Exploring Israel can be one of the most rewarding experiences. For those used to a large canvass, like in the United States or South Africa, Israel presents a decidedly minuscule area to discover. But despite this, it is packed full of diversity. The National Parks Authority has done an excellent job of designating the most important sites, creating a myriad of unique locations to tour. However these well-publicized sites, such as the Crusader forts or ancient synagogues, present only the tip of an iceberg. There are layers of history that are left unexplored and yet are majestic and rich in both beauty and history.
The key to exploring the historical-geographical landscape is to view it in layers. With each layer of history there is a corresponding number of surviving sites that can be seen. Some periods have a large number of well-preserved sites that are easily accessible to the public. The most remarkable period from this perspective is that of the Crusaders, with their dozen major sites such as Apollonia, Belvoir, Montfort, Antripatris, the Castel, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Ein Hemed and Caesarea.
But for the intrepid explorer, serious hiker, amateur archeological enthusiast or any student of history, the real joy in exploring the land of Israel is in finding the places that are "off the beaten track." Unfortunately, no guide book gives the reader an adequate introduction to walking the land. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide, on sale at any bookstore, attempts a very rough introduction but is severely lacking.
I WILL attempt a very quick introduction of where one can look for great gems of history that lurk throughout the country. One story begins in 1937, at the height of the Arab Revolt that claimed hundreds of Jewish, British and Arab lives. In December 1937 the 56-year-old Charles Augustus Tegart arrived in Palestine. A veteran of fighting Bengali terrorism in India, he was tasked by the British Mandatory government with studying the Palestine Police and suggesting reforms.
After encouraging such innovative measures as a security fence along the Lebanese border and collective punishment of Arab villages, he suggested that the British build a series of concrete police forts. In total, 56 of them were constructed at strategic intersections and in major Arab towns such as Rafah and Shfaram.
All of the Tegart forts exist to this day, and they are marked by being squat ugly buildings. Since all of them exist either in the center of large towns or at intersections, they are easy to locate and visit.
Many of them became sites of major battles in the 1948 War of Independence, and are thus adorned with explanatory plaques for the visitor. Latrun on the road to Jerusalem, Nebi Yusha overlooking the Huleh Valley and Gesher near Beit She'an stand out as the easiest to visit.
Another fascinating feature of the landscape are the numerous khans or caravanserais. Most were built between the 13th and 16th centuries during the period of Mamluk and Ottoman rule. The classical khan was a large square building with an open central area. They were there to protect travelers, particularly merchants, and thus theoretically were no more than a day's ride from one another. Eliahu Stern's Caravanserais: Roads and Inns in Israel (Hebrew) identified the remains of 67 of them. Some of the best-preserved ones, such as Khan Yunis (from which the Gaza town takes its name), cannot be visited.
However, a visit can be made to Khan Jubb Yosef, next to Kibbutz Amiad, which is perched above the Sea of Galilee. Khan Yarda, which later became the mansion of a wealthy Arab in the 1890s, is located next to Mishmar Hayarden. Khan al-Tujjar is easily visible on the road from Afula, just before the Golani junction.
The most overlooked feature of the landscape is the presence of numerous "sheikh's tombs" that dot the countryside. They were once part of local pilgrimages, festivals and traditions. The most prominent of these are Nebi Yusha, where local Muslims once believed Joshua was buried, and Nebi Reuben, where they believed Reuben was buried. Nebi Yusha is easily accessible from the road and is located across from the Tegart fort of the same name which overlooks the Huleh Valley. Nebi Reuben is harder to get to and requires a hike from Palmahim beach into the dunes.
No author has ever attempted to create a comprehensive list of the shrines in the country. Tewfik Canaan in 1927 published a partial one in Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine. A list compiled by the Mandatory government shows 20 famous tombs with the name Sheikh Muhammad, not to mention hundreds of others associated with other sheikhs, rabbis, saints and prophets.
An explorer on foot or by car, armed with a good map and a few books of reference, will be presented with a rewarding experience and will see the Land of Israel in a new way. The layers of landscape are present at most major sites. Consider Beit Guvrin, site of a Crusader church, a Tegart fort, Roman, Jewish, pagan ruins and a khan.
Now you, the traveler, will recognize and search for two elements that most who visit the famous site never even bother to look for.
The writer is researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.