Exploring Gush Etzion

Cave walks, sparkling springs and a wealth of historical sites can be found a short drive from Jerusalem.

The Gush Etzion Forest. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Gush Etzion Forest.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
King Herod had a problem: Nobody liked him. Handpicked by the hated Romans to rule the Land of Israel and so paranoid that he kept murdering his loved ones, Herod had done his best to win over the Jews in his kingdom. He had even built a temple that “appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain, for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white.” (Josephus Flavius in Wars of the Jews).
And still he was despised! The Sanhedrin (council of Jewish sages) claimed that he wasn’t even Jewish, even though his family had converted during the time of the Maccabees. And when there was a problem, the Jews listened to the Sanhedrin and not to their king.
So Herod tried again. Jerusalem had grown so fast that there was never enough water to provide for its residents and to supply the pilgrims that came to worship three times a year. The gardens were drying up and, most importantly, the Temple priests were desperate for enough water to perform their rituals.
“That’s it!” thought Herod. “I will give the city water. Hopefully, they will be so dependent on my good graces that they will start listening to me. And in addition, I will be able to control the goings-on at the Temple.”
Herod chose an area in the Judean Mountains – today’s Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion) – for his project. Located high above Jerusalem, it got plenty of rain and snow every year and was filled with springs. And that is how, 2,000 years ago, the Biyar Aqueduct was born.
I heard this interesting version of events on a recent visit to Gush Etzion. My guide for the day was Gadi Haimov from the Kfar Etzion Field School, which had invited my husband and me for an overnight in one of its cabins, to be followed by what they promised would be a wildly diverse outing.
Our day, crisp and cool, was filled with excitement. It began with an exhilarating ride through the mountains on an ATV and continued with cave walks, antiquities, several sparkling springs and a wealth of historical sites that anyone can do on his/ her own.
We started out at Deer Land, across the main road from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Having in the past sailed through the air on their zip-line and watched my grandchildren on the rope ladders and climbing walls, I settled for just the ATV ride they offered.
Zooming up and down mountains, enjoying the wind blowing through my hair and, at times, gripping the side of my seat to keep from falling out, the benefits of riding in an ATV became clear: You can take in a heck of a lot of sights off the track within a very short time. From our vantage points nearly a kilometer above sea level, we could see the coastal plains and all the way from Tel Aviv to Gaza. We also had a tremendous view of Beitar Ilit, an extraordinarily well-planned all-haredi city that has grown from a population of 5,000 to more than 50,000 in less than 10 years.
MUCH OF our ride we spent inside the Gush Etzion Forest, full of a variety of pine trees planted by the Jewish National Fund after the area came under Israeli control in 1967. At one point we stopped at the beautiful Dog Spring (Ein Kalb). According to legend, long ago a man tied his dog to a pole stuck in a rock. The dog pulled so hard on the pole that it split the rock and created a spring.
Another spring we visited was situated on the site of Old Revadim, founded in 1947 and razed to the ground by the Arab Legion on May 13, 1948. The site of a bitter pre-1948 dispute between two kibbutzim that both needed its water, the spring was located deep inside a cave.
Snow that falls nearly every year on Gush Etzion can be more than a meter deep and remain on the ground for as long as a month. That makes the region perfect for the cherry groves we passed, the perfect crop for a region that can get very cold and receives a lot of precipitation. Mountain flowers blossom up here in the winter and spring, while in November Gush Etzion boasts the largest concentration of sternbergia in the country. Just now, hundreds of thousands are blooming near Herodion.
Back in civilization, we zoomed up a steep hill to Alon Shvut, established on the site where a major battle between the Greeks and the Maccabees was fought more than two millennia ago. Next to the caravans, a sign leads to Givat Hahish (Hish Hill), 971 meters above sea level and a few hundred meters from the main Jerusalem/Hebron road.
Volunteers from the pre-state Field Corps Forces (heilot sadeh), whose acronym was Hish, manned a post on the hill during the War of Independence and until the fall of Gush Etzion on May 14, 1948.
On January 14, nearly 1,000 Arabs attacked Gush Etzion in the first major campaign of the war.
