For thousands of years, villages and cities prospered throughout the Beit Shean Valley. By the time the 20th century rolled around, however, the region — on the north-eastern edge of today’s Israel, south of the Sea of Galilee — had lain desolate for centuries. Indeed, the whole valley was nothing but a swampy wasteland. It was only after the Jewish National Fund bought up the swamps and began getting them ready for settlement that the valley came alive once again.
Most of this renewal was the result of backbreaking work by the settlers of Tel Amal. These young, hardy pioneers had jumped at the opportunity to make the wilderness bloom, and spent the years from 1934 to 1936 tilling the soil. Then, with the onset of the Arab revolt and riots in 1936, already hostile locals burned both the crops and the fields the Jewish farmers had worked so hard to prepare.
The young pioneers were faced with two critical problems: Arab terror, and British opposition to Jewish settlement.
Instead of giving up, the group formulated a daring new idea. They would set up a defensible settlement between dawn and dusk, moving so quickly neither the British nor the Arabs would be able to stop them. It was called the “tower and stockade” operation.
After several months of feverish preparations, on December 12, 1936, nearly a hundred young men and women rapidly moved supplies to the valley. They set up parallel 180 meter high wooden walls, and filled them with 25 centimeters of gravel (against bullets). A tower and searchlight, a barbed wire fence, and several wooden huts for lodging 30 of the members completed their new home. By nightfall Tel Amal was a fact to be reckoned with and the inspiration for 51 more tower-and-stockade Jewish settlements to be built within the next three years.
Despite being plagued by malaria and set upon at all hours of day and night by marauding Arabs, the little kibbutz persevered. Today a vibrant and thriving community Tel Amal (later renamed Nir David) was the first kibbutz to grow fish in artificial ponds. It is also the only kibbutz to boast a river within its borders.
In the 1990’s, an exact replica of that early tower-and stockade-settlement was erected right next to Nir David. It is part of a whole complex called Gan Hashlosha National Park that includes two more great attractions: the fabulous Sahne and a unique archeological museum.
Tower and Stockade Educational Center
Visitors to the center move between the different stations that made up daily life for the farmers – and even wear their clothes.
It is great family fun to climb to the top of the watchtower as did the early guards, launder garments with water from the river on an old-fashioned washboard, build settlement walls, and fill pails with gravel using the original tools utilized by the pioneers. You learn how they cooked their food, why their dishes were made of tin, and discover a unique kibbutz invention called a mahletz.
A unique attraction next to the center is the Settlement Bell Garden, which features all kinds of early bells. And although the center’s movie is old-fashioned, it has some great shots that give you an excellent idea of the difficulties faced by the pioneers, and the joys of making the wilderness bloom.
Gan Hashlosha is also known by its Arabic name of Sahne, which means “hot pool”. Winter and spring are my favorite seasons for swimming in the pools, for the water temperature never goes below 28 degrees Celsius.
The crowds come in summer, so in winter you can relax in the tranquil waters and enjoy the lush landscaping that makes this one of the country’s most beautiful parks. Your swim includes a river Jacuzzi and a hidden cave.
If you prefer walking along the river to dipping in the waters, you can walk along the river and stop at different stations: the source of the flowing waters; Memorial Rock, the only Roman-era underwater amphitheater in Israel, and an ancient flour mill.
Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archeology
Archeologist and artist Daniel Lifshitz was among a small group of young Europeans who joined Kibbutz Nir David in the late 1950’s. Soon afterwards, Lifshitz decided to donate his fantastic collection of ancient Etruscan (Italian) artifacts – which meant, of course, that the kibbutz needed a museum in which they could be displayed.
And, indeed, the Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archeology was inaugurated in 1963, just outside the kibbutz. It stands on a hill which is actually a biblical tel, one of many that ringed ancient Beit Shean. It was populated by the Canaanites 2,200 years B.C.E. – and by the Israelites a thousand years later. Not surprisingly, therefore, when they began digging the foundations for the museum, all kinds of discoveries were made. In fact, the museum stands above a Canaanite burial complex.
Half of the museum features the Lifshitz collection while the other contains artifacts from nearby Beit Shean and the surrounding areas. Enter through a wonderful outdoor archeological garden, where you will see, among other antiquities, a sarcophagus cover decorated with a sculpted man lying typical Etruscan fashion on a pillow.
Among the fascinating finds on exhibit inside are a beer jug from the Canaanite period, a row of Roman-era sculptures portraying the heads of women — a find unique in this country — and a pitcher whose Hebrew writing links it directly to the Israelites. Also on exhibit are an extensive group of items, including loom weights and a double weaving bowl for twisting double threads, evidence that Jews living here thousands of years ago were engaged in weaving and dying cloth.
The Lifshitz collection includes finds from the area of Greece and Italy that you can view only in this museum. Items dating back thousands of years include for the “evil eye” dish, a wrestler painted on a fragment from an amphora, a statuette of a tiger whose gold coverings still remain, a sculpted woman giving birth, a jug in the shape of horse carrying bottles, with a spout for a tail, and among the most beautiful pottery figurines on display anywhere in the world.
While viewing the collection’s Etruscan artifacts learn about the Etruscan (pre-Italian) culture, and enjoy a three-dimensional view of an ancient burial ground. The displays feature stunning Etruscan pottery and fabulous jewelry – like the fifth century B.C.E. glass filigree. Also from the collection: a 1,000 year old tunic that belonged to a Coptic priest, a clay baboon, and glazed pottery from Iran.
The park is off Route 669 between Hashita junction and Beit Shean, 15 minutes from Beit Shean. If you visit, and do not read Hebrew, be sure and take a brochure in English that will give you information about the different stations along the river.
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.