Israel's Good Name

Mitzpe Oded & Kever Yosef

In Israel, Samaria on November 24, 2014 at 4:59 AM

The following two places are found in the heart of the Shomron (also known as Samaria) and I had the pleasure of visiting both on the same day. Due to the fact that I often do the night shift for the Safaron driving, I took a lazy Wednesday afternoon to visit nearby archaeological ruins in the town of Yakir. The military outpost Yakir, where I usually serve, is just a few minutes walk from my destination, Mitzpe Oded.

Sunny at Mitzpe Oded

Sunny at Mitzpe Oded

Mitzpe Oded was founded as an outlook in memory of Oded Fink who died of illness at age 30, a man with an appreciation the land of Israel, its beauty and heritage. The outlook provides a view of the towns of Karnei Shomron, Immanuel and Yitzhar as well as the famous Biblical twin peaks of Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal in the far distance and Nachal Kana running directly below. The second portion of this blog post, Kever Yosef, is located in the city of Shechem which is between Mounts Gerezim and Ebal, some 16 kilometres (10 miles) away as the crow flies.

Panoramic view from Mitzpe Oded

Panoramic view from Mitzpe Oded

The first ruin I saw as I approached the lookout was a six-foot tower rectangle of rough ashlars, as can be seen above. The sign declared the structure as a “shomera” which is the Biblical name for an agricultural watchtower and was comprised of two levels – the lower of stone blocks and the upper a wooden hut. Here is another agricultural watchtower that is unmarked and unkempt right outside the entrance of Yakir Outpost. I had been wondering what it was ever since I had first laid eyes on it, now I know.

Ruins outside Yakir Outpost

Ruins outside Yakir Outpost

Beside the agricultural watchtower at Mitzpe Oded is a unique textured millstone that was used for coarse wheat and barley grinding. The grain would be ground into a coarse flour used for porridge, as well as for sacrificial purposes.

 

Unique millstone

Unique millstone

To the north of the millstone there is the base of a square structure and then a confusing little trail down the slope of the mountain. I ventured down a bit, didn’t see anything fascinating and headed back to the outpost. Later on that evening I got a series of calls and found myself driving the Safaron armoured truck to Tapuach Junction for a fun (and not classified) operation. I was to be working with Border Police in Shechem (Nablus) as that night was predestined to be the night when the IDF allows Israeli visitors to Kever Yosef (Joseph’s Tomb) located in the heart of Shechem.

"Tomb of Joseph at Shechem" (1839) by David Roberts

“Tomb of Joseph at Shechem” (1839) by David Roberts

While today’s Kever Yosef doesn’t look quite like it did back in 1839, it’s now a white-domed structure over the tomb with a few side chambers and a yard surrounded by a tall fence. In this aerial view, the white complex of Kever Yosef is quite distinguishable:

Aerial view of Kever Yosef

Aerial view of Kever Yosef

Driving in one of many armoured military convoys, we entered the city and headed for Kever Yosef on the edge of the Balata refugee camp. I was a little surprised that we didn’t get any stones thrown at us, but figured we’d probably get stoned later on that night. I parked my large vehicle blocking the north-west access alley (see map) and with the entire plaza area locked down and secure we prepared for the busloads of visitors. This was all an eye-opening experience for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. In this panoramic of the “plaza” area just outside the tomb complex, the buses come from the street on the left side while behind me and to the right are completely secured and blockaded by soldiers and military vehicles. I was fortunate enough to partake in the inner circle of defence, so I was able to visit the site easily.

Panoramic of the plaza in front of the complex

Panoramic of the plaza in front of the complex

The first batch of buses came and the visitors streamed into the complex, eager to seize a prime praying location as close to the tombstone as possible. Eventually I made my way into the domed chamber but the sheer multitude of people discouraged me. Someone offered me a memorial candle to light, and so I did, lighting it in a niche that had crude swastikas scrawled on the concave wall. The history of Kever Yosef is pretty hairy, and despite considered a holy site for Muslims, finds itself the victim of destruction and hate crimes. I’m not sure how the situation usually is during these late-night visits, but that night was extremely quiet.

