The Cave Trail in Keren HaCarmel Forest

Distance: approx. 2.5 kilometers | Length of time required: Northern Mount Carmel | Area: Central Sharon region | Recommended Season: Spring, winter autumn
Photograph: Yakov Shkolnik
Photograph: Yakov Shkolnik
For most of the year, walkers tend to ignore the Goral Hills, whose chalk undulations covered in yellow grasses fail to attract the eye. Nor does the new section of the Beersheba Ring Road (Highway 40), which cruelly slices the hills in two, do much to increase their charm, while the comparatively young Dudaim Forest planted by KKL-JNF on a part of the area is insufficient to alter attitudes.

In February and March, however, this picture changes completely as the Goral Hills wrap themselves in a green cloak magnificently adorned with wild flowers. The Gilead iris (Iris atrofusca), one of Israel’s most beautiful and rare plants, blooms here, and that alone is reason enough for flower enthusiasts to make a pilgrimage to the site.

The hiking trail, which is around 2.5 kilometers in length, includes a brief steep uphill stretch suitable for strong walkers. 

From the Elyakim interchange, drive north towards Daliyat al-Carmel (Highway no. 672), then turn right after 600 meters or so to the Shaar HaCarmel Recreation Areaץ 
Shaar HaCarmel Recreation Area
This is where your route begins (see instructions in the paragraph above). The Carmel Recreation Area is a strategic point for departure on excursions to Mount Carmel, Ramat Menashe and the Jezreel Valley. Here, beneath the shade of its conifers, KKL-JNF has provided a large number of picnic tables, with running water and toilet facilities nearby. The tables are scattered widely amid the site’s natural rocks, which in winter and spring shelter colorful wild flowers. An accessible path leads visitors whose mobility is limited to tables adapted for their convenience.
The Hermesh Ruins Recreation Area and Pine Cone Corner 
A green-marked aggregate track negotiable by all types of vehicle departs from the eastern edge of the Shaar HaCarmel Recreation Area and makes its way through the woodland. Although most of the forest is planted with Jerusalem pine (Pinus halepensis) and Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Canary Island pines (Pinus canariensis) and stone pines (Pinus pinea) can likewise be seen here and there.
After about 600 meters, beside hedges of prickly pear and an olive grove and before a high-tension pylon, turn right and then, 130 meters further on, left. This will bring you to a large open space with a big wooden KKL-JNF sign in it. Although you can park here, we recommend driving on for another 100 meters or so and parking at the Hermesh Ruins (Horvat Hermesh) Recreation Area, which is also quite spacious.

In this recreation area, which has recently undergone an upgrade, KKL-JNF has devoted special attention to the provision of tables and trails suitable for visitors whose mobility is limited. A Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis) provides shade for a particularly attractive seating area equipped with a large circular picnic table that can accommodate at least 15 people round it.

However, the site’s pièce de résistance is the Pine Cone Corner, where three picnic tables nestle in the shade of three giant stone pine trees. This is the variety of pine that produces the famous pine nut, an edible seed that adds flavor to hummus and a wide variety of other dishes.

The Hermesh Ruins  
Now it’s time to get going. To reach the starting point of the trail we need to take a few steps back (i.e., westwards) along the way we have come and look for the signpost that reads “to the cave trail.” The entire route is indicated by red trail markings, backed up here and there by wooden KKL-JNF signs.

After about 100 meters we reach a large open space hewn into the rock. In the rockface at its edge are five caves with decoratively hewn entrances. Inside each cave are small chambers containing benches on which the bodies of the dead were laid. The surrounding rocks are naturally landscaped with narcissi (Narcissus tazetta), anemones (Anemone coronaria) and cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), according to season.

These are the famous burial caves of the Hermesh Ruins (Khirbet al-Haramish from what I’ve seen on line, I believe this shd read Khirbet al-Haramis - CS), which appear to have constituted the burial plot of a wealthy family that lived in the area towards the end of the Roman period or during the Byzantine era. Although Mount Carmel, which offered few water resources, remained uninhabited for long stretches of its history, it supported a large number of farming communities in Byzantine times.

