Spring-hopping in Israel's Beit She’an Valley

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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

So this is paradise? Beautiful but packed, with masses of the righteous having earned the right to a proper resting place? Gan Hashlosha National Park - or, as it is more commonly known, Sahne Spring - has been dubbed the Garden of Eden many times, and may be the most wonderful spot in Israel. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world according to Time Magazine. But in one day you can also see its other, cramped and sweaty, side, along with the beauty.

"If only we had more competitors, other springs where we could direct the public that turns up at the park gates,” says Yehuda Carmi, director of the park for the past 18 years. He says it’s difficult to limit the number of visitors. “People travel with their families from the other side of the country; how can you not let them in?” he asks.

Landscape architects Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur planned the park in the 1950s, when there were less people living in the country and things were less crowded. Yahalom and Zur planned an artificial park that would look “almost natural.” Even today, decades later, there is still a feeling of calm: a flowing spring with a gurgling stream surrounded by a large orchard full of date, carob and olive trees. The park was also the subject of a documentary last year by filmmaker Ran Tal - called, appropriately enough, “The Garden of Eden” - which views the park as a microcosm of Israeli society.

The rules at the park, Carmi says, are that no music or soccer may be played in the park, and it is forbidden to disturb the other guests. Twelve security guards are employed to ensure the rules are kept, and, according to Carmi, there are very few outbreaks of violence these days. However, on the day we visited, just moments before we left our joyful mood was shattered when a fight broke out in front of us, involving broken bottles and shouting.

Carmi says the best time to visit the park is the winter. “The temperature of the water is 28 degrees [Celsius] year-round, meaning you can swim in the pools even on the coldest days,” he says. Carmi adds that there are less people at the park after the holidays.

Some attractions within Sahne recommended by Carmi include an ancient flour mill, an archaeological museum and a site that recreates one of the Tower and Stockade settlements established by Jewish pioneers during the British Mandate.

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The mosaic floor in the ancient synagogue Beit Alpha.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The spring at Ein Hanatziv. Dirty and unpleasant.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The light show at Ancient Beit She'an. Impressive.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Hamaianot Park

Next to Sahne, separated by a fence, is Hamaianot Park. The new park was opened three years ago following a major debate over whether the public should have unrestricted entrance to nature spots free of charge. For a long time the area upon which the park was built was an open area with free entrance and no organized care or maintenance. Those who pushed for establishment of the park claimed that this led to a situation where the quality of the sites in the area had declined due to pollution and other damage caused by irresponsible hikers.

The solution was to close off the area and ban entrance to vehicles. Now, entrance to the park on foot is free of charge, but that will only you let you dip in the Nahal Hakibbutzim. If you want to reach the two prettiest springs in the area, Ein Shokek and Ein Moda - situated furthest from the park entrance - you will need to rent a vehicle (either a bicycle or an electric car). Of course, for this you will have to pay by the hour.

The springs were full of bathers, but they looked clean and well cared for. Ein Moda is the larger of the springs, about 40 meters long with water going 1 meter deep. The pool is surrounded by eucalyptus trees and there are picnic tables around it. It all looks very orderly, perhaps a little too much. Ein Shokek looks a bit more like a natural spring. It has a lot of natural shade around it, but is less developed, which is rather nice.

Ein Hanatziv

A visit to the small spring at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv lets you understand why Hamaianot Park was created. The spring here may be located on land belonging to the national-religious kibbutz of the same name (and cannot be visited on Saturdays) but it is rather neglected in terms of care and maintenance, full of young day trekkers, and dirty and unpleasant. However, it does have free entrance.

This is the one spring on this trip where I didn't go into the water.

Art at the synagogue

If you don't take a dip in the cold water, then you will at the very least need some air-conditioning. There are two places in the Beit She'an Valley where you can escape the stifling heat: The Museum of Art at Ein Harod, or the ancient Beit Alfa Synagogue located on the ground of Kibbutz Heftziba. These are two impressive sites that should not be missed, even if you are in the area mainly to get your feet wet.

The ancient synagogue has a mosaic floor among the most beautiful in Israel. The 1,500-year-old mosaic depicts the signs of the zodiac; the sun god Helios; women representing the four seasons; and a depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac accompanied by Hebrew verses from Scriptures. Even the names of the artists who created the mosaic, “Marianos and his son Hanina,” appear. Unlike most archaeological sites, the ancient synagogue is situated today in a larger, somewhat dark structure that is air-conditioned and has lighting to allow visitors to concentrate on the mosaic.

The art museum at Ein Harod displays a large collection of works of art, but the chief reason to go there is the building itself. It is one of the most interesting and beautiful buildings in the country, and was built in the 1940s as a small wooden hut for local painter Chaim Atar; gradually, new branches were added onto it.

Architect Samuel Bickels created the unique structure that is simple, properly proportioned and uses the natural light flowing from the high windows in a smart and original fashion. Not all the exhibits presented are interesting to the same degree, but the pleasure of wandering around the structure itself and visiting the work corner set up as tribute to Bickels is enough by itself.

Ancient Beit She'an

Ancient Beit She'an, a city more than 2,000 years old, was destroyed in the eighth century by an earthquake and is one of Israel’s most fascinating archaeological sites. Moreover, despite the 250,000-plus visitors it receives every year - half of them from abroad - you still get the impression that the ancient city isn't known enough among travelers. During the summer the site opens in the evening and offers a light and sound show to accompany your visit. The impressive light show, the evening breeze and the mystery created by the show's effects create a wonderful, worthwhile experience.

Useful Information:

To get to Gan Hashlosha (Sahne): Drive on Route 71 heading east from Afula. Turn onto Route 669 going south toward Beit Alfa and continue until you reach the entrance to the park. Entrance fee is NIS 40 for adults and NIS 24 for kids. The park is open all day.

To Hamaianot Park: Continue on Route 669, going east until the park entrance. The park is open all day.

To Ein Natziv Spring: Drive on Route 669, going east until it connects with Route 90. The spring is next to the kibbutz on the left side. It is free, but closed on Saturdays.

To the ancient synagogue of Beit Alfa: Enter Kibbutz Heftziba from Route 669, going west from Sahne. Entrance is free and is open on Saturdays.

The Museum of Art at Ein Harod is located north of Route 71, between Kfar Yehezkel and Beit Hashita. Entrance is for a small fee. The museum is open on Saturdays.

Ancient Beit She'an: The light and sound show goes on for 15 minutes, after which there is a 50-minute guided tour. Tickets should reserved in advance by phone at 1-222-3639 or *3639.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority maintains sites such as the Gan Hashlosha National Park. Credit: Moshe Gilad

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