The Golan is the headwaters of the Jordan River valley. The water sources in this area are very important to the survival of Israel.
The Golan Heights rise from 400 to 1700 feet in the northeastern section of the country. On Mount Hermon there is an Israel ski resort. This is the only place in Israel where there is an annual snowfall deep enough to ski. The Golan overlooks the Hula Valley, Israel’s richest agricultural area. The area of the Golan is roughly 38 miles long and varies in width from 9 to 16 miles. The Banyas River flows through the region and the Yarmuk River separates the Golan from Jordan.
Aaron Aaronson, the famous agronomist, (plant scientist), found wheat on the Golan that allows us to still have wheat today.
During the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917), the Golan was considered a part of the Syrian (Southern) district of their empire. When the British defeated the Turks in World War I, they dismantled their empire and, with the French controlled the region. When Syria won its independence in 1946, it regained control of the Golan and, within a few years emptied the region of the sparse population of Bedouin and Druze, and turned it into a military encampment from which to harass Israel.
After Israel annexed the Golan, the Druze living in five villages in the north were given the choice of becoming citizens. Many accepted the offer, but some chose to be recognized as “Syrians abroad.” The Israeli government has made a conscious effort to encourage Jews to settle in the Golan, but the majority of the population remains non-Jewish. Several kibbutzim are located in the region.
If you follow the main road, Route 98 to the end, past the fields and orchards of the Jewish farmers, you’ll reach the border. Actually, the borders between Israel and Syria remain subject for negotiation, so the two countries are separated by a demilitarized zone patrolled by the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). In that zone is the deserted city of Kuneitra, which lies in the “Valley of Tears” where one of the bloodiest battles of the Yom Kippur War was fought. A great lookout to see the Heights, and especially the Syrian side of the border, is from the now abandoned Israeli bunker 4,000 feet (1,200 m.) above sea level on Mount Bental. You can walk underground and see what life was like for the soldiers manning the outpost. Another good place to view the Golan is from the former Syrian fortification at the Golani Look-Out Post (Mizpe Golani) at Tel Faher.
A far more scenic and fun place to visit is the Banyas Springs Nature Reserve. The Banyas is another source of the Jordan River. The area was first settled around the 3rd century B.C.E. and, during the year 2 B.C.E., became the capital of a Roman kingdom.
In the center of the Golan is Katzrin, a government-planned town where many army officers stationed in the area settled. Katzrin is the main city in the Golan. The town has an interesting museum of regional history. It is also the site of an ancient synagogue that is particularly interesting because the entrance faces north rather than south as in the typical synagogue. Also, nearby is a winery where you can sample some of the best Israeli wines.
About six miles from Katzrin is another of the fascinating strongholds of early Jewish history. Gamla became home to Jewish refugees fleeing the Romans after the revolt broke out in 66 C.E.
The Romans laid siege to the city, whose defenders heroically held out for some time before being overcome. Most of the Jews were killed, though many chose to jump off the cliffs to commit suicide rather than be captured. Gamla comes from gamal the Hebrew word for camel, since it was on a hill shaped like a camel’s bottom.
The Hula Valley was once a marshland. Israel drained it to eradicate malaria and make room for more people to live and farm after independence. Wildlife once thrived in the area, but the ecosystem was seriously harmed by the effort to make it more habitable. In recent years, Israel has tried to partially reverse the damage by reflooding a small part of the region. Parts of the valley have begun to recover and wildlife is returning. Even this is a mixed blessing, however, as the Israeli desire to promote tourism in the area conflicts with environmentalists’ efforts to better protect the area. For now, the Hula Nature Reserve offers places to see birds and other animals. You can also go kayaking nearby in the Jordan River.
In the upper Galilee, you’ll find a number of interesting towns and villages. The largest is Kiryat Shmona. The town takes its name, which means “Town of the Eight,” Joseph Trumpeldor, who, together with seven other defenders, was killed in a last-ditch battle against Arab marauders at the nearby settlement of Tel Hai in 1920.
Israel’s northernmost village, at the border of Lebanon and foot of Mt. Hermon, is Metulla. Just west of the town is the “Good Fence,” a border crossing where some Lebanese are allowed to enter Israel for work and medical care. The crossing’s name originated in 1976, when a Lebanese child was allowed to come to Israel for medical treatment.
A little more than a mile from Kiryat Shmona is Tel Dan, site of another nature reserve and an important archaeological dig. The city dates back nearly 4,000 years to the days of Canaanite rule. As a border town of the kingdom of Israel along the main trade route between Damascus and the Galilee, and the Dan River, one of the three main sources of the Jordan River, Dan was an important strategic outpost. Consequently, it became a battleground between Israelite forces and invaders from the north, such as the Assyrians. Today, the area is a nature reserve filled with poplars, eucalyptus, oak, pistachio and many other varieties of trees, ferns and flowers. Nearby Be Ussishkin is a museum that tells the story of the Hula Valley and the Hermon.