Israel Part 3: Tel Dan, Banias, Valley of Tears, Tiberias
Updated: Oct 13
Tel Dan Nature Reserve
Lookout Point at Tel Dan Nature Reserve
Our first stop on my third day in Israel, was at the Tel Dan Nature Reserve. Home to the ancient city of Dan, the Tel Dan Nature Reserve has hiking trails, waterfalls, archaeology and lookout points, like the one above. From this spot, we could see a small village in the neighboring country of Lebanon.
Tel Dan was first settled during the fifth millennium B.C., at the end of the Neolithic Age. In the 20th and 19th centuries, B.C., it was ruled by Egyptian kings. From the 18th - 12th centuries, B.C., the city was known as Leshem/Laish and was controlled by the Canaanites. It was then conquered by the tribe of Dan (Judges 18) and later named as such in their honor.
Dan is mentioned again in 1 Kings 12 as one of the two locations where King Jeroboam erected two golden calves so that the Israelites would remain in Dan and Bethel to worship, instead of making the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, where they might possibly side with the rival king, Rehoboam who reigned there. The calves seem to be a deliberate echo of the golden calf erected in Exodus 32 that caused God to threaten to consume Israel, before relenting.
Prior to arriving at Tel Dan, we crossed over the Jordan River. This river is mentioned over 180 times in the Old and New Testaments. It is both the place where the Israelites, led by Joshua, crossed into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15-17) and the site where Jesus was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-17).
This 156-mile-river flows north to south, starting at Mount Hermon and emptying into the Dead Sea. The Jordan River has five riparians in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of Palestine. The river is fed by three sources.
The Dan River, which is fed by snowmelt from Mount Hermon, is the largest of these three sources and the most important. In fact, the word "Jordan" means "came out of Dan," so the "Jordan River" is aptly named, as it translates to "the river that came out of Dan." We hiked along the gushing water of the Dan River, passing by thickets, Syrian ash trees and rocks.
We then arrived at the most exciting find of the Tel Dan excavations: a very well-preserved, 23-foot, ancient, Canaanite-era gate. The gate, built more than 4,000 years ago of mud and bricks on a basalt stone foundation, is surprisingly intact. It has undergone restoration and is kept covered to protect it from the elements.
The gate has three arches that are considered to be the earliest of their kind in the world. Since the gate was standing in the fifteenth century when Abraham came to Dan (Genesis 14:14) which was under Canaanite rule, it has been called "Abraham's Gate" as well as the "Canaanite Gate."
Our next stop was at Caesarea Philippi, named by Herod Philip (son of Herod the Great) in honor of both Emperor Augustus and himself. The city's modern day name is Banias, the Arabic word for the Greek god, Panias (Pan). The ruins here are of the center of the temple complex which was the center of pagan worship.
The cavern entrance (pictured above) was considered to be the entrance to the underworld. Much of this cave collapsed during an earthquake in 1033 A.D. The earthquake also blocked a large spring that once flowed from the cave. Today, this cavity is 65 feet wide and 50 feet high.
Worshipers believed that Pan resided in this mystical cave, during the winter, with other gods. Pan was a half-man, half-goat, Greco-Roman god, notorious for his unbridled sexuality.
Perpetually aroused, Pan would frolic in the meadows and woodlands, hiding in bushes and waiting for unsuspecting nymphs, with whom he could have relations. When he would reveal himself, he would cause them to experience intense fear and anxiety. Thus, it is from Pan that we derive our modern-day word, "panic." Pan was also famous for a shout or screech that he would intentionally emit to induce panic in his enemies.
Banias is filled with temples and niches in honor of pagan idols. Worshippers would engage in bestiality, prostitution and human and animal sacrifice at this ritual shrine, to win the favor of Pan and entice him, and other gods, to return from the winter underworld.
Court of Nemesis (Goddess of Vengeance)
Jesus brought his disciples to this place known as the "Gates of Hades." I would imagine they were taken aback as the area was well known for its pagan worship, making it a place that devout Jews would have avoided.
While standing in front of these pagan altars, Christ asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” to which Jesus replied, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." (Matthew 16:18)
Hermon River Springs
After that heavy history lesson, I walked down to Hermon River Springs, also located in Caesarea Philippi, to quietly process what I had learned. Incidentally, like the Dan River, Hermon River Springs is also a source that feeds the Jordan River.
We left Caesarea Philippi, and passed green pastures and grazing cows, on our way to our next destination, Mount Bental and the Valley of Tears.
Al Sultan Restaurant
Along the way, we stopped at Al Sultan restaurant in the Druze village of Mas'ade, located in the Northern Golan Heights. The Druze community, which is closed to converts, comprises just under 2% of Israel's population. The village we visited has a population of nearly 4,000 Syrian citizens, mostly Druze, who have permanent Israeli residency. As Israeli residents, they have access to the country's healthcare, education, and municipal services.
While the Druze speak Arabic and identify as Arabs, they have a distinct culture and religion. The Druze religion broke off from Islam, in Egypt, in the 10th century. The religion blends the monotheistic, Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths with polytheistic Hinduism and Greek philosophy.
Druze cuisine is similar to Jewish, Arab and Israeli cuisine in many aspects. Possibly the most distinctive aspect of Druze cuisine is "meze" – small dishes served as appetizers or snacks, which is what we ate for lunch.
