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At Angels’ Forest, it’s the hour of the cyclamen

Blossoming flowers are only part of the attraction at a historical site near Kiryat Gat with finds that date back to the Talmudic period

Cyclamen in bloom at Angels' Forest (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Cyclamen in bloom at Angels' Forest (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

According to one of numerous legends, King Solomon wore a beautiful crown decorated with delicate cyclamen blossoms. Hundreds of years later, when the First Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were exiled to Babylon, they took with them the royal crown. The cyclamens that bedecked the crown were devastated by the tragedy, and bent their heads in sorrow. And that is why, even today, cyclamen flowers bow their heads.

Of course, you may prefer the botanical explanation: The cyclamen’s humble blossom protects its pollen from getting drenched in the rain.

Cyclamen are blessed with other natural defenses as well: The undersides of their heart-shaped leaves are often purple, a color that heats the leaves and helps keep cyclamen warm during freezing winter days.

Vast carpets of stunning cyclamen are flowering at this very moment throughout Angels’ Forest, a site near Kiryat Gat that was developed for the public by the Jewish National Fund. But although blossoming flowers may be reason enough for a special trip to Angels’ Forest, they are only part of its attraction.

The ancient synagogue at Angels' Forest (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The ancient synagogue at Angels’ Forest (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

While searching for historical sites that would offer picnickers more than a venue for the ubiquitous mangal (barbeque), the JNF discovered oil presses, wine presses, and an ancient kiln, and what appears to be one of the area’s rare synagogue and mikveh complexes dating back to the Talmudic period. Excavated, restored and/or preserved in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority, they are all marked with explanatory signs (in Hebrew only).

Access is easy, and you can explore the forest by car, bicycle, or on foot. Much care has been taken so that people confined to wheelchairs can enjoy their outing as well: In addition to wheelchair-accessible picnic tables and restrooms, the forest boasts a fabulous playground especially designed for youngsters who are physically impaired.

To bask in the flowering at its peak, locals and tourists should head for Angels’ Forest from now until the end of February — with or without a picnic. You will find it on Highway 35, east of Kiryat Gat.

The view from Angels' Forest (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The view from Angels’ Forest (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Take the main scenic road — marked by a green arrow — through the forest and back to the exit. Along the road are dozens of picnic sites, complete with water and playgrounds; restrooms are found in the main recreation area near the fire watchtowers.

JNF personnel claim to have seen gazelle roaming around, so keep your eyes peeled as you ride. Look around you, as well, for graceful white and yellow irises, blooming daffodils, and the velvety red arum lily.

Irises in bloom (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Iris in bloom (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

On your left are newly planted palm trees, while the slopes on your right are riddled with blushing pink and white cyclamen. Heaps of carob trees were planted here early on, so that herds of sheep and goats could feed off their delicious fruit. Unfortunately, when a steady diet of carob caused the poor animals to miscarry repeatedly, the idea was discontinued.

A red arrow leads to the forest’s main antiquities, beginning with a 1,500-year-old kiln — a huge pit lined with two layers of stones and used to produce plaster out of local limestone. There is a hole below the kiln into which settlers stuffed flammable material, most likely the spiny burnet plant common to this area. A large sign illustrates the manufacturing process.

Plaster was a mainstay used to insulate cistern walls, in plastering roofs, and as a substitute for refrigeration. In fact, food that is covered with plaster, like eggs and watermelons, can be preserved for a long period.

The storied mandrake (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The storied mandrake (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Visitors may find mandrakes not far from the kiln. An unusual plant with gorgeous purple flowers and bright green leaves strewn on the ground, the mandrake has roots that resemble the human body. As a result, some people believe that the roots increase fertility. Woe to the person who pulls them out, however, for they suffer a terrible curse. The solution used by some was to tie a dog to the plant, then hit the pooch with a switch. The startled animal would then pull out the root — and the curse would fall on it.

While the plant’s fertility properties are untested, we know for certain that a powder made from its fruit contains a dangerous drug. Talila Livshutz, director of Community and Forests in the JNF’s Northern Negev, has actually seen the mandrake’s power in action. Livshutz once brought a group of schoolchildren to a nature site just after the mandrake’s reddish-orange fruit had ripened. One of the pupils surreptitiously took a bite of the alluring fruit — and began hallucinating so badly that he spent the rest of his trip in the hospital.

Archaeologists haven’t found indisputable evidence that the public building next on the route is a synagogue. However, it faces Jerusalem and has a row of stones that could have served as benches for Jewish worshipers. Not only that, but there are steps inside a large, plastered pit only a few meters away that lead to a rectangular bath.

Since its dimensions conform to Jewish law, it seems certain that this is a mikveh — and that the building served as a Jewish house of worship.

The route’s main recreation area features creative play structures and iron pull-up bars that are perfectly placed for children in wheelchairs. The structures are also brightly colored, making them easy to spot, and well textured so that they can be fingered by youngsters who are severely vision-impaired. The ground is covered with a special spongy material to prevent injuries should children fall.

The olive press (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The olive press (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Oil Press Trail, a 15-minute walk accessible from the scenic route, is marked by a black arrow and features oil-making apparatuses dating back to the Talmudic period. A large, hewn rock, with its center cut out, served as a press beam. When in use it contained a vertical pole, to which a horizontal axle with a heavy wheel was attached. Olives were placed on the press beam and, finally, donkeys — or women — were set to work turning the axle and crushing the olives.

Mashed olives were sometimes turned into oil using a very small and primitive kind of oil press called a b’dida, a depression cut into natural rock. Wooden beams were placed atop the b’dida and covered with special goat-hair baskets. The baskets were filled with crushed olives, and topped with heavy rocks that exerted immense pressure. The resulting oil would drip into the b’dida. Several of these are found at the end of the trail — in this season, probably filled with rainwater.

Still another route leads to a group of spices originally planted by forest rangers for their private use. But Livshutz has opened up the area to the public, and you are welcome to take spices with you for your tea. Do try the zuta — micromeria — both because of its refreshing taste and to clear out your respiratory organs. Also available for your pleasure are hyssop, sage, lavender and a few other spices.

Tall, wavy vetiver plants have no scent at all, yet in India a wonderful perfume is prepared from its roots. That’s probably why Livshutz calls this route “Arugot Habosem” — Scented Flowerbeds.

(If you need help with directions, feel free to contact us through our website.)

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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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