Early every morning, during the nesting season, rangers from Palmachim Seashore National Park patrol the beach. They are looking for eggs that sea turtles may have laid in the sand.
When they find them – hopefully the day they are laid – the rangers bring the eggs up to their hatchery farm, together with the sandy nests on which they were lying. That way, animal predators like gulls, herons and foxes can’t get them, and humans won’t step on them. Or eat them: thousands were killed during the British Mandate, when officials had a fondness for turtle soup. Perhaps that’s why one of the only two species left in the Mediterranean (out of eight that once lived in the waters) is so rare.
Fortunately, rangers at Palmachim, just south of Tel Aviv, are doing their best in their conservation efforts for preserve the turtle population. Indeed, hundreds of healthy turtles are born each season, later to emerge at night and crawl towards the ocean.
With the help of transmitters, park officials know where some of the adults will be hanging out: at feeding grounds in countries like Turkey, Cyprus and Tunisia. And one day, any female turtles who have survived strangulation in fishermen’s nets, wounds from motorboat engines and fatal pollution in the water will return to the sands of Palmachim, for turtles lay their legs at the nesting site where they were born.
Neglected for decades, and often the venue for some really wild parties, Palmachim only officially came under the auspices of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in 2003. It’s a wonder that it took so long, for besides its foliage, wild animals and fabulous antiquities, the Park’s 250 dunams – from Kibbutz Palmachim 200 meters past Tel Yavne Yam – include a long stretch of beautiful coastline.
During the summer, 10,000-15,000 swimmers and sunbathers flock to the park each day. But unless you are only interested in sun and water, the best time to visit is a cool day in spring, fall or winter. That’s when one of Palmachim’s two easy trails (uncomfortably hot in the summer) are most fun. We tried the shorter trail one windy winters’ day, trekking through lush natural foliage and unusual excavations, while getting some great ocean views. We even spied a curious fox, but on another day we might have seen gazelles, gerbils, porcupines, wild boar or other non-human creatures.
The trails lead through a veritable jungle of tangled plants and blooming flowers on a ridge made of kurkar, a sand dune that fossilized over the millennia and turned into rock.
A portion of the shorter trail is named for the prickly boxthorn (atad hahof) evident everywhere. Flowering from spring and until November, the boxthorn bears red fruit and lovely cup-shaped flowers in a subtle shade of purple.
Boxthorn may be the thorns mentioned in the parable of Jotham (Judges 9:14); also, perhaps in Psalms 58:10: “ Before your pots can feel the thorns, He will sweep it away with a whirlwind, the raw and the burning alike.”
One desert plant found along both trails is the saltbush (maluach). It appears on the coast only in areas where there was once an ancient settlement – in places like Apollonia and Ashkelon or here, at Yavne Yam. Some say that travelers to the area brought saltbush as food for their camels and donkeys; others, that the animals left seeds here in their droppings.
Saltbush leaves are tasty and mentioned in the book of Job as food for the haggard and hungry men who roamed the wastelands. “In the brush they gathered salt herbs…” (Job 30:4). What helps saltbush survive in the desert is a mechanism that excretes excess salt onto its leaves. The thin white layer keeps the plant from absorbing the sun and prevents the leaves from drying out.
Incidentally, saltbush leaves are delicious, although flood waters can wash away some of the salt. And researchers have discovered that the leaves are a good source of insulin: fat sand rats, which feed almost exclusively on saltbush, were found to develop diabetes when they were deprived of its leaves.
An ancient fortress, whose walls jut out on a figure of land above the ocean, lies along the trails. The fortress is located on Tel Yavne Yam, once a flourishing city famous for its convenient, strategic port. From the tel there is a stupendous view of the coastline from Ashdod and Ashkelon to the south, the towers of Tel Aviv in the north, and between them the virgin sands.
Settlement at Yavne Yam began about 3,500 years ago, and continued off and on until the Middle Ages. In the beginning, it was populated by Canaanites who were under Egyptian control, but during the late 7th century BCE, the region came under Judean rule. Residents were a mixed bunch, ranging from Israelites to Phoenicians.
After the Greeks took over the reins in the land of Israel, the Phoenicians, and perhaps the Jews as well, adopted many aspects of Greek culture. Thus, during the Jewish Revolt against the Greeks, Yavne Yam apparently favored the Greeks. Judah Maccabee set fire to the town (according to the Second Book of Maccabees, to save the city’s Jews) but it was only conquered and finally destroyed later, by one of the Hasmonean kings.
Too important a port to ignore, it was rebuilt by the Romans, whose historians mention Yavne Yam several times. And throughout the Byzantine era (4-7 centuries), pilgrims often came to the Land of Israel through the port at Yavne Yam.
The city was heavily fortified by the Muslims who conquered the land of Israel in the 7th century, and it continued to be a very popular port. Indeed, Yavne Yam became known as the “second port,” with Ashdod being the first. It was finally abandoned in the 12th century for reasons unknown.
Archaeologists have been excavating Tel Yavne Yam since 1992, and have come up with an abundance of fascinating finds. Besides items like sixth-century mosaic floors and a clay lamp decorated with a menorah, they discovered correspondence between the citizens of Yavne Yam and Emperor Antiochus V (the very young son of the “cruel” Antiochus whose behavior led to the Maccabee revolt in the second century BCE).
A vastly important pottery shard was discovered immediately south of Yavne Yam, as well. Written in biblical Hebrew, it dates back to King Josiah (end of the 7th century BCE) In the shard, a field hand appeals to the governor about an unjust confiscation of his cloak and mentions finishing his work before the Sabbath (Shabbat). This is the oldest known reference to the Sabbath, outside of the bible.
A Roman-style bathhouse is one of the most interesting of the remains on the tel. On view are its “hot” room with double floor and oven, clay pipes for hot air to flow through the walls, small pools paved with marble, and a drainage canal. This is, so far, the only Roman-style bathhouse in the world to be found in a Muslim citadel.
Palmachim features a picnic area full of information about the site’s history and wildlife, along with a brand new camping area. While developing the camping site, a tractor uncovered a quarry used by the Canaanites thousands of years ago to build Yavne Yam and probably other cities in the region. Later populations lived in the resulting cave, as evidenced by jars and perfume bottles found inside. One of the residents carved a window out of the rock, still visible today, and even built his family a yard.
Hours – all day, every day. Entrance fee is per car. Information at: (in Israel) 03-7265633, 03-7263902.
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.