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What is the very last thing you would expect to find in an Israeli forest? A Maltese cross, perhaps? Yet one day, while hiking through the woods inside Tzora Forest, we stumbled upon a beautifully hewn rectangular rock decorated with just such a cross. Sometime soon, mosey out there and see for yourself. Make your trek part of a half-day outing that starts with a delightful scenic drive called Sculpture Way, and offers a fabulous view of the lush Sorek Valley.
This hike takes about two hours from start to finish and is vaguely circular (at the end, drivers have to walk back along the road to pick up their cars). While waiting for them to return, or before setting out together to get them, you can relax at a lovely recreation area complete with sandbox, playground equipment and - this is Israel, after all - lots of antiquities.
Begin on Highway 44, between the Shimshon and Nahshon junctions. At the sign for President's/Tzora Forest head right onto Sculpture Way (Derech Hapesalim). The unusual route was born in the mid-1970s, when students participating in an art-in-nature seminar decided to create sculptures with local materials. Dozens of compelling new works were added in the 1990s by immigrant sculptors from the former Soviet Union.
Each environmental work of art along the road is a unique creation that either blends beautifully with the landscape or provides a striking contrast. Do get out of your car to examine the sculptures more closely: By looking at them from all sides, you will get surprising perspectives. And don't hesitate to touch the rocks from which they are made, as this is a user-friendly gallery. One of our favorites is "Wandering through the Land," an ingenious combination of colored mosaics and local stone created by an expert in mosaic restoration. A number of recently added ancient mosaics - actually reproductions - are scattered throughout the adjacent recreation area, so you can "wander through the Land" by walking from Galilee (Tzipori mosaic) all the way through the country to the Negev (the mosaic from Maon synagogue).
Stop at Mitzpe Tzora, a wooden observation deck shaped like a raft. Then, if you like, climb Tel Tzora - where Samson was born. After he was tricked by Delilah, and pulled down the pillars of the Philistine temple, his body was returned to the region for burial. "His brothers and his father's whole family went down to get him. They brought him back and buried him between Tzora and Eshtaol" (Judges 16:31). Some believe that the bright-colored, newly painted tomb on top of the tel belongs to Samson.
Now for your hike! Nearly six kilometers from the beginning of the route, just past a creation called "Colored Stripes," an arrow points to shvil reches Tzora (Tzora ridge path). Unfortunately, vandals frequently remove the sign. So look left, and if you see a row of small sculptures and steps leading up a rocky hill, you will know that you are in the right place.
Ruby-red flowers decorate the greenish-white stalks of the "red everlasting" plant, in Hebrew called "blood of the Maccabees." This flower appears on a Remembrance Day stamp, and at Remembrance Day ceremonies pupils often wear patches on their shirts that feature "blood of the Maccabees" blossoms.
Throughout May (and possibly even June), you will find two kinds of rockroses everywhere on the trail. Because one variety sports wrinkled pink petals and the second is a starchy white, the flowers provide endless raw material for tour-guide legends. Impressive greenish-yellow giant fennels may still be in bloom. Fennel plants, which can grow up to two meters in height, turn green in spring before other vegetation. The unusually large and circular flowers that appear afterward make the plants look awfully tempting. As it happens, however, fennel can be deadly. So although animals generic to the area seem to avoid it like the plague, cows, goats and horses are said to have tried its poisonous leaves - and died.
By now, you should have reached a field strewn with chiseled rocks and broken boulders. This site is known as A-tahuna (I have no idea why). It was settled, apparently, during the Byzantine period, but the ruins you see date back to the Crusaders. Explore, looking especially for remains of an olive press, including a huge slab that was used as a post to support the beams. It may take a while, but among the weeds and wildflowers you will eventually spy the rock that bears the Maltese cross. No one knows for certain, but it is believed that A-tahuna was a Crusader-era agricultural estate. There could even have been a monastery here, where monks of the Maltese Order hung out.
The Maltese Order originated in 1080, with a group of religious men who founded a hospital for poor and sick pilgrims next to a Jerusalem abbey. They dedicated their hostel to St. John the Baptist and became known as members of St. John's Order or Hospitallers.
Soon afterward, the Crusaders conquered much of the Land of Israel. Although this brought more pilgrims to the region, there were always enemies around and battles going on. The pilgrims needed someone to defend them - and the monks learned to fight. Eventually, many of them joined the Crusaders, participating in battles and guarding fortresses as well as running hostels all over the country. By the mid-12th century, the order was clearly divided into soldier-monks and those who cared for sick pilgrims. Maltese monks eventually became responsible for seven large fortresses and ran well over 100 agricultural estates in this region - perhaps even this one. After the Muslims reconquered the country from the Crusaders, those members of St. John's Order who survived the battles left for Rhodes. Eventually, they moved to the island of Malta (hence the name Maltese Order).
Once you find the cross, examine it closely. There are several versions of the Maltese cross, but all have four V-shaped arms, connected at the base. The resulting eight points represent eight virtues, among them loyalty, glory and honor, respect for the church, piety and bravery.
Pass through A-tahuna. A short descent takes you down to a road: Turn right and, as you walk along, enjoy a constant view of the Sorek River (on your left). When steps appear to your right, climb up to an asphalt path that is part of the Samson Trail - a new route lined with quotes from the Scriptures.
Continue your hike, this time along the Samson Trail, up to the Danny Raviv Overlook. The lush woodlands that come into view as you begin this leg of the trip may remind you of Switzerland (or at least of pictures of Switzerland, if you haven't been there). Stop at the top to read more biblical quotes, or to have a picnic. Then walk down the hill, where you will find a strange pyramid sculpture called "Past and Future."
Your outing continues with a trek along the ridge of the next, steep hill. Below you, the Sorek riverbed opens up toward the sea. If you time it right, you will be here just as the sun begins to set - a heavenly sight indeed! Finally, walk down the other side of the hill to reach your last stop: Prison Warden Recreation Area. There is no sign, but you will see a "weeping cypress," a tree engulfed in stone and, strangely, lying on its side. You can have a great time here, for not only are there picnic tables and playgrounds for your enjoyment, but this is a veritable archeological park. Traipse around to discover cisterns, huge wine presses, quarries and burial caves probably dating back to at least the Second Temple period. You will even see a tree growing inside an ancient mikve (ritual bath).
Cross the road before following it back 1.7 kilometers to pick up your car. Do you see a cistern covered with iron bars? Peer inside to discover that this is actually an ancient columbarium.
Once car and passengers have been retrieved, continue along Sculpture Way. Even if you don't care for environmental art and didn't do the hike, the view near the end of the route makes a trip to this forest worthwhile. The sight of Beit Shemesh and the lush forests surrounding the Deir Rafat monastery below is absolutely breathtaking, and on a clear day you may be able to see as far west as the Mediterranean.
Pass the last sculpture (the "Twelve Tribes") and at a sharp curve in the road turn right. When you reach the bottom, turn left in the direction of Beit Shemesh. From there you can head toward either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.n