredible 1000°C. On our route, we passed the place where 37 prison cadet officers, on their way to evacuate the prison at the top of the hill, were trapped by the fire and tragically did not manage to escape. They are remembered by a recently dedicated monument.

Our next stop was in the area of Little Switzerland, so called by European immigrants for whom the greenery reminded of my former home. As much as it is lovely, I’m not sure how close it comes to representing the beauty of the Swiss countryside, but I suppose that in comparison to the flatness of the coastal plain and the barrenness of the southern deserts, the association makes sense. And I imagine that, so far from homes in Europe, in a time when communication across such distances would have been very difficult, it was probably nice to have some sort of connection to their places of origin.

Limestone 'notch' (צניר) in Little Switzerland
Limestone ‘notch’ (צניר) in Little Switzerland

The area is full of hiking trails and for the first time so far on the course we took one of these, down towards the Yuval Katan stream, learning how to read the trail signs and identifying various plants as we went. Eventually we reached our destination, a large ‘notch’ in the rock formed by erosion over millions of years. We sat, rested and enjoyed the view over the Kelach stream, while our guide explained to us the geological processes which formed such notches and why they were present in the area. We hiked back, enjoying the freshness of the mountain air, and the pleasant temperatures; quite the contrast to last week’s venture into the desert where temperatures were still searing even though it was early November.

View over the Chai Bar
View over the Chai Bar

From the end of the trail it was just a short bus ride to the Chai Bar. This is an intriguing project, initiated by the Nature and Parks Authority in Israel. For different reasons, over the decades and centuries, various types of animals that were native to Israel have become extinct. In the Carmel region, it was largely because of hunting. So, the Chair Bar organisation was set up to try and reintroduce these animals to the Israeli landscape. There are two locations, one in the Negev desert, and one here on the Carmel. The animals are sourced from various locations in the Mediterranean and Middle East, gradually acclimatised to Israel, and then released into the wild. It has been running since the seventies with quite some success; in this reserve some of the animals include various types of deer, eagles and a fire salamander. There is a short explanatory film which includes quite an exciting story set against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution; the Israelis had arrived to collect some pre-ordered animals when the revolution broke out, and just managed to get them and get them onto the last El Al flight out of the country using a good combination of initiative and chutzpah. Afterwards, one can wander around the enclosures and enjoy the view from the lookout point. A note for any budding visitors: apart from weekends and chol hamoed (intermediary days of festivals) you can only access the Chai Bar as part of a group which has pre-arranged the visit.

From the Chai Bar we crossed over the 672 road (the main road on Mt Carmel) to another fascinating conservation project: Derech HaDorot (Road of the Millennia). In this case however, the focus is on antiquities rather than wildlife. As you can imagine, Israel is full of areas of archaeological interest. In addition, as a country with a rapidly expanding population and developing economy, there is a great deal of construction and development. We learned about the Law of Antiquities which means that any construction project that discovers archaeological remains needs to pause their work for the experts to move in and excavate; the construction company even has to fund the excavations. However, once the digs are over and the archaeologists have removed whatever artefacts can be salvaged and photographed where relevant, the remains are built over, never to be seen again.

Canaanite ruins at Derech HaDorot
Canaanite ruins at Derech HaDorot

This is where the late Dr Reuben Hecht comes into the picture. He set up the Hecht Foundation, part of whose remit is to salvage these sites and painstakingly extract them from their location in full, moving them to a new site, Derech HaDorot, so we can enjoy them for posterity. Without meaning to sound crass, it’s a sort of Disneyland for archaeologists who can peruse numerous structures from different parts of the country and different time periods in a relatively small space. I found it remarkable and think it’s a great project; the best thing is that it will only get better with time as more excavations occur.

View over Akko Valley from Mitzpe HaMifratz
View over Akko Valley from Mitzpe HaMifratz

Within walking distance was another viewpoint, known as Mitzpe HaMifratz, where we enjoyed the view over the Valley of Akko. Here we heard the story of the 200 Days of Terror in 1942 when it was feared the Nazi forces were about to reach the British Mandate of Palestine. The Jews made plans to make a last stand on the Carmel; fortunately these plans were never needed.

Grove of the Forty
Grove of the Forty

We continued on foot down a hiking trail to the Grove of the Forty (Churshat HaArbaim), a site that is holy for the Druze people (more on them later) and contains trees that are around 400 years old. The site was peaceful and beautiful, I could understand why it would be considered holy. We received a short preamble about the Druze religion and the trees in the area.

Much more on the Druze was to come in their biggest city in Israel: Daliyat-al-Carmel. We walked into the old town, ending at the relatively new memorial to the Druze who have sadly fallen in Israel’s wars. The Druze are a small people (around 1 million globally) who are mostly based in Israel, Lebanon and Syria. The religion dates back 1000 years and began in Egypt before persecution forced them to flee to the areas where they are based today.

Shrine to Abu Ibrahim in Daliyat-al-Carmel
Shrine to Abu Ibrahim in Daliyat-al-Carmel

Probably because of this persecution, the religion is a closely guarded secret; they also have a principal of fierce loyalty to the government of whichever country is their base. This is why many Druze sided with the Israelis in the War of Independence; since the 60s they also have mandatory conscription to the Israeli army (unlike the Bedouin or other Israeli Arabs) and are much more assimilated into Israeli society. On the way out of the old town we passed the shrine to Abu Ibrahim, one of the first preachers of the Druze faith. It is said that he hid in a cave here while escaping persecution (sadly a regular theme for the Druze). It is a pretty building and worth a visit if passing through Daliyat-al-Carmel for its popular market. Speaking of which, we gladly received fifteen minutes of free time to peruse said market. I put this time to good use by heading straight for a sweet shop. Delicious!

Traditional sweets in Daliyat-al-Carmel. Yum!
Traditional sweets in Daliyat-al-Carmel. Yum!

Our final stop of the day was at the Muchraka, a Carmelite Monastery said to be at the site where the prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal to a showdown in order to prove God’s might. The story (related in 1 Kings 18) is great; a good mix of danger, drama, suspense and a cheeky bit of humour. All topped off with a divine miracle, not something to be sniffed at. As our guide related the story, I tried to picture the scene; the prophets of Baal struggling to save face; the multitude of the people watching in awe. Elijah certainly had a flair for the theatrical.

Panoramic view from Muchraka
Panoramic view from Muchraka

We finished off with a brief visit to the chapel and we concluded the final hours of daylight with the magnificent panorama from the balcony on the monastery roof (my picture sadly did not come out well, so thanks to Wikipedia for the above). And with that, it was time to head home. Until next week!