Memorial candles

Memorial candles

After about 90 minutes or so, the visitors were herded back onto the buses so that the second batch could come. In between groups, there was a nice quietness about the place and I was able to take a photo of the site without people being in my way.

Kever Yosef

Kever Yosef

The second busloads arrived and I was distracted by a man who fell as he made his way from the bus to the tomb and needed mild medical attention. As the paramedic bandaged him up, the injured man told us that he himself was at once the director of MADA Jerusalem (Israeli version of the Red Cross) during the Yom Kippur War before being sent down to the Sinai to treat injured soldiers. The stories that the “average Joe” on the street has are absolutely fascinating here in Israel, with its extremely short and volatile history. After the second batch of visitors were whisked away, and all the dressings and signs were taken down from the complex, I entered the tomb chamber and was pleasantly surprised to see this raw, yet fresh, look at such a rich historical tomb:

The bare tomb

The bare tomb

When the last of the soldiers and Border Police were aboard their armoured vehicles, we drove back out of the troubled city of Shechem, fully expecting an onslaught of rocks and worse. Again, we passed through unscathed. I’m still astounded at the fact that despite having entered many Palestinian villages and cities, I’ve never once got even as much as a stone thrown at me – what are the odds? Anyhow, such is life in Israel’s “Wild West” and I hope I get more chances to have blog-compatible experiences so that I can document them here.

A Taste of Mountain Biking

In Galilee, Israel on November 16, 2014 at 4:46 AM

This past Friday I went on a poorly-planned biking trip with my Manchunian friend Jonathan Kemp. Borrowing a mountain bike and a helmet the evening prior, we set out at 7am for a two-hour bike ride. Despite having grown with bicycles, riding them all the time, I hadn’t ridden a bike in over four years. The last time was when I rode with my best friend Bernie a one direction ride from Ma’alot to Nahariya – about an elevation drop of 500 meters (1,640 feet) – mostly downhill and on the main road. So with my weak biking muscles, I mounted my bike and followed Jonathan (a far more seasoned biker) out of Ma’alot and over to the nearby town of Meona (across Road 89 from Mi’ilya).

Our bike route

Our bike route

We entered Meona and turned off the street where the sign instructed, to the bike trails. We stopped to switch on the forward suspension (for off-road use) and began the comfortable pedaling on the dirt roads of the farm industrial area. Pretty soon we were riding along the Ma’alot Forest and then passed the sign for the nature reserve of Tel Marwa. We passed some cows, and a bull that made me feel uneasy, and then I spotted a mongoose making a dash for cover. We reached Ein Ya’akov and crossed Road 8833, just following the trail. What’s funny is that I told Jonathan that the trail is along Nachal Ga’aton but looking at the map, we never came close.

Bike trail marker

Bike trail marker

Just past the road we entered a pastoral little field and saw the proud ruins of Yehiam Fortress (or as the Crusaders called it, Judyn). Here I posed with the ruins in the distance:

Posing with Yehiam Fortress in the background

Posing with Yehiam Fortress in the background

Entering what we’re calling Yehiam Forest, the trail immediately became more difficult. Growing up in Detroit, I’ve never had the opportunity to go actual mountain biking so this was new to me. I clutched the handlebars safely as I navigated the really narrow winding trail, avoiding potentially dangerous rocks and trees. Weaving back and forth as we rolled downhill through the pine trees, we passed by some serious bikers and then arrived at a little flat area with a small cave at the side. Not wanting to press on too far with our time constraints, we decided that this was a good place to turn back.

The little cave

The little cave

Had we just another half-hour or so each way, I’m sure we could have reached Yehiam and perhaps actually have a cold pint at Malka Beer. Turning around and heading back uphill proved to be a bit of a challenge, at least for me. I huffed and puffed as I churned those bike pedals on low gear while Jonathan just zipped on up ahead.

"Come along now..."

