King Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua all fell on Mount Gilboa in a battle between Israel and the Philistines. The sons were slain; Saul was critically wounded and begged his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword. Terrified, the soldier refused, so Saul "took his own sword and fell on it" (I Samuel, 31:1-4).
When he heard the news, David wept bitterly. Heartbroken at the loss of his king - and his best friend - he cursed the mountains of Gilboa in the Lament of the Bow: "O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, nor fields that yield offerings of grain." [II Samuel, 1:21].
If you visit the Gilboa in spring, the mountain's masses of wildflowers seem to belie the curse. Come in summer, however, and you can't help but feel its effect. For aside from trees planted by the Jewish National Fund, all you find on the Gilboa are dried ferula plants, a few scattered shrubs and the hardy purple globe thistle.
Yet with or without foliage, the Gilboa Mountains are a sight to see. No matter how hot it is outside, early in the morning and late in the afternoon you are welcomed with a lovely, cooling breeze. And an excellent road - the JNF's Gilboa Scenic Route - is a stepping stone to hikes, memorials, overlooks, picnic sites, bike paths and dozens of breathtaking views that differ with the seasons and your vantage point.
You can enter the Scenic Route by turning onto Road 667 from the Jordan Valley Highway (90). This description, however, begins at the opposite end: Take Highway 60 from Afula and turn left (east) at the Yizre'el Junction onto Road 675. Turn right at the sign for Road 667, the Gilboa Scenic Route.
You are now climbing the Gilboa Ridge, which is 18 kilometers long and juts out from the northern side of the Samarian Mountains. Its proximity to the Syrian African Rift created steep cliffs on the Gilboa's northern and eastern sides, over the Harod and Beit She'an Valleys, and at their tallest height they reach 650 meters above sea level. Prepare to immerse yourself in the past: The entire route follows mountain peaks and overlooks whose names are connected with biblical events.
Pass (or stop in at) the Nurit Picnic Site. In the 1950s, this area became a makeshift community (ma'abara) for Yemenite immigrants given jobs planting trees on the Gilboa and working in the area's quarries.
Drive on a bit further to reach the top of Mount Shaul (Saul), 302 meters above sea level and jutting from the rest of the ridge. Follow the asphalt road to a short, circular Bible Trail. Slightly overgrown with dry weeds and neglected at the moment, it is lined with rather illegible Hebrew plaques that describe the biblical events that have taken place on or near the Gilboa.
Fortunately, this route has other attractions; at a break in the pine forest through which you are walking, a "window" seems to open onto a very special view of the Gilboa dropping sharply down to the valley, and of the valley itself. Part of the mountain is completely bare, the only foliage being forests planted by the JNF. Could this be a result of David's curse?
Biblical names associated with battles are everywhere. To the north you can see Givat Hamoreh, on whose foothills the Philistines camped before going to battle with Saul - and whose adjacent valley housed the Midianites before they were routed by Gideon. Beyond Givat Hamoreh, you can make out the tip of Mount Tabor (Barak and the prophetess Deborah). The Heights of Issachar, who fought with Barak, are to the east, while the upper Jezreel Valley is spread out before you to the west.
Mount Shaul has become extremely popular with Israeli hang-gliders and windsurfers. If you come up on a weekend, you can watch as sports enthusiasts take off from the mountain top and glide gracefully over the valley like the birds of prey that once lived in the cliffs.
Back on the road, it isn't far to Ketef Shaul (Saul's Shoulder), the Scenic Route's main recreation area. It features picnic tables adapted to wheelchairs, playgrounds and an accessible trail to a lovely lookout.
After your picnic, continue along the route to the Vinya Overlook on your left. Turn in and take the bumpy (but passable) road to two balconies in a lush grove. Reuven Vinya Cohen was active in the JNF, and he was one of the founders of Ein Harod, visible below - along with sparkling fishponds and colorful fields. Follow the road to the end, turn right, and you will find yourself back on the Scenic Route.
Continue along the route and, if you have two cars and are very fit, you can take a difficult red-marked trail that leads to Ein Hasamal (the sergeant's spring). The "samal" in question was Moshe Rosenfeld, a remarkable Jewish policeman under the British Mandate who patrolled this area with two Arab underlings. One day in late 1935, while following a trail of grapefruit peels from fruit stolen out of Jewish fields, Rosenfeld was ambushed near a spring and killed by terrorists. He is considered to have been the first victim of bloody Arab riots that lasted from 1936 to 1939.
