Category Archives: Nature

Photo of the Week – Zavitan on Golan

Because Israel is a small country (the size of New Jersey) the relatively large expanse of the Golan makes it one of my favorite areas and it is a great place for hiking. One of my favorite hikes was Nahal Yehudia but that trail was closed and only a shorter section of it recently reopened. So when clients were looking for a place to hike I chose Nahal Zavitan, also a great place for photographs. This is a photo taken just past the hexagonal columns on the trail where it opens onto a small pool.

Nahal Zavitan on Golan

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The technical details, shot with a Lumix point and shoot camera, ISO 80, 4.1mm, F4 at 1/320 sec.

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Sodom Apple

If you do a tour with me in the area of the Judean desert I can show you an interesting flowering plant called the Sodom Apple (Calotropis procera).

Sodom Apple flowers

The plant occurs throughout the tropical belt and is native to North Africa, Western and South Asia, and as far as Indochina and the West Indies.

Sodom AppleThe Jewish Roman  historian describes the plant “which fruits have a color as if they were fit to be eaten, but if you pluck them with your hands, they dissolve into smoke and ashes.” The “apple”, a green soft globe, is filled mostly with air and some fine fibers and seeds. The plant is also mentioned in the Mishna but though the fibers can be used as wicks, they are not permissible for use on the Sabbath. The flesh contains a toxic milky sap that is extremely bitter and contains a complex mix of chemicals, some of which are steroidal heart poisons known as “cardiac aglycones”.


Hiking the Makhtesh

Even from space Makhtesh Ramon appears as a masterpiece of the spirit of the earth.
(from Space Shuttle Columbia monument)

This week I did a very nice 13 km hike in the Har HaNegev reserve to Har Ramon, the highest mountain in the Negev at 1037 meters above sea level. After the winter rains we saw many plants blooming even though this area is a desert.


Along the way we passed a number of tumuli, piles of rocks that are ancient tombs, and a 4.6 km stone wall running between the mountains Ramon and Romem estimated to be from the Intermediate Bronze period, more than 4000 years ago. Further along the red trail we reached a lookout on the basalt hills of Karne Ramon below, where a monument has been established to the 7-person crew of the space shuttle Columbia that disintegrated on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. One of the crew was Israeli, Ilan Ramon, who had taken his surname from this area.

From Karne Ramon lookoutFrom there we descended in a winding path to Nahal Ramon at the bottom of the makhtesh. We then joined the green trail through the Canyon of Prisms and ascended the trail out of the makhtesh.

Canyon of Prisms

It’s hard to capture the expansiveness of this “hole” in the earth because the makhtesh is so large. The makhtesh is 40 km long, 2–10 km wide and 500 meters deep, and is shaped like an elongated heart. I took a sequence of overlapping photographs with the intention of stitching them together to try to give you an idea of the view. Click on each of these images to see it full-size.

The image below is made up of 2 photos “stitched” together.Makhtesh Panorama1This image is made up of 3 photos.Makhtesh Panorama2

This image is made up of 4 photos, a pan of 180º, overlooking Karne Ramon at the southern end of the makhtesh.Makhtesh Panorama

Sunset in the Desert

The makhtesh, the Hebrew word for mortar, is the geographic term for an erosion cirque. Unique to the Negev and Sinai deserts, a makhtesh has steep walls of resistant rock (limestone and dolomite) surrounding a deep closed valley that was created when the core of softer rock (in this case colored sandstone)  was eroded and carried away by a stream bed. After a day of exploring we arrived at the colored sands in the Makhtesh HaGadol just around sunset, a perfect time for photographs. (Wish I had had my Nikon DSLR, I only had a Lumix point and shoot).

Colored sand makhtesh 3

Colored sand makhtesh 2

Large Makhtesh sunset

The Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, is in the Judean desert. After a day of climbing the snake path to the top of Masada and exploring the site, we did a hike in the Ein Gedi reserve, including the Dodim cave, the Chalcolithic temple, Tel Goren and the 6th century synagogue. When we went down to the Dead Sea for a float it was just around sunset, a perfect time for photographs.

Dead Sea sunset

Dead Sea sunset 2

Trees, Almond and Tu Bish’vat

With the advent of Tu Bish’vat, the new year of trees next Thursday, I am happy to present this excerpt from The Natural Bible by Baruch Sienna about trees and the almond tree that is the harbinger of spring in Israel.

