The beautiful Banias Nature Reserve includes two main areas: the spring area and the waterfall area. And if it’s hard for you to choose which one to visit – choose both. They are equally beautiful and fascinating and a celebration of water and lush flora awaits you.
The giant Mount Hermon acts like a sponge absorbing the generous rain that falls in the area. The water then percolates and emerges as three springs at the foot of the mountain. These springs create three streams – the Dan, Hermon (Banias) and Snir (Hazbani) – which are the headwaters of the Jordan River.
The streams rush with great force through a canyon-like channel, losing 190 meters in altitude and forming the Banias waterfall, one of the most beautiful in Israel. After nine kilometers, the Hermon River meets the Dan River near kibbutz Sde Nechemia and the two flow into the Jordan River. The Hermon accounts for one-quarter of the Jordan’s waters.
All winter Mount Hermon is covered with snow. When the snow melts, it becomes a forceful river, which, as we said, feeds the Jordan River and the Kinneret. Thus, the snow-capped Hermon is the water source of the Land of Israel.
The nature reserve was established in 1977 and contains sites of natural and historical interest. Excavations have unearthed an impressive Greco-Roman city that was later a Byzantine one. A colonnaded street – the Cardo Maximus – connected both ends of the city. A large public structure, believed to be the Palace of Agrippa II was discovered there, as well as streets, aqueducts, courtyards, a synagogue, a church, and a bathhouse.
There are four trails one can take within the reserve, three are 45-minutes long and one is 90-minutes long.
The name Banias is actually an Arabic corruption of the word Panias or Paneus – from the name of the Greek god Pan, god of the forests and shepherds whose temple cave can be seen in the ascending hillside.
It is interesting to note that Banias is associated with idols – Micah’s (Israelite period), Pan (Hellenistic period), and the Bleeding Woman (Byzantine period).
The springs of the Banias were probably, even during the Canaanite period, a sacred sacrifice site serving the nearby city of Leshem or Laish. Mivzar Dan (Dan-Fort) was the original city that lay at the source of the Banias. The springs were one of the city’s most important assets.
It is believed that the Biblical Beth Rehov (the house of the Road) may have been in the Banias. The Danits stole the Pesel Micah which they then erected in their new city, perhaps in a cave of the Banias (Judges 18 – 27, 30).
When the Greeks invaded the area, they discovered this beautiful place and the cave of Pan became a center of their pagan activity. In 36 BCE, Panias was given to Cleopatra. At the end of the first century B.C.E., the Romans annexed it to Herod`s kingdom and he constructed a temple there in honor of Augustus. After Herod`s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, inherited northern Eretz Yisrael and established the capital of his kingdom near the springs, calling it Caesarea Philippi. The city had a mixed population of pagans and Jews.
In the days of Agrippa II, the grandson of Philip II (53 – 94 CE), the city expanded, and luxurious buildings as well as a large opulent palace were built. Its name was changed to Neronias Caesarea Sebastia (Neronlas) in honor of the Emperor Nero. Jews referred to the city as “Caesarion” (“little Caesar”). At the time of the great rebellion (67-73C.E.), both Vespasian and Titus were guests in Agrippa II’s palace and camped nearby (Josephus Wars).
The city was spared the tragic destiny of other cities, since Agrippa II sided with the Romans. Although its Jewish citizens were protected by Agrippa, they were subject to harsh times. After the war there was a Jewish community in the city, but most of the citizens were pagan.
In the 7th Century, the Arabs conquered the land, renaming it Banias (Arabs pronounce “p” as “b”), and the city continued as the capital city of the Golan area. From documents in the Cairo Geniza we know that there were two Jewish communities residing in the Banias — one Babylonian and one Jerusalemite. Their synagogue was excavated in the vicinity of the palace of Agrippa. In 1120 CE, Banias became the headquarters for a messianic sect of Karaites, led by the false Messiah Shlomo HaCohen. Apparently in the year 1126, the community was forced to desert the city, when the extreme Shi’ite sect of Isma’ili Hashishim took over.
