In the footsteps of the Lamed-Heh

Follow Caesar's Way through the hills on this ancient and modern historical journey.

olive press 88 298 (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
olive press 88 298
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
Twenty-five minutes on foot downhill from the entrance to Moshav Mata along Route #375 gets you to Hirbet Hanot (The Ruins of the Inn). Inside, find preserved Roman-Byzantine mosaic floors, whose sand cover you are invited to remove and replace with a broom - gently, taking care not to damage the ancient stone artwork. Here commences the 27th leg of the Israel Trail. The remains of this tavern are the first of several reminders that you are following Caesar's Way (in the reverse direction) - the Roman route from the port of Ashkelon via Beit Guvrin up to Solomon's Pools in the Hebron Hills, a major source of fresh water for Jerusalem in ancient times. It must have been a high-class place: all the colored stones needed for the delicate craft of such a floor are not found in this predominantly limestone and chalk region. Mosaic floors were only crafted for homes of the wealthy, or for community buildings, such as fancy lodging places, synagogues and churches. I confess I did this section on the Jewish Fast of the 10th month (Zechariah 8:19), otherwise known as the Fast of Tevet - bringing to mind the beginning of the destruction of a better-known edifice - namely the First Temple. I'm sure I missed one or two things, such as the Roman milestones (too much wishful thinking over the Roman-Byzantine liquid refreshment that passed by centuries ago). By compensation, the full cloud cover made ideal weather for walking and taking photographs. The Trail beckons the walker onto a pleasant wooded and limestone-lined downward path parallel to Route #375, which every now and then sends up reverberations of heavy trucks wheezing their fume-sodden way from the industrial area of Beit Shemesh. The path itself is well cared for, its steep bits eased with wooden-backed steps and the odd bench or two for the weary traveler. Though it was early January, there were plenty of wild flowers around - especially anemones and cyclamen - but somehow they failed to carry themselves with a fully erect soldierly bearing, as though apologizing for being out of season. Reminders of Caesar's Way start to pick up 40 minutes downhill, in the form of another Roman-Byzantine drinking hole - this time for animals only. The pit survived the ravages of time as a well-built vaulted archway, supported by a stout pillar and still in good condition. It appears designed to tap the winter-only flow of the adjacent Zarzar Stream, but the thin layer of muddy water that met my eye at the bottom of the steps wouldn't have interested anything less desperate than an emaciated goat on the brink of death from thirst. Save your boots and keep out. In due course the Trail crosses the road, and the otherwise satisfying wooded landscape is marred by too many non-native species of fallen pine trees which have long given up the struggle against the fierce winter elements of these hills. Here you should also find the very local ktalav (strawberry) tree. Easily recognized, the leaves glisten brightly, and the reddish bark peels off at a touch. Arabs tell a tale of a shepherd and his father who fell in love with the same girl. The shepherd murdered his father with his staff, and from that very same blood-saturated rod sprouted a red-barked tree to immortalize the father. Indeed ktalav comes from its Arabic name katlib, meaning "killed father." Keep your eye on the path, as its surface can be very slippery, and I barely avoided a fatal plunge onto the Beit Shemesh road far down below. In due course it broadens out onto the wide Roman Steps (complete with banisters). They probably humped travelers over a particularly steep section of Caesar's Way, but it is just possible that they had been foundations of an important building en route to Solomon's Pools - as the broken pillars in the nearby woodland silently suggest. The Roman connections with this section end on the finale of a partially reconstructed Roman olive press. The screw mechanism enables the olives in their meshed baskets to be crushed under extremely high pressure. The oil runs into the vats below (covered by a modern grate for safety). Indeed, way back in Biblical times, King Solomon traded that type of oil with Hiram of Tyre in exchange for cedar and cypress wood (Kings I 5:25). And the Midrash (Exodus Rabba 36:1), dating from roughly the same time as the vat, sums it up: "The olive is left to fully ripen while it is yet on the tree after which it is brought down from the tree and beaten... it is then brought up to the vat and placed in a grinding mill, where it is ground and then tied up with ropes [through which the oil is filtered]. Stones are brought [which possibly were attached to the large screw structure], and then at last it yields its oils" - which were used as bases in both the local diet and perfumes. The Trail follows Route #375 for about 300 m. towards HaElah Junction, and then turns a sharp right along a well-marked path. That is where you sense