This website is designed to help you plan and enjoy your vacation in the north of Israel. Activities are listed under 3 categories - family activities, hiking and historic. Five areas are covered, and each is proceeded by a general introduction. This section introduces the Golan Heights, which is a popular vacation area.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE GOLAN HEIGHTS
The geography of the Golan Heights
The western two-thirds of the Golan Heights was captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, although its eastern one-third still belongs to Syria.
It is a large rocky plateau measuring about 40 miles in a north-south direction and on average about 12 miles in an east-west direction. It is bounded to the south by the Yarmouk River, which separates Israel from the northern part of Jordan, to the west by the Sea of Galilee and Hula Valley, which are part of the Jordan Rift Valley, to the north by Mount Hermon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and in the east by Wadi Raqqadin.
The highest part of the plateau is 1,100 meters above sea level in the north and its lowest point is 330 meters above sea level in the south, north of the Yarmouk River. The Golan Heights supplies about 30% of Israel’s water from rainwater draining into its ravines, especially from the northern Golan which is often snow-covered.
The predominant rock of the Golan Heights is basalt, which is a dark volcanic rock formed about 4 million years ago from the cooling of hot lava. There are many dormant volcanos on the eastern border of Israel’s part of the Golan Heights, and these are part of a volcanic field that extends as far as Damascus. Because of their height, they form a useful defense shield for Israel (see for example the essay on Tel Saki and the Yom Kippur War). There is no risk that these volcanos will become active again in the foreseeable future. The basalt layer covering the Golan is up to hundreds of meters deep in the north, although only a few dozen meters in the south. The Hermon mountains in the north are different geologically than the rest of the Golan and are formed of sedimentary limestone.
It is helpful to divide the Golan into three areas - the southern, central and northern Golan.
The Southern Golan is the area south of the Daliyot Valley, which traverses the Gamla Nature Reserve. It is warmer and more arid than the rest of the Golan. Its deeper soil, however, makes it very suitable for agriculture.
The Central Golan extends from the Daliyot Valley to the Jilabun Valley. It has a gradual downward slope southward and westward and a steep drop to the Bethsaida Valley and Sea of Galilee. Deep canyons traverse the plain and many of these are wonderful for hiking in. The rainfall is average. The soil is rocky, but it has been possible to move the rocks and grow crops here. The land is particularly good land for grazing cattle, although it has been difficult for the beef industry to compete economically with Argentina. Typically, its woodland is covered by dense herbaceous vegetation creating a savannah-like landscape, with only a sparse growth of trees. Katzrin is in the central Golan and is the main city of the Golan Heights.
The Northern Golan is north of the Jilaban Valley. It is a mountainous, cold and rainy area. At its eastern border is a chain of steep volcanic hills.
The history of the Golan Heights
The Golan Heights constitutes the small western part of what was known in Biblical and Roman times as the Bashan. Most of the Bashan is currently in Syria. Hence, the early history of the Golan Heights in ancient times cannot be separated from that of the Bashan. During the Second Temple period the Bashan was called the Golan, named after the city of Golan, a city of refuge (Deuteronomy 4:43). The location of this city is not known.
The Book of Deuteronomy (3:1-14) relates that the Bashan was occupied by the Amorites in the Bronze Age and ruled by Og the king of Bashan. His kingdom was thought to be impregnable because of its high walled cities. Og was defeated by Moses when he attacked the Israelites and his territory was given over to half the tribe of Manasseh.
Prior to the Canaanite period, the Golan Heights was intensely settled during the Chalcolithic period. An example of one of their homes is displayed in the Golan Archeological Museum in Katzrin. During the Iron Age this area became part of the kingdom of Geshur (see the webpage “Family time in the Jordan Park” and the discussion on Bethsaida). King David married a daughter of the king of Geshur, and also extended his kingdom by capturing the capital city of Damascus. The Bashan was conquered by the Arameans in the 9th century BCE. This area was subsequently contested for the next 300 years by the Northern Israelite and Aramean kingdoms because of its fertility until the area was finally conquered by the mighty Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE.
The returning Jewish exiles from Babylon settled in this area in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, although the population of the Golan was never that great during either the Babylonian or Persian periods. During the Greek era, impressive new cities were built such as Sussita and Banias. The Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai subsequently added the Golan Heights to his independent Jewish kingdom.
Following the Bar Kochba Revolt from 132 to 135 CE and the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem, Jews were forbidden to return toJudea, and it became first a Roman and then a Christian Byzantine country. Many Jews who survived the revolt moved to the Galilee. In the 4th century, in the Byzantine period, Jews moved to the northern Galilee and Golan, and there were about 3 dozen thriving Jewish communities in the Golan. These communities were destroyed in a severe earthquake in 749 CE and most were abandoned.
The British conquered the Golan Heights during World War 1, but transferred it to the French after the war, together with what would become Lebanon and Syria. When Syria became independent, the Golan became part of the Syrian state.
Israel conquered the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War after enduring persistent shelling on settlements around the Sea of Galilee. Its Syrian population fled during the war, other than Druze living in the foothills of the Hermon. They had a history of loyalty to the Syrian regime, but are now appreciating the stability of Israel, in contrast to that of Syria.
Vacationing in the Golan Heights
The southern and central Golan:
Hiking is a very popular activity in the southern and central Golan. Many of the popular hikes are rocky and therefore not easy, but are still usually suitable for families. All the hikes described in this website are worthwhile and recommended. A particularly interesting hike is to the ancient (destroyed) city of Gamla, and it provides a perspective on the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome. To fill in gaps, a visit either before or after the hike to the archeological museum in Katzrin is helpful.
An easy and very pleasant trail is the Dolmen Trail to the Gamla Falls in the Gamla Nature Reserve.
A less active family activity is a visit to the Aniam Artist Village. Nice walks involving little exertion are to Ein Pik and the lookout at Mitzpe Afik in Kibbutz Afik, the Peace Vista, and Eden Spring Park.
The rebuilt synagogue at Ein Keshatot is a popular site. A short movie is shown in their comfortable theatre. There is also plenty to see at the Talmudic village in Katzrin.
The northern Golan
The Banias should not be missed. It has two areas and both are worth visiting. Mount Bental is certainly worth a visit. The hike in the Jilabun Nature Reserve is very popular and not unduly difficult. A visit to Nimrod Castle is also worthwhile.
Using this website:
There are several ways for locating individual sites in the Golan Heights on this website. Using your computer, you can click on the purple icons in the Home Page under the heading The Golan Heights or hover on the heading The Golan Heights at the very top of of the page and a menu will come down. On your smartphone, click on the item under the heading The Golan Heights or click on the three horizontal lines for the menu of the entire website.