In Search of the Markers That Once Outlined the Mideast

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A pillar that was erected by Greta Britain and France as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
A pillar that was erected by Greta Britain and France as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Yerach Paran pointed to some stones remaining from a railroad bridge and held up his hand, signaling us to stop. Morris Tzemach parked the car at the side of Highway 98, two kilometers (just over a mile) west of the Hamat Gader junction. “We begin our climb from here. Follow me,” said Paran, hopping out of the air-conditioned jeep and into the scorching morning in the southern Golan Heights.

There was no trail in sight. The map in my hand showed that the nearest minefield was just dozens of meters away. The field of yellowed stubbly growth before us looked steep and burning hot, but no one in our little delegation showed any signs of hesitation.

Paran, a military historian from Kibbutz Haon, near Lake Kinneret, is the founder of the Israel Defense Forces Eitan unit, tasked with finding missing soldiers (he is also the author of the Hebrew-language book called “Until the Last Soldier Returns”). He led us with the assuredness of someone wandering around his backyard, and since he is in his 80s, the rest of us had no excuse to straggle behind as he quickly began the ascent. I panted as I brought up the rear, pretending to stop to take pictures.

In addition the energetic octogenarian and Tzemach, a veteran tour guide in the Galilee, we were also joined by Yadin Roman, editor of Eretz Vateva, a geographical magazine. An expert on local history, Roman was actually the one who suggested undertaking the “search mission” and invited me to join. After 10 minutes, the four of us were standing in front of a meter-high stone cylinder partially hidden by dried-out thornbushes, with the number 71 etched into its flat top.

Morris Tzemach looking at a historic map of the area. Credit: Moshe Gilad

We felt a thrilling sense of victory and satisfaction. We had found the pillar we had been searching for, the trip had not been for naught. The marker itself was not much to look at, a bit of dull poured concrete, and surely nothing like the ancient obelisks or Roman-era landmarks I had been imagining on the way there. But still – Border Pillar No. 71 was a rare and significant sight, I told myself.

Located several hundred meters north of the Jordanian border today, No. 71 is the most recent and furthest south of a string of pillars that began to be erected about a century ago, to demarcate the boundaries between the territories ruled by Great Britain and by France in the Near East. The borderline stretches east from what is now the Israeli-Lebanese border on the Mediterranean, at Rosh Hanikra, the location of Border Pillar No. 1.

The line more or less follows the current border with Lebanon. It turns north near Kibbutz Malkiya, loops around Metula, continues eastward toward the Banias (which the Nature and Parks Authority officially calls the Hermon Stream) and then south along the Golan Heights to the Hamat Gader hot springs. It runs not far from the north side of the Sea of Galilee, placing the lake in British territory. It then ascends into the Golan, overlooking the lake, up to where we were standing, smiling and pleased with ourselves, at Border Pillar No. 71.

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but this particular marker was apparently only erected in 1952, by the public works or surveying departments of the young State of Israel. It would have made for a much better story had No. 71 been manufactured in Britain or quarried somewhere in France’s Dordogne region, but the stone is still a remnant of an international border that passed through the country and was recognized by the nations of the world. And there aren’t many like it.

The most interesting historical story says the border pillars were made by inmates at the main prison in Acre, using molds. I can’t say whether those we found had in fact been made in Acre, but they were of rather poor quality, cast with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.

After a full day of searching, we found five pillars that had survived the ravages of time, border shifts and war. It was only on the two southernmost pillars that we were able to make out the numbers engraved on top. The other three were harder to reach, but finding them was gratifying.

Border Piller No. 41 near the Hermon Stream. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Carving up the empire

After the end of World War I, nearly a century ago in April 1920, a conference was held in the Italian city of San Remo to determine how to divide up the territories of the former Ottoman Empire among the victorious, principal Allied powers. The delegates included the prime ministers of Britain, France, Italy and Greece, along with representatives from Japan and Belgium. A photograph of the participants shows six men in black suits, all sporting impressive mustaches. With his own similarly impressive mustache, Tzemach would have fit right in.

The conference participants decided to give Britain the mandate to control Palestine. The British Mandatory arrangement also included the territory east of the Jordan River, Transjordan, which two years later became an emirate, and eventually, in 1946, the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which included Britain’s pledge of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was included in the San Remo Conference resolutions, by dint of which France was to administer Syria and Lebanon as part of its mandate.

A flour mill near the Jilabun Stream. Credit: Moshe Gilad

For the British, delineation of the border that was agreed upon and implemented a few years later was a significant improvement over the more general blueprint initially drawn up in the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France during World War I.

