Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Golan’ Category

Nachal El Al

In Israel, Golan on June 25, 2017 at 10:37 AM

This is the first of three posts that took place on three consecutive days in early June when I was fulfilling my capacity of instructor at a school where I work. A few other instructors and I were accompanying the 9th graders on their annual tiyul shnati (a multi-day trip), this time to the Golan and Upper Galilee. The first day started off with a long bus ride from Givat Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, to the first hike of the trip, Nachal El Al in the lower Golan. The buses took us to a staging ground behind the moshav of Avnei Eitan and we promptly began our hike along the red-marked trail, descending into the ravine.

Descending into Nachal El Al

From the very beginning both flora and fauna showed promise, as I photographed a crested lark, a red and black leaf beetle, globethistle, bugloss and oleander which grows plentifully along the streambed. It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the two waterfalls that this hike is famous for, the Black Waterfall. Named such because of the black basalt stones that are so typical of the Golan’s geology, the second fall is called the White Waterfall due to its white chalk setting.

The Black Waterfall

As I was looking over the edge of the cliff beside the pool drama hit. First there was the sound of rumbling and something falling, then confused shouts and through the gaps between the leaves I was witness to a terrible accident. A young schoolgirl from another group, also on her annual trip, was victim to a fallen rock which smashed her thigh, breaking the bone badly, and as she fell, her head hit rock. Their accompanying paramedics, as well as ours, rushed to her aid and the atmosphere was grim. She had lost consciousness and her thigh was bent unnaturally, swollen and discoloured. Climbing back up to regain cellular service, emergency calls were made and it was decided that they were going to wait for Unit 669, an elite IDF commando unit, to rescue her via helicopter.

Unit 669 helicopter to the rescue

We stayed for some time at the Black Waterfall, some of the students frolicking in the pool, and I spotted a Levant green frog escaping human presence. When we left the Black Waterfall the poor girl was still awaiting extraction and so we paused further ahead along the trail and prayed together for her health and well-being. As we continued southwest we heard the distinct noise of a chopper incoming, and we got to spectate the rescue until the adjacent hilltop obscured our view (she was since rescued successfully and taken to Rambam Hospital in Haifa).

Closer look at the helicopter

Hiking along, we passed a neat wildflower named annual pink as well as a handful of goldfinches flying amongst the waving reeds, with alpine swifts and a lone short-toed eagle patrolling the skies above us. I took care to photograph as many craggy cliff holes as I could, hoping that maybe I’d catch a little or eagle owl on my display screen – both of which have eluded me thus far – but with no success.

The kiss of goldfinches

We had passed a neat pool down below, with metal handles affixed in the rock wall to facilitate access to the continuation of the trail which was lined with thick reeds. Next we came upon an area where the water flow slowed down as it caressed the smooth white rock, reminding me of the natural waterworks at Nachal Kziv. This calm water would presently spill over the side of a cliff to form the White Waterfall, a 14-metre drop of cold mountain water. I waited for a while at the spillover spot, letting the sun progress over the adjacent mountain to give me more favourable lighting for photography.

The White Waterfall

It’s on the crest of that mountain to the west that ancient ruins can be found. Marked on the map as Qasr Bardwil, which, according to what I have found online, can either be an Arabic name giving tribute to Crusader king Baldwin who conquered the Golan area, or “bardwil” which may be Arabic for cattails. Either way, the site dates to the early Bronze Era and is composed of great walls of small stones at the edge of the cliff overlooking the stream. When the children were goaded out of the waterfall pool I made my pilgrimage down to properly document the falls, and then I continued on the trails.

Late afternoon over the Golan

From this point onward it was all dry, the trail running along the side of the eastern slope with only lone trees here and there to shield us from the scorching sun. But I found distraction in spotting a noisy katydid in the dead vegetation, a fan-fingered gecko and my very first woodchat shrike, also called a butcher bird for their barbaric feeding methodology.

Noisy katydid

At last, I reached the end of the trail and spotted a mother rock hyrax with two of her young on a nearby rock. Over the next half hour or so the entire class made their way to the end where the buses waited, and during this wait we watched the entertaining aeronautics of a kestrel avoiding a mobbing hooded crow. When the buses were loaded with our sweaty and tired bodies we were taken to Kibbutz Keshet where we, the staff, were introduced to our rooms and then had dinner in the dining room. The day had come to an end, but the trip was only one third of the way done…

University Trip: Kinneret I

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on April 3, 2016 at 7:13 AM

The week before last I attended my very first university trip, having just started studying Archaeology in Bar Ilan University. This trip was to be a two-day adventure around the Kinneret area, hopping from site to site to explore and to hear brief lectures from the various resident academics as well as special guests. We left the Bar Ilan campus in the morning, our buses taking Road 6 and then passing Megiddo, Afula and Kfar Tavor before entering the beautiful green valley of Yavne’el. Our first stop was just minutes later, at the Hod Lookout beside a monument dedicated to the early androcentric settlement of Beitanya.

Sea level at the Hod Lookout near Beitanya

Sea level at the Hod Lookout near Beitanya

Next we drove to a site that I’ve read much about, yet never really seen – Karnei Hittim (or, the Horns of Hattin). Known for the famous battle between the Crusaders and the Ayyubids under the leadership of Saladin, this extinct volcano was the battlegrounds that held testament to the Christians’ first major defeat back in 1187. Following the lead of Dr Rafi Lewis we skirted the east side of the gentle slope and made our way through a brief rainshower to the obscure ruins of Kankuzah.

Karnei Hittim as seen from the ruins of Kankuzah

Karnei Hittim as seen from the ruins of Kankuzah

Rafi, an archaeologist specialising in battlefields, proceeded to tell us all about the deciding battle that was fought to the west of us, and how he conducted numerous light digs of the general area finding all sorts of military artefacts. At one point he held up a printed version of the picture embedded below, a photograph from the 1890s listed in the Library of Congress as the Mount of Beatitudes (Capernaum) which has since been “historically relocated” to the area where the Jordan River spills into the Kinneret.

