Gush Halav, Gush Halav stream and ancient synagogues
This beautiful and interesting hike starts in the Maronite village of Jish which is on the northeast slope of Mount Meron. In was formerly a Jewish town and called Gush Halav, and it is still known by both its Jewish and Arabic name. On this hike you will experience the spectacular scenery of the mountains of the Upper Galilee, the chalk canyon of the Gush Halav stream and the beauty of the stream which is flowing all seasons of the year. You will also pass two ancient synagogues, the spring of Ein Alva and a small pretty pond. Gush Halav is definitely pro-Israel, and you can feel very comfortable exploring this quaint and prosperous-looking town.
Time: About 3¼ to 3½ hours.
Distance: : About 7¾ Km.
Type of hike: This is a circular hike. However, it is also possible to turn back at any stage for a much shorter hike. Some people may just wish to walk to the ancient synagogue.
Difficulty: The majority of this hike is easy on paved roads and dirt footpaths. However, there is one section, an ascent on a snake-like dirt footpath which is a bit difficult because of the steep incline. Because of this, and although there is no climbing, this hike can be regarded as mild to moderately difficult. There are two stream crossings, but the water is shallow and there are convenient boulders to cross on. Nevertheless, walking sticks can be helpful nor this and for the ascent along the river bank.
Directions: To park close to the beginning of the trail, enter into Waze “Jish” and click on “Jish local council.” This will take you to the bottom of the main road of Jish and then to a turning on the left. However, instead of taking this left turn, turn right one side turning before you would otherwise go to the left (and not the side turning to the right opposite to where Waze was directing you). This turn off is just after a bus stop and the businessליב חם on the right side of the road. There are also green markings on poles on either side of the entrance to this street. Park along this road being sure not to obstruct any of the houses.
Ruins of a mill on the green-marked trail
Ruins of the synagogue from Roman and Byzantine times from the green-marked trail
The rich history of Gush Halav
Although currently inhabited by mainly Maronite Catholic Christians and some Melkite Greek Catholic Christians and a small minority of Muslims, Gush Halav has a very rich history.
Evidence has been found of Canaanite and Israelite habitation. This town is not mentioned in the Bible, but the Mishna tells us that the city was “surrounded by walls since the time of Joshua ben Nun.” After the destruction of the First Temple, it was inhabited by returnees from Babylon and the town continued to have a strong Jewish presence until the 16th century. Jerome mentions that Paul of Tarsus lived here with his parents.
According to Josephus, Gischala, which was Gush Halav’s Greek name, was the last town in the Galilee to fall to the Romans during the Great Revolt. John of Gischala, otherwise known as Yohanan from Gush Halav, was one of the main leaders of the revolt and vied with Josephus for its leadership. After the fall of Gush Halav he fled to Jerusalem and became part of the factitious leadership that eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Second Temple.
By the Ottoman period the town was totally Muslim and it then became Druze. Maronite Christians first settled here during the early 18th century when the Druze left because of conflict. An earthquake in 1837 led to widespread damage in the town.
Israel Defense Forces captured Gush Halav during Israel’s War of Independence as it had become a base for Kaukgi’s Arab Liberation Army. After the war, its original inhabitants were allowed to return together with Maronite Christians who had been forced to leave nearby Biram. On the hike you will pass examples of Arab houses from as early as the 18th century and these are indicated by signs in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Continue along the green-marked city paved road which becomes a dirt jeep road. You will soon see the ruins of the ancient synagogue of Gush Halav on your right. It is not signposted. In front of it is a dirt area for parking and you will see olive trees and pillars within neat metal fencing. You can enter the ruins through the open gate.
Construction of this synagogue began in the Roman period from the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE and renovations were continued until about the 5th or 6th centuries. Rows of columns are parallel to the walls with foyers on either side of the columns. The synagogue faces to the south, towards Jerusalem. A column on the right as you enter has a dedication inscription in Aramaic. There is a fallen lintel by the synagogue entrance decorated with the image of an eagle with outstretched wings, a not uncommon decoration on synagogues. The congregants probably lived adjacent to the synagogue where there are now fig groves, but these have not been excavated.
At the bottom of the hill, you will come to an easy shallow stream crossing. Just before the crossing, it is possible to make a diversion to the spring of Ein Alva. It will add about 15 minutes to your hike (and this is included in the time and distance above). There are two possible routes. The first path involves crossing a very shallow tributary just to the right of the stream crossing and you will soon see a path leading up a hill. There is another path just after crossing the Gush Halav stream leading up another hill. Despite its first appearance this path is actually less hilly than the first. Alternatively, go on one path and return on the other! The spring emerges from a concrete construction.
Continue along green-marked trail by the Gush Halav stream. When you come to a rusty gate, open it and continue on the trail. You will pass the ruins of a number of flour mills. These are several hundred years old. Beyond the third mill is another shallow and easy stream crossing.
