The hills come alive

Walk in Jerusalem hills featuring colorful flora, small pool brimming with water, fresh air, suitable for families.

Pool in the hills (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Pool in the hills
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Did you ever hear the story about two brothers who were invited to a ball? One of them was careless about his looks, and arrived unshaven and sunburned; the other appeared in a starched white shirt with yellow buttons. We hear this tale every time we take a nature walk with guides who pride themselves on their knowledge of flowers, and want us to remember which rockrose on the path is called “hairy” (lotem sa’ir) and which rockrose is white with a yellow center (lotem marvani).
Although we didn’t see a single white rockrose on the enchanting hike we took last week up in the Jerusalem hills, we did encounter plenty of the hairy species, along with masses of other flowers.
Wonderfully refreshing, this was an outing that you can enjoy as well. It features colorful flora, a small pool brimming with water, sweet, fresh air, and the sound of birds and crickets. Best of all, it offers several hours away from the clutter and noise of the city.
The hike is challenging enough that you may have to help your kids (or your parents) navigate the rocks.
But that’s what makes it fun.
The hike begins near Abu Ghosh and the community of Nataf, and takes you down to the dry Kfira Riverbed (Nahal Kfira) and the shady pool – about half an hour’s walk. While you can backtrack to your vehicle, we suggest an almost circular walk that takes • By AVIVA BAR-AM Photos: SHMUEL BAR-AM The hills come alive A walk in the Jerusalem hills featuring colorful flora, a small pool brimming with water, sweet, fresh air, and the sound of birds and crickets is suitable for families another hour to complete, and ends at Nataf itself with a short hike on the road back to your car.
Along the route of this hike, and on every other nature path in Israel, you will find trail markers.
Developed and set in place by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), these markers consist of a blue, red, green or black stripe sandwiched between two white stripes. Markers correspond to colored lines on maps called “marked-trails maps” or, in Hebrew, mapot simun shvilim, available at bookstores and SPNI offices.
And now to begin: drive into Abu Ghosh, and turn toward Ma’aleh Hahamisha. Then turn left toward Nataf, and keep going until you spot the sign for Jews of Poland Forest on your left. Park in the lot to your right.
Before you begin your hike, cross over to the memorial forest. It was completed in 1995, 50 years after World War II came to an end. Besides a meditative corner with stones marking many of Poland’s Jewish communities, there are monuments to Janusz Korczak and his assistant Stefania Wilczynska.
Korczak, a pediatrician and famous author of children’s books, spent many years directing an orphanage in Warsaw. When the children – nearly 200 of them – were rounded up for deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942, Korczak was twice offered his freedom. Nevertheless, he refused to abandon his charges, and he and the children were never heard of again.
The easy dirt path through the forest here is quiet and still, with trees and flowers on both sides. One of the most brilliant just now, in blushing pink, is the Mediterranean rosebud (klil hahoresh), commonly known as the “Judas tree.” The Gospels relate that, unable to bear what he had done for 30 pieces of silver, “Judas threw the money into the temple and left.
Then he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). A Christian legend holds that when the tree became aware of Judas’s body hanging from its branches, its flowers blushed with shame and fury.
ENJOY THE amazing tranquility of this forest, then return to the parking lot and begin your hike. Find the black trail markers, follow them for just a few dozen meters, then head left to follow green trail markers descending toward the riverbed.
As you descend, you will note a strange phenomenon: the slopes on your side of the riverbed, which face north, are lush and green while the hill across from you – Mount Uzrar – is completely barren. Until 1967, the slope you are descending belonged to Israel while Mount Uzrar was part of Jordan. Not only does this ridge face the sun, which is very hard on plant life, it was terribly overgrazed and has not recovered.
This area was the site of fierce fighting in July 1948, at the Battle of Hirbet Abu Lahem. The newly born Israeli army had launched an offensive known as Operation Danny – named for Danny Mass, commander of the ill-fated “Convoy of 35.” Its objectives were the capture of Ramle and Lod, cities that had blocked Jewish traffic to Jerusalem, and then to take Latrun and thus hopefully clear the road to the Holy City.
