The Lost Villages of the Western Galilee

In the north near the Lebanese border, a number of ‘lost villages’ untainted by tourist amenities are just waiting to be discovered by intrepid hikers

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Hurvat Danila.
Hurvat Danila.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Hurvat Tzonam, high in the Western Galilee, strikes the hiker by surprise. One moment you’re walking through the underbrush enjoying the shade and singing the praises of the unspoiled air at an altitude of 600 meters (1,970 feet), and the next moment you’re gasping with wonder. You’re suddenly looking at an impressive project executed by industrious builders.

No sign, not even a small one, announces the site’s existence. It’s hidden deep within thick vegetation, mostly oak trees and bay laurels. The ruins, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) south of the Lebanese border, are what remain of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine village where a Christian and later a Muslim community stood. The site has been abandoned for about a thousand years. One theory is that it may have been struck by an earthquake.

Very little has been written about the place. Detailed information is hard to come by. Occasionally, the name crops up in articles and recommendations by hikers, who irritatingly often dub it a “lost city.” Tzonam probably wasn’t a city and it’s not exactly lost.

Neglected, largely forgotten, somewhat hidden and totally abandoned – that’s all true. “Lost city,” a term meant to give the site some Hollywood mystery, immediately raises a comparison with Machu Picchu, high in the Peruvian Andes. But there’s no comparison. The scale, the location, the isolation and the “disappearance” from the public eye are completely different. “Lost city” is hardly a suitable term for a place that’s almost reachable from a highway and where, 200 meters away, there’s a large greenhouse for flowers. Another term that’s sometimes heard – the “lost villages” – is more relevant and interesting. More on that later.

Tzonam isn’t a secret place. Avowed hikers and lovers of the Galilee are familiar with it, though it’s completely off the hiking map. No marked trail leads to it. There’s no mention of it in the best books for backpackers, nor are there any signs at the site to explain what you’re looking at.

This is a bit puzzling, because I was flabbergasted when last month I saw it for the first time. The main structure that has survived is a large Byzantine-era cistern that belonged to the Christian community’s church. I stood above and opposite an imposing structure with about 10 stone arches that have marvelously stood the test of time. It’s all dry construction, without the use of cement or similar adhesives. But the wise builders of Tzonam were able to build perfectly proportioned, gorgeous, complex stone arches.

Hurvat Tzonam.Credit: Moshe Gilad

The site covers about 15 dunams (4 acres). It contains the ruins of a church and above it the ruins of a Muslim community from the Mamluk period. The site is known in Arabic as Khirbet Sawaneh, meaning “flint stone ruin.” Stones aren’t in short supply there.

As always, the Jewish-Zionist-Israeli connection is also intriguing. The closest community is Even Menachem, a moshav that was built on the lands of the Palestinian villages of Tarbikha and Nabi Rubin. Jews of North African origin settled there, and the moshav commemorates Arthur Menachem Hantke (1874-1955), a leader of the Zionist movement in Germany. The even (Hebrew for stone) in the name probably refers to Tzonam-Sawaneh, where millions of stones are scattered in the ruins.

The cistern with the splendid arches is the most impressive structure that has survived, but wander around the area and you’ll come across more and more ruins of buildings, some of them with wholly intact arches, others ruined buildings with huge basalt stones. The attraction lies in the potential the place offers for “discovering” it. The greenery that conceals some of the structures, the tree trunks and the roots that intertwine among the structures give the site a rare beauty.

It’s like nude photography – slight concealment is what piques your curiosity. The vegetation at Tzonam is the alluring robe; if the structures were on the coastal plain exposed to the glaring sun, they’d probably be less awe-inspiring.

Sitting on one of the immense boulders, sipping water, my wife and I were struck by how accustomed we have become to explanatory signs, marked trails, arrows pointing in a particular direction and the orderliness of the sites we visit. But at Tzonam we found the place with the help of a map and our own guesswork. The Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the local government – somebody should have been there before us, put up signs, warned us, educated us, explained. After all, we could damage the place. And then comes the need to put up some fences and prevent people from climbing, leaping and stepping where they shouldn’t – it could be dangerous. At Hurvat Tzonam, one of the most impressive ancient sites I’ve seen in Israel, none of that has happened yet, and its absence is astonishing.

Partly for that reason, a sudden joy descended upon us. We were alone, no one else around, sign-less, and we could do whatever we pleased. We sat, drank some water, ate a roll with lettuce and olives that we’d brought from home, and looked at the structures. Then we thought about how clean the site was; hikers who get to Tzonam apparently aren’t inclined to litter.

Hurvat Tzonam. The attraction lies in the potential the place offers for “discovering” it. Credit: Moshe Gilad

The next morning I spoke with Shali Ben Yishai, Western Galilee director for the KKL-JNF. “The site is in the final stages of planning and measurement, and will enter our work plan in 2020,” he said. “The idea is to preserve the distinctive modesty and intimacy of the place. We will conserve as best we can the balance between the site’s special character and the hikers.”

Ben Yishai also says that to the best of his knowledge, no archaeological dig was ever carried out at Tzonam. The KKL-JNF also has a plan to preserve the place’s antiquities, and there will be a short trail, directional signs and labeling. An architect is currently being chosen to get all this done. Ben Yishai expects that the site will wind up even more pleasant and intimate than Hurvat Danila, which I’ll to come in a moment.

But first, to get to Tzonam, go east on Route 899 from Ayalon and Goren toward Even Menachem; 500 meters before the left turn into the moshav, turn right (south) onto a rutted road and proceed for 2 kilometers. Park on the right when you see that large hothouse on the left. Go through the cattle gate and walk on an unmarked trail for about 200 meters. The site appears on the Amud Anan app in Hebrew, whose praises cannot be oversung.

