A ‘village trail’ through a forest

Taking a walk along a path lined with luxurious vegetation

The Yoav fortress (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Yoav fortress
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Fifteen years ago, Israel’s Fund for the Rehabilitation of Quarries began work on a long-abandoned site inside the Jewish National Fund’s Komemiyut Forest. Although the quarry was beautifully rehabilitated, the Fund had neglected to coordinate its project with JNF strategists. As a result, for years this fascinating attraction just sat there – in the middle of the forest – unnoticed by the Israeli public.
Fortunately, when the JNF’s Talila Livshutz began preparing a trail through the forest, she included the quarry in the new route. Completed in 2009, the trail is an absolute delight: an easy, circular walk along a marked path and perfect for all ages. Besides the quarry, it encompasses a vast variety of foliage, several wells and an orchard.
To reach the start of the trail from the north or south, take Highway 40 in the direction of Kiryat Gat. At Plugot Junction turn west on Highway 35 toward Ashkelon. About halfway through the seven kilometers it takes you to get to the beginning of the trail, you pass through a stunning boulevard of ficus trees. (If you are coming from the west, you will miss this part of the outing.) The trees, called “Boulevard Ficus” (in Hebrew fikus hasdera) were planted before the establishment of the State of Israel by Avraham Krinitzi. Krinitzi, mayor of Ramat Gan from 1926 until his death in 1969, received the seedlings from the head of a village near today’s Kibbutz Negba. When the road was widened and some of the trees were cut down, the JNF replaced them with new ones.
Turn into the forest at the sign for Negba and Metzudat Yoav (Yoav Fortress – see below). Pass the Givati Recreation Area, turn left onto a little dirt road and park at the sign for “Qommeyyut Forest.” Then ascend the little hill to a green arrow like those you will be following all the way back to your car at the end of your jaunt.
Next the arrow, a sign in Hebrew for Shvil Hakfar (Village Trail) hints that part of the route includes ruins from an Arab village that stood here until 1948.
All of the signs, unfortunately, are in Hebrew only: Livshutz once told me that only if a project is funded by a donation from an English-speaking contributor are the signs written in English.
YOUR PATH is lined with luxurious eucalyptus trees, planted in the 1950s and wonderfully mature.
Eucalyptus trees have all kinds of uses. For example, besides the beauty they lend to the landscape they are excellent windbreakers. In addition, their flowers provide food for hungry bees at a time when other foliage is not in bloom.
Next on this charming forest trail is a beautiful pine grove interspersed with a few sycamores. Like the eucalyptus, which hails from Australia, sycamore trees are not native to Israel. Indeed, in order to bear ripe fruit and create seeds, they require a particular hornet that is found only in West Africa.
Israel’s sycamores were brought here by settlers thousands of years ago because they are very useful in the construction of houses. At the time, settlers planted a sycamore tree every time a son was born.
When he grew up, they would cut down the tree, whose trunk made a perfect beam, and build him a house. Of course the sycamores you see along the trail were planted by the JNF – and not by long-ago settlers.
The next trees to line the path are Christ-thorn jujubes (shezaf). Traditionally, this type of tree was used to create the thorny crown that Jesus wore on his last journey. Some Arabs believe that the tree has magical powers, and others that ghosts live in the trunk.
Jujube fruits are called domim in Hebrew. When ripe the fruits are yellowish, with one pit inside, and while a bit floury they are quite delicious.
Both the jujube and the eucalyptus along the trail were planted in the 1950s. At the time, Negev settlers were struggling to make a living, and planting trees for the JNF provided them with jobs.
Continue straight ahead (even if vandals have removed the sign with its green arrow). Groves of mixed pine, sycamore and jujube trees create a truly lush and handsome landscape.
Soon you reach a group of carob trees, laden with long, dangling brown fruit most of the year. In Hebrew the tree is called haruv, perhaps because the fruits vaguely resemble swords (herev, in Hebrew).
