Tag Archives: Golan Heights

Golan Heights Tour

The Golan Heights, Israel’s mountainous north-eastern region, is one of the most beautiful areas of the country. In the Golan, rather than desert, we have streams and waterfalls. There are also numerous archeological sites and ancient synagogues dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods, evidence of flourishing Jewish communities in the area going back 2000 years. The remains of 25 synagogues from the period between the Great Revolt in 66 and the Islamic conquest in 636, when organized Jewish settlement on the Golan came to an end, have been discovered – 6 have been excavated.

The Golan was settled in the modern period beginning in 1886 when Jews from Tzfat and Tiberias settled there. The Bnei Yehuda society of Tzfat purchased a plot of land in the village of Ramataniya in central Golan (4 km north-west of the present day religious moshav of Keshet) and named their settlement “Golan BeBashan” and settled there for about a year.

In 1887, they purchased lands between the modern day Bnei Yehuda and Kibbutz Ein Gev. This community survived until 1920, when two of its last members were murdered in the anti-Jewish riots which erupted in the spring of that year. In 1891, Baron Rothschild purchased approximately 18,000 acres of land about 15 km east of Ramat Hamagshimim, in what is now Syria. First Aliyah (1881-1903) immigrants established five small communities on this land, but were forced to leave by the Turks in 1898. The lands continued to be farmed until 1947 by the Palestine Colonization Association and the Israel Colonization Association, when they were seized by the Syrian army. Most of the Golan Heights were included within Mandatory Palestine when the Mandate was formally granted in 1922, but Britain ceded the area to France in the Franco-British Agreement of 7 March 1923. Consequently, the Golan Heights became part of Syria after the termination of the French mandate in 1944.

During the 1948-49 War of Independence  the Syrians army attacked the adjacent Jewish areas and managed to advance beyond the international border. After the war, the Syrians built extensive fortifications on the Heights, which were used for shelling of civilian targets in Israel. 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured in these attacks between 1949 and 1967, and particularly in the spring of 1957. Because of this pounding, Israel Defense Forces captured the Golan Heights during the Six-Day war.

Gamla view

On a recent tour of the Golan I took clients to the archaeological park with ruins of the ancient Jewish city of Gamla to see the Second Temple period synagogue, hiked through dolmens to a 50 meter waterfall and from a panoramic lookout with a view of the Sea of Galilee watched the Griffon vultures soar through the canyon.

Griffon vulture, Gamla

From there we visited Um el-Kanatir (Arabic for Mother of the Arches) an impressive set of standing ruins of a Jewish village from the Byzantine era to see the ongoing reconstruction of the synagogue there. The ruins of a very large synagogue of local basalt stone were found, destroyed by the earthquake of 749 CE. I hadn’t visited in a year and there has been a lot of progress in the reconstruction of the synagogue, the walls extend to ceiling height now and the bima has been set in place (the work has now been completed).

Um el Kanatir synagogue

Um el Kanatir synagogue interior

Katzrin is also well worth a visit. The Talmudic Village lets us explore the 4th century CE village of Katzrin which includes a 6th century synagogue (built on an earlier more modest one) similar to the one at Um el Kanatir. The nearby Archaeological Museum displays artifacts uncovered on the Golan. One fascinating find is an 1,800-year-old door lintel carved of basalt with a Hebrew inscription “this is the beit midrash (study house) of Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar” that was  discovered in the village of Daburiye, situated near a steep ravine with a pair of spectacular waterfalls. We know of the tanna (70-200 CE) Eliezer HaKapar, whose name refers to his work, making wine from the fruit of the caper. There is a discussion in the Talmud about wearing new shoes on the Sabbath: What are new shoes? Shoes that have not “walked” a certain distance, the distance between the synagogue at Katzrin and the beit midrash of Rabbi Eliezer KaKapar.

The Golan Heights Winery which changed the world’s impression of Israeli wines and placed Israel firmly on the international wine map or one of a number of smaller wineries is definitely worth a visit if you are into wine. One of my favorites is the Pelter winery on Kibbutz Ein Zivan where you can have a tour and learn how Tal Pelter produces a sparkling white wine in the traditional way, as well as an unwooded Chardonnay and a Gewurztraminer described as “Sweet peach, liche, melon, citrus on a lively acidic background” and taste the wine along with the artisan goat cheeses that Tal’s spouse/partner makes.