“Come along now…”

Eventually we made it out of the forest and began the easier uphill ride back across Road 8833 and past Ein Ya’akov. At a safe section of the trail, I pedaled on ahead and took a photo of Jonathan in his element:

Jonathan Kemp

Jonathan Kemp

Attempting to wimp out several times along the way back uphill, but prodded along, I congratulated myself on reaching Meona – the end in sight. Riding along Road 89, we made the uphill push past Tarshicha and into Ma’alot. When we entered Ma’alot we noticed that the police had blocked the street off and wondered why. Straining uphill, we saw why – Ma’alot’s 1st annual run was scheduled that very Friday.

Runners

Runners

I’m thankful for all the runners passing by as it gave me a distraction from my achy thighs as I slowly pedaled my way towards my house. That’s my one gripe about mountain biking – however fun it is rolling downhill, the exact amount of misery will be experienced on the way back up. Finally we finished our two-hour loop and I dismounted; plans for another ride in the makings.

Hula Valley Nature Reserve

In Galilee, Israel on November 9, 2014 at 4:26 AM

Last week I took my sisters on a short trip to the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, located between the Naftali Mountains, the Golan Heights, Lebanon and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Having already been to the other Hula Valley park, called Agamon Hula, I figured it would be nice to see the official national park. With my last Hula blog post being about the crane migration, as linked previously, this post will be focused more on life in the marsh year-round. We arrived at the park where I renewed my extremely cheap soldier’s year pass and set up for a little picnic looking at the wetlands.

Hula Valley observation tower

Hula Valley observation tower

Deciding to first visit the Oforia visitors centre and then walk the trail, we sat down for a 3D video in English about the Hula Valley and the bi-annual bird migration. With all sorts of sensory additives to the video (including jabs in the back, gusts of cold air and a simulated rat in the aisles hitting everyone’s legs), the 3D film was a hit. Because we chose the English version we had to wait to see the diorama presentations of stuffed birds and mammals in the Hebrew-only section of the visitors centre.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly

We then hit the trail and stopped almost immediately to watch the large catfish swimming beneath the bridge. Very similar to the marsh at Ein Afeq between Akko and Haifa, I already knew what to expect in the fauna department but there were a few surprises such as the white-throated kingfisher with its dazzling blue back. Within a few minutes we spotted water buffalo way out in the marsh, looking content in the cool waters.

Water buffalo

Water buffalo

Walking along the water, watching coots, ducks, water buffalo, kingfishers, turtles, catfish and more in their natural habitat, we shortly arrived at the wooden observation tower. Up top we looked out the slit and watched the birds down below, the coots, cormorants and pelicans. I even spotted a kingfisher hover and dive into the water after its prey. Now, despite the fact that some 500 million birds make their way from Europe/Asia to Africa this time of year, we saw just a handful of migratory birds. When we visited Agamon Hula on November 23rd 2011 we saw thousands of common cranes as well as hundreds of other migratory birds. It was a bit odd seeing the marsh so empty.

Cormorants on a dead tree

Cormorants on a dead tree

Leaving the observation tower we continued on the loop trail and walked a section of bridge through some very strange marsh vegetation, or as one sister said “Dr Seuss plants”. Bright green, large, round tufted balls of plant – surely something to be seen in a Dr Seuss book.

Walking through Dr Seuss land

Walking through Dr Seuss land

We then approached the floating bridge which looks out to the larger body of water in the reserve, where we watched pelicans paddle around, the neighbouring Golan in the background.

Pelicans and the Golan

Pelicans and the Golan

From the moment we entered the covered floating bridge, I immediately thought it looked like some sort of wooden space ship corridor. If you click on this picture, a screenshot from the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think you’ll agree.

In the floating bridge

In the floating bridge

After the floating bridge we looped back round and passed many, many turtles and this nutria eating its way through the marsh. Despite being an alien species, nutrias add quite a nice visual touch to Israeli wetlands.

Nutria eating its way through the marsh

Nutria eating its way through the marsh

Finished with the trail we headed back and left the park, happy to spend the day in such a beautiful and photogenic place but slightly disappointed not to see the bird migration in person. Perhaps next time…

 

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