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A trip to the British Park: Tel Azekah, Luzit and Mitzpeh Massua

November 24, 2016 22:51

It is always fun to go where other tourists do not go! What could be better than to stroll in the shade of a forest, with some historical interest thrown in for free? Bring your friends and call the guide. I will arrange transport and you are on your way!

Somewhere between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we are soon be enjoying the beautiful Shephela scenery. Shephela refers to the foothills that separate the coastal region from the Judean Mountains. “Dan’s grave” on the right has become a point of pilgrimage in recent years. The tribe of Dan, whose most famous member was Samson (Shimshon), was allocated this area but later migrated north to the area of Tel Dan.

We pass Bet Shemesh and Tsora. After Moshav Zechariya we take a right turn. Within minutes we will spot one of those horrendous giant green and blue birds that signify a Keren Kayemet (JNF) site. (Fortunately the sites themselves are more aesthetically pleasing!) We turn into the entrance to the British Park.

In front of the entrance is an honorial and memorial area for British Jews. The gate-way is adorned with representations of birds and animals that may be found in the park, together with a map. Our tour today will take in only a small part of the delights on offer. We’ll drive up the paved road toward Tel Azekah, near which we leave our vehicle and begin to walk.

There are several marked trails through the forest; whichever we choose we can be sure of shade, bird-song, and breathtaking views. Of course spring, with its myriad of wild flowers … cyclamens, orchids, wild tulips … is the best time, but even early summer there are several gems to be spotted, such as “Dam Hamaccabee”, Red Straw Flowers, the only helichrysum found in Israel, and the beautiful flowers of the caper bush, which continues to bloom profusely throughout the summer. (Handy for lovers of capers – capers are the pickled flower-buds!)

A special treat in the Spring is to see the bee orchid. The bee orchid requires five to eight years to reach maturity, at which point it flowers once and then dies. Not surprising then that the bee orchid became increasingly rare as people picked them! It’s now a protected species in Israel.

The bee orchid looks like a queen bee. Because of this resemblance, male bees (drones) visit the flowers again and again, trying to mate with it(!) thus picking up and distributing the orchid’s pollen. Amazingly the flower even imitates the smell of the female bee hormone. There are nine different bee orchids in Israel; several grow in the British Park.

We look out for nesting boxes. Many of the woodland birds we take for granted are in danger and this is part of an ongoing project to try and increase their numbers. We take the left fork for a circular trail which winds through the woodland. (In autumn, we may enjoy a carob fresh from the tree. The wild almonds are not recommended; they are bitter and full of cyanide!) The trail leads around to the Tel.

A brief history of the site is displayed at the start of the path that leads up to the Tel. The path itself is bordered by truncated stone pillars, each bearing a portion of the Biblical text that describes the momentous meeting between David and Goliath (in Hebrew only). As we climb the steps to the summit, the layers of civilisation are concealed beneath our feet; Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, even the returnees from Babylonian exile had their moments here. To say nothing of Bar Kochba’s freedom fighters.

The first stop on top is the circular look-out point, with a sundial as its central point. This offers a wonderful 360º view as the Adullam region spreads out at our feet.

Looking across toward Lachish, we are transported back over 2,500 years. Azekah is mentioned several times in the Bible and from our vantage point it is clear why a beacon would be sited here. When Nebuchadnezzar imposed Babylonian domination on Judah in 588-587 B.C.E, the southern outpost city of Azekah was one of the last Judean cities to be taken (Jeremiah 34:6-7). The Jews communicated between Lachish and Jerusalem by way of Azekah.

Imagine! An inscribed pottery shard from that fatal time was discovered in the 20th century at Lachish (Letter #4). It told how “We watch for the smoke signals of Lachish … because we do not see Azekah”. In other words “Azekah has fallen. Give up all hope of rescue” and sure enough, after this, Lachish fell. The author of this dismal note was none other than the aptly named Ya’ush - Despair!

Moving over to the relief map of the area thoughtfully provided by the KKL, this helps us to understand the conflict between the Philistines, who had the low ground, and the Israelites who had the high. By judiciously pouring water on the top, the strategic importance of the river valleys also becomes clear.

The Ela Valley stretches out at our feet; eastward giving access to Jerusalem and Hebron, westward offering passage to the sea. Stone benches – with more verses from the Bible inscribed on them – afford a wonderful place to sit, with shade from the two trees; one of course a terebinth (ela), the other an almond. Here below, the battle of David and Goliath was enacted. In 1948 the ill-fated Lamed Hey were ambushed in this valley as they tried to come to the aid of the besieged defenders of Gush Etzion.

Descending from the tel, we turn to the left to complete our circular walk back to the cars. By this point we are glad to spot the environmentally-friendly natural toilet facilities. (No, I don’t mean the bushes! There is a proper building which houses the usual amenities – but without water for flushing. I’m not sure how it works but it does!)

Now we are heading south, following the rougher forest track along a scenic route which the passengers will certainly appreciate. Our driver is more concerned with whether a hub-cap or two might be left as souvenirs of the visit. If we are lucky we spot a shepherd boy minding his flock just as David did in this area three thousand years ago.

The track takes us through to road 353 (when we spot the sheep – this time made of stone -we know we are nearly there) where we turn right and drive for about ten minutes. The sign to the Luzit caves is on our left.

This network of hidden caves offers a welcome respite from the sun, and their beauty impresses and awes. The clear marks of a chisel show the caves to be man-made. Over the millenniums the caves have had a variety of purposes, from the initial hewing out of building blocks to dwellings, cisterns, storage spaces, quarries, and tombs. One cave offers a particularly fine example of a columbarium. A pigeon or two is always around to add to the ambience!

Out next port of call is Mitzpeh Massua which offers a magnificent view right over to the coast. As we have brought a picnic this is a lovely spot top enjoy it.

This is just part of a wonderful day … we could continue on to Bet Guvrin, or visit Har Soccho where Saul camped, and David voluteered to fight Goliath. Or we could return to Bet Shemesh to visit a poignant sculpture garden in memory of a fallen soldier. On our way back we could take in the Tank Museum at Latrun.

So many choices – the hardest thing is to pick what NOT to see.

November 24, 2016 22:51

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