Hamat Gader is the site of natural hot mineral springs with temperatures reaching 50 °C (122 °F) and includes a 2000 seat Roman theatre built in the 3rd century CE and a large synagogue from the 5th century CE.

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Autumn on Mount Hermon

Last week, on a crisp autumn day up on the Golan, I had the opportunity to visit the Hermon and take these photos.

Hermon Autumn foliage

Mount Hermon is actually a cluster of mountains extending for about 150 km in a northeast-southwest direction with three distinct summits that straddle the border between Syria and Lebanon. The southern slopes of Mount Hermon extend to the Golan Heights and a peak in this area rising to 2,236 meters is the highest elevation in Israel. The Hermon range covers an area of about 1000 square km, of which about 70 km² are under Israeli control.

Trees and Rocks Hermon

As a geological and biogeographical region, the Golan Heights is a basaltic plateau bordered by Mount Hermon in the north, the Yarmouk River in the south, the Sea of Galilee and Hula Valley in the west and the Raqqad Wadi in the east. The western two thirds of this region is currently controlled by Israel, whereas the eastern third is controlled by Syria.

Clouds over Hermon

Because of its height the Hermon captures a great deal of precipitation in a very dry area of the world; because of the elevation plants grow and bloom later, in August instead of the spring. One that I saw still blooming under the ski lift was the Lotus Sweetjuice. Water from the snow-covered mountain’s western and southern bases seeps into the rock faults and channels in the Jurassic limestone, feeding springs at the base of the mountain. At the important archaeological sites of Banias and Tel Dan the water forms streams and rivers that merge to become the Jordan River. From the Hermon it’s about a 40 minute drive to these streams, fascinating sites that I can take you to to experience the nature of Israel’s north.

Photo of the Week – Golan

You begin to experience the Golan hikes as soon as you begin climbing the serpentine highway from the Sea of Galilee (212 meters below sea level) to the basaltic plateau at an average height of 1000 meters above sea level created by volcanic eruption 4 million years ago. There is a nice overlook above Hamat Gader and you can see the Yarmuk river meandering below. When taking photographs it is always worth looking around, especially what is behind you. Instead of a photo down into valley I took this photo of the heights behind us.

Golan

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon digital SLR camera and 18-200mm lens in April (ISO 200, 20mm, F10 at 1/250 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.

From the Golan Heights

Yesterday I was up on the southern Golan Heights near Kibbutz Meitsar, less than 2 km from the border with Syria and looking east at the point where Israel, Syria and Jordan touch.

Golan map

The Rokad river valley separates Israel from Syria – the ridge in the middle of the photograph below is in Syria and the Yarmuk river valley behind the ridge is the border between Syria and Jordan. You can see the new border fence that Israel is building, given the fighting in Syria – in fact, we saw some plumes of smoke to the north, billowing upwards in the distance. Across from where we were standing, near UN post OP55, one of seven observation posts in Israel, is a UN post, one of seven in Syria that monitor the demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel.

Golan Heights

Down below in the valley is Ein Aya, a natural spring that fills a pool, great for a dip on a hot day. Golan view

Across the border in Jordan is a two-story stone building with a red tile roof, one of the German railway stations along with the stations at Beit Shean, Tzemach and Al-Hamma (Hammat Gader) for the Jezreel Valley (Rakevet HaEmeq) line that connected Haifa with Daraa (Syria) in 1905.This is the third branch of the ambitious 4000 km Berlin-Baghdad rail project started by Oppenheimer and Meissner after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 1898 visit to the Holy Land. The Haifa station today houses the Israel Railway Museum that provides an historical overview of railways in the Holy Land and their part in the development of the country – worth a visit.

Golan train station

Coming up the Jordan valley after Beit Shean you can see the remains of the German rail line and some of the bridges that supported the tracks. At Gesher, next to the station, is the Mujami Bridge, destroyed on May 14, 1948 by the Israelis to impede the advance of Iraqi and Jordanian troops, the lowest rail bridge in the world at 257.5 meters below sea level.  The Naharayim station, in Bauhaus style, was constructed near the hydroelectric power plant built in 1927 by Russian-Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg. The site was chosen because it is where the Yarmuk river flows into the Jordan river.