Arriving in the Galilee in 1099 and in Banias at 1129, the Crusaders realized the strategic asset of Banias as a frontier city, located on the trade route to Damascus. They built a large wall and gate around it and fortified the Arab fortress of Kil’at Subeiba (Large Cliff), located 6 km above the city, calling it by the Biblical name Nimrod Fortress. The Crusaders controlled the city and fortress until 1164 when it was conquered by the Syrian ruler Nur al-Din.
After World War I, the 1920 treaty between the British and the French placed Banias in the French Mandate. On June 10, 1967, Banias was captured by the IDF and restored to Eretz Yisrael.
After years of planning, the hanging bridge was inaugurated at the Hermon Stream in March 2010. 80 meters long, the bridge stretches over the strongly flowing clear, almost white stream, while surrounding it are majestic black/brown basalt and travertine canyon cliffs covered in abundant vegetation.
Those who opposed the building of bridge asserted that it would make the nature reserve into an amusement park. However, this didn’t happen, and the bridge trail blends right into the surroundings and has become an inseparable part of the reserve. A visitor who stands on the bridge can observe stunning views that were not accessible before its construction. The views are especially dramatic since visitors are walking in the opposite direction to the water current.
Climbing the steps at the end of the hanging bridge trail, you enter a picturesque rain forest. This more “natural trail,” leads to the Banias Waterfall which falls from a height of about ten meters. The lovely viewing-balcony provides the perfect place to observe the waterfall and relish its cool spray.
If you bring children with you, show them how to enjoy nature by instructing them to do some or all of the following things. Ask them to touch an exposed tree root and feel the texture of different leaves. (Only beware they don’t touch Oleander with its dark green spear-shaped leaves and beautiful fragrant white or rouse-pink tufty flowers since it’s highly poisonous.) Tell them to watch how the leaves or branches sway in the breeze. Suggest they listen to the sounds of the birds and the leaves. Instruct them in making a bracha on smelling trees or hardy woody stems (boray atzei b’somim), on plants with soft stems (boray isvay b’somim), a mixture of both (boray minay b’somim), or if you are not sure what it is (boray minay b’somim). Or just ask them to close their eyes and concentrate on the sound of flowing water and chirping birds.
The thick foliage of the woods along the trail contains many species of trees. Among them you’ll find Common Oaks, Oriental Plane Trees (easy to recognize, due to their large leaves shaped like the palm of a hand that are shed in the winter and its ball shaped long haired fruit), Syrian ash (can be spotted by its dentate leaflets), Poplar Trees, Willows, Figs, True Laurel (Bay Leaves), Carobs, Almonds, Storax, and many, many more. Among the vine and plant species are grapes and rough bindweed, blackberries, reeds, ferns and heart shaped ivy. Adding to the great profusion of trees near the streams and stream bank flora are orchard trees such as walnut, lemon, and other fruit trees.
The nature reserve is full of wildlife. From Shir HaShirim‘s praises of the area (4:8), we learn that lions and leopards once inhabited the region. Lions are now extinct but leopards can still be found. Jackals and wild boars are active during the night, and in the day many Hyraxes frolic along the shores of the stream since they love the sunlight. There are swamp lynxes and porcupines, Mt. Hermon field mice, rodents, and bats.
Falcons are seen flying high above, and on the ground flocks of rock doves congregate. Cetti’s Warblers, Sardinian Warblers, blackbirds, woodpeckers, Winter Wrens, and Graceful Prinias are also found. Various types of fish can be seen in the stream, among them haffaf, hillstream loach, acanthobrama, tilapia, Damascus barbell and longhead barbels. Other aquatic life includes black-shell melanopis, freshwater gastropod, crescent shaped mollusks, and snails.
Directions: Drive on Road 90 and turn east on Road 99. The entrance to the Banias waterfall area is located about two kilometers east of Kibbutz Snir, and the Banias Nature Reserve with its springs is located about three kilometers east of the Kibbutz.
About the Author: Originally from south Africa, Vardah has been living in Eretz Yisrael since 1974 and the more she learns about our glorious Holy Land the more she gets to love this prime property that Hashem has given to the Jewish People. She is studying to be a tour guide and hopes with the help of Hashem, through this column to give readers a small taste of the land.
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