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A tree pilgrimage in Israel.

In 1521 Rabbi Moshe Basola, an Italian pilgrim passing through the Galilee, stopped briefly at the tomb of Rabbi Abba Halafta, a 2nd century Jewish sage. In a letter home Basola mentioned a large oak tree shading the tomb. He doesn't elaborate, but it's easy to imagine him resting his weary body against its trunk, perhaps having a snack and spending some quiet time before continuing on his journey.

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Fast-forward about 500 years. You're traveling down the road in central Galilee and a sense of deja vu comes upon you. The components are all there-the practically unchanged countryside, the tomb, and ... the tree.

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This Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis) is not particularly large by American standards, but it has enjoyed a life of more than 600 years. It stands off to one side of a quiet side road, still welcoming passers-by to rest under its leafy canopy and pleasant shade.

This tree is one of many ancient and historic trees scattered throughout Israel. The trees come in all shapes and sizes. More interestingly, each comes with its own story that helps to illuminate fascinating and often little-known aspects of the country's history and culture.

SEARCHING OUT ANCIENT TREES

For the past few years I have searched out Israel's ancient and historic trees. My search has taken me to isolated tombs and holy sites; dry streambeds in the country's southern desert; and quiet, timeless villages in the Galilee. During this time I've also compiled a list of my favorite trees. Here are some of them:

OLIVE

(Olea europaea) -- Jerusalem

Among the most familiar trees people associate with Israel are the olive trees of Gethsemane, located just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. According to popular folklore, the trees are thousands of years old and were growing during the time that Jesus was alive.

However, it's uncertain just how old these trees really are. According to the website of the Franciscans, the official guardians of the site, pilgrim accounts of the area encompassing the grove vary widely throughout the centuries, with those from the 13th and 14th centuries referring to the site as "flowery field" and "the flowery garden." The earliest reference to the olive trees is from the 15th century. Subsequent accounts over the next centuries differ substantially regarding the number and condition of the trees. Therefore, a closer estimate of their age would be around 500 years old, although it's hard to determine the age of olive trees because they become hollow over the years. A folk tale puts a human face on the hollowing trait. An Arab version concerns the death of the prophet Mohammed. The Jewish version describes widespread grief and mourning throughout the country after the second Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. To demonstrate their extreme grief, all the trees of the country shed their leaves. After the trees were bare, they noticed the olive tree, which is by nature evergreen, still retained its leaves.

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Representatives of the trees approached the olive and asked, "Why don't you shed your leaves in grief over the destruction of the Temple?"

The olive responded, "You, my brothers, show your grief on the outside for all to see. My grief will be carried within for all times." And so it is, that each year the olive eats away at itself in grief and sorrow until it is nothing more than a hollow strip of bark.

EUCALYPTUS

(Eucalyptus camaldulensis)--Hula Nature Reserve, Hula Valley

Eucalyptus trees are not native to Israel. The first successful acclimatization of the most popular form of eucalyptus (E. camaldulensis) occurred in 1884 at the Mikveh Yisrael Agricultural School in the center of the country. Soon afterwards the trees were planted in many new settlements and villages.

Eucalyptus entered popular Israeli culture for their association with the draining of swamps in the center of the country. They were also used to line roads, create shady forests, and supply wood.

When early visitors came to Palestine they could see not one, but two large lakes. Old maps clearly show this lake north of the Sea of Galilee. Known as Hula Lake, it covered five square miles. The lake was surrounded by extensive swamps, which covered close to another four square miles.

The lake supported a tremendous variety of animal and plant life. Unfortunately, it was also a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes that carried the dreaded disease malaria. In 1934 the Jewish Agency purchased the rights to a large part of the Hula Valley. The intention was to drain the area to eradicate the disease from the area and to increase land for farming.

The draining began in 1951 and was finished in 1958. While it was going on, scientists and nature lovers in Israel waged a vigorous battle to conserve at least part of the original landscape. At the last moment a small parcel of 800 acres was set aside as a protected area to save a remnant of the area's flora and fauna. The Hula Valley Nature Reserve, declared in 1964, was Israel's first nature reserve.

One of the villages to directly benefit from the Hula's drainage was the farming village of Yesod Hamaaleh, whose residents had suffered extensively from malaria. Soon after the village's founding in 1883 the residents planted a grove of eucalyptus on what was then the bank of the Hula Lake. Today these trees are located at the top of a small flight of stone steps near the entrance to the nature reserve. All around the grove are well-tended orchards and farmland. There is little to indicate that this area marks the shoreline of the former lake. The trees stand as quiet witnesses to a bygone age and a vanished ecosystem.