Karnei Hittim from the 1890s (photo Library of Congress)

Karnei Hittim from the 1890s (photo Library of Congress)

Leaving behind the beautiful view of the Arbel Valley, we walked back to the buses passing large green fields of wheat. Next we drove back down to the Beitanya area, headed for our next destination: the Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader.

The Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader

The Roman bathhouses of Hamat Gader

I had the opportunity of visiting Hamat Gader back in 2012, but then I was only able to marvel at the archaeological ruins from the plebian side of the fence. Being a university trip, even key points of interest along the way to Hamat Gader were pointed out, including the famous ruined bridge and sites along the Yarmouk River, bordering the country of Jordan. Once inside the resort, famous for its hot springs and crocodile farm, we were ushered directly to the Roman ruins. Across the Yarmouk, under Jordanian sovereignty, is the mountainside ruins of Gadara – a once important city that had close ties with the population living beside the hot springs.

Inside the Roman bathhouse

Inside the Roman bathhouse

In class the other day I learned about the Roman plumbing technology used in these bathhouses, and the small stone cubes lining the pool behind me in the photo are actually small fountains all connected by a pipe under the stonework. Iconoclasm lent to the destruction of the faces on the stone cubes, the mouths of which would spout water. Ever under the watchful eye of the head of security, our group walked carefully from room to room, taking in the classic beauty. At last we settled down in the stately Hall of the Pillars for a few brief lectures.

Lecture in the Hall of the Pillars

Lecture in the Hall of the Pillars

Wrapping up at Hamat Gader we drove up the Golan side of the Kinneret to our next point of interest, Ein Gev. One of the first kibbutzim to be established in Golan under Syrian authority, the success of Ein Gev was a powerful message to all parties involved. Leaving the buses, we walked to the grassy lakefront and sat beneath the gently swaying palm trees settling in for another lecture.

Lakefront lecture at Ein Gev

Lakefront lecture at Ein Gev

With still so much to see, we were hustled back onto the buses and driven to an ancient site on the banks of the Jordan at the southern end of the Kinneret, a site known as Tel Bet Yerach. I had tried visiting Tel Bet Yerach on my trip to Belvoir, yet couldn’t seem to find the archaeological discoveries. And so, as we crossed the Jordan after Degania I recognised exactly where we were headed yet didn’t know until that moment that the whole elevation was considered the tel of Bet Yerach. The archaeological site is quite in depth and we were given photo-copied maps of the dig to properly understand the layout.

Tel Bet Yerach

Tel Bet Yerach

Tel Bet Yerach’s name is thought to originate from the inhabitants’ worshipping of the moon, or perhaps of the pagan moon god Sin (which may be connected with the huge moon-shaped megalith Jethro’s Cairn some 30 kilometres away). With the Jordan and the Kinneret flanking the massive stone fortifications, Bet Yerach became an important and highly protected regional city. Flourishing during the Canaanite and Egyptian periods, the city was then destroyed and then rebuilt way later during the Persian era with the Greeks and Romans augmenting and improving the city in their times.

Distinct Tel Bet Yerach pottery

Distinct Tel Bet Yerach pottery

One of the lecture topics that interested me most was the unique pottery belonging to Tel Bet Yerach, a distinct black and red that is only found elsewhere in the Caucasus region. As Professor Aren Maeir spoke I scoured the ground looking for potsherds that matched the description given – the piece I found and rubbed clean was declared to be from the Early Bronze Age III (some 4,000 years old or so). With daylight waning we had one last lecture, given by Professor Ehud Weiss, on the Ohalo II site which made headlines providing rare evidence of food sources as well as early dwelling structures. Unfortunately darkness was upon us before we were able to get a good look at where the ancient site is located on the banks of the Kinneret, but the information given over was very eye-opening. Boarding the buses one more time we were driven to Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov where we were set up in quaint country lodgings for a night of trivia, academia and, of course, much needed sleep to prepare us for the next day.

Chastellet (Jacob’s Ford)

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on April 26, 2015 at 5:16 AM

This past week I was released from the IDF after serving two and a half interesting years – but this post is not about that. Nearly a year ago I had the day off from my army duties, and to take advantage, my parents and I took a little drive over to the Jordan River, just a few minutes east of Tzfat and Rosh Pina. We pulled over just before the B’not Ya’akov (Daughters of Jacob) Bridge, a historically strategic crossing point between the Galilee and the Golan. Just a few feet before the sign welcoming drivers to the Golan, we turned onto a dirt road and parked just outside our destination: the Crusader fortress of Chastellet.

Chastellet's northwestern wall

Chastellet’s northwestern wall

At the crossing point, also known as Jacob’s Ford (Vadum Iacob in Latin), a fortress was built in 1179 by the Crusaders under King Baldwin IV, the “Leper King”, to assert power over the region – preventing a Muslim invasion and putting pressure on the Ayyubid stronghold of Damascus. With such strategic importance attached to the project, the king moved his seat of government to the building site, his men working alongside the Templars.

Chastellet from the sky (photo: Wikipedia)

Chastellet from the sky (photo: Wikipedia)

Frantic at this regional game-changer, the Muslim sultan Saladin offered a bribe of 100,000 dinars for the Christians to abandon their efforts. When his bribe was refused, and the castle was already considered complete and in the hands of the Templars, Saladin gathered up a small army and began a siege of the newly-built Chastellet. The castle’s battle-hardened garrison fiercely defended their vantage point and the siege was called off when a knight named Rénier de Maron killed one of Saladin’s leading emirs with a well-aimed arrow.

