Burma Road

Difficulty: basic | Length: 10.5 kilometers | Area: Center Judean Foothills| Riding direction: counterclockwiseTotal ascent: 250 meters | Recommended season: summer


HaShiloah Pipeline - at the foot of the switchback. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik
HaShiloah Pipeline - at the foot of the switchback. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik

The rebuilding of Road 38, which connects Sha'ar HaGai with Beit Shemesh, changes the way the Burma Road is accessed. It also enhances the safety of those turning onto Burma Road from Road 38.
The Road makes for an exciting drive. KKL-JNF has invested tremendous efforts in recreating the prevailing atmosphere along Burma Road at the time - the road that bypassed Latrun and was a lifeline for Jerusalem.
Silhouettes of armored cars, signs and other means succeed in accomplishing a large proportion of this task. But still, driving in our air-conditioned cars through the verdant forest, it is difficult to cast oneself back 75 years to the barren hills, to the dust and ruts of those days. We have attempted to add knowledge concerning the famous road from Yehuda Ziv, who was pleased to devote of his time for this task and to accompany us one more time for a passage along this route. Everything we have written here has been gleaned from Yehuda's pool of knowledge.
Turn north in the Mitzpe Harel direction from the Nahshon-Shimshon Interchange (Road 44), about 2 km east of the entrance to Kibbutz Harel.
The entrance is signposted.
A Few Words on Yehuda Ziv
Yehuda Ziv joined the Palmach in1943 and was a scout in Company B. During the War of Independence he re-enlisted in the Palmach, was one of the fighters in Harel Brigade and he defended convoys until April 1948. He participated in a reprisal against the village of Deir Ayoub, which had fired on anyone traveling toward Jerusalem. The force withdrew without carrying out its mission, after he discovered that there were only women and children in the house that had been designated to be blown up. However, on the way back Yehuda fractured his ankle. This injury prevented him from joining the Lamed-He Platoon, the members of which were all killed en route to Gush Etzion. After he recovered, Yehuda became a driver in the convoys.

Yehuda Ziv headed the HAVAYA Section (Education and Physical Geography) in the IDF. He has written numerous geography-related books and papers.
Discovering the Burma Road
On the night of May 29-30, 1948, at the height of the assault on Latrun as part of Operation Bin-Nun B, two jeeps of the Harel Platoon met up with one another at the top of the Beit Susin Ridge. One had set out from Kiryat Anavim near Jerusalem toward Kibbutz Hulda along a precipitous route in the footsteps of scouts that had passed there on foot a few nights earlier. The second jeep was traveling in the opposite direction.

And as for the name. Here the picture is clearer. The members of the Harel Division, the discoverers of the route, called it "Harel Road" or "The Jeep Route". The members of Division Seven, who cleared the pathway, called it "Seven Road".
Eventually, however, the nickname given by American journalist Kenneth Bilby caught on. Bilby was covering the War of Independence. The original namesake had been built during World War II by the Allied forces to bypass the main road, which had been occupied by the Japanese. This was the name, so confided Yehuda Ziv, that had been used during the War of Independence, to describe any bypass, and there are at least 12 other Burma Roads, including Kawukji's Burma Road in the North and the Arab Legion's Burma Road between Emwas and Yalu (present-day Ayalon Park), not to mention the name given to any breach in the camp fence, through which servicemen would sneak out without a "pass".

To Mitzpe Harel
Along the short road climbing from Road 44 to Mitzpe Harel, KKL-JNF has installed three Recreation Areas, two to the right of the road and the third and last one on the left. About 100 meters after the third Recreation Area, where our road to Mitzpe Harel curves, a path branches off to the left, marked with red trail markings. After 1.5 km, it reaches the famous House of Arches, a large stone structure, a remnant of the village of Beit Jiz. It is against this wall that Meir Tobiansky was executed, having been convicted of treason by a Haganah field court martial.

