Sunday, 27 September 2015

Golan - Part III

If you only have time to visit one national park in the northern part of Israel, make it Tel Dan! Entering the Tel Dan Reserve really is like stepping into a wonderland. Streams flow everywhere into a wild river and tall trees provide welcome shade even on the hottest summer afternoon.
Of the three sources of the Jordan River, the Dan River is the largest and most important. It is fed by the snow and rain which fall on Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel. The water seeps into the mountain, branching off into hundreds of springs by the time it reaches the foot. Together these form the largest karstic spring in the Middle East, with an annual flow rate of 240 million cubic metres of water.
The Tel Dan Reserve is only 481 dunams (about 120 acres), yet it features four vastly different trails, one of which is partially wheelchair-accessible. We chose to follow the "Long trail" which passes along tranquil streams, the river, and through several shady areas. Trees growing along the trail include laurel, Italian buckthorn and Syrian ash. The ash, thanks to the good conditions at Tel Dan, grows as tall as 20 metres.
We passed through a beautiful part of the reserve, aptly named "The Paradise", and visited a water-powered flour mill which worked for 100 years, till 1948. We then rested under a huge, ancient pistachio tree with views to the Israel-Lebanon border, the Hula Valley, the Naphtali Mountains, Mount Hermon, and the Golan Heights.
Tel Dan had many cool and shady woods to explore, but the real treat was the sound of running water throughout. Towards the end of the trail we found the freezing cold wading pool, which was an absolute delight. We dipped our tired feet into the cool waters. It was the perfect way to end our visit.
Tel Dan is a both a wonderland for hikers and a biblical archaeological site. It is named for the Biblical Tribe of Dan, one of the original Twelve Tribes of Israel. The site was originally the Biblical city of Laish, which was captured by the tribe of Dan during the period of the Judges. A trail from the water-powered flour mill leads to the remnants of the city of Laish, though we did not go there on the day we visited. It was very hot, so we preferred to stay near water. Some fascinating finds can apparently be seen in this area including the "High Place", a ritual site attributed to the time of King Jeroboam, and a reconstructed Israelite-period city gate. According to Biblical tradition, judges sat in the gates of the city and legal cases were presented in gates just like this one. Another attraction is the archway of a Canaanite gate, perhaps the earliest constructed intact arch ever discovered in the world at almost 4000 years old! It is popularly known as Abraham's gate because, according to the Biblical account, Abraham journeyed to Dan to rescue his nephew Lot.
Arguably the most sensational find at Tel Dan, however, was the discovery of parts of a basalt stone stele making up part of a triumphal inscription in Aramaic, left most probably by Hazael of Aram-Damascus, an important regional figure in the late 9th century BCE. Hazael (or more accurately, the unnamed king) boasts of his victories over the king of Israel and his ally the king of the "House of David", the first time the name David had been found outside of the Bible. It is one of only four known ancient inscriptions interpreted to mention the term "Israel" and is currently on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Tel Dan also has recent military history. You can walk in a section of trench used by the Israel Defence Forces (I.D.F.) until the Six Day War in 1967, and see where battles were fought and Syrian villages used to be. It would be quite easy to spend an entire day at Tel Dan and clearly I need to go back, especially to visit Ancient Dan.
The Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee, is Israel’s largest fresh water reservoir, and is also the country’s largest and most important source of drinking water. Over the years the Kinneret's water level has become the "index" for the national mood. Israel's residents follow the level changes and take an interest in the Kinneret’s ability to continue to provide water throughout Israel. For this, and other reasons, the Kinneret has become an important national symbol, and also a major centre for tourism. The beaches offer various types of water sports and water activities for every age group. On the last day of our recent holiday, my kids chose to have a go at tubing.
They rode out to the centre of the Kinneret on a motorboat, then climbed on to a tube which was tethered to the boat. They were then towed through the water at high speed, occasionally falling in when the boat turned a corner. Afterwards they took a dip at the water's edge, fish tickling their toes as they swam.
The boys declared it great fun!
Heading home, we stopped at Belvoir National Park, or Kokhav HaYarden in Hebrew, below. Located 500 metres above the Jordan Valley on an isolated hill top, it overlooks the winding Jordan River and faces the hills of Gilead in the Kingdom of Jordan. The centrepiece of this national park is its magnificently preserved twelfth century Crusader fortress. The park's spectacular panorama gave the fortress its name – belvoir means "beautiful view". Its Hebrew name, "Star of the Jordan", preserves the name of Kochava, a Jewish village which existed nearby during the Roman and Byzantine periods.
The Crusaders built the fortress in around 1140 during the reign of Fulk d’Anjou. In 1168 the Hospitaller Knights bought the land and made it into one of the most important fortresses in the country. About 50 knights and 450 soldiers lived in Belvoir, along with their families and staff.
The fortress was attacked by Muslim forces in 1180, but its strong fortifications withstood the attack. Belvoir served as a major obstacle to the Muslim goal of invading the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem from the east and much time and effort was required by the Muslim forces, headed by Saladin, the Muslim military and political leader, to capture it. Only in 1189, after a year-and-a-half-long siege, and once the entire Crusader Kingdom had fallen, did Belvoir's residents agree to surrender and the fortress came under Muslim control. In 1220 the ruler of Damascus sent his men to destroy Belvoir to prevent its re-annexation by the Crusaders.
In modern times Belvoir became an Arab village, Kawkab al-Hawa, whose inhabitants fled during the 1948 War of Independence. Between 1963 and 1968 the site was cleared by the Israel Department of Antiquities and the National Parks Authority.
The reconstructed fortress is the most complete Crusader fortress in the country and the only one all of whose parts have been excavated. Belvoir consisted of an outer square fortress which enclosed a smaller, inner square fortress. Our walk through the ruins revealed halls, cisterns, towers, courtyards, and a 14-metre-deep moat surrounding the outer fortress. Sculptures by the Israeli artist Yigael Tumarkin, inspired by the fortress, are on display south of Belvoir.
Though we visited on an extremely hot day, and the foundations of the fortress are all that's left, Belvoir is still very impressive. The view itself, of the Jordan River Valley, the Kinneret, the Golan, and the Kingdom of Jordan, made the trip there so worthwhile.