Hurvat Danila, Mishmish and Dor

Returning to Route 899 and proceeding 5 kilometers westward is like seeing the dark side of the moon. A large sign on the main road shows where to turn for the Nahal Sharakh parking area and Hurvat Danila. This ruin is in many senses the Byzantine twin sister of Hurvat Tzonam, but because of its proximity to the lovely site of Nahal Sharakh, and because several archaeological digs were conducted there, it has gained a place of honor on hiking maps. There’s a good trail with stairs, signposts, paved parking, tables, benches, shade, garbage cans and everything else that’s needed.

Alas, on the day of our visit, the place was terribly dirty. Toilet paper doesn’t perish on its own, and even hikers like us who pick up other people’s garbage give used toilet paper a miss. On that day, it seemed as if, alongside the 400-meter-long trail that leads to Hurvat Danila lay enough paper to reach Nahariya 16 kilometers to the west.

Hurvat Danila. Credit: Moshe Gilad

The archaeological dig at Hurvat Danila, led by Rafael Frankel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, revealed a number of oil presses. The hypothesis is that there was an agricultural farm at the site, which dates from the Roman period, 100 C.E. Around 400 years later, the farm developed into a village whose economy was based on olives. The site was abandoned for about 700 years, beginning in 750 C.E., until the Mamluk period, and then it was abandoned again. Like Tzonam, it was completely covered by vegetation. The KKL-JNF and the Antiquities Authority preserved and reconstructed the site, paved a path and put up signs.

If you take this path you’ll see a fine view of buildings and cisterns that have been covered by tangles of steel. There are also large stone gates, millstones and impressive remains of oil presses. No olive trees remain in the immediate area. The Danila site is handsome and interesting, even if it doesn’t offer Tzonam’s joy of discovery.

Afterward, Avirama Harris, a tour guide and expert on the Galilee, mentions Hurvat Dor (which we didn’t visit), about 1 kilometer north of Tzonam and the same distance south of Ikrit. The Dor site, too, is an intriguing Byzantine ruin that was surveyed but not excavated. According to Harris, it boasts five large sarcophagi hidden in the overgrowth, along with shards and remnants of dwellings.

“These villages are the boundary line between the Jewish Galilee in that period – the fifth and sixth centuries – east of here, and the Christian Galilee west of here,” Harris said. After the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, the Jews migrated to the Galilee and moved east as far as the Tiberias area. Dozens of synagogues have been found in the Golan Heights and in the eastern Galilee; west of Tzonam there are only churches.

Seeking to reprise the excitement we felt at Tzonam, we went from Danila to Hurvat Mishmish, about a kilometer to the north. The challenge here turned out greater. The ruin is marked on the map and is actually quite close to Route 899, but it’s hard to park along the roadside and it’s not clear where to enter. Finally, we found a cattle gate exactly a kilometer to the north of the turn from Route 899 to Hurvat Danila. Here we embarked on a long search that turned up nothing. A dirt path runs along the inside of the cattle fence, but no antiquities or ruins are visible from it.

Only a brave and thorn-rife foray into the greenery led to two large stone walls and a few interesting stone gates, almost completely covered by vegetation. At this point, the powerful urge to see more ancient ruins faded. We extricated ourselves from the dense thorns and headed for a cup of coffee.

The church at Ikrit. It’s all that remains of the town, which the army razed in 1951. Credit: Oren Ziv

Coffee at Ikrit

A steep, narrow road, without signs, ascends to the church at Ikrit, alongside Route 899, 2 kilometers west of Even Menachem and 3 kilometers east of Gornot Hagalil. A comfortable parking area lies next to the church.

When we visited, two men in their 80s were sitting at a lean-to. One of them, named Nasser, invited us for coffee from a thermos.

They come to Ikrit twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Nasser hails from Haifa, his friend from the village of Rama. Young people occasionally sleep over at the site, they say. “Demonstrating a presence,” Nasser calls it. Then, making a sweeping gesture with his hand, he said: “Nothing remains. They demolished all our houses. They made a million promises and didn’t keep any of them. Now they let us visit the dead in the village.”

The Christian village of Ikrit, population 490, was evacuated in November 1948. The Israeli army promised the residents that they would return to their homes within two weeks. That was 71 years ago. Nasser, who was 10 at the time, says he remembers every minute and every event.

“This is how it used to be,” he said, pointing to a black-and-white photograph of the village’s hillside houses that’s at the church. In 1951, the army razed the houses to prevent the villagers from returning. Only the church remained, atop the hill. It was built 120 years ago, Nasser says, and since then has been renovated a number of times.

No state authority is talking with the residents of Ikrit (or with those from neighboring Biram, a Maronite community slightly to the east who were expelled at exactly the same time). A few families agreed to accept compensation, but the great majority, Nasser says, are simply waiting to be allowed to return to their villages. “This is our land,” he said.

Nasser was indignant at my suggestion that we pay for the coffee. “If a guest comes to your home, do you take money from him?” he asked. As a compromise it was agreed that we’d leave the small sum as a donation to the church.

The term “lost villages,” which encompasses within only a few square kilometers Ikrit and Tzonam, Mishmish, Kaskas, Siah, Rosha, Hurvat Dor and Danila, suddenly takes on a different meaning. All these places are full of huge stones scattered on the ground. At one time they formed walls between which people lived. Some of the dwellings were destroyed hundreds of years ago, others decades ago. Some were wiped off the face of the earth by natural disasters, others by malicious man-made disasters. After a time the difference between the two blurs; they are all lost.

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