The stories behind Israel's national parks

The Israel Nature and Heritage Foundation presents the fascinating stories behind some of Israel’s famous national parks

Rivka Orzech, INHF ,

Israeli National Park
Israeli National Park
Doron Nissim

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Touring Israel is not just an exercise in leg stretching but also in finding gems along the way; specifically, the historical and natural conservation sites that make one wonder: who picnicked under that tree? Who sheltered in that cave?

Astonishingly, this tiny country boasts 400 nature reserves and protects 2,500 plant species indigenous to the region. For the people who safeguard these treasures, every contour and microclimate are catalysts for the stories behind our most famous National Parks.

Masada is the stuff of legends. The dramatic epic that Masada is most famous for is when Jewish zealots fled the Romans for its high hill. When you see the Roman attack ramp, the most well-preserved in the world, imagine what it was like looking down at the eight Roman encampments building it, knowing that your end was near.

While we don’t know for certain what happened in the end, as we cannot match Josephus’s account with archaeological evidence, there has been an intriguing discovery of eleven pottery shards, each inscribed with a name. It’s believed this is how the fighters picked out who would kill whom, and then the last one killed themselves in a final stand of obstinacy.

Though the story of Masada holds a tragic end, the preserved ritual baths, water cisterns, synagogues and storehouses bear evidence of its residents’ silent stories.

Just a 20-minute drive from unforgettable Masada is the natural oasis, Ein Gedi, the first Judean settlement was during the Iron Age and much later, the town was a source of balsam, an important building material for the Greco-Roman world. A synagogue mosaic cautions the town’s citizens against revealing their secret. We speculate they meant the extraction and preparation of the balsam resin; unfortunately, that warning didn’t help when the Byzantine emperor Justinian destroyed the town.

The Ein Gedi nature reserve covers 3,500 acres of unspoiled country. Nahal David and Nahal Arugot are the two spring-fed streams and the Shulamit and Ein Gedi springs flow elsewhere into the reserve. Specific conditions make it the perfect sanctuary for diverse plants and animals—the Nubian ibex and the shy rock hyrax among them while the magnificent bird population is boosted by over 200 species during the migration periods.

Leaving the Dead Sea climate for greener pastures, a northbound drive takes you to Zippori in the central Galil. About 60 years after Masada fell, the Bar Kochba revolt devastated Judea. Jewish refugees fled north to Zippori making it a center of rabbinical scholarship and religious life for the next 200 years. A figure no less than Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, made Zippori his home.

There are wine presses and ancient architecture to examine, evidence of Hellenist, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman settlements but the most fascinating, is the Zippori synagogue mosaic with its biblical motif, heavy with Greek influence.

A fifty-minute south-easterly drive takes you to the strategically significant ancient cities of Beit She’an, between the Jordan River and Jezreel Valleys. I say cities because it sits above 18 ancient towns from the Bronze Age to the Byzantines, making it a story of conquest.

King David captured Beit She’an in brilliant military operations that pushed the Phillistines back to their southern coastal strongholds. Years later, victorious Philistines hung the bodies of David’s son, King Shaul and his own sons, on the walls of the city.

There’s a Roman cardo, a hippodrome, theaters, baths, and exquisite mosaic floors to appreciate. Ancient heterogeneity peeks from the ground, while one synagogue features a menorah mosaic, a Samaritan synagogue could use only floral and geometrical motifs. Perhaps that creative spirit inspired a Jew to settle in Beit She’an after centuries with not a single Jew in sight. The 14th century topographer Ishtori Haparchi completed his book on the geography of the land of Israel in Hebrew in 1322. It is aptly named Kaftor Vaferach, button and flower.

If you share the same fascination for the land and its layout as Ishtori Haparchi, how about some digging? A two-hour (give or take) drive south toward central Israel, takes you to Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park, well known for its Dig for a Day opportunities. The site comprises one of the most significant towns in Roman-era Judea, a Jewish cemetery, an amphitheatre, public baths, mosaics, quarries, storerooms, hideouts, dovecotes, burial caves and bell caves.

Maresha was a thorn in the side of the Maccabeans, as it was a base for attacks against Judaea; Maresha was finally captured under John Hyrcanus I. Neighbouring Bet Guvrin was destroyed in the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction. Sixty years later, the amphitheatre was built to entertain Roman troops stationed there during the Bar Kochba rebellion. One can only imagine that the once strong town of Bet Guvrin and Maresha saw Jewish slaves fighting for Roman entertainment.

If Israel is a part of you, you can pledge support for the protection of its heritage, nature and history with your purchase of an Israel Pass card. You and your family can free entrance for a year to all Israel Nature and Parks Authority sites.

Your donation goes toward protecting the biodiversity and ecosystems in each park to ensure the next generation can hike in these same hills. Your contribution allows for the conservation and restoration of key heritage sites to include awareness of the protection of nature, landscape and heritage.

Sometimes walking the land can destroy it. We walk it because we love it and want to immerse ourselves and our story in a wider national story. We can do this with a clear conscience knowing that it’s cherished and safeguarded for years to come.

*One Israel Pass offers access to all Israel Nature and Parks Authority sites while in Israel, for one year to you and your immediate family (children up to age 18).

Learn more about Israel Pass here.



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