In the shade

Israel is home to a variety of ancient, symbolic and simply magnificent trees.

Big tree 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Big tree 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
‘One day, Honi Hame’agel, a righteous miracle worker, saw an old man planting a carob tree. Knowing that a carob tree takes 70 years to bear fruit and that therefore the old man would not live to see the results of his labor, he asked why he was planting a tree whose fruits he would never enjoy.
‘Carob trees were here when I was born, planted by my father and his father,’ answered the old man. ‘Now I plant trees for the enjoyment of my children and their children’s children’” (Talmud, Ta’anit 23a).
Although trees offer desperately needed shade and add that extra dash of beauty to our lives, we rarely take the time to admire their bark, their leaves, their towering heights. Yet trees are the oldest forms of life, says Israel Galon, head of forest preservation at the Agriculture Ministry. Aesthetically pleasing, they are also ecologically essential. And if they could talk, they would tell wonderful stories about our history, our nation, and the lives of those who came before us.
Want to visit an ancient, symbolic or simply magnificent tree? Here are a few suggestions:
1. TABOR OAK AT HURSHAT TAL NATIONAL PARK – located off Route 99, Upper Eastern Galilee
When Muhammad’s disciples were sent into the world to spread the prophet’s message, they often met at the eastern crossroads known as Hurshat Tal.
According to legend, on one occasion 10 disciples stopped at Hurshat Tal on their way from Mecca to Syria and tied their horses to stakes they had brought with them from Mount Tabor. The next day, the sticks took root and began to blossom – eventually becoming the magnificent Tabor oak forest that provides today’s Hurshat Tal National Park with much of its wondrous beauty.
Hurshat Tal’s Arabic name, Shazarat el-Asara (“the trees of the ten”) commemorates the miracle.
Considered a holy site, the forest has remained untouched for over 1,000 years. As a result, several hundred ancient trees, each dozens of meters tall and incredibly wide, have been preserved.
When you visit the park, look for two gigantic trunks that belong to one of the extremely old Tabor oaks. Tradition holds that the trunk split in two during one of the severe earthquakes that befell Israel during the eighth century. Note how each trunk rejuvenated, closing off its open wounds and becoming a separate, independent entity.
2. OAK AND OLIVE AT KIBBUTZ TZOVA – off Route 395 about 15 minutes west of Jerusalem
When a tree becomes old and hollow, there isn’t enough original wood left to allow testing for age. That’s what happened with two elderly specimens at Kibbutz Tzova, both of them estimated to be over 500 years old.
Indeed, the gnarled ancient olive tree is so hollow that if you are agile enough you can climb inside – and the oak is simply stunning. The trees’ long survival is probably due to the fact that Muslims once buried their dead nearby.
In fact, it is thought that long ago, bodies were purified in the shade of the ancient olive.
3. EUCALYPTUS ON YEHEZKEL STREET – in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter
When the Russians took over Bukhara in 1868, they granted the Jewish population religious freedom as well as a monopoly in the trades of silk and woven goods. The more enterprising Jews took advantage of the opportunity and became wonderfully affluent. Indeed, when the first Bukharan immigrant reached Jerusalem in the early 1870s, he and his family brought a servant with them to the Holy Land.
By the 1890s, about 200 Bukharan immigrants had reached Jerusalem and all of them lived in the Old City.
But it was crowded, and in 1891 they decided to establish a neighborhood outside the Old City walls. Its design was unusual for Jerusalem: the plan called for spacious homes on tree-lined boulevards with main roads a generous 10.5 meters wide and side streets five meters wide.
When it was complete, the Bukharan Quarter boasted some of the grandest structures in the city.
Hardly any of the original buildings remain, the earliest residents are gone and the atmosphere has undergone a radical change. Most of the eucalyptus trees planted to beautify the neighborhood were used as firewood by the Turks during World War I. Yet one huge, aging eucalyptus tree remains on the neighborhood’s main street, a reminder of earlier times.
4. CEDAR TREES AT JEWISH AGENCY – JERUSALEM, corner of King George and Keren Kayemet streets
Fourteen meters tall, the three Himalayan cedar trees in front of the National Institutions complex on King George Avenue were planted in 1931. And although they are “only” 80 years old, they have witnessed more than their share of history, for the three major pre-state organizations have had their headquarters here since the early 1930s.
Shaped like a horseshoe and constructed in modified Bauhaus style, the building on the left as you face the courtyard houses the United Israel Appeal; the Jewish Agency is in the middle; and the wing on the right holds the offices of the Jewish National Fund.
The lovely cedar trees witnessed all kinds of historical events, for this is where the Knesset held its first halfdozen sessions and it was here that Dr. Chaim Weizmann was sworn in as the country’s first president.
The trees overlook a large courtyard that was the scene of many a festival and demonstration.
When the United Nations voted on the partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947, Golda Meyerson (Meir) stood on a balcony and spoke to the large, excited crowd down below.