In those early years, when the Palmah was organizing units in the area so that farmers could defend themselves, members needed a place to train. But the British had a camp in the wadi, where the Shata Prison stands today. Searching for the right venue, they happened upon a valley completely hidden from prying eyes.
But how were they to practice weaponry without being heard? Nearby, there was a Jewish-owned quarry that presented the Palmah commanders with the answer - and timetable. Troops practiced shooting when there was drilling at the quarry: When rocks were blasted with explosives, they tried out hand grenades.
The steep trail is for good hikers only, for near the bottom the descent becomes very difficult to maneuver. During your hike, you pass the now-dry spring and begin descending toward the Hidden Valley. Your second car should be waiting below the Gilboa at Old Tel Yosef.
If you didn't do the hike, keep going on the scenic route to reach Mount Barkan, where a far easier, hour-long circular peak trail gives you an excellent view of Nablus and the Jenin Valley. Take the path from the JNF tower.
Back on the road, you will soon reach the Gilboa Iris Nature Reserve. It is dry in summer, but from here you can take a path that leads all the way to the watchtower at Mount Barkan (you can see it from the reserve). If you return in spring, you can take a circular path through the reserve to enjoy the sight of these exquisite flowers. They commonly appear in numerous shades of purple and, in rare cases, other colors as well.
Because we call it the Gilboa iris, you would think that this is the only spot on which it can be found. Actually, it also grows in the Judean Desert and near Ein Gev - but in much smaller quantities. Some people claim that this is not the Gilboa iris's natural setting. Indeed, they say, the iris was first planted in Arab cemeteries long ago and only later reached the reserve.
Only a few dozen meters down the road, on your left, there is a marvelous overlook named for Paltiel Sela. Park next to the sign, then walk about 400 meters in the shady forest. When you see a stone picnic table up the hill and to your right, you will have reached the lookout. Climb up for a terrific view. I read somewhere that after the War of Independence, Arabs destroyed the monument to Moshe Rosenfeld at Ein Hasamal; Sela, who worked for the Nature Reserves Authority, got a group of young people together that reconstructed the memorial and cleaned up the spring.
Dubi Shamir, born and raised in the Beit She'an Valley, fell in the line of duty on April 4, 1977. His son Eran, a toddler of two at the time of his father's death, was killed during a battle in Lebanon exactly 20 years and one month later. Both were nature lovers who were steeped in the history of this land, admired its heroes and found immense pleasure in her landscapes. How fitting, then, that a stirring monument to their memory stands on the heights of the biblical Mount Gilboa and offers spectacular views of the countryside.
Last year, some kind of bug or bacterium hit the nearby Iris Reserve and there were very few flowers to be seen. Here at the Dubi and Eran Overlook, however, they appeared in all their glory.
As you walk to the top, stop to read the poems inscribed in stones that line the path. You will recognize at least some of them, for they have been put to music and become popular songs about the Gilboa and the Jezreel Valley.
Built by new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia employed by the JNF during the early 1990s, the last recreation area on the route once boasted a contraption that created the sound of windpipes and was called the Mount Avinadav Wind Flute Recreation Area.
Today, it is simply the Avinadav Recreation Area, with sparse-leafed olive trees that don't provide much shade and deep green carobs that do. Trails are several hundred meters long and parallel to the cliff. These paths, like that which leads to the edge of the mountain, offer a stupendous view of the Beit She'an Valley, the Gilead Mountains and the gleaming pools below. In season, this spot is a wonderland of cyclamen and other brilliant flowers.
Finish off your outing with a visit to the Aliza Malka Overlook, named for a 17-year-old murdered by Arab terrorists in 2001. To get there, turn right toward Kibbutz Merav, named for one of King Saul's daughters.
From the lovely, shady lookout you can see the security fence and easily distinguish which part of Israel is inside the Green Line: Just look for rows of trees that the JNF planted there in the 1950s. Finally, return to the Scenic Route and take it to where it ends at the Jordan Valley Highway.