King Saul and his sons Jonathan, Avinadav, and Malchishua all fell on Mount Gilboa in a battle between Israel and the Philistines. The sons were slain; Saul was critically wounded and begged his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword. Terrified, the soldier refused, so Saul “took his own sword and fell on it.” [1 Sam. 31:1-4].
When he heard the news, David wept bitterly. Heartbroken at the loss of his king – and his best friend – he cursed the mountains of Gilboa in the Lament of the Bow: “O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, nor fields that yield offerings of grain.” [2 Samuel 1:21].
If you visit the Gilboa in winter or spring, the mountain’s masses of wildflowers seem to belie the curse. Come in summer, however, and you can’t help but feel its effect. For aside from trees planted by the Jewish National Fund, all you find on the Gilboa are dried ferula plants, a few scattered shrubs and the hardy purple globe thistle.
Yet with or without foliage, the Gilboa Mountains — overlooking the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel — are a sight to see. And an excellent road – the JNF’s Gilboa Scenic Route – is a stepping stone to hikes, memorials, overlooks, picnic sites, bike paths, and dozens of breathtaking views that vary with the seasons and your vantage point.
The Scenic Route climbs the Gilboa Ridge, which is 18 kilometers long and juts out from the northern side of the Samarian Mountains. Its proximity to the Syrian African Rift created steep cliffs on the Gilboa’s northern and eastern sides, over the Harod and Beit She’an Valleys, and at their tallest height they reach 650 meters above sea level.
Mount Shaul (Saul), along the route, rises 302 meters above sea level and juts out from the rest of the ridge. On the mountain, and located within a pine forest, a short Biblical Trail is lined with Hebrew plaques describing the biblical events that took place on or near the Gilboa.
At a break in the forest, a “window” seems to open onto a view of the Gilboa dropping sharply down to the valley. Part of the mountain is completely bare, the only foliage being forests planted by the JNF. Could this be a result of David’s curse?
Biblical names associated with battles are everywhere. To the north you have Givat Hamoreh, on whose foothills the Philistines camped before going to battle with Saul – and whose adjacent valley housed the Midianites before they were routed by Gideon.
The tip of Mount Tabor (Barak and the prophetess Deborah) is visible just beyond Givat Hamoreh. The Heights of Issachar, who fought with Barak, are to the east, while the upper Jezreel Valley is spread out to the west.
Mt. Shaul has become extremely popular with Israeli hand-gliders and windsurfers. On weekends, sports enthusiasts take off from the mountain top and glide gracefully over the valley like the birds of prey that once lived once in the cliffs.
Ketef Shaul (Shaul’s Shoulder) is the Scenic Route’s main recreation area. It features picnic tables adapted to wheelchairs, playgrounds, and an accessible trail to a lovely lookout. Afterwards, the route leads to the Vinya Overlook with two balconies inside in a lush grove and a view of sparkling fishponds and colorful fields.
Another stop on the route: Mount Barkan, where an easy, hour long circular peak trail gives you an excellent view of Nablus and the Jenin Valley.
A favorite spot along the route is the Gilboa Iris Nature Reserve, filled with exquisite Gilboa iris in early spring. They commonly appear in numerous shades of purple and, in rare cases, other colors as well.
Because of their name, you would think that this is the only spot on which these gorgeous blossoms can be found. Actually, they also grow in the Judean desert and near Ein Gev – but in much smaller quantity. Some people claim that this is not the Gilboa iris’ natural setting. Indeed, they say, the iris was first planted in Arab cemeteries long ago and only later reached the reserve.
Dubi Shamir, born and raised in the Beit Shean Valley, fell in the line of duty on April 4, 1977. His son Eran, a toddler of two at the time of his father’s death, was killed during a battle in Lebanon exactly 20 years and one month later. Both were nature lovers who were steeped in the history of this Land, admired her heroes, and found immense pleasure in her landscapes. How fitting, then, that a stirring monument to their memory stands on the heights of the biblical Mount Gilboa and offers spectacular views of the countryside.
The last recreation area on the Scenic Route was built by new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia during the early 1990’s. At one time it boasted a contraption that created the sound of windpipes and was called the Mount Avinadav Wind Flute Recreation Area.
Today, it is simply the Avinadav Recreation Area, with sparse-leafed olive trees that don’t provide much shade and deep green carobs that do. Easy trails parallel to the cliff offer a stupendous view of the Beit Shean Valley, the Gilead Mountains, and the gleaming pools below. In early winter, this spot is a wonderland of cyclamen and other brilliant flowers.
Near the end of the route, the Aliza Malka Overlook is named for a 17-year-old murdered by Arab terrorists in 2001. From the lovely, shady lookout you can see the new security barrier, and easily distinguish which part of Israel is inside the famous Green Line: just look for rows of trees that the JNF planted there in the 1950s.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is an experienced private tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.