Golan Getaway

Last week there was a slight break in the winter weather, a respite between storms. John & I heard there was snow on Mt. Hermon and the ski resort there was open, so we decided to take a drive up to the Golan Heights. It had been relatively quiet on the Northern borders, and if there had been any threat of imminent activity, we would have known about it. Driving up from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) through the Hula Valley was spectacular. Everything was so rich and green after the summer drought followed by the winter rains. The cranes were in full migration from Europe to Africa, as well as several other avian species who stop to feed in the rich Hula Valley and Sea of Galilee. And sure enough, there was snow on Mt. Hermon. Aside from the heavy military presence, it was quiet and very peaceful. The Golan is sparsely populated with small Druze towns, Israeli cattle ranchers, lots of vineyards and award-winning wineries, and random goat herders. Between fruit orchards and vineyards, were fields roped off with barbed wire and signs that read “Danger! Mine Fields,” remnants of wars past. Steer clear of those!

The snows on Hermon and precipitation on the Northern mountains seep into the porous limestone. At the base of the mountains in the wadis and valleys, natural springs flow to form the headwaters of the Jordan River which runs the length of Israel from the North, down to the Dead Sea below Jerusalem. We stopped off at Banias Springs to explore the ruins and do some hiking. As early as the 3rd century BCE, the Greeks under Alexander had invaded the Holy Land bringing their gods and traditions with them There is a series of large caves in the sheer mountain face, and natural springs flowing from the rock beneath the mountain. It was here that the pagan cult of Pan built their Temples to Pan, Dionysus and Zeus. Later, during the Roman occupation, Herod and his son built the city of Caesaria Philippi here (not to be confused with Caesaria on the coast). Later, the name would evolve from Panyas to Banias, then to C. Philippi. There are many other ruins here from pre-Canaanite, Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman times as well. But a main attraction is the miles of hiking trails and the pristine natural beauty of the land.

John and I hiked for most of the afternoon. The late winter flowers were just beginning to bloom and the wildlife was out: rock hyrax, gray marten, birds, and the surprise flock of goats running down the forested mountain! The sound of the goat bells was one of the most delightful things I’ve heard! What a surprise!!! As the video clip progresses, hundreds of goats can be seen racing through the woods. Watch closely for them…

After winding through several kilometers of wooded trail, we reached the palace of Agrippa II. Built during the second half of the first century, it was a huge complex of buildings, internal courtyards, throne room, passageways, warehouses, and water courses. Now in ruins, there is still enough (multiple levels) left to get a real feel for the immensity of the place. Herod Agrippas was the last ruler in the long line of Herods, educated in Rome. He was a pompous ruler, and upon his return to Israel, his land rights extended from Syria through the Golan(Caesaria Philippi) and Galilee to Tiberius, eastward to Caesaria on the Mediterranen Coast, and South to Jerusalem. He was in league with Titus during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and was eventually killed on the mountaintops to Gamla in the lower Golan. As is true with many of the Herodian Dynasty, he left quite an architectural legacy.

Towards mid-afternoon, the temperature had dropped drastically and the skies began to darken as the next winter storm would plow through that night. And I had my Ulpan class to attend, so we headed back to Karmi’el, exhausted but thankful for yet another successful adventure. This last storm lasted two days dropping over 40 centimeters of snow on the Golan mountaintops. For the next trip, we’ll head South to the artists’ colony of Ein Hod (to be continued….)