Gunter Hartnagel has posted a wonderful set of his photographs of the railroad built by the Germans on Flickr.

Archaeology in Israel Tour

I’m delighted to announce that Dan McLerran at Popular Archaeology and I are creating a phenomenal tour of archaeological sites in Israel that I will be guiding October 2013.
I invite you to join us on this adventure, 12 days of touring in Israel, where we’ll cover the famous sites like Megiddo and Hazor and uncover some of the less well-known gems like Sussita-Hippos, one of the Decapolis cities overlooking the Sea of Galilee that was destroyed in the earthquake of 749CE and never rebuilt.

Sussita excavation

We’ll start by going back 6500 years to the Chalcolithic period and tour up on the Golan Heights to learn about burial at that time. We’ll see dolmens, the megalithic tombs consisting of a flat rock resting on two vertical rocks that mark a grave. We’ll hike to the cultic site of Rujm el Hiri – is it a site that is connected to the calendar or to burial? At Ein Gedi we’ll see the ruins of a Chalcolithic temple. We’ll see artifacts at the Israel museum, examples of clay ossuaries and fine bronze castings of ritual objects.

We’ll follow in the path of the Kings from 1000BCE to 586BCE by traveling from Dan where a piece of a basalt victory stella in Aramaic was found mentioning the kings of Israel and the house of David. We will explore the City of David, the walled Jebusite city on the ridge between the Kidron and Tyropean valleys. We’ll walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel that brought the water of the Gihon spring to the Siloam pool inside the walls. From there we will follow in the steps of pilgrims to the Temple mount. Part of the 650m distance will be in Jerusalem’s drainage channel until we come out right under Robinson’s Arch. We’ll see the Broad wall, the remains of an 8 meter high wall that protected Jerusalem from the north in the time of the Kings.

Khirbet Qeiyafa

We’ll explore the walled Judean city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, with two gates and hence identified as Shaarayim, situated on the border of Judea facing the Phillistines.

We’ll learn about the Second Temple Period, specifically the time of the Hasmoneans and King Herod who ruled under the auspices of the Romans. We’ll check out Herod’s impressive building projects. At Caesarea, we have the temple to Augustus, the protected harbor, the palace as well as a theater and a hippodrome later used as an amphitheater. At Sebaste there is another temple to Augustus. Josephus writes that Herod built a third temple at Banias. It’s unclear whether the temple was at Banias or nearby, perhaps at Omrit. We’ll visit Herod’s palaces at Masada, the Western palace and the 3 tier hanging palace on the northern end of the site. We’ll explore the palace and administrative complex at Lower Herodium and the palace/fortress on the top of a manmade mountain where the base of a mausoleum was discovered by Prof. Ehud Netzer in 2007.

Herodium Palace:fortress

We’ll visit the newly opened exhibit at the Israel museum Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, artifacts from Herodium on display for the first time. We’ll also visit the Second Temple period model that displays Jerusalem at its peak just before its destruction at the hand of the Romans. We’ll visit the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea scrolls and other artifacts and combine that with the archaeological site of Qumran by the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found.

We’ll focus on the architecture of sacred space and check out various churches, in the basilica and martyrium form from the Byzantine period (4th to 7th century) and synagogues from the same period. We’ll see some amazing mosaics by visiting the  museum at the Inn of Good Samaritan, the archaeological sites of Sepphoris/Tzippori, and the synagogue at Beit Alfa. We’ll visit sites off the beaten path like the Kathisma church on the way to Bethlehem and Samaritan site on Mount Gerizim.

Synagogue mosaic floor at Israel Museum

Besides the Western wall, Judaism’s holy site, we will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site to Christianity and go up onto the Haram el-Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site to Islam.

We’ll travel around the Sea of Galilee stopping at sites important to Christianity like Kursi, Capernaum and Magdala. We’ll even go up to the Golan Heights to the Jewish city of Gamla, the Masada of the north.

Gamla

For anyone who enjoys taking photographs, there will be plenty of opportunities and as an special incentive to join the tour, participants will be able to submit their best photographs from the tour to a special Pinterest site and will have a chance to win up to $1000. for the “best photo”.

If you’re interested in participating in an archaeological tour of the Holy Land, contact  me.