Close to this stream-crossing look for a dirt footpath that goes up a gully on this side of the bank. Because of its steepness, this is a moderately difficult path, although it does not involve any rock climbing. Walking sticks can be very helpful. This zig-zagging path leads eventually to the pretty pool of Ein Hakchala, so-called because of the blue color of the water. It is a seasonal pond formed from rainwater. Walk around the pool on the left. It is a nice place to stop for a picnic.
After walking around the pool, you will see 3 paths ahead of you. Take the middle path straight ahead up the hill. At the next junction this will continue ahead as black-marked trail and it will lead to the paved roads of Gush Halav.
Just before the village entrance there is a road to the left that leads to the Maronite Mar Butrus Church. Outside this church are the ruins of another synagogue, also from the Roman-Byzantine period. It is not surprising that a synagogue and church are at the same location as this is a high elevation within the town.
Continuing on this road, you will pass on your right a children’s play park. After the business Step to Success there is a curve in the road to the left. From this road you can see Mount Meron on your right. This is the highest mountain in Israel within the Green Line (other mountains in the Golan are higher). You may wish to take a turning on the right to view the tomb of Rabbi Yochai and his wife Sarah. They were the parents of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.
At the end of this road turn right onto the main road of the town.
[Other tombs in the town are those of the 1st century sages Shmaya and Abtalion, close to the entrance of the town. Enter the restaurant Al Liali into Google maps and the tombs are a bit further along this road].
How do we know when ancient synagogues were built?
Deposits of coins have been found at the top of the foundations of many ancient synagogues, and this includes this synagogue. At least 57 coin-deposits have been found in synagogues in Palestine and the diaspora. By looking at when a coin was issued, archeologists can provide a time range for construction of the synagogue. Admittedly, this is very helpful to us - but why were these coins placed here?
In the ancient world, a foundational ritual for religious buildings was very common throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It was usually performed at the beginning of construction in important places in the proposed building, and coins, figurines, sacrifices, inscriptions and other precious materials were deposited, all within the context of a religious ceremony carried out by a priest.
However, an academic article argues that the coins deposited in synagogues were not part of this ritual. There is no mention in Jewish texts of such a ceremony, the coins were not associated with any other precious objects, they were not usually deposited in bundles together at a major point in the building but were scattered through the foundations, and they were usually placed towards the floor rather than deep in the foundations.
An answer may be that these deposits were not part of a religious ritual, but rather a secular equivalent without religious meaning. The Jews were forbidden by Jewish law to adopt pagan customs. Nevertheless, they saw value in throwing a few non-precious coins on the top of the foundations of their synagogues as a good luck charm or as a means of indicating for posterity when the building was erected.
Who are Maronite Christians?
Even though you see spires of churches when you enter Gush Halav, you will soon realize that this is not a typical Christian Arab town, as for example Nazareth or the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. This is because most of the people here are not Christian Arabs but Christian Maronites. They are also Catholic and in full communion with the Pope and the rest of the Catholic church.
Christians constitute about 2% of the population of Israel and 78% are Christian Arabs. Most Christian Arabs belong to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which broke away from the Greek Orthodox Church in the 18th century and joined the Catholic Church.
Most Maronites in the Middle East live in Lebanon, where just over a million people constitute about 32% of the Lebanese population, and there are also small Maronite communities in Syria, Cyprus and Israel. Even more, about 2 million people, live in the diaspora outside the Middle East. There are approximately 11,000 Maronites living in Israel and most live in the north of Israel in Haifa, Gush Halav, Isfiya, Acre, Makr, and also in Jaffa.
Maronites are followers of the 4th-century Syriac Christian hermit and saint Maron. He sent Abraham of Cyrrhus to convert the pagan population of Lebanon. When the Muslims swept into this region in the 7th century, the Maronites resisted changing their faith. They spoke Aramaic in the past (as did the Jews) and their prayers are still in Aramaic.
You will notice that all the store signs are in Hebrew and not in Arabic. Their children are not required to join the Israeli army, but most of their high school graduates volunteer for the army or National Service. There is also a 2,500-meter Coexistence Trail for hiking and biking that links Gush Halav to the nearby Jewish town of Dalton with several lookout points. In sum, you can feel very safe visiting Gush Halav.
Mount Meron seen from the town of Gush Halav.
The spring Ein Alva.
Trail to Nahal Gush Halav To follow your location on your smart phone, click on https://israelhiking.osm.org.il/share/OOdnOvr0kt for the entire hike and https://israelhiking.osm.org.il/share/KQURnPeDTg for the part of the hike in town. Click on the black box with a cross at the top left of the map and it should change color to green. It is not necessary to download the free app unless you wish to.