Walking Tour: A tale of two valleys

A stroll through Gazelle Valley and the nearby wheelchair-accessible Valley of the Cross is a perfect Pessah outing.

gazelle valley 224.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
gazelle valley 224.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Deep in the heart of urban Jerusalem, just off Sderot Herzog, gazelles roam the fields and flowers bloom in the brush. Known as Gazelle Valley, the 227-dunam plot has been the focus of a long battle between city planners, eager to develop the area, and local residents, who insist it remain an open green space. Although the site's status is still uncertain, it may become an officially recognized nature park. In the meantime, Gazelle Valley is the perfect venue for a Pessah outing. Take your family with you and embark on a refreshing nature adventure along a path that goes through, and circles around, this small but lovely valley. The trail takes from one to two hours and brings you back to where you started. Note: Unless you come very early in the morning, you may not see gazelles because they spend most of the day in an area you are asked not to enter. To reach the valley, follow Sderot Herzog south of Rehov Aza and turn right on Rehov Shahal (near the sculpture of Steps that Lead Nowhere). Take the first left and park your car. You will see two paved walkways; choose the one furthest from the lot. If you come by bus (Nos. 19, 31 or 32) you will find the walkway on the continuation of the sidewalk. Enjoy the landscaping along the walk for several minutes. Soon after you pass a playground, you reach a set of steps leading into the valley. Look down to see the nature path below. Unfortunately, you can't take the steps to the path because construction is being carried out on sewage pipes and the area is fenced off. So walk a few more meters past the fence and look for a makeshift, short descent that is the only unpleasant part of this whole outing (except for the litter along the trail). Descend the path and begin your trek through the valley. The further you walk, the more wildflowers you will see. Mediterranean rosebud trees are blooming in a deep pink - a sharp contrast to pale roses intertwined in its branches. Wild oats sway in the wind near purple clovers, furry bugloss and olive trees. Veer to the left with the trail and when you come to a stone wall, look for a green trail marker pointing left. A large skeletal building seems completely out of place, but once played a central role in the valley. During the Arab siege of Jerusalem in 1948, food was scarce. Running the city was Canadian-born attorney Dov Yosef, a member of Ben-Gurion's Mapai party, and it was his task to make sure that the little food available was provided fairly and equally to Jerusalem residents. At one point during the siege, Yosef came up with the idea of growing crops inside Jerusalem, and picked today's Gazelle Valley as the most suitable site. Leased to Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim and Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha, whose settlers farmed the fields, it became known as Valley of the Mountain Fruit. This building was the packing plant; you will see other remains - fruit trees and stone agricultural terraces - as you continue your hike. In 1982 the lease was up and the land was returned to the city. Construction was launched on Begin Highway, a project which completely isolated Gazelle Valley from two others to which it had been connected: the Valley of the Cross and Sacher Park. Continue on the path past the packing plant and walk deeper into the valley. At a fork in the trail choose either path (they run parallel and join together later on). Among the blossoming flowers you will find in this part of the valley are purple holy thistle (gedalan matzui), the tiny pale yellow buds of the field mustard (hardaliyot), common ox-tongue (lashon par smura) with small blue flowers and furry, thorny spiny burnet (sira kotzanit) with tiny orangish-red buds, and the delicate white petals of Ainsworthia trachycarpa. If you listen for their chirps, you will hear several species of bird as they call to one another. On our walks through the valley we saw dozens of bulbuls and sparrows, with a smattering of blackbirds, large birds with bright orange bills and yellow eye-rings. Occasionally, you will also spot a jay flying from tree to tree. Unlike the smaller American species, the jays in this part of the world sport only a tiny patch of blue on their wings. So far you have been walking along the eastern side of the valley. When you reach the far, northern end of the valley, at a stone wall, the trail continues left and takes you back along the western side. But before you head in that direction, turn right instead and go through the yellow gate onto an asphalt walkway lined with planted trees and flowers. Ignore the first ascent to the left and continue as the walkway curves right and left. As you ascend you will see Begin Highway below you to your right. At the top of the ascent you reach a strange and lovely reddish stone structure where you can rest and kids can play. Then continue a few dozen meters, to where the pavement curves sharply to the left. Here, continue straight ahead on a dirt path. Look for several little caves and one big one on your right; they were carved out by water, which eroded the rock. The slopes are covered with brightly flowering red poppies that sparkle in the sunlight and the last of three little trees on the top of the hill to your right is a blossoming hawthorn. Turn back when you reach a small gate, return to the paved walkway and descend for beautiful views of the valley below. Turn right at the bottom and pass through the yellow gate in the opposite direction. In seconds you view, on the left, the trail that you took through the valley. Ignore it and continue straight