On this mid-March ESRA hike we traveled to the Jordan Valley, close to the country of Jordan. The Jordan Valley is one of a series of valleys making up part of the vast Syrian-African Rift Valley, the gigantic crack in the earth’s surface which starts in northern Syria and extends to Mozambique. More than 120 million years old, its most dramatic period of formation was probably in man’s prehistoric past, within the last 100 thousand years. The Rift Valley has abundant underground springs (fresh water, salt water, sulfur and hot springs), bizarre land and rock formations, and many earthquakes.
The Jordan Valley is relatively remote for most hikers; it was my first experience of hiking there. A beautiful, fertile (even if very hot) farming area for Israelis and Palestinians, the Jordan Valley has great religious and political significance for Israel. Joshua 3/17: “And the priests that bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, while all Israel passed over on dry ground, until all the nation were passed clean over the Jordan.” The Jordan Valley stretches from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea and many consider it indispensable for Israel’s defense, essential to ensure security and a necessity in any peace deal.
We started our hike at Ma’aleh haNaarim, at about 700 feet below sea level. Our destination was the Horn of Sartaba, or Alexandrium, as it was known in Hasmonean times. The Hasmonean dynasty was founded by Mattathias the Cohan (the Priest) in 166 BCE. Mattathias was the zealot who dared to start a war against the mighty Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus was intent on overthrowing the Jewish religion and replacing it with paganism, with himself as a god. Mattathias famously said, after killing the Greek government official who attempted to force him to sacrifice to pagan gods, “Let everyone who has zeal for the Torah and who stands by the covenant follow me!” (1 Maccabees 2/27)
Alexandrium was the fortress built by King Alexander Yannai in honor of his wife, Shalom Tzion, (Greek: Salome Alexandra). He was the son of John Hyrcanus and the great-grandson of Mattathias. Yannai was the first Hasmonean to take the title of King and he was also the High Priest. The sacrilegious mingling of the two roles marked his reign of 27 years, known for Yannai’s violent deeds against the people and his successful military exploits, which expanded the boundaries of the kingdom as far north as the Golan Heights. Yannai’s wife was the widow of his older brother Judah Aristobulus, who ruled for only a year. After Yanni’s death, Shalom Tzion ruled for nine years in her own right before her son Aristobulus became king. Yannai’s son and grandson used the fortress as an armory in their wars against the Romans, who had replaced the Seleucids as the major force in the region. Later, Herod the Great, the Idumean Jew who married the Hasmonean princess Marianme, rebuilt the wrecked fortress and made it his treasury.
However, Herod was a Roman puppet and his reign had absolutely nothing in common with the giants of the Hasmonean clan, Mattathias and his sons Judah the Maccabee (the Hammer), Eleazar, Yohanan, Jonathan, and Simon. Nevertheless, Herod left behind some of Israel’s greatest monuments, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
We ascended from Ma’aleh haNaarim rapidly and soon reached the first overlook. Below us was a panorama of rich farm land, military training grounds, the Jordan River (hidden behind a low ridge), and the towering Edomite Mountains of Jordan in the background. After a brief stop to enjoy the view we began a more rigorous ascent of the mountain. On the way our excellent guide Reuven explained how a sophisticated system of aqueducts carried water from the Samarian Mountains to the fortress, using gravity to move the water up the incline. We next stopped by caves which were used as cisterns for the water supply. Even though it was very windy at that spot, Reuven decided that we’d stop and eat lunch there, rather than higher up.
The most difficult part of the hike was the final steep ascent to an altitude of 1,000 ft. On the summit, which had ruins consisting of tumbled boulders, everyone who had additional clothes wore them for protection against the near-gale force winds. The 360 degree view from the peak was fabulous, due to excellent visibility. We could see for miles in every direction, and Reuven named the landmarks we saw. We learned how the Horn of Sarbata was once a vital link in the system of fire beacons which stretched from Shechem in the north to Jericho in the south along the line of mountain ridges. Sarbata was ideally located to signal the new moon and the beginning of the various festivals.
The town Massua (English: torch), far below us in the Jordan Valley, was named in commemoration of this fact. Sarbata was also significant for standing on the boundary between Samaria and Judea.Our time from the summit to the valley floor would have been anticlimactic if not for the incredible sights we enjoyed along the way: folded mountains that looked almost smooth in the distance, sparse displays of winter flowers, a Beduin sheep ranch with nearly a dozen smiling children begging for their picture to be taken. The hike, which took place one day after an extended period of hot, dusty winds, was a great introduction to the trails of the Jordan Valley area.
Steve Kramer is an expert in touring Israel and he also blogs for Travelujah. Order his new book at www.comteqpublishing.com