Monday, 21 September 2015

A sewing machine and a red pickup truck

My customer needed a card for her Ma's birthday. She picked out this card from my blog but asked me to change "Mom" to "Ma", since that's what they use in South Africa. "Savta" is the Hebrew word for Grandmother.
"Ma" is a therapist. Her daughter says that she has helped and touched many people's lives, and that her profession is integral to who she is. She described her sitting in a chair when she does therapy and asked me if I could possibly illustrate her redheaded Ma that way.
Ma also enjoys playing Bridge, and is a huge reader. A sewing machine, or anything showing sewing/dress design, was also requested, as were ballet shoes, cricket, and a sign saying Krugersdorp (which I now know is a mining city in South Africa). There was a LOT to fit on the card!
"Oh Lisa! You've done a fantastic job!" my customer wrote when she saw the card. "[You've] captured her so well! Thank you!"
Brendan, below, was turning 50. The same customer sent me another long list of things that he likes or are meaningful to him. This included the U.S. Army Reserve, the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, peanut butter and jelly, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, oh, and a red pickup truck! My customer also wanted me to create a picture of a hare on top of a pie (um, a private joke), add something to do with him being a dad, and the fact that he works in IT. Finally, she told me, Brendan is a very picky eater, but she wasn't sure how to illustrate that. I suggested a red warning sign with some fruit and vegetables behind it.
I am not going to lie. These cards took me a looooong time to create! However, the feedback I received from my customer on my Facebook business page made it all worthwhile.
"Thank you so much for making the most wonderful birthday cards for my mom and boyfriend! They are absolutely wonderful and totally captures their likeness (no clue how you do that!) and lives so well. Thank you so much! Your work is fantastic!!!"