Grasshopper

Grasshopper

Several months later, having defeated the Crusaders at Marjaayoun Valley in Lebanon (just north of Nachal Iyun), Saladin once again attacked Chastellet. Knowing that King Baldwin was camped not far away in Tiberias, Saladin decided to rush the castle, hoping to overrun it with his force superior in number. A vicious battle ensued and the Christians, numbering over 1,000, were ultimately defeated.

My mother posing at the castle's western wall

My mother posing at the castle’s western wall

While researching this castle online I came upon this reenactment of the bloody battle on the National Geographic channel: “Epic Battle”. After the victory, Saladin ordered that the walls be torn down and, to this day, the site was utterly abandoned and thereby well-preserved. Only earthquakes in 1202, 1759 and 1837 resulted in the meagre walls to be shifted in their places.

Earthquake-cracked walls

Earthquake-cracked walls

Archaeologists have uncovered full skeletons of fallen Crusaders and the castle’s water cistern is said to hold hundreds of dead Crusader corpses. When we visited we saw no skeletal hands reaching up through the dry dirt, but perhaps if we were to start digging, we would. Starting from the northwest corner we walked the rim of the castle ruins, pausing here and there to admire and photograph. When we finished looking at the castle, we headed down and had a brief staring contest with a particularly aggressive-looking cow and then walked down to the riverbank.

The Jordan River gently flowing by

The Jordan River gently flowing by

We found a nice shaded spot to sit in the river, under Chastellet, and relaxed in the Jordan’s cold, watery embrace. As I saw in the Golan Archaeological Museum in Qatsrin, part of an elephant’s remains was unearthed not far from where we were – closer to the bridge and on the Golan side of the river. With that we dried off in the hot June sun and got back into the car for the drive back home.

Ein Nashut & the Golan Archaeological Museum

In Golan, Israel on April 12, 2015 at 3:24 AM

Once again continuing with my adventures in the Golan, where I seized every opportunity to explore the historical and natural riches that the grassy plateau has to offer. This time I was temporarily staying at a base across from Kidmat Tzvi, just minutes from Qatsrin, the “capital of the Golan”. I had noticed a sign on the side of the road telling of a place of antiquities called “Ein Nashut Synagogue”. So, one afternoon I took my essentials and struck a path for this place, mapping out that it was roughly a kilometre and a half away (or, a mile) if I were to directly walk there through the fields.

Bumblebee in the wildflowers

Bumblebee in the wildflowers

Leaving the base’s rear gate, my walk was going rather pleasantly until suddenly a creature leaped out of the grass beside me. I was nearly paralyzed with excitement as the beautiful mountain gazelle daintily bounced up a man-made hill and disappeared from site. I wish my camera would have been on-hand to capture the moment, but it was snug in my pocket, doing nothing constructive. Hoping to spot the gazelle on the far side of the hill, I carried on around the hill, enjoying the walk. When I reached the other side, I didn’t see the gazelle but then, I spotted approximately ten gazelles racing across the land, crossing the dirt road I had walked on earlier. Refocusing on my destination, I climbed the final hill and looked out at the rolling landscape, hoping to pinpoint the ancient synagogue ruins. I was unable, however, I was standing beside some old graves which, if they are all like the one with a discernible inscription, belong to Arabs.

Old Arab grave

Old Arab grave

Crossing a seasonal stream, reduced to oozy mud deceptively covered in grass, I shortly came upon a barbed wire fence. Undeterred, I overcame the fence and continued, now approaching huge swathes of wildflowers which painted the immediate landscape in yellow, white and purple. Here the walking got tougher, swishing through the flora which alternated between knee- and waist-deep.

Chrysanthemums underfoot

Calendulas underfoot

Pausing here and there to take pictures, the ruins then came to view. Built in the Talmudic Era sometime between 400 and 600CE, the Ein Nashut Synagogue is smaller but more beautiful from an architectural aspect than the other ancient synagogues of that time elsewhere in the Golan. The site was excavated in the 1980’s and an olive press was uncovered as well – the production of olive oil being the main industry for the Jewish villagers at the time. Although a fair amount of carved stones and pillars were left in their natural state in the ruins, the most ornate sections were transferred to the Golan Archaeological Museum which I would eventually go visit several days later.

Looking down at Ein Nashut Synagogue

Looking down at Ein Nashut Synagogue

After spending a few minutes in the ruins, I decided to go a little further, not wanting to miss anything. What I found was several tumuli or cairns of small stones piled up in a surprisingly stable manner. Perhaps over time the stones settle into one another. While walking from tumulus to tumulus I gazed at the soft green landscape across Nachal Meshushim towards the town of Qatsrin. At a small circle of rough rocks, I found a tortoise rustling through the undergrowth. Swinging back, I walked along the same small seasonal stream, heading for the barbed wire fence. Just as I reached the base, having been escorted by the chirping of birds, two chukars rose into the air with a heavy fluttering of wings. My adventure at Ein Nashut was over, but the upcoming Sunday led me to another site, the Golan Archaeological Museum in Qatsrin.

A ladybug larva on a garland chrysanthemum

A ladybug larva on a calendula flower

I was heading home and the driver who relieved me dropped me off at the centre of Qatsrin for me to catch the bus. However, I noticed the sign for the museum and figured I might as well visit the museum while I’m already in Qatsrin. And so I trudged over to the museum, bearing a heavy burden on my back – my 95L backpack. Inside, I received the excellent soldier discount and began to browse the displays of artefacts, items found all over the Golan. I was pleased to see quite a few remains brought over from the nearby Ein Nashut Synagogue – including arch stones, a part of the aron (or synagogue ark) and even a sarcophagus lid inscribed: “Shimon son of Abun 26 years old”.

