On the spot

For those who do not want to venture out of the city this Yom Ha'atzmaut, this section of the Jerusalem Trail combines the glories of nature with ancient history.

poppies 298.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
poppies 298.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Aglow just now with fiery red poppies, blushing pink Mediterranean rosebuds and bright yellow crowfeet, the Hinnom Valley wasn't always this delightful. In fact, at one time it was believed that this was the entrance to hell, and for good reason. During the biblical era both pagans and Israelites appeased the monstrous god Moloch by sacrificing their children to fires that blazed in the Hinnom Valley. Walk through and above this once notorious wadi, on a marvelous Independence Day outing that combines the glories of nature with a plethora of ancient history. Most of your jaunt takes place on the Jerusalem Trail - a relatively new and little-known route developed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that stretches for 4.5 kilometers between the Cinematheque and Mount Scopus. That hike generally requires two cars; instead, we suggest you try a less ambitious hike that starts and ends at the same spot and adds an extra attraction, to boot! Park your car by the Begin Heritage Center/ Cinematheque (or take a bus) and walk to the bridge. Most appropriately, since the theme of Independence Day this year is the reunification of Jerusalem, your walk begins next to the Peace Statue. Created by Israeli artist Igal Tumarkin, and inscribed with the well-known biblical verse about turning swords into plowshares, it was erected along the 1948 Israeli border some time before the Six Day War. As you stroll across the bridge, enjoy a fabulous view of the Old City walls and Mount Zion in all its glory. The impressive Catholic complex with an unusual clock is Dormition Abbey. It is located next to the stately Greek Orthodox Seminary. From 1948 and until the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, part of the Israeli-Jordanian border ran right between the seminary and Dormition Abbey - located on Israeli-held Mount Zion - and the Old City wall to its right (your left). On the corner of the ramparts, just across from the Seminary, the Jordanians manned an outpost. Almost all of us have taken the winding road along the slope that leads to Mount Zion's holy Jewish and Christian sites. Until 1964, when Pope Paul VI visited Mount Zion, this was only a narrow dirt path located partly in no-man's land, with one end in Israeli territory and the other in Jordanian. Prior to the pope's arrival, Israel decided to turn the path into a paved road to make it easier for his car to reach Mount Zion's Cenacle - the traditional site of the Last Supper. The Jordanians didn't object, and the road was prepared for his visit. After he left, Christian pilgrims flocked to Mount Zion and traffic jams were common. In 1966 Israel began widening the road, taking great care not to touch any Jordanian-held property. But when Israeli bulldozers unwittingly tossed a few clods of dirt onto Jordan's side of the border, the result was a huge fuss. The Jordanians complained to the United Nations' Cease-fire Commission - and work on the road was stopped. LOOK BEHIND you, in the other direction, to see St. Andrew's Scottish Church, the YMCA, Mishkenot Sha'ananim and the King David Hotel. Then descend the stairs and, at the bottom, you will find the hiking, upright lion that marks the Jerusalem Trail. An additional trail marker to follow on your route is a blue stripe sandwiched between two white stripes. Enjoy masses of wildflowers as you begin the trail. Among them are ruby-red buttercups, white and yellow chamomile and tiny greenish-yellow flowers in pairs that look like cymbals. The slope between Mount Zion and the Hinnom Valley is known as the Sambuski Cemetery, for it is shaped like delicious oriental sambusak pastries. During the 19th century, a time in which only impoverished people ate sambusaks, the slope was turned into a cemetery for indigent Jews. Soon you reach an observation point above a beautiful building sitting all by its lonesome in the middle of the valley. At the beginning of the 20th century, 25 Jewish families established a community here called Sha'arei Zion (Gates of Zion - since it was right below the mountain) and also known as Sham'a. The houses were abandoned several decades later, following repeated Arab riots and massacres. Arabs moved into the deserted houses. After the War of Independence, destitute new immigrants were housed in Sham'a. Located along the border, right next to no-man's land, the neighborhood soon became a horrible slum occasionally targeted by Jordanian snipers. After the Six Day War everyone was evacuated and almost all of the houses were torn down. In 1979, the Jerusalem Foundation opened the one remaining structure as the Alpert Music Center for Jewish and Arab children. To your right are mighty cliffs, where adventurous Jerusalemites often do a bit of rappelling. There are also burial caves in the cliffs, which were part of a ring of cemeteries