This day trip on the Israel Trail, doable for even the casual hiker, offers archeological treasures for history lovers, breathtaking views and colorful vegetation, and even a mid-hike glass of wine.
The section begins at Beit Guvrin. It should take two or three hours to view the Greek Ptolemaic (Sidonian) tombs and the excavations of the former Roman city of Beit Guvrin, with its amphitheater and honeycombs of hewn-out chalk caves — several of which are current favorite locations for bar mitzva celebrations.
After a quick bite at one of the refreshment options at Beit Guvrin, follow the trail westward along Route 35 before turning left up a narrow path below the ’Four Arches,’ the surviving remains of the local sheikh’s palace. Keep that building to your left, and after a little switch-backing, the trail widens out into a series of broad, graceful curves along the length of Maresha Valley, with the recently uncovered ruins of Tel Maresha on your left, which may be reached by making a 1.5-km. detour from the trail.
TEL MARESHA sheds light on the little-known period between the Greek conquest of the Holy Land under Alexander the Great in 334 BCE and the Hasmonean Revolt nearly two centuries later. This site also became an important slave trade center with Egypt during the third century BCE.
It fell to the rival Syrian-based Selucid generals in 193 BCE, who paid Maresha scant attention. Inscriptions point to the Sidonians merging with the local population. Its specifically Jewish interest came a century later. Those who believe Judaism does not encourage conversions might consider the Hasmoneans who, under John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE), forced the local inhabitants to choose between converting to Judaism or leaving the region for good (Josephus: Antiquities 13:257).
As the valley opens out, hints of the Negev enter the scenery and scent the air; the area is dotted with’ sunflowers, grapes and cotton. Slightly more than an hour from the start gets you under the shade of eucalyptus trees, with the extensive Lachish vineyards just around the next bend.
Moshav Lachish was founded toward the end of the 1950s near the biblical site bearing its name, and its inhabitants wisely specialize in grape production for fresh fruit rather than just wine. (The average Israeli drinks a mere four liters of wine per year, whereas in France and Italy, where it forms part of the regular diet, an average person goes through 100 liters of the stuff.
The Moshav employs specialists in the cultivation of vines and has succeeded in acclimatizing a new strain of seedless grapes of the Sultanina variety - which ripen early in June rather than during the main grape season later in the summer. They fetch good prices in Israel as there is little competition from other seasonal varieties. British readers should note that Tali Grapes Ltd., owned by Moshav Lachish, has recently signed an agreement to export grapes to leading UK retail chains, including Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s.
My visit, however, was memorable for more than just the wine. A colossal winged form headed straight at me just north of Tel Lachish. It wasn’t a runaway army jet but a huge, short-toed eagle, a summer migrant from sub-Saharan Africa. I whipped out the camera just in time to make its visit permanent.
Tel Lachish itself is a short but fairly steep detour from the Israel Trail (which skirts its eastern flanks). You have to get up on top to appreciate its impressive geographical and military qualities, with its command over the coastal plain to the west and further inside, the Shfela and the Hebron Hills. You have to jump mentally between different periods while surveying the remains of its Canaanite temple, Israelite gates, shafts, foundations of the palace area, storehouses and its dome-shaped Assyrian access ramp.
Lachish fell to Joshua after some two millennia of continuous Canaanite settlement. The king of the city-state of Lachish unwisely joined the coalition of Canaanite kings of five other city-states defeated by Joshua’s army at Gibeon, which prompted a south-westerly Israelite swing that overran the place within two days (Joshua 10:1-32).
Tel Lachish marks the half-way point of the walk, and the rest of the section is straightforward, if a little tedious. It helps to have good company for a four-part harmony sing-song, or if alone, an MP3 player could come in handy. Within an hour from Tel Lachish, the trail leaves the vineyards for open farmland and reaches ’the elbow’ — a sudden turn from south to west. If well timed, it should coincide with the setting sun, reflected from the sunflowers (in season) and their brown stubble (for other months of the year).
The rest of the way heads west. Make for the high- tension pylons far in the distance, with Givat Ezer to the north and Givat Samech to the south. Most of it is well indicated by Israel Trail logos, but they peter out near the village of Noam as extensive road works obliterate the markings around the (under-construction) Trans-Israel Highway, Route 6. If you lose the trail at this point, don’t worry — just continue to head west to the Tel Aviv- Beersheba railway and Route 40. Stray too far north (and I did), and you find yourself in the village of Ahuzam — whose natives proved helpful in providing directions to the exit on Route 40 — though it does help if you have a way with its many canine residents.
Cross Route 40 and climb the mound of Tel Keshet, which gives you a grandstand view of the Tel Aviv-Beersheba highway and the part of the Israel Trail you just followed. Get back to Route 40 for bus connections to Kiryat Gat, Tel Aviv and connections to other cities.
You will experience:
Biblical connections with the Canaanites, Joshua, the Kingdom of Judea and Nehemiah
Post-biblical experiences with the ancient Greeks and Romans and Crusaders
Wide, sweeping views commanding the Hebron Hills to the east, and the Shfela and the Coastal Plain to the west.
Large scale grape and sunflower cultivation
If lucky — birds or prey, such as the short-toed eagle
In the area
Accommodations: Beit Tamar Youth Hostel, Beit Guvrin (08) 687-4222, Sababa (near Kiryat Gat) (08) 687-1215/052- 394-3294; Kibbutz Hafetz Hayim Guest House (08) 859-3888.
Restaurants: Havat Tzuk, Ha’elah Junction (non-K); Ur-Khan Beit Guvrin (at the gas station — K) (08) 687-4054; Sandwitchim, Nahshon Junction (02) 991-1396
Places to visit: Tel Gezer Archaeological Park; Tel Tzora Archaeological Site (between Shimshon and Nachshon Junctions) (02) 990-8642; Beit Guvrin National Park (08) 681-1020; Ashdod Museum (08) 854-3092.
Attractions: Stalactite Cave, near Beit Shemesh (02) 991-1117/999-4730; Children’s Wildlife Center, Kibbutz Tzora (02) 990-8642, 050-728-6693; Hamei Yoav Spa (08) 672- 1150
Start: Beit Guvrin, on Route #35. Bus 11 from Kiryat Gat. Ideally, this is a two-car trip.
Finish: Tel Keshet, on Route #40. Bus 371 to Tel Aviv and Beersheba.
Ideally, a two-car trip.
Level of difficulty: Straightforward, but fairly long.
Length: 21 km.
Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 21 (Southern Shfela and Hebron Mountain flanks)
Estimated walking time: 7 hours
Water: At the beginning of the section at Beit Guvrin.
Bring: 2 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with good grips for walking. Include a compass (vital), binoculars (for bird watchers), mobile phone, large towel, first aid kit, penknife and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception adequate for nearly all the route.