The joys of Sataf

A walk through ancient springs in the Judean Hills.

sataf pool 88 298 (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
sataf pool 88 298
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
This walk puts stout footwear through its paces as it switchbacks over the wooded Judean Hills that divide the Kessalon, Sorek and Refa'im Valleys. Relatively short at 11 kilometers, it may be tackled in the perpendicular, apart from a little mild scrambling above Even Sapir. Fortunately, there are plenty of level stretches to get your breath back which break up the uphill struggle. However, this leg of the Israel Trail is for dry and daylight conditions only. Its predominantly limestone rock is treacherous when damp, and there are several exposed spots over potentially lethal vertical rock faces. You will be making your way across land with long-standing farming connections. Not the ubiquitous kibbutz with its round-the-clock cacophonies of lowing cattle and squawking chickens, but the remains and restorations of the more serene terraced slopes, whose olives, grapes, pomegranates and figs were cultivated by the ancient Israelites, as well as by Arab villagers in the region before 1948. The latter connected natural underground reservoirs with the stepped fields. They tunneled into the water-bearing limestone, and directed the spring water through a series of channels, irrigating the agricultural levels below. Join the Trail opposite the entrance to Kibbutz Tzova, on the southern side of Route #395. The walk opens with a pleasant half-hour meander downhill into the shaded Tzova Valley. Just before reaching a road junction, the path makes a sudden right turn and traces its steep, but well-marked way up the northern slopes of Mount Eitan. The view over the Tzova Valley to Fortress Tzova is well worth the climb. Built by the Crusaders to consolidate their stranglehold over the western approach to Jerusalem, it was destroyed by Saladin in 1191. Thereupon, it became the site of various Arab villages, and twice fell into Egyptian hands. The first time was in 1834, when Egyptian Muhammad Ali quashed the local peasants' revolt, which made its stand here. The second time was by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, who held onto it briefly before capture by the Harel Regiment in the Israeli War of Independence. The fledgling army turned it into a base for the successful attack on the nearby Arab-held Castel. That relieved the siege of Jerusalem by breaking the Arab stranglehold over the western route up to the city. Mercifully, the trail avoids the 765-meter summit of Mount Eitan as it crosses a pass and drops to the official entrance of Sataf. Though it was little after nine in the morning, the refreshment facilities at the site were in full swing, and unexpectedly modestly priced. I downed one cola, and then another, over the stunning vista of the Sorek Valley, looking forward to viewing at close quarters the remains of local pre-1948 Arab settlement, and the JNF-sponsored reconstruction of ancient local terraced farming. I wasn't disappointed. A well-manicured path passes ruined Arab mansions, silently testifying to their past glories. It goes down to a 1,000-dunam (250-acre) fragment of traditional mountain terraced cultivation lovingly restored in the 1980s by the KKL-JNF. These farming levels - bursting with cabbages and fresh lettuce - are fed by two springs - the Bikura higher up and the Sataf lower down. For the geologically minded, the Bikura and the Sataf are layer springs. They form where the water-filled permeable limestone meets the impervious yellow marl (clay and flint) rock strata. Weathering and erosion expose the top of the marl layers, at which point the water emerges from underground as a spring. These layer springs' exits are artificially widened, their waters are collected into cisterns, and directed through a system of channels to the levels of the crops that need them most. Spend at least an hour here - very likely to the peal of the bells of the Monastery of St. John in the Desert further along the Trail. Contortionists may explore the springs' subterranean underground tunnels, and swimmers have a choice of two cisterns which so far have not been segregated by sex for bathing purposes. Most of the terraces, however, have been neglected for decades, bringing to mind: "My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines… he built a watching place in the midst of it, and hewed a vineyard in it... he set it to produce grapes, but it brought forth sour polyps" (Isaiah 5:1-2). With this parable, the Prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem (who no doubt knew these hills well) castigated the inhabitants of Israel, the proverbial vineyard, in straying from its spiritual moorings. And you will know exactly