As we walk in the ancient olive grove, Dr. Mazen Ali tells me about the dove that Noah sent from the ark. He describes how the dove chose an olive branch from a tree in Deir Hanna to show Noah that the flood was over.
That dove must have been blessed with excellent taste because the olive trees there are the most beautiful I've ever seen. They’re enormous, with their thick, twisting trunks adorned with holes, protrusions and wrinkles betraying their age.
Ali notes how one tree has the thickest trunk in Israel; it’s also the oldest olive tree here still standing. The grove south of the village has dozens more trees that look like they came out of a storybook.
Opinions on their age vary. My hosts in Deir Hanna, great local patriots, say the trees are 2,000 years old — even older than the olive trees in Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
Whole families are harvesting olives throughout the Galilee. They spread a large cloth out on the ground and somebody shakes a branch. The olives fall onto the cloth and are brought in buckets to a large tank, and from there to an olive press. The olive-pickers preserve this ancient tradition — one that crosses the boundaries of religion and ethnicity. It’s an Israeli-Palestinian tradition.
Ali, a native of Deir Hanna, is a dentist and great lover of olives — he’s a cofounder of a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the region’s olive heritage, and a member of the country’s Olive Board. With Hani Hayek, a tour guide and another native of Deir Hanna, Ali devotes ample time to the village’s tourism efforts.
Hayek and Ali delight in the change that has taken place in the Galilee, especially in Deir Hanna.
“At one time, we secluded ourselves in our villages and feared visitors. Today it’s different,” Hayek says. “We want to open our doors and invite guests — Jews and Arabs — so we can proudly show them our heritage. The village and the surrounding area have treasures that nobody knows about.”
Much has changed in Deir Hanna since March 30, 1976, when thousands of people protesting the expropriation of nearby land were dispersed by security forces; several demonstrators were killed and scored were wounded.
The scars of that day, which has become known as Land Day, are still apparent, but I heard the phrase “we need to turn over a new leaf” more than once during my visit. Hayek and Ali invited us to their homes, fed us, guided us, drove us around and went out of their way to make us feel at home.
Deir Hanna has 9,000 inhabitants, 85 percent Muslim and 15 percent Christian. Hayek, a Christian, and Ali, a Muslim, are proof that relations between the faiths are good amid a common desire to invite guests in.
The village dates back to the time of the Second Temple, when it was known as Kfar Yohana; a family of kohanim, members of the priestly class, who lived there is mentioned in the Mishna. The word Deir hints at the existence of a monastery, which I’ll get to later on.
Deir Hanna had its heyday 300 years ago in the time of Daher el-Omar, the governor of the Galilee, an autonomous region under the Ottomans. An impressive mosque and castle were put up; their ruins lie in the heart of the village.
A flourishing village
Yitzhak Rabin’s name is mentioned several times as we talk about the village’s new construction, the schools, the medical clinics and the public buildings. Hayek attributes this activity to the place’s prosperity that began in the 1990s and continues to this day.
From the terrace of his home at the eastern end of Deir Hanna, we can see a broad valley filled with olive groves. From there we continue on to the village’s ancient center and the museum of the Khoury family’s ancient olive press.
There we see a large round stone that was once used to crush olives; vessels and tools that were once used in the olive harvest hang on the walls. Najimi Khoury sorts red peppers in the backyard before packing green olives into large soda bottles. Her son then pours coffee into small mugs and plays the violin.
A short walk up the street takes us from the olive-press museum to the mosque and large citadel, Deir Hanna’s most fascinating site. The citadel, or castle as it is sometimes called, is almost completely in ruins, but the remnants, particularly the portico with its three large stone arches, betray the building’s past magnificence.
It’s the kind of place that cries out for preservation and reconstruction. The castle is now in the backyard of a residential building near the mosque, but it can be visited with the owners’ permission.
The architect Bezalel Rinot wrote in an Antiquities Authority document: “The core of the village, including the castle, is an irreplaceable cultural, architectural and historical asset, and urgent action must be taken to save them.” Amen to that.
Near the mosque we climb up on a flat roof to look out over the area. This is the highest lookout point in the village, and the view is lovely. The Sakhnin Valley with its olive groves surrounds us. Our hosts tell us that on a clear day you can see Lake Kinneret on one side and Acre on the other.
Then, with hearty appetites, we eat at the Hagalil hummus joint in the main square, which is named after Land Day. Hayek says the hummus is every bit as good as Sa’id’s famous hummus in the Acre market.
Sister Miriam and the monastery
Our stomachs full, we get into Ali’s car and drive up the mountain to see the monastery. We pass the ancient olive trees and enormous fig trees and continue on up. It’s a bumpy road that your average car can’t navigate.
There, near the most distant houses of this mountain community, we see several flat buildings among the trees. Ali parks the car in the shade and we walk toward one building, a small locked store.
When I call the telephone number written on the door, a woman answers in a very soft voice, telling me that she can be there in 10 minutes. In the meantime, she suggests — in a heavy French accent — that we visit the nearby church.
We follow Ali along a narrow path among the trees, looking westward over the valley, and get another surprise. The church is a round, low building constructed of local, unchiseled stone, with a small tower next to it. The door is open, and when we step inside and descend a flight of stairs, we find ourselves in a spacious room that was once a water cistern — and maybe part of a cave that was enlarged to serve as a church.
We can tell it wasn’t built by professionals. The lighting that comes in from above on the diagonal is fantastic.
When we go back to the store, Sister Miriam greets us with a warm smile. As she invites us to sit at the table in the shade of the trees, she asks us, as in a Bible story, where we came from and where we’re going. The conversation takes place in a mixture of English, French and Hebrew.
Seven nuns live in this convent between Deir Hanna and the moshav Hararit. Sister Miriam has lived there for five years; for her it’s a paradise. Everything is wonderful, she says. Peace will come, God willing; she has even learned some Hebrew at a weekly class in Hararit.
When Ali tries to steer the conversation toward matters a bit less celestial, Sister Miriam smiles and nods. No, she doesn’t think the nuns will want to take part in Deir Hanna’s olive festival. It’s wonderful that things like that are happening, but they deal with spiritual matters.
She gives us a similar answer when we ask about the guest rooms at the cloister — the four rooms are for those interested in a spiritual retreat; no vacationers, please.
For a moment we consider putting on gray cowls and joining the monastery, but one look from Ali brings us back to reality, and we go back to the car and head down the slope toward the village. On the way, Ali explains that it’s easier to reach the convent on the road from Hararit, which is in good condition. From there you can walk to the convent or hike down three lovely kilometers to Deir Hanna.
Oil, sweets and more
Our next stop is the modern olive press at Deir Hanna’s northwest edge. It’s the afternoon, and this large place is crowded with people.
At the entrance is a short line of men toting their family’s olives from the morning harvest. Each one fills several yellow plastic containers with the oil that oozes out of the machine. The air is filled with the aroma of olive oil.
Large signs explain that there are two production lines here — one for “regular” olives and one for olives grown organically. The last stop is a wonderful candy store called Hilwat Asham in the center of the village.
A young woman brings over a small tray of delicacies — sweet kanafeh, a tiny baklava pastry and other unnamed sweets that melt in your mouth. As we sip our cold lemonade, we turn our attention to the bits of honey left on the tray.