Most of you will be aware of the current situation in Israel, which is far from easy. Still, we feel the need to keep calm and carry on (to borrow a cliche) as best as we can. Last week I took a couple of friends on a trip up to the north of the country, and we made a lunch time stop at the famous Mifgash Golani falafel restaurant in Afula.
While the falafel is tasty, this place is more famous for the falafel acrobatics performed by the staff. It really is remarkably impressive. Well worth a visit!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!