Introduction to Trees

From the very first trees planted at creation and the Garden of Eden, to the trees worshipped by King Ahaz in the final chapters of the Bible, trees figure prominently in Jewish literature and lore. The Hebrew word for tree appears over 150 times in the Bible, and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah adds hundreds of names of plants; Masechet Zera’im in particular deals with laws of agriculture. Midrashim, too, often use plants in similes and parables. In all, over 500 different plants are mentioned in classical Jewish sources. The Bible is rich in natural imagery, metaphors and parables. Often, our understanding of the biblical text is impoverished because we no longer appreciate their meaning.

Trees and plants were important in the ancient world. Trees furnished wood for construction of buildings, boats, furniture and smaller articles. Many trees provided nutritious and tasty fruit. Grains and vegetables were cultivated and wild plants were gathered. Other plants were used for food, medicinal purposes, herbs and spices, incense important for use in sacrifices, rope and cloth fibers. Sap and oils were extracted from plants and trees.

Today, many of us live much farther removed from the natural world than did our biblical ancestors who lived and worked outdoors for much of their lives. It is only natural that the Bible used images of the great outdoors that surrounded them.

While the Bible uses images and descriptions of plants and trees, it is not meant to be a botanical encyclopedia. The Bible often mentions plants and trees incidentally; the names and descriptions of plant and animal life are not systematic. Some plants, such as ebony, pistachio, and walnut, are mentioned by chance, appearing just once in the whole Bible, while even many common species of plants, such as the caper and carob, are not mentioned at all.

What are trees?

Trees are the tallest and longest living plants on the earth. It is difficult not to be inspired by an enormous tree, whose roots are in the earth, yet whose branches seem to touch the very sky. Trees typically survive for several human generations, and their longevity must have also impressed the ancient Israelites. It is not surprising that trees were powerful symbols for the ancient Israelite, and many significant trees are featured in biblical stories.

The terms conifer and broadleaf are used to describe the trees included in this tree guide. While conifers are typically evergreen, the two terms are not synonymous even though they are often commonly and incorrectly used interchangeably. A conifer has needlelike or scalelike leaves, and usually produces its seeds in a woody cone-like fruit (although the juniper fruit, being the exception that proves the rule, resembles a berry). Broadleaves are often deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves), but again, many broadleaves, especially living in Israel’s climate, are also evergreen. Broadleaves produce diverse types of edible and inedible fruit: berries, fleshy fruits, as well as nuts. The palm “tree” is a special case. Palms seem very tree-like but are not actually true trees. Palms have a single unbranched stem that does not increase in girth with age. The difference is apparent when a palm is cut down — the trunk is not woody, and the stump does not have the rings of growth we normally see in an actual tree.

Identification issues

The majority of biblical plants have been identified, though occasionally differing identifications and interpretations have been suggested. As a result, the identity of some biblical flora is speculative. The Bible does not include a full botanical description, and it is even possible that the plant referred to in the Bible may no longer grow in Israel or at all. Some plant names in the Bible are very specific and some names refer to a more generic category. So, kotz for example, refers to thorns in general. The word erez can be both: it usually refers to the cedar but sometimes is used to mean non-fruit bearing conifer trees in general.

Descriptions in classical rabbinic sources as well as other ancient translations and early historical writings are helpful in identifying biblical flora. Often, a plant’s name has been preserved in its Aramaic or Arabic form. Biblical scholars assume that there have been no major changes in the geology or climate of the region, so trees that are described as growing in a particular region presumably might still be found there. This may not always be ​the case for trees which have been over-harvested, for example. Conversely, many exotic species have been introduced into Israel’s flora, such as the native Australian eucalyptus tree. These were planted extensively during the early 1900s to drain potential mosquito breeding grounds, to provide shade, and to serve as a natural camouflage for military installations and road convoys.

A common mistake of early commentators and translators was to identify flora with species found in their respective countries. Israel enjoys a remarkable variety of soil and climatic conditions, but it cannot be assumed that the trees found in medieval France also grew in the land of Israel. (Rashi, for example, incorrectly identifies the armon with the chestnut.)

Furthermore, languages change over time. Occasionally, a Hebrew name is used in modern Hebrew to refer to a different plant than was meant in the Bible. Asking for botnim today in Israel will buy you peanuts; in the Bible the word refers to pistachios. The biblical Hebrew word kishu-im is now used in Israel to refer to the zucchini squash, and not cucumbers. To identify the cucumbers mentioned by the Israelites who left Egypt, we must search for a species that grew in Egypt in the period of the Israelite wanderings, and not with the species that flourish today.