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Golan - Part II

For the duration of our stay in the Golan Heights we stayed in the lovely cabins at Kibbutz Afik, situated in the southern Golan. Kibbutz Afik is located near the site of Fiq, which originated in Roman times as a Jewish village and later became a Syrian army base and village until the Six Day War. Fiq (Pik) is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, in the Book of Kings, and this biblical city is thought to be located close to modern-day Afik. We soon learned that there is a circular trail, starting from the Kibbutz viewpoint, which leads to the abandoned village and, though it was hot, we decided to check it out.
Ein Pik is a family-friendly, two-kilometre route that passes fig tree thicket on either side of a stream, wild blackberry bushes, olive trees, prickly pears, pomegranate trees and more. There were a number of gorgeous viewpoints throughout the trail and we enjoyed beautiful views of the south-eastern end of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the settlements of the Southern Golan Heights. After a short climb we found the Ein Pik Spring, which emanates from within a small cave in the basalt crag. A group of young kids and their parents were already picnicking in the area, so we decided to simply keep walking. The trail finished at the ruins of Kfar Pik, below.
The Hermon Stream Nature Reserve, more commonly known by its Arabic name the Banias, is one of the most beautiful spots in Israel with its waterfalls, springs and streams. There are two entrances to the reserve, one to reach the hanging trail and the Banias waterfall, and another to the Banias Springs. This summer we visited the 33-foot high waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Israel. You need a second car to do the hike across to the other part of the park, Banias Springs, which we didn't have. Just another reason to go back to the Golan Heights for another holiday!
Banias was originally named "Paneas" after the Greek god Pan. Since there is no "p" sound in Arabic, and the region was long under Syrian rule, the village that grew up around the spring came to be called Banias, and Dan to the ancient Jews. The first park encompasses the Banias Spring and ruins from the Roman period, when the village was called Caesarea-Philippi after King Herod’s son Philip, who inherited the area and made it his capital. The palace of Agrippa the Second, grandson of Herod, is among the relics. The Cave of Pan, courtyards, and niches for rituals dedicated to the worship of Pan, dating to the beginning of the Common Era, can also be found there. The Banias Spring, which emerges from the base of Mount Hermon, Israel’s tallest peak, leads to the 33-foot high waterfall, the most impressive cascade in Israel. Nine kilometres from its source, the Hermon Stream meets the Dan River and together they feed the Jordan River.
We decided to hike the hanging trail, a bridge spanning 260 feet, built to give the appearance of being suspended in mid-air above the Hermon Stream rushing 7-10 feet below. We followed the trail upstream, against the flow, which took us to the Banias waterfall. At times we were tempted to stick our feet into the cool waters. However, access to the Hermon Stream has been strictly forbidden since the early 1990's, in order to preserve the delicate ecology. The trail was beautiful. The dense foliage along the riverbanks includes plane trees, poplars and willows, and almost gives the impression of a rainforest environment. In the waters of the stream one can see varieties of fish including barbel, hillstream loach, and tilapia. There are also snails: freshwater gastropod and crescent shaped mollusks. The loud crashing waterfall at the end is stunning, although not really that big by international standards. The nicest feature was that it sprayed cool mist into the air, making the area around the waterfall seem cooler than the rest of the area. It was a very hot day when we visited, so the cool, misty air was a welcome change.
At Mitspe Golani, also known Tel Facher, below, we learnt about one of the fiercest battles of Israel's history. For almost 20 years, Syrian guns on Tel Facher dominated and terrorized the entire region. Upon the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel jumped at the chance to seize this important fortification and end the Syrian stranglehold over Israeli citizens. Over the course of a five hour battle, every single Israeli soldier but one was either killed or wounded, but by the end of the day, the base was in Israeli hands.
Today, the site is known as Mitspe Golani or Golani Lookout, renamed for the Israeli Defence Force’s infantry brigade whose soldiers fought and died for this base. An impressive memorial has been built to honour the memories of the Golani soldiers who fell here. A low memorial wall lists the names of the fallen soldiers.
We were able to wander around the well-marked Syrian trench system and walk through the narrow, well-fortified bunkers. With the exception of adding the memorial, the military features of the site have not been reconstructed since the moment of capture in 1967. Since the base is located so high in the Golan, we also once again enjoyed magnificent views of the region and of the Hula Valley below. But the most memorable part of our visit? Upon arrival we met a gentleman who told us that he had been a soldier in the battle at Tel Facher. He told us of his experiences in the battle, and in Israel's resulting wars. He told us about his children and the wars that they have experienced. He was proud, sad, and obviously emotionally attached to Mitspe Golani, which he has visited five times this year alone. It was an honour to meet him.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Golan - Part I