The first phase was successful, but the IDF was unable to capture Latrun and it was decided to try to surround it. Units were sent to the peak called Hirbet Abu Lahem, two kilometers east of today’s Nataf, to protect and strengthen the forces that had successfully taken Mount Uzrar. In the end, however, after bloody battles with well-equipped Jordanian Legion and local Arab forces, Israeli troops were forced to withdraw. Seven of our soldiers were killed in the battle, and during the retreat.
Among the first blossoms you will see along the trail are the bright yellow flowers of the thorny broom (kida se’ira), pink flax (pishtan) and what’s left of this year’s red anemones (kalaniyot). Beautiful white flowers, called both wild carrot and Queen Anne’s lace, consist of clusters of smaller flowers forming a large white blossom meant to impress insects. Wild carrots have an additional trick up their stalks: at least one bud turns black and masquerades as an insect, in a ploy intended to attract hesitant pollinators.
Look to the west, high up on a hill, to see the scattered villas of Nataf, a communal settlement established in 1982, with a mixed modern Orthodox and secular population. I understand that there is an unusual synagogue at Nataf: one section for men only, one for women, and one for mixed worship.
At some point, a tall, rounded mountain suddenly appears to the east. It is unusually striking, for it is encircled by two tributaries belonging to Nahal Kfira.
This is Tel Kfira, and, like the riverbed, reminds you that you are hiking through an area that Joshua allotted to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 18:26).
Watch for the very few stalks of blue mountain lilies on the path, along with pink rosebuds. But stay away from the strange Palestinian arum found along the slopes. Its large leaves look like arrows; the flower includes a huge purplish-black leaf whose bottom is shaped like a glass. You will see lots of insects on this carnivorous flower, attracted by its very unusual color, but it gives off an extremely bad smell. The odor attracts flies, which are trapped by the plant’s unusual structure.
While gazing at Mount Uzrar, you will see a number of caves and deserted structures. Archeologists working here have discovered bones and jars from the period just before and just after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Wide, thorny bushes all along the trail are called spiny burnet (sira kotzanit). Featuring widely in the Bible, they bear tiny red pods that vaguely resemble pots. Spiny burnet makes a lot of noise when it burns.
That’s why the Bible used it in a parable that in itself was a play on words: “Like the crackling of thorns [spiny burnet] under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 7:6) NEAR THE spring, you will come to a trail marker junction, where red markers turn west (left). You continue with the green trail, but you will be returning here later on.
Ahead of you stands a single palm tree, and to its right, the shady tomb of Ahmed el-Omari. Few Muslims come to visit these days, but the word “Allah” is still written in red above the entrance. Inside, you can see a prayer niche (mihrab) facing Mecca.
Near the entrance to the tomb, there is a big crack in the rock through which flows a spring that quickly dries up with the sun. The large spring, above it, flows all year round and fills the pool. The pool isn’t immediately visible – in fact when we took our hike people were wandering around saying “but where’s the water? They said there was water!” To find it, circle the tomb so that the rocky cliff is on your right. Climb up through a passage in the rocks to reach the pool.
And now, to return. If you are taking the longer route, as we did, take the green marked trail back to the red markers, then follow the red markers onto a path right next to the riverbed. On occasion you will also have to walk inside the wadi, and it is rocky. But the hike is truly lovely and because water flows here when it rains, the path and riverbed are lined with different kinds of terebinth, olive trees, and lots of flowers.
One of my favorites is the viper’s bugloss, which appears in both red and purple – sometimes on the same stem. Few hikers take this way back, so you have the noisy silence of nature accompanying you on your trek. Breathe in the fragrance of the hyssop (za’atar) plant and several types of sage.
Ruby-red flowers decorate the greenish-white stalks of the “red everlasting” plant, in Hebrew called “blood of the Maccabees.” Besides the obvious reference to the Maccabee battles, it may have been given this name because it is especially common in the fields near ancient Modi’in (where the Maccabee brothers were born).
This flower appears on a Remembrance Day stamp, and at Remembrance Day ceremonies children sometimes wear patches on their shirts that feature “blood of the Maccabees” blossoms.
When you reach a very well-marked blue trail suggesting two different paths, take the one to the left.
You will then be walking on a dirt road above the riverbed, leading to Nataf and with a lovely view.
Once in Nataf, follow the road through the community and eventually to your vehicle.