leaving the precipitous Judean Hills and returning to the gently rolling and far more open landscape of the Shfela. Switchbacking up and down the next five km. of Israel Trail puts you in the company of plenty of fauna and flora - including, on my visit, one hare and three gazelles, all moving too quickly to be snapped. There were some decidedly obese magpies - although I couldn't see how they got that way, as it wasn't date or fig season. The almond trees were in premature blossom, and nicely set off the vines lower down. The dandelion flowers dispatched me to fantasies of heavenly reward for today's fast - an eternal supply of that delicious North of England brew, Dandelion & Burdock. Overall a very pleasant part of the Trail, though the landscape looks as though it has had more than its fair share of fire and regeneration. The trail drops to outside Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh. I missed the Trail marking which avoids the kibbutz and actually got inside it. It is overlooked by Tel Socoh, which was Goliath's rallying ground against the Israelites (Samuel I 17:1). Had I made the same mistake some 3,000 years earlier, I would have been fighting for his army, instead of the Israelites who were massed at Tel Azeka, at the end of this section of the Trail. I was stopped by a burly policeman and a guy with a big beard wearing a kippa. Wholesale cattle theft by villagers over the Green Line is still big business over here, they informed me, despite the heavy wire fencing of the kibbutz. But when I told them what I was up to, they relented and wished me a successful fast and completion of the Israel Trail. Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh (Hebrew acronym for "The 35") takes its name from a more tragic, recent event. The Gush Etzion area some 15 km. to the east was under increasingly heavy local Arab attack in early 1948, and they depended upon the Hagana supply convoys for their survival. Under the command of Danny Mas, 35 Hagana members made their way on foot from Har Tuv (near Beit Shemesh, close to this route) on the night of January 15, but there were not enough hours of darkness to get them to their destination. Arab shepherds from Tzurif spotted them at dawn, and promptly summoned a large group of armed locals to block their way. The battle lasted all the next day; the last of the group was killed at about 4:30 p.m. The Arab attackers mutilated the bodies of "the 35"; a British soldier who took pictures of the mutilated bodies left his roll of film to be developed in Jerusalem and never came back for it. Several decades later the negatives were discovered, but it was decided not to publish the atrocities. The kibbutz remains dependent on cattle and viticulture, but has become increasingly involved in varieties of hi-tech and tertiary industries. In the last hour and a half of this section of the trail, the limestone gives way to chalk and its associated dry valleys. The landscape looks fairly tame on the map, but is in fact fairly strenuous work, as it traverses the natural divides between the tributaries of the HaElah Valley, which will make you wish the Romans cut some steps into these paths as well. Tel Azeka comes slowly into view right ahead, and a large pistachio tree marks the end of the trail as you reach the Tel Azeka Junction (Routes #38 and #383), with Bus #27 to Beit Shemesh. The Details: * Start: Hirbet Hanot, Route #375. Bus #184 (Betar Tours) from Jerusalem to the entrance of Moshav Mata, then a 25-minute walk westwards along the right hand side of Route #375. * Finish: Tel Azeka Junction (Routes #38 and #383). Bus #27 to Beit Shemesh. * Access/Exits: Beit Ha-Bad (The Olive Press) - Route #375 - 5 km. to the entrance to Moshav Mata * Level of difficulty: Straightforward * Length: 15 km. * Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridors) * Estimated walking time: 5-6 hours * Water: Bring your own. Also available at Netiv Halamed-Heh: a short detour more than half-way along the route. * Bring: 3 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with good grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, large towel, first aid kit, penknife and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception adequate for most of the route. * Accommodations: Kibbutz Tzora (Country Accommodation), (02) 285-6990; Galon Country and Seminar Accommodation, Galon (08) 687-2410; Moshav Taoz, Fink-zimmer's Accommodation (02) 999-8242; Beit Tamar Youth Hostel, Beit Guvrin (08) 687-4222 * Restaurants: Havat Tzuk, HaElah Junction (non-kosher) 054-523-9117; Kibbutz Tzora - By The Winepress (kosher, non-supervised), (02) 990-8261; Ur-Khan Beit Guvrin (at the gas station, kosher), (08) 687-4054; Oriental Restaurant (Chinese, kosher), Beit Shemesh Industrial Estate (02) 999-9488 * Places to visit: Tel Gezer Archaeological Park; Tel Tzora Archaeological Site (between Shimshon and Nachshon Junctions), (02) 990-8642; Beit Guvrin National Park (08) 681-1020 * Attractions: Stalactite Cave, near Beit Shemesh (02) 991-1117/999-4730; Sculpture Garden (President's Forest, near Beit Shemesh) 1-800-250-250; Children's Wildlife Center, Kibbutz Tzora (02) 990-8642, 050-728-6693.