Tobiansky's court martial took place in the school, which had served the villages of Beit Jiz and Beit Susin, which is nowadays the ruin at Mitzpe Harel, toward which we are heading. Beside the structure, KKL-JNF has built a tower which, in summer, is used by KKL-JNF's firewatchers (no visitor entry). There is a model at Mitzpe Harel, showing the route of the Burma Road. Beside the model are several picnic tables.
Cattle, horses and figs
From Mitzpe Harel the road descends eastwards and, after about 200 meters, it comes to three signs posted beside a field. The signs describe the Burma Road atmosphere - a Palmach soldier with a minesweeper leading a column of soldiers and a Palmach convoy. The signs overlook Hurvat Avimor (Avimor Ruin), which rises above the field. Remains found here indicate that the place was settled as far back as the Chalcolithic period.

Shortly after, the road takes us to the large eucalyptus trees, signaling the site of the spring currently named Ein Susin. Apparently, the name of the Arab village that had once existed near it, Beit Susin, was derived from a plant called Sus in Arabic, in Hebrew Shush (Licorice).
The famous beverage known as Sus is brewed from this plant, and it is also the essence of licorice candy. The villagers called the spring Ein Umm al-Baqar (Place of the Cattle). Back in the War of Independence, against the backdrop of the bare hills, the reeds and the greenery surrounding the spring stood out quite prominently. The Naming Committee substituted cattle for horses and named the place Ein Susim. The trail map has named the place Einot Susin.
Ma'ale HaTe'enim (Fig Ascent)
From Ein Susin the road climbs up an ascent known nowadays as Ma'ale HaTe'enim. It is unlikely that the scraggly fig trees surrounding the pleasant Recreation Area would qualify as the namesake for this ascent. Whatever the case may be, Yehuda Ziv pauses by the silhouettes of the armored cars installed here by KKL-JNF. He likes what he sees, but he has a suggestion.

"The British didn't allow the Hebrew armored cars to be painted khaki", he says, "so that the Arabs would distinguish between them and the British armored cars and would know whom they should shoot at and at whom not. So, the Hebrew armored car got painted gray with a white stripe, about a half-meter wide, along the two sides of the vehicle". As far as he is concerned, this is how the silhouettes along Burma Road should be painted, and the same goes for the armored cars placed at Sha'ar HaGai.
The Serpentine
Ma'ale HaTe'enim climbs to the top of the Susin Ridge at the top of a steep incline. On June 5, 1948, the first truck negotiated the downhill run, tethered from behind to a heavy tractor. Three days afterwards preparation of this route began - a route which would eventually come to be known as The Serpentine. For no apparent reason, over time that 1948 name has morphed into the plural - The Serpentines. Perhaps the time has come to return to the roots.

(I guess the term serpentine sounded wrong to our early geographers so they tried to come up with a fitting Hebrew translation. This is how we ended up with "Ikalon" - a brilliant Hebrew word constructed by Shlomo Zemach.
David Yellin created "HaLulava" to describe the twists and turns of the Seven Sisters route, and the kids in the village called it "He'Aqov").

A rusty pipe segment at the top of the serpentine is part of the makeshift water pipe that had clandestinely been laid at lightning speed, since it was clear the Jordanians in the Latrun area would sabotage the main water pipe providing water to Jerusalem. The pipelaying operation was named "Kav Hashiloah", echoing the tunnel dug by Judean King Hezekiah ahead of the siege imposed on Jerusalem by Assyrian King Sennacherib. The pipelaying as far as the compression station at Sha'ar HaGai was completed within less than two months, just one day before the Jordanians blew up the Latrun pumphouse.
The pipe was laid on concrete pedestals. Yehoshua Lishansky, an employee of the Mekorot Water Company who supervised this mammoth project, was a self-effacing, modest person according to Yehuda Ziv. It was only at the very top end of the serpentine that Lishansky succumbed to a spasm of vanity and engraved his name on one of those concrete pedestals. So far we have not found the inscription. What we did find were the steel threading pods that had been used to fit the pipe into its pedestal. This steel rod is the Lulav, and the threading within it is indeed reminiscent of a serpentine. We would be very grateful if any of our readers would find Lishansky's pedestal and inform us of it. Its age-old photograph has been attached to this narrative.

