This is the valley ("emek" in Hebrew) where David and Goliath so fatefully met. Actually seeing the geography makes a huge difference in understanding the Torah. Samson lived not far from here, and seeing how this Dan territory was right on the frontier with the aggressive Iron-Age Philistines, the tribe's subsequent move to the far north is more understandable.
The Philistines controlled the southern city states on the plain: Gat, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron. One route to the heart of the hill country and Jerusalem was through Emek HaElah (Valley of the Terebinth, a kind of indigenous tree still growing here). The stream of the same name which irrigates this valley originates in the Hebron Hills and wanders westward, joined by other streams, until it reaches this valley. The stream takes a sharp turn northwards to round Tel Azeka then turns westward again and meanders towards the Mediterranean.
For the Philistines, an invading people of Mycenean origin, the route to Beth Lechem or Jerusalem was up this valley.
Tel Azeka is what remains of the fortress city of Azekah guarding the pass into Emek HaElah, and from its top one can see the former Philistine lands all the way to the Mediterranean. Azekah was one of the last cities to fall to the Babylonians (the other, more famously known, is Lachish). Since I can personally attest to how high and steep the tel is today, I can understand why the Babylonians might have found this fortified city somewhat of a challenge. After the Babylonian Captivity, this was one of the towns repopulated by the returnees. Today, it is in a national park. complete with picnic tables and barbecues, and covered with forest.
In the time of King Saul, the Philistines massed their army between Azekah and Socho, another hillside town upstream a few miles west of Azekah which commanded a wonderful view over the entire valley. There, below Socho, Goliath challenged the Israelites to personal combat and David stepped forth and into history.
Horbat (ruin) Socho today is a steep, nearly treeless hill containing some remains of ancient wells. It isn't even well marked on the highway, but fortunately my friend Sarah brought her friend Hannah Leah, a tour guide who knew exactly where to turn.
The hill redeems itself in the spring with one of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers in Israel. The valley itself is a verdant green; the kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh (the "35" named for the young men who went to resupply beseiged Kfar Etzion and were massacred by the Arab residents of Husan) lies just north of the tel, its almond groves in full blossom.From the top, we could look north and east across the valley. The kibbutz pond below us is a dammed up part of Nahal (stream) HaElah, and reportedly was marshy ground around the time of David's confrontation with Goliath.
What brought us here today was the kalanit, the red anemone which carpets the hills and vales of Israel at this time of year. As residents of Jerusalem, we are higher in elevation than the surrounding countryside, so spring comes a bit later to us. A trip 'downhill' to the Beit Shemesh region where Spring was already in full bloom seemed a great reason to get out of the city and see the kalaniyot and other spring flowers and blossoms of the Sephalah.
The trail was fairly steep, although passable. The most difficult part was my being wholly out of shape for an uphill slog: going to the gym every day is not the same thing as an uphill hike, I found. Hat and water bottle were mandatory--even in milder spring morning, the sun was blazing. No wonder just north of here the town was known as "Beit Shemesh" or House of the Sun.
We picnicked atop the tell, enjoyed the view and my friends tolerated my frequent pauses to take pictures. After Sokho, we visited the forest-crowned Tel Azeka and from there proceeded back towards Jerusalem. Hannah Leah was able to show us a wonderful trail in the forest between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.. The trail was cool and quiet, and the forest meadows carpeted in wildflowers. The most astounding item on this walk, though, was something that I initially thought was a log. It wasn't: it was the remains of an ancient Roman road marker, one of a series of pillers that counted off the distances between Jerusalem and Beit Guvrin to the southwest. There is something humbling about standing in front of the last remnant of a road so ancient and thinking of the millions of people who have passed this way before. It is heartening to see that some memory, some remnant of ancient commerce between people, Jewish, Canaanite, Hittite, Greek and Roman, testifies to us from the heart of the forest.
Alongside this trail lay the restored remains of a Byzantine-era oil press. The oil press is one of the most common ruins found in Israel, proof of the regions long-term and wide-spread dependence on the olive tree. Forest has grown up around it now but it stands as a mute memorial to the most ancient of agricultural practices in Israel The march of history surrounds us in our land--today in a matter of hours, we saw remnants from the period of Kings and their Philistine enemies; from the times of the Romans and also their Byzantine inheritors. Yet here we are, still in our land, building, planting, foresting, raising families, toiling and living the Promise G-d made to Avraham at the dawn of time.
* Photos are my own, for a change; trip courtesy of Sarah and history courtesy of Hannah Leah although I take full responsibility for any errors in recounting.