Archstone from Ein Nashut Synagogue

Arch-stone from Ein Nashut Synagogue

One thing that really intrigued me was the skull, tusks and molars of an elephant found on the banks of the Jordan River at the B’not Ya’akov Bridge, a historically significant crossing site. Looking at the other animal remains, it would be interesting to see the Golan filled with lions, cheetahs, hippos and bears – some of which have only recently gone extinct in the area.

26 Tyrian shekels

26 Tyrian shekels

Browsing the rest of the displayed archaeological finds of the Golan, from ancient to more modern times, I headed into the museum’s little theatre to watch a video about the rise and fall of Gamla during the Roman era, a sad tale of valour and pride. Essentially the “Masada of the Golan”, Gamla was a heavily fortified Jewish town located on a strategic horn jutting out between two streams. During the Jewish revolts against the Roman tyranny, Gamla became a stronghold and was the subject of three Roman sieges led by Agrippa II, Vespasian and Titus. At last, with a act of Roman sabotage on a guard tower, the town slowly fell to the Roman forces. With the battle lost, some two-thousand Jewish men, women and children were slain in the ensuing carnage and some three-thousand plunged to their deaths in the surrounding ravines. With Gamla in ruins, the Romans then turned towards Jerusalem and then the final Jewish stronghold, Masada. Interestingly enough, Gamla fell in the year 67CE and was only recaptured by Jews in 1967, with the successes of the Six Day War. Just as the film ended, a tour group from Colorado filed in and I exited the building to see the gardens exhibitions, with many stone lintels, columns and other ornate building sections on display – several from Ein Nashut Synagogue.

Golan Archaeological Museum's garden exhibit

Golan Archaeological Museum’s garden exhibit

Finished with the museum, I stopped for a quick lunch before beginning the long journey back home.

Basalt Ruins of Nafakh

In Golan, Israel on April 1, 2015 at 4:15 AM

With my last post covering my spontaneous adventure to Juchader – from the khan to the tel to the spring pool – this post is about a planned exploration of the basalt ruins of Nafakh. Noticing the site on the map, and seeing the ruins from the road, I decided that this nearby site would make a great Friday afternoon trip. So, properly packed with gun, phone, camera and water, I set off to walk the kilometre and a half from Sa’ar, the base I was in. Nestled in a grove of eucalyptus trees near HaShiryon Junction on Road 91 in the centre of the Golan, the Nafakh ruins are the remains of a Syrian village built on the remains of a Roman era, and later a Byzantine era, village – a chronological layering of human settlement.

Nafakh's levels of ruins

Nafakh’s levels of ruins

With the spring wildflowers in full bloom, and the snowy peak of Mount Hermon partially visible, the walk was rather refreshing. Before long, I left the road and reached a makeshift gate with some ominous bones dangling from the fence post. I opened the gate and stepped into the thick grass, already seeing some house-like structures up ahead. Similar to the situation at Juchader, the grass was absolutely filled with silky caterpillar nests – and the caterpillars littered the grass. I reached the first house complex and entered the courtyard, heading straight for the dark first floor rooms.

Interior construction

Interior construction

Slightly fearful of encountering a foul beast in the darkness, I proceeded slowly, using my camera flash to illuminate my path. Relieved that the only trace of beast were the few scattered porcupine quills laying about, I left darkness’ cool embrace and headed up the steps to the clearly newer section of the house. With the local Arabs living in this village up until 1967, there are a few modern sections of concrete and metal, however it was the old hewn basalt blocks that interested me more.

Gecko

Gecko

Standing up on the second floor, I surveyed my immediate surroundings and mapped out a logical route. Feeling like a kid in a candy shop, I explored the ruins, house after house, enjoying the peace and solitude. Surveying from on high, swishing through the tall grass down below, I made my way through the western side of the village rather quickly.

Panoramic view of Nafakh

Panoramic view of just a part of Nafakh

Then, after exploring a single house at the northwest corner, I heard several loud crashing sounds in succession – the sounds of a large beast breaking dry sticks. Consumed with adventurous curiosity I crept forwards towards the brush from whence the noise originated, always mindful of my retreat path if said beast were to materialise in the shape of an angry boar. I wondered to myself about what it would like being chased and then treed by a foul pig with deadly tusks, and if I’d be able to shoot my way to safety before it was too late. Tenaciously advancing, past the point of a safe retreat, I circled the brush which partially concealed a walled courtyard, and, not seeing anything, climbed up onto a wall to look down at the brush. Nothing. Slowly my heart returned to its normal tempo and I begrudgingly returned to exploring, still unsure where the noisemaker disappeared to. Beginning a whole row of old houses connected one to the next, I came to another courtyard. Peering into a dark room, I noticed a shedded snakeskin draped against the rock wall.

Discarded snakeskin

Discarded snakeskin

With the feeling that this village exploration might not end before Shabbat were to start, I put a pep in my step and hurried on to the next set of houses, spending less time peering into dark windows. Hearing a strange sound, I spotted a rock hyrax running along a walltop. I pressed on heading east, reaching a structure that didn’t look quite residential. Beyond it, some three kilometres away, Mount Shipon – an extinct volcano – was visible, and below it, a more modern structure. It was then that I noticed the large basalt bunker in between the trees.

Mount Shipon

Mount Shipon

I made a beeline for the warlike building, wondering if I’d see any bats inside. I crossed Nachal Gilbon, a small stream, but found myself greeted with coils of rusty razor wire which impeded my process. I then thought back on what I had read earlier that week about a battle during the Yom Kippur War where a team from Sayeret Matkal, under the command of Yoni Netanyahu, were brought in to resist an air-dropped Syrian commando attack on the base Nafakh (just across the road). It was for this battle that Netanyhu received the Medal of Distinguished Service for his valiant efforts in protecting the Golan.

