Get to the roots of Israel’s historic trees
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Get to the roots of Israel’s historic trees

A Tu Bishvat tour of some of the country’s stalwart, storied specimens

  • The sole huge, aging eucalyptus tree on the main street of Jerusalem's Bukharim neighborhood (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The sole huge, aging eucalyptus tree on the main street of Jerusalem's Bukharim neighborhood (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • An umbrella acacia on the Jewish National Fund’s 18-kilometer Besor Scenic Route, in the Negev. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    An umbrella acacia on the Jewish National Fund’s 18-kilometer Besor Scenic Route, in the Negev. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Ancient Atlantic terebinth at the French Hospital facing Jerusalem's Old City (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Ancient Atlantic terebinth at the French Hospital facing Jerusalem's Old City (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Petrified trees in the Big Crater at Miztpe Ramon (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Petrified trees in the Big Crater at Miztpe Ramon (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Common oak at Hirbet Sa’adim, in the Jewish National Fund’s Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Common oak at Hirbet Sa’adim, in the Jewish National Fund’s Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Jerusalem pine at Abu Ghosh (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Jerusalem pine at Abu Ghosh (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Planting trees on Tu Bishvat at the Lehi Monument, in the Lehi Forest at Moshav Mishmar Ayalon between Latrun and Ramle, central Israel (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Planting trees on Tu Bishvat at the Lehi Monument, in the Lehi Forest at Moshav Mishmar Ayalon between Latrun and Ramle, central Israel (Shmuel Bar-Am)

When Russia took over Bukhara in 1868, it granted the Jewish population religious freedom as well as a monopoly in the silk and woven-goods trade. The more enterprising of them took excellent advantage of the opportunity and became wonderfully affluent. Indeed, when the first Bukharan immigrant reached Jerusalem in the early 1870s, he brought his wife, his children, and a servant to the Holy Land.

By the 1890’s about 200 Bukharan immigrants had reached Jerusalem and all of them lived inside the Old City. But they were crowded, and in 1891 they decided to put establish a neighborhood outside the Old City walls. Its design was unusual for Jerusalem: the plan called for spacious homes on tree-lined boulevards with main roads a generous width of 10.5 meters and side streets five meters wide. When it was complete, the Bukharim neighborhood boasted some of the grandest structures in the city.

Hardly any of the original buildings remain, the earliest residents are gone and the atmosphere has undergone a radical change. Most of the eucalyptus trees planted to beautify the neighborhood have disappeared, after becoming firewood for the Turks during World War I. Yet one huge, aging eucalyptus tree remains on the neighborhood’s main street — a reminder of earlier times.

January 25 marks the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat – a New Year for the trees – when early bloomers wake up from winter and nature lovers celebrate the season by planting tiny little shoots at special sites all over the country. What better time than this, then, for stories about a few stalwart specimens – like the Bukharim eucalyptus – that have survived the ravages of time.

Acacia tree in the Negev sands

No other tree is mentioned as many times in the Bible as the acacia (etz shitim). After all, acacia wood was used to build the Tabernacle, from pole to altar to Holy Ark. And no wonder: there are more acacias in the Sinai Desert than any other tree.

A fascinating legend holds that Jacob, who could predict the future, planted acacia trees on his way down to Egypt. He knew that the Jews would need these particular trees hundreds of years later as they returned home.

An umbrella acacia on the Jewish National Fund’s 18-kilometer Besor Scenic Route, in the Negev. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
An umbrella acacia on the Jewish National Fund’s 18-kilometer Besor Scenic Route, in the Negev. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Acacia trees often stand alone on the desert sands, creating a striking landscape reminiscent of an African savanna. One special acacia is found along the Jewish National Fund’s 18-kilometer Besor Scenic Route, in the Negev. Of a species called “umbrella acacia”, its multiple trunks grow out of the base of the tree and form a spreading crown at the top.

Oak trees at Aminadav Forest

Sheikh Ahmed was known for his mystical ability to help women with fertility problems. After his death, hundreds of years ago, a small house of prayer was built in his honor. Located inside the Jewish National Fund’s Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem, the site is known as hirbet sa’adim, perhaps because sa’ida means “happy woman.”