This summer we holidayed in the Golan Heights, Israel’s mountainous northern region. We've been there several times before, but it's such a beautiful area full of nature reserves, historic and archaeological sites, and attractions for the whole family, that we were all very happy to return. The beauty of the Golan is so captivating that I took, ahem, many photos. I'm going to break my posts up and show you a few of the wonderful places we visited each time.
The Hexagon Pool, Breichat HaMeshushim, is a natural pool in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve, located in the central Golan Heights. The pool, at the bottom of a canyon, is named after the shape of the basalt pillars that make up its walls. This geological formation, which actually looks as if a modern sculptor has carved them, was created by the slow cooling of layers of lava flows over a long period of time. When the lava solidified and cooled, it was split into polygonal shapes due to its contraction.
The 30 minute downhill walk to the pool was wonderful, though coming back up was of course less fun! Going down the cliff on the marked trail, we could hear the roar of the water before we saw it. We reached a wooden bridge from which we could see water frothing through the narrow canyon below. The bridge leads to the Yehudiya Forest and the Zavitan Stream along a trail recommended for experienced hikers only, and only in the morning. Instead we continued a few more metres to the Hexagon Pool.
The pool is fed by cold mountain rivers rushing down from Mount Hermon and was icy cold! Swimming in it was truly a unique experience. The water was not clear, but I'm told that it's perfectly clean, and small fish accompanied me in the water. The landscape of hexagonal columns was superb!
After the hike back up, I took a short walk to see a prehistoric dolmen (a large burial monument built by the ancient residents of the Golan), close to the entrance of the reserve. The small structure consists of a large, rough basalt boulder placed like a giant tabletop over smaller stones. The name dolmen comes from the ancient Breton language; dol means "table" and men means "stone." There are hundreds of them scattered across the northern and central Golan, though I still find them intriguing enough to search out, even after an exhausting climb!
The Tel Saki outpost, with its trenches and bunkers, rusting machine guns and an old Centurion tank, is located in the Southern Golan Heights near the Syrian-Israeli border, below. It was the site of one of the most critical battles of the Yom Kippur War. Attacked by 11,000 Syrian infantry soldiers, 900 tanks and countless armoured vehicles, 60 paratroopers and 45 tanks held off the Syrian army with determination and immense bravery for three days.
A small core of soldiers was in the trenches at the top of Tel Saki when the battle began. In a short time they began to run low on ammunition. Two unsuccessful attempts to rescue the soldiers or reinforce the unit were attempted, and more lives were lost. A third rescue attempt was finally successful, and the Syrians begin to retreat.
35 soldiers lost their lives in this battle, three were taken as prisoners of war, and almost everyone else was injured. A memorial at Tel Saki honours them.
The absolute highlight of our trip was when we got to explore the Golan Heights on an ATV buggy! Starting at Kibbutz Merom Golan, where we met our guide, we sped off, with Mister Handmade in Israel in the driver's seat, to explore Israel’s most remote and beautiful region.
We drove off-road through the kibbutz fields, enjoying amazing views of Israel’s tallest peak, Mount Hermon, and Mount Bental and Mount Avital. We passed mountains, forests and fruit groves, where our guide picked juicy plums straight from the tree. We sped along tank roads, and drove through abandoned Syrian buildings, before arriving at a derelict Syrian army building in the U.N. controlled zone on the Israel side of the Israel Syrian border. There we got out of our little 4-seater vehicle and climbed the rickety stairs to the roof of the building, where our guide told us all about the history and politics of the Golan, from the past to today. Standing on the roof looking into Syria was an eye-opening experience. We were riveted by our guide's stories, and all of us learned a great deal about the Golan, the spy Eli Cohen, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Six-Day War.
Driving back we passed an ancient cemetery surrounded by 600 year old oak trees, before ascending back to 3000 feet, to Kibbutz Merom Golan, through more of the regions muddy tracks. The ride had been extremely fun and occasionally intense. We laughed. I screamed. We had all been educated. It was an experience not to be missed!
As soon as the tour was over, my teenager and pre-teen asked if we could do it all again. What more can I say?
Afterwards we made a return visit to Mount Bental, which is maintained by Kibbutz Merom Golan, the first Kibbutz to be established in the area following the 1967 Six-Day War. Atop the mount is a now disused Israeli army outpost, complete with bunkers, but the main draw for visiting this mountain is the breathtaking views. To the north is Lebanon and Mount Hermon, and to the south, Har Avital, nicknamed "Spy Mountain" because it allegedly houses a high-tech surveillance centre. We were able to see the exact building we had just explored in the UN controlled zone, and behind that the ruins of the town of Kuneitra, Syria’s main Golan town which was lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syria briefly recaptured Kuneitra in the course of the fierce fighting that took place in the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ultimately, however, the Israelis were the victors and retained possession of the town. Under U.S. pressure, Israel agreed in 1974 to accept a demilitarized zone, monitored by the United Nations, between the disputed borders of Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. The official name for this demilitarized zone is the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone. This agreement required Israel to withdraw from Kuneitra.
It was time for an ice cream break, and time for us to clean ourselves up from the dust we were covered in after our off-road, high-speed experience.
More posts will follow about our incredible time in the Golan Heights.