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Along the Jordan River

From the Tzemach Junction at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, you approach the Jordan Valley from the north on Hwy. 90, following the route of the Jordan River, beginning at its source at the southern shore of the lake.

Bet Shean -- As you approach the pass at Bet Shean, the temperature increases as the altitude plummets to 90m (295 ft.) below sea level. Despite the burnt-orange rocky hillsides and the low annual rainfall of 30 centimeters (12 in.), this is a highly fertile area. Springs and streams from Mount Gilboa have been directed toward the Jordan Valley's fields, and the fertile soil here supports thousands of acres of wheat, vegetables, banana groves, and cotton fields.

Bet Shean, now an agricultural center and a quiet development town, is another ancient city that, due to its position on the great caravan route from Damascus to Egypt, has had a long succession of foreign rulers.

At Tel Bet Shean (a tel is a hill created by successive layers of ruined cities), which is part of Bet Shean National Park, archaeologists have cut into layer upon layer of civilization. Five separate strata of Canaanite and Egyptian civilizations have been uncovered, including altars and ruins of the Ramses II period and early Israelite ceramics dating from the time when King Saul's body was hung by the Philistines on the Bet Shean wall. Later strata revealed a Scythian period (the Greeks named the town Scythopolis), and in a higher stratum the layers of dirt and rock revealed fragments from Roman times. Closer to the top of the tel, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of Crusader fortifications from the Middle Ages, and still higher up, the jugs and farm tools of the Arab and Turkish settlers of the last 5 centuries.

The most dramatic part of the Bet Shean Archaeological Park, however, is the vast Roman/Byzantine era city, which once stretched in an orderly fashion across the flatter countryside, starting from the foot of Tel Bet Shean. Roman Bet Shean was a mixed city of pagans, Jews, and their Israelite/monotheistic neighbors, the Samaritans (in the vicinity, mosaic synagogue floors of Samaritan communities have been found that are strikingly similar to those of neighboring Jewish synagogues of that era). You'll see the best-preserved Roman theater in Israel. This 8,000-person structure has 15 tiers of white limestone in nearly perfect condition and several more tiers of crumbling black basalt. Broken columns and statue fragments are scattered on the floor. There's also an impressive Cardo, or colonnaded main street typical of Roman-designed cities. Outside the archaeological park to the north, in a factory district at the edge of modern-day Bet Shean, is the late-Byzantine Monastery of the Noble Lady Mary. This complex contains an extremely beautiful and complicated series of mosaic floors (you may have to make special arrangements with the visitor center to see them). Information about the many sites in the vast archaeological area, which is still in the process of being developed for the public, is best obtained at Bet Shean National Park Visitors Center (tel. 04/658-7189) or the Guidance Center (tel. 04/658-1913). Admission is NIS 23 ($5.75/£2.90); half-price for children. The park is open daily from 8am to 4pm, to 5pm in summer. Much of the park is wheelchair accessible.

The Jordan Valley

Once you head south from Bet Shean, you are in the abundantly fertile Jordan Valley. You'll see emerald-green splashes of farm settlements in the distance, and soon you'll come to straight rows of beautiful fruit trees. The vegetation is particularly apparent in the Bet Shean Valley, at the entrance to the Jordan Valley. One ancient sage wrote: "If Paradise is in the land of Israel, its gate is Bet Shean."

You are now in subtropical country -- notice the profusion of date-palm trees, banana groves, pomegranate and grapefruit orchards, and mango trees as well as the neat blue rectangles of carp-breeding ponds. It's hard to imagine the heavy toll this land took on the lives of early settlers.

Note that the river Jordan often dwindles to a mere trickling stream and rarely looks like it's supposed to -- lush and green, with myrtle and reeds.

The Western Approach to the Jordan Valley: from Afula to Bet Alpha -- The road from Afula follows a historic route, although road signs announce only communal settlements. Throughout history, pilgrims have traveled along this path to reach the waters of the River Jordan.

Southeast of Afula, you'll pass Kibbutz Yizreel. The road then skirts the slopes of Mount Gilboa, where the tragedy of Saul occurred. There is a farm collective and a road running right to the top of the mountain, where there is a view of everything -- the Galilee mountains, the Emek, the Mediterranean, and Jordan.

On the left is a string of communal settlements -- Ein Harod, Tel Yosef, Bet Ha-Shita. A large, well-developed settlement, founded in 1921, Ein Harod has a population of nearly 2,000 settlers. It has a hostel, an amphitheater, a culture hall, an archaeological and natural history museum, and an art gallery that has exhibited works by Chagall, Hanna Orloff, Milich, and the American artist Selma Gubin.

Just after Ein Harod, the road sign points to Kibbutz Heftziba and Kibbutz Bet Alpha, both communal settlements. Kibbutz Bet Alpha was one of the early Jordan Valley settlements, founded in 1922 by pioneers from Poland and Galicia who cleared the swamps. In 1928, during regional swamp-draining operations, a remnant of a 6th-century rural synagogue, called the Bet Alpha Synagogue, was uncovered in what is now Kibbutz Heftziba. An excavation financed by Temple Emmanu-El of New York City revealed what has become one of the most beloved examples of ancient Jewish art in Israel.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.