Part VIII: Up Mount Tabor

Hiking the Israel Trail: Climbing this prominent landmark, shaped like a soup bowl, is harder than it looks.

Shaped like an inverted soup bowl, Mount Tabor rises gently but powerfully from the lowlands of Lower Galilee. Its summit, at 588 meters, is less than half the height of Mount Meron. Its basalt, which covers some of the eastern flanks, gives a clue as to how it formed. That volcanic rock protected the underlying limestone rocks from the general weathering which eroded the surrounding land to its present low altitude. This is a demanding and satisfying 18 km. stretch of the Israel Trail, although it will take a little skillful footwork coming down Mount Tabor, and in the Mount Yona area. Start at Kfar Tabor, and pick up the Israel Trail by walking south for 10 minutes along the main Road No. 65 until Israel Trail logos appear along the road. You have just reached Gazit Junction. Follow the road signposted to Mount Tabor, but watch for a logo in a few minutes' time directing the trail leftwards off the road. The climb starts here. Mount Tabor is a visual confidence trick. It looks like an easy climb from a distance, but up close, it is actually far more demanding. Its low-altitude start and steep gradient means that you should allow at least one and half hours to make it to the top. Just follow the Israel Trail logos emblazoned on the rocks and rest frequently. Fortunately, it is well shaded by the oak and pine of the mixed Mediterranean-type forest, and wildflower enthusiasts should look out for species of anemone and cyclamen in season. I actually missed the trail halfway up, but pushed on regardless. I got to the top without any difficulty, but the summit is a plateau, and my erroneous point of entry turned out to be the back of the Church of the Transfiguration, right in the monks' garden. There were no welcoming sandwiches and coffee. Instead, I got a surly "How would you like it if I trampled through your back garden?" I wanted to tell him that I should be so lucky as to have a back garden, but I didn't think his English was up to it. Follow the black-marked path around the summit, which opens to the panoramic view of the Nazareth Ridge and the Carmel Range to the west, Mount Gilboa to the south and the mountains of Upper Galilee to the north. The path is pleasantly shaded, with the terrain of a large rock garden. You will eventually reach the Gate of the Crusader Fortress, a magnificent Gothic stone arch. Stop here for a picnic rest and let yourself tune in to Mount Tabor's history. Open the Bible to the Book of Judges, Chapters 4 and 5. Read them aloud (with the likely accompaniment of the church bells above and the muezzin down below). This dramatic landscape is the backdrop to the charismatic Deborah's campaign against the Canaanite general, Sisera. Around the year 1100 BCE, he oppressed the local technologically-backward Israelites with his 900 state-of-the-art chariots of iron. Deborah's general Barak assembled the Israelite army on the land under your feet, and swept them down westwards to divine-assisted victory. You will have to imagine all of this, as Mount Tabor's military remains come from a later date. South of the gate are surviving parts of the Roman fortress recalled by Josephus - easily recognizable by their alternating uncut stones and ashlars. And the defensive moat (spanned by a drawbridge) in front of the arch was filled in just over 100 years ago. MOST VISITORS to Mount Tabor are Christians, whose traditions hold that this mountain is very likely the one on which Jesus was transfigured - dramatically revealed as being divine. The Gospels (Matthew 17) relate that this took place in the company of Moses, Elijah and Jesus' disciples. Despite a dispute over the actual location of the events from the text, a visit to Mount Tabor is a highlight on Christian itineraries. Its spiritual significance and stunning views from the summit bring pilgrims in their multitudes. The most prominent structure on the plateau is the Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration, built in the 1920s on the site previously occupied by Canaanite temples, and churches from the Byzantine, Crusader and other periods. It is generally open to visitors in the early afternoons only. With your back to the stone archway, follow the green-marked path, which takes you on a good hour-and-a-quarter's meandering steep descent to the Beduin village of Shibli. Best to see the mud's glue-like consistency as a sly powerful challenge rather than a sly powerful enemy, and reward your exhausted push into Tabor's terminal with an ice-cold drink. After a rest and maybe a bite, follow the marked trail along the road and then over the farmlands owned by the settled Beduin community of Shibli. A kilometer from the road, the path takes a sharp left. Red-marked, it leads to the Arab town of Daburiya. I pushed on, in the belief that it was also the Israel Trail (which it is), only to be stopped by a group of Arabs working on the land. It turned out that they just wanted to use my mobile phone. I obliged, and got a nice thank-you in the form of another drink! I did not advertise the fact that I was Israeli; I wore a baseball cap and spoke only English. Whether or not you feel comfortable walking this part of the trail is a personal decision, though it may comfort you to know that Israeli taxi drivers serve the area without qualms. The path continues to the edge of Daburiya, and functions as its rubbish dump, attracting large orange-beaked geese. Hold your nose and keep going. The path that turns off is marked in black. Follow it up. Leave that tightly-packed town's junkyard behind as the pine-shaded ascent of Mount Devora takes shape. Higher up, and you are back in JNF country with its picnic tables, and plaques of donors. Splendid views open up above Upper Nazareth and Nazareth itself, with the modern Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation clearly visible. Speaking of donors, the top of Mount Devora is crowned with a grandiose plaque bearing the insignia of the British Royal Family. Named "The Royal Forest," it is a gift from the Anglo-Jewish community in commemoration of the monarch's 25th wedding anniversary in 1977. The queen, however, did not actually open it. In fact, Her Majesty has never been to Israel. Watch very carefully for the logos, as the Israel Trail leaves the main path to descend the western flank of Mount Devora. Its wild, rocky well-shaded environment, with shy white Nazareth Iris make it the most beautiful part of the trail, and a just recompense for enduring Daburiya's dustbins. The trail turns to red as it makes the final ascent out of the ravines around Mount Yona. It rewards your efforts with the best view of Mount Tabor on the entire walk. Observe its perfectly curvaceous western descent. At first, it's quite steep, and then gently levels out. Just the right shape for Deborah's army plunging down on Sisera and his 900 chariots of iron. The final three kilometers are roadwork along the newly constructed extensions to Upper Nazareth, with the Israel Trail marked on the street lamps. Keep on the right hand side, and you'll have view of Kafr Kana, and the Tiran valley, carrying the Haifa-Tiberias highway. Just before the traffic circle near the bridge, the trail logos cease. The last one directs you to the right. Climb downwards into the valley and take the well-defined path at right angles to the main road, and emerge a few minutes later not far the grave of the Prophet Jonah, at Mash'had, on Road No. 754. Toast a good day's work with something from the general store opposite, and a local bus to Beit Rimon Junction, with connections to Haifa, Tel Aviv, Tiberias and - after changing at Golani Junction - Jerusalem.