Israel travels

Israeli history: it’s all about roots

The oldest of our ancient trees have lived through wars, religious upheavals, conquests and defeats; the youngest have seen the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland

Jerusalem pine tree, Masrek (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jerusalem pine tree, Masrek (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Legend holds that after the Temple was destroyed, all the trees in the Land of Israel shed their leaves in mourning. All the trees, that is, except for the olive.

“Why are you not sad?” the other trees asked the olive. “You, who provided oil for the sacred menorah, why are you not full of sorrow, as we are?” The olive tree replied: “Can you not see the torment in my heart?” And, indeed, olive trees are twisted and gnarled, as if their hearts are in travail.

Unless their leaves are swaying in the breeze — or falling in a forest — trees rarely make a sound. Yet what if they could talk? As the oldest forms of life in the universe, they could tell riveting stories about long-ago events and the people who made them happen!

The oldest of Israel’s ancient trees have lived through wars, religious upheavals,  conquests and defeats; the youngest have seen the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. Here are but a few, together with their fascinating tales!

Terebinth, Henion Haela recreation site (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Terebinth, Henion Haela recreation site (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

1) Atlantic Terebinth in the Kedesh Valley

“And Absalom was riding upon his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great terebinth, and his head caught hold of the terebinth, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went on.” (2 Sam 18: 9)

The stunning 450-year-old Atlantic terebinth located in the Galilee’s Kedesh Valley is considered to be the oldest and biggest of its kind in the country. Indeed, it is so impressive that one of its ancestors could easily have caught Absalom’s heavy mane in its branches.

Today, located inside a charming JNF recreation area along Route 899, the tree can provide shade — or so we were told — for more than 50 people at one time! Adding ambience to the site are several younger terebinth, delightful log-shaped tables and a little footbridge over an intermittent stream. Wheelchair accessible site.

Pequi’in tree (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Pequi’in tree (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

2) Carob and Mulberry at the Galilee town of Pequi’in

Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai was a brilliant 2nd Century scholar, during the time of Roman rule in the Land of Israel. One day, in a desperate effort to wipe out every last remnant of Judaism, the Romans decreed that keeping the Sabbath was forbidden and prohibited circumcision. Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai spoke out openly against the Roman decrees.

Soldiers were sent to execute the rabbi. According to Jewish tradition, he fled with his son Elazar to Pequi’in — the only town in Israel to have maintained a continuous Jewish presence for the last 2,000 years.

Elazar and his father found refuge in a miniscule cave, living in this tiny niche for 13 years, and subsisting only on the fruit of a carob tree that miraculously appeared nearby — perhaps one of the carob trees that still stands near the cave! To slake their thirst they drank water from a spring that providentially burst through the ground.

Pequi’in grew up around that very special spring, which, for centuries, has been a pilgrimage site for religious Jews. The houses here are the oldest in town, and until modern times this is where villagers would water their animals, do laundry, and wash their dishes. Here they held celebrations, sat spellbound listening to storytellers, and watched magicians perform sleight of hand. Older people gathered here to gossip; young people came here to find a spouse.

Towering about the spring is a mulberry tree, whose leaves are used in producing silk. A symbol of Pequi’in, it appeared until recently, on the 100-shekel bill.

Sycamore fig tree, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sycamore fig tree, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

3) Sycamore Fig

Hundreds of years ago, sycamore fig trees covered a sandy hill in today’s Tel Aviv. In the early days of the city – which was established in 1909 – people would bask in their shade, talking, laughing and, perhaps singing upbeat songs about reclaiming the Land of Israel.

Then, in 1953, plans for a cultural center on that very same hill came to fruition. Worried that leveling the hill for construction would destroy the trees, nature lovers raised a huge public outcry. Their campaign to save the trees was partially successful, and a few of these 400-year-old trees survived.

Eventually the lovely Yaakov Park (Gan Yaakov) was developed around the trees, and next to the center — today the Mann Auditorium and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art. Once again, families relax under gorgeous sycamore trees, talking and laughing and solving the problems of the world.

