Israel's Good Name

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Nachal Amud II

In Galilee, Israel on May 26, 2014 at 3:25 AM

Last week Sunday was the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, most famous for the lighting of bonfires and the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rashbi in Meron, which becomes a bigger and bigger event every year. This year I attempted to visit Meron as soon as Shabbat ended, a relatively short drive, at the far foot of Mount Meron, but the roads were closed and we were forced to turn back. Sunday morning came and I hopped on a bus to Tzfat (Safed) to attempt a hike to Meron via Nachal Amud with some friends including Nechemya who hiked Nachal Kziv with me.

Waiting at the Saraya in Tzfat

Waiting at the Saraya in Tzfat

We all met up, packed some food and water and hit the road, leaving Tzfat along the Industrial Section and entering what is known as HaAri Forest. There, in between the trees and splashed with bright blue paint, we found the grave of Brei d’Rav Safra (the son of Rav Safra) who lived sometime in the 300’s CE. Born in Babylonia, this sage moved to the Galilee and was mentioned in the Zohar, the famous book on Kabbalah associated with the aforementioned Rashbi.

Grave of Brei d'Rav Safra

Grave of Brei d’Rav Safra

An acronym for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rashbi lived during the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. He and his son fled the Romans and found shelter in a cave in Peki’in (just minutes away from Ma’alot) where they were nourished by carobs and fresh spring water for thirteen years. The cave is still around today, and so are the carob trees and fresh spring, however, due to an earthquake, the cave is mostly collapsed and the spring was rerouted a little downhill.

Hiking with Mount Meron in the distance

Hiking with Mount Meron in the distance

After a little lunch we continued on, the twin peaks of Mount Meron acting as our compass as we reached the ridge above Nachal Amud. As we walked along the ridge, heading north, we looked down and saw these old ruins but we fought temptation and forged onwards.

Old ruins down below

Old ruins down below

As we walked we began speaking of caves and Nechemya tried to recall where along the side of the ridge he found a big cave on a previous hike. And so we dropped down the side of the ridge, making our way over and around huge rocks, thorn bushes and more. After a while I began to appreciate the small thorn bushes; they made great footing to step on for going downhill. Then we came across some torn up fur littered all over, from a fox or jackal.

Torn fur from a fox or jackal

Torn fur from a fox or jackal

And then, as we kept going downhill, we saw a tree and Nechemya announced that we should check where the tree is. We dropped further down and then lo and behold! a cave. There was a smaller cave and then a cave that we actually entered, using cellphones and a penlight to see into the gloom. Unfortunately, there was nothing really to be seen but it was cool being in an unmarked cave and it fueled our desire to find more caves.

From within the little cave

From within the little cave

Then, looking further downhill, we spotted a stone pillar splashed with bright blue paint – another grave. We fought gravity as we made our way down safely, at last reaching the grave of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, another great sage from the time of the Second Temple. One of the forerunners of Kabbalah, even before Rashbi, several of Rabbi Nehunya’s teachings were told over to us by Nechemya and so when we stumbled upon his very grave it was an amazing moment, encapsulating two thousand years of history.

Pillar marking the grave of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah

Pillar marking the grave of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah

After some time spent at the grave we continued on down, heading for Nachal Amud. Climbing down an ancient stone wall running alongside the stream, we spent some time at the stream – each doing their own thing. I tried something new with my camera; the “soft water” look of a tiny waterfall:

''Soft water''

”Soft water”

Then we found an orange tree, with ripe oranges dangling up high, but with the aid of a stick I enjoyed a fresh, organic orange plucked from nature. Then we resolved to continue our way towards Meron, this time walking along the stream.

Nachal Amud

Nachal Amud

But then we came across another distraction, what looked like a Crusader-era inn or something. We crossed the stream, much deeper now, on a fallen log and entered the ruins, looking around.

Ruins across the stream

Ruins across the stream

Up on the ruins’ roof, where grass had taken over, we admitted that we would never reach Meron before dark and the hike to Meron after dark would be too difficult. In efforts to salvage Lag B’Omer, my friends began a small fire and we watched the sky grow dark.

Impromptu bonfire

Impromptu bonfire

Some two hours later we extinguished the fire and resolved to make our way out of Nachal Amud, via the stream trail and then out towards the main road. And so we set off, using a light or two to guide us. I don’t recall ever doing such a night hike so it was definitely interesting, but I was a little nervous of running into wild boars. Even the jackals and wolves that come out of their hiding places at dusk to roam the land didn’t bother us as much as the thoughts of the wild boars. We found the trail and then came across some buildings – a series of Crusader-era mills, if I’m not mistaken.