Posing among the ruins

Posing among the ruins

Walking along the razor wire I saw no gaps and decided to turn away and save the bunker for another visit. Heading back to the ruins I came upon a little pool and then more recent ruins of concrete. Making a full circle, and fairly certain that I had covered all, or at least most, of the ruined village, I took a few more pictures and began to head back, enjoying the sounds of songbirds flitting about. It was when I was just about to open the gate that I spotted this interesting display of insect bravado – who will be king of the flower?

King of the flower

King of the flower

Next up: Ein Nashut & the Golan Archaeological Museum.

Juchader

In Golan, Israel on March 23, 2015 at 6:01 AM

A few weeks ago I transferred from the Shomron to the Golan, where I plan to finish off my army service. One night, during that first week, I had a drive and saw a beech marten for the first time in my life, albeit briefly, as it dashed across the headlight-illuminated country road directly before me. The next day I drove some more and had the opportunity to visit a collection of curiosities known as Juchader (or Orcha, in Hebrew) along Road 98, not very far from the amazing megalithic site of Gilgal Refa’im.

Khan Juchader

Khan Juchader

Parking at the side of the lonely road just two kilometres from the first Israel-Syria border, I exited my Safaron and immediately spotted tawny creatures moving in the distance. Scrunching up my face in effort to see better, I verified to myself that I had spotted two mountain gazelles – I just love spotting unique wildlife! Leaving my parked Safaron behind, I began my explorations at the dirt road between the visible ruins of Khan Juchader and Tel Juchader. The name “Juchader” originates from a Mamluk honourific title for the “holder of the polo sticks”, presumably of the Sultan’s. Opening a makeshift gate, I walked alongside a narrow minefield (clearly marked and fenced off) until I reached the first of the khan’s structures, built of local basalt.

The khan's many rooms

The khan’s many rooms

A khan, also known as a caravanserai, is an inn for both humans and their beasts of burden. Some khans are large and impressive, such as the Khan El-Omdan in Akko‘s Old City with its large granite pillars, and others are a simple affair tending to the base needs of weary travelers, such as this khan. Built in the 1300’s during the Mamluk period, this particular khan was built along a historically important road, going back to the Roman era, connecting the cities of the Holy Land with Damascus and other important cities in Syria and further east. Today, the TAP Line (Trans-Arabian Pipeline) for the transferring of crude oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon runs just past Juchader. Built between the years 1947-1950, it was the longest pipeline in the world (1,214 kilometres or 754 miles long) at the time but today the section that runs through the Golan is no longer in use.

Tel Juchader

Tel Juchader

As I swished through the tall grass, inspecting the grey walls of basalt and pausing to photograph insects here and there, I kept leery of unsuspecting wild beasts in the grass or structures. With the warmth of spring upon us, snakes are also a bit of a worry – particularly as the Golan is the second most snake-populated regions in Israel. I admired the fine archwork, surprisingly intact, along the southern external wall of the rectangular complex and then rounded the corner. With the grass nearly waist-high and scattered with silky caterpillar nests, I cautiously stepped forward, being careful not to slip on hidden rocks underfoot. Approaching a particularly pleasing-looking arched room with a living roof, I caught a fleeting glance of a long reptilian shape slither into the cracks between the stones – a snake or perhaps a glass lizard.

Home of the reptile

Home of the reptile

Inspecting the wall I could find no trace and carried on, walking along the central courtyard of the khan. When I finished exploring the northern and eastern sides of the khan, both inside and out, I felt ready to press onwards. As I left the complex, shutting the makeshift gate behind me, I spotted the bleached pelvic bone and spine of a long-dead cow in the grass. Shortly afterwards, I came across this puddle teeming with tadpoles – I hope they finish developing before the puddle dries.

Tadpoles in a puddle

Tadpoles in a puddle

Crossing the road, I stood at the foot of Tel Juchader, a volcanic formation, and imagined the view from the watchtower looking out at Syria. On the tel are scattered remains of settlements from the usual periods of Holy Land history, most notably the Romans whose village was destroyed in the 300’s, either by earthquake or Jewish revolt. Bedouins built houses in the late 1800’s, using cut stones from the earlier ruins, but the village was abandoned after the Six Day War. During the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians conquered the area and the tel was recaptured by IDF tanks, but not without fatalities. I stopped at the memorial built for Yonatan Guberman, a reservist tank officer who fell in battle recapturing Tel Juchader. His memorial is one of many in the area, dedicated to both individuals and units who paid the ultimate price in the wars for freedom. Returning to the Safaron, we then drove to the Juchader Pool on the northern side of the tel. Hidden in a small grove of eucalyptus trees, the pool is a hotspot for hikers and soldiers alike.

Juchader Pool

Juchader Pool

Fed from an underground spring, the pool was recently reconstructed and improved from its previous capacity as a pool for Syrian army officers – dedicated in memory of Raziel Nagar, a teenager who was killed in 2005 by a dud artillery shell. The soldiers I was with eagerly ripped their clothing off and dove into the cold water. A minibus of religious high school girls, arriving just minutes after us, made for a socially humorous situation. I ended that day’s trip with a quick visit to the peak of Mount Avital, overlooking Mount Bental – but the Golan adventures were just beginning!

Paleomagnetism in the Golan

In Golan, Israel on August 17, 2014 at 4:33 AM

This blog post is about paleomagnetism found in a rock in the Golan, a natural phenomenon of reverse polar magnetism. The dictionary defines “paleomagnetism” as: magnetic polarisation acquired by the minerals in a rock at the time the rock was deposited or solidified. This site in the Golan, a rock on the side of the road between Wasset Junction and Mount Bental, holds an ancient alternate magnetic field and displays reverse magnetism – a compass will point south instead of north. So, when I was driving by back in April and saw Vulcanic Park Golan I just had to stop and check it out for myself.

Vulcanic Park Golan

Vulcanic Park Golan

Despite the fact that I had no compass with me, I got out of my truck and gathered up the ingredients to make a homemade compass. There is a scene in The Edge where Anthony Hopkins makes an impromptu compass and so the skill and know-how was passed on to me. I took a staple from some military documents and some water and walked over to the rock which is supposed to have the reverse magnetism.