Translations may not reflect the latest botanical understanding and are not always reliable. For example, it is now generally agreed that the biblical brosh refers to the juniper, although it is usually translated as cypress, which has become its modern day meaning as well. Finally, some plants such as the ‘ar ‘ar and the tirzah, many animals and birds, and names of precious stones and gems cannot be identified with any certainty at all, and translations are at best a guess.

What follows in the Natural Bible is a comprehensive guide to the plants mentioned in the Bible. From this guide, I have chosen one tree, the almond, a symbol of springtime in Israel and associated with Tu BiSh’vat as its flowers usually appear in the month of Sh’vat – while guiding up on the mountain ridge at Belvoir I saw the first almond blossoms in January, the day before Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat.

Almond (Prunus Amygdalus)

Jacob then got fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes in them, laying bare the white of the shoots. (Genesis 30:37)

Although the common word for almond is sha-keid, the word luz appears once in Genesis 30:37 (where it is erroneously identified as hazelnut by Rashi). The word luz is similar to the Arabic and Aramaic word for almond: luza.

Almond trees

Almonds were also one of the “choice products” Jacob instructed his sons to take with them to Egypt:

Put in your baggage the land’s best products and take them to the man as gifts — some balm, a little honey, gum, ladanum, pistachios and almonds” (Genesis 43:11).

AlmondAlmond trees produce pink or white five-petalled blossoms. Both wild (bitter) and domestic varieties of almonds grow in Israel. The wild variety can be eaten with the rind when young, but in its later stages requires roasting to destroy poisonous alkaloids. Cultivated almond trees of the early 20th century were attacked by the borer beetle, and almost all the orchards were destroyed. In the 1960s, almond cultivation resumed in Israel.

Excerpt From: “The Natural Bible” Baruch Sienna, Behrman House, 2013.
A great resource and just in time for Tu Bish’vat, available as an iBook at

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Reflection on Ein Avdat

Busy guiding. Today one of the places we visited was Ein Avdat. I’m always interested in capturing reflections of a landscape and the pool at Ein Avdat is a classic, you can see some photos here. This is a reflection at another place in the canyon.

Ein AvdatPhoto was taken with my iPhone 4.

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Nahal Prat or Wadi Qelt

Nahal Prat (nahal: נחל=stream bed) or Wadi Qelt (wadi: وادي‎=valley) flows from west to east across the northern Judean Desert, from near Jerusalem to Jericho, a distance of 28 km, from 770 meters above sea level to where it flows into the Jordan River at 395 m below sea level. Hiking trails follow the stream bed, which has water all year around fed by three springs, En Prat, En Mabu’a and En Qelt. My blog post about Wadi Qelt and the St. George Monastery is one of my most popular so I want to tell you about another destination in the area, the Nahal Prat nature reserve. Take highway 1 from Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea and then a left onto road 437 towards Ramallah. Turn right to the Jewish settlement of Anatot (the Levite city mentioned in Jeremiah 1:1), now called Almon (from Joshua 21:18).

Tomb ibn Taymiyya

Ruins of the Jewish Iron age village, time of Kings is at the turning, with the 13th century Arab tomb of Sheikh Ibn Taymiyya (תָקִי אל-דין אבו אל-עבאס אחמד בן עבד אל-חלים בן עבד אל סָלאם בן תימיה אל-חָרַאנִי) on the hill. Drive through Almon to the entrance of the reserve and descend the winding road to a parking lot.

Ein Prat

I took these photographs of En Prat, the valley formed by the steep limestone cliffs and the pools within the reserve.

Fallen Rocks Ein Prat

The remnants of settlements, monasteries and palaces are scattered along the stream, as are signs of stream-based cultivation. A number of aqueducts were found along the stream, the earliest of which dates to the Hasmonean period, used to channel water to the winter palaces near Jericho. These channels continued to be used through the Roman, Byzantine and early Arab periods. This enabled the growing of fruit trees like fig, pomegranate, date and citrus.

Ruins of a later water-operated flour mill can be seen on the ascent to the Faran Monastery, originally founded by the monk Haritoun in the 3rd century, believed to be the first monastery in the Judean Desert. This area, in the desert and not far from the holy city of Jerusalem, with many natural caves, springs and abandoned Second Temple period fortresses, attracted monks seeking seclusion.

Today, for the same reasons, the area is a popular recreation site to hike, picnic and swim in the natural pools.

Pine Ein Prat

Tamat Pool