Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Galilee - Part II

Day 2 of our trip to the Galilee started with a hike in Park HaYarden, or the Jordan Park. The park extends over an area of around 1,000 dunam (approx 250 acres) to the northeast of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), adjacent to the eastern channel of the Jordan River. There are several walking trails to follow within the park that pass by water sources, ancient mill sites, aqueducts, pools and sites of archaeological interest. Huge trees, flowing streams, warm springs even in the winter, kayaking and fishing areas are all a part of this nature reserve. We took the boys kayaking here back in 2011. This time my friend and I wanted to hike and, hot as it was, we had a good time.
We decided to follow the Aqueduct Route - a walk along the Jordan River among the remains of ancient watermills. Though the leaflet that we picked up at the entrance of the park warned us that this route is not suitable for midday walks in the summer, we decided to take a chance and try it anyway. The hike was easy enough and the views lovely, though the paths clearly hadn't been cleared yet after the winter rains and it was sometimes hard to get through.
The route was a circular one, beginning and ending at the site of a watermill. In the past, at least a dozen flour mills were in operation in the area that is now the park, driven by the abundant waters of the Jordan River that flowed to the mills along four plastered channels. One of these channels has been restored, and it carries water for a distance of 600 metres to two reconstructed flour mills near the main parking area. Both are chute mills, in which the water flows down a diagonal chute to the lower floor of the structure, where it turns a large paddled waterwheel attached to an axis that rotates the upper millstone on the floor above, grinding the wheat grains into flour.
Down by the river we gave up following the blue Aqueduct Route and switched over to the yellow Eden Route which was clearer. Here, rather than climbing, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll along the banks of the Jordan River in the shade of willow trees and through natural tunnels created by the tall reeds.
Our next stop was at Tell Bethsaida (et-Tel), in the southeastern section of the park. Bethsaida ("house of the hunt" in Hebrew) was a small fishing village that sat on a hillside on the northeastern end of the Sea of Galilee. In the First Temple period Bethsaida was a fortified city know as Tzar, capital of the Kingdom of Geshur. Geshur maintained close relations with King David, who married Maachah, daughter of Talmai, King of Geshur, who gave birth to King David’s son Absalom.
In the New Testament Bethsaida was a place of miracles. Jesus cured a blind man there, turned a few loaves and fishes into food for 5,000, and walked on water. It was also the birthplace of three of Jesus's apostles - Peter, Andrew and Philip. 
In the early stages of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans the town was destroyed in a local battle in which the Jewish troops were led by the historian Josephus Flavius (born Yosef Ben Matityahu). Its ruins were uncovered by the American Biblical scholar Edward Robinson in the mid-19th century.
Today the ruins at Bethsaida include a palace, a massive gate to protect a fortified city, and paved roadways and homes. Recent excavations revealed two large Hellenistic-Roman houses that had fishing paraphernalia and several Roman silver and gold coins inside. The other house had its own surprise, with a wine cellar and four intact Hellenistic jars, a gold earring, vineyard pruning tools, and more fishing items.
My friend's cousin, with whom we were staying, was keen to show us Magdala, an ancient city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he had been involved in excavations. The excavations conducted in 2006 found that the settlement began during the Hellenistic period (between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE) and ended during the late Roman period (3rd century CE). Later excavations in 2009-2013 brought perhaps the most important discovery at the site: an ancient synagogue, called the "Migdal Synagogue", dating from the Second Temple period (50 BCE-100 CE). It is the oldest synagogue found in the Galilee, and one of the only synagogues from that period found in the entire country. The walls of the 120-square-metre synagogue hall were decorated with brightly coloured frescoes and the floors mosaic. Archaeologists also found the Magdala stone, believed to be the centrepiece of a low bimah (where the reader would have knelt to read from the Torah scroll) which has a seven branched menorah carved on it. It is the earliest menorah of that period to be discovered outside of Jerusalem.
Excavations have continued apace, uncovering residential areas, a marketplace and mikvaot. Though the site is managed by the Catholic Church, visitors are able to explore what a Jewish village in Israel would have looked like 2,000 years ago. Rather disconcertingly, a complex of six chapels has been built on the recently excavated flagstone floor of the first-century marketplace, and the ruins of ancient Jewish Migdal have been marked with religious signs informing the visitor of the significance of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Church. On the other hand, Magdala is believed to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, or "Mary from Magdala". 
Until the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, a small Arab village, al-Majdal, stood at the site of ancient Magdala, while nowadays the modern Israeli municipality of Migdal extends to the area.
At this point my friend and I were exhausted! We drove into Tiberias for a quick falafel and walk along the waterfront. Tiberias is a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, named in honour of the second emperor of the Roman Empire, Tiberius. Its Old City holds important Jewish and Christian pilgrimage sites including the Tomb of Maimonides and Abulafia (Etz Chaim) Synagogue. The restaurant-lined waterfront was a pleasant place to walk after a busy day.
