Magazine article Geographical

Sacred Lakes and Hilltop Towns

Magazine article Geographical

Sacred Lakes and Hilltop Towns

Article excerpt

From the green valleys and snow-topped mountains of the Golan Heights to the spectacular wilderness of the Negev Desert, a journey down Israel's eastern side is a unique adventure

Mount Hermon, at 2,766 metres, is Israel's highest mountain. In the late winter and spring, you can ski there in the morning and be scuba diving in the Red Sea resort of Eilat (where average temperatures are 25 [degrees] Celsius) by the afternoon. On the 500-kilometre journey south, along the Syria-Africa Rift Valley (the longest valley in the world), you will encounter some of the most diverse landscapes in the world.

Formerly under Syrian control, Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights was captured from Syria in 1967. Beneath Hermon, and between the Galilee and Golan mountains, is the beautiful Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee, a green patchwork of fields that was, until the 1950s, a malaria-infested swamp. In order to convert it to much needed agricultural land, a massive engineering project was implemented in the 1950s to drain the lake and the surrounding swamps. This threatened the area's unique wildlife, which included pelicans sea eagles otters and boar. As a result, the Hula Nature Reserve was established, a 300-hectare wetlands reserve and wildlife sanctuary.

Today, the valley is being re-flooded. Giora Shaham, director of the Hula Re-Flooding Project, prefers not to talk about past mistakes. "The draining of the swamp was done with the best intentions," he says." At the time a hungry nation had to be fed. For this reason 6,000 hectares were drained. We recently re-flooded 100 hectares of fields and will soon flood another 400 hectares."

The 320 kilometre River Jordan runs through the Hula Valley on its way southwards through the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. Despite its name, the river is little more than a wide stream.

The Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake at the foot of the Golan Heights, is an important water source and a major tourist attraction. Its northern shores are sacred to Christians. One of the most important sites is the Mount of the Beatitudes, where several significant events of the New Testament occurred, including the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and Christ's Sermon on the Mount. It is also the location of Capernaum, once the home of Jesus.

Thirty kilometres to the west is Nazareth, home of Jesus for most of his 33 years. The Basilica of the Annunciation is the largest church in the Middle Fast, and is built on the site where the Archangel Gabriel is believed to have informed the Virgin Mary that she would bear the son of God.

The Sea of Galilee region is also sacred to Jews. Tiberias, a town on the lake's shores, was a centre of Jewish scholarship in the second and third centuries, and the Mishna (a collection of Jewish wisdom), was penned here. During the same period, the holy city of Safed, an ancient hilltop town to the northeast, attracted Jewish mystics, or Kabbalists, who complied a major book of Jewish mystical teachings. It was also the centre of Jewish academic achievement in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Sea of Galilee region is a good hiking area and bathing is good off the artificial beaches around the lake. Another attraction is the unique architecture, which features the black basalt volcanic rock from the Golan Heights.

Heading further south, where the Jordan Valley meets the Jezreel Valley, is the dusty, and on the face of it, ordinary town of Bet Shean. During the Byzantine period, however, it was one of the 10 most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean. …

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