An extensive article by Hilik Horovitz and Israel Lugar on the Survey of Israel website describes the permanent demarcation of the borderline in north, between the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon. An agreement signed on December 23, 1920 states that the border stretches from Rosh Hanikra to the Yarmouk River. That left the Dan River, a tributary of the Jordan, but not the Hermon/Banias in Palestine. It also placed most of the Golan Heights and more than half of the area of the Sea of Galilee under French control. While the border was approved and set, it was not actually marked on any map.

But then there was an important turning point. British Lt. Col. S. F. Newcombe and French Lt. N. Paulet went out into the field in 1923 to demarcate the new boundaries and make the agreement a reality. Newcombe proposed making changes to the border, which otherwise would split land controlled by Emir Mahmud el-Fa’ur, leader of an important Bedouin tribe. He suggested that the emir’s land be transferred to Syria and that the border pass instead through the lower part of the Golan, east of the Jordan River, and that the entire Sea of Galilee come under the rule of the British Mandate. The French agreed to this suggestion, which has been of importance to this day.

By the way, the ruins of a large structure that served as Emir Fa’ur’s summer palace are still standing at the Ha’emir junction. His winter palace is now in use as the dining hall at the HaGoshrim Hotel.

A joint British-French delegation marked the borderline that was agreed upon in June 1921 using 71 temporary mounds of stones; the route had been approved in an accord signed by His Majesty’s government and the French government. It was in search of the permanent stone pillars that were erected over the years to replace the temporary piles of stones, that we had set out.

Tzemach and Yerach Paran near Pillar No. 70 adjacent to a minefield. Credit: Moshe Gilad

When the border was determined, there was not a single land mine in the Golan Heights. The sad and somewhat surprising fact was that the five pillars we found are surrounded by mines – even though the present border between Israel and Syria is a number of kilometers away. From each one of the markers we could see the yellow signs with red triangles indicating a minefield. The constant need to be on the lookout for the nearest minefield, and on several occasions having to walk between two fences – i.e., in the path between minefields – infused our search with tension. When you walk about in the Golan this way, you get the feeling that the battles haven’t ended. True, the temporary lull has lasted more than 50 years, but still the end is not in sight: The land mines are still here.

The second pillar we found was No. 70, located next to a fence around a minefield, a kilometer northwest of Border Pillar No. 71 and a kilometer north of the Yarmouk tributary of the Jordan River, and the border with Jordan. This particular marker is about 100 meters east of what was once called Givat Hahityashvut and is now known as Givat Golani. The view from high above Lake Kinneret and the Jordan Valley was exhilarating.

From there we drove north up to Yesod Hama’ala and headed east across Route 918 and then to the so-called Pkak Bridge. We left the jeep there and walked further east until we found No. 51, lying on its side in some water, about a meter inside a minefield. We looked at it longingly, but we couldn’t reach it. Still, I remember it fondly because the search for it was part of the loveliest hike we had: We got to dip our legs in water and slosh around in the cool mud of the western edge of the Jilabun Stream with its waterfalls and pools. This particular marker lies near the remains of an ancient flour mill, at the base of the popular Officers’ Pool. Even at the height of summer, there was plenty of water, and an aqueduct with beautiful stone archways provided some very pleasant and well-deserved shade.

Getting to Pillar No. 48 required greater effort and faith. To catch a glimpse of it from a distance of 300 meters, we drove on Route 918 until a turn onto a dreadful dirt road three kilometers south of the Gonen Junction. From there, Morris Tzemach skillfully drove up a steep and at times seemingly impossible incline to a lookout point perched over the southern bank of the Hamdal Stream. He stopped, took out binoculars and pointed south, to a nearby hill, clearly marked as a minefield. “You see Darbasiyah? That was a Syrian outpost. At the top of the hill you can see a cylindrical stone that’s tilting to the left. That’s No. 48.” Yadin Roman and I readily agreed that this was the indeed the marker, and the sooner we could get out of there, the better.

The northernmost point of our quest was “the corner”: The spot where the border turned south. Border Pillar No. 41 stands on the southern bank of the Hermon Stream (the Banias), and it is relatively easy to get to. From Sion Junction on Route 99, you drive two kilometers east and then head south on the oil pipeline road and drive for about another kilometer. From there, a convenient trail leads to the stone marker, next to which is a lookout point over the Banias Nature Reserve. The popular Banias waterfall itself is not visible from here, but you can hear the water flowing there.

The implication of this discovery gladdens everyone in our little group: A century years ago, the Banias waterfall was included within the territory of Palestine. The British made sure that the beautiful site remained in their hands and wasn’t handed over to the French. Who knows what they would have done with it?

Are these old border pillars of great importance? No. Will the border ever go back to being the one laid out by Newcombe and Paulet a century ago? Most probably not. And yet, in a country that has grown accustomed to living without set boundaries with its neighbors, the very existence of what was an accepted international border is a story worth telling. Even when you don’t hear much English and French on either side of it anymore.

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