In 1943, pioneers decided to settle in the biblical Hebron Hills. This was not the first attempt at settlement in what has become known as the Etzion Bloc: The first group purchased land and put down roots in 1927; a second arrived seven years later. In both cases, they were attacked during Arab riots and had to be evacuated. And each time, their homes were destroyed.
During the 1940s, however, four religious and secular communities sprang up in the bloc, prospering and expanding until they numbered 450 men, women and children. Then, soon after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in November of 1947, Arabs laid siege to the Bloc. A few months later, the well-equipped Jordanian Legion attacked, killing and wounding hundreds of pioneers, and finally wiping Gush Etzion off the face of the Earth on the very day before Israel was declared a State.
Settlement was renewed after the Six Day War, and today, Gush Etzion boasts a population of 65,000 men, women and children in 16 communities and two towns. Relationships with the neighboring Arab villagers are generally cordial, and private initiatives are the order of the day. In fact, over the past few years the Gush has also become a leading center of tourism.
Imagine: This is the route that Abraham would have taken with his son Isaac, as they walked toward Mount Moriah for the Sacrifice. King David would have traveled along this very road when he and his household left Hebron to make Jerusalem the capitol of Israel
Seeped in history that dates back to our forefathers, Gush Etzion has something for everyone: Natural pools, exciting archaeological trails, and an ancient aqueduct. Adventurous souls can climb ropes and walls, kids can roam a mini zoo, and grown-ups will enjoy getting slightly drunk along the unusual wine route. When wine just isn’t enough, and visitors crave a meal, they can choose between two terrific gourmet dairy restaurants that are kosher lamehadrin.
Before doing anything however, it helps to understand the miracle that is contemporary Gush Etzion. Located in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion is a heartbreaking audio-visual presentation about the region’s modern history. The screening room, actually a memorial hall dedicated to those brave pioneers who fought to the bitter end, features an underground surprise.
One of the most important byways in the Land of Israel runs through Gush Etzion. For thousands of years, it was the main road between Hebron and Jerusalem, obviously chosen because the land was so level. It has been named Patriarch’s Way. Imagine: This is the route that Abraham would have taken with his son Isaac, as they walked toward Mount Moriah for the Sacrifice.
King David would have traveled along this very road when he and his household left Hebron to make Jerusalem the capitol of Israel, and hordes of pilgrims followed this route when heading for the First and Second Temples. The Maccabees fought the Greeks on this road, in stirring battles. For a few centuries, when the Romans widened the road, they posted milestones along the sides with carved inscriptions noting the distance to Jerusalem and the name of the reigning emperor.
It only takes about an hour and a half to walk the route — today it’s a dirt road, a trail marked in red — and it can be done in less on a bike or in a car. Along the way there are Roman milestones, donkeys, and a mikve (ritual bath) well over 2,000 years old. Beautifully preserved, with separate steps for descending into the water and returning to the road, this ritual bath was nowhere near any towns or villages. Thus, it is thought to have been used by pilgrims aware that it was okay to purify yourself up to 24 hours before entering the Jerusalem Temple. A second mikve, hidden by brush, is found nearby.
A fork in the road offers two options: The left fork leads past more milestones and an ancient kiln for firing plaster, while the right fork heads for the Biyar Aqueduct. Carved out by King Herod, the aqueduct was part of an intricate system that transported water from the springs in the Hebron Hills to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Visitors who want to keep dry can descend almost to the depths for a look, while others can wade a few meters through water to the source, or can get a bit more wet (the water is 80 meters high) by trudging about half an hour to the end.
Historically, the Hebron Hills were covered with vineyards. So it is not surprising that, over the past few years, not only have half a dozen wineries sprung up in Gush Etzion, but today there is even a “wine route” that visitors are invited to follow. They range from the home-based winery in Bat Ayin, where the wine produced is organic, to the Gush Etzion Winery — the largest and oldest of the wineries. Gush Etzion Winery also features a gourmet dairy restaurant, whose view of the surrounding hills is stunning and whose food is all prepared on the premises.
Gush Etzion is blessed with open air, a biblical landscape, and unending opportunities for exploring nature. Paths on the slopes lead to numerous springs and pools, all clean and shady. Trails are marked in blue; a road leading to several of them begins near part of a building from Old Massuot Yitzhak, established by Holocaust survivors in 1945.
One refreshing pool, one-and-a-half meters deep, is Ein Yitzhak, named for 19-year-old Yitzhak Weinstock. Terrorists in a moving vehicle shot and killed young Yitzhak in 1993, while he was parked on the side of the road near Ramallah, trying to fix the engine on his car. Dubek Pool, just as cool and refreshing, is a bit further down the slope. Nature lover Dubi Weinstock, Yitzhak’s father, was one of the first to return to Gush Etzion after the Six-Day War.
Along the same road, another gourmet establishment — Gavna Restaurant — is situated in a truly picturesque landscape. At times during the day you can enjoy your meal while watching fun-lovers zoom by along the Zip-Line at nearby Deerland (Havat Ha’Ayalim). One of them could be me, who, at 64, is not the oldest person to have tried flying like a bird. (The oldest was 87.)
Deerland is chock full of attractions from rope climbing to the Zip-line, a mini-zoo for the whole family, bungee jumping over a trampoline, and a colorful wall for climbing.
If you are in Israel and plan to visit Gush Etzion, stop in at the Visitors’ Center at the Gush Etzion Junction on Highway 60 for free maps and advice. Want help before you get there? Call the Center from Israel at 02 993-3863 or from abroad 972-2-993-3863.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.