The ascent to Jerusalem

A sentimental journey from Sha'ar Hagai to Tzova through the Martyrs' Forest.

archway 88 (photo credit: )
archway 88
(photo credit: )
The writer is documenting his hike of the Israel Trail, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Taba in the south. This week he journeys through the Judean hills towards Jerusalem. Previous hikes» This accessible but demanding leg of the trail pushes up the steep, wooded Judean Hills by means of ancient trails en route to the Holy City. Well shaded by eucalyptus, oak, stone pine, cedar and cypress trees, the walk's recurrent themes are poignant events in living memory - the Holocaust and the War of Independence. They culminated in Jerusalem becoming a leading physical as well as spiritual center of Jewish life after nearly 2,000 years. You will not walk alone for long. It's a favorite section for hikers taking a sample full-length section of the trail. It also attracts parties of Israeli high-school children reliving events they study in modern history. Start at the water fountain of the "Burma Road" picnic site on Route 38 - about 500 meters south of Routes 1 and 38 Interchange, just before the Paz gas station. As described in the last section, that name was given to the emergency supply route to bypass the Arab-controlled main road to Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence. Had the convoys not managed to get through, the Jews remaining in west Jerusalem would have starved or been forced to surrender. Do not take the Burma Road, but follow the Israel Trail's orange, blue and white sandwich signs to the left, and visit the white letter-sculpture commemorating some 500 Mahal (volunteers from abroad) soldiers who fell in the War of Independence. Look for the plaque carrying Yitzhak Rabin's words of gratitude and appreciation: "They came to us when we needed them most - during those hard and uncertain days of our War of Independence." The path then climbs steadily for a full hour. Most of it is shaded, though you will cross barer patches victimized by the forest fire of 1998. The scenic and strategic Lookout Post 21, Rama Viewpoint, and Lookout Post 16 are just right for sitting down and drawing breath - something that would have been much envied by the fledgling Israeli army desperately battling to hold onto them in 1948. The ground under your feet felt the impact of the fiercest fighting. Salve your conscience and examine the battle-simulation memorial figures at each site. THE VIEWPOINTS span wide vistas taking in the Mediterranean Coast, the Samarian Mountains, the Ayalon Valley and the ascent to Beth Horon. From deep below come sounds of rushing water. They are not underground water reserves, but continuous streams of traffic on the mostly invisible Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway. The limestone rocks effectively filter out offensive noise elements, sending up reverberations of mountain streams rather than traffic streams. You find that out as the highway comes into full view at the Ramah Viewpoint. The path turns south and presently comes out at Routeway 3955 near Beit Meir - which until 1948 was the strategically positioned Arab village of Beit Machsir. Toothy-looking rows of trees - mostly ancient oaks - top the ridge of the peak behind, duly giving this nature reserve its name: Hamasrek (the comb). Its thoughtfully placed orange shelter with regional maps and illustrations reassures long-distance hikers of having got to nearly half-way between the start of the Trail at Tel Dan and the desert finale at Eilat-Taba. There was a cardboard box just underneath. Labeled "Fresh Water for Israel Path Walkers," it contained a solitary bottle of water and a nest of plastic cups. I appreciated the kindness of the fellow-walker, but also the irony, as at precisely that moment the heavens opened and threw down the rains. Beit Meir is now an Orthodox Jewish moshav well worth a 30-minute detour. The thirsty and the homesick should delight in seltzer and Dr. Pepper at the general store; very likely, the local American one-year yeshiva program has something to do with it. You are now entering the northern part of the Holocaust Martyrs' Forest. The path meanders downhill between trees regenerating with vigor, as though making up for lost time after recent fires. It widens and becomes shadier as the woodland deepens and matures, with Mount Carmila on one side and unforgettable deep forest ravines on the other. Beit Shemesh shyly reveals itself in the distance. KEEP YOUR eyes onto the left side of the wide track, as the Israel Trail unexpectedly takes its leave, and plunges down a narrow footpath into the Kessalon Ravine. Keep both hands free to negotiate the 45-minute descent. The initial difficulties over the loose ground are well worth the fairy-tale beauty of the narrow (but well-marked) path forging deep into the forest. At the bottom is the channel of the Kessalon Stream. Test your sense of balance on the no-hold bridge of wooden slats (it was recently removed, but ought to be back in place by the time you get there). Opposite is the B'nai B'rith Cave - the heart of the Martyrs' Forest. If the Nazi Holocaust must be created in rural forest landscape, the Kessalon Valley is the place to do it. A five-minute walk off the trail to the right (along the red-marked path) is a stone asymmetrical archway, hinting at