Through Park Britannia to Beit Guvrin

The birds and the bees highlight this section of the Israel Trail.

October 10, 2006 10:45
Through Park Britannia to Beit Guvrin

guvrin 88. (photo credit: )


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You will experience:

  • If timely - Yaki and local homemade cooking at Givat Masua
  • If lucky - sighting a jackal or a falcon
  • If very lucky - a viewing of the legally protected bee orchid
  • Biblical links with the Prophet Micah
  • Roman and post-Roman ruins and hideouts of different shapes and sizes
  • Wide, sweeping views commanding the Hebron Hills to the east and the Shfela and the Coastal Plain to the west
  • A walk that is varied, but short and safe enough for the whole family This part of the Trail has the advantage of starting on high ground - that is, if you have the vehicle to get you up there. Otherwise, it's a 2 km. climb along the paved narrow way signposted to Givat Masua from Route #38, 2 km. to the south of its junction with Route #353. An elaborate dalek-shaped forest fire watchtower marks the top. Ask the keeper to let you in and have a look around. The clearly marked winding mixed-forest path containing pine, oak and carob trees follows the wide ridge separating the Ela Valley and the flattish land towards the coast. In due course the trees fall behind, and you are viewing the characteristic rolling limestone scenery of the tributaries of the Ela Valley. These interlocking V-shaped valleys are dry and do not contain flowing water even during the rainy season. The streams are subterranean, flowing through the joints between the limestone rocks, eventually undermining the surface. By the time you get to the Hirbet Tzora (Tzora ruin), you will be an hour en route, and well-walked. Pass under the olive tree sentinel and explore the mixed bag of ruins behind it. They indicate that this excellent viewpoint down to the edge of the coastal plain was turned to good account by successive waves of Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. With its pleasant breezes and sweeping views, it makes a good spot for lunch and a little ornithology. I spent a tense quarter of an hour following two large birds of prey, praying that they would just get near enough to be snapped. They didn't! Cursing my forgetting of the binoculars, I narrowed it down to the lesser spotted eagle. Eagles, by the way, go for the live food. Vultures settle for the carcass. The path meanders down the Avishor Heights - the snout of the ridge bearing Tel Azeka, Park Britannia and Givat Masua. Try to pick out Kiryat Malachi in the distance, and further behind, Ashkelon and the Mediterranean. Half an hour's easy walk from Hirbet Tzora puts you by Tel Goded - a stone heap, belying Bronze and Iron-Age remains discovered here a century ago. It is a serious candidate for the home ground of the Prophet Micah of Maresha (Micah 1:1), who in the eighth century BCE brought the Divine Word of impending destruction to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judea. Tune your imagination to the BCEs, and tremble as the Prophet thunders: The mountains will melt... the valleys will split open, Like wax before a flame, like water cascading down a slope... (Micah 1:6-17) Turn left on the narrow way downhill, marked by the Israel Trail logo. Make out the round swirling entrance of the Mistor Cave. Set in soft, beige-colored limestone, it is one of some 2,000 caves and tunnels in the region. Together, they testify to natural rain-water chemical weathering and erosion on one hand, and the Jews' ingenuity in striving to hold onto the area against all odds on the other. Indeed, they had been a key element of their Second Revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE) under Bar Kochba. With their small entrances, they were deepened and hollowed out to hold many defenders. Yet initial fighting at the tight entrance had to be on a strictly one-to-one basis for lack of space. It was that which enabled the Hasmoneans to hold out against the Greek army of Antiochus V in the second century BCE, a little further north. It was also a key feature of Bar Kochba's successful initial stand against the Romans; however the systematic and brutal put-down of the rebellion under General Severus proved that even those hiding places could be penetrated. The oil lamps, coins and weapons found within bear silent witness to the last Jewish military stand until modern times. Over the years, caves in the area have served as animal pens, water cisterns, shelters for religious hermits and more recently, as the backdrop of the famous Sylvester Stallone movie, Rambo III. Children go for the next bit - the Trail becomes a slide. The soft limestone weathers into just the right size particles for a thrilling downhill plunge. Herds of cattle wait for you at the bottom. Unfortunately, they are well fenced in. That meant I couldn't examine a particularly interesting specimen that at a distance qualified for the biblical red heifer. The path runs parallel to a very pretty section of Route #38 before bearing right and crossing a cattle grid. There are several caves on both sides of the path; however, the fatigued will be relieved that they are now on the outskirts of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. Behind the houses which tastefully blend into the landscape stand structures resembling Australian desert wind-pumps; they are doum palm trees. Native to Upper Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, they have established themselves in the Eilat area, but are only rarely found further north. Also called the gingerbread palm (after the taste of its red-orange fruit), the 15-m. tree has a slender trunk and smooth branches, tipped with a rosette of small, stiff, green, fan-like leaves. The doum palm nut is eaten raw, and the rind from the seeds may be turned into sweetmeats and molasses. There were two unexpected meetings on the last section of the Trail, just before the unnamed (but impressive) Sheikh's Mausoleum. On the right hand side was a temporary Beduin encampment, whose population eyed me as the circus coming to town. They spoke no English and I affected to know neither Hebrew nor Arabic, but we got on just fine! And up on the left came a party of Israel Trail walkers, who started out from Taba and were making for the start at Beit Ussishkin. I turned left along Route #353 and eventually coasted into Beit Guvrin and its junction with Route #35. Four hours of hiking and the midday heat were enough to postpone a close-quarters exploration of Beit Guvrin and Tel Maresha till the next visit. There are several welcome sources of solid and liquid refreshment in the vicinity, but I just had to chug into the next Israel Trail orange-topped station marking the end of the leg to Beit Guvrin.

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