Hiking the Holy Land

“There is national feeling around INT,” says Susan Lamdan, a tour guide who moved from New York to Israel in 1968. “Everyone can see the trail markers when they are crossing a road and everyone knows the trail exists.” Lamdan hiked the trail a few years ago with friends to celebrate her 60th birthday. The journey took them 48 walking days over the course of two months. “The trip gave me a real sense of how all the different parts of Israel string together and how Israelis live together,” she says.

Three friends join me to hike the trail at Latrun, a crossroads of history halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the Bible, it is the place where Joshua defeated the Amorites and King David vanquished the Philistines. It’s also where Richard the Lionheart and his Crusaders built a castle en route to bringing salvation to the holy city of Jerusalem, and the site of a British military base that the Israelis failed to wrest from the Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence. We pick up the trail at the Monastery of Silence, a vast stone edifice nestled in forested rocky hills and founded in 1890 by an order of French Trappist monks. Even today its inhabitants take vows of silence, although those in charge of selling the monastery’s wine are granted a special dispensation. We peek into its walled gardens for a glimpse of a monk or at least of swishing brown robes.

None can be seen so we settle onto a comfortable rock for a quick break. A mangy light-haired mutt bounds toward us, making a grab for my friend’s omelet-and-challah sandwich. We shoo the dog away and embark up the dirt path, but she follows us as we ramble past a crumbling Crusader castle. Whenever she sees another group of hikers she barks ferociously, as our newfound protector. Eventually even the hardest of hearts among us soften; we dub her chavita, omelet, and share our rationed water.
The trail here follows a section of the old Burma Road, a lifeline for starving Jerusalem residents during the 1948 siege. It draws its name from the road the Allies carved across Burma during World War II. We sidestep haphazardly laid pipe that pumped water into the city and pass covered supply trucks abandoned in the 1948 battle that have been left as a memorial to the dead.

Walking the trail is a great crash course in Jewish, Israeli and even ecological history. Up north in the Galilee, it loops around Tel Dan, thought to be the Biblical city of Dan where King Jeroboam built a temple for his Golden Calf that would rival the temple in Jerusalem. From there it rounds the gushing Dan River, one of the three main wellsprings of the Jordan River, and meanders towards Mount Meron, the location of the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the man credited with writing the Zohar, the central text of the Kabbalah. Every year on Lag B’Omer, the anniversary of his death, hundreds of thousands gather on the slopes around his tomb. I hiked this part of the trail on Lag B’Omer in 2002 and found myself in the middle of what could only be called a devout rave. To one side of me, dancers whirled in tightly packed circles; to the other, families slaughtered and roasted goats. Men in flowing white robes offered me hashish in Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s honor. It is said that a prayer at his grave will be granted, but by the time I had navigated the crush of disciples all I could pray for was a quick exit.

After skirting the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, so central to the life of Jesus, the trail winds towards Mount Carmel, home to two Druze villages, and follows the coast to Tel Aviv. From there, it curves through the Judean desert to the city of Dimona, known for the nearby “secret” nuclear reactor and home to Israel’s Black Hebrew community. Then on to the Ramon Crater—in Hebrew, Makhtesh Ramon, formed not by a meteor but by millions of years of nature’s whims. Alongside it lies Mitzpe Ramon, a sad-looking development town where the government has been depositing new immigrants since the state’s creation. The juxtaposition is jarring. From there, the trail snakes on to the Egyptian border.

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