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….