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Geography of Israel: Gush HaLav

In the eastern Upper Galilee, only seven kilometers north-west of Safed (Tsfat), an Arab village is located on the ruins of a city that once prospered.

Gush Halav, known by the Arabs as el-Jish, or simply Jish, is today a mixed village, the majority of whose residents are Christian Maronites living an exemplary life of co-existence with Moslems and Catholic Greeks.

However, Arabs haven’t lived here from time immemorial. Its first inhabitants arrived approximately 5,000 years ago, but the place became renowned during the time of the Second Temple (about 2,000 years ago), when there was an ancient Jewish center here. In that period, the area surrounding Gush Halav was famous for its choice olives, olive oil and rare silk.

The most famous personality from Gush Halav was Yokhanan ben Levi (or, Yokhanan of Gush Khalav), born locally and one of the leaders of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans. In a daring move, Yokhanan and his men had opposed the Roman occupation and defended the town, and fled to Jerusalem only when they could no longer withstand the siege.

The Jewish presence in Gush Halav continued until the fourteenth century, and the present village was established in the eighteenth century.

The village boasts authentic Lebanese restaurants, and within its expanses are several graves held sacred by Jews (including the graves of the prophet Joel, and of the rabbinical sages Shmaya and Avtalyon).

In the center of the village, in the beautiful lanes of the Old City, you can walk among the ruins of the Byzantine period, and see “the statues of yearning,” the threshing-floor, and “the vale of tears.”

Gush Halav has three churches: The Butrus (Peter) Church, located on the peaks of the settlement, is the largest building in the village. However, it is closed and you can only visit its courtyard. The church stands on the ruins of a magnificent synagogue, the remains of whose heart-shaped columns lie nearby. The small Maronite Church, which was destroyed in a large earthquake in the nineteenth century, opens for worship in the afternoons, though you can also visit it during the day. The Elias Church, which is the largest, most central, and most modern of the three churches, has a convent, a spacious courtyard, and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

A mausoleum, a fourth-century non-Jewish sepulchral monument, has been uncovered on the western slope, containing a chamber tomb with a double sarcophagus, a revolving door weighing 200 tons (yet revolving easily), and small burial cells where the ossuaries were placed.

In addition to the interesting sites, tourists will meet friendly inhabitants, including an aged novice who relates wonderful stories, his son who plays the oud, and a local jam-maker. The village is also famous for its figs and vines, and if you ask for permission, you can enter the residents’ courtyards and refresh yourself with the summer’s sweet fruits. Music lovers will be pleased to hear that the musician, George Sam’an, lives in the village. He plays the fiddle and the oud at his home, and visitors can enjoy authentic music to the accompaniment of colorful stories, drink choice coffee and stay in guest rooms.

The Ein Gush Halav spring flows east of Gush Halav. Next to it are the beautiful remains of a synagogue from the Roman period, with two rows of columns with foyers at the sides, the remains of a roof, and a pillar with an ancient inscription. In the area of the settlement, as well as further away, are additional sites where you can enjoy nature walks and the green lush Galilean scenery.

Sources: GoIsrael