The only equestrian sculpture in Israel sits atop a ridge in the central area of the Jezreel Valley. The bronze muscle-rippling gentleman astride an equally impressive horse is none other than Alexander Zaid, one of the founders of the clandestine Hashomer defense organization in existence at the beginning of the l900s.
Perched on the Sheikh Abrek hill opposite the entrance to Kfar Yehoshua, with the homes of Kiryat Haroshet and the Carmel mountains on one side and Kiryat Tivon on the other, Zaid and his steady steed command an impressive view over Ha'emek ("the valley"), as it is commonly known.
The valley is also known as the gateway to the Galilee, hence Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha'amakim (Valley Gate) and Bet She'arim (House of Gates), the site where the Sanhedrin supreme court once sat.
Although born in Siberia, Zaid moved to Vilna when he was 13 years old and it was there that he joined the Zionist Labor movement. He arrived in Palestine in l904, three years before the founding of Hashomer, a group of rifle-over-the-shoulder horsemen dedicated to protecting Jewish pioneers in the land as they struggled to drain swamps, plant forests and turn the Galilee soil, while fighting off bands of armed Arabs and battling malaria and other terrible diseases prevalent at the time.
After over a decade living in Kfar Giladi and Tel Hai, Zaid decided to set up home in the Jezreel Valley and was hired by the Jewish National Fund to keep a watchful eye over the Jewish communities in the region. The accomplished guardsman was wounded in a skirmish with Arab rioters in l932. Six years later, he was ambushed and killed by Arab marauders while on guard duty.
It was Zaid who found the remains of an ancient cemetery near his abode. He approached the historian Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who identified the site as that of Bet She'arim. Ben-Zvi went on to become the second president of Israel and the archaeological dig that got underway in l936 laid bare Bet She'arim, destroyed sometime in the fourth century.
Ruins of a second century synagogue lie just down the slope to the rear of the Zaid statue. The synagogue - claimed to be one of the largest in the land at that time - was destroyed by the Romans to punish locals who resisted their rule.
Behind a nearby ancient olive press, a sharp slope leads down to a large area of catacombs, the fa ade of which was restored in the late l950s using fragments unearthed on-site. A damp and eerie collection of chambers leads off a main hall where hundreds of open and often broken sarcophagi are on view. Most are made of local stone, some of marble and there is one tomb made of lead and decorated with four menoras. Other decorations are of various animals, human faces, shells and many engravings in Aramaic and Greek.
Had the Zionist horseman of the l900s not chosen to build his home atop a hill in the valley, it is possible that the important discovery might still be something for seekers of the past to discover in the future.
Directly in front of the fenced-off Abrek Hill statue of man and beast, embedded in a large mound of stones, is a domed building known as the tomb of Sheikh Abrek, believed to be a corruption of the name Barak. Deborah the Prophetess fought a battle against the Canaanites on the banks of the Kishon river in the Jezreel Valley. According to the Book of Judges, Barak fought alongside the fencing feminist of biblical times.
One is hard pressed to trace the course of the Kishon in most parts of the valley these days, as it is little more than a stream (although it has turned into a short-lived raging river a few times in recent decades following torrential rain storms). From the brow of Sheikh Abrek it is possible to see parts of the Kishon depression winding its way through the valley floor, although it becomes a "now you see me, now you don't" game for the better part.
The overview of Kfar Yehoshua, other moshavim and valley kibbutzim, the towns of Migdal Ha'emek halfway up and Nazareth atop the mountain range to the left, then further down the line Mt. Tabor, Mt. Moreh and Afula is astounding. The magnitude of the agricultural and other developmental achievements of the pioneer settlers and their children and children's children in this valley over the past hundred years suddenly hit home.
As I stood and took in a deep breath of yester-Zionism, two events brought me back to present day reality.
The first was a crocodile of noisy mud-flinging all-terrain vehicles slipping and sliding up the side of the hill, mowing down carpets of wild flowers without a thought for the environment. The second was a small group of environmentalists who had been meeting in protest against the planned route of a section of the Trans-Israel Highway due to carve up sections of the valley and turn the nearby Tishbi crossroads into the largest interchange in the country.
I imagine poor Mr. Zaid was probably twisting in his saddle behind us.