Israel travels

118 steps to a pioneer’s house

Momentous historical events resonate at Ma’ayan Harod National Park, where Yehoshua Hankin began reviving the Jezreel Valley a century ago

Homage to the Henkins at Ma'ayon Harod (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Homage to the Henkins at Ma'ayon Harod (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When Yehoshua Hankin purchased the Jezreel Valley in 1920, he added a codicil that gave him the right to both live and die somewhere in its midst. What made this rider to the contract so strange was the fact that, at the time, there was absolutely nothing in the valley except swamps, mosquitoes and malaria – and beyond the swamps desolate, barren land. Yet somehow Hankin had known that one day this region would be fertile and full of life.

In 1936 the Hankins began building a house on the northern slopes of the Gilboa Mountains, where they would have a breathtaking view of the Jezreel Valley. Unfortunately, although the couple had hoped to spend their golden years there, Olga became ill and they never even got a chance to set up housekeeping.

Olga passed away in 1942. Hankin, who had been impressed with the fabulous Jewish burial caves at Beit Shearim, designed a similar tomb for his wife and buried her inside. Both house and tomb are located today inside Ma’ayan Harod National Park, one of the most beautiful spots in Israel. Its cave and spring were known to the ancients and are well-documented in the Bible; more recently, it was the site of a decisive battle between the Mamelukes who controlled Israel in the 13th century and the invading Mongolian army. And it boasts an exquisite swimming pool fed by fresh spring water.

Ma’ayan Harod is located on Highway 71 between Beit She’an and Afula. Winter visitors can’t swim in the pool – but their entrance fee is cut in half.

Ma'ayon Harod National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ma’ayon Harod National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A meandering path separates the recreation area, including the pool, and its historical sites. Beautifully landscaped, and meant to resemble the route of a riverbed, it was designed by the same people gave us the subtly superb Ben Gurion National Park.

One of the sources of fresh water flowing into the Beit Shean Valley, Ma’ayan Harod is located at the foot of Mt. Gilboa. Its location near the modern settlement of Gideona reminds us that momentous events took place here in the days of the Judges of Israel.

It happened at a time when the Israelites were faced with imminent attack by the Midianites and they asked Gideon to take up their defense. Gideon took everyone who wanted to join his army to Ma’ayan Harod where, under God’s guidance, he separated the wimps from the warriors.

“Early in the morning, [Gideon] and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. . .Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.. .Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites to their tents but kept the three hundred. . ..”[Judges 7:1-8]. This left Gideon with an elite fighting unit of only 300 men. Their victory, with only jars, trumpets and torches as weapons, was astounding. Visitors will enjoy the sight of the sparkling biblical water that Israelite soldiers lapped up so long ago, and of the little brook that channels it into the park’s lovely pool.

A little over a decade ago the park added a small museum to its considerable attractions. It is dedicated to Hankin, an amazing, selfless fanatic whose mission in life was the redemption of land in Israel. Some call Hankin a 20th-century prophet, noting that he is better known by his nickname of Go-el Ha’adamot (Redeemer of the Land)

A hundred and eighteen steps on one side of the hill lead up to Hankin’s house: he had them put in so that workers could carry household items up to his home. (There is a path with no steps, as well). Next to the house, which has been faithfully restored, there is a startling pink tomb. Both Hankin and his wife are buried here, together in death as they rarely managed to be in life.

The Hankins' tomb at Ma'ayon Harod National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Hankins’ tomb at Ma’ayon Harod National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Yehoshua Hankin, who immigrated to Israel with his family in 1872, was 19 when he met Olga Belkind. She was 31, a new immigrant from Russia who had been shipped off to the Holy Land after she declared her intention of marrying a gentile Russian officer.

Despite the difference in their ages, Olga and Yehoshua fell passionately in love and married two years later. Soon afterwards, Yehoshua had a revelation. It became suddenly clear to him, without a shadow of a doubt, that he had been put here on earth in order to redeem the Land of Israel.

Hankin never made a penny from his real estate dealings, letting his beloved helpmeet support him as a midwife. And he was rarely home, for he spent years with the local Arabs and Bedouin learning their language and customs. As a result, of course, he was in a particularly good position to negotiate for land. Indeed, Hankin, who bought the entire Jezreel Valley, purchased a total of 600,00 dunams of land all over the country for Jewish settlement and played a major part in helping to shape the map of the future State.

Inside the museum visitors can watch a charming modern production in which two young people with little knowledge of Israeli history learn about Hankin as they cart displays up to the museum. They go from complete boorishness to awe for Hankin’s deeds, and end up singing a well-known tune about the valley and the wonderful country they inhabit (numa emek, eretz tifferet).

The Ma'ayon Harod cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Ma’ayon Harod cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Dozens of interesting period artifacts are displayed in the museum. But what you may find especially interesting are the life-sized mannequins in the kitchen. Olga, whose face was reconstructed from photographs, sits next to Yehoshua at the table; Yehoshua’s face is an exact reproduction based on his death mask. They both look so real that you can almost imagine them inquiring about each others’ health.

The house was planned in Bauhaus style with straight lines, horizontal windows, and a flat roof. Inside, a spiral staircase led to the roof from which, if he had lived here, Hankin would have had a stunning view.

An avenue of cypress trees leads to the Hankin family tomb, lined on both sides by rosy marble pillars. The decorative entrance was designed by David Palombo – who sculpted the Knesset gates – with the letters of the name Hankin worked into the design.

For some years after her death, Olga’s tomb became a regular pilgrimage site for women who were hoping to conceive. The fact that the Hankins had never had children combined with Olga’s profession as a midwife seemed to grant this site special powers.

West of the house stands a monument to men and women from the valley that have fallen while fighting for their country. And down below there are plenty of lovely picnic spots. You will love the grass, bright green all year round mainly because there is so much water underneath the ground.

The Ma'ayon Harod war monument (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Ma’ayon Harod war monument (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)


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.

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