Tag Archives: hike

Gamla – Nature, Archaeology and History

Gamla is both a nature reserve and archaeological site making it a great place to visit. We started with an easy hike, through a field of dolmens, prehistoric megalith tombs erected in the early Middle Bronze period about 2200BCE. A dolmen is made up of three large basalt stones, one lying on two other stones standing vertically. The hike takes us across a wooden bridge to the other side of Nahal Gamla for a view of the waterfall, at 51m the highest in Israel.

Gamla Waterfall

Take the trail past a Byzantine town to the Raptor lookout – the nahal is home to a large nesting population of Griffon vultures (that Israel has successfully resettled there) who did a fly past for us over the valley, it’s an incredible sight to see them gliding on the thermals.

The ancient city is situated on a steep hill (a horst like Masada) shaped like a camel’s hump, from which it derives its name (gamal means ‘camel’ in Hebrew). Jews inhabited it from the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE, and it was annexed to the Hasmonean state under Alexander Jannaeus in about 81BCE. Josephus Flavius, commander of the Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome fortified Gamla as the main stronghold on the Golan. It’s fascinating to compare Gamla, a city and one of the first to stand against Vespasian’s legions with Masada, a fortress and the last to fall to the Romans.

Josephus provides a detailed description of the Roman siege and destruction of Gamla (like at Masada). Vespasian and his son Titus led the X Fretensis, XV Apollinaris and V Macedonica legions against Gamla, built a siege ramp in an attempt to take the city but were repulsed by the defenders. Only on the second attempt did the Romans succeed in breaching the wall at three different locations and invading the city. There they engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting in the cramped streets from an inferior position, the Roman soldiers climbed onto the roofs that subsequently collapsed under the heavy weight, killing many soldiers and forcing a Roman retreat. The legionnaires re-entered the town a few days later, eventually beating Jewish resistance and completing the capture of Gamla.

According to Josephus, some 4,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, while 5,000, trying to escape down the steep northern slope, were either trampled to death or fell or threw themselves into the ravine (perhaps exaggerated by Josephus, the number of inhabitants has been estimated at less than 4,000 – at Masada 960 lost their lives).

Abandoned after its destruction, Gamla lay in ruins for almost 2000 years and was only identified in 1968 by Itzhaki Gal who was doing an archaeological survey of sites in the Golan after the Six Day War. It was excavated by Shemaryahu Gutmann (who did the original survey at Masada and who excavated there with Yigal Yadin) and Danny Syon for 14 seasons from 1976. The excavations uncovered 7.5 dunam, about 5% of the site, revealing a typical Jewish city.

The Gamla excavations revealed widespread evidence of the battle, about 100 catapult bolts, 1600 arrowheads and 2000 ballista stones, made from local basalt, 200 artifacts of Roman army equipment, quantities unsurpassed anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most were collected near the wall, placing the heavy fighting in the vicinity of the wall and the Roman siege engines to the northeast of the town.

Only one human jawbone was found during the exploration of Gamla, raising a question about what happened to the bodies of the Jewish defenders (like Masada). A tentative answer is suggested by archaeologist Danny Syon – he suggests that the dead would have been buried at nearby mass graves that have yet to be found (as at Yodfat).

One of the most interesting finds is the remains of a typical “Galilean” style synagogue inside the city walls, with rows of columns, tiers of side benches, heart-shaped corner pillars and an alcove for Torah scrolls in the northwest corner. A mikveh (ritual bath) was found nearby. Interesting to compare this to the synagogue found at Masada. The synagogue is thought to date from the late 1st century BCE making it one of the oldest synagogues in the world.

Also found were six coins minted at Gamla during the Revolt, with the inscription “For the redemption of Holy Jerusalem” in a mixture of paleo-Hebrew and Aramaic that shows that the defenders of Gamla saw their fight against the Romans as no less than a struggle for national independence.

The Golan Archaeological Museum in nearby Katzrin displays artifacts from Gamla and other sites on the Golan and a moving film about Gamla – definitely worth a visit.

Mount Arbel

Rising majestically above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinneret) are two sheer limestone and dolomite cliffs, facing each other. The Arbel stream flows in the valley between them past Migdal (the home town of Mary Magdalene). Part of a national park and nature reserve, it’s a great place to hike.

The higher mountain is Mount Arbel, 181 meters above sea level but since the Kinneret is the lowest freshwater lake in the world at 209 meters below sea level Arbel is actually 390 meters above the valley and lake below. The second mountain, north of the stream, is Mount Nitay (98 meters above sea level) but this part of the reserve is closed to visitors to protect the flora and fauna. Looking down over the cliff it is easy to forget that you are standing on a broad plateau and not flying over the valley.

