Mount Arbel - The long climb up

Retracing the footsteps of Josephus Flavius on Mount Arbel.

Arbela's cave (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Arbela's cave
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

Soon after my parents and younger siblings joined me in Israel, my sabra husband took us all on a hike up Mount Arbel. My mom was over 50 and rather out of shape, so my husband had to push her up from behind.

Although we didn't make it as far as the breathtaking view from the top of the Arbel cliffs, my mom says it was worth the effort just to explore the ancient caves below the summit.

Today you can drive all the way up the mountain on an excellent road, park your car, and then follow an easy trail to the clifftop observation point. You don't even have to climb the mountain to reach the caves: a rope-and-ladder descent leads down from the parking lot.

Nevertheless, not long ago I decided to prove to myself that although nearly 35 years had passed since that first Arbel outing, I could still do the ascent on foot. To my delight, and although I huffed and puffed an awful lot, I not only made it to the caves but climbed all the way to the top.

I recently heard a well-founded rumor that Arbel is slated to become a National Park in October - complete with entrance fee. So if you are planning a trip, this is the time to go.

You can reach Mount Arbel by turning off Highway 90 onto Route 807. Then take Highway 77 between Tiberias and the Golani junction, turn onto 7717 toward Moshav Arbel, and follow signs to the cliffs. (A word of caution: the rocks are very slippery after it rains, so wait until the sun comes out before trying this outing.)

INow you can begin your trek up to the caves on a trail that leads through slopes that in winter and spring are radiant with wildflowers. Be sure to stop and enjoy the view as you climb. Don't worry about the cows grazing along the path; if you don't annoy them, they won't annoy you!

As you walk through the caves, you will discover that some of them are three stories high, and that what look like holes from the outside are actually rooms grouped together. By looking out from inside the caves, you can fully understand the strategic advantages of their position.

OVER 2,000 years ago, Jews lived here in two different kinds of housing. One group resided in dwellings on the mountaintop and the others occupied the caves that had been gouged out of the limestone by rainwater over millennia. Their town was called Arbela.

Arbela's cave dwellers built ritual baths and water cisterns, and enlarged the caves in order to make their homes more comfortable. And at different times over the course of Israel's turbulent history, the caves were fortified and connected via an internal staircase.

In 161 BCE, the Seleucid commander Bacchides passed through Arbela on his way to battle Judah Maccabee in Jerusalem. Most of the townspeople rose up against the Greek army and were slaughtered; only a few were able to flee.

The next time Arbela's Jews found themselves in the midst of battle was over a century later, after the Romans made Herod ruler over Israel. Resistance to the move, especially in Galilee, was fierce, and Herod took violent steps to consolidate his position. Yet although he defeated most of the opposition, Herod could not vanquish the guerrilla cave dwellers of Arbela. His troops found it impossible to reach the caves, which were well fortified, and situated within extremely steep cliffs atop a deep valley.

Indeed, the soldiers only gained entrance after being lowered in chests, precariously, from the top of the cliffs. Most of the people inside were then killed. Those who survived preferred death to captivity, and jumped into the riverbed below.

A few decades later, as the Great Revolt got underway, Galilee commander Yosef ben Matityahu added walls and other fortifications to the Arbela caves. He surrendered to the Romans during the revolt, renamed himself Josephus Flavius, and authored several books documenting Jewish history.

Most of the existing fortifications and structural improvements are from the early Ottoman period, but there is no doubt that they were built on top of Hasmonean and Roman structures. Note how beautifully Josephus's Roman-era walls blend with the environment.

EXIT THE fortress, turn left, and find the red-marked path leading up steep and narrow crevices to the parking lot. Fortunately, stakes help you maneuver the ropes and ladders that take you to the top. Once there, follow the path to the observation point, on top of the eastern cliffs and next to a lone carob tree.

From this spot, 181 meters above sea level, you are able to look in all directions. Directly below are the Arbel Valley, the Beduin village of Hamam, and the town of Migdal. On a clear day you have a magnificent view of Safed nestled in the hills almost directly to the north and, even when it is hazy, if you look to the southwest you will see a dome-topped structure on the slopes that is Nebi Shueib. Above this holy Druse site stands the volcanic mountain called Karnei Hittin where, on July 4, 1187, Saladin and his Muslim troops routed the Crusaders.

Gazing directly east, you will find the Kinneret. On its shores, slightly northeast, lie the green fields and orchards of Kibbutz Ginossar.

Further to the north, on the shores of the lake, you can see Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), Tabgha, and other sites of importance to Christians. The pumping station for our national water carrier is also located on these banks. A few years before the Six Day War, the Syrians tried to torpedo the station by diverting the sources of the Jordan River into a canal on the Golan Heights (then part of Syria). The Heights are across the water, towering above the lake. Feast your eyes on glistening, snow-covered Mount Hermon.

Whether you hiked up the mountain, climbed through the caves, or just took a leisurely walk to the overlook, your outing doesn't have to end here. During the Talmudic period Arbela housed a sizable Jewish settlement, and it lasted at least until the eighth century. After the War of Independence, Israelis founded Moshav Arbel near its impressive ruins.

Follow the road back to the moshav, and turn left at the second corner. Antiquities show you where to begin the path to a synagogue built in the fourth century CE.

After seeing the synagogue, you can visit the moshav, where you can learn how olives are pressed into oil. You may even get a chance to see an oil press in action. Moshavniks here grow olives and produce olive oil, soap, and other products using methods that date back thousands of years. Their little shop boasts homemade oil, homegrown herbs, herbal mixtures, and all kinds of delicacies.