5. THE LONE OAK AT GUSH ETZION – Alon Shvut (Route 367) In 1943, pioneers decided to settle in the Hebron Hills.
This was not the first attempt to settle in what had become known as Gush Etzion, or the Etzion Bloc: The first group purchased land and put down roots in 1927; a second arrived seven years later. In both cases, they were attacked during Arab riots and had to be evacuated.
Each time, their homes were destroyed.
The third time, however, four communities sprang up in the bloc, prospering and expanding until they numbered 450 men, women and children. Then, soon after the United Nations voted in 1947 to partition Palestine, Arabs laid siege to the bloc. A few months later, the wellequipped Jordanian Legion attacked, killing and wounding hundreds of pioneers and wiping Gush Etzion off the face of the earth on the very day before Israel was declared a state.
The region ended up as part of Jordan after the War of Independence. All that was left of the thriving communities was one single 600-year-old oak tree that the survivors and their children would gaze at from afar.
Inevitably, this ancient oak became – and remains – the symbol of Gush Etzion and its historic last stand.
Settlement was renewed after the Six Day War, and today Gush Etzion boasts a population of 65,000 residents in two towns and 16 communities. Visitors continue to stop for a few moments at the Lone Oak, a tree that has witnessed both destruction and rebirth.
Kibbutz Ein Gedi is a tropical desert paradise in which the tiniest houseplant can reach mammoth proportions and the most modest of bushes can shoot into a tree. It’s no wonder, then, that the kibbutz was declared an International Botanical Garden in 1994. It is the only botanical garden of its kind that encompasses a thriving, living community and it boasts over 1,000 species, with more types of foliage than are found in Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens.
Ein Gedi residents are proud of their 25-meter-high baobabs, a species of tree that features prominently in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s famous book, The Little Prince. Identified by their very thick trunks, white flowers and strange, elongated fruit, the baobabs at Ein Gedi are often even bigger than their cousins growing in the native habitats of Africa and Madagascar. Interestingly, the trunk holds an enormous amount of water, making it extremely successful at growing in the desert.
An African legend holds that the devil once picked up the baobab, pushed its branches into the ground and left its roots hanging in the air, which is why Africans call it the “upside-down tree.” Because the fruit closely resembles a loaf of bread, the baobab is also known as the “monkey bread tree.” That’s because, they say, monkeys who eat it end up with a high. Actually, birds and animals shelter in its branches and are nourished by the fruit; people use the bark fiber for making rope, baskets, musical instrument strings and waterproof hats.
7. JUJUBE AT EIN HATZEVA – off Highway 90, about 150 kilometers north of Eilat.
History aficionados and biblical archeology buffs will enjoy Ein Hatzeva, which features amazing excavations as well as a unique and spectacular tree. Overlooking a crucial crossroads leading south, west and northeast, Ein Hatzeva has housed a variety of administrative centers and fortresses throughout the ages. The latest was a military outpost set up at the establishment of the state; the earliest dates back to the time of King Solomon. Many a caravan stopped here to rest over the millennia, for Ein Hatzeva’s abundant spring and strong citadels offered water as well as protection from local gangs.
Although the site contains remains of several Israelite fortresses and a massive Solomonic gate, the majority of the ruins on view at Ein Hatzeva today are from the Roman era. It was part of the Roman limes (pronounced “lee-mez”), a line of frontier fortifications from the third century with a fort that measured 46 meters by 46 meters.
An enormous jujube tree, the oldest of its kind in the country, stands near the ruins. For well over 1,000 years this tree was nourished by Ein Hatzeva’s spring, but modern agricultural development in the region dried up its water. Today, the tree is irrigated by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund to ensure its survival.
8. DOUM PALMS – INSIDE THE EVRONA NATURE RESERVE, about 12 kilometers north of Eilat, off Highway 90
In the tropics of Sudan, where they originate, doum palms thrived in a savanna-like environment; here they offer a breathtaking contrast to the desert sands. Doum palms don’t grow any further north than Evrona, and their presence here for thousands of years indicates that the weather in the past was far different than it is today.
Unlike date palms, whose proud trunks are tall and straight, those of the doum palm split into a V-shape that opens to the sky. From the right vantage point, they look like giant slingshots. Even their tops are different, for the leaves spread out like wings.
The fruit of the doum palm is the size of an egg and protected by a hard cover. Between the hard fibers there are tissues rich in sugar, and the fruit tastes and smells like a freshly baked cake.
The palm’s natural water sources dried up in the late 20th century after wells were dug near Evrona to supply households in the new city of Eilat. To add insult to injury, there were plans to build an airport very close by.
Fortunately, the Nature Reserves Authority intervened, the plans were scratched and, with the help of KKL-JNF, the palms are now irrigated regularly.
While you are there, visit Evrona and the remains of a 1,000-year-old farm! •