The New Testament relates that when John the Baptist lived in the Judean wilderness he nourished himself with “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). However, carob seeds are also known as locust beans, and many believe that John dined on carobs, and not grasshoppers.
Jewish tradition holds that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who fled from the Romans during the second century, hid in a cave in the village of Peki’in. Miraculously, both a life-giving spring and a carob tree appeared across from the cave, providing him with sustenance for over a decade. Dried carob fruit is traditionally eaten on Tu Bishvat – and some believe it to be an aphrodisiac.
On the average, this area receives about 350 millimeters of rain each year, and it was important to the JNF to discover which species of trees would thrive on this amount of rainfall. Thus from 1994 to 1996 the JNF planted a number of types of trees in an “acclimatization” area, located along your path.
Although now inactive, the area boasts plenty of flourishing trees, among them oak, eucalyptus and jujube. Some have shed their leaves, creating environmental sculptures. On your right, the terebinth with thorns are Land of Israel terebinth; those green and orange leaves on the left belong to pistachio terebinth.
Soon you walk through a grove of stone pines, whose rounded crowns emit an aura of tranquility. Adding to the atmosphere on our jaunt a few weeks ago were delicate pink crocuses that we found growing close to the ground. Nearby, exotic palms provide a startling contrast to the pines.
YOUR PATH, now lined with little stones, leads you to the rim of the quarry. The rock quarried here was kurkar, a sea limestone created by the fossilization of sand dunes. Today if you want quarried sea limestone you have to look outside of Israel – to Malta, for example.
In fall the rim of the quarry is studded with squill.
Most of the rest of the year caper plants grow in the rocks. Follow the path down and into the quarry, and look for lizards: they enjoy crawling on kurkar rocks.
Back on top, head straight to enter a lovely forest of stone and Jerusalem pines. Eventually you reach a well, lined with bricks made of kurkar and topped by thick iron bars to keep you from falling inside. Like other area wells, this one is about 40 meters deep.
There should be a green arrow leading right at the T-junction. You will be walking toward the highway, and you may hear the cars, but the path will head left before you get there. Pass the tall eucalyptus (it should be on your right) and you will soon be privy to a very strange sight: wide eucalyptus trunks that have been chopped down are found next to small, new trees.
Many years ago the JNF made a deal that was meant to promote Israeli industries. They took healthy trees (both eucalyptus and pine) and gave them to factories that needed them for carpentry. This would probably have been a good idea in Canada or Minnesota where trees are a dime a dozen. But Israel lost badly needed mature and hearty trees. You can see how big they would have been by examining the bare trunks.
Pass a lush grove of prickly pears (sabras), which should never be picked without gloves and a tin can (remember this, please, if you come in summer).
YOU WILL no doubt notice ruins from the village of Iraq Suidan (see box). Several hundred people lived in the village, which was destroyed after its conquest by the Givati Brigade in 1948.
Notice the strange rows of dirt beneath your feet as you continue on. The JNF calls these shikim – or “dirt dams.” When it rains, these dams create puddles that provide trees with as much as four times the amount of water they would otherwise receive.
Finally, enter an orchard filled with fruit trees: sycamore, almond, olive, fig and pomegranate. In order to ensure good, ripe sycamore fruit, a sycamore “dresser” has to slit the top of each fig. Sycamore dressing of this type is mentioned in Amos 7:14, when the prophet denied any connection to prophets and their disciples: “Then Amos said to Amaziah: ‘I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdman, and a dresser of sycamore-trees.” Today sycamore fruit is called “figs for the poor” and provides food for cows and sheep.
A group of pre-army girls has “adopted” the orchard.
Besides caring for the existing trees, they are adding new ones just before Tu Bishvat.
Pass some lovely date trees and vineyards, then follow the sign on the path that curves to the right and you will begin passing sites that you recognize from the beginning of your outing. Soon you will return to your car, but come back in other seasons, when the trees and flowers will have changed their look.