As early as the Hasmonean period there was a town Arbel that overlooked the ancient road from Galilee to the town on the Kinneret. The sage Nittai of Arbela, one of the Tanaim is recorded in Mishna Avot 1,7 where he advises “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked and do not lose belief in retribution”. Josephus mentions Arbel when he describes the battle in 37BCE between Herod and Jewish rebels who barricaded themselves in the caves in the cliff. Because the access to the caves was by extremely narrow paths, Herod had soldiers lowered over the cliff in baskets to reach the caves. In the early first century CE, Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his followers.

Outside the park, closer to Moshav Arbel are the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 4th century . It was first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson (who also recognized Herodium, Ein Gedi and Masada and after whom the arch at the the southern end of the Western Wall is named). Situated in the center of the village, it was built from large limestone blocks, in contrast to the other buildings which were of black basalt common to the region.

Drawing of Arbel synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer

The synagogue’s facade faced east which was rare for Galilean synagogues. The entranceway was cut out of a single large stone – three quarters of the frame remain in situ.  The synagogue consisted of a main hall with three rows of columns topped by Corinthian capitals in the shape of a “U” that supported a second-story gallery. The hall was lined with stone benches and the floor was about 1.5 m lower than the threshold alluding to Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I called you O Lord”.

The building seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. At this time the orientation was changed – a doorway in the northern wall, a round niche in the southern wall facing Jerusalem for the Torah scroll and a platform for Torah reading were added. This synagogue was apparently destroyed by a fire in 749CE, conceivably resulting from the devastating earthquake that destroyed Bet Shean, Zippori, Sussita and other sites.

Israel Trail Encounter

The Israel Trail or Shvil Yisrael is a national hiking trail inaugurated in 1994 that zigzags the entire country from Tel Dan in the north near the Lebanese border to the southernmost tip of Israel at the Red Sea, approximately 940 km. You may have seen sections of the trail on other hikes (the Israel Trail was created by connecting some of the existing, favorite hiking trails), for example, if you’ve visited the Small Makhtesh from the western lookout point the trail descends and crosses to the mouth of the makhtesh and then north via Maale Hatzera. You can recognize the trail by its 3 colored stripes, white (signifying the snow on Mount Hermon, north), blue and orange (like sand or south to Eilat).

I have Zvi Gilat’s excellent guidebook to the Israel Trail in Hebrew; there is one guide book, Israel National Trail by Jacob Saar, including topographical maps in English. The official website is at http://www.israelnationaltrail.com/ which includes a forum that enables you to connect with other hikers to discuss the trail.

I just got back from 8 days hiking on the southern part of the trail from the border crossing with Egypt at Taba to Shaharut in the Negev (incommunicado with the outside world, walking the desert landscape – which is why there was no blog post). Walking for a number of hours through a narrow canyon, climbing a ridge or mountain for a 360 degree view of your surroundings and watching the changing forms of the sandstone cliffs as you hike by is a different experience than driving up to a site by car.

The trail lets you experience nature throughout Israel with the opportunity to relate to the history of the country. I joined the annual Avi B’shvil Yisrael, an incredible project that brings together a third component, encounter with Israelis from throughout the country, young and old, religious and secular. There is a daily group discussion about the significance of kibbutz and an evening guest who talks about his/her experience related to kibbutz (the subject being examined this year). They also handle a lot of the logistics, you can pay 10NIS for fresh fruit, vegetables and bread to have for lunch and 10NIS for a communal dinner, the organizers ensure that there is enough water for the next day, provide a guide and arrange transportation (back to where you left your car, car pooling or a main road where you can get a bus). They are hiking the Israel Trail until Thursday, April 28, 2011 when they reach She’ar Yeshuv so if you can find the time, check out the itinerary at http://www.avi-beshvil-israel.org.il/luz.php and join them. I strongly recommend it.

The project is in memory of Avi Ofner and 72 other soldiers who died on February 4, 1997 when two IDF Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters collided in midair over She’ar Yashuv. The helicopters were hovering waiting for clearance to cross the border into Israel’s “security zone” in Lebanon.

For recommendation on some dozen other hikes, click on “Hiking” under Categories in the right hand column or https://israeltours.wordpress.com/category/hiking/

Aqueduct at Caesarea

The first aqueduct was built by Herod at the time the city of Caesarea-Maritima was founded and brought water from the Shuni spring, south of Mount Carmel, about 10KM to the northeast of the city. The water flowed on a single raised channel.

