In Israel, the road less traveled was almost certainly once a busy thoroughfare for residents, nomads, traders, and/or wildlife.
If only these rocks could speak – and not only the rocks.
In a land where every tree, grass blade, and wilderness stone has a scroll-length tale to tell, there is no shortage of historical or natural treasures to discover in every province and corner, including: the Golan Heights (East Menasheh); Upper Galilee (Naphtali, Asher); Lower Galilee (Zevulun, Issachar); the Jezreel Valley; Samaria (West Menasheh); the Sharon Plain (West Menasheh); Judea (Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, Dan); the Jordan Valley; the Shephelah Plain (Judah, Ephraim); the Arava Valley (Edom); and the Negev Desert (Judah).
If, like the famed medieval rabbi, physician, and Beit She’an resident Eshtori HaParhi (c. 1280–1357 CE), you spend seven years exploring the length and breadth of the land, you will doubtless encounter your fair share of what the country has to offer in terms of archaeology, antiquities, flora, and fauna. Travelers with a more limited itinerary and time frame will have to make tough choices.
Ultimately, what must be seen depends on individual tastes; what should be seen is invariably a much longer list. What follows is a sample of sites numbering among the most worthwhile locales:
1. Megiddo – Pre-dating the making of history, Megiddo became historically important as a strategic commercial and military locus fought over by Egyptians and Canaanites in ancient times. Pharaoh Thutmose III conquered the site in the 15th century BCE. In the 10th century, King Solomon of Israel made it one of his three regional administrative centers (along with Gezer and Hatzor). Here fell noble King Josiah of Judah in battle (609) against the Assyrian-allied Egyptians led by Pharaoh Neco II. In WWI, British and Arabs troops defeated the imperial Ottoman forces here as well. Today Har (Mount) Megiddo (a.k.a. Armageddon) is an Israeli national park. Kibbutz Megiddo is nearby.
2. Kokhav HaYarden (Belvoir) – A Crusader fortress built by the Knights Hospitaller, Belvoir is perhaps the best preserved Crusader castle in Israel. In the 12th and 13th centuries CE, the fortress repeatedly changed hands between the Franks and Saracens, and its concentric walls, glacis, and surrounding moat today give visitors a sense of its erstwhile fortitude.
3. Mount Tavor – Unlike the Carmel and Gilboa mountain ranges, Tavor is a single mount where the tribal territories of Naphtali, Issachar, and Zevulun converged. It is famous as the site of the battle between the Israelite judge and prophetess Devorah and her general Barak against King Yavin of Hatzor and his general Sisera, who fled the muddy battlefield only to meet his fate in the tent of Yael. The site was later fortified in the Hellenistic period (332–37 BCE) by the Hasmoneans and in the Roman period (37 BCE–324 CE) during the Great Revolt by the Jewish priest and general Yosef ben Matityahu (later the historian known as Josephus Flavius). Today the Church of the Transfiguration, a monastery, and a hostel run by the Franciscans sit atop the storied peak, while the Israeli Arab village Daburiyya (named after the Israelite prophetess) hangs off the mountainside.
4. Bet She’arim – An important Jewish town during the Roman era, Bet She’arim became a necropolis where famous rabbis were buried, including the patriarch Judah HaNasi, redactor of the Mishnah. In addition to numerous cavernous tombs, including some featuring Greek or Aramaic inscriptions and menorah carvings, there are also ruins of an ancient synagogue, basilica, and olive press.
5. Beit She’an – One of the most well-preserved ancient and classical sites in Israel. Once controlled by the Egyptians, Canaanites, and even the otherwise coastal Philistines, Beit She’an sits at the junction of the Jordan River and Beit She’an Valley (the eastern extension of the larger Jezreel Valley). In the 11th century BCE, after defeating King Saul of Israel in battle nearby, the Philistines hung his body from the city walls until it was retrieved by his loyalists. In 732, the Assyrian emperor Tiglat-Pileser III destroyed the city in his military campaign against King Pekah of Israel. In 63 BCE, following a period of Hasmonean rule, the Romans conquered the site and it soon became one of the Greco-Roman cities of the Decapolis. Today the site features a layered tel, columned avenues paved with basalt stone slabs, a Roman temple and a 7,000-ft. Roman theatre dating to the second century CE (and once again hosting performances), and a Byzantine basilica and bathhouse.