how the balance of nature and human relations were destabilized by the evil machinations of Man. The steep sides of the valley recollect the ravine at Babi Yar outside Kiev, the spot the Nazis selected for vilely shooting to death tens of thousands of innocents. And the B'nai B'rith Cave itself is an artificially-enlarged natural structure with murky hues and dark, stout iron bars. Enter, sit, and contemplate. You will sense being at the bottom of a quarry. Right on top of you is a sheer, vertical rock face. The stepped pathway leading out of it recalls the quarry at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. One of the worst of all the camps, prisoners were ground to death bearing crushing stone blocks on forced runs up the nearly 200 steps from the quarry. Or they were exterminated, thrown down the sheer face, sardonically nicknamed "The Parachutists' Wall." TO THE LEFT of the cave are 20 finely-cut smooth posts framing and constraining rough stone - a symbol of the millions fated to have ended their lives constricted under appalling conditions. There are picnic tables, but no water. A green notice primly informs visitors that no "events" are allowed - possibly out of respect to those whose foul deaths the forest silently commemorates. To get to Eshtaol, leave the Israel Path, turn right and follow the main path for about 2 km. Turn left along the main path, which is wide enough to accommodate a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You will pass many exits and entrances with gaunt Holocaust memorials of various communities that perished under the Nazis. Now it is plain sailing up the Kessalon Valley, and the walker will soon enjoy the shades and smells of oak, pine and eucalyptus, and maybe a deer or two. After an hour and a half, a signposted green-marked path turns off to the left. To get to Shoeva, leave the Israel Path along that green path, and climb out of the Kessalon Valley. After 10 minutes, turn right along a black marked path, which will soon emerge at Route 3955 and the Shoeva Picnic Site. Continue to Tzova along the main marked path for another 45 minutes. It touches Ein Limor, with a water cistern dating from Roman times. Natural water might be flowing out of the bedrock, but don't count on it for drinking purposes. Nearby are the remains of Arab homes abandoned in the fighting of 1948. The path carries on beyond the villages of Ein Rafa and Ein Nakuba and climbs steadily and steeply out of the valley to the entrance of Kibbutz Tzova (with Crusader remains nearby) and the 183 bus-stop on Route #395. Or continue into the kibbutz and adjourn to the bar of the Belmont Hotel (telephone (02) 534-7070/7090) for sandwiches and coffee. YOU SHOULD EXPERIENCE: * A quality walk in the wooded Judean Hills along ancient and almost forgotten paths to Jerusalem * Rural landscape subtly modified to evoke the regeneration of the Jewish nation out of the Holocaust * The bitter War of Independence look-out post struggles over the supply lines to Jerusalem * A sense of how the New City of Jerusalem was saved from starvation and defeat in the Arab siege of 1948 * The faint but unmistakable fragrance of fresh eucalyptus, among oaks, stone pines, cedar, and cypress trees * The sounds of cool rushing mountain springs - from 20th-century technology * Sharing nature with the butterflies, lizards, hoopoes and the odd deer * Your sense of balance put to the test on a wooden slats bridge (may be avoided by the timid) The Details: * Start: Sha'ar Hagai: Burma Road picnic site on Route 38 - about 500 meters south of Routes 1 and 38 interchange, just before the Paz gas station. Buses: #415 from Jerusalem, #401 from Tel Aviv. * Finish: Entrance to Kibbutz Tzova, on Route 395. Bus #183 to Jerusalem. * Access/Exits: near Beit Meir (Route 3955 to signposted junction with the Burma Road); Eshtaol (Route 38, then 2 km. walk along the red path to Martyrs' Cave); a Shoresh Junction (as an exit - 2 km. up green-marked path to Junction Routes 1 and 3955) * Level of difficulty - Moderate. From Martyrs' Cave to Tzova suitable for mountain bikers and four-wheel-drive vehicles. * Length - 20 km. * Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridors) * Estimated walking time - 8 hours * Water - at start and finish of the walk only * Bring: 3 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, towel, first-aid kit, penknife, and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception unreliable especially in the area of the Martyrs' Cave. * Accommodations - Belmont Hotel, Tzova (02) 534-7070/7090; Rose of Castel, Mevaseret Zion (02) 534-1744; Shoresh Hotel, Shoresh (02) 533-8338; Yad Hashmona Guest House, Yad Hashmona (02) 534-3953/6. * Restaurants - Mifgash Caravan, Abu Ghosh (02) 533-3573; Yad Hashmona Guest House, Yad Hashmona (02) 534-3953/6; Mahlevat Shai Zeltzer (vegetarian), near Sataf (02) 533-3748; Pundak Har Haruah, near Nataf (02) 534-5660. * Places to visit: Tel Tzova (Crusader ruins), Tzova (02) 534-7952; Ein Hemed National Park, Ein Hemed; Castel National Gardens, Mevaseret Zion (03) 533-0476. Christians will wish to visit the various monasteries at Abu Ghosh, and also the Cave of John the Baptist, Tzova (0545) 637-953. * Attractions: Kiftzuba (Children's Theme Park), Tzova (02) 534-7952; Z Tzova Bicycle Adventure Course, Tzova (02) 534-7667; Ness Harim Water Park, Ness Harim (02) 533-0260/1.