Back in the last century, when the Ottoman Turks ruled Palestine, a tax collector lived in Gaza. In 1917, as British forces advanced towards Gaza in their move to conquer the Holy Land, he decided to hightail it out of the country. He packed a trunk with taxes he had collected – mainly gold, but also diamonds, rubies, and other valuables – and boarded a train for his home in Istanbul.
As he traveled through the Negev, he stopped off at the ruins of a village called Abu Hof. After finding the perfect spot, he buried his treasures, shot his companions, and continued on his way.
According to Talila Livshutz, Director of Community and Forests in the Jewish National Fund’s Northern Negev District, the story may be only that – a story. But it could also be true. For locals who believe that they can pinpoint the location of the treasure sometimes dig in and near Abu Hof, often causing damage to its antiquities as they attempt to strike it rich.
Last year, Livshutz completed development of a wonderful, circular forest trail around the ruins of Abu Hof (Father of Fear), on the western edge of Lahav Forest. Livshutz named it Shvil Hazahav (The Golden Trail), for both the tax collector’s treasures and the deep yellow blossoms found nearby in late fall.
Excavations and restorations at Abu Hof were carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, thanks to a donation made to the JNF. Detailed explanatory signs along the trail are in both Hebrew and English.
When the JNF began planting trees in Lahav Forest, just over 60 years ago, pines were the logical choice. The land was barren, and pines not only live a very long time, but are sturdy enough to survive where other trees are not. Even when they burn, and they burn quite easily, their cones burst and spread seeds which later sprout.
In later years, however, the JNF began planting trees that were native to the area. For the Negev, the JNF had to find species that did well even when water was scarce. So besides the pines along the road, there are also carob, jujube, and mesquite – the latter a small hardy tree that thrives in dry weather. Indeed, the mesquite produces more fruit in a drought than it does when there has been some rain! Mesquite trees (in Latin “prosopis” and in Hebrew “prozofis”) hate frost, don’t mind saline soil, and are great at conserving water, making them a great choice for our Negev desert.
Alongside the forest’s flourishing trees are quite a few dead specimens. The last eight years have been dreadfully dry, says Livshutz, and even though the Negev enjoyed a few good storms over the past couple of years, they weren’t enough to help those trees that were already dying of thirst.
Visitors to the forest may spot gazelles, who – pushed out of their natural environments – roam Lahav Forest. And in November, perhaps as part of the fall bird migration through Israel, black kites can be seen flying through the air. Weighing less than a kilogram, but over half a meter long, the black kite spreads its large wings in a spectacle to savor. Raptors that soar in columns of rising air known as thermals, black kites are predators for which insects, reptiles, little mammals and carrion are nothing less than gourmet meals.
Although stony, the trail is not rocky and is easy walking. And the view is enchanting, for there is a striking contrast between the desert trail and the deliciously dark green forest just beyond the wastelands. Of course, it is no less charming in winter, when a thin green carpet covers the sand.
There are several caves on the trail, but only one has been restored. It is called the Dwelling Cave, and has a high roof, living rooms, and a yard where the women would have done the laundry, ground the flour and cooked the meals. The trough would have held water for sheep and goats, and the outdoor oven probably sat in the circular dent near the door. Visitors leaving this delightfully restored cave will note the beautiful arch above the entrance, and evidence of a bolted door.
A very large winepress is found along the trail, complete with a collection area and a mosaic – covered treading floor where grapes were crushed. Their juice flowed along a canal into a plastered vat, where the sediment separated from the liquid. Workers would have descended the stairs you see leading into the pool, so that they could collect the juice into jars. Afterwards, the jars were taken elsewhere for fermentation.
Large signs at the village quarry illustrate how limestone was quarried and chiseled. Lacking explosives, workers dug trenches around a stone block, burrowing deep enough for extraction. Then, they probably lifted it from the bedrock with iron levers.
Almost all of Israel’s ancient columbaria, utilized for raising pigeons, were carved into existing rock. The columbarium on the Golden Trail is a fascinating exception: it was built out of stones that were probably taken from the quarry nearby.
Breeding pigeons was a popular pastime during the Greek and Roman eras. But long before the rise of the Greek Empire, and in accordance with Biblical decree, Jews sacrificed pigeons at the Temple. The Book of Leviticus sets out the conditions for sacrificing pigeons in several passages: “And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his forfeit for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, unto the Lord: one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering” (5:7); “And when the days of her purification are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon. . .” (12:6).
Pigeons had other uses, as well. Their excrement acted as a superb fertilizer and they made a tasty dinner. Take a good look at the structure, which had a roof to protect the birds from predators.
Of all Israel’s brilliant wildflowers, perhaps the most captivating are the large sternbergia. Large sternbergia are especially precious because they bloom in fall, bursting leafless and full-blown out of the dry autumn earth even before it rains. A glorious spectacle, this queen of Israeli wildflowers provides isolated spots of color within a mass of dry northern weeds or brown desert sand.
A sign leads away from the trail to the Sternbergia Nature Reserve. Sternbergia began appearing in the Negev at the end of October and bloom through most of November. If you walk towards them, look down. For sternbergia, which belong to the narcissus family, develop from bulbs and are found very close to the ground.
Blossoms resemble large bells and are the color of egg yolk, which is why they are called helmoniyot (yolks) in Hebrew. Although sternbergia sites are only a few dunams in size, each separate area contains over a hundred flowers in tiny clusters.
To reach the site, follow Highway 40 to Dvira Junction. Turn east onto Route 3255, drive a little over two kilometers to a sign for Abu Hof, then turn right onto a dirt road.
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.