6. Ma’ayan Harod (Harod Spring) – Flowing from the foot of the Gilboa mountain range, the spring emerges from Gideon’s Cave and forms the centerpiece of a beautiful landscape of lawns and pools. Around the 12th century BCE, the Israelite judge Gideon selected his 300 most alert fighters here to do battle against the Midianites encamped nearby. The Battle of Ayn Jalut also transpired here in 1260 CE, when the triumphant Mameluke Sultan Kotuz halted the Mongolian conquest of Asia in one of history’s most fateful victories. The 20th century home and adjacent tomb of Zionist benefactor Yehoshua Hankin and his wife Olga are also in the immediate vicinity. The national park is today tucked away inside the charming moshav Gidona, which also features an international hostel onsite.
7. Apollonia (Arsuf) – The ancient cliff site along the Sharon Plain was first settled by seafaring Phoenicians during the Persian era (539–332 BCE). Named Arsuf after the Phoenician deity Reshef (god of war and storms), the natural cove anchored ships and became a busy commercial port specializing in the purple dye trade. In the Hellenistic period, Greek-speaking residents identified Reshef with the god Apollo, renaming the city Apollonia. The Hasmoneans later incorporated the site into their Jewish kingdom. During the Byzantine era (324–638 CE), the site was renamed Suzussa and was again a key port town engaged in the trade of wine, oil, and glass. After failing to conquer the city in 1099 CE, the Crusaders tried again under King Baldwin I and, aided by the Genoan fleet, succeeded in 1101, renaming the place Arsour and eventually constructing a fortress and moat onsite. Typically, control of the site shifted between the Crusaders and the Muslims over the next two centuries, until Mameluke Sultan Baybars conquered Arsuf in 1265. Today Apollonia is a national park in the northwest corner of urban Herzliya.
8. Castel – Nestled among the Judean Mountains inside modern Mevasseret Tzion, Castel was once a Crusader bastion overlooking the road leading to Jerusalem. The site gained its greatest fame, however, only much later during the fateful 1948 battles here (including the one in which the Arab commander Abd Elkader El-Husseini died) between Jewish and Arab forces during the War of Independence. Castel today is a national heritage site exhibiting documentary films about its 20th century history. The site also features an ancient well with remnants of an olive press, as well as walkable trenches leading to the summit where the Mukhtar’s House is situated. Kibbutz Tzuba/Tzova (medieval Belmont), with its upscale hotel, is nearby.
9. Aqua Bella (Ein Hemed) – This lovely valley features several springs emerging from dolomite and marl, whose waters form the Kisalon Stream than channels through the area’s verdant lawns. Amid the olive, oak, and buckthorn trees is a well-preserved and fortified Crusader farmhouse, probably formerly managed by the Knights Hospitaller and dating to the mid-12th century CE, which still dominates the picturesque site. A hidden delight near kibbutz Kiryat Anavim and the Israeli Arab town Abu Ghosh.
10. Sorek Cave – Discovered accidentally by quarriers, the prehistoric cavern features remarkable stalactites and stalagmites with various natural designs and colors. Located in the Sorek Valley next to Beit Shemesh, the cave is today a nature reserve that exhibits a documentary film about its origins. Guided tours are conducted in which individual rocky formations, often given names, are pointed out, including the Romeo-Juliet spikes that almost touch and a cave coral that uncannily resembles the decapitated head of the felled Philistine giant, Goliath.
11. Emmaus (Nicopolis) – Named Emmaus after the Hebrew word for hot springs (“Hammot”), the town was the site of a key military victory of Judah Maccabee against the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) generals Nicanor and Gorgias, circa 166/165 BCE. In the Roman era, Emmaus was the home of famous sages including Nehunya ben HaKanah and Eleazar ben Arakh and was a popular spa resort of sorts. Christians believe that here, in 30 CE, a resurrected Jesus of Nazareth met his disciples, who recognized him by the way in which he blessed and broke bread with them. In the third century CE, the oasis was renamed Nicopolis (Greek for “City of Victory”). Today the site, operated as a convent by Carmelite monks charging a nominal admission fee, features ancient Jewish tombs, remains of mosaics, a Byzantine basilica and quarry, and a Crusader chapel.
12. Herodium (Herodion) – The locus of a battle between the last Hasmonean king, Mattathias Antigonus, and Herod the Great. After defeating his rival for the throne, Herod in 28 BCE built a partially manmade mountain and fortified estate, named after himself, at the site. Lower Herodium, at the foot of the mount, was an additional palace complex with pools, gardens, and a bathhouse. Herod was buried here, and his mausoleum was finally discovered in 2007. During the Great Revolt (66–73 CE), the Zealots seized the mountain fortress until the Romans recaptured it following the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70. In the subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 CE), Herodium was again used as a rebel base by Jewish stalwarts who carved secret tunnels and caves onsite. The biblical town Tekoa and the modern village of the same name are nearby.