Commanded by their revered leader Abdul Kader el- Husseini, the Arabs fully expected to win the battle in what they believed was a jihad, or holy war. Yet despite the planning that went into the operation and their overwhelming numbers and equipment, they suffered such heavy casualties that they were forced to retreat.
Following this ignominious defeat, Husseini changed his tactics and decided to wage a battle for the roads. Since Gush Etzion was the only Jewish enclave on the road between Arab Hebron and southern Jerusalem, the bloc’s four tiny colonies – although under siege by the enemy – became a huge strategic asset.
In early April, the bloc’s defenders were told to make an extra effort to harass Arab traffic traveling between the two holy cities. Then, at the end of the month, a furious battle for southern Jerusalem broke out in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood and the San Simon Monastery. Defenders at Gush Etzion were ordered to do everything in their power to prevent Arab reinforcements and weapons from reaching Jerusalem.
And, indeed, during the famous and bloody battle for San Simon, when practically every Jewish soldier had either been wounded or killed and whoever could do so was told to retreat, a miracle happened: The reinforcements from Hebron that the Arabs were anxiously awaiting failed to appear.
Their commander fled the scene, followed by his troops. The soldiers holed up in the monastery were saved; southern Jerusalem was in Jewish hands. And on November 17, 1949, when the bodies of those who had fallen in the Etzion Bloc were buried on Mount Herzl, prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared that “If there is a Hebrew Jerusalem today, our thanks go...
first and foremost to the defenders at Gush Etzion.”
A SHORT walk along the hill led us to antiquities dating back to the Second Temple era, when early Jewish settlers raised pigeons in the two-storied columbarium. Settlers would send the pigeons off with messages, eat them and their eggs or take them to the Temple to be sacrificed. Nearby, the settlers’ mikve is carved into the rock, with wide steps that narrow at the bottom and lead into a plastered pool.
From here we took the main road to a 700-year-old kermes oak just outside Alon Shvut. Known as the Lone Oak, the tree stood at the center of the Bloc’s four little pre-state kibbutzim until, on May 12, 1948, Kfar Etzion fell to the Arab Legion, and almost every defender was massacred. The three other settlements quickly surrendered, and their defenders were taken prisoner.
After all four communities were razed by the Arabs, only the Lone Oak was left standing. Until the region was returned to Israel during the Six Day War, it was a symbol of Gush Etzion that survivors and their children would gaze at from afar. Today, the site is beautifully landscaped as a touching memorial site with an audio information center telling the story of Gush Etzion.
Off Route 367, a sign leads to the Russian Monastery, or rather its ruins, for the friendly Russian Orthodox who lived there had permitted Jewish troops to position themselves on the roof.
Here Haimov told us about the vicious Arab attack on May 4 and that much of the fighting took place right here. During the final battle for Gush Etzion, eight days later, the monastery was captured and demolished.
While there are ruins to explore and a picnic site on the hill, it is the area underneath the former monastery that is most exciting. A path leads into a cave that contains the remains of a large oil press that dates back 2,000 or so years. Then, further inside, you walk down a long, narrow, dark corridor with tiny side niches offering barely enough room to sit down. Carved out by the Russians a century or so ago, this is where a monk would go if he felt the need to be alone.
Our last stop was at the Biyar Aqueduct, located near the Elazar Junction. Inside the enormous Roman-era cave that houses the source of the aqueduct, visitors choose between a short stroll on top of the channel or two longer water walks (great in summer, but possibly too cold at the moment).
Experts differ on the actual creator of the aqueduct (the Maccabees? Herod? Pontius Pilate?), but whoever was responsible made sure it would remain clean and functioning. The Romans especially had strict rules about how close to the aqueduct you could plant a tree or grow a crop. And in those days, anyone who damaged the aqueduct – in use until the 1970s – was liable to be put to death.
For information on touring Gush Etzion and on overnight lodgings, call the Kfar Etzion Field School at (02) 993-5133 (not on Shabbat). There is no access to Givat Hahish on Shabbat, as it lies within a religious community. For Deer Land, call 050-538-8705.
Seven days a week you can visit the Lone Oak and explore the area of the Russian Monastery. You can also visit the Biyar Aqueduct if you have made arrangements in advance. Bring a flashlight.