The Judean Mountains provides a variety of activities amidst one of the most beautiful settings Israel has to offer. Rivers and valleys, lush Mediterranean greenery, hidden springs and caves, and mountains that whisper the secrets of history from the dawn of Western civilization.
Leaving the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway (Route 1) at the Sha’ar Ha-Guy (lit: Gateway to the Valley) intersection, we continue towards Beit Shemesh and Beit Guvrin. At Beit Shemesh, we turn off the main road and pass through the city’s industrial zone. Passing by the village of Zanoach, we then enter a dirt road, park our car and begin to walk through the brush until we arrive at the Teomim (lit. Twins) Cave.
This rather impressive stalactite cave is closed from November to March owing to the sleeping habits of the local inhabitants – four different species of bats that hibernate throughout the winter and for whom disrupted sleep may be fatal. Once inside the cave, though, the humidity, the sounds of dripping water and the stalactites offer quite a magical atmosphere for those who have come equipped with torches; and many tales have been told of this cave. One tale recounts the adventures of a local resident who entered the cave in defiance of the demons reputed to inhabit it. To prove he had been inside, he drove a stake into the ground, inadvertently nailing his cloak. When he tried to leave, he thought it was the demon. Another tale tells of a barren woman who came to drink of the cave’s magical water, and who immediately bore twins (hence the name of the cave).
Returning to our car, we commence our climb through the Bicentennial Park towards Nes Harim and Bar Giora. As we reach the top of the mountain, we turn left off the main mountain road at the Challenger Monument – dedicated to the crew of the Challenger Spacecraft – towards The Shoham Stalactite Cave (tel. 02-9911117). The cave is one of the richest, densest exhibitions of stalactites to be found in such a small area, and was discovered in 1968 by miners during a blast for building materials.
Returning to the main mountain road, we pass by a trail that takes us up to the Ya’aran Farm, where a family of goatherds makes their own cheese using strictly natural methods and no chemical interference whatsoever. Homemade bread is also on sale, making this an excellent pit-stop for a snack.
After partaking of cheese, bread and tea, we make our way towards the KKL visitor’s center near Nes Harim, where we leave the cars and embark on the first of two possible hikes. The first takes us down in the direction of the Teomim Cave, but we won’t go that far. Instead we will walk through the oak, pistachio and carob trees with the Judean mountain landscape unfolding before us. After about a mile, we arrive at Beit Atab (Ein Hud, in Arabic), a spring situated inside a small rock structure surrounded by olive and almond trees and terraces of olive and fig trees. A columbarium that once housed pigeons is situated in a large nearby cave.
We return to the main path and climb towards the remains of the Arab village Beit Itab, at the center of which we find the Crusader period (12th century) Itab Fortress. Village residents rebuilt the fortress in the 19th century. They were evacuated by the Israeli Army in 1948, due to the village’s strategic position overlooking the main road to Jerusalem. While exploring the area, one should be wary of open pits that are inadequately indicated. The area is, in fact, replete with pits and caves, many of them burial crypts and some – even decorated. A red-marked trail, 100 meters from the fortress, takes us back up to the KKL visitor’s center.
Another hike from from the parking lot takes us down the other side of the hill and along the banks of the Katlav Valley – a tributary of the Shorek River. The Katlav Valley is named after the strawberry bushes that are abundant in the area, and ‘Shorek’ is a biblical word for a type of high-quality grape-vine. Over the years, this region was known for its grapes, and lately, the number of boutique wineries in the Judean-Yoav regions has been growing at a steady pace.
The red-marked path down towards the river passes by a lookout point, then continues down a black-marked path towards the Giora Spring. Although not a very impressive water source in itself, the plantation around it is both fragrant and often tasty. The water here is ground water, and it appears once more at the Katlav Spring, about 500 meters away. An old dam was constructed here by the British Mandate authorities to supply water for steam-locomotives parked at the nearby railway station.