A section of wall in the darkness of night

A section of wall in the darkness of night

At this point I left my camera alone and grasped a penlight instead, aiding me in my attempt at sure-footing my way out of the wilderness. We left Nachal Amud and began to climb up the elevation of Nachal Sechvi, a dry streambed filled with huge white rocks. At one point we stopped and laid down on a huge flat table-top stone, relaxing. I suggested that we keep completely silent for a few minutes and that suggestion paid off. The chirps of the bats overhead, the rustling of the leaves to my right, the yelping of a jackal behind further upstream and then the frighteningly close grunting/panting to the left. It was then that Nechemya decided we should announce our presence. Continuing on upsteam, another funny thing happened: Nechemya, who was running point, whispered for us to stop and told us that there was something big up ahead. Confused and nervous, we grasped our sticks and proceeded cautiously but with making threatening noises. As we got close we saw that it was a tent and the poor inhabitants were probably more scared than we were. So, as we passed, I whispered “sorry guys, good night” hoping to help. At last, after a nice long uphill hike in the dark, we reached the road. We watched as convoys of police and buses passed by rapidly, nobody stopping for three sweaty hikers carrying big sticks at the side of the road in middle of the night. So we walked, and eventually made it back to Tzfat where we enjoyed pizza and beer before crashing. What an adventure…

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Army Trip: The Bahai Gardens & Paintballing

In Haifa, Israel on May 20, 2014 at 3:25 AM

This blog post is about a surprise little trip one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, a trip of educational and fun purposes for our platoon. Our trip destinations were to the Bahai Gardens followed by paintballing, both conveniently located in Haifa. We boarded the base’s army bus and then drove to the other side of Mount Carmel to visit the Bahai Gardens, the huge terraced garden that marks the side of the mountain for all to see from miles away.

The Bahai Gardens of Haifa

The Bahai Gardens of Haifa

I had visited the Bahai Gardens twice before, taking the daily 12 o’clock tour of the first seven or so uppermost terraces, but our trip was to the next terraces down – a section I thought was closed to the public. We entered the gardens and walked down a shaded tree-lined path taking us to a junction with a nice stone house marked “Private”.

Private

Private

We stepped into the particularly hot sun and headed for the Shrine of the Bab, the morning feeling extra-hot, heated from a desert wind known as “sharav” (or in Arabic: “chamseen“). These desert winds, usually coming from the east, can even carry large amounts of sand and smother the country in heat for several days at a time. Despite the heat, the Bahai gardeners were working full steam ahead and there was even one guy working on the exterior of the shrine.

Working on the shrine's exterior

Working on the shrine’s exterior

As I have already written about the Bahai, and their Haifa gardens, as linked above, I will only briefly touch on some of the details. This shrine, the crown jewel of the garden, is a golden-domed tomb of the forerunner of the Bahai faith, the Báb who was born in Persia in the year 1819. The Báb was executed in 1850 and in 1909 his remains were smuggled to the Holy Land and he was buried on Mount Carmel. The shrine was completed in 1953 and the expansive gardens we see today were begun in 1987 and have only been completed and opened to the public in 2001.

Looking up at the Shrine of the Báb

Looking up at the Shrine of the Báb

Several of the soldiers in my platoon entered the shrine, removing their shoes as required. Nearly all who entered were either Muslim or Druze and I didn’t feel comfortable entering – I’m also a little unsure of its status in regards to Jewish Law, although it seems to be fine because it isn’t even a house of worship. I did, however, take a photo through a keyhole but it didn’t come out too interesting looking. We then proceeded to the observation section of that terrace, and then I took this photo as we walked back, looking out at Downtown Haifa (note the yellow haze coming in from the east, the aforementioned “sharav“).

Looking out at Downtown Haifa

Looking out at Downtown Haifa

Sweating buckets, we got back on to the bus and drove over the mountain, heading back to the Carmel Coast. There, we disembarked at the paintballing place outside the Congress Centre, near Castra. I had never been paintballing, so I was justifiably looking forward – itchy trigger finger and all. We entered the site and began donning protective gear: camouflage overalls, imported Russian flak vests and JT X-Fire masks. I made two decisions as I dressed; one, to leave my phone behind and two, not to wear my glasses under my mask. In retrospect, I should have taken a video of the battle that followed but the glasses situation wasn’t as flexible. We grabbed our Tippmann 98 paintball guns and headed up to the final staging area.

