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Our Beautiful Country

Hiking by Jeep through the Lower Galilee

By Usama Libis

Translated by Elias Khayyo

Our country is very small yet has been teeming with life since the dawn of history. It abounds with artifacts that signify the abundance of human civilizations and peoples who have passed through its lands. The terrain varies, and the scenery differs despite the short distances. In the far northeast stand the Golan Heights with basalt rock, deep ravines, and abundant waters. The Jordan River Rift Valley, to the east, extends from northern Syria to the Dead Sea. It crosses the country from north to south and constitutes the natural border with Jordan. It is part of the Syrian-African rift, also called the Great Rift, that extends to Zimbabwe in Africa. The tectonic movement that created it millions of years ago is the reason for the country’s tremendous diversity. Its direct result was the elevation of towering mountains that run parallel to the Jordan Valley, extending along the entire length of the country. They are covered by dense forests, particularly in the north. Valleys and lakes, such as Alhula and Tiberias lakes, and the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, were formed as well, as was the Red Sea. The country lies on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which directly influences the climate, flora, and fauna, the totality of its natural life – besides offering enchanting beaches. I look forward every week to Sunday, when I can get out to take a walk and fill my lungs with the invigorating air of my homeland. This recharges me and allows me to go back to life’s routine.

My home is Nazareth, the city of the annunciation. Last week, for example, heading in my four-wheel drive from Seekh Mountain, the highest peak in the Nazareth mountain range, towards the northwest, I passed the depopulated village Saffuria. Its population was displaced in 1948 when the Israeli authorities declared the location to be a military zone. To this day, the villagers are refugees in their own country while a Jewish settlement has been constructed over the ruins and land of their village!

The first stop on my path is Al-Qastal Spring, with its refreshing, overflowing waters. It is surrounded by spacious and fertile agricultural land that extends around the village and is continuously planted with a variety of vegetables, corn, and cotton that change depending on the season.

Usama Libis on a Jeep hike.

I proceed towards the west alongside a brook, crisscrossing it, climb an overlooking hill, and descend into the valley to reach the enchanting Horses Spring, also known among locals as Ras al-Ein, that emerges in a pool of sparkling water. After  refreshing myself by splashing its refreshing cold water on my face, I head west on a dirt road that runs alongside the brook. I enjoy the excitement of delving into the water with my car, letting the spray create its unique sound. I continue until I reach Al-Raheb Mill, an Ottoman-era structure that is a few hundred years old and contains canals with running water, the energy of which was harnessed to turn the heavy grinding stone to grind grain into flour. Many such mills can be found in our homeland alongside brooks and rivers.

A valley and a mountain in beautiful Galilee.

I then proceed west until I reach the Upper Carmel Mountain Range that is green with thick forests. Plenty of oak, carob, storax, and terebinth trees grow here in addition to chicory and fragrant calicotome spinosa bushes, the strong scent of which fills the air, especially in springtime. In my four-wheel drive I begin to climb the mountain following a narrow, winding path that is steep and rocky, making driving more difficult and dangerous! Adrenaline rushes through my veins, making the driving more exciting and enjoyable. Covering a short distance requires about an hour due to the myriad obstacles and towering boulders I have to evade. Eventually, I reach a point that overlooks the expansive Marj ibn Amer that extends over the entire width of the country. From this lookout, the Nazareth mountain range stands tall to the east, and the famed Mount Tabor is clearly visible. According to the Bible, this is where Christ’s transfiguration took place, one of the most important events in Christianity in which the prophets Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and his disciples. From this lookout, one can also see the Central Carmel Mountain Range that is a bit lower than the Upper Carmel, where agriculture thrives and fewer forests grow.

Scenic winding road in the Lower Galilee.

Then, I continue to ascend on the circuitous path until I reach a very narrow section of the road where tall boulders form a great wall and indomitable barrier on the right while to the left is an abysmal precipice! In the middle of the road sits a boulder that had rolled down the hill. I exit my vehicle to inspect the boulder and its surroundings and decide to try to climb over it with my right wheel, driving slowly to avoid sliding into the precipice. Initially, my plan works, but then the car begins to slip until the back left wheel hangs over the side of the precipice, causing the vehicle to lean dangerously towards the left! I immediately stop, exit the vehicle, and eventually manage to tie its hoist rope to a large oak tree. The risk of falling into the precipice is reduced now, and I am able to proceed to Mahraqa Monastery and St. Elias Church which are perched on the mountain’s peak. According to the Torah, this place is sacred. Elias is the prophet who managed to defeat the unbelievers and to ignite his sacrifice, aided by lightning, after he had finished his prayer, while they failed to ignite theirs despite their fervent prayers and pleas to their god, Baal.

The Monk’s Mill.

Article photos are courtesy of the author.

  • Usama Libis has various interests and ambitions. Born in Nazareth in 1972, he went to Al-Mutran School and then obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science. While working at the Municipality of Nazareth, he opened Bayat Restaurant between 2005 and 2013, then established a children’s day care center. Libis loves nature and driving four-wheelers and for some time worked at the Society for the Protection of Nature. Along with Nadeer, his wife, Usama currently manages an electrical engineering company. They are also the parents of Rana, Sam’an, and Haneen.

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