Deep roots 300825

From the northern oaks and cedars to the Negev’s petrified trees, the country’s flora is an inseparable part of its history.

TREES IN Jerusalem’s Har Adar forest 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Itzhak Rabihiya)
TREES IN Jerusalem’s Har Adar forest 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Itzhak Rabihiya)
There is something excruciatingly painful about a forest ravaged by fire, whether the blaze was caused by a lit cigarette tossed casually onto the ground or ignited after rockets landed in its midst. It’s not just the sight of uprooted trees, naked branches and charcoal-roasted trunks, or the smell of bark burned to a crisp, but the sound – or, rather, the lack thereof. For when you stand inside a devastated forest, the wind doesn’t whistle through the trees and not a single bird sings from within the thickets.
Shortly after the Second Lebanon War came to an end in August 2006, a group of journalists participated in a Jewish National Fund tour to Galilee woodlands destroyed by Hezbollah rockets. Few of us went home without having shed at least one tear, for the sight of such wanton destruction of what only two months earlier had been living, breathing forests was enough to make the most hardened of us weep.
It is nothing less than a miracle that, despite thousands of years of war and foreign occupation, so many trees have nonetheless managed to survive. On Tu Bishvat, January 26, the trees in Israel celebrate their very own New Year, making this the perfect time to visit one of these ancient remnants of an earlier time, or a younger tree that, hopefully, will make it to a grand old age. Here are some suggestions:
East of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel – follow the signs On June 5, 1967, as positions along the Israeli- Jordanian border began to heat up and Israel was cautioning the late King Hussein to stay out of what would become the Six Day War, a foreign radio station announced the conquest of Mount Scopus by Jordanian troops. This was the journalist’s mistake, for what was really in play was a Jordanian plan to take Government House in southern Jerusalem. Yet it was clear to Israel that Jordan was going to war and that Mount Scopus was in danger.
The Jordanians had always assumed that if Israel attacked, its forces would come around from west to east.
Instead, the Jerusalem Brigade appeared from the opposite direction and by late afternoon on June 5 had taken Talpiot’s Government House; three Jordanian positions; and the village of Sur Bahir. Only after they had conquered the Bell Outpost did they permit themselves to relax: they had managed to cut off the strategically crucial Bethlehem-Jerusalem road from further Arab invasion.
At that point, several Arab troops came out of hiding and killed four Israeli soldiers.
The JNF began developing Olive Tree Park in the late 1980s, right next to Bell Outpost – an almost circular position with bunkers in all directions, which youngsters will find exciting to explore. From here, you can enjoy a lovely view of the Arab villages and cities south of Jerusalem.
But the park’s main feature is the Olive Column Monument, a thick-columned structure 15 meters high, upon which three 92-year-old olive trees are currently thriving. Paths lead through 27 concentric rows of olive trees, a species that traditionally symbolizes fertility, strength, peace and life. Incredibly, the trees bear fruit despite being severed from the earth below.
Hatzanhanim Street. Take the light rail to City Hall station Sir Moses Montefiore traveled to the Holy Land seven times between 1827 and 1875. The trip by ship and by carriage would have been tiring for anyone, but it was especially exhausting for someone of Montefiore’s advanced age. His last visit took place when he was 91 years old.
On his visits to Jerusalem, Montefiore and his entourage often stopped to rest across from the Old City walls in the shade of an ancient Atlantic terebinth.
Fortunately, when Count de Piellat built the stunning French Hospital on the same site in 1881, he incorporated the tree into the grounds. Over 12 meters tall and nearly 1,000 years old, the tree towers above the hospital walls right across from the Old City’s New Gate.
Off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway at Hemed Junction In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet declares that “the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter” (10:3-4).
Jeremiah may have been referring to a practice common in the Mediterranean region, in which pagans chopped down Jerusalem pines to build idols that they then decorated in honor of a deity. Some people believe that early Christians adapted this practice, and that the first Christmas tree was actually the Jerusalem pine. Interestingly, two of the country’s grandest Jerusalem pines are found in the garden of the millennia- old Church of the Resurrection in the Muslim village of Abu Ghosh. Enjoy the entire garden, and don’t miss the restored Crusader frescos inside the church.
Visiting Hours: 8:30 to 11:30, 2:30 to 5:30 Closed Thursday and Sunday.
On Route 411, 10 kilometers southeast of Rehovot It doesn’t blossom in spring and it doesn’t bear nutritious fruit. Yet the Mediterranean cypress, tall, straight and regal, is one of my favorite trees. Long ago, its wood was used for building the Temple, ships and musical instruments. Locals believe potions and ointments made from the fruit of the Mediterranean cypress can treat diabetes, strengthen the immune system, heal gum infections and fungus and alleviate toothaches.
You can find dark green Mediterranean cypress trees on any Israeli outing. Remnants of wild cypress have been found here and there, but most were planted by JNF in forests, parks and at memorial sites.
Inside Hulda Forest, the JNF’s very first woodlands, two stunning monuments are separated by a long path lined with magnificent Washingtonian palms. At one end stands a work sculpted by famous artist Batya Lichansky; it stands over the grave of Ephraim Chisik, who was killed defending Hulda in 1929.