Nowadays the serpentine can be descended in an all-terrain vehicle, by bicycle or on foot. KKL-JNF has created an easier way for private cars, flanking the serpentine from the left. In any case, whoever walks down will find, on one of the switchbacks, rusting sheet metal strips adjoining the silhouette of an armored vehicle. These strips are called "Shpalot" in Hebrew. Here Yehuda Ziv clued us into the origin of this weird word.
The word was introduced into the Hebrew language by Jewish Brigade veterans, who had enlisted with the British Army in the Western Desert during World War II. To avoid getting stuck in the desert sand, vehicles were equipped with these metal strips, which were referred to as Spalls - a word from England's world of mining. The word was converted and filtered through a Yiddish accent into "Shpalle", the plural being "Shpalot". In the early days, only jeeps were able to scale the serpentine's steep gradient. Water was transported to Jerusalem at the time in tankers, which would arrive at the top end of the steep incline, and then their contents would be transported by a pipeline to tankers that had arrived from Jerusalem and were waiting at the bottom. This practice continued until the laying of the Shiloah pipeline was completed.

The supply trucks, on the other hand, would also first arrive at the top of the slope. The Salonikian longshoremen from the Tel Aviv Harbor would unload their cargo and descend the steep slope carrying the sacks and crates, laden with supplies to besieged Jerusalem, while the Jerusalem porters (who included the Kurdish miners from the disabled Kastel Quarry) loaded the trucks that had arrived from the besieged capital and were waiting there alongside the water tankers. It was only after the switchbacks had been properly cleared that the trucks and buses were able to descend along Burma Road and travel to Jerusalem, although initially, the steep gradient caused some vehicles to overturn, until it was padded with the Shpalot.
Rams and Deer
Burma Road descends and reaches Meir Stream (Wadi e-Teheen - Flour Stream). Ein Hila (Bir Hilu, Sweet Well) springs out in the streambed - a sparse spring that oozes a trickle only in unusually rainy winters. The Recreation Area beside it provides ample shade year-round.
On the night following the Arab armies' invasion, the night of May 15-16, 1948, soldiers from the Givati Division attempted to drive one truck this way as a means of bypassing Latrun. Two armored vehicles escorted the truck.They were ascending Meir Stream, meaning to converge with Burma Stream (Wadi Abd), since this route was unknown at the time. At Ein Hila the Arabs blocked their path.

The truck attempted to run the roadblock and hit a landmine. The cargo was transferred from the truck to one of the armored vehicles, which made it through to the Harel Division soldiers waiting beyond the roadblock. Benny Marshak, the Division's "Politruk" (Education Officer) named that convoy The Orphan Convoy.

This experimental bypass was christened "Givati Road", but was much more widely known as "Deer Road". In wireless communication at the time, the code word for an armored vehicle was "Ram" (from "Battering Ram"). The plural for Ram (Ayil) is Eylim, however, the wartime radio operators called them "Ayalot", the feminine counterpart of the ram, and that name has stuck through to the present day.
Messila Spring (Ein Messila)
Messila Spring (Bir Duban) flows from what appears to be a shallow well in the streambed of Burma Road Stream, east of the road itself. In a decent winter, a small brook flows from this sprint, crossing Burma Road and on into the nearby Recreation Area. The brook flows until early summer but it is potent enough to support a small cane thicket.

The well provided water to the workers and passers-by along Burma Road. The spring's Hebrew name is derived from the nearby Moshav Mesilat Zion.
A short-paved path leads from the well to a place where two ancient board games have been installed - mancala and The Mills Game.Mancala, also known as "the sowing game". It consists of a board with two rows of shallow pits (boards with four rows of pits have also been found). The Mills Game consists of a board with three squares one inside the other and connecting lines. This game was popular since Roman times. The rules of the game are written in the signs (Wikipedia can also be used) and you are welcome to have some fun.
About 150 meters from the well is a pipe-fed wading pool. Beside the shaded pool is a picnic table under a carob tree.
Burma Road reaches the interchange on Road 38. The left turn leads to the Sha'ar HaGai khan. This is a dead-end road. To continue toward Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, continue under the Road 38 bridge and turn in your desired direction - follow the signs. If you would like to continue along the jeep track, after the bridge turn left toward MAHAL Recreation Area (signposted). This track is suitable only for 4X4 vehicles. It reaches as far as the Hamasrek Nature Reserve.
Text and photos: Yaakov Shkolnik | Map: "Avigdor Orgad Maps" | Posting Date: 31.7.18