The crane is the king of the Hula Valley with welcoming squawks and shrieks of sheer delight from the thousands on the ground and the many hundreds in the skies above. They are surely calling out “Shalom aleichem, my friends, alechem shalom, so glad you arrived,” for it is known that cranes inform each other of favorable domiciles.
Eretz Yisrael is literally and figuratively the center of the world, located at the crossroads of three continents. The eyes of the world are always on Eretz Yisrael, whether during discussions at the UN, or in ancient times when it was on the trade route of other nations.
Eretz Yisrael also plays a major role in the lives of approximately five hundred million birds (390 different species!) that arrive annually by air. Following the example of their ancient migratory ancestors, these guests do not have to wait to have their passport stamped or watch the baggage carousel make never-ending circuits until their luggage eventually appears. These storks, cranes, egrets, gulls, cormorants, and ducks (to name but a few) using main bird migration routes are heading for the Hula Valley Nature Reserve and the Hula Lake Park in the Upper Galilee.
The Hula Valley once contained a lake – thousands of years old – one of the oldest documented lakes in history. It is referred to in Chapter 11 of Sefer Yehoshuah as Mei Merom (Waters of Merom). It was here that Hashem delivered into Yehoshuah’s hand an alliance of city-states of the Canaanim. (Some modern scholars dispute this identification, arguing that it is swamp area and there is no reason to assume the Canaanites, whose prime weapon was the chariot, would be drawn to battle in swamps.)
The Gemara in Bava Basra (75) refers to it as Hiltha. It states that there are seven seas (Tiberias, Sodom, Helath, Hiltha, Sibkay, Aspamia, and the Great Sea) and four rivers (Jordan, Jarmuk, Keramyon and Pigah) surrounding Eretz Yisrael.
Maps of Palestine throughout the first half of the 20th century show this lagoon along the Jordan River, about 20 kilometers [12 ½ miles] north of the Kinneret.
Before the Drainage
Since ancient times this body of water provided a natural habitat for many species. In the area were found panthers, leopards, bears, wild boars, wolves, foxes, jackals, hyenas, gazelles, and otters. For centuries Lake Hula probably contained the richest diversity of aquatic biota in the Levant. It was also populated by a rich variety of flora and fauna.
Since it lies along the Syrian-African Rift Valley, it was a major stopover point and feeding station for traveling birds. Hundreds of species of birds used the Holy Land’s airspace as a part of their migratory route. Today in the springtime, the skies are filled with millions of birds, on their way to Asia and Europe from their habitats in Africa. In October, they retrace their journey in reverse.
Since the swamps surrounding the lake were the breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Jewish pioneers in the early part of the 20th century who settled in the Jordan Valley, suffered terribly from malaria.
The first modern Jewish settlement in the Hula Valley was Yesud HaMa’alah on the western shore of the lake, established in 1883 during the First Aliyah. Estimates say that during the 1930s, 70% of local adults were infected with malaria. Few, if any, children survived beyond the age of two.
Beginning in 1940, innovative measures were taken. Irrigation canals were flushed of their vegetation and the water was sprayed with kerosene. New improvements in health care were introduced, but it was only with the introduction of DDT in 1945 that the war against malaria could be won.
In those days the Hula Valley had a lake at the southern end and swamps in the north. The majority of the swamp consisted of dense impenetrable tangles of papyrus, with scattered channels of running water and pools. In deeper depressions within this papyrus “jungle” were open-water ponds covered with yellow water-lilies.
Transforming the Hula Valley
In 1948, the State of Israel decided to drain the swamps and lake, which covered more than fifteen thousand acres, and convert the area into agricultural fields. There was a critical need to create farmland for the budding Israelite agricultural society. In addition, a large number of unemployed olim needed employment.
In 1951, the Jewish National Fund began the colossal project of draining the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps. The draining operations were completed by 1958. The project became the standard-bearer of the entire Zionist movement; it was a symbol of the re-establishment of the Jewish national homeland in Israel. The drainage sites became major tourist attractions – so much so, that it was necessary to restrict sightseeing in order to prevent hindrance to the progress of the work.
Israel’s First Nature Reserve
Some scientists and nature lovers waged a vigorous battle to conserve at least part of the original landscape. As a result of their call to action, in 1953 the government agreed to set aside 800 acres for Israel’s first nature reserve – which was established only in 1964 when Nature Reserves Authority was created.
Although initially the draining had been perceived as a great national achievement for Israel, it soon became apparent that the “drying out” was ruining the region’s unique ecological balance. Part of the marine life disappeared, and the wildlife population declined. The Hula painted frog as well as some rare fish species vanished. Since 1996 the IUCN has classified the Hula painted frog as extinct. However, restoration efforts have been successful, for in November 2011, park patrollers saw the painted frog’s reappearance.
The rich indigenous flora was also dying out, and strong winds (Sharkiyah in Arabic) in the valley blew away the soil. The peat of the dry swamp ignited spontaneously, causing underground fires that were difficult to extinguish and dangerous caverns began to form within the peat. Plus, the weathered peat soils turned into an infertile black dust. These particular problems have been solved by keeping the fields watered by sprinklers that move along the fields on wheels.
In addition, it was discovered that Israel’s main supply of fresh water, the Kinneret, was significantly deteriorating, since the Hula Lake was no longer there to serve as a natural filtration basin along the upper parts of the Jordan River.
The Hand of Heaven intervened in the early 1990s, and part of the valley was flooded in the wake of heavy rains. Taking the above environmental consideration into account the government, in an unprecedented move, resolved to undo the damage by restoring a section of the Hula Valley to its former state. It was decided to leave the flooded area intact and develop the surrounding area into Hula Lake Park – Agamon HaHula. (Agamon is an affectionate diminutive from of Agam [Lake]). At the end of April 1994, the waters of the Jordan River once again flowed into a restored section of the drained area.
The project continues into the 21st century. Visitors can now visit the Agamon HaHula and spend a few hours enjoying the rare species of plants, birds, and fish that live there.
The beautiful magical Agamon is one fifteenth of the original Hula Lake. Its lush vegetation, green fields, and flocks of birds that enchant the eye offer a picturesque scene of serenity against the grandeur of Mount Hermon.
A Bird Watcher’s Paradise
The lake covers an area of one square kilometer interspersed with islands that serve as protected bird nesting sites, and the new site has become the second home for thousands of migrating birds in the autumn and spring. Several tens of thousands birds, fleeing from the Eastern Europe and Russia winters, visit Agmon Hula.
The nature conservation authorities even feed the birds in order to avoid damage to the fishing industry in the area. After the original Hula was drained, great economic losses occurred since many of birds were quick to discover commercial fish ponds as an alternative source of food. For this reason the managers of the Hula Restoration Project the food supply by artificial stocking.
It’s amazing to watch the birds feeding. The English saying, “birds of a feather flock together” comes to mind when seeing how each different species arrive to feed separately.
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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