Flowers, fruits & fauna

Shvil Hazahav is a circular forest trail on the edge of Lahav Forest.

Flowers, fruits and fauna (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Flowers, fruits and fauna
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Back in the last century, when the Ottoman Turks ruled Palestine, a tax collector lived in Gaza. In 1917, as British forces advanced towards Gaza in their move to conquer the Holy Land, he decided to hightail it out of the country. He packed a trunk with taxes he had collected – mainly gold, but also diamonds, rubies and other valuables – and boarded a train for his home in Istanbul.
As he traveled through the Negev, he stopped off at the ruins of a village called Abu Hof (Father of Fear). After finding the perfect spot, he buried his treasures, shot his companions and continued on his way.
According to Talila Livshutz, director of Community and Forests in the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s Northern Negev District, the story may be only that – a story. But it could also be true. Locals who believe that they can pinpoint the location of the treasure sometimes dig at Abu Hof, often causing damage to its antiquities as they attempt to strike it rich.
Recently, Livshutz completed development of a wonderful, circular forest trail around the ruins of Abu Hof, on the western edge of Lahav Forest. Livshutz named it Shvil Hazahav (Golden Trail), both for the tax collector’s treasures and the deep yellow blossoms found nearby in late fall.
Excavations and restorations at Abu Hof were carried out by the Antiquities Authority, thanks to a donation made to the KKL-JNF. Detailed explanatory signs along the trail are in both Hebrew and English.
To reach the site, follow Highway 40 to Dvira junction. Turn east onto Route 3255, drive a little over two kilometers to a sign for Abu Hof, then turn right onto a dirt road.
In November, perhaps as part of the fall bird migration through Israel, black kites can be seen flying through the air. Weighing less than a kilogram, but over half a meter long, the black kite spreads its large wings in a spectacle to savor. Raptors that soar in columns of rising air known as thermals, black kites are predators for which insects, reptiles, little mammals and carrion are nothing less than gourmet meals.
When the KKL-JNF began planting trees in Lahav Forest, just over 60 years ago, pines were the logical choice. The land was barren, and pines not only live a very long time, but are sturdy enough to survive where other trees do not. Even when they burn, and they burn quite easily, their cones burst and spread seeds that later sprout.
In later years, however, the KKL-JNF began planting trees that were native to the area. For the Negev, the JNF had to find species that did well even when water was scarce. So besides the pines that you see on the road, you will also spot carob, jujube and mesquite – the latter a small, hardy tree that thrives in dry weather. Indeed, the mesquite produces more fruit in a drought than it does when there has been some rain.
Mesquite trees (in Latin prosopis and in Hebrew prozofis) hate frost, don’t mind saline soil, and are great at conserving water, making them a logical choice for our Negev desert.
Alongside the forest’s flourishing trees you will notice quite a few dead specimens. The last seven years have been dreadfully dry, says Livshutz, and even though the Negev enjoyed a few good storms over the past couple of years, they weren’t enough to help those trees that were already dying of thirst.
Watch the woods as you drive: gazelles, pushed out of their natural environments, roam Lahav Forest. Well), dug out during the Byzantine era, and used by locals until the 1970s.
This one was restored by the KKL-JNF; another, 100 meters to the east, dates back to 4000 BCE but is in terrible shape. During the third and fourth centuries, and perhaps even earlier, Jews lived nearby in a city called Tila.
Wells were crucially important in the Negev, as shown in the Bible: “And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water...
And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdmen, saying: ‘The water is ours. . . And they dug another well, and they strove for that also.”
(Genesis 26:19-21) From here, continue by vehicle past the well for about 300 meters, to the edge of the forest. Turn right and drive up the slope until you reach the parking area for the Golden Trail.
Remains from two Byzantine-era churches, not yet restored enough to be safe for visitors, are evidence that Abu Hof was once a Christian settlement. But at various periods it was also home to nomads, who lived in caves with their families and, in winter, their flocks.
Although stony, the trail is not rocky and is easy walking. Enjoy the view as you stroll; in fall, the landscape is enchanting with its striking contrast between the desert trail and the deliciously dark green forest just beyond the wastelands. Of course, it is no less charming in winter, when a thin green carpet covers the sand.
There are several caves on the trail, but only one has been restored. It is called the Dwelling Cave, and has a high roof, living rooms and a yard where the women would have done the laundry, ground the flour and cooked the meals. The trough would have held water for sheep and goats, and the outdoor oven probably sat in the circular dent near the door.
As you enter this delightfully restored cave, note the beautiful arch above the entrance. And as you leave, look for evidence of a bolted door.
Continue along the trail to reach a very large winepress, complete with a collection area and a mosaic-covered treading floor where grapes were crushed. Their juice flowed along a canal into a plastered vat, where the sediment separated from the liquid.
Workers would have descended the stairs you see leading into the pool, so they could collect the juice into jars. Afterwards, the jars were taken elsewhere for fermentation.
At your next stop, the village quarry, large signs illustrate how limestone was quarried and chiseled. Lacking explosives, workers dug trenches around a stone block, burrowing deep enough for extraction. Then they probably lifted it from the bedrock with iron levers.
Almost all of Israel’s ancient columbaria, utilized for raising pigeons, were carved into existing rock. The columbarium on the Golden Trail is a fascinating exception: it was built out of stones that were probably taken from the quarry you just viewed.
Breeding pigeons was a popular pastime during the Greek and Roman eras. But long before the rise of the Greek Empire, and in accordance with biblical decree, Jews sacrificed pigeons at the Temple. The Book of Leviticus sets out the conditions for sacrificing pigeons in several passages: “And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his forfeit for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, unto the Lord: one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering” (5:7); “And when the days of or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon.” (12:6) Pigeons had other uses as well. Their excrement acted as a superb fertilizer and they made a tasty dinner! Take a good look at the structure, which had a roof to protect the birds from predators.
Of all of Israel’s brilliant wildflowers, perhaps the most captivating are the large sternbergia. Large sternbergia are especially precious because they bloom in fall, bursting leafless and full-blown out of the dry autumn earth even before it rains. A glorious spectacle, this queen of Israeli wildflowers provides isolated spots of color within a mass of dry northern weeds or brown desert sand.
Take a side trip and follow the sign leading away from the path and to the Sternbergia Nature Reserve. Sternbergia began appearing in the Negev at the end of October; hopefully, they will continue to bloom throughout November.
Watch your feet – sternbergia, which belong to the narcissus family, develop from bulbs and are found very close to the ground.
Blossoms resemble large bells and are the color of egg yolk, which is why they are called helmoniyot (yolks) in Hebrew.
Although sternbergia sites are only a few dunams in size, each separate area contains over a hundred flowers in tiny clusters.
Back on the trail, returning to your vehicle, you will be struck by the sight of a bright green tree standing proudly and alone on the desert sands. In Hebrew it is called shezaf; in English, jujube. But in Latin it is known as Ziziphus spinachristi, or Christ-thorn jujube. That’s because it is said to be the source of the thorny crown Jesus wore on his last journey.
Jujube trees originated in the savannah sands of eastern Africa, and traveled up north. Some believe the jujube is the biblical atad – thornbush or bramble – mentioned in the parable of Jotham (Judges 9:14) and in Psalms 58:10: “Before your pots can feel the thorns, He will sweep it away with a whirlwind, the raw and the burning alike.”