When this was not sufficient, a second “lower” aqueduct was built by the Legions of the Emperor Hadrian (2nd C CE). It brought water from Tanninim (Crocodiles) river. This section, with a tunnel of about 6KM long, was tapped into the older aqueduct, and doubled its capacity and its width. The builders used the same building materials and style, so it may be difficult to see that the pair of channels were built at different times. The aqueduct continued to supply water to Caesarea for 1200 years.

Just past the entrance to Beit Hanania you can find the northern section of the aqueduct and the second aqueduct (Hadrian) connecting to the older one (Herod). In this section there are two stone tablets that were placed into the wall by its builders, the legion of the Emperor Hadrian. The right tablet clearly shows: “IMP CAES(ar) TRIAN HADR(ianus)”. The other tablet is of the Tenth Legion (the Imperial eagle without its head standing on a wreath).

The Israel Trail winds its way beside the aquaduct, through the Arab town of Jizr a-Zarka and then south along the coast to Caesarea. On the beach closer to the Caesarea archaeological park there is another section of the aqueduct. In fact it makes a great hike with the whole family from here along the beach north to Dor or a little further to Habonim.

 

Hiking Nahal Dragot

Driving along the shore of the Dead Sea on our way to Masada and Ein Gedi, I usually point out the cutoff to Nahal Dragot – there are some great hikes here if you are up to the challenge. In fact, Nahal Darga as it is also called, is a kind of test for Israelis.

Nahal Dragot

From the center at Metzukei Dragot, there is an unpaved road (if you were to continue north you could go as far as Herodium), take the turn to a lookout point with a great view of the canyon, the deepest part of Nahal Darga and a hint of what awaits.

IMG_1055

Returning to the main road and continuing westward we come to the start of the black trail. From there it is a short hike to the Murabat Caves, 3 caves, side by side on the northern cliff. It was here that letters signed Bar Kosiba were found, evidence that the mythical leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans in 132-135CE did in fact exist.

Letter of Shimeon bar Kosiba to Yehonathan, son of Be’ayan:
Peace! My order is that whatever Elisha tells you, do to him and help him and those with him. Be well.

From here it’s about a 150 m. descent to the start of the canyon. It will take 4-6 hours (4 km) to hike this part of the narrow canyon with more than 50 meter high walls, dry waterfalls and pools of water in natural craters (note there are places you will have to swim across). At the end of the hike the wadi widens and crosses highway <90> about 1½ km from the Mezuke Dragot cutoff, estimate that to complete the hike will take a full day. There are metal D-shaped rings hammered into the rock in places to help you on the descents but it’s probably also worth having at least 20m. of rope. A guide is recommended.

        

Amitai in Nahal Darga, photos AdirChai Haberman-Browns, used with permission.

You should also read this article http://www.jpost.com/Travel/AroundIsrael/Article.aspx?id=135713

Katlav

Katlav

Katlav is the Hebrew name of a striking, red-barked evergreen shrub or small tree native to the Mediterranean region (grows as far north and west as France and Ireland), the Strawberry tree or Arbutus Andrachne. The bark is smooth and sheds during the summer, leaving a pistachio green color, which changes gradually to a beautiful orange brown. The small red berries, tasting a little like tart strawberries, ripen in November.

There is another related tree, Arbutus unedo, that also grows in this region. The leaves have a saw-tooth edge and the fruit is bumply, orange-red when ripe. The name ‘unedo’ is explained by the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, as being derived from unum edo “I eat one”, which seems appropriate as most people find the fruit bland and mealy.

One advantage of hiring a local guide is that you get the opportunity to get inside, to be initiated into what the locals do, things that most tourists never experience. In and around Jerusalem there are some very special hikes and one in particular is Nahal Katlav in the Judean Hills, named for the abundance of strawberry trees growing there. There is also the possibility of hiking to a maayan, a natural spring that fills a pool cut into the rock, that is just the perfect solution to a hot summer day. Before we head out we will pick up some artisan bread, cheese, salads, etc. for a picnic, drive into the hills, hike to our destination and enjoy. These are outings for the whole family.

Nahal Katlav is a tributary of the Sorek river which is biblical Hebrew for a choice grapevine. Over the years, this region was known for its grapes, and today there are a number of fine boutique wineries in the Judean-Yoav region. For those interested in wine, these outings can be combined with a visit to a winery in the area. There is even a winery called Katlav.

It is very impressive to stand in the presence of an ancient tree. Near Kibbutz Tsuba are 2 very old trees, a 1200 year old olive tree and a 800 year old oak. Although I am not aware of such an old strawberry tree there is a magnificent specimen that is about 80 years old at the Jerusalem War Cemetery on Mount Scopus.

Katlav in cemetery