All in one

A trip to Nir David combines history, archeology, waterfront fun, Australian animals and a good meal.

Sakhne 248.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sakhne 248.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Although over the millennia villages and cities had prospered throughout the Beit She'an Valley, by the time the 20th century rolled around, the region had been desolate for centuries. Indeed, the whole valley was nothing but a swampy wasteland. It was only after the Jewish National Fund bought up the swamps and began getting them ready for settlement that the valley came alive once again. Most of this renewal was the result of backbreaking work by the settlers of Tel Amal. These young, hardy pioneers had jumped at the opportunity to make the wilderness bloom, and they spent the years from 1934 to 1936 tilling the soil. Then, with the onset of the Arab revolt and riots in 1936, already-hostile locals burned both the crops and the fields the Jewish farmers had worked so hard to prepare. The young pioneers were faced with two critical problems: Arab terror, and British opposition to Jewish settlement. Instead of giving up, the group formulated a daring new idea. They would set up a defensible settlement between dawn and dusk, moving so quickly neither the British nor the Arabs would be able to stop them. It was called the "tower-and-stockade" operation. After several months of feverish preparations, on December 12, 1936, nearly a hundred young men and women rapidly moved supplies to the valley. They set up parallel 180-meter-high wooden walls and filled them with 25 cm. of gravel (against bullets). A tower and searchlight, a barbed-wire fence and several wooden huts for lodging 30 of the members completed the new home. By nightfall, Tel Amal was a fact to be reckoned with - and the inspiration for 51 more tower-and-stockade Jewish settlements to be built within the next three years. Despite being plagued by malaria and set upon at all hours of day and night by marauding Arabs, the little kibbutz persevered. Today a vibrant and thriving community, Tel Amal (later renamed Nir David) was the first kibbutz to breed fish in artificial ponds. It is also the only kibbutz to boast a river within its borders. In the 1990s, an exact replica of that early tower-and-stockade settlement was erected right next to Nir David. Bring your family to the Tel Amal Tower-and-Stockade Educational Center for a firsthand look at life in those early days. You can spend a whole day right here, for the center is part of a complex that includes three more great attractions: an Australian-style kangaroo farm (Gan Garoo), the fabulous Sakhne (Gan Hashlosha) and a unique archeological museum. TOWER AND STOCKADE EDUCATIONAL CENTER For an experience that is as much fun as it is educational, move between the different stations that made up daily life for the farmers - and even wear their clothes! Climb to the top of the watchtower as did the early guards, launder garments with water from the river on an old-fashioned washboard, build settlement walls and fill pails with gravel using the original tools utilized by the pioneers! Find out how they cooked their food, why their dishes were made of tin, and learn about a unique kibbutz invention called a mahletz. Browse through the settlers' original passports and, if you can read Hebrew, take a look at newspapers from the times. Don't miss the just-opened "Settlement Bell Garden" featuring all kinds of early bells with fascinating explanations (in Hebrew). The garden is also the last stop on the River Riddle (see below). Although the movie shown there is old-fashioned, it has some great shots that give you an excellent idea of the difficulties faced by the pioneers and the joys of making the wilderness bloom. GAN HASHLOSHA (SAKHNE) NATIONAL PARK AND THE RIVER RIDDLE Winter and spring are my favorite seasons for swimming in the hot springs of the Sakhne, for the water temperature never goes below 28º Celsius. The crowds come in summer, so you can relax in the tranquil waters and enjoy the lush landscaping that surrounds the river. The latest attraction at Gan Hashlosha is the River Riddle: an educational walk around the river with numbered stations and many riddles. When you finish, you get a little prize that the kiddies will enjoy. Pick up a map and riddles in the office, then begin your journey. Standing at Station 1, you will learn about the source of the flowing waters; at the Memorial Rock, you will find out how Gan Hashlosha got its name. Continue on to the only Roman-era underwater amphitheater in Israel, discover the workings of an ancient flour mill, then walk along natural river foliage to the Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archeology and finally to the Bell Garden. At each station you will answer part of the riddle - and by the end you will have composed a complete sentence about the river. MUSEUM OF REGIONAL AND MEDITERRANEAN ARCHEOLOGY Archeologist and artist Daniel Lifshitz was among a small group of young Europeans who joined Kibbutz Nir David in the late 1950s. Soon afterward, Lifshitz decided to donate his fantastic collection of ancient Etruscan (Italian) artifacts - which meant, of course, that the kibbutz needed a museum in which they could be displayed. And, indeed, the Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archeology was inaugurated in 1963, just outside the kibbutz. It stands on a hill which is actually a biblical tel, one of many that ringed ancient Beit She'an. It was populated by the Canaanites in 2200 BCE - and by the Israelites a thousand years later. Not surprisingly, when they began digging the foundations for the museum, all kinds of discoveries were made. In fact, the museum stands above a Canaanite burial complex. Half of the museum features the Lifshitz collection, while the other half contains artifacts from nearby Beit She'an and the surrounding areas. Enter through a wonderful outdoor archeological garden where you will see, among other antiquities, a sarcophagus cover decorated with a sculpted man lying in typical Etruscan fashion on a pillow. Among the fascinating finds on display inside are a beer jug from the Canaanite period, a row of Roman-era sculptures portraying the heads of women - a find unique in this country - and a pitcher whose Hebrew writing links it directly to the Israelites. Also on display is an extensive group of items including loom weights and a double weaving bowl for twisting double threads, evidence that Jews living here thousands of years ago were engaged in weaving and dying cloth. The Lifshitz collection includes finds from the area of Greece and Italy that you can view only in this museum. Items dating back thousands of years include an "evil eye" dish, a wrestler painted on a fragment from an amphora, a statuette of a tiger whose gold coverings still remain, a sculpted woman giving birth, a jug in the shape of a horse carrying bottles with a spout for a tail, and among the most beautiful pottery figurines on display anywhere in the world. While viewing the collection's Etruscan artifacts, learn about the pre-Italian culture and enjoy a three-dimensional view of an ancient burial ground. The displays feature stunning Etruscan pottery and fabulous jewelry - like the fifth century BCE glass filigree. Also from the collection: a 1,000-year-old tunic that belonged to a Coptic priest, a clay baboon and glazed pottery from Iran. You have had a long day! When you get hungry, enjoy a yummy, new, eco-friendly menu at the kosher Muse on the Water Restaurant, with a view of gushing waters from the dam.