Burial customs in the Land of Israel changed during the Hellenistic period (from the middle of the 3rd century BCE). Until then, during the Israelite era, square family burial caves containing benches on which the bodies were placed were hewn into the rock. After the passage of a year or so, the bones were collected and placed together in a single space. Under the influence of Hellenistic culture, however, bodies were instead laid in individual niches, together with possessions and vessels that had become polluted.

During the same period, caves were also used for burials in ornamented arched recesses (arcosolia) each containing a trough in which the body was placed before being covered by a stone slab. Again, after a year had passed, the bones were removed for secondary burial in either a central chamber or a small container (gluskama). 
Keren HaCarmel scenic lookout
From the burial caves our path winds among stone picnic tables, enters a stand of cypress trees and then a plot of pine trees. After climbing a little we arrive at a broad trail marked in green (this is the continuation of the path we followed to the starting point of our route), then, immediately afterwards, at a junction. To our left, shaded by pine trees, is KKL-JNF’s Egged Recreation Area. Also to the left, but nearer at hand, is a black-marked dirt road that leads up a slope. We continue along the red-marked path, which leads on straight ahead among the forest trees towards a high-tension pylon. The path arrives at a dirt track, ascends steeply through a forest mixed with native woodland and briefly sidles to the right around a beautiful area of Bi‘na formation rocks before arriving at a number of wooden steps and two benches overlooking the landscape. This is the Keren HaCarmel Scenic Lookout.

The lookout inspires a sense of tranquility. At our feet we can see Yokneam, with HaZorea Forest beyond it in Ramat Menashe. On the horizon is northern Samaria’s Mount Amir. Also visible from here are the Jezreel Valley, the Alonim-Shefaram Hills, the Nazareth Hills, Mount Tabor and Mount Devora. To the north the scene is completed by Keren HaCarmel (Muhraka) and a number of buildings belonging to Daliyat al-Carmel.

Additional burial caves
A KKL-JNF signpost directs us away from the scenic lookout towards the continuation of the Cave Trail. The path leads down through a forest floored with rocks, and after 200 meters arrives at another complex of burial caves, only some of whose openings are visible. These caves must on no account be entered! The Antiquities Authority has not yet excavated the site, though it may do so in the future.

This is the point at which to reflect upon the secondary burial system and why it was necessary. Its advantage was that it enabled burial niches to be used repeatedly. Once a dead body had been reduced to a skeleton, the bones were removed to the family “bone room,” in the First Temple period, or to a small container (gluskama) in the Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic periods. Once burial in two stages was no longer practiced, bones were collected less frequently, though the custom has Halachic validity.

The village of beautiful women
After reaching the second cave complex, the path begins to descend. It leads down to a dirt road where we turn right and take a few steps along it until we come to a wooden KKL-JNF signpost that points to the left. Before turning, however, we should glance to the right towards the elegantly designed entrances of the burial chambers in the “cave courtyard.”

We continue downhill. The path makes its way among terraces, piles of stones and fruit trees that once belonged to the residents of Umm al-Zinat, originally a Druze village founded in the 17th century, or perhaps slightly later. After its inhabitants abandoned it, it was resettled in the 19th century by Muslim Arabs, before being depopulated in Israel’s War of Independence. In Arabic, the name Umm al-Zinat means, literally, “mother of ornaments,” seemingly because its daughters were renowned for their beauty. (Note: none of my Arabic dictionaries gives “beautiful woman” as a possible translation for zina, which generally means “ornament,” or even “jewelry”.)

Our path is bordered by the luxuriant blooms of Mount Carmel: in autumn meadow saffron (Colchicum stevenii), fall crocus (Crocus ochroleucus) and narcissus; cyclamen and anemones in early winter; then later a gaily-colored profusion of different varieties. As cattle graze in the area, plants they avoid eating, such as branched asphodel (Asphodelus ramosus), common giant fennel (Ferula communis) and prickly shrubs are conspicuously present here.

The path now brings us to a grove of ancient olive trees with impressively thick trunks. They are overlooked by a bench where we can sit and take our ease for a while before walking a few final steps down the slope to complete our tour at the Hermesh Ruins Recreation Area, where we first started out.

Text and photographs: Yaakov Skolnik
Posted: March 20th, 2019
Updated: February 25th, 2020

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