The next day it was time to head for home, though there was time for just one more stop. The small, tranquil town of Zichron Ya'akov, located on Mount Carmel, was founded in 1882 by 100 Jewish pioneers from Romania. They named it Tzammarin. The rocky soil of Mount Carmel proved very difficult to farm, and combined with an outbreak of malaria, many of the original pioneers left within a year. However, the following year, the French Jewish philanthropist and winemaker Baron Edmond James de Rothschild visited Zichron Ya'akov and he discovered that the slopes of the Carmel offered superb wine-growing properties. He set about establishing the town as a winemaking town and named it in memory of his father Jacob (Ya’akov in Hebrew; Zichron means Memorial).
Today, the town's main shopping street is lined with cafes and galleries, sitting alongside historic buildings. It is also famous for the Carmel Winery, one of Israel's top vineyards, which I visited back in 2010.
Zichron Ya'akov was also home to the NILI espionage group that supplied intelligence to British military leaders hoping to overtake Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. The Aaronson House, the former private home of the Aaronson family whose family members were involved in the group, is now a museum about the NILI spy ring. I plan to go back there for a visit one day.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Galilee - Part I

The Hula Lake is one of my favourite spots in Israel. Fortunately it is also my friend Mandy's favourite too, so when she came to Israel recently I had no problem driving north to Israel's Upper Galilee region for another visit. We first visited the lake in 2010, then went back again in 2013 and to the nature reserve in 2015. It was time to go again anyway, though May is rather warm and not the best time for biking!
The Hula Lake, known in Hebrew as Agamon HaHula, is located in the southern part of the Hula Valley. It was established as part of a Jewish National Fund (JNF) rehabilitation project. The lake existed until the 1950s but between 1951 and 1958 draining operations were carried out by the JNF in the belief that the country could gain additional arable land and at the same time the breeding ground of the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito would be destroyed. In the early 1990s part of the valley was flooded again in the wake of heavy rains and it was decided to develop the surrounding area and leave the flooded area intact. The new site, Agamon HaHula (literally "Little Hula Lake"), has become the second home for thousands of migrating birds in the autumn and spring.
At the entrance to the reserve we hired bicycles and set off on the 9 kilometres route around the park. We actually missed a turn and rode in the opposite direction than what was suggested but, no matter, there were so few people around on this hot day that it made no difference at all. We rode along the waterside and through the fruit groves, stopping at length at the bird hide, above, where colourful European bee-eaters were pointed out to us, and then at the large deck on the edge of the lake. Two silent pelicans floated side by side. We later learnt that they are injured and rest there until they can heal and continue their journey.
My friend, though a keen cyclist, was happy to ride along at my slower pace. We stopped to photograph the gorgeous White-throated Kingfisher, the occasional coypu and other wildlife. There were certainly less birds to be seen than during the months of migration - apparently over 500 million birds pass through Hula Valley each year on their flights between Europe and Africa - but it was still a wonderful experience getting close to nature and watching the birds fly by.
Once we had got our breath back, our next stop was at Rosh Pina, a gorgeous nearby town where Mister Handmade in Israel and I stayed back in 2015. Rosh Pina, which means 'cornerstone', was founded in 1882 by thirty families who immigrated from Romania, making it one of the oldest Zionist settlements in Israel. The same location had previously been settled by a group of young religious people from Safed, the neighbouring city, who bought land from the Arab natives in 1878 with the intention of starting an agricultural village. They called it Gei Oni ("Valley of My Strength"), but after three years of hardships and hunger most of them left, leaving it almost fully abandoned.
Our first stop in Rosh Pina was at Nimrod Lookout, a magnificent observation point which is part of the memorial site to Nimrod Segev, who was born in Rosh Pina in 1977 and fell in 2006 in the Second Lebanon War while on reserve duty. The beautiful views seen from the high Nimrod Lookout are the sights viewed by Nimrod throughout his life: the Hula Valley, the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon, Israel’s tallest peak at 2,236 meters (7,336 feet), and the slopes of Mount Caanan on which the lookout is built.
We strolled into the centre of the original neighbourhood, unfortunately finding that most things were closed by the time we got there, though we were still able to appreciate the beautiful buildings and scenery. We looked through the windows of the small synagogue, Rosh Pina's first public building, and then at the various historical houses including the historical home of Gideon Mer. Professor Mer was given a property by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to research for a solution to the malaria problem that plagued the inhabitants around the swampy Hula Valley. The Professor was eventually transferred to Burma during the Second World War and served as the chief physician to the British forces in Burma who also suffered from malaria. Today his residence is a national heritage site with his private office preserved for all to see. Next to the Mer House is another historical building with a multi-screen theatre that shows a film of Rosh Pina's history, though it too was closed at the time we visited.
We walked back to the car through the Baron's Park, a small wooded area with stone steps reportedly modelled on the grand gardens at Versailles. There are two shopping malls at the entrance to Rosh Pina - one is full of the standard commercial stores found in Israel, the other is more of an upscale boutique mall - but we were done for the day! It was time for a rest before the next day's activities.