Walking in the Elah Valley

A Persian turpentine tree, or Elah, in the Elah Valley.
A Persian turpentine tree, or Elah, in the Elah Valley.

By Timetraveller (pseud.)
Some decades ago I lived in Israel at a time when the country was less densely populated, when the annexation of the West Bank was such a new fact on the ground that the Palestinian population had not yet understood the real ramifications of this new reality.  Thus the hopelessness for a just solution had not yet lead to the radicalisation of the population that we see today.  As a result, it was quite easy and relatively safe for an Israeli to drive to the outskirts of many townships in the “shfelah” (the coastal strip), park her car, then wander off over the fields, exploring the broad open expanses.
Living at the time in the academic town of Rehovot, some 30 km south of Tel Aviv, enabled me to escape the urban environment and walk in many places, from the beaches to the sloping hills leading up to Jerusalem.  It so happened that I – a new immigrant – was able to walk with native-born Israelis who had served in the Army.  Their experience serving in the Army over the decades taught them where the really special off-the-beaten-track locations were.
So I developed a love of walking in Israel.  An easy and especially beautiful walk was to a place called Emek Ha Ela – the Valley of Terebinth – named after a species of Pistacia local to that area.  My companion and I would drive south, out of Rehovot, through the township of Gedera and moshav Tirosh, heading east towards Jerusalem.  The road was narrow and winding, through the undulating fields of olive groves etc., slowly heading east towards the hills surrounding Jerusalem. As we travelled to our destination, the land became less and less obviously populated and stands of trees became more frequent, creating dark patches in the otherwise open and lightly coloured stony landscape.
Emek Ha Ela was always a special place to walk.  The remains of abandoned Arab villages had not yet faded into the landscape, and it was particularly beautiful in Spring, to wander amongst the mix of the rubble of the villages, through the stands of old fig and olive trees, and the magnificent proliferation of wildflowers and terebinth trees.  Our walks made me aware that there was an entire population missing from the environment, while at the same time there was an implicit promise that nature would heal all wounds.
Israel is sandwiched between the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe.  Thus Emek Ha Ela is ideally placed to enable a magnificent variety of plants from distant lands to grow and flourish there.  The lime-rich soil enables good drainage and plants thrive.  In Spring one could admire purple lupins, white daisies, pink cyclamens and red anemones and many other wildflowers, growing in joyous profusion whilst overhead the white delicate flowers of the almond trees lost their petals in the breeze.
One day, however, while walking through this wildflower wonderland, our enchantment was abruptly fractured as the valley’s violent past was exposed.  As we strode through a cool, shady grove of trees, we came upon many large flat rocks overgrown with rank weeds. On further investigation these rocks turned out to be the remnants of a Palestinian graveyard.  Graves had been torn open and the headstones moved so that the remains of those long-interred were exposed.  It was a disturbing reminder that in the idyllic beauty of this place a long history of plunder and violence also coloured the scenery.
This website presents a brief portrait of this lovely place:

Valley of Elah (Emek HaEla) is a region to the west of Jerusalem. Valley of Elah, named for the Terebinth (Pistacia) trees local to the region, is a beautiful countryside region known as ‘The Tuscany of Israel’.
The Valley of Elah is also filled with history. It was populated in biblical times by several peoples, and it is the place where the battle of David and Goliath took place. In this battle, Goliath of Gath, a Philistine giant, was defeated by young David, who later became the king of Israel. The valley is 330 meters above sea level, and enjoys views of the Judean Mountains and the coastal plains.
During biblical times, Valley of Elah was a strategic holding ground, and much trade was carried out through its cities and towns. Many battles to control this region took place here, some of which are recorded in detail in the bible.  In 2008, the Valley of Elah Fortress was discovered by archaeologists.  In it, an ostracon dating back to the tenth century BCE was discovered. It is considered the most ancient Hebrew writing ever discovered. The text refers to widows and orphans, and is written in ancient Hebrew typical of the time.  In the Roman Empire period, a Roman town called “Beit Latfa” was located in the Valley of Elah, and it was used mainly as a stop for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or Hebron.
….. (Today) The region of the Valley of Elah is a beautiful place to visit for archaeology, a day in the country, hiking, food and wine, and much more.  At Beit Govrin, originally a Jewish biblical settlement at least 3,000 years old, the sprawling city over time became home to Byzantine Christians and later Muslims. Bell-shaped caves and underground chambers were hollowed by hand out of the soft chalk bedrock, creating an entire underground city in the Valley of Elah. Visitors wander through the subterranean columbaria, where carrier pigeons were raised, and see mosaics, ancient churches and Byzantine tombs.

On reading this extract from the tourist guide, I am aware of the limited historical description.  Ancient Hebrew artefacts were found pointing to a long period of ancient Hebrew habitation; but where are the records of those generations of Palestinian farmers who tilled the fields and orchards of Emek Ha Ela for centuries prior to the current occupiers?  Nearly gone is evidence of their lives, and where, today, do their descendants live?  Do they too pine after the beauty and fecundity of the Valley?  Are the only records of their lives locked away in dusty files in some Municipal office?  Today, as I reminisce about those walks through the beautiful landscape of Emek Ha Ela, knowing what I know now, this place holds a particularly poignant place in my memory. I cannot but empathise with the loss those Palestinian villagers experienced as their lands were overtaken and lost.

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