ahead, next to a stone wall. This part of the wilderness sports a number of red everlasting plants (locally called Blood of the Maccabees) just beginning to blossom with tiny red clusters. Although I offer these guidelines, don't worry about getting lost. If you look ahead of you to the left as you walk, you will see the packing plant, and in front of you the Pat neighborhood and gas station. You will reach sort of a clearing where the path continues both on a wide trail to the left and a narrower, more overgrown route straight ahead. Take the latter, then go straight. Along the path are signs with drawings of gazelles, the boundaries of an area you are asked to avoid, which is where the animals rest. Keep going and you will return to the packing plant and finally to the the beginning of your walk. VALLEY OF THE CROSS ABRAHAM WAS well along in years when three staff-bearing angels entered his tent and predicted that Sarah would become pregnant despite her advanced age. At the end of their visit, according to a Christian tradition, they left their staffs behind. Later, when fleeing Sodom with his daughters, Abraham's nephew Lot committed the terrible sin of incest and confessed to his uncle. Some Christians believe that Abraham told Lot to plant the staffs in Jerusalem as a penance. Should they turn into a flourishing tree, it would be a sign of God's forgiveness, he said. Lot planted the staffs and doggedly watered them daily with water from the Jordan River. Tradition holds that the staffs combined into a unique, triple-crested tree - pine, cedar and cypress - that was cut down for use in Solomon's Temple. Unruly, too short, too twisted or too long, the beams were cast aside by Solomon's very annoyed lumberjacks. They remained in the valley to be used a thousand years later, when the Romans needed beams for the cross on which they planned to crucify Jesus. Tradition places all of these events in the Valley of the Cross (Emek Hamatzleva) below Givat Ram and only minutes from the wilderness of Gazelle Valley. If you prefer your nature beautiful but tamed, sans litter, and are pushing a stroller, in a wheelchair, on a bicycle or walking with a cane, try this lovely hour-long April outing in the Valley of the Cross. Begin by following Sderot Herzog to Rehov Schneur (the turnoff for Nayot) and turn right at Rehov Yeivin where the sign points to the Monastery of the Cross. Park as close to the end of the road as you can, next to an underpass. Then ascend the adjacent paved walkway. (Bus Nos. 19, 31 and 32 stop right above the underpass.) You can't miss the Monastery of the Cross to your left. Constructed on remains dating back to the Byzantine era and around Lot's tree-stump, the monastery was built in the 11th century with help from the king of Georgia. The monks who designed the structure followed the original lines, adding only a large dome - a Christian symbol of heaven. Near the end of the 12th century, famous Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli came to the valley. Rumor has it that he was either sent here by his lover, the Georgian Queen Tamara, or that he was fleeing from her loving clutches. Rustaveli set about bolstering the Georgian monastic brotherhood and made extensive repairs to the buildings. After running up heavy debts, however, the Georgian Church sold its Jerusalem properties and at the end of the 17th century, ownership of the monastery was transferred to the Greek Orthodox patriarchy. Three decades ago, the historic monastery was completely overhauled and opened to the public. Entrance to the monastery is through a squat, narrow opening purposely constructed so that invaders wouldn't be able to gallop inside astride their mounts. A NIS 15 fee entitles you to a beautiful booklet in English and free rein of the museum, church and courtyard (not wheelchair accessible). Built in basilica style with three aisles (a wide one in the middle and two narrower ones on the sides), the sanctuary is unmistakably Eastern. A richly decorated iconostasis separates the prayer hall from the altar area, and nearby part of a sixth-century mosaic floor includes geometric shapes, plants and even a few large fish - an early Christian symbol. Figures from both the Old and the New Testament, and many of the saints, are generously portrayed in icons and frescos. Pass the monastery, and as you continue along your nature trail you will view several of the wildflowers blooming in Gazelle Valley: bright red poppies, lacy ainsworthia, yellow field mustard and blushing pink Mediterranean rosebud. You will also begin to see olive trees. Turn left at the sign for the Israel Museum and gently ascend. On your left you have a lovely view of the valley and the monastery; in front of you stands the Israel Museum. There are plenty of benches for resting and gazing at the view. A sculpture on your left is called The Struggle and was created by Shmuel Bar-Even. Keep going straight and look to your right to discover remains of an ancient olive press, probably used by the monks over the centuries. Enjoy the sight of families picnicking on blankets scattered here and there under the carob and olive trees. When you reach a junction, cross the road and continue straight ahead on an ascent into a shady pine forest. If you had turned left instead, you would have seen a plaque dedicated to the memory of Prof. Menachem Stern. On June 22, 1989, as Stern walked through the valley on his way to the Hebrew University, he was attacked by Arab terrorists. A famous historian who specialized in the period of the Second Temple, Stern was a recipient of the Israel Prize for History of the Jewish People. Continue through the forest and at the T-junction, turn left and soon you will reach the main road. From here, descend the road to your left and return to your vehicle. The monastery is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.