19 December 2015

Sea of Galilee - synagogues, churches, fortresses and caves

My middle aged husband and his equally middle aged brother decided to go on a hike with their sons and grandsons in Israel, a male bonding experience. Thanks to the Israel Nature & Parks Authority for notes about the landscape. Thanks to my son Naftali Tours, for the information about the man-made sites (synagogue, caves etc).

The highest point of the cliff, Mount Arbel, rises 390 ms above the Kinneret/Sea of Galilee, while the national park has an area of c2,127 acres. Visitors to the Arbel Plateau note that the limestone and dolomite cliff towers over the Ginnosar Valley. This sheer cliff over the Sea of Galilee looks over the fertile Arbel Valley, home to three farming communities: Moshav Arbel, Kfar Zetim and Kfar Hittim. Along the Arbel Stream, the largest of the springs is En Arbel near the Bedouin village of Hamam. The remnants of ancient flour mills and aqueducts dot the stream, as do the remnants of pomegranate, fig and citrus orchards and of vineyards.
Arbel Plateau, overlooking the Sea of Galilee

Many species of mammals find shelter in the national park, taking advantage of its water sources and rocky hideaways. The most common are wolves, hyenas and martens. The reserve has relatively few trees. The lone carob tree at the top of Mount Arbel, visible all around, is a remnant of a species that once flourished here. The slopes are covered with lotus jujube trees, with their spiked, crooked branches. Willows also grow along the Arbel stream.

According to Hasmonean period history, Arbel was the home of the sage Nitay. The name Arbel is also mentioned in the Has­monean period as one of the conquests of the Seleucid ruler Bacchides on his way to Jerusalem. The historian of the Roman period, Josephus Flavius, was the only source for a description of the battle between the Galilean Zealots who barricaded themselves at Arbel. And of Herod the Great in 37 BCE. Josephus said Marc Antony had sent Herod to suppress a rebellion by Jews from the village of Arbella who were lurking in caves that opened up onto mountain precipices that were inaccessible from any quarter. Herod overcame the rebels only after he had the best of his warriors lowered to the caves in cages suspended by ropes. Thus the zealots became convenient targets for their fiery brands and arrows, and all died.

In the early C1st AD, Jesus of Nazareth preached and performed mirac­les in the Valley of Ginnosar at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his disciples and followers. Some Christian traditions located the site of those miracles in the Arbel Valley. In 67 AD Josephus, commander of the Great Revolt in the Galilee, fortified the cave-village of Arbel in preparation for the revolt. The many ardent battles for freedom that took place at Arbel may be the origin of the tradition that the battle of the End of Days will take place there after the coming of the Messiah.

Tabgha, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, is also of great interest to Christian travellers. In it the pilgrim can visit the modern Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, built on the traditional site of the food multiplication story found in all four gospels. And it was where Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.

Remains of the Arbel Synagogue

After the destruction of the Second Temple, a family of priests set­tled at Arbel. During the Talmudic period, Arbel was a well-off town with a grand synagogue. Remnants of the medieval and later settlement have been identified; medieval Jewish and Muslim travellers frequent­ed the Arbel and its tombs of locally revered figures.

Remains of the ancient syn­ag­ogue were first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson. The synagogue was built from large limestone blocks without mortar, making it stand out against the black basalt rock of the homes of the surrounding ancient vill­age. The arch­itectural style and the findings within the synagogue suggested the synagogue continued in use until the C8th AD. The syn­agogue’s ancient phase consisted of a hall with three rows of columns in a U-shaped formation. The columns supported a second storey gall­ery. The corner columns were carved in the shape of a heart and the rest stood on square pedest­als. The ground-floor columns and the gallery had Corinthian and Ionic capitals respectively.

The Arbel Cliff featured eight cave complexes. Some of the caves were natural, simply hewn into shape on a number of levels to make them suitable for humans. Protected by their cliff-side location, the centre of the cave complex had a water system; some had ritual immersion baths. Some were also used in later periods (Byzantine, Mamluk and Ottoman). On the eastern slope of the Arbel Cliff, visitors enjoy a wonderful view of the Sea of Galilee, the Golan and the cities of Tiberias and Safed, and the communities around the lake and to the Upper Galilee.

The Labour Brigade is at the foot of the Arbel Cliff, near the road around the Sea of Galilee. A group of pioneers from Crimea was established in August 1920, with three focuses - work, settlement and defence. Lead by the legendary Joseph Trumpeldor, the battalion of road builders worked a post-WW1 quarry and dug the rock for the bed of the Tiberias-Tabgha road in 1921.

Cave fortress

Rock-hewn steps descend from the top of the Arbel Cliff to the trail leading to the Fortress and the Caves. The huge walls that were built in front of the caves, consisting of courses of black basalt and limestone, were remnants of a fort­ress apparently built here in the C17th AD by Ali Beq, the son of the Druze emir Fahr ad-Din. This mil­itary stronghold had a controlling view of the Arbel Valley and its roads, near the sacred Druze centre of Jethro’s Tomb on the western edge of the valley. Building the fortress in the cliff, which inc­luded a magnificent staircase and a protected gateway, invol­ved basic changes in one of the ancient cave complexes. Coins and Jewish ritual immersion baths from the Hellenistic period were among the finds in the caves inside the fortress.


Dina said...

What a great 3-generation tiyul that must be!!

Mandy Southgate said...

A different post to your normal subject but utterly fascinating nonetheless. How momentous it must be to walk through lands with such a familiar history. I think I would find that really interesting. The photos in the post are superb too - kudos to the photographer.

Train Man said...

Where did the men eat and sleep? Did they need an experienced guide?

Hels said...


apparently it was a lot of fun, but the walkers have to pick the level of difficulty they can sensibly manage:
1. easy walks, suitable for families with children
2. moderate walks, suitable for averagely fit adults
3. steep climbing, suitable only for Olympic athletes and goats.

The only complaint was sleeping in bunk beds in one room - snoring and farting :)

Hels said...


that is so true! My knowledge of world history really only starts the day in 1603 when King James VI left Scotland and became King James I in England and Ireland. Before that, I depend pretty much on other peoples' conference papers, professional tour guides and historical novels. So far, so good, especially since my son runs a cultural tourist agency in Israel.

Hels said...

Train Man

Tiberias, right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, is a proper city (pop c40,000). It always was one of Israel's four holy cities for Jews, and is also a centre for Christian pilgrimage. You can get any level of meals, accommodation and guide assistance.

Apparently the meals were wonderful. The family members were not at all deprived.

bazza said...

Hi Hels. I have a step-brother living in Haifa so lots of this post is familar. I am sure your son could provide much better guidance than my step-brother does!
By the way, after London, Vancouver and Melbourne are my favourite places. We stayed with friends in St Andrews and Warrandyte a couple of years ago.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I couldn't agree with you more. All my young years were in Melbourne, and then a few years each in Tel Aviv and London. Plus I have spent 3 summer holidays in Vancouver for family reunions.

I would not have hiked in the area above the Sea of Galilee because I am not the sweaty-hiker type. But in any case, it was a boys' weekend.