Soon after my parents and younger siblings joined me in Israel, my sabra
husband took us all on a hike up Mount Arbel. My mom was over 50 and rather
out of shape, so my husband had to push her up from behind.
Although we didn't make it as far as the breathtaking view from the top of
the Arbel cliffs, my mom says it was worth the effort just to explore the
ancient caves below the summit.
Today you can drive all the way up the mountain on an excellent road, park
your car, and then follow an easy trail to the clifftop observation point.
You don't even have to climb the mountain to reach the caves: a
rope-and-ladder descent leads down from the parking lot.
Nevertheless, not long ago I decided to prove to myself that although nearly
35 years had passed since that first Arbel outing, I could still do the
ascent on foot. To my delight, and although I huffed and puffed an awful
lot, I not only made it to the caves but climbed all the way to the top.
I recently heard a well-founded rumor that Arbel is slated to become a
National Park in October - complete with entrance fee. So if you are
planning a trip, this is the time to go.
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You can reach Mount Arbel by turning off Highway 90 onto Route 807. Then
take Highway 77 between Tiberias and the Golani junction, turn onto 7717
toward Moshav Arbel, and follow signs to the cliffs. (A word of caution: the
rocks are very slippery after it rains, so wait until the sun comes out
before trying this outing.)
INow you can begin your trek up to the caves on a trail that leads through
slopes that in winter and spring are radiant with wildflowers. Be sure to
stop and enjoy the view as you climb. Don't worry about the cows grazing
along the path; if you don't annoy them, they won't annoy you!
As you walk through the caves, you will discover that some of them are three
stories high, and that what look like holes from the outside are actually
rooms grouped together. By looking out from inside the caves, you can fully
understand the strategic advantages of their position.
OVER 2,000 years ago, Jews lived here in two different kinds of housing. One
group resided in dwellings on the mountaintop and the others occupied the
caves that had been gouged out of the limestone by rainwater over millennia.
Their town was called Arbela.
Arbela's cave dwellers built ritual baths and water cisterns, and enlarged
the caves in order to make their homes more comfortable. And at different
times over the course of Israel's turbulent history, the caves were
fortified and connected via an internal staircase.
In 161 BCE, the Seleucid commander Bacchides passed through Arbela on his
way to battle Judah Maccabee in Jerusalem. Most of the townspeople rose up
against the Greek army and were slaughtered; only a few were able to flee.
The next time Arbela's Jews found themselves in the midst of battle was over
a century later, after the Romans made Herod ruler over Israel. Resistance
to the move, especially in Galilee, was fierce, and Herod took violent steps
to consolidate his position. Yet although he defeated most of the
opposition, Herod could not vanquish the guerrilla cave dwellers of Arbela.
His troops found it impossible to reach the caves, which were well
fortified, and situated within extremely steep cliffs atop a deep valley.
Indeed, the soldiers only gained entrance after being lowered in chests,
precariously, from the top of the cliffs. Most of the people inside were
then killed. Those who survived preferred death to captivity, and jumped
into the riverbed below.
A few decades later, as the Great Revolt got underway, Galilee commander
Yosef ben Matityahu added walls and other fortifications to the Arbela
caves. He surrendered to the Romans during the revolt, renamed himself
Josephus Flavius, and authored several books documenting Jewish history.
Most of the existing fortifications and structural improvements are from the
early Ottoman period, but there is no doubt that they were built on top of
Hasmonean and Roman structures. Note how beautifully Josephus's Roman-era
walls blend with the environment.
EXIT THE fortress, turn left, and find the red-marked path leading up steep
and narrow crevices to the parking lot. Fortunately, stakes help you
maneuver the ropes and ladders that take you to the top. Once there, follow
the path to the observation point, on top of the eastern cliffs and next to
a lone carob tree.
From this spot, 181 meters above sea level, you are able to look in all
directions. Directly below are the Arbel Valley, the Beduin village of
Hamam, and the town of Migdal. On a clear day you have a magnificent view of
Safed nestled in the hills almost directly to the north and, even when it is
hazy, if you look to the southwest you will see a dome-topped structure on
the slopes that is Nebi Shueib. Above this holy Druse site stands the
volcanic mountain called Karnei Hittin where, on July 4, 1187, Saladin and
his Muslim troops routed the Crusaders.
Gazing directly east, you will find the Kinneret. On its shores, slightly
northeast, lie the green fields and orchards of Kibbutz Ginossar.
Further to the north, on the shores of the lake, you can see Kfar Nahum
(Capernaum), Tabgha, and other sites of importance to Christians. The
pumping station for our national water carrier is also located on these
banks. A few years before the Six Day War, the Syrians tried to torpedo the
station by diverting the sources of the Jordan River into a canal on the
Golan Heights (then part of Syria). The Heights are across the water,
towering above the lake. Feast your eyes on glistening, snow-covered Mount
Whether you hiked up the mountain, climbed through the caves, or just took a
leisurely walk to the overlook, your outing doesn't have to end here. During
the Talmudic period Arbela housed a sizable Jewish settlement, and it lasted
at least until the eighth century. After the War of Independence, Israelis
founded Moshav Arbel near its impressive ruins.
Follow the road back to the moshav, and turn left at the second corner.
Antiquities show you where to begin the path to a synagogue built in the
fourth century CE.
After seeing the synagogue, you can visit the moshav, where you can learn
how olives are pressed into oil. You may even get a chance to see an oil
press in action. Moshavniks here grow olives and produce olive oil, soap,
and other products using methods that date back thousands of years. Their
little shop boasts homemade oil, homegrown herbs, herbal mixtures, and all
kinds of delicacies.
For more details, call (04) 673-3228; 052-414446.
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