A mile down the track, we arrive at a pedestrian bridge that enables us to cross the river and visit the now-defunct Bar-Giora railway station. The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway line that runs along the valley here was inaugurated by the Turks in 1882 (Turkish trains then being reportedly slower than a horse-and-buggy) and refurbished by the British in 1917. The line was discontinued in 1998 due to infeasibility and high maintenance costs and reopened in 2003, as a stop-gap until the designated Tel Aviv – Ben Gurion Airport – Jerusalem line becomes operative some time towards the end of this decade.
A green-marked path takes us back up towards Bar Giora by way of Dir E-Sheikh, a sheikh’s tomb with a rather impressive adjacent mosque and courtyard, where steps lead down to a water-hole.
After returning to our car, we drive along the winding road towards Jerusalem, passing the turn-off towards the Hadassah Hospital along the way. A roundabout continues towards Ein Karem and Jerusalem, but we turn west instead, beginning our route up Mt. Eitan. At the second roundabout, we turn towards the Sataf, an ancient agricultural settlement from the Mamlukan era.
Parking at another KKL visitor’s center, we follow the footpath that takes us through the remnants of the ancient village that existed here, among the terraces and along the intricate irrigation system that flooded those. The agricultural infrastructure has been reconstructed by local residents, who inhabit several houses above the site and operate it. Along the way, explanations can be received by dialing 050-8055555 ext. 002 on one’s cell-phone. Finally, we arrive at the springs – Ein Sataf and Ein Bikura – both with tunnels dug into the bedrock to intensify the water supply into the pools. Although officially forbidden, many visitors can be found diving into the pools, whose waters are relatively clean but objectively cold.
Other ancient agricultural villages in the area include Hirbat A-Luz, with its water pools, into which one may descend by rope-ladder and swim. A viewpoint further up the mountain affords an 800-m. high view of the entire surroundings (some claim to have seen Tel Aviv from this vantage point), and should not be missed. Also, on weekends, one may rent a bicycle at the Sataf visitor’s center (tel. Alon at 052-3865612). An 8-KM route begins and ends here, and is relatively flat for this region. Bikeriders turn left nearby a signpost indicating a jogger’s route, then travel mostly on a wide dirt path, then finally on asphalt before re-entering the parking-lot.
Returning to the roundabout on the main road, we turn towards Kibbutz Tzuba. We pass by Ein Tzuba, location of a 10th century BC water well and the Cave of John the Baptist – a retreat for Byzantine monks who believed this to have been the residence of John the Baptist. Tours are by appointment through the Kibbutz Ztuba main office (tel. 02-5347000). Also nearby is Kiftzuba, an active amusement park for children with both inside and outside attractions, which is also operated by the local kibbutz.
Nearby, Tel Tzuba is the location of an ancient Jewish settlement from the period of Joshua Bin-Nun. In 1170, a Crusader fortress – Belmont – was built to guard the route to Jerusalem, and it was conquered by Salah A-Din in 1191. The adjacent Arab village A-Tzuba was a scene of fierce fighting during the 1948 War of Independence, and Kibbutz Tzuba was established there after its conquest, in July 1948. The view of the surroundings explains the strategic importance of the hill, and on the way up the hill, one may see several wells that served first the Crusader and then the Moslem residents.
Three minutes walk inland from the main road, across from the entrance to the Tel Tzuba site, is a meadow with 2 rather old trees – an 800-year old oak and a 1200-year old olive.
We return to the Sha’ar Ha-Guy – Beit Shemesh road, passing through Ramat Raziel, a mountain-side village with many picturesque homes, a horse-riding center and the nearby Kastel Winery, one of the finest in the region.
The Judean Mountains and Yoav region have recently seen the development of many tourist activities. Once mainly a location for picnics and somewhat jokingly referred to as ‘picnic-land’ by Tel Aviv and Jerusalem residents, biking in the area has lately become very popular for both peddlers and motor-bikers; mountain-top cafés, boutique wineries, goat-cheese farms and gourmet restaurants are speckling the map in a relatively dramatic crescendo; and both residents and visitors alike are beginning to realize the potential of this Mediterranean Ardennes-like locale. Although definitely approachable as a one-day excursion, this is swiftly becoming a destination for which overnight lodgings should soon become an option.
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