Tourist Tip #185 / Old Gesher and Naharayim

In pre-state Israel, an engineer had a dream to generate electrical power from the currents of the Jordan River. Now you can visit and learn its fascinating history.

Like so many historical sites in Israel, the inspiring story of the Old Gesher and Naharayim historic sites in the northern Jordan Valley started with a dream, in this case an electrifying one – literally. From 1932 until 1948, engineer Pinhas Rutenberg harnessed two rivers, the Jordan and the Yarmoukh, at their confluence to create the first hydroelectric power plant in the Middle East, turning one kind of current into another.

For years, this prime heritage site was too close to the Jordanian border to allow for visitors. To most travelers, it was no more than a mysterious concrete hulk clinging to the banks of the Jordan north of Beit She’an. But when peace with Jordan came in 1994, the Jordan River once again became the historic crossroads it had been for millennia and Old Gesher and Naharayim opened their storied gates again.

At Old Gesher you’ll enjoy the Naharayim Experience, a visitor center where flowing water, sounds, voices and colored lights bring the fascinating story to life.

Despite the grueling climate, the project, for which skeptical British Mandate officials finally granted Rutenberg a franchise, attracted 700 energetic, hungry pioneers who built the 14-meter-high dam, the 300-acre artificial lake and the 300 meter-long canal though which the river water cascaded down iron pipes to the turbines that turned on the lights. After your visit to Old Gesher, you’ll see these installations at the Naharyim site itself, up the road, adjacent to Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov.

You’ll also hear the seemingly too-amazing-to-be-true story of how, on the eve of the 1948 War of Independence, Golda Meir, disguised as an Arab woman, held two secret meetings with Emir Abdullah (the great-grandfather of Jordan’s current king) at Naharayim to persuade the monarch not to join in the fighting. Her efforts failed, and Kibbutz Gesher and Naharayim became battlegrounds. When the dust settled, 43 electric corporation workers had been taken prisoner by the Jordan Legion. Later they were repatriated, and the story of their captivity and of their children’s emotional first visit – as senior citizens – to their childhood home, has become a powerful part of Israel’s modern historical narrative. 

Other elements of the visit, including an original bunker used in the War of Independence, round out the dramatic story.

You’ll also see a slice of history that goes back much further – remains of bridges at Old Gesher (the word means “bridge” in Hebrew), a British railroad bridge, and a Roman and a Turkish span that have survived the ravages of time and natural disasters in this flood- and earthquake-prone region. An old inn also attests to the centrality of this site as a four-way junction for the trade caravans of yesteryear.

You’ll see, with the help of an audiovisual presentation, the restored old wooden dining hall where the pioneers of Kibbutz Gesher, founded in 1939, took their meals and debated how to make their communal lifestyle work.

Three kilometers north, at Naharayim, the story comes together as you walk along the Dam Trail with your local guide to get a close-up of a “concrete” dream transformed into reality.    

Old Gesher 04-6752685; hours: Sundays–Thursdays 10 A.M.–4 P.M.; Fridays and holiday eves 9 A.M. –2 P.M. Saturdays, October–June only, 10 A.M.–4 P.M. Visitors should call ahead.

Naharayim/Ashdot Yaakov 04-6709143; Hours, open daily: 8 A.M.–4:00 P.M. July–August hours may vary.

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