Megiddo 88 248.
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
For most people, the Jezreel Valley is an area they pass through on their way from the center of the country to the North. But even after living four decades on a kibbutz that hugs the lower slopes of the Menashe Hills on the rim of the Jezreel Valley, this writer is still discovering and rediscovering people and places - relishing in the opportunity, when friends and family visit from abroad, to share and show off some of those Jezreel Valley gems.
The ancient mound (tel) of Megiddo is a good place to start - even though there are some who believe this is the site where everything will end! An unbelievable 30 layers of civilization have been discovered and painstakingly uncovered since the first archaeological expedition was carried out in 1903. Every two years, more discoveries are made as hundreds of people from Israel and abroad pick through the dirt in the hope of discovering yet more secrets of Har Megiddo ("Armageddon"), which is mentioned in both the Bible and the New Testament.
Fortifications, underground shafts and water tunnels, King Solomon's chariot stables and much more await visitors to the site that served as a base for James Michener's blockbuster novel The Source. Visitors to Tel Megiddo can get into the spirit with an audiovisual presentation before they take a walk back in time. The highest promontory at Megiddo, with its few palm trees that are visible for miles, offers a view of the valley that is quite breathtaking on a clear day. The view includes Nazareth, perched on the hills opposite; Mount Tabor - pudding-shaped with the Franciscans' Basilica of the Transfiguration church and monastery protruding from its peak; the Gilboa mountain range and Jenin tucked in the corner. A short distance from Megiddo, Israel's West Bank security fence follows the Green Line across the Jezreel Plains floor.
In the center of the valley sits the Ramat David Air Force base. The base might not be visible, but the planes are definitely heard as engines rev up before takeoff or aircraft circle the valley prior to landing. Close by, the small Megiddo Airport serves glider and light aircraft traffic. Recently, the little airport has been the scene of demonstrations by valley residents who strongly oppose plans to develop a commercial airport there.
Leaving Megiddo and heading towards the town of Yokneam, the Carmel mountain range looms ahead. Beit Shearim, burial place of former Sanhedrin head Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, who codified the Mishna, is our next port of call.
A network of underground catacombs house scores of decorated sarcophagi, now empty. Even so, it is a somewhat eerie but also electrifying experience to walk around the dimly-lit burial chambers and caves and study the intricate decorations on the sarcophagi. Some bear Hebrew inscriptions; others writing in Greek or Aramaic. Animal themes seem to have been the most popular order of the day. A menora carved out of the soft limestone is particularly spectacular.
Beit Shearim also contains the ruins of a number of structures thought to be dwellings from the 2nd to 4th centuries BCE, after which the site was destroyed by the Romans. The remains of a synagogue stand at the side of the approach road leading down to the Beit Shearim National Park. Standing proudly on a hill, guarding both the ancient site and Jezreel Valley at his feet, is a large statue of Alexander Zaid, founder of HaShomer - armed guards on horseback who protected the valley's Jewish farmers against Arab marauders in the 1930s.
Zaid is credited with discovering the remains of Beit Shearim when he built his home on the hill. His dwelling is also very close to the double-domed tomb of Sheikh Bruk. Last year, metal thieves attempted to steal the Zaid statue, but they found it too heavy to cart off.
For visitors with a taste for more, how about adding the picturesque side-by-side former Templar villages of Alonei Aba and Beit Lehem Haglilit to the day's visit?
The manicured gardens and open public spaces around the German sect's impressive community center invite a slow stroll and many a photo op, particularly for the overseas visitors. The home of Kobi and Nurit Fleishman has been turned into an in-house museum. Templar expert and tour guide Kobi Fleishman tells riveting stories about the Templar house that Nurit's parents lived in after making aliya in the early 1950s. In those days, four families shared the two-story home, after its previous Nazi-sympathizing occupants were banished back to Germany or Australia by the British. The villages consist of attractive stone houses with arched windows, wooden shutters and intricate iron work railings around the second-floor balconies - true jewels in the Jezreel Valley's crown.