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Hiking in the North of Israel

October 16, 2011

This past Sukkot-related holiday weekend – the second of three four-day weekends in these four weeks of concentrated Jewish High Holidays – was spent hiking in the Golan Heights and along the Kinneret, known as the Sea of Galilee to many outside Israel.

First stop: Nimrod Fortress, named after the biblical Nimrod, not the word used as an insult by Bugs Bunny. Nimrod is a perfectly respectable name in Hebrew, as I’ve attempted to explain before, though as an English speaker who doesn’t remember Nimrod’s brief appearances in the Christian Bible, it’s still hard to shake the negative connotations.

Nimrod Fortress was built in the thirteenth century to protect the route to Damascus, now the capital of Syria, during the Crusades. It’s filled with ancient inscriptions in Arabic, beautiful doorway arches, and a lot of ground to explore.

Eastern part of Nimrod Fortress in the Golan Heights

Western part of Nimrod Fortress in the Golan Heights

Second stop: Banias Nature Reserve by Mt. Hermon, part of the mountain range that stretches between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. The name of the area comes from Pan, the Greek God, which makes sense considering the region was settled after being conquered by Alexander the Great.

The nature reserve included trails along a gorgeous stream surrounded by vivid green foliage, which looks almost unnatural compared to the surrounding barren landscape. The Golan Heights in general, like the West Bank and I assume Gaza as well, stand in stark contrast to land in Israel that’s been painstakingly cultivated over the past hundred years and slowly coaxed back to life from the damage done to it during the Ottoman Empire – or so my husband explained.

Banias Stream in the Golan Heights

Waterfall at Banias Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights

Third stop of the day: A zimmer in the Upper Galilee region in time to see the sunset.

Sunset over the Sea of Galilee, looking southwest toward Tiberias

Bright and early the next morning we had a hearty breakfast, including my first-ever jachnun, before tackling the cliffs of Mt. Arbel near Tiberias. This site made the list of must-see locations due to the so-called “cave fortress” built by the Druze in the seventeenth century. The route was a welcome relief to the very crowded Banias from the day before, as it’s too strenuous for casual hikers. Nonetheless, the hike over to the Carob Lookout was surprisingly easy, and thanks to a group of Spanish-speaking Christian pilgrims we had a guitar-fueled soundtrack to accompany the view toward the Sea of Galilee, followed by a straightforward descent down the cliff with the help of convenient metal foot- and hand-holds that were already perfectly placed for someone with long arms and legs.

Sea of Galilee from the Carob Lookout on Mt. Arbel, Israel

After about twenty minutes of vigorous hiking, we came to the caves, which were truly amazing to see from a distance and up close. The climbs required during the hike were definitely more strenuous than many visitors were up for, but as a young and experienced (if not exceptionally fit) hiker, it made for about three hours of great exploring and only slightly tight calves afterwards.

Cave Fortress on Mt. Arbel, Israel

The last stop before heading home was the ancient fourth-century synagogue a few minutes’ drive from the trails on Mt. Arbel. The views were lovely, and it was humbling to see yet another structure survive such overwhelming lengths of time. It’s hard to imagine anything we build today making it through the end of the century, let alone weathering thousands of years.

Ancient synagogue near Mt. Arbel, Israel

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