Home-Brined Green Olives
Baba Ganoush with Olive Oil and Parsley
Hummus with Olive Oil and Herbs
Lebneh with Olive Oil and Za'atar
I honestly do not enjoy falafel (deep-fried chickpea or fava bean balls). Despite trying it many, many times, I have always found falafel dense, drab and dry. That is, until I tried it at Al Sultan. These falafel were flavorful, lite and moist. I thoroughly enjoyed them, stuffed in warm, fresh pita bread with lettuce, tomato, and tahini.
After lunch, we headed up towards Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in the Middle East, to visit the "Valley of Tears" at Mount Bental.
Valley of Tears
The Valley of Tears is the name of a site in the Golan Heights that memorializes the fallen members of the Israeli tank forces who lost their lives fighting in the Yom Kippur War. We exited the bus, beneath bright, blue skies and a brisk breeze, to take a short walk up to the site which was originally a Syrian bunker, later an Israeli bunker and now, a tourist site.
All around us were reminders of the lives lost and the sacrifices made here, at the Valley of Tears, during the Yom Kippur War. Also present were remnants of that war and evidence of the ongoing conflict, including this mine field and the United Nations peacekeepers that patrolled the DMZ (demilitarized zone) right in front of us.
An Abandoned Tank at the Valley of Tears
On October 6, 1963, Egypt and Syria launched concerted, surprise attacks on Israel in hopes of reclaiming territory lost six years earlier during the Six Day War. Egypt attacked from the Sinai Peninsula and Syria attacked from the Golan Heights, which is where we were.
The attack took place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish faith and a day on which Jews fast and pray and do not work. Consequently, the Israeli army was not at full capacity.
Toward the end of the holiday's fast, Syria sent between 1,400 -1,500 tanks across the Golan Heights. The Syrian tanks far outnumbered the few hundred tanks of the Israelis, making Syrian success a seeming guarantee. In a miraculous turn of events, the vastly outnumbered Israeli forces prevailed, and Syria and Egypt retreated.
Mount Bental Lookout
At almost 5,600 feet above sea level, the view from Mount Bental was spectacular. From this height, you can clearly see snow-capped, Mount Hermon to the north, the Golan Heights, and the country of Syria, with its capital of Damascus, only 40 or so miles away. Farther in the distance, Lebanon and Jordan are visible as well.
The map above best illustrates our location. Just south of Lebanon, you will see the city of Mas'adah (or Mas'ade). We were standing at the edge of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights (the entire cream-colored area) near Mas'ade. The grey area is the highly restricted DMZ, patrolled by U.N. forces, that separates Israel and Syria. I find it surreal and heartbreaking that in this place where I stood less than eight months ago, a war, that has to date killed and injured thousands, now rages.
The current war in Israel began when Palestinian militant groups led by Hamas, attacked Israel, just as they were concluding the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Hamas' surprise air, sea and land attack took place on October 7, 2023, one day after the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. The attack, which was unprecedented as to magnitude, tactics and intensity, has resulted in Israel formally declaring war on Hamas. All those affected by the devastation continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.
Mount Bental concluded our formal tour for the day and we boarded our bus to head back toward our hotel in Tiberias. With plenty of daylight still left when we arrived, and eager to see more of Tiberias on our last night there, I got off the bus downtown to explore. I was looking to be immersed in an authentic Tiberias experience and instead found ...
... a little piece of home.
Right there, in the middle of Tiberias, Israel was a clothing store called "Oakland." Thinking the name must be a coincidence, I stepped in to look around and met the manager who told me that the store was indeed named after the city in Northern California where I lived. The clothing, shoes and hats, weren't exactly reminiscent of Oakland style, but the store was giving it their best shot. I even heard a Too Short song start playing in the background as I was leaving. Coincidence? Maybe. Either way, it made me laugh a little on the inside.
Still determined to have an authentic, Tiberias experience, I decided to go to Avi Restaurant for dinner. Avi is a strictly Kosher restaurant that has been open since 1977.
My waiter suggested I order this hearty dish that is a restaurant specialty.
The dish was comprised of an oven-baked, lamb kebab covered in tahini sauce, slices of tomato and toasted pita bread.
St. Urban Wine Cellar and Bar and Torrance Restaurant
After dinner, I made good on my promise from the night before (see my previous post) and headed back to the Scot's Hotel for a wine tasting. Prior to this trip, I had never tasted Israeli wines; they are delicious. Though Israel has a 5,000-year history of making wine, they are only recently being internationally recognized.
Israel's drastic microclimates (coastal plains, mountainous regions, fertile and semi-arid landscapes) produce fantastic volcanic, red, chalk and limestone soils. With over 300 wineries benefiting from this terroir, Israel produces about 40 million bottles of wine yearly, and exports about half of that to the United States.
I started my wine tasting flight of four wines in the St. Urban Wine Cellar and Bar, just as the sun was setting. I enjoyed my first tasting from a leather couch, in the hotel's upstairs bar, that has superb views of the Sea of Galilee.
After the sun set, I headed back downstairs to the Torrance restaurant patio, to enjoy the remainder of my flight, as well as my last evening in Tiberias. Each wine I tasted (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon) was excellent. After finishing the last pour, I walked back to my hotel and turned in for the night, already excited about what the following day would hold.