Modern man in an ancient land

A route of flowers, trees and pools, takes you to Beit Guvrin where history comes to life in underground caverns.

guvrin 88 (photo credit: )
guvrin 88
(photo credit: )
Born in Hungary exactly 170 years ago, Rabbi Akiva Yosef Shlesinger had very strong opinions. He was even something of a fanatic. Shlesinger considered modern thought dangerous to the continued existence of the Jewish People and decreed that the solution was an end to the Diaspora with mass immigration to the Land of Israel. Against the express wishes of his extended family, Shlesinger moved to Jerusalem in 1870. Soon, he began riding his donkey all over the country and speaking strongly about the importance of Jewish settlement and farming the land. In 1875, while touring the region identified as the Judean town of Za'anan (Micah 1:11 and Joshua 15:37) west of Hebron, he discovered what he had never dreamed of finding in Israel: "Fertile mountains and forests full of trees and between the mountains a flowering plain..." Together with Rabbi Eliahu Meni, head of the Jewish community in Hebron, Shlesinger formed an organization called Restoring Past Glory. It was dedicated to creating a society based on Jewish values, the renewal of the Hebrew language and redemption of the land. The group operated secretly for two years. When eventually it made itself known, the country's traditionalist religious establishment was appalled. Rabbi Shlesinger was ostracized and excommunicated. When the rabbi attempted to purchase the fertile lands of Za'anan for a group of daring young men from the Hebron yeshiva, the Establishment made sure that his negotiations failed. Two years ago on Tu Bishvat, members of the observant Moshav Nehusha planted a grove near the Guvrin Riverbed located near ancient Za'anan. The JNF had just finished rehabilitating the riverbed, whose banks had been destroyed by poor farming. At the ceremony, Nehusha's rabbi told the gathered group about Rabbi Shlesinger and his attempts to purchase that very land for Jewish settlement. A MARVELOUS outing begins at Maresha Forest with a short scenic route developed by the Jewish National Fund, and it ends at nearby Beit Guvrin-Tel Maresha National Park. To get there, take Road 38 or 375 to Road 35. Five kilometers east of Nehusha Junction you will see a sign pointing to Maresha Forest. A blue arrow points to the scenic route: Pine Nuts Way (Derech Tznobar). The 900-meter route crosses the Guvrin Riverbed and follows along its banks. Maresha Forest is to your right, named for an Israelite town that was located only a few kilometers away. Generally, in winter, masses of flowers in stunning variety blossom in the forest; while in mid-February there were only a few scattered cyclamens and a tall white asphodel here and there, the rest have since bloomed. Blossoms or not, the sweetness of the air and the pastoral atmosphere along this scenic route made the trip more than worthwhile. Note the flowering reeds in the riverbed, drinking in its waters. The lone tree on your left is a centuries-old carob; on your right you will see Atlantic terebinths that have also been around for hundreds of years. Saplings planted in 2006 have begun to sprout branches and leaves at Nehusha Grove. Enjoy the sight, then stop at the Nava (or Nab'a ) Well, 25 meters deep. Perhaps as old as the Israelite village of Za'anan, it features a plastic container tied to a rope. The ancients drew water in a bucket whose ropes carved deep slits in the stone. If you lower the receptacle and bring it back up you will find that there is still plenty of water below, runoff from the Hebron Mountains before you. Back on the road, continue to the arrow that leads to Za'anan Pool, a small portion of the riverbed developed by the JNF. While it was still empty on our visit, it will fill up later in the winter and last through October, for the refreshment of summer visitors sweltering in the heat. Full or not, you won't be able to resist settling down on benches placed strategically in front of the pool in a delightfully tranquil setting. As you contemplate the landscape, smell the mint growing on the opposite bank. Pick some and you'll find it far more fragrant than the species in your neighborhood grocery store - and perhaps even in your garden! Here ends the official scenic route. Walk or drive on the tractor trail that continues next to the riverbed. Pass an olive grove, then be ready for a surprise: you have reached Tarkumiya Crossing, a new, enormous terminal for people and merchandise moving between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Now walk back to your car (or, if you are driving the bumpy tractor route, circle around to the left until you return to Road 35). Take the road to Road 38, turn left and head for the National Park. Maresha was a Canaanite settlement conquered by the Israelites during the time of Joshua and handed over to the tribe of Judah. During the 19th century BCE, Maresha was fortified by King Rehoboam in preparation for a Philistine assault. Some decades later, when Egypt attacked Judah, its armies were turned back at Maresha. Jews were exiled to Babylon from Maresha after the destruction of the First Temple, but they returned to rebuild the city and were later joined by Phoenicians, Idumeans and Greeks. However, Maresha was completely demolished in the second century; virtually all that remains on the tel where it stood are some of the city walls. It was replaced by the adjacent, ever-expanding town of Beit Guvrin. By the second and third centuries, Beit Guvrin had become the center of life in the region. Residents of Maresha discovered more than two millennia ago that the rock which lay underneath their homes possessed excellent industrial properties. This rock was a chalk-like material covered by a hard layer of nari and was perfect for hewing water cisterns, quarries, burial caves and more. You will have a great time at the national park, whose attractions include ruins from a remarkable Roman amphitheater on the other side of Highway 38. The park area contains hundreds of caves, many of them underground and featuring cisterns, living quarters, columbariums and oil presses dating back 2,000 years. Not everyone can walk down steps, of course, to explore these exciting caverns. So when I visited the park recently with a physically challenged parent, we satisfied ourselves with three wheelchair-accessible sites: the Bell Cave, a complete reconstruction of an ancient oil press, and the picnic tables. From the excellent signs we learned everything there was to know about growing olives, how oil was produced and what the ancients did with olive scraps. Then, after a detailed examination of the oil press, we headed for the Bell Cave - an enormous quarry dating back two millennia. It was created by workers who would cut a small hole in the hard nari rock, then widen it further and further as they began reaching chalk (40-60 centimeters down). Once lowered into the hole, they stood on the level they had reached and resumed chipping away. Eventually, as it widened, the cave became shaped like a bell. Unfortunately for us, we were there on a Saturday when a vast array of family activities and children's workshops at the park made wheelchair navigation a bit difficult. Indeed, when we visited the Bell Cave, the circular wheelchair-accessible trail inside was blocked by eager spectators watching a concert whose musicians performed on early instruments. But my ever-Zionist-minded dad was thrilled at the sight before us - what he called the "future of Israel": hundreds of Israelis, young and old alike, soaking up history while having a whopping good time. n Park hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information on activities call *3639. NIS 23 adults; NIS 15 children; seniors 50% discount.