Gearing up

Gearing up

The first thing we all noticed was the incredible heat. Then we needed to choose teams – I heard a lot of suggestions such as “Bedouins vs. Druze” but in the end it was colour-coordinated and at random. We loaded up and entered the arena, forefingers caressing the smooth metal trigger. I mourned the fact that my visibility was limited – I could merely see heads and torsos on the far end of the field, broken up by tall dry grass and old oil drums. I spotted an easy target and sent some paintballs to him, not knowing if I had made contact or not. Then, bam! I watched a paintball hit my gun and then ricochet onto the far left side of my mask’s goggles. With the wet yellow paint just resting on my mask, I slithered my way to the next cover, occasionally firing at enemy troops.

Posing before the battle

Posing before the battle

What made the experience so interesting was that it was exactly like “Call of Duty” (or any similar FPS game): there was tall grass, assorted metal barrels and containers to hide behind, the sound of “bullets” pinging off said barrels and containers, and most importantly, a cacophony of Arabic yells – battle cries. The only language I heard during the gunfight was Arabic, talk about realism… I snapped out of my reverie, let loose some more paintballs and leapt behind some cover. I fired more and then realised I was shooting blanks. I turned to the man next to me and saw Ali Na’al behind the mask. “I’m out!” I cried, my voice muffled through the mask. Firing blanks himself, Ali admitted the same and so we sulked back to the last staging ground. I had thought that we were to reload and reenter the fray but I was wrong and the intense battle lasted mere minutes, as everybody ran dry. Examining myself, I found wet paint splattered in two more places, although indirect hits: my left thigh and right ankle. In summary I’d say that paintball is amazing and I’m really glad to have had the chance, but that corrective eyewear is a must, as well as smaller, more organised teams. With that, we shed our borrowed clothing and sat down for lunch before heading back to the base.

The Negev: Roadside Attractions

In Israel, Negev on May 11, 2014 at 3:31 AM

A few weeks back I was way down in the southern Negev, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, and was called back north for a driving mission. On the way up I decided to take my time and explore roadside attractions. I often stop off places to explore, but usually don’t have enough material to make a blog post about (sites such as the Mazor Mausoleum, the Maqam of Nabi Musa and the Ayit Waterfall). This particular time I had the chance to visit three interesting sites.

Close-up of the coloured sandstone wall

Close-up of the coloured sandstone wall

The first I came across was Wadi Ramon in the Ramon Crater, one of two streams which drain the enormous erosion crater. I had heard about some very interesting “coloured rock” formations, and that they are just a few minutes from the road. Leaving my truck, I climbed down into the dry streambed with just my camera and gun and began walking. Wondering if I’d see any snakes or scorpions, I scoured the sandy streambed with my camera ready as I tread. True to my source’s word, the coloured sandstone rock wall was very visible after just a minute walk.

Coloured wall of Wadi Ramon

Coloured wall of Wadi Ramon

Researching more online, I found a fascinating fact about the Ramon Crater: gypsum, a mineral, is heavily mined in the crater and there are underground galleries stretching out for 16 miles – that I’d like to see!

Looking down at the ''Lost City''

Looking down at the ”Lost City”

Driving further north, I stopped just after Sde Boker (where Ben Gurion lived and died) and happened upon a place I’ve never even heard of: the “Lost City”. What I’ve gleaned from online sources (including my absolute favourite: Biblewalks) is that this “Lost City” was a late Byzantine farming settlement dating back to the 6th-9th centuries CE. However, its history and identification was a mystery for many years, thus earning the name “Lost City”.

The ''Lost City''

The ”Lost City”

Being on the ancient trade route, this farming village would have had prime access to the Levantine, Arabian and perhaps even further markets. After extensive excavations, and a little reconstruction, the “Lost City” is comprised of some 350 rooms along a little valley where vegetation would grow, irrigated by a rudimentary terraced construction aimed to preserve as much of the scarce water as possible. In this slightly panoramic shot, the ruins and agricultural terraces can be seen:

Panoramic of the ruins and the agricultural terraces

Panoramic of the ruins and the agricultural terraces

I saw that there are ruins of an ancient mosque, built some 1,200 years ago approximately, but I didn’t want to wander too far off so I decided to cross the road and search for a different ruins; a fortress said to be from the time of the Jewish kings. I came across these low stone walls, thought it might be the meagre remains, but found out later that I hadn’t found the Haluqim Ruins after all… so I don’t know what these walls and small ashlars are, perhaps a continuation of the “Lost City”. Maybe I’ll find the Haluqim Ruins next time…

Unmarked ruins

Unmarked ruins

The third site of interest is an old British Mandate police station located across from Rahat (the largest Bedouin city in Israel), not far from Be’er Sheva. It was at this station, the Rider Police Station, where the local gendarmerie (a military force charged with police duties) was located. I had passed the building many times and had finally decided to stop, but unfortunately, someone had bricked in all the doors and windows, so exploration was quite limited.