Paleomagnetism

Paleomagnetism

Setting up shop, I found a leaf and a discarded plastic plate to hold the water in. Fighting against the consistent onslaught of wind, I placed the plate down and poured some water in, creating a pool to float the leaf on. I then took the staple, straightened it out and tried to give it a magnetic charge by rubbing it against my hair some 60 times (turns out, rubbing the metal against hair just gives it an electric charge). With the staple charged, I placed the leaf and the “needle” down in the pool of water. Unfortunately, the wind just whisked the leaf to the edge of the plate, ruining the chance of a proper polar-magnetic alignment for my weak compass.

First attempt

First attempt

Shielding the operation with my body, I tried again. And again. Eventually I realised that I could just float the “needle” on the water itself, the staple staying afloat due to surface tension. I tried that and got better results. However, despite the many attempts, I was never fully satisfied that the “needle” was, in fact, pointing south – like expected. I had read that sometimes the needle of the compass will spin crazily instead when placed over the paleomagnetic point. I don’t think that was achieved either. I tried different rocks, unsure which they intended me to use. Still, nothing scientifically solid.

Due north

Due north

Disheartened, I left the park and carried on with my mission that day. The following day I drove past the park with a soldier from Golani’s “Egoz” unit. I told him about the site and he got ahold of an actual compass. We intended to drive back but in the end did not, so I shelved the blog post idea. About a month later, I was up in the Golan and visited the site again – this time I had a compass packed in my backpack with me. I walked over to the rock and placed the compass down, eager to see the results.

Second attempt

Second attempt

I was disappointed. The compass pointed north, straight as an arrow. I tried the neighbouring rocks, I tried shaking the compass, I tried all sorts of things – nothing. It either pointed north or it didn’t point at all. So I turned to a blog post from MyIsraeliGuide.com that mentioned this paleomagnetic site and, in the comments, asked the blogger what his compass results were. He too could not confirm that the reverse magnetism works. And so, after two attempts to verify this natural phenomenon, I come up empty handed. I assume it has been verified by someone, or else they wouldn’t have built a park – perhaps one day I’ll try again and get favourable results.

Mount Hermon

Mount Hermon

With that I leave you with this above panoramic photo of Mount Hermon and the lower mountains that lay at the Israel-Lebanon border, as seen at the Vulcanic Park Golan.

Gamla

In Golan, Israel on April 30, 2014 at 4:00 AM

Following our hike to Gilgal Refa’im (sometimes referred to as “Stonehenge of the Levant”), we got back into the car and drove over to the Gamla Nature Reserve, just across the road. Passing dolmens along the access road, we parked and began the little loop which Gamla is most famous for: the Vulture Trail. But, on the way to see the vultures we passed by some ruins:

Deir Qeruh ruins

Deir Qeruh ruins

Walking along the trail, I noticed that there was more than just a wall to be seen – there was the ruins of Deir Qeruh, a Byzantine village. Something I hadn’t known before our trip, the name “Deir” signifies a Christian settlement (“deir” meaning monastery in Arabic), which carries over to today where we have villages such as Deir Hanna in the Galilee. I examined the ruins, photographed and then we continued on to the Vulture Lookout.

More Deir Qeruh ruins

More Deir Qeruh ruins

But before we reached the vultures there was the Gamla Lookout, with views of the ancient city ruins down below on the ridge. Gamla, the city, was built as a walled city dating from the times of Joshua, who led the Jewish People into the Holy Land. After capture the ruins were abandoned and then rebuilt during the Greek era. Due to the unique location of the city, being built on a ridge with only one entrance, it was named Gamla after “gamal” (camel in Hebrew), resembling the humped back, or so said Josephus. During the revolt against the Romans two thousand years ago the city was besieged by Herod Agrippa II who, subsequent to the failure of the siege, retreated.

The ridge of ancient Gamla

The ridge of ancient Gamla

As a follow-up, Roman Emperor Vespasian brought an army over from Judea and laid another siege. After a month they breached the walls of Gamla but were defeated in battle. Several days later, however, the Romans succeeded in conquering the city; killing the survivors and laying Gamla to waste. The city ruins were only discovered in 1968 and despite how interesting it looked, we decided against hiking down the steep mountain path to the ruins, and continued on to see the vultures.

Depiction of the Roman siege on Gamla

Depiction of the Roman siege on Gamla

Standing at the Vulture Lookout I watched an enormous Griffon vulture wheel overhead, and then two or three smaller Egyptian vultures on the far cliff face. The reason Gamla is known for its vultures is because the largest nesting colony of raptors is held on the rocky cliffs just north of the Gamla ridge. The Griffon vulture is truly a magnificent bird, with an enormous wingspan of up to 9 feet (2.8 metres) long. Although the population in Israel is quite low, just 25 pairs counted this year at Gamla so far, they are mentioned in the Bible some 28 times. I attempted to photograph both the Griffon and Egyptian vultures but my results weren’t too good so I turned to an expert, an ornithologist named Yoav Perlman who happens to take great bird photos; check out his birding blog here.

Griffon vultures at Gamla (photo: Yoav Perlman)

Griffon vultures at Gamla (photo: Yoav Perlman)

With the vulture sightings at a low, we looped back to the end of the Vulture Trail and plotted our next destination: the Gamla Waterfall.

Choosing our paths

Choosing our paths

Instead of hugging the cliff edge, as would seem most reasonable, we were taken on a longer path via a field – to protect the nesting raptors. At the start of this field walk we happened upon a fence which claimed to be electrified. I had a hard time believing they’d electrify a fence that didn’t seem to have any need. Touching it, I felt a friendly little zap – it’s always good to follow your instincts. After the electric fence, there was a large dolmen on the side of the trail. Dolmens are these weird rock tables, made up of one stone laid laterally upon two standing stones. Also known as portal graves, dolmens are assumed to be gravestones of sorts, however nobody really knows. What we do know is that they can be found all over the Old World; from Korea to Israel, from Somalia to France – they are truly all over.

