Just a few miles northwest of our home in Tiberias lies Mount Arbel and on its slopes, the Ancient Synagogue of Arbel. The Arbel is reputed to be the final resting place of Jacob’s sons Reuben and Simeon and his daughter Dinah, and was also the home of Nitai the Arbeli, the Head of the Sanhedrin in the first Century BCE. The Ancient Synagogue, built in the fourth Century, is now, what one might call an open-plan Synagogue with good views in each direction, particularly of Mount Arbel and the neighboring Mount Nitai.
Aside from the remnants of the Ancient Synagogue, and a distant view of the caves and protecting wall on the opposite peak (which are not approachable at present due to the unstable cliffs) there’s not much to see from that era, so now Mount Arbel is best known for its stunning views over the Kinneret and much of the Galilee, as well as the creatures and plants of the nature reserve itself.
Even in the parking lot, you’re quite likely to see great-tits and crested larks. The larks are fairly small brown birds, perhaps about the same size as blackbirds, and they scuttle along the ground as you get close to them. They spend a lot of time on the ground; indeed, nesting there, or sometimes in trees or shrubs just a few feet above ground level. When disturbed, if they think you’re a predator, they fly up suddenly, high above your head, taking your attention away from their eggs and hatchlings.
Leaving the parking lot and walking towards the cliff-side walk facing Mount Nitai, and then walking up to the Carob tree lookout, one can be almost sure to see a variety of birds and animals along the rocky trail.
Sitting on a welcome bench, sheltered from the sun under the shade of a tree, you’ll not only be able to enjoy panoramic views of the Nitai Valley and be able to trace the course of the Nachal Amud all the way up to Tzfat, but you’ll often be rewarded by spotting various birds of prey, including long-legged buzzards, kestrels, snake eagles and horned owls, but on a recent visit my wife and I were privileged to see a pair of far less frequently seen Egyptian vultures soaring overhead on the thermals in the heat of the day. The Egyptian vulture is a medium-sized raptor and is classified as an endangered species. They nest on rocky cliffs, so the Arbel mountain and the Egyptian vulture seem like a perfect match. Near the cliff edge there are also blue rock thrushes, but it’s quite hard to get close to them – they seem frustratingly camera-shy.
One afternoon in mid-September, we were treated to a fly-past of scores or maybe even hundreds of raptors, mostly European honey buzzards, but a few falcons as well. They flew overhead in groups of five or six every two or three minutes. It was almost like they wanted to see the specification of my camera. I could look them in the eye and get a clear view of their specifications in return.
On my first visit to the nature reserve quite some years ago, I saw what looked like a small koala bear, but clearly that wouldn’t have been possible unless it had been a remarkable swimmer or had escaped from a zoo. I subsequently discovered, as I got closer to it, that it was a Syrian rock hyrax, which is one of the most intriguing animals that reside in Israel. It’s a small animal, perhaps about 50 centimeters long, but its gestation period is six or seven months, which is very long for its size. Compare this to a fox which is somewhat bigger than the hyrax and produces its young in just 50 to 60 days, or to the rabbit, which is a little smaller than the hyrax and has a gestation period of about a month. Curious though this is, it’s not the most fascinating aspect of a hyrax. What is almost unbelievable is that the hyrax’s nearest family member in the animal kingdom is the elephant. Almost unbelievable it might be, but true it is. Despite seeing hyraxes on quite a regular basis I still get that same thrill in observing them as I did when I saw my first koala-like little animal friend.
In Psalms 104:18 we read that the rocks are a shelter for the hyraxes. Well, the Arbel seems perfectly designed for the hyraxes who have plenty of opportunity to dart for cover among the many, many rocks along the cliff edge.
Near the Carob tree lookout, from where you can see the entire Lake Kinneret and much of the Galilee, more likely than not (in the spring and summer at least) there are butterflies to be seen – my favourite being the wonderful yellow swallowtail. This large and spectacular insect glides effortlessly and tantalizingly within inches of you, but rarely settles for any length of time.
Wonderful as it is to see raptors, hyraxes, larks and, if you’re lucky, mountain gazelles, striped hyenas, wolves, golden jackals, red foxes, wild boars, European badgers, honey badgers and Egyptian mongooses there is one species that is unique to the Arbel. It might not be as exciting to see as wolves or eagles, but the Arbel Cristataria (or Cristataria genezerethana, to give it its full scientific name) is a small snail that can only be seen at the Arbel and nowhere else in the world. Just after it rains you can see these snails on the rocks near the parking lot. They emerge from crevices in the rock to feast on the algae on the rock faces.
You might want to keep your distance from wolves and wild boar, but do try to get a glimpse of the Cristataria genezerethana on your next rainy-day visit to the Arbel.
[My thanks to Moti Dolev and Sandra Mabjish for their help, especially in locating the Arbel Cristataria and identifying the raptors we see.]