The Rider Police Station

The Rider Police Station

That basically concluded my exploration for the day, although I ended up driving to the upper Golan, clocking in about 350 miles of driving that day alone!

Ein Afeq

In Galilee, Israel on May 7, 2014 at 3:28 AM

On the first day of Chol HaMoed Pesach we took a family trip to Ein Afeq, a nature reserve near the Krayot just north of Haifa. As the hill section of the park is called Tel Afeq, it is often confused with the other Tel Afeq which is in the centre of the country, near Rosh HaAyin. This reserve, Ein Afeq, contains the remains of ancient waterworks (dams, walls and mills) and city ruins which date back to settlement thousands of years ago. That clarified, we drove over to Ein Afeq and began our walk through the park, slightly dismayed at the large crowds.

Recordane, the Crusader fortress

Recordane, the Crusader fortress

Starting with the springs, of which there are thirty or so, we immediately caught sight of the Crusader fortress and mill. Built in the mid 1150’s, the fortress of Recordane, together with its flour mills, were acquired by the Hospitallers, a Crusader Military Order. This very fortress was used as a Christian base when fighting Saladin, the powerful sultan of the Ayyubid Empire who defeated the Crusaders in 1187.

Interesting little fortress door

Interesting little fortress door

Later, in 1228, King Frederick II of Germany (one of the most powerful Christians to partake in the Crusades) used Recordane as a headquarters whilst negotiating a truce with the Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil, effectively ending the Sixth Crusade. Even within the ranks of the Crusaders, Recordane and its mills were hotly contested between the military orders and, after intervention by the pope and a treaty signed at Akko in 1262, the Hospitallers built another fortress with mills nearby, of which just stone foundations remain. To this day the records are murky, no one knows precisely which mills and fortresses at Ein Afeq were owned by the Templars.

Fortress detail

Fortress detail

The mills of Recordane themselves, powered by the stream, were sporadically operating up until 1925. Initially the lead supplier of flour for Akko, the regional Crusader capital, the mills were destroyed by the Mamlukes in the 1300’s following the Crusaders final defeat and banishment from the Levant. Rebuilt by the Ottomans, these very mills were instrumental in providing the Turkish troops with flour during WWI. When the British took control of the region, they used the waterworks to direct water to new oil refineries. Due to Arab rioting in the late 1930’s, the British built a guard post atop the fortress and from the rooftop beside the concrete post I took this photo of the waterworks below:

Looking down at the waterworks

Looking down at the waterworks

Leaving the fortress we began the walk around the reserve, exploring the wetlands and the animals that call it home. The first we came across was a nutria (also known as a coypu), an alien species from South America valued for its fur. It seemed very accustomed to humans and allowed me to get real close, just look at those evil hazel eyes glinting in the sun as it eats the marsh vegetation:

Eyeing the nutria

Eyeing the nutria

We then reached the far north side of the reserve’s trails and I spotted water buffalo resting under a tree, escaping the midday sun. Seeing the nutria and the water buffalo instantly reminded me of our trip to the Hula Valley to watch the bi-annual crane migration.

Water buffalo resting under a tree

Water buffalo resting under a tree

In some of the ponds on the reserve, large numbers of African sharptooth catfish frenzied at the murky water’s surface, eager for a quick snack from the human visitors. Here are two somewhat frightening facts about these fish: one, they can reach a maximum length of 1.7 metres (5 feet 7 inches) weighing up to 60 kilograms (130 pounds) and two, they can crawl on dry land to find a new watery home. Lock your doors, people!

Hungry catfish

Hungry catfish

Along with the nutrias, water buffalo and catfish, there lives brilliantly-coloured damselflies:

A damselfly

A damselfly

We reached the floating bridge and began to walk over the Great Lake (not such a “great” lake for one who grew up in Michigan).

The floating bridge over the Great Lake

The floating bridge over the Great Lake

This section I particularly enjoyed; the winding wooden platform, the periodic rushes and reeds, the dark shapes in the water materialising as catfish, tilapia and Caspian turtles.

A Caspian turtle spying on me

A Caspian turtle spying on me

With our feet back on dry land, we returned to the entrance, passing the beautiful, placid Moorhen Pool and the concrete British Mandate pumping station.

The Moorhen Pool

The Moorhen Pool

Joining the myriads of visitors, we sat down at the picnic area and bought some popsicles from the onsite vendor. After a little rest, under the shade of trees, we headed back to the car. Not wanting to regret anything, I made a last minute decision to quickly climb Tel Afeq to see if there was anything to see. I did just that and all I saw was a butterfly and the view from the hilltop, none of the thousands of years of history; Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Roman and Crusader.