Golan Trail: From the Ein Zivan Recreation Area to Bab al-Hawa

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

The Ein Zivan Recreation Area and the 134th Reconnaissance Battalion

The Ein Zivan Recreation Area is a memorial site to soldiers of the 134th Reconnaissance Battalion who fell in the Yom Kippur War. The site is situated in the shade of a small natural woodland composed mainly of gall oak and Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis), with the addition of a number of planted forest trees. KKL-JNF has provided the site with overnight facilities for hikers on the Golan Trail, including three sleeping areas in the lee of a windbreak, a special area for campfires (no fires may be lit anywhere else at the site) and rubbish bins.

The modest memorial includes an old Sherman tank, the turret of an armored personnel carrier, a Syrian 122 mm cannon turret and plaques commemorating the fallen soldiers. Veterans of the battalion have planted two cedars in vehicles that took part in the attack, one in a tank turret, the other in the turret of an APC. The 134th Battalion was founded in 1971. Its troops were young soldiers from both the armored corps and veteran reconnaissance companies, who combined to form a force of twenty-three tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps. On the morning of October 7th, 1973, the battalion went to war, and those who managed to get organized in time reinforced the 179th Armored Brigade, which had sustained losses during the night and was about to run out of ammunition. At 11 a.m. the force engaged in battle with thirty Syrian tanks that had arrived from the Hushniya area further south, and by 1 p.m. had set twenty-two of them ablaze, without a single Israeli tank’s having sustained serious damage. At 1 p.m. the battalion encountered several dozen Syrian tanks approaching from the east, and once more the Israeli force inflicted heavy losses, though this time at the cost of both its own tanks and soldiers’ lives.

The battle to block the Syrian advance continued for three more days, with the battalion helping to push back the Syrians in the areas of Tzir HaMapalim (Route no. 808), Mount Yosifon and Tel Hazeka. Later on it took part in the counter attack in the Hushniya sector and helped to drive the Syrians back from the areas they had occupied in the Golan Heights. The 134th Reconnaissance Battalion spearheaded the advance through the Syrian battle array on the main highway from Quneitra to Damascus, in a fierce battle that involved contending with landmines and well-armed Syrian military positions. Most of the battalion’s tanks, together with a number of APCs, were damaged in the assault on the Syrian defense positions, and the force sustained serious losses: thirty-three men were killed and many others were injured. Several months after the war, the IDF dismantled the battalion.

Kibbutz Ein Zivan

The Golan Trail departs from the recreation area and proceeds westwards parallel to Route no. 91. On the far side of the road, to the west of the abandoned community of 'Ayn Ziwan, is Kibbutz Ein Zivan, which was founded in 1968 and was the first kibbutz to undergo privatization. Its members cultivate over 2,000 dunam (approx. 500 acres) of deciduous orchards and vineyards, and offer tourist accommodation at a variety of different levels, together with excursions in four-wheel-drive vehicles. There is also a winery and a factory that produces hand-made chocolates.

Terraces and heaps of stones

The Golan Trail crosses Route no. 91 and briefly enters dense woodland populated by gall oaks and Israeli common oaks (Quercus calliprinos). After its swift emergence from among the trees, our route crosses a terraced basalt plateau. Numerous heaps of stones serve as a base for the trunks of the gall oaks. These trees, which are deciduous, are generally found only at heights of over 1,000 meters above sea level. Unlike its cousin, the evergreen Israeli common oak, the gall oak produces only a single trunk, and these trees are to be found here growing alongside Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) and small specimens of Mediterranean buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides).

As we continue across a broad plain of grazing land we are constantly aware of the presence of Mount Avital (Tel Abu al-Nada), which soars on our right to a height of 1,204 meters, looming 240 meters above the surrounding terrain. As this volcanic tel possesses great strategic importance, it is topped with an active IDF position that prevents access to the summit.

On top of Mount Avital is the tomb of Sheikh Abu Nada (“Father of Dew” in Arabic), who was renowned for his ability to invoke rainfall. The American archeologist and explorer Gottlieb Schumacher, who surveyed the Golan between 1883 and 1886, recounts that in the mornings the mountain was often obscured by mist, and residents of the Golan believed that this phenomenon enabled its summit to provide them with dew. When the cloud vanished from the mountaintop, it was a sign that dry easterly winds were on the way.

The mountain’s curious shape is the result of a series of geological incidents that would appear to have occurred as follows: streams of lava issuing from the volcano first created an area of flat basalt rock; later lava flows produced the igneous rock known as scoria, which solidified into an elongated summit; the third stage of eruption resulted in large quantities of tuff, which covered up the scoria; this was followed by streams of lava from both the mouth and walls of the volcano, which hardened into basalt; later the mountain collapsed into the crater; and finally, with time, the mouth of the volcano silted up, resulting in the terrain we see at the site today.

The Golan Trail skirts apple orchards before arriving at the traffic circle adjacent to Kibbutz Merom Golan. We cross the road and continue northwards for a kilometer or so parallel to the road that leads to the kibbutz. The trail emerges into the road at the point where the paved path ascends to Mount Bental.