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SYCAMORE

(Ficus sycomorus)-Netanya

Sycamore is not native to the Middle East, even though it has been a part of the landscape for centuries. The tree comes originally from Africa, where it is pollinated by a small wasp not found in Israel. Therefore, every sycamore tree in Israel was planted there at some point in history. Because they live so long, the trees frequently outlive not only the person who planted them, but whole villages and towns that existed near them.

Such is the case with the solitary tree noted amid the sand dunes and wasteland of the Palestine coast in the mid-1800s by a young Englishman. Close to 150 years later it has remained the one constant in the scene he described on paper.

The seemingly open space has been covered with buildings and a ruined khan or rest house in the background is long gone. The path the horseman rode along is now known as Mintz Street and carries not horses but buses and cars.

In the vicinity of this tree once stood the village of Umm Chaled. In years past, the house of Rashid, son of the village sheikh, stood just northwest of the tree. It was used as a military office up until the 1960s, but almost all traces of the former village have since disappeared. We are left to wonder if the tree was planted by someone from this village, or perhaps from an even earlier village that today has completely vanished.

The trunk of the tree measures close to 50 feet in circumference. Its age is estimated in the vicinity of 900 years.

STRAWBERRY TREE

(Arbutus andrachne)--Jerusalem

As you enter the British Jerusalem War Cemetery, a sense of order and tranquility engulfs you. The noisy, traffic-choked streets outside melt away, and rows of graves surrounded by clipped green lawns and beautifully blossoming flowers invite you inside. In the center of the cemetery stands a magnificent strawberry tree, one of the largest and most beautiful in the country.

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The history of the British War Cemetery begins with the era of British control of Palestine. On the morning of December 9, 1917, the mayor of Jerusalem went out from the city gate to give the Turkish governor's letter of surrender to the advancing British army. Later that day the city was occupied by the British and the era of Turkish rule came to an end. That same month the British established a cemetery for their war dead.

The cemetery began with 270 burials, and soon began incorporating smaller burial grounds from surrounding areas. Here you will find soldiers from the whole spectrum of the British Empire, from Australia, New Zealand, India, and the West Indies. A number of German and Turkish prisoners are also buried here.

JUJUBE

(Ziziphus spina Christi)--Arava

What is perhaps Israel's oldest tree is located in a desert oasis in the southern part of the country. The tree is estimated to be around 1,500 years old. There is no tomb or other sacred site here, though the area has a long and varied history.

The tree itself is located within the ruins of Ir Ovot, which have been identified as the biblical town of Tamar and the Roman town of Tamra. Due to the location and the existence of a freshwater spring, the site has also seen a succession of fortified positions. Within the ruins is a grove of tamarisk trees. The jujube is in the middle of this small grove.

Israel is filled with fascinating trees. When there, if you see an interesting tree, ask about it. You may be surprised by the story.

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Michael Brown is from Kendall Park, New Jersey.

Story and photos by Michael Brown

RELATED ARTICLE: PRESERVING ISRAEL'S TREES

Israel doesn't have a National Register of Big Trees, but it does have a Mature Tree Survey Project. For the last 15 years, Israel Galon has been searching out trees for this massive undertaking. This passion for trees has led Galon to help identify hundreds of "worthy" trees throughout the country. He feels strongly about identifying and preserving these trees for future generations. These trees, he says, foster a connection to the land. "Every time we lose a tree, or it is moved through misguided good intentions," Galon says, "we lose the stories and historical context associated with that tree."

Originally under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture Extension Service, the survey project is now the co-responsibility of the Ministry and the Jewish National Fund. The project encompasses wild and ornamental trees in Israel that are more than 60 years old. An emphasis is given to trees located in built-up areas and to trees with historical significance. Among the project's goals are location and information, education, and preservation. That includes:

* recording basic information for each tree, including size, age, location and other significant information

* transmitting information on the trees and the project to the public via booklets, newspaper articles, and lectures

* encouraging local authorities and cities to protect ancient and historic trees and to incorporate them into new construction.

So far the Survey Project has published a booklet in Hebrew that includes partial information on about 500 trees in the survey, some photographs, and in-depth histories of a few of the most interesting trees. Officials say they're making progress, too, in heightening local municipalities' awareness of the importance of ancient and historic trees in their jurisdiction.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has taken a leading role in ID'ing and preserving Israel's ancient and historic trees. In addition to co-responsibility for the Mature Tree Survey Project, the JNF has a project called Tiferet Ha-Ilan--The Splendor of the Tree. The object is to identify 100 trees that are special in a variety of aspects such as size, shape, and age. Each will be designated as protected, signs erected, and the trees maintained to ensure their health and vitality. A book is also planned.--Michael Brown
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Author:Brown, Michael
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:1950
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