Israel travels

Caves of Arbela: The ultimate hiding place

Even Herod could not vanquish the guerrilla cave dwellers who lodged in these extremely steep cliffs atop a very deep valley

Mount Arbel fort (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mount Arbel fort (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Forty-five years after my first climb up Mount Arbel, I tried it again this week. How beautiful it is during this almost-spring season, filled with brilliantly red anemones, tall asphodels and the pink and white blossoms of the Maltese cross. And although I huffed and puffed quite a bit, ending up with legs that were wobbly and stiff for one or two days, it felt pretty good to know that I still had it in me!

Maltese Cross, Arbel, Feb. 2013 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Maltese Cross, Arbel, Feb. 2013 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Mount Arbel, just north of Tiberias, is a stunning site that oozes with Jewish history. In fact, well over 2,000 years ago it was filled with Jews! They lived on the mountain in two different kinds of housing: One group resided in dwellings on the mountain top and the others occupied natural caves that had been gouged out of the limestone by rainwater over many millennia. Their town was called Arbela.

Arbela’s cave dwellers built ritual baths and water cisterns, and enlarged the caves in order to make their homes more comfortable. And at different times over the course of Israel’s turbulent history, the caves were fortified and connected with an internal staircase.

In 161 B.C.E., Greek commander Bacchides passed through Arbela on his way to battle Judah Maccabee in Jerusalem. Most of the townspeople rose up against the Greek army and were slaughtered, with only a few able to flee.

Arbela’s Jews found themselves in the midst of battle again more than a century later, after the Romans appointed Herod absolute ruler over Israel. Resistance to the move was fierce, especially in the Galilee, and Herod took violent steps to consolidate his position.

Mount Arbel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mount Arbel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Yet although he fought and defeated most of the opposition, Herod could not vanquish the guerrilla cave dwellers of Arbela. In fact, his troops found it impossible to reach the caves, which were well-fortified, and situated within extremely steep cliffs atop a very deep valley. Herod’s soldiers only gained entrance after being lowered in chests, precariously, from the top of the cliffs. Most of the people inside the caves were soon killed by the Roman soldiers. Those who survived preferred death to captivity and jumped into the riverbed below — exactly as thousands of Jews would do a few decades later, when the Romans attacked the town of Gamla, during the Great Revolt.

The Great Revolt between Jews and Romans began in the Galilee, in the year 66. In an attempt to protect the people of Arbela, Galilee commander Yoseph ben Matityahu added walls and other fortifications to the town’s caves: “Moreover, he built walls about the caves near the lake of Gennesar, which places lay in the Lower Galilee.”(Wars of the Jews).

The historian who wrote these words was Matityahu himself: he surrendered to the Romans during the revolt, renamed himself Josephus Flavius, and authored several extremely important books that, among other subjects, document Jewish history.

Cows on Mount Arbel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Cows on Mount Arbel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Some of the caves are three stories high, and what look like holes from the outside are actually rooms grouped together. Looking out from inside the caves makes it possible to fully understand the strategic advantages of their topographical position.

Most of the existing fortifications and structural improvements are from the early Ottoman period of rule in Israel. However there is no dispute that they were built on top of Hasmonean and Roman-era structures. Josephus’s Roman-era walls blend in gracefully with the environment.

Mount Arbel and its historic cliffs were once free and open to all comers, any time of day or night. On my first trip, I ascended the slopes from the Arab village of Hamam, at the bottom, made my way to the caves, climbed the rocks up to the top, and then reversed the whole process.

Today the site belongs to the National Parks and Nature Reserves Authority, with restrooms, an entrance fee, and far sturdier handholds and grips for climbing up and down the rocks than the rickety ones of the past. So this last time, together with my better half, we drove all the way up the mountain on an excellent road, parked in a lot, and then followed an easy trail to the lookout.

Arbel Valley (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Arbel Valley (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Standing here, 181 meters above (Mediterranean) sea level and 381 meters higher than the Kinneret, the view is panoramic. Directly below the slopes are the Arbel Valley, Hamam, and the town of Migdal.

On a clear day there is a magnificent view of Safed nestled in the hills almost directly to the north and, even when it is hazy, it is possible to make out a dome-topped structure on the slopes to the southwest. This is Nebi Shueib, a holy site to the Druze. Above Nebi Shueb stands the volcanic mountain called Karnei Hittin where, on July 4, 1187, Saladin and his Muslim troops routed the Crusaders in a decisive battle.

Mount Arbel carob overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mount Arbel carob overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Directly east, the Kinneret is filled to the brim following this winter’s blessed rains. On its shores, slightly northeast, lie the green fields and orchards of Kibbutz Ginnosar.

The kibbutz’s most famous member was probably Yigal Allon, a charismatic leader of the Palmach and Israeli foreign Minister in the 1970s. When visiting VIP’s came to see Allon at the kibbutz, they often found him wearing an apron and washing dishes in the communal kitchen!

Further to the north, on the shores of the lake, stand Kfar Nahum, Tabha and other sites of religious and historic importance to Christian pilgrims. The pumping station for our National Water Carrier is also located on these banks. A few years before the Six-Day War, the Syrians tried to torpedo the project by diverting the sources of the Jordan River into a canal on the Golan Heights — then part of Syria. The Golan Heights are across the water, towering above the lake. And, to the north, stands a glistening, snow-covered Mount Hermon.

If you would like directions for taking this wonderful hike, now or in the future, please contact us by email at

Caution: do not try this after it rains because the rocks will be slippery and the paths full of mud.


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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