13. Beit Guvrin (Maresha) – Biblical Maresha was an early Israelite site that endured until the late Hellenistic period when it was destroyed during the war between the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great in 40 BCE. The adjacent settlement of Beit Guvrin, with its natural bell caves, flourished in the Roman and Byzantine eras. Besides the numerous and vast caves, there are Phoenician tombs with colorful wall paintings, cisterns, a well-preserved Roman amphitheater and bathhouse, a wine press, an olive press, and remains of a Crusader fortress with a church and underground vaults.
14. Tel Ashkelon – Ancient Ashkelon, located along the ancient Via Maris or Way of the Sea, was an important coastal station for maritime trade and overland commerce. Ashkelon, whose name derives from the Hebrew word shekel (a unit of weight), developed into a key fortified city of the Canaanites, Egyptians, and then Philistines. Here the Israelite judge Samson slew 30 Philistines after his wedding feast. Ashkelon was later attacked by the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib (Sanhariv) in 701 BCE, and Babylonian emperor Nebuchadrezzar II destroyed the city in 604. Seafaring Phoenicians then populated the city during the Persian era, and their cemetery filled with 1,000 dogs (connected to Phoenician healing rites) is onsite. Ashkelon also features the Canaanite Gate, the world’s oldest portal. During the Roman period, Ashkelon thrived once again as a commercial and agricultural center, and a special onion grown here (the scallion) takes its name from the city. Today the site is situated in the southwest corner of modern Ashkelon.
15. Tel Be’ersheva – One of the most important biblical cities, ancient Be’ersheva lies just east of modern Be’ersheva, Israel’s fourth-largest city. The site features a deep well, likely the one used by Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham swore an oath to the Philistine king Avimelekh and gave him seven ewes, concluding a pact that gave the place its name (“sheva” means both “seven” and “oath” in Hebrew). There is also an elaborate ancient water system, remains of streets, squares, gates, and pools, and an observation tower. In WWI, Ottoman Turks used the site as a staging ground for attacking the Suez Canal, but they were overcome by ANZAC forces who conquered the site in 1917. The Bedouin town of Tel Sheva is nearby.
16. Shivta (Sobeita/Sobota) – Nabataeans first settled here around the first century BCE, and developed the site as an important stopover along the incense route leading to the ports of Gaza and Rhinocorura (El Arish). Named after a common Nabataean first name, Shubitu, Shivta was inherited by Byzantine Christians (some of whom were pagan Nabataean converts) who built impressive churches, houses, gates, winepresses, and other structures atop the lofty summit. Today Shivta also features the remains of a mosque and the Colt Expedition building (now managed by a single family as an inn). Below the peak are terraced orchards with a variety of fruit trees.
17. Nitzana – One of the most breathtaking sites in Israel, Nitzana sits near the border of Israel and Egypt (Sinai). Founded in the third century BCE by the Nabataeans as a caravan trading post along the incense route, the ancient tel features ruins from the Nabataean and Byzantine eras, including a monumental staircase leading down from the summit to the remains of churches in the plain below. A uniquely-shaped Ottoman police station lies in the plain, as does a lovely orchard and a monument commemorating the Israel Defense Forces' victory over the Egyptian army during Operation Volcano (1955). The modern village of Nitzana and Nitzana Forest are nearby.
18. Hatzeva (Tamar/Ovot) – Known as the “Jewel of the Arava” and situated at an important crossroads, the ancient desert oasis and fortress site features the oldest Israelite four-room house in the country, remains of a Solomonic gate, and what is perhaps the oldest tree in Israel. It also boasts Roman baths, aqueducts, and fortress walls. Hatzeva later became an outpost serving Ottoman Turks then British expeditionary forces, who built an office and jail onsite. Today kibbutz Ir Ovot is adjacent to the site and the modern towns of Ein Hatzeva and Hatzeva are nearby.
Israel is the ancestral and modern homeland of the Jewish people, and it is also a palimpsest upon which are inscribed the goings and comings and doings of many other peoples who dwelt in or traversed across the land.
Every river, streambed, cave, forest, hill, mountain, valley, and plain holds untold secrets and stories awaiting discovery. Happy trails to you and yours.
For more from Brandon Marlon on the Land of Israel, please see Peripheral Israel.
For more from Brandon Marlon on the Land of Israel, please see Peripheral Israel.