Tag Archives: Hiking

Just north of Timna continuing along the Israel trail you follow the Milhan ridge, a great area for hiking and photographs. We stayed overnight at the nearby campground, Be’er Milhan, a site that affords some protection from the wind (no toilets or running water). This photo was taken in the morning. Purple flowering bush is Spiny zilla (Zilla spinosa), a member of the brassicaceae family, you can eat the purple flowers which taste like cabbage.

Desert landscapeYou can click on the image for a larger view (which may take some time to load depending on your Internet connection). Please share this post with your friends by clicking on the icons at the end of this message.

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Lumix point and shoot camera in March (ISO 80,4.1mm, F4 at 1/320 sec).

For more information about desert wildflowers see my post at https://israeltours.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/desert-wildflowers/

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.

Hiking the Makhtesh

Approximately 50km from the development town of Dimona named after the Biblical city of the same name mentioned in Joshua 15:21-22 are two examples of makhteshim or erosion cirques, unique to the Negev and Sinai deserts. So far geologists have only identified 7 makhteshim, Makhtesh Ramon, Makhtesh HaGadol, Makhtesh HaKatan and two even smaller ones on Har Harif in the Negev; there are two in the Sinai. One of the special things about the Makhtesh HaKatan is that because of its small size you can view it in its entirety, a 5km by 7km oval shaped bowl with steep walls of resistant rock, in this case limestone and dolomite that covered a softer layer of chalk and Nubian sandstone that comes in colors of pink, purple, yellow and green.

There are two access points into the makhtesh, Maale Hatzera on the northern wall is more gentle, an ancient camel pass and Maale Eli. We started our hike from Maale Eli a route originally discovered by local Bedouin that traverses the steep limestone (from the Cenomanian epoch 100 million years ago) walls of the makhtesh connecting the floor of the makhtesh with Hatzera Ridge. I’ve heard various reasons for the name – Eli means upper from the same root as ascend; Eli means pestle to the bowl-shaped mortar of the makhtesh. In fact, it is named after Eli Ben Zvi, son of Rahel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi who was the second president of Israel. Eli was wounded during a training exercise with the Palmach in the makhtesh in the 1940s and this ascent was discovered in evacuating him to the nearest road joining Beersheva to Maale Aqrabim, the Scorpion Ascent built by the British. Like Masada the Makhtesh HaKatan became a symbol of knowing the desert and the land of Israel by a people who had come home after 2000 years of exile.

We descended the steep walls of the makhtesh on a serpentine trail with the aid of rungs and railings, 400 meters to the floor of the makhtesh. From there we followed the red trail east (also marked as part of the Israel trail) passing hills and cliffs of colored sandstone to the mouth/exit of the makhtesh. The colors are produced by iron oxides, the sand from erosion of the Arabo-Nubian Massif carried all the way here by riverbeds. The hike is suitable for good hikers and should take about 4 hours.

By the paved road that leads to the exit is an electricity tower and piled at various levels are branches that look like the nest of some large bird – they were deposited there in 1994 and 2004 when there were torrential rains and the water reached that high.

For those looking for a long day hike you can follow the Israel trail starting at the Tamar fortress and descending into the makhtesh at Maale Hatzera. You walk south on the blue trail to the mouth of the makhtesh and when you get to the water pumping station you take the red trail west across the makhtesh climbing up at Maale Eli. Continuing another 10km to the Makhtesh HaGadol will take you past the spring of Ein Yorqeam, definitely worth a visit.

The British figured that it would be worth drilling for oil in the makhtesh, erosion has already gotten rid of the hard rock and hundreds of meters of sand. They did not find any but for the same reason it is worth drilling for water. The sand in the makhtesh acts as a large aquifer though the water is quite salty. The water is piped to a reservoir on Mount Tzafit from where it is used by industries on the Rotem Plain.

Hiking Wadi Qelt – St George Monastery

Hiking Wadi Qelt is best in the early morning on the way down to the Dead Sea, a great place to experience the Judean desert and for photographs of the desert landscape.

From Jerusalem on highway <1> take the left at Mizpe Yericho, left again and left at the T. Park the car here for a great view of Wadi Qelt/Nahal Prat. Follow the black trail down to the stream bed. Here you will see the remains of the stone arches of the bridge of the aquaduct.

Continuing another 450 meters you’ll come to a wooden bridge that crosses Nahal Prat and to your left is the Ein Qelt pool. There are two possibilities from here: hike west along the streambed to a string of pools in Lower Nahal Prat or east along the red trail which will take you after about 2 kilometers to the monastery of St George of Koziba perched on the northern cliff.

From the monastery you can climb up to the road where you drive back to the highway or continue to the ruins of Herod’s fortress at Cypros.

Christian monks began to settle in the Judean Desert in the early 4th century identifying with Moses, Elijah, Jesus and others who spent time in the desert, as a respite from the secular world. By the fifth to seventh centuries, there were some 65 monasteries in the area: St. George, Martyrius, Euthymius, Deir Hijla, Mar Saba can be visited to this day.

Originally founded as a laura, a cluster of cells or caves for hermits about 420 CE, a small chapel was added later and about 480CE St. John of Thebes transformed the site into a monastery. In the 6th century it became known as St. George under the leadership of Gorgias of Koziba, born in Cyprus about 550 CE. The Persians destroyed it in 614 and it was rebuilt during the Crusader period but abandoned when the Crusaders were defeated and was reported in ruins by a pilgrim who visited in 1483. In 1878 a Greek monk, Kalinikos, settled here and restored the monastery, completing it in 1901.

According to tradition this is the place where Elijah stayed when God commanded him to leave King Ahab during the drought and was fed by ravens:

5 So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD; for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan.

6 And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.

I Kings 17

There is also the story that Joachim, father of the Virgin Mary, hid here for forty days bewailing the barrenness of his wife Anne, whereupon an angel came to him to announce that Anne was pregnant with a daughter.

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.

Desert Wildflowers

If you are going to be in the south of Israel, there is a nice hike from the Timna valley through Nahal Mangan climbing onto the Milhan ridge; from there you can descend and camp at the Milhan well. This area gets less than 100mm of rain per year but in March, we saw a lot of plants in bloom for a desert.

The Silon Kotzani (Zilla spinosa) is a perennial but only lives a couple of years dying from drought or flash floods. The plant grows into a sphere of stems and thorns that is typical of thorny plants in the desert. The peak of its flowering is March, afterwards it dries up. The small purple flowers are edible and have a mild cabbage taste. When dry the stems of the bush can be used as kindling to start your campfire.

The White Broom, Rotem HaMidbar (Retama raetam) was blossoming, bunches of small, delicate white flowers. This is the bush under which the prophet Elijah sat.

But he went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-bush. Kings I 19, 4

The Broomrape, Yahnuk HaMidbar (Cistanche tubulosa) is a parasite that grows on and gets its nourishment from the roots of other plants. There are no leaves, just a spike of yellow flowers.

Parosheet Galonit (Pulicaria desertorum) is a low-lying plant with yellow flowers that grows in desert areas. The leaves and flowers can be used to make tea, the plant has a pleasant scent.

Lotus HaMidbar, Desert Lotus (Lotus lanuginosus) is a low-lying perennial with small red flowers that grows in desert areas.

Fagonia Rakah (Fagonia mollis) is one of the typical and most widespread plants that grows in the desert.

For other posts about wildflowers click on “Wildflowers”  under Categories in the right hand column or https://israeltours.wordpress.com/category/wildflowers/

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/