In the footsteps of a spy: Exploring the Golan’s Eli Cohen Trail
Route memorializing legendary Israeli agent includes former Syrian military camps and officers’ clubs, sculptures and stunning views
In order to capture the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli soldiers had to knock out a number of well-fortified Syrian outposts. Fortunately, several were easy to spot, for they were surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees.
Many people believe that the idea for planting the trees was the work of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who was caught in 1965 and hanged in Damascus. Over the years Cohen had become very friendly with Syrian higher-ups. It is thought that he suggested the Syrians plant trees to create shade for soldiers manning the outposts. The Israeli army is said to have guessed at the size of the Syrian posts by the number of trees which, foreign to the landscape, stuck out like sore thumbs.
One day last week we invited friends to join us on the Eli Cohen Trail, completed in 2013. The 70-kilometer long route, dedicated to the heroic spy whose body was never returned to Israel for burial, was the brainchild of tour guide Gil Brenner. Brenner himself prepared the trail (although nowhere do you see his name), which consists of sites where Cohen either spent time or through which he passed during his years in Syria. The Golan Heights was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967.
Evocative sculptures at some of the sites were donated by Yuval Lupan from Kibbutz Ginossar while information provided by audio guides, called masbiranim, add an extra dimension to this unique and wonderful trail. At least one features an actual recording made by Cohen in his capacity as a spy.
Cohen was the quintessential patriot, the essence of loyalty and dedication. He loved his wife and children dearly, and was aware that he could be exposed at any minute. But his desire to serve Israel to the best of his ability was all consuming – and he paid for it with his life.
Born in Egypt to Syrian parents, Cohen immigrated to Israel in 1957 and married Iraqi-born Nadia two years later. For a time he worked as an accountant, but in 1960 he lost his job.
That year the border between Israel and Syria began heating up and the Mossad needed a recruit who spoke perfect Arabic and could easily fit into Syrian high society. They picked Cohen and in 1962, after extensive training and months setting up his cover, he was sent into Syria as Kamal Amin Sabet.
The route begins in the shady parking lot of the Hamat Gader Hot Springs, part of an enclave that was taken from Israel by the Syrians in 1951 and turned into a resort for Syrian officers and their relatives. Through his massive contacts with elite members of Syrian society, Cohen was a guest here on several occasions. From here, and despite the area being closed to civilians, he was allowed to tour Syrian military outposts all along the Golan Heights.
Lupan’s basalt sculpture features the symbol of Israel’s Tourism Ministry and a quote from Numbers 13:2: “The Lord said to Moses: Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.’”
Next along this road, which leads from Hamat Gader to Quneitra (Route 98), is an old French Customs House that the Syrians used as a checkpoint. Cohen’s business card and the apartment in which he lived in Damascus are pictured on the walls, along with other memorabilia.
From the other side of the street there is a wonderful view of the Yarmouk Valley capped by a broken bridge. Constructed by the Ottoman Turks in 1904, the 130-meter long railroad bridge was meant for Muslim pilgrims going from Syria to Mecca. It is the only one of ten bridges sabotaged by Palmach commandos in 1946 that remains exactly as it was after its destruction.
Nearby, on top of large tank barrier that was part of the Syrian’s fortified defense line until 1967, there is a unique sculpture of Cohen’s head. It bears four faces that show him looking in four directions: to Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. If we hadn’t listened to the audio guide, we might not have noticed that when Cohen faces Israel his lips are open; and when closed, he faces Syria.
This part of the trail offers a wonderful view of the valley below and Mount Tabor. We sat on benches in the shade to enjoy the sight, as well, of a deep blue Sea of Galilee.
Write-ups about the route suggest that it takes two to four hours to complete. Fortunately we had allowed a whole day, for there are several sites with views from which it is hard to tear yourself away. One of them is the Syrian Officers’ Club, at Kibbutz Afik.
A sign on the building reads: Mt. Nebo Balcony, so called because, like Moses who was forbidden from entering the Promised Land gazed upon it from Mt. Nebo, Cohen would have stood here gazing with pain and longing at an amazing view of the Sea of Galilee, Mount Tabor, the lower Galilee Mountains and ancient Sussita.
Fiszgop Plaza, next to the club, is a strikingly landscaped memorial. It is dedicated to members of the Fiszgop family who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Syrian army camps dotted Route 98, one of them located where the community of Eliad (Eli Forever) is situated today. Here, and at another stop next to picnic tables, a large basalt rock, and two tall cypress trees, we learned that there was a mandatory death sentence for anyone who entered this area under false pretenses. Once caught, Cohen was tried and sentenced to hang without the option of a defense lawyer and behind doors that were closed to foreign media.
Offices granting permission to civilians to enter military areas were located on the second floor of the Syrian army headquarters at Quneitra. So next we stopped in for a look at the enormous graffiti-covered structure and the spiral staircase which Cohen climbed on several occasions.
Finally, at the foot of Mount Avital, a heart breaking statue depicts a woman – Nadia Cohen – gazing in the direction of Damascus as she waits in vain for Eli to be returned to his beloved homeland.
The Magdala Guesthouse
Every morning at sunrise, Father Eamon Kelly films a live video chat along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Kelly, the Irish-born assistant director at the brand-new Magdala Guesthouse and one of the most positive people we have ever met, shares happy thoughts with his Facebook followers. When asked about his job description at Magdala he replies: “To smile — and to bring people together.”
The night of our jaunt along the Eli Cohen Trail, we lodged at Magdala. Its exterior plays of dark basalt and light limestone, soft interior color scheme, glass-covered lobby, comfortable rooms and its general atmosphere proved to be enormously pleasant and relaxing.
But the guesthouse is only part of a much larger complex that is absolutely unique. For within its confines are extensive excavations from an ancient Jewish fishing village named Magdala, the hometown of Jesus’ friend and disciple — Mary Magdalene — that include a partially restored synagogue with mosaic floors and the elaborately decorated Magdala Stone.
The antiquity of the site is reflected in the lobby, whose centerpiece is a pool (used in the village fish industry) surrounded by basalt rocks, transferred here from a site next to the lake. Shards two thousand years old were incorporated into unusual pillars along the exquisite grounds, which feature a mosaic map of the Galilee and a fish-shaped walkway lit up by fountains. Near the water stands Duc in Altum, a spiritual center with very special chapels, an atrium honoring women everywhere, and a window onto the Sea of Galilee.
When Magdala Guesthouse opened last November, it immediately filled with pilgrims. But like all other hotels in this country, it was shut down during the first months of coronavirus crisis. And while it reopened a few weeks ago, Israel’s gates are now closed to tourists. So today guests are Israelis who are “stuck” in this country for the duration — but seem delighted with a new vacation venue that offers a combination of history, water, gardens, a gorgeous view of the mountains, and a variety of nearby attractions.
Magdala is located along Highway 90, north of Tiberias. The excavations are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. For further information, contact the center by phone — 074-700-3204; 053-3261619 — or visit its website.
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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