The first scholar to seriously study flora and fauna in the Holy Land was Henry Tristram Baker, a 19th-century English clergyman with a penchant for natural science. On a journey to the land of the Scriptures in 1863, Tristram passed through the spectacular oak forest of Beit Keshet, in the Lower Galilee. “Finally. . .a forest worthy of its name” he wrote later, “the ground covered with shrubs, lentisk terebinth, wild almond, strawberry and bay trees, and masses of wildflowers…” (The Land of Israel, 1976)
Only a few decades after Tristram’s visit, however, the Turkish rulers of Israel needed wood for railway ties and ruthlessly chopped down Beit Keshet’s splendid trees. Fortunately, salvation wasn’t long in coming: In 1944 the Jewish National Fund (JNF) hired unemployed Lower Galilee settlers to restore the region’s sadly denuded forests.
Over the years Beit Keshet was returned to its natural state and is once again a flourishing woodland replete with magnificent trees and colorful wildflowers. A little over a decade ago, the JNF officially opened a delightful scenic route through the forest, complete with breathtaking lookout points and delectable woodsy paths.
Early on the route you reach a stupendous overlook named for Winston Churchill, a gift from the Jews of Britain. Then continue on, to a grove full of Canary pines, tall straight trees that resist forest fires. The British, who ruled Palestine at the time, planted this part of the denuded forest in 1926. Declaring Beit Keshet a Nature Reserve, they also added Jerusalem pine, Stone pine, and several species of oak and terebinth to the natural foliage.
Hanging from many of the oak trees are bags that look like old wool stockings. Actually, they are cocoons made of larva fiber. In order to protect themselves from predators and climatic whims, these baby moths spin cocoons made out of their fibers and spend their days protected and warm.
The Keshet Oak Overlook, with a lovely pergola, offers a view of some especially beautiful Tabor oak trees. Further on, there is a short, wheelchair-accessible circular trail with marvelous overlooks and attractive picnic areas. It includes a stop at the forester’s house, where those early JNF workers stored their saplings and equipment. Colorful flowers with their wonderful fragrances line the path.
Beautiful jays wearing a black skullcap flap their black, blue and white wings as they zoom past forest visitors. Thieving little rascals, they steal anything that shines – as well as eggs and young birds. Jays perform a service to the forest by splitting open the acorn’s tough outer shell with their strong beaks and then hiding the nut in the ground. In this way they contribute to the propagation of the oak tree.
A magnificent mountain, the fabulous Tabor, keeps popping into view. Gloriously green in winter and spring, Mount Tabor towers over the hills that surround it. Indeed, its beauty led a writer of Psalms to exclaim enthusiastically: “You created the north and the south; Tabor and Hermon sing for joy at your name.” [Psalms 89:12].
Mount Tabor is the traditional site of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus, Peter, James and John climbed a high mountain. “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” [Mark 9:2]. The other disciples waited at the foot of the mountain, perhaps where the Arab village of Daburia stands today. Daburia is identified with the biblical Daberath allotted to the Israelite tribe of Zebulun.
From the Tabor Overlook, about 580 meters above sea level and attractively paved, there is an excellent view of Mount Tabor. There are churches high on the summit; Daburia is located on the lower slopes of the Tabor, on the right. On the left lies the Bedouin town of Shibli.
April brings masses of flowers, including the bicolored Viper’s Bugloss. Purple before they are fertilized, a bugloss’s blossoms turn red after the process is complete. Often one flower is fertilized before a second, even on the same stem. That’s why the bugloss blooms in both purple and red at the same time.
Across from the Beit Keshet Picnic Area stands “the Old Oak” – an ancient Tabor.
A rocky circular trail about a kilometer long leads from the oak through the forest, passing through rocks that look as if they are made of limestone but are actually dolomite sprinkled with a healthy dose of magnesium. Erosion has conferred upon them some unusual shapes and in Hebrew they are called “trashim”.
Nearby is the hill known as Tel Govel. It has been identified as the biblical city of Aznot Tabor, a town located on the border between the tribes of Naphtali and Issachar. Pottery from both the Israelite period (10th-8th centuries BCE) and from the Roman era a thousand years later was uncovered here during excavations. A dirt trail leads up the hill to a lookout point.
Tur’an Observation Point, the last stop on the scenic route, offers a stunning view of Mount Tur’an. A lookout tower tops the mountain’s summit, and the picturesque Arab village of Tur’an is spread out on its slopes. To the right is Mount Hermon, visible only on an exceptionally clear day; to the left Kibbutz Beit Rimon.
Long ago the slopes were covered by a Jewish settlement called Tir’an, filled with women who were renowned for their beauty. They were so remarkably comely that a Jewish sage of the time amended a phrase in the Song of Songs to read as follows: “You are beautiful. . . as Tirza (at one time the capital of Israel) – like the women of Tir’an” .
Finally, the road leads back to civilization. That’s what makes this scenic route so remarkable: it is a sea of tranquility only minutes from the strident tones of the city.
Enter the scenic route either from Upper Nazareth (off Ma’aleh Yitzhak Road) or at Mahane Shimshon, near the Hamovil Junction.
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.