A dolmen

A dolmen

Soon we were headed for the cliff edge and the sound of running water filled the air. Here we were standing on a little wooden bridge over the calm upper Gamla Stream before it continued over the cliff edge:

Standing above the Gamla Waterfall

Standing above the Gamla Waterfall

We reached the observation point and looked down at the waterfall. The Gamla Waterfall is the tallest waterfall in Israel, at the height of approximately 170 feet (51 metres).

The Gamla Waterfall

The Gamla Waterfall

It would have been nice to descend and to stand beneath the crushing water, but that is forbidden so we turned back the way we came. With a nice sunburn coming on we headed back to the car and headed home, but I still plan on revisiting Gamla to explore the ancient city ruins to write another blog post: Gamla II.

Gilgal Refa’im

In Golan, Israel on April 17, 2014 at 4:59 AM

This past Sunday my father and I took a little trip out to the Golan, to visit two sites side-by-side, one of them quite obscure and unknown. This post, the first half of our trip, is about a place called Gilgal Refa’im in Hebrew (or Rujm el-Hiri in Arabic). The literal translation of the site’s Hebrew name is “Wheel of Ghosts”, the word “refa’im” means “ghosts” in Hebrew. These circles of stones, sometimes referred to as the “Stonehenge of the Levant”, can be better appreciated via this aerial photo that I found on Flickr:

Gilgal Refa'im from above (photo IsraelTourism on Flickr)

Gilgal Refa’im from above (photo: IsraelTourism on Flickr)

An obscure site at least a kilometre away from any paved road, this ancient megalithic monument has been in our sights for years. The last time we searched for it was a few years back and we basically got lost out in the plains of the Golan. This time we planned in advance and, thanks to Google Maps, we knew exactly where to go. We left the house nice and early in the morning and reached the Golan in good time, climbing the elevation via the Bnot Yaakov Bridge, the main crossing point of the upper Jordan River throughout history. Driving on Road 808 south, we skipped the entrance to Gamla National Park (the second half of our trip) and pulled over at a little dirt road. We parked and began the hike to the Gilgal Refa’im, noting the most beautiful spring scenery.

A tree in the Golan

A tree in the Golan

The first thing we noticed while walking was the incredible amount of little rock walls scattered all over. Here is one example, with wildflowers mixed in:

Little stone wall

Little stone wall

After a little while walking on the dirt road, stopping over and over to film and take pictures, we came upon a “hidden” trench-like spot lined with stones and currently filled with water. We surmised that it must be a place to hide tanks, from when the Syrians were entrenched in the area. And, to further solidify this theory, there was an old Syrian bunker just a little ways further.

Possible tank trench

Possible tank trench

Beside this “tank trench” I spotted the most magnificent thistle flower, and on it was a bee and a weird bee-like beetle. The visibility of the pollen was amazing, feast your eyes!

Thistle and bee

Thistle and bee

And, as I mentioned before, there was the Syrian bunker, made up of basalt rocks encaged in wire fencing. We walked up the trail and entered the old bunker.

Old Syrian bunker

Old Syrian bunker

Inside, after descending the sunlit entrance tunnel, it was really dark and so I turned on my phone flashlight to illuminate the gloom. What happened next surprised me. There was a flurry of wings and a little bat flew at my face, and then did an about-turn and flew back into the gloom. Then, again it flew at me, and then turned back. It kept up this back-and-forth so I called for the camera and opened the flash hoping to get a good shot as he approached. It didn’t come out terrible well, but there is no mistaking that little bat flying at the camera (click to enlarge):

The horseshoe bat in the tunnel

The horseshoe bat in the tunnel

We followed the bat into the darkness, using only the phone flashlight to see. I felt like this was a scene from a grim fairytale where we were being led into the dark and foreboding cave, similar to a scene in one of my favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth, where Ofelia is led by a fairy into the labyrinth. Regardless, we followed the bat blindly through the old tunnels until we came to an exit and then it flew away. Researching Israeli bats I have decided that it was definitely a horseshoe bat, perhaps the Mediterranean specie. Here is a grainy shot of him hanging before disappearing:

Horseshoe bat at the bunker exit

Horseshoe bat at the bunker exit

Emerging from the bunker at the upper level, where the rooftop trenches and gun turrets are, I once again marveled at the sweeping beauty of the area:

View from the bunker

View from the bunker

Descending from the bunker roof we hit the dirt road again and began to see signs warning soldiers not to shoot at the antiquities. And then, a turnoff and we were approaching the site. Not so visible from eye-level, we crossed the Daliyot Stream and found ourselves, at last, at the outer circle of Gilgal Refa’im. I climbed up to get a shot of the alternating stone walls and wildflowers that ringed the central mound.

Circles of walls and flowers

Circles of walls and flowers

As we climbed the eight-foot high outer wall, and then the next wall, and the next, I noticed that the rocks were particularly ornamented by lichen, a great amount.

Interesting lichen

Interesting lichen

At last we reached the fifteen-foot high central mound and noticed a pit in the stone pile, but we kept walking around the top, taking pictures of the cool circles which ringed us. According to an Oxford archaeological guide, there are 42,000 stones that make up the entire site. My father suddenly had the idea to step into the pit, and when he did so exclaimed that there was a cave down there.

Looking down into the cave entrance

Looking down into the cave entrance

I followed him, scooting through the narrow passage, and we made ourselves comfortable in the little cave.