Mount Bental

Instead of driving up to the top of the mountain, hikers on the Golan trail are obliged to climb up a very steep path that borders the road as it leads us up a cumulative altitude gain of some 150 meters before bringing us to the summit, which is crowned by an unmanned IDF post and the famous Coffee Annan restaurant, whose name translates as “Cloud Coffee” in a mixture of English and Hebrew. Mount Bental, whose Arabic name Tel al-‘Aram (“Tel Heaps [of Wheat]”) derives from its shape, rears up to 1,165 meters above sea level to the west of the Quneitra Valley. Both Mount Bental and Mount Avital are part of the mouth of the same volcano. The northern section of the mountain is composed of scoria, which is easily identifiable because of its reddish color, while the southern section, i.e., the inner part of the mouth of this dormant volcano, is composed of yellowish gray weathered tuff.

An audio facility at the site provides explanations of the magnificent view. To the east extend the landscapes of the Quneitra Valley and the basalt plains deeper inside Syria, Mount Hermon, southern Lebanon, the Galilee Hills and the expanses of the Golan Heights. Quneitra, the city occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War, which was eventually returned to Syria as part of the separation of forces agreement signed in 1974, was never rebuilt and remained an abandoned ruin. Instead, the Syrians built a new town named Baath City (Madinat al-Baath), to the east of Quneitra. Near the café is an exhibition of iron sculptures by Joop de Jong, a member of Kibbutz Merom Golan.

The Trail to Quneitra Valley

The Golan Trail descends to the Bental Reservoir and Bab al-Hawa, which is situated at the western entrance to the large Quneitra Valley. This fertile valley, which extends into Syrian territory, is planted with orchards, vineyards and field crops. Archeologist Naama Goren-Inbar discovered a prehistoric site in the valley that contained a large accumulation of bones belonging to a variety of animals including rhinoceroses, wild cattle, horses, a lion, a turtle, a red deer, a gazelle and a wolf. Some of the bones showed signs of cuts made by human hands around 54,000 years ago, when the Quneitra Valley was a large lake where men ambushed animals as they came down to drink. The bones of these animals can be seen in the Golan Archeological Museum in Katzrin.

The steep trail, which is about a kilometer in length, descends the northern slope of the hillside, which still retains some attractive remnants of woodland. The northern slope is densely populated with natural woods in which Israeli common oaks, gall oaks and sumac (Rhus coriaria) predominate.

Bental Reservoir

This large reservoir at the western end of the Kuneitra Valley was constructed in the 1980s to accommodate rainwater and water from gullies and the Yarmouk River that flow eastward towards the Quneitra Valley. It has a capacity of 4.2 million cubic meters, and, to the great delight of local fishermen, it is full of common carp and silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix). The Golan Trail skirts the reservoir, crosses Route no. 959 and finishes up at Bab al-Hawa, near a sign that indicates the start of the next section of the trail.

Bab al-Hawa

Exploring Bab al-Hawa is pure pleasure. About 70 meters west-northwest of the spot where the Golan Trail crosses the road stands a unique burial cave that was discovered when a pipeline was first laid (the pipeline can still be seen today). The roof of the cave, which is level with the ground, is constructed from stone slabs in the Hauranic style. All around the cave are eight burial niches on two tiers, in which bodies were laid without coffins.

About 100 meters to the west of this site lies the Baron Pool, also known as Birkat Bab al-Hawa (“The Wind Gate Pool”), a nature reserve consisting of a winter pool that provides a habitat for a unique world of flora and fauna. The pool is home to no fewer than five of the seven species of amphibian found in Israel: the eastern spadefoot toad (Pelobates syriacus), the southern banded newt (Triturus vittatus), the European green toad (Bufo viridis), the Levant water frog (Pelophylax bedriagae) and the Middle East tree frog (Hyla savignyi).

Here, in summertime, botany enthusiasts will find a wonderful variety of plants that favor damp habitats, such as the flowering rush (Botomus umbellatus), the starfruit (Damasonium alisma) and the pond water-crowfoot (Ranunculus peltatus). In November numerous specimens of fall crocus (Crocus ochroleucus) and the variety of meadow saffron known as Colchicum feinbruniae bloom here, and in January the sharp observer will spot the rare eastern sowbread (Cyclamen coum) growing near the pool.

This winter pond is situated in a natural depression, and at its fullest it covers an area of around 120 square meters with a maximum depth of four meters. During the Byzantine period, residents of Bab al-Hawa dammed the southern part of the depression and created a reservoir: thus, the newts and their companions owe their breeding ground not just to nature, but also to the long-ago inhabitants of Bab al-Hawa - the Ituraeans, the remains of whose dwellings can still be seen at the site today. The Golan Trail passes through the ruins, among the remains of the Ituraean structures, some of which have walls still standing almost up to roof height. Fruit trees grow amongst the ruins, and the large odd-looking cherry tree standing adjacent to a number of cypresses is especially worthy of note. As its small fruit are inedible, we can only surmise that the Circassian residents of the abandoned village of Mansura planted a cherry orchard here and that this one remaining tree grew from the rootstock on to which the edible-fruit-bearing trees were grafted. Their branches have long since vanished, but the rootstock plant survives.

Here, beside the cherry on top, our excursion comes to an end.