what he meant as your gaze takes in the discarded farmland which saw better days, and you cautiously nibble the soured produce of the long-abandoned fruit trees. The Trail drops down quickly to the Sorek riverbed. Its faint but unmistakable biologically-generated offensive stench emphasizes the Sorek's function in conveying the capital's wastes to the Mediterranean, some of which are detoxified in a modern works a little lower down the valley. Improved sewage treatment has become a national priority. The filtering of those substances through the permeable limestone has contaminated Israel's natural water supply, especially when at low levels during drought. And remember that two-thirds of Israel's water does come from underground sources. The air becomes cleaner as the Trail turns right, dips under Route #386 and for the next hour becomes an exhausting climb beyond the aforementioned monastery. You should pause at the remains of the hewn stone dam, most likely built in the early Arab period (640-1099) to store the waters of the Hindak Spring above. The nimble may explore the latter's two dark tunnels chiseled in the wall. Just outside Even Sapir, when you hope the worst is over, the Trail takes a sharp left and confronts you with the most precipitous clamber of the day, including three scrambles, which the timid may avoid with short circuitous detours. The views of Hadassah Ein Kerem, and the Jerusalem Forest with the outer western suburbs and Nebi Samwil were worth the exertion, though the raucous whirr of a low-flying helicopter heading upwards to land at Hadassah stressed that these hills must be treated with respect. The path levels out in the last 20 minutes and reaches the tarmac and shaded recreational area of Hirbet Sa'adim - loosely translated as "The Ruins of the Happy Woman," where, according to legend, the barren were rendered fruitful by the mystical interventions of one Sheikh Ahmed. You can explore the remains of the site's storehouses, olive presses, and Muslim place of prayer (though its earliest remains date from the Byzantine period), all of which are under the patronage and tender care of the Hadassah Hospital nearby. You have reached as near to Jerusalem as the Israel Trail ever gets, which, by the way, is its halfway point. Turn left and follow the tarmac road up the hairpin bends to Yad Kennedy. This memorial commemorates the untimely assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, America's youngest president ever. Taking the imaginative form of a sawn-off tree stump, it is fed through 51 "roots," each with the insignia of a different state of the Union and the District of Columbia. Cross the elliptical plaza, used for Israel-American friendship-fostering events, and enter the memorial itself. You should find a facsimile of the relief and eternal flame at Kennedy's gravesite in Arlington Military Cemetery, Washington, D.C. After paying due homage, choose from which of the 50 windows you would like to gaze over the western suburbs of Jerusalem and afforested hill slopes covered by more than four million trees. You can follow the Sorek riverbed all the way to its mouth at Ashdod, on the Mediterranean. I walked into nearby Moshav Aminadav and parked myself under an oak tree. Opening another can of cola, I duly toasted the Holy City, resisting something more alcoholic out of respect to some of its more straight-laced residents. The Details: * Start: Entrance to Kibbutz Tzova, on Route 395. Bus #183 from Jerusalem. * Finish: Yad Kennedy. Short walk to Route #3877 at Moshav Aminadav. Bus #150 to Jerusalem from Moshav Aminadav. * Access/Exits: Below Sataf Springs on Route #386 * Level of difficulty - Moderately challenging. Not for small children or those scared of heights. * Length - 11 km. * Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridors) * Estimated walking time - 5 hours * Water - at start and finish of the walk, and at Sataf and off the trail at Even Sapir * Bring: 2 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 unreliable in parts. * Accommodations - Belmont Hotel, Tzova (02) 534-7070/7090; Shoresh Hotel, Yarok Bahar, Shoresh (02) 534-0262; Yad Hashmona Guest House, Yad Hashmona (02) 534-3953/6; Habayit Hativi, Ein Kerem (02) 641-1288 * Restaurants - Mahlevat Shai Zeltzer, by the Sataf Reserve (02) 533-3748; Yad Hashmona Guest House, Yad Hashmona (02) 534-3953/6; Aroma Restaurant, Harel Mall, Mevaseret Zion (02) 533-5043; Najji Restaurant, Abu Ghosh (02) 533-6520/8. * 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; Ein Yael Open Interactive Museum (02) 645-1166/7. * Attractions: Kiftzuba (Children's Theme Park), Tzova (02) 534-7952; Tzova Bicycle Adventure Course, Tzova (02) 534-7667; Ness Harim Water Park, Ness Harim (02) 533-0260/1; Speedy Kef (02) 534-7952; Biblical Zoo, Jerusalem (02) 675-0111/01.