As the story goes, when Solomon was declared king of Israel, he began looking for just the right crown to wear. Thoroughly displeased with the magnificent gold and silver creations concocted by his artists, he took a walk through the blossoming forests of the Judean Hills to clear his head. As he strolled by, flowers called out to him, boasting of their beauty. Rejecting these haughty buds, the king suddenly spotted a rosy little cyclamen (rakefet in Hebrew), its bowed head hiding diffidently beneath a rock. “Perfect!” he cried. “I will wear the cyclamen in my crown, to remind me to remain humble.”
Perhaps because it is such a delight to be able to finally return to nature after a long period of coronavirus lockdown, this year’s cyclamen appear to be unusually brilliant. Particularly eye-catching are the cyclamen inside the Keren Kayemeth leIsrael – Jewish National Fund’s (KKL-JNF) United States Independence Park (a.k.a. Park 200) just outside Moshav Nes Harim.
Dedicated to the US on its 200th birthday, the park is a masterpiece. Like so many other projects developed by the KKL-JNF, it offers Israelis a refreshing break from the terrific stresses of their everyday lives, with a multitude of opportunities for enjoying nature.
The fun begins just before the park’s entrance with an enchanting 45-minute nature hike that circles the peak above the Ktalav Riverbed. It is marked with black stripes, which turn into red trail markers in the middle of the path that lead back up to the main part of the park.
On our hike last week, anemones were in full bloom, cyclamen peeked through the rocks, and we were especially impressed by tall white asphodel with cognac-colored veins. The Greeks considered the tall asphodel a symbol of nature’s awakening and of resurrection. It was sacred to the Greco-Roman goddess Persephone and associated with the fields of the dead. When a person passed on, it was customary to say that he had “gone to the dwelling place of the asphodel.”
Even today, Greeks sometimes plant this graceful flower in their cemeteries.
Until the Six Day War, Israeli soldiers were stationed up here on this hill. The Israeli-Jordanian border was only a kilometer (just over half a mile) to the east at the time, and the hill outpost offered an excellent view of the surrounding area.
The wonderful scent in the air is from sage plants that line the path. You get a whiff of this marvelously fragrant plant, so delicious and healthful in tea, by rubbing the leaves and holding them up to the nose. Benches are hidden here and there under shady oak trees, while at times an animal will come your way. In fact, the last time we took this hike a wolf dashed out of the woods — and ran right back to its hiding place when it spotted us hikers on the trail.
The jaunt ends with an ascent up to a superb scenic promenade over 600 meters (about a third of a mile) long, which is perfect for wheelchairs, bikes and strollers. Hikers taking it to the left end up at the café restaurant Bar BaHar, but to get the most out of the trail, do take it to the right.
A charming nature walk, it is lined with unusually picturesque flower groupings and a variety of lovely trees. Among them are eastern strawberry trees, called ktalav in Hebrew, that sport a bright red fruit in summer. It is their prominence in the area that gave the riverbed its name. Their limbs are a warm reddish-brown that makes the trees look as if they have been doused with red paint.
Ktalav bark takes a very long time to rot, and in the past locals used it for making tools. As a result, the tree came dangerously close to extinction here in Israel. Fortunately, homemade tools are now passé and the strawberry tree has made a comeback.
A mosaic at the park entrance depicts all of the settlements in the area. From here, a 10-kilometer (six-mile) scenic drive ends at the Beit Shemesh Industrial Center. The road was named the Hubert Humphrey Parkway for the former American vice-president who served from 1965 to 1968. Consistently one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, he hailed from this writer’s native Minnesota.
Picnic and play areas are scattered along the road, but there are also some unusual spots. First is a recreation center with wheelchair-accessible picnic tables and a small playground. Later, travelers reach an observation balcony from which can be seen, far in the distance on the top of a hill, the domed tomb of a famous sheikh. He was named Bader, and wandered into the nearby village sometime during the seventh century.
According to tradition, Bader took off his clothes to bathe in the village spring and hung them on a dead pomegranate tree. Immediately afterward, the tree began to bloom, and village elders realized that Bader had supernatural powers. One of them married off his daughter Fatma to the sheikh, who remained in the village.
After his death, Bader’s grave became a central pilgrimage site for Muslims from far and wide, and the village became known as Dir a-Sheikh, or “Grave of the Old Man.”
Way below are tracks from Israel’s first railroad, whose train traveled between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean coast. In the distance, slightly to the left but below the towering mountains, is a cone-shaped hill called Hirbet Tura, where there are remains from an Israelite fortress and later settlements as well.
Continuing the drive, you can take your car up Ya’ala Mountain to reach the highest point in the park. The forester’s tower is off-limits, but you can circle the peak to get a 360-degree view of the entire area from the Judean and southern coastal plans to the Sorek River and Mount Hebron. An explanatory sign (in Hebrew) describes the battle sites in the region.
Across from the entrance to Ya’ala Mountain are three sculptures. One is a tribute to the Space Shuttle Challenger — a scale model of the NASA spacecraft that broke apart on takeoff in 1986, killing all seven scientists and astronauts on board.
A second is a monument in honor of Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. Originally it was faced with lovely blue ceramic tiles, but on our recent visit we found that these, sadly, have been stolen. In a transmission from the Columbia space shuttle in January 2003, Ramon called upon the world’s Jews to plant a tree in Israel over the coming year. Ramon died when the Columbia spacecraft crashed on reentry, on February 1, 2003.
Nearby is a striking topographical map called “Israel in Stone,” from which there is a superb view of the area.
Last on the route, the Gladys Miller Recreation Center boasts dozens of picnic tables, a playing field and a reconstruction of an ancient shomera. A shomera is a stone watchtower one or two stories high that was historically used for crop storage.
There are watchtowers like these all over the Judean Hills, built of rocks that would otherwise clutter agricultural land.
The descent to Beit Shemesh is dramatic. And to the right on a clear day, the sight of the coast is spectacular.
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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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