Common oak at Hirbet Sa’adim, in the Jewish National Fund’s Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Common oak at Hirbet Sa’adim, in the Jewish National Fund’s Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Hirbet Sa’adim has been declared a nature reserve, since the area features oak trees hundreds of years old that are of unusually large dimensions. They were left untouched even by the Turks who ruled the country and required vast quantities of firewood. This was probably because oak trees, often found next to the tombs of venerated Muslim sheikhs, were considered sacred.

Terebinth at Jerusalem’s French Hospital of St. Louis

Sir Moses Montefiore traveled to the Holy Land seven times between 1827 and 1875. The trip by ship and by carriage would have been tiring for anyone, but it was especially exhausting for someone of Montefiore’s advanced years. Indeed, his last visit took place when he was 91 years old.

Ancient Atlantic terebinth at the French Hospital facing Jerusalem's Old City (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ancient Atlantic terebinth at the French Hospital facing Jerusalem’s Old City (Shmuel Bar-Am)

On his visits to Jerusalem, Montefiore and his entourage often stopped to rest across from the Old City walls in the shade of an ancient Atlantic terebinth. Fortunately, when Count de Piellat built the stunning French Hospital on the same site in 1881, he incorporated the tree into the grounds. Over 12 meters tall and nearly 1,000 years old, the tree towers above the hospital walls right across from the Old City’s New Gate.

Cedars in Biriya Forest at Ashbel Overlook

Tall, majestic and immensely impressive, cedars trees are mentioned over and over in the Bible. Cedar timber is so special that it was used to construct David’s palace, and cedar wood featured prominently in both the First and Second Temples.

No wonder, then, that Tuvia Ashbel – who worked as a Jewish National Fund forester for 58 years – insisted on planting cedar groves in Israel. Although cedars of Lebanon didn’t do very well in our climate, the Atlantic cedars he brought from Turkey have flourished. View a magnificent grove from an observation platform dedicated to Ashbel, whose name will be forever linked with Israel’s cedars.

Jerusalem pine at the Church of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh

In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet declares that “the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter [Jeremiah 10:3-4].”

Jerusalem pine at Abu Ghosh (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jerusalem pine at Abu Ghosh (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jeremiah may have been referring to a practice common in the Mediterranean region, where pagans chopped down Jerusalem pines to build idols that they then decorated in honor of a deity. Some people believe that early Christians adapted this practice, and that the first Christmas tree was the Jerusalem pine. Interestingly, two of the countries’ grandest Jerusalem pines are found in the garden of the millennia-old Church of the Resurrection in the Moslem village of Abu Gosh.

Big Crater (HaMachtesh HaGadal) and petrified trees

Despite its name, the Big Crater is not the largest of the Negev’s three major machteshim. It was first charted in 1942 by a group of local Jewish commandos – palmahniks – who named it Big Crater after discovering a smaller one later on.

Unaware that there was a third, even large crater near what would become Mitzpe Ramon, they simply named them by size: Big Crater and Small Crater.

Petrified trees in the Big Crater at Miztpe Ramon (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Petrified trees in the Big Crater at Miztpe Ramon (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Approximately 12 kilometers long, seven kilometers wide and 400 meters deep, the Big Crater is almost completely surrounded by mountains. Unusually large quantities of fossilized sea creatures can be found inside the crater, which has not yet experienced total erosion.

Another major attraction: pieces of petrified trees, strewn on the ground before you. Named for their uncanny resemblance to giant trunks, the largest is 10 meters long, with a diameter of one and a half meters.

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For directions to any of these sites, please write us at israeltravels@gmail.com

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.

Planting trees on Tu Bishvat at the Lehi Monument, in the Lehi Forest at Moshav Mishmar Ayalon between Latrun and Ramle, central Israel (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Planting trees on Tu Bishvat at the Lehi Monument, in the Lehi Forest at Moshav Mishmar Ayalon between Latrun and Ramle, central Israel (Shmuel Bar-Am)
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