Within the little cave

Within the little cave

Whilst enjoying the coolness of this little cave, I figured I should probably look for more info on the site and I found this: Gilgal Refa’im is believed to be either a tomb, a stellar calender, a ritual centre, an observatory or several other theorised places perhaps even created by biblical giants. Basically, nobody knows what this site is for and that definitely adds to the intrigue of the place. If there was one thing I could see in history, if very well might be watching the biblical giants in the Golan – the terrain is just perfect to see giants thundering down the plains. At last we left the comfort of the mysterious little cave and climbed back over the numerous stone rings, heading back to our car.

A cow at the Daliyot Stream

A cow at the Daliyot Stream

Next site, Gamla!

Capernaum & Mount Arbel

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on November 24, 2013 at 4:29 AM

Over a week and a half ago I got a day off and decided to take a little excursion, one I had planned (but failed to execute) for my birthday a little while back. The idea was to circle the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and to stop wherever looked interesting. My sister and a friend joined me, and off we went on the adventure. We were off to a rocky start, unaccustomed to driving a manual and stalling a few times, but before we knew it we were at Capernaum, at the northern end of the Kinneret.

Ancient synagogue at Capernaum

Ancient synagogue at Capernaum

We parked and made our way through the throngs of people, mostly foreign pilgrims with a handful of priests and clergymen. Paying the nominal entrance fee we set out to explore what Capernaum is all about. As we’re not terribly interested in the Christian sites, we breezed through, taking a gander at the ruins of the Octagonal Church, the old Roman town built of basalt and at last, the ancient synagogue as seen above. Built from large white stone blocks, the synagogue dates back to the 4th or 5th century, believed to have been built upon the ruins of an older church – one believed to have been involved in the dawning of Christianity. Here is a stone pillar with a memorial dedication written in Greek (note how the spelled “internet” wrong towards the bottom):

Greek engraved into a pillar

Greek engraved into a pillar

Continuing on to the neighbouring sites, we watched a boatload of pilgrims set sail, figuratively, for a nice boat ride on the Kinneret. I’ve often wondered where to get a Kinneret boat ride, although I believe the general non-pilgrim rides originate somewhere in Teverya (Tiberias).

Pilgrims on a boat

Pilgrims on a boat

Between the little pier and the Capernaum site we found a eye-catching church, one that is quite visible from the road. Due to the overcast, the vibrancy isn’t quite what it is in person but here is the Church of the Seven Apostles, where we peered into the doorway and then headed back to the car.

Church of the Seven Apostles

Church of the Seven Apostles

With several false leads, and not wanting to spend too long in one particular place to keep good pace, we found ourselves on a straight stretch – the eastern bank of the Kinneret, in the Golan. With the clouds clearing up on the east, the soft mountains/hills on the left side of the road were quite the picture and so I did just so, capturing them for you today:

Rolling yellow mountains of the Golan

Rolling yellow mountains of the Golan

Then we spotted an outlook and pulled into the gravel for a look-around. We stood up on the edge of the hill, a marked minefield just before us, and photographed ourselves and the view. The dismal weather didn’t afford us any great views of the opposite bank, this is the best there was to offer:

The Kinneret from a Golan outlook

The Kinneret from a Golan outlook

Coming back around the bend, at the southern end of the Kinneret, we pulled into the shopping centre at Tzemach Junction and got schnitzel sandwiches. Sated and ready for more adventure, we got back into the car and passed Kibbutz Degania and then Yardenit. Entering Teverya I once again found myself getting lost, although last time with a laden truck was far more inconvenient. Activating the ever-handy Waze app, we directed ourselves through the congested and complicated city and onto Road 7717 heading for Mount Arbel.

Sharp edge of Mount Arbel and the Kinneret down below

Sharp edge of Mount Arbel and the Kinneret down below

Driving up the mountains on the western side of the Kinneret I was surprised to suddenly see a sign that read “Sea Level” – it’s weird to think of the Kinneret so low in the grand scheme of things. As we looped up to Mount Arbel this is what greeted us, Mount Nitai on the left and Mount Arbel on the right.

Mount Nitai on the left and Mount Arbel on the right

Mount Nitai on the left and Mount Arbel on the right

We reached Mount Arbel and then I noticed it was a national reserve, and that they had closed at 3:00 PM, a mere half hour earlier. Ditching the car at the gate, we valiantly strode in and were stopped by a park worker. He uttered words like “no”, “closed”, “tomorrow” but we would hear none of it. We complained that we were Americans and that we couldn’t just come back at the whim of it, that we drove up the mountain to see the view from the peak. More words of negativity but at last, when we were about to give up, he made a compromise. He would allow us five (5) minutes at this lower observation point and then we had to skedaddle. We thanked him, big smiles beaming at him, and hustled off to the observation point. Craggy rocks loomed up out of nowhere and the cliff edge appeared.

The adjacent Mount Nitai

The adjacent Mount Nitai

I climbed up on some big precipices and had my sister take my photo. Here is one of them, of which I am rather pleased with:

Standing tall

Standing tall

According to Wikipedia the drop from Mount Arbel’s peak is approximately 400 metres (1,300 feet) but that doesn’t seem completely accurate. It also states that the sheer rock drops down 110 metres (360 feet). Regardless, it’s a great drop and is the only place in Israel where thrill-seekers do base jumping. However impressed we were with the view, when we returned to the park worker he told us that it was nothing compared to the real Mount Arbel observation point. That just means that I have to go back one day… But the day was not done yet. On the way back down we pulled into a tiny parking lot and walked a few hundred feet to the ruins of the ancient Arbel synagogue. Columns and square building stones still remain but the general structure has been knocked down.

Ancient synagogue at Arbel

Ancient synagogue at Arbel

We spent a few minutes at the synagogue, basking in the waning sun’s golden rays, and then headed back home. Just a few sites checked off from circling the Kinneret this time around, but yet so many remain and as such, so many more adventures await.