At the other end, an entirely different but no less striking monument is dedicated to Lt. Tal Zemach, who was born at Kibbutz Hulda. Tal began his army service in an elite unit and went on to become an officer. He was killed by terrorists in the Jordan Valley 11 years ago, at the age of 20. Pay your respects with a visit to the simple and moving memorial: falling white stones, a stone bench, gardens and tall, stately cypress trees.
Several Mediterranean cultures identify the cypress with the afterlife, prompted by its evergreen quality and the fact that it is roughly shaped like a candle, a symbol of the soul in both Judaism and Islam. It is commonly planted at cemeteries of both faiths throughout Israel, including the military cemetery at Mount Herzl.
From Upper Nazareth, follow signs to Churchill Forest and from there to the Scenic Route Superstitious or not, you have probably said “touch wood” or “knock on wood” at one time or another. The custom dates back to a time when pilgrims to the Holy Land would swear an oath on wood that merchants claimed had come from the cross of Jesus. The wood was generally oak – a species of tree revered by the ancients for its longevity and enormous dimensions. Pagans even attributed divine characteristics to the magnificent oak.
Surround yourself with oak trees in the Beit Keshet picnic area along the JNF’s Beit Keshet Forest Scenic Route. If you bring along a Tu Bishvat snack, you can dine while relaxing under the one particularly impressive tree called “The Old Oak.” Or take a short circular hike that begins at the tree and winds through the forest.
Rocks along the route are dolomite with a healthy dose of magnesium; erosion accounts for their fascinating and peculiar shapes.CEDARS IN BIRIYA FOREST AT ASHBEL OVERLOOK
Follow signs from northern entrance of Safed into the forest; pass Biriya Fortress. At signposted intersection, turn toward Amuka Tall, majestic and immensely impressive, cedar trees are mentioned over and over in the Bible. Cedar timber is so special that it was used to construct David’s palace, and cedar wood featured prominently in both the First and Second Temples.
It is no wonder, then, that Tuvia Ashbel – who worked as a JNF forester for 58 years – insisted on planting cedar groves in Israel. Although the cedars of Lebanon didn’t do very well in our climate, the Atlantic cedars he brought from Turkey have flourished. View a magnificent grove from an observation platform dedicated to Ashbel, whose name will be forever linked with Israel’s cedars.
Halafta Junction on Route 85 In the early 16th century, Italian rabbi Moshe Basola toured the Holy Land. While traveling through the Galilee, he made a stop at the tomb of rabbi Yosef Abba Halafta – a site which, he wrote home, stood under a large oak tree. The massive Tabor oak towering over the tomb today is almost certainly that very same tree, for it is believed to be at least 600 years old.
The tree is 18 meters high and so wide that it would take three people to get their arms around it. Take a seat on a bench below the tree as you pay homage to Rabbi Halafta. A second-century scholar of the Mishna, he lived during scary times: the Romans who ruled the Land of Israel were intent on enforcing their prohibition of the study of Torah and the ordination of new teachers.
Famous for his declaration that the the spirit of God is present when 10 people are engaged in Torah study, he managed to stay under the Roman radar.
The JNF’s Besor Scenic Route begins (or ends) off Route 241 between the Ma’on and Urim Junctions and ends (or begins) on Road 222, west of Tze’elim Junction No other tree is mentioned as many times in the Bible as the acacia (etz shitim). After all, acacia wood was used to build the Tabernacle, from pole to altar to Holy Ark. And it is no wonder: there are more acacias in the Sinai Desert than any other tree.
A legend holds that Jacob, who could predict the future, planted acacia trees on his way down to Egypt. He knew that the Jews would need these particular trees hundreds of years later as they returned home.
Acacia trees often stand alone on the desert sands, creating a striking landscape reminiscent of an African savanna. Look for a sole acacia along the JNF’s 18-kilometer Besor Scenic Route in the Negev.
Of a species called umbrella acacia, its multiple trunks grow out of the base of the tree and form a spreading crown at the top.
Route 225 from Yeroham through the Big Crater. Follow signs to Ma’aleh Avraham and “petrified trees.” Park and walk about 100 meters.
Despite its name, the Big Crater is not the largest of the Negev’s three major craters. It was first charted in 1942 by a group of local Jewish commandos – Palmahniks – who named it after discovering a smaller one later on. Unaware that there was a third, even large crater near what would become Mitzpe Ramon, they simply named them by size: Big Crater and Small Crater.
Approximately 12 kilometers long, seven kilometers wide and 400 meters deep, the Big Crater is almost completely surrounded by mountains.
Unusually large quantities of fossilized sea creatures can be found inside the crater, which has not yet experienced total erosion.
Another major attraction there are pieces of petrified trees strewn on the ground. Named for their uncanny resemblance to giant trunks, the largest is 10 meters long, with a diameter of one and a half meters.
Most experts think that the trees date back to a time 120 million years ago, when this area was a large forest and the climate was fairly humid. But recently, several authorities have claimed that the “trees” are not trees at all, but actually pieces of hardened sandstone.