From Galilee to the Golan

Trip Start Jul 06, 2010
Trip End Jul 24, 2010

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Flag of Israel  , Galilee,
Thursday, July 15, 2010

He was about 5 foot 7, stout with a full white beard and a yamaka , and he toted his automatic rifle slung across his back as casually and confidently as I carry my daypack while out for a day of walk planning.

We pulled into Kibbutz Lavi yesterday morning to rendezvous with Ran, our guide for the next couple of days. One of the first things we noticed with this older fellow obviously performing security duties for the kibbutz. It was not hard to imagine him fighting for the new state of Israel back in 1948. He had the kind of bearing - friendly but tough and no nonsense - that made you hope he'd be on your side if ever you found yourself in a bind with bad guys.

Kibbutz Lavi was founded in the late 40s by a group of German Jewish Holocaust orphans that had been rescued out of Germany. Through a program called Kinder Transport, they were adopted into English families in the 30s and 40s. In their late teens, a group banded together to settle in the fledgling State of Israel and put into practice some of the Socialist ideals that, to them, represented the antithesis of the despotism, demagoguery, and state sponsored violence and terror they'd already experienced in their young lives. The Kibbutz was also our home for the next couple of nights.
Our agenda with Ran was to explore the Golan Heights for the next two days. The region fascinated us: it promised a tantalizing combination of ancient Hebrew sites, modern disputed borders, and nature reserves.
First stop was Gamla, an ancient Jewish city, now a nature reserve and historic site. In 67 AD, an era of Jewish history known as the Second Temple Period, it was also the site of a major battle between Jewish rebels and the mighty Roman army. The ancient city of Gamla can be traced back even further, to the Bronze Age, and is situated on a pyramid shaped hill in a steep ravine on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. 

In 66 AD, it joined the Jewish rebellion against Rome, and its position provided natural defenses that, when fortified, repelled the armies of King Agrippa II after a siege of 7 months, and turned back the first attack of Roman General Vespasian's three legions at great loss of life to the Romans. Ultimately, however, Roman might and military technology prevailed and the city was annihilated. Jewish historian Josephus, also commander in charge of the Galilee region, reports that 9000 Jews perished, 4000 by jumping from the cliffs on the highest point of the promontory.

After Ran shared the legendary account of this "Masada of the Galilee", we hiked down the gorge and up into ancient Gamla. Though fascinating, a couple of exhausting, energy-draining hours of near-100 degree exploration, convinced us that we could garner the benefits of Gamla’s incredible location and fascinating story without venturing off the cliff opposite. Instead, we found another trail through the reserve that, though challenging in parts, offers excellent opportunities to appreciate the wonders of this “Grand Canyon of the Golan”.

Besides its dramatic story of human conflict, Gamla is also known for its abundance of wildlife. The Reserve suffered a devastating wild fire a few weeks ago, but already new life is thriving at springs and along streams, and the wildlife for which the area is known is returning. As we charted out our walk, we saw turtles and a tortoise, jackals at two different times, and a number of the majestic birds of prey that exploit updrafts along the cliffs, including the magnificent Griffin vulture.

Mount Bental was our next destination. From here, we could see into Syria, and heard the story of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in which surprise Syrian and Egyptian attacks on the most widely observed Jewish holiday at opposite ends of Israel caught the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) by surprise. 

Returning home in the late afternoon, we caught the sunset from a vantage point high above the Sea of Galilee, then drove south around the lake in view of the border with Jordan. Another exhausting, but rewarding, day ended in the Kibbutz Lavi dining room with a kosher meal.

Israel is still coming into focus. Several pieces of the puzzle remain, but the images of Israel we saw today are not what I expected before leaving home two weeks ago!
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