The chalk cliffs of Rosh HaNikra (Head of the Grottos: 33°5′35.24″N 35°6′17.16″E) along the Mediterranean coast mark the border between Israel and Lebanon. The cliffs are a unique geological formation in Israel, made of soft chalk, they descend from the ridge into the sea without an intervening section of beach, consequently they block and hinder movement along the coast.
The cliff consists of 3 layers of rock from the Cenoman period 100 million years ago:
- the bottom layer is hard limestone, most of which is under the sea,
- the middle layer reaching a height of 70 meters is soft chalk with dark flint and fossils embedded in it,
- the top layer is hard chalk and dolomite, similar to limestone.
The grottos are cavernous tunnels started by geological and biological processes: cracks in the rock formed when seeping rainwater made small caves; duckweeds and other microorganisms on the soft chalk cause it to crumble. Crashing waves took over (with an estimated power of 250 tons per square meter during winter storms) and over thousands of years eroded the soft chalk to form the grottos.
Alexander the Great in 323 BCE passed this way, then the Selucids and Ptolemies and later the Arabs, then the Crusaders. The British army cut a road for vehicles during WWI; in 1943 they blasted three tunnels through the cliff joined by a bridge over the grottos so trains could carry soldiers and supplies between Cairo and Istanbul. On the nights of June 16 and 17, 1946, under cover of darkness and cloudy weather, the Carmel unit of the Haganah blew up the bridge during the operation Night of the Bridges. In one night the Haganah destroyed eleven bridges linking Palestine to the neighboring countries Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, immobilizing transportation and a blow to British prestige. Twelve days after the attack the British authorities retaliated by imposing a curfew on Jewish communities and launching a security operation known as Operation Agatha or Black Saturday. With the involvement of 100,000 British troops they arrested 2,700 Jews, including many in senior leadership positions. In addition the British confiscated important papers about the Jewish underground which were taken to military headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. On July 22, 1946, the Irgun in consultation with the Haganah bombed the King David Hotel. When the telephone warnings went unheeded and the hotel was not evacuated, 92 people were killed and the southern wing of the hotel destroyed.
Rosh Hanikra was the site where in 1949 Israeli and Lebanese officials signed an armistice agreement ending the War of Independence.
In the past, the only access to the grottos was from the sea and experienced divers were the only ones capable of visiting. In 1968, a tunnel was hewn into the cliff to give access to the grottos and then a cable car, “the steepest in the world” was installed to take visitors up and down. If you like cable cars, try to ride the other 3 in Israel, at Masada, Menara cliffs and from Bat Galim up to Stella Maris – all have great views (so don’t forget your camera)!
There is also a promenade along the shore that follow the British railroad tracks, through the Rosh HaNikra nature reserve to the Betzet beach, where every year giant sea turtles lay their eggs. Along the way, you can see some pools that the Phoenicians quarried and used to evaporate seawater to get salt, grow snails for the blue techelet and purple dyes and as wine vats.