The summer is ending, the kids have returned to school, so momentarily the time for long vacations is over. But with the heat breaking, there are short, accessible hikes available in areas both pristine and historical.The Eila Valley, south of Beit Shemesh, is one such region, where Route 38 meets Route 375. Here, David defeated the giant and heavily armed Goliath with a slingshot, smooth stones from a stream bed, and his faith.As we read the story, we can see it unfold in the valley. The Philistines, we read in I Samuel 17:1, gathered their armies “together at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and pitched between Socoh and Azeka, in Ephes-dammim.”Biblical Socoh has been identified as a small round hill with First-Temple-era ruins on top, on the south side of the Eila Valley, just west of Adullam junction.
Buds of Socoh.(photo credit: TZIPPI MOSS)A dirt road leads behind the hill, and a short but steep and bramble-covered path leads to the top. Walking carefully between the ruins and pits to the northern edge of the hill (covered in spring with blue lupines), you can visualize the Philistine forces arrayed in the valley below, their western flank stretching toward conspicuous Tel Azeka. And you can see, on the ridge paralleling the valley to the north, the archeological excavation of Khirbet Qeiyafa.Since excavation began in 2008, this tel has transformed the picture of the early Judean kingdom. With its two uncovered gates, it has been identified as Sha’arayim (meaning two gates): “And the wounded of the Philistines fell by the way to Sha’arayim, even unto Gat and unto Ekron.” (Ekron has been definitively located at Tel Mikne, just east of Kibbutz Revadim.) It can be easily visualized where, blocking passage to the Judean high country, “Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched by the Eila Valley... And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side. And there was a valley between them”(I Samuel 17:2-3).So many of the encounters between the Philistines and Israelites – Samson’s escapades, the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines – unfold in the nebulous, sovereignty- shifting zone of the Shfela, the lowland hills that lay between the Philistines of the coastal plain and the Israelites in the highlands. There were only specific, sharply delineated passageways reaching into the Judean Hills. The Eila Valley was one, stretching toward Bethlehem. Modern Route 375 (and an ancient Roman road) follow the same ravine that David, loaded with cheeses for his brothers, descended from Bethlehem to Saul’s army which was blocking the valley.
The Eila valley. (photo credit: Courtesy)Tel Azeka is reached via the entry to British Park off Road 383, just west of Azeka junction. The road is followed to the picnic ground at the base of the tel.Then climb the wooden stairs to the top. About 350 meters high, it looms steeply over the Eila Valley – like an eagle’s nest, according to an Assyrian inscription.To here, Joshua pursued and slew the Amorites (also smitten by God’s hailstones – Joshua 10:10-11). Here, King Rehoboam, King Solomon’s son, built one of a chain of fortresses guarding approaches to the high country. But Assyria rolled over Azeka, as it did all Judean fortress-cities but Jerusalem.More than a century later, the prophet Jeremiah noted that, of the peripheral cities, only Lachish and Azeka still resisted the Babylonians (Jeremiah 34:7). A poignant inscription on one of the famous ostraca found at Lachish reports that the signal-fires of Azeka can no longer be seen. About 700 years after that defeat, Azeka once again served as a focal point for Jewish resistance, with Bar-Kochba rebels gouging sanctuaries for themselves deep into the rock.The stunning view encompasses Socoh, Khirbet Qeiyafa, and the crease in the hills which is the passage leading toward the Judean ridge. We can see a reserve of rare albino acacia trees on the ridge behind Kibbutz Netiv Halamed- Heh, and the scrubby, thicket- like forests of Mediterranean oaks, terebinths, almond, laurel and olive trees which would have covered all these hills during biblical times. We can see, too, the high towers of the rapidly expanding developments of Ramat Beit Shemesh creeping toward the rumpled hills.Back at the parking lot we can start a pleasant hike, about 7 km. and up to two hours, along the ridge to Mitzpe Masua. We’ll follow the tricolor markings for the Israel National Trail, the almost 1,000-km. trail that zigzags from Dan in the North to Taba in the South.
Mitzpe Masua.(photo credit: TZIPPI MOSS)But because there are, in this park, many local trails intersecting and splitting off, and because some of the Israel Trail markers are faded, it is worth bringing a 1:50,000 hiking map, or at least a detailed map of British Park.The trail cuts south through the picnic ground, to a junction where two dirt-road trails, marked black and green, intersect. Our path just cuts through them, to join a stone-stepped path built by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund.This is a very enjoyable trail to hike.While near a moderately traveled road, it yet has an apartness to it. At times the trail narrows to a thread-like path over rocky terrain, with mild but numerous descents and ascents. You can almost feel that you are immersed in an isolated wilderness.Cisterns and oil presses pockmark the area as the trail climbs to Khirbet Shikolet and then arches around a pastoral landscape of low, undulating terraced hills. Near a distinctive playground, it crosses Route 353, which heads toward Moshav Agur and then plunges into a low area of overgrown stone walls, thickets, and thick trees.Rising to some pine-fringed hills, the trail crosses another road in British Park and makes a short but steep climb to Mitzpe Masua, with its distinctive old fire tower (which was once possible to climb but is now locked).The view from Mitzpe Masua gazes west and gives a sense of the low hills flattening toward the Coastal Plain area near Ashdod (ancient Ashdod was a Philistine stronghold). Samson carried doors and posts from the gate at Gaza up to Hebron, and with this cross section of the landscape open to us, from coastal plain to highlands, we can understood the power of that image.This is, clearly, a one-way hike. Two cars must be arranged, or a cab from Beit Shemesh can shuttle you between Mitzpe Masua and Tel Azeka for about NIS 70.There are many pleasant, enjoyable, accessible hikes in the area:• The Israel Trail continues south toward Beit Guvrin, along terrain that lowers and becomes more exposed. At two points, Khirbet Tzura and Tel Goded, there is access to the main road, Route 38, and parking.• The Israel Trail south of Ramat Beit Shemesh parallels and gazes upon the length of the Eila Valley from the north, behind Kibbutz Netiv Halamed- Heh.• A short circular trail route starts at the dirt lot by Socoh, climbs up by black trail to an amphitheater-like formation of hills, and a blue trail descends and then climbs Mount Socoh.The views from points along this route give a sense of expansiveness and isolation in a short and doable distance.For all these routes, water and trail maps (and the ability to read them) are required.The writer is a licensed tour guide and the author of the historical e-novel The Disciple Scroll; email@example.com