Israel travels

At Tel Dan nature reserve, a little piece of heaven

See where half of the Jordan’s waters originate, and where the writer’s husband guarded just before the 1967 war

The wading pool at Tel Dan wading pool (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
The wading pool at Tel Dan wading pool (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

Shortly before the Six Day War, Shmuel was stationed at Tel Dan, which at the time was far too close to the borders of both Lebanon and Syria. The guys cooled their beer cans in the springs which have their source at the tel, and drank directly from sparkling clear waters when the days were warm.

Because the lookout post had to be manned at all times, the soldier on guard duty couldn’t go into the bunker to wake up his replacement at night. The solution was a string tied to the leg of the sleeping soldier. When the guard finished his shift he pulled – hard — and the next man would come up.

Today, Tel Dan is not only perfectly safe, but it is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Israel. It also boasts extensive excavations, for Tel Dan hosted both an ancient Canaanite civilization and the Israelite tribe of Dan.

Visitors receive a detailed leaflet in English that shows the variety of walks you can take through the reserve (including a wheelchair accessible trail). The longest route is the most exciting, for it combines antiquities with exquisite natural sights.

The view from 'our' lookout post by at the Tel Dan bunker (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
The view from ‘our’ lookout post by at the Tel Dan bunker (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

All of the paths – including that which is accessible to wheelchairs — begin next to the river and its deliciously rushing waters. Visitors stroll through luxurious foliage to an aqueduct that once carried water to flour mills along the stream. The people who lived in the northern cities of Dan and Banias several millennia ago used the channel to transport water to their fields.

Eventually the path leads to the river’s source. Dan is the largest of the Jordan River’s three sources and the only one which has been located within Israeli borders since 1948.

According to legend, the Dan gets its name from the Hebrew word for “judge” (dayan), from a time when each of the three rivers went its separate ways. The rivers bragged and boasted about which was the largest and most beautiful, finally asking God to come down from the heavens and decide which of the three was the most superior.
When the Lord couldn’t make up his mind, goes the story, He suggested all three rivers join together. The ancient wise men of Israel say that the Dan actually won, because the word Jordan means “came out of the Dan”.

The waters in full flow at Tel Dan (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
The waters in full flow at Tel Dan (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

Thickets stand on both sides of bridges built over the water. On one side tower exceptionally tall Syrian ash trees which come from the heights of Turkey. There, the climate is cold and it often snows; here, they stand in the shade of the Hermon mountain, right next to chilling waters that manage to make them feel at home.

Within the relatively small preserve (391 dunams) are an uncommonly large number of habitats. Thus only a few meters away from the Syrian ash, there are thriving laurel (bay) trees, the kind whose leaves are used for cooking. Laurel trees need a Mediterranean climate, and find it in the reserve. In addition, the arid conditions found near the end of the tel permit the jujube tree to grow here as well.

Lots of dragonfllies and damselflies fly around the reserve. The similarity in their names both in English and in Hebrew (shapirit and shafririt) causes confusion between the two, whose difference is mainly in their wings: Damselflies raise their wings and dragonflies spread them out.

Eventually the trail leads to the quiet pool where the river has its source. Like the water in the other parts of the Dan, here, too, it is 14.5 to 15 degrees centigrade all year long. Bubbles appear where the spring bursts out of weak seams in the rock; this is the origin of half the water in the Jordan River.

Rain falling on Mount Hermon is the original source of the springs. The water mixes with the mountain’s limestone rock and creates carbolic acid which melts the lime. Water trickles though the resulting crevices into the ground. When it can descend no further it flows on a level called the aquifer until it finds a spot where it can break out of the rock.

Tel Dan is famous for its impressive archaeological digs, which cover two main periods: the time when it was a Canaanite city named Laish, about 4,000 years ago, and the era when it was inhabited by descendants of the tribe of Dan and given a new name.

Portions of Tel Dan have been reconstructed, following decades of excavation headed by Prof. Avraham Biran of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

The bench where the city elders sat? (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
The bench where the city elders sat? (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

Just inside the Israelite gate there is a long bench. City elders probably sat on benches like these: “Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate and sat there. When the kinsman-redeemer he had mentioned came along, Boaz said, ‘Come over here, my friend, and sit down’” (Ruth 4:1-2).

Next to the bench is a structure with a beautifully decorated base and holes in the corners for three others of the same type. There may have been four bases here, and four pillars — perhaps to hold a canopy.

Following the death of King Solomon, the Israelites split into two separate kingdoms: Judah and Israel. Jeroboam, who reigned over Israel, worried that when his people traveled to the Jerusalem Temple they would transfer allegiance to Judah’s King Rehoboam. So “after seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there” (1 Kings 12:28-30).

Near the path there is an impressive ritual site, probably that built by King Jeroboam. The ritual site was in continual use all the way through the Greek and Roman periods. Steps lead to the reconstructed High Place, a square measuring 19 meters by 19 meters. Below the steps are remains of what archaeologists believe to have been a place set aside for the golden calf.

While there has never been any serious disagreement over the location of the Biblical city of Dan, this knowledge was confirmed when archaeologists found a stone in the sanctuary inscribed in Greek and Aramaic: “to the God who is in Dan” (the original is in Jerusalem’s Skirball Museum).

Crisscrossed by bunkers and trenches (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
Crisscrossed by bunkers and trenches (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

In the mid 1960’s, and in anticipation of a Syrian attack, the Israel Defense Forces began fortifying Tel Dan by crisscrossing the whole site with bunkers and trenches. Visitors can walk through one of them, perhaps the bunker used by modern Israelites like Shmuel and his comrades, and try the hard beds on which they slept. Then, come to a lookout over former Israeli and Syrian patrol routes (with cows grazing peacefully below).

The trail which leads back to the reserve entrance passes one of Tel Dan’s most exciting finds: a well-preserved Canaanite-era gate. Made of mud bricks, and covered to protect it from the elements, it has remained completely intact. Finally, the trail takes visitors to the wading pool – a little piece of heaven where visitors cool off by putting their feet in the water.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private, customized tours of Israel.

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