Tombs, trails and lots of trees

Take a climb up and down Mount Meron, continue on to Nahal Amud and finish with a swim.

June 11, 2009 13:47
Tombs, trails and lots of trees

mount meron 248.88. (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)

This walk traverses the largest and one of the first-established nature reserves in Israel. Its height (maximum 1,208 meters) gives the moist air passing over it a chance to cool, condense and form clouds, producing about 100 cm. of rain each year. It starts at Hirbet el-Humema: an old Arab-style dual-arched structure that probably served as a simple inn. From here is an excellent, if rather exaggerated, view of the challenge of Mount Meron ahead. Rest assured that the ascent - marked with black sandwich signs - with its steady gradient, northerly aspect and almost continuous tree cover, will be conquered more easily than you think. Just lean slightly forward and let gravity help to push you up. The way passes the layer spring of Ein Humema, which emerges from a man-made cave. It is not only defined with black sandwich markings, but also by abundant charred remains of previous visitors' bonfires. It progresses though a cover of flourishing Aleppo pine trees planted to enrich the natural forest, which includes green oak, common oak, Palestinian terebinth, Judas tree, strawberry tree and hawthorn. The small planted cedars of Lebanon further on are less fortunate - most have not survived, as they are extremely sensitive to the local climate, which is just a few degrees warmer than their native soil in Lebanon. Plenty of blackbirds around. If lucky, you will pick up the cooing of turtle-doves, and maybe spot the flash of the hoopoe and the well-camouflaged green warbler. An hour later you will be pleased, if surprised, to emerge from the tree cover onto the open-air theater summit of Mount Neria (1,123 meters) - the second highest peak on the Meron mountain range. Stop, take in the views of Lake Dalton, Gush Halav and the Naftali Heights to the east, and further away, the Lebanese Range and the Golan Heights. The way continues to the southeast, and you will be relieved when you see an orange, blue and white Israel Trail marking after a few hundred meters. The path is largely shaded, and its gentle rise continues for the best part of the next hour, until you find yourself circling Mount Meron below the summit, with its series of spectacular views to the north, east and south. This section is graced with protected and rare wildflowers in season, particularly yellow crocuses in September and Greek cyclamen in winter. These pink, bulb-based plants were dug up and transplanted from the actual summit when the IDF converted it into an army base, but only a minority of them survived the move. Avoid the black-indicated path and move along the multicolored markers to the parking lot near the top of Mount Meron, with its picnic tables and piped drinking water. A rude shock awaits you when you find your hard-earned elevated position shared with sightseers and the bone idle. But that is the highest you will get. For the actual summit, served by the adjoining paved road, is a military area closed to the public. After a well-earned rest and a sandwich or two, refill your water carriers and follow the paved road in a southerly direction for about a hundred meters, bearing right onto a blue-marked path, which in under a half kilometer emerges as a green-marked path. You have reached the remains of Horvat Bek. When nearby Safed was destroyed by an earthquake in 1837, Israel Bek established it as a Jewish farming settlement, but its tough conditions, and the subsequent hostility of the Turkish overlords, caused its inevitable abandonment four years later. To this day, the local Arabs call the place "Hirbet Yahud," meaning the "ruins of the Jews." For the next half-hour, this wide section of the trail continues to descend the broad and gently sloping southern plateau of Mount Meron, passing open farmland, vineyards and apple orchards, and slowly turns east, heading toward the settlement of Meron itself. Meron has roots in the Talmudic period (1st-5th century CE), with the remains of a synagogue and revered tombs. The most well-known gave is that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, where a colorful, religious, mass celebration takes place at the Lag Ba'omer festival each spring. Modern Moshav Meron was founded in 1949. The path narrows, and care must be taken especially in wet weather in negotiating the potentially ankle-twisting pitted limestone surface. You are now on the multicolored marked path shared by the Israel Trail. You will spot natural, seemingly bottomless pits in this section, called sinkholes. They formed through carbon dioxide picked up by the rain chemically rotting the weaknesses in the jointed limestone rocks. Once, so the local tale goes, a shepherd dropped his flute into one. Months later, he met another shepherd from the village of Peki'in, nearly 10 km. away. The second shepherd claimed that he had found the flute in the village spring. This story may be supported by the knowledge that sink holes do lead to large natural networks of caves and underground streams, which are characteristic of jointed limestone rock. If by now the area's mystique begins to descend on you, rest assured that many reacted the same way long before your visit. One huge lectern-shaped rock is reputed to be a huge seat which the prophet Elijah will ceremoniously mount on his return. Nearby, a large box tomb made of enormous stones is the traditional burial place of the early Mishnaic authority Shammai and his wife. And a short detour from there brings you to the ruins of Horbat Sheyma - an assortment of battered structures dated from the Bronze Age, through the Talmudic era (including the remains of an early synagogue) to the later Arab period. The route goes into a charming descent into the wooded Meron Valley, crossing Route 866 in under half an hour. Drop underneath the road and follow the path that picks its way along a boulder-strewn route to the entrance of the Nahal Amud reserve, marked by a rusting metal turnstile. Officially, you have to pay to get into the reserve, but there are no collections this way in - perhaps with the view that serious walkers are honored guests of the Amud Valley, and worthy of free admission. The path continues to wend over ankle-twisting weathered rock as it crisscrosses the river valley until its confluence with the Amud River itself, which swings in from the Safed area. By now, the river floor is occupied by a fast-flowing stream even in summer, as it emerges though the permeable limestone on the base of impervious rock at Yakim Springs. You get toward the main finish of this walk to the sound and delightful cooling effect of the rushing stream during the warm, dry weather. An old water mill (made obsolete by the British invention of steam power) emerges though the rich greenery. It gives an authentic link with past settlers' provision for their basic needs, with its year-round natural source of energy. Finally, you reach the Sechvi Pools. Stop, enjoy some solid and liquid refreshment, and now is the time to bathe in the water. Just don't expect any ice cream vans or mobile fish-and-chip shops. Take the green-marked sandwich path eastward from the Sechvi Pools to Route 89 (Safed-Meron road) and in about half an hour, end up at Ein Zeitim junction and hop a bus to Safed.

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