surrounding Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago. When you reach the road that descends from the Abu Tor neighborhood above you, follow the blue trail marker to the right and climb up ancient steps to peek into a burial cave. From up here you also have a lovely view of the Arab village of Silwan (Shiloah, in Hebrew). Then descend, and carefully cross the road where a blue marker leads you to the continuation of the Jerusalem Trail (next to a newly built, squat stone wall). Along with even more wildflowers, you will probably run into some kind of animal just about here. On different occasions we have passed horses, donkeys, sheep and goats grazing next to the trail. When you reach a fork in the asphalt path, leave the Jerusalem Trail and ascend to the right for a very unusual view of the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aksa Mosque and the seven gilded, onion-shaped domes of the Mary Magdalene Church. Then return to the fork and the Jerusalem Trail, walk down the Byzantine-era steps, and continue to the Onoufrios Monastery. You are now in Potter's Field, where wealthy Jews entombed their dead during the late Second Temple period. Some amazing finds were discovered at the site. Among them were two rare, hinged doors, and ossuaries (decorated containers for bones) whose Hebrew inscriptions relate to people mentioned in Jewish works of the Byzantine period. According to the New Testament, when Judas began to feel guilty about betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, he gave his money to the priests (kohanim). The priests then purchased Potter's Field, turning it into a cemetery for strangers and poor pilgrims, and it later became known as hakeldama - Aramaic for "field of blood." A wall-enclosed Greek Orthodox monastery is situated on the slope in Potter's Field. It is named for St. Onoufrios, a fourth-century Egyptian hermit who lived in the desert for 70 years, far from other humans. Unusually spiritual even for a hermit, Onoufrios renounced all earthly things. It is believed that, after his lower garment fell to pieces, he wore nothing but a long white beard. Traditionally, Onoufrios spent a short time in a cave in Potter's Field, and visited the holy Christian sites, before beginning his life in the desert. Over the past decade, the monastery has functioned as a convent. Open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. and 4 p.m.-7 p.m., it is a wonderful place to visit. You will be permitted to view the tiny cave where Onoufrios lived, and to wander through an immense complex of burial caves complete with skeletons and bones! They are believed to belong to monks massacred by Persian conquerors of the Holy Land in the seventh century, and the Crusaders (who were Christian, but not Orthodox) in the 12th. NOW IT is time to begin your return. Go back just as far as the narrow road that descends from Abu Tor. You are about to leave the Jerusalem Trail, once again. Turn left on the road, ascend and almost immediately take the little road ascending to the right. Go through the blue gate (it shouldn't be locked) and you will find yourself inside an ancient Karaite cemetery! Like other Hebrews, the Karaites made the exodus with Moses, wandered in the desert for 40 years and received the Torah at Sinai. In the eighth century the Karaites realized that, unlike other Jews, they could no longer accept post-scriptural interpretations of the Bible that changed the message of God's law. It was at this time that their mentor, Anan Ben-David, bestowed upon them the name of Kara'im. The name stems from the Hebrew word for scriptures (mikra), and emphasizes the sect's firm belief in the written law. Karaites take the Bible quite literally. Thus, in Karaite doctrine, Jewish holidays are celebrated on their true dates as set forth in the Good Book and not according to later decisions which made the timing more convenient. Jewish dietary laws are strictly observed, but interpreted differently and more literally than in other Jewish sects; so are strictures concerning female impurity, which follow the biblical commands. A group of Karaites, early Zionists, reached Jerusalem in the ninth century. Although the Karaites prospered and multiplied until the Crusader era, today they number only in the tens of thousands - with several dozen families residing in Jerusalem and most of the rest in Ramle, Ashdod and Beersheba. If you can read Hebrew, you will find the tombstone inscriptions fascinating. Apparently the man buried in one grave was a henpecked husband, for the inscription tells you that he was made miserable by his wife! Look inside more ancient burial caves, then return to the gate. Do not go back to the road, rather, turn left and follow a path all the way back to the Cinematheque. As you near the bridge look up to see a cable stretching from one side of the valley to the other. Twenty-one years ago, an unconventional French high wire artist named Philippe Petit walked the cable between new Jerusalem and the Old City as a gesture of peace. As was his custom, he walked the wire with nothing underneath to catch him, should he fall!