Valley of splendor

Emek Yizrael is abuzz with historical and modern-day activity.

emek bees 88 298 (photo credit: )
emek bees 88 298
(photo credit: )
The translation of the Hebrew name Jezreel explains it all: Yizra'el - "God will sow." This area of the country has some of the most fertile, beautiful land in Israel. Known usually as Ha'emek - the Valley - the area begins at the Gilboa Mountains, where visitors flock in springtime to see the glorious display of wildflowers, especially the magnificent Gilboa Iris. The valley is also a favorite spot for birdwatchers, as the many ponds attract migrating birds that need food to sustain them on their journey. Driving the Gilboa scenic route (signposted from the main road) will guide you over the ridge of mountains, but the best way to appreciate the beauty of this area is to make frequent stops and take a stroll off the roads for a few minutes. Don't miss the Harod Spring National Park. The spring itself starts off in a cave known as Gideon's Cave on the Gilboa, and flows through this park on its way to irrigate the farmlands below. The cave is alleged to be the spot where Gideon selected his soldiers by observing the way they drank from the spring. This area was also used as a training base more recently by Orde Charles Wingate, the British officer who helped to train pre-state Palmach fighters. The park has picnic areas, acres of lawns and one of the largest pools in Israel. One of the first kibbutzim in the area was Ein Harod, established in 1921 just after the beginning of the British Mandate. The kibbutz has developed several attractions. One is their art museum, Mishkan Le'omanut, which houses 14 large exhibition halls and holds regular exhibitions of artists all over Israel. The museum also contains many permanent exhibitions, including items of Jewish ritual art from Diaspora communities. There are also exhibitions of graphic art, sculpture and photography. The building itself attracts international architectural buffs. Built in 1948 and designed by Samuel Bickels, the imposing structure features sunlit halls and courtyards designed to display works of art to their maximum potential. Another museum, Beit Sturman, is a nature museum that celebrates the beautiful area surrounding the kibbutz. Archaeological finds and local flora, fauna and items of botanical interest are all to be found here. If your children get a bit bored while you are enjoying the museums, you can drop them off at the petting zoo and reptile corner to enjoy the goats, ponies, lizards and snakes. The Jezreel Valley was a very important area in Mishnaic times. Rabbi Judah Ha'nassi, the leading Jewish figure in the third century CE and editor of the Mishna, lived in Beit Shearim and so it became the seat of the Sanhedrin (the 71-member legislature and supreme court). He was buried there in the intricate necropolis that can be visited today. After the rabbi's burial, Beit Shearim became a coveted place for burial, and there is evidence that many bodies were brought from outside Israel to be interred here. You can walk along many of the corridors, courtyards and catacombs and see the amazing designs on the walls, many of which are of Jewish origin, for example a shofar, menora, lulav and etrog - even though much of the writing is in Greek, as this was the main language in Israel at that time. Toward the end of his life Rabbi Yehuda Ha'nassi, together with the Sanhedrin, moved to Zippori, which was the hub of all religious Jewish life and the most important town in the Galilee. It was here that he finished writing the Mishna and part of the Jerusalem Talmud. This jewel of the Galilee was much fought over. After the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 393 CE, it was rebuilt and inhabited more by Christians than Jews. Zippori is an archaeologist's delight. A tremendous number of artifacts have been uncovered, including one of the most important and intact mosaics ever discovered, dubbed "the Mona Lisa of the Galilee." On your visit you'll see some original residential quarters from the Hashmonean period, a sixth-century synagogue, a Roman villa and a large amphitheater that contained more than 4,000 seats, as well as remains of a Crusader fortress. Many other mosaics were uncovered during the excavations. In Israel, ancient history is something we come across daily. Just a few weeks ago, possibly the oldest church in Israel was uncovered inside the grounds of Megiddo prison. While starting work on an extension, some prisoners stumbled across this find, of immense significance to the Christian world. This was not the first time that significant finds have been discovered by chance. Megiddo was always a very large and important town, due to its strategic importance on the Via Maris and its abundance of water sources. During King Solomon's reign it grew significantly, as evidenced by the number of stables excavated, corroborating biblical references to King Solomon's large collection of horses. Tel Megiddo has already been extensively excavated. A visit to the excavations will give you an idea of the feats of engineering involved in the fortress's design. You can walk along the 70-meter long, three-meter high water tunnel that is part of the intricate waterworks designed to enable townspeople to have access to their water supply, even if they were under siege. The production of silk and honey hasn't changed much over the years, and you can see how it used to be done in biblical times and how it is done today at Devorat Ha'tavor at the foot of Mount Tavor. Here, the Ben-Zeev family will be happy to tell you all about the special qualities of their bees' products and how they are made/grown. You will even be able to try your hand at silk dyeing and candle-making.