Beerotayim Tamarisks (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beerotayim Tamarisks (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

4) Tamarisk trees at Beerotayim

During World War I, the Turkish authorities decided to draft young men from Mikve Israel into the Turkish army. The principal had a better idea: he offered to have his pupils grow beautiful trees and plant them at Turkish army posts. One desert post was at Beerotayim, named for the two wells (“beer”) found within its confines and located along the Turkish railroad line.

Beerotayim (south of Nitzana off Highway 10) is, today, a lush oasis boasting trees of incredible beauty. Nearby, graceful gazelles gaze at visitors with startled looks; perching here and there on the branches is a bird that Israelis call “kova hanazir” (monk’s cap), because the top of its black head is white.

Bengali fig tree, Jaffa (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Bengali fig tree, Jaffa (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

5) Bengali Fig in Tel Aviv’s American Colony

In 1878, Russian-born Baron Plato Von Ustinov bought a house in Jaffa. Originally part of an American Colony that had been abandoned a decade earlier, the building had been serving as headquarters for a group of German Protestants called the Templers. Ustinov, grandfather to British actor Peter Ustinov, turned the large, rambling structure  into a veritable palace and created a fabulous garden in the back.

His gardens were overseen by Nissim Alchadaf, one of the earliest pupils at Mikve Israel. Mikve Israel was the first agricultural school in modern Israel, and its landscaped gardens included a Bengali fig tree, planted in 1888 and today considered by many to be the most beautiful tree in the country. Alchadaf planted a Bengali fig in Ustinov’s gardens at around the same time. Although most of the 19th-century garden is no more, the Bengali fig remains standing, in all its glory.

Eastern strawberry tree, Mount Scopus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Eastern strawberry tree, Mount Scopus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

6) Eastern Strawberry Tree on Mount Scopus

Once upon a time, a young man from the Judean Hills was called into the army only a few days before he was to be married. When he didn’t return, the youth’s father took pity on his son’s betrothed and married her himself.

As luck would have it, the son came home soon afterwards and furiously hacked off his father’s head. Eastern strawberry trees immediately sprang up at the spot, their trunks covered with the older man’s blood.

One magnificent Eastern strawberry tree is situated in the very center of the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. It is possible that the tree was there even before the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917, and kept in its place because the bark’s blood-red color symbolized the blood that is spilled in the war.

Most of the 2,515 soldiers buried within the peaceful, lovingly maintained cemetery fell in battles over Jerusalem. The troops belonged to Commonwealth forces and were from South Africa, Britain, India, Australia, and New Zealand. A number of Jewish graves are located high on the slope; many of the soldiers who are buried there served together in the Royal Fusiliers.

Ma'ale HaHamisha Cedar of Lebanon (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ma’ale HaHamisha Cedar of Lebanon (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

7) Cedar of Lebanon at Kibbutz Ma’aleh HaHamisha (Ascent of the Five)

Named for five members of their pioneer group who were murdered while preparing the ground for their settlement, Ma’aleh HaHamisha was established in 1938. The following year, four cedar trees were planted next to the communal dining room: two Atlas cedars and two cedars of Lebanon. When Theodor Herzl was reinterred on the mountain that bears his name, one of the latter cedars was replanted near his grave.

Snow had fallen in Jerusalem and on the Jerusalem Hills, a few days before we travelled to Ma’aleh HaHamisha in January to take a photo of the tree: while we were busy filming it from every possible angle, a family from Kfar Saba took excited pictures of a small pile of snow that remained on the ground.

8) Jerusalem Pine at the Masrek Nature Reserve

As tired, unshaven Palmach forces neared the hostile Arab village of Beit Machsiain 1948, during the War of Independence, one of them observed that a row of tall pine trees resembled the teeth of the comb (masrek) he wished he could run through his unruly hair! In time, HaMasrek became the official name of a nature reserve, today part of the JNF’s Rabin Park.

Despite a forest fire that devastated most of the reserve’s ancient Jerusalem pine trees in 2001, HaMasrek is still lush and green. A circular trail takes hikers to a breathtaking view of the Judean Hills and Plains, while a special sight is the tomb of Sheikh Ahmed al-Ajami. Muslim tradition holds that the sheikh, buried next to the “comb”, was Mohammed’s barber! 


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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