Valleys of Israel

The Land of Israel’s quasi-N-shaped network of lowlands—including the Coastal Plain, Jezreel Valley, and Jordan Rift Valley (which includes the Hula Valley, Jordan River Valley, and Arava Valley)—breaks up what is otherwise a country of hills and heights comprising the landscape’s central spine.

The principal branches of the lowland network contain specific sections that for various reasons—geographical, geological, topographical, or historical—developed something of their own identity (e.g. the Sharon Plain within the upper Coastal Plain; the Valley of Jehoshaphat within the urban Kidron Valley; the Valley of Salt within the upper Aravah Valley, etc.).

Valleys were crucial for travel and transportation routes not only within the Land of Israel by Israelites and other residents, but for overland travelers, pilgrims, merchants, and armies arriving from Phoenicia, Philistia, Egypt, Aram, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Nabataea, and elsewhere. Flat terrain and the proximity to streams or even lakes made valleys the natural preference for wayfarers wary of the arduous rigors involved in mountain trekking.

Israel’s valleys were often named after the major settlement in the vicinity and often served as borders between distinct tribal territories. Here is a précis offering a glimpse at the most geographically and historically significant valleys in Israel:

  1. Hula (Hulata) – A swampy plain comprising the banks of the Jordan River between Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the later (northeastern) tribal territory of Dan. Hula divides the Naphtali mountains of Upper Galilee to the west from the Golan Heights to the east, and features papyri, reeds, and water lilies, water buffaloes and wild boars, and a plethora of migratory birds annually flying to and from Africa. In the 1950s much of the water was drained, but Lake Hula—known in the Talmud as the Sea of Samkho and in the writings of the priestly historian Joseph ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius) as Lake Semechonitis—and the Hula Nature Reserve remain as paradisal wetlands where flora and fauna continue to flourish. Much of the reclaimed land is used for farming (grains, fodder, apples, nuts, cotton, vegetables, and bulbs), as well as for the urban development of Kiryat Shmonah.
  2. Jezreel – The third largest valley in Israel, which essentially bridges the largest two. Jezreel (“God shall seed”) reaches from the Carmel mountain range to Mount Tavor and contains the Megiddo Valley, with the Harod Valley and Beit She’an Valley as its eastern extensions toward the Jordan River. Dividing the tribal territory of western Menasheh (Samaria) to the south from Asher, Zevulun, Issachar, and Naphtali (Galilee) to the north, the curving valley runs northwest-southeast and comprises the Kishon River’s alluvial plain. The area was once dominated by the Canaanites whose iron chariots presented an obstacle to the tribe of Menasheh. After the successful battle won by the prophetess and judge Devorah and her general Barak against King Yavin and his general Sisera at Mount Tavor, the Israelites controlled the plain’s peaks. Encamped at Ein Harod (a.k.a. Ma’ayan Harod), the Israelite judge Gidon later defended the valley against the encroaching Midianites. In the era of the early Israelite monarchy, the Philistines sought to divide King Saul’s kingdom by advancing through the valley and establishing forward bases at Shunem and Beit She’an. Saul and the Israelite army encamped by the spring in Jezreel just prior to their disastrous defeat in battle at Gilboa. Still, Jezreel remained under Israelite control and formed part of King Ish-boshet’s northern kingdom while in the south King David ruled from Hebron in Judah. David soon swept away the Philistine outposts. David’s third wife, Ahinoam, was from Jezreel. King Ahav of Israel built defensive walls and watchtowers to fortify the strategic town of Jezreel, his forward military base, and the fruitful valley also featured Navot’s vineyard, seized unjustly by a covetous Ahav. Here a convalescing King Jehoram, last scion of the Omride dynasty, was slain by the ruthless army commander Jehu ben Jehoshaphat ben Nimshi, who then had the queen mother Jezebel defenestrated and devoured by rabid dogs. The heads of Ahav’s 70 sons were sent from Samaria to Jezreel and piled by its gate overnight, and the entire Omride household was promptly extirpated. Subsequently, Jezreel lost its splendor and may have even been sacked by invading Arameans. In 609, King Josiah of Judah died in battle at Megiddo while trying to prevent Pharaoh Neco II of Egypt from passing through the valley to assist Assyria against the Babylonians and Medians. The valley was in time controlled by the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, which administered its villages and farmlands. Roman legions later occupied and settled in the area, as did Crusaders later still. In 1165 CE, the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited the valley, stopping in the town of Jezreel and encountering a Jewish dyer who resided there. Thereafter the district gradually deteriorated into malarial marshes. In 1799, Emperor Napoleon of France fought the Ottoman Turks at Afula. In 1918, British general Edmund Allenby was bolstered by Australian cavalrymen rapidly crossing the valley during the campaign against the Turks. The plain was drained and resettled in the 1920s. Jezreel is known as Esdraelon in Greek.
  3. Beit She’an (Beisan) – A valley joining the Jordan Rift Valley with the Harod Valley and Jezreel Valley. Its land is highly fertile and features numerous springs. Ancient Egyptians controlled the city of Beit She’an and the caravan route that traversed the valley, which was initially allotted to the tribal territory of Issachar but which was soon taken over by the tribe of Menasheh. The Philistines encroached inland from the lower Coastal Plain and controlled the area during the reign of King Saul, who died nearby at the Gilboa mountain range in battle against the coastal invaders, who hanged Saul’s corpse from the walls of the city of Beit She’an. Later the area was governed by King Solomon’s officer Baana ben Ahilud. In the Hellenistic era, Ptolemy II of Egypt stationed Scythian mercenaries in the region, giving rise to an additional name for the city of Beit She’an, Scythopolis. The Hasmonean ruler and high priest Jonathan Maccabee encountered the Seleucid pretender Diodotus Tryphon at Beit She’an, which the Hasmoneans conquered and refortified. During the Roman era, Jews manufactured linen apparel, farmed field crops, and harvested olive plantations. The Talmudic sage Shimon ben Lakish (Resh Lakish) said: “If paradise is situated in the Land of Israel, then Beit She’an is the portal…”. The valley supported vineyards, rice fields, and palm trees in the early Muslim period but was devastated by the Crusaders during their numerous campaigns. In the 1300s, the physician and explorer Rabbi Eshtori HaParhi moved to Beit She’an from Jerusalem and used it as a home base wherefrom he conducted geographical and historical research, resulting in his masterwork, Kaftor V’Ferah. In modern times, the Haifa-Damascus railroad line ran through the valley, and the area was settled by Bedouin Arabs from Egypt. Arab marauders used Beit She’an to launch attacks against Jewish residents of Harod Valley until Jewish tower and stockade settlements were established in the vicinity. The area today features several kibbutzim and the Israel Railways line from Beit She’an to Afula and beyond.
  4. Beit Netofah (Asochis) – A plain in Lower Galilee. It was known for its vetch plant and its high quality clay. Beit Netofah is mentioned in the Mishnah and Joseph ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius) refers to it in his Life as the Valley of Asochis. Today the National Water Carrier’s Eshkol reservoir is situated in the western part of the plain.
  5. Yiftah El (Iphtahel) – A valley in the territory of Zevulun, serving as part of its tribal border. Yiftah El has been etymologically and geographically associated with the fortified town of Yodefat, a noted locus where the-then governor of Galilee, Joseph ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius), was besieged by the Romans under Vespasian during the Great Revolt (66-73 CE), and it is likely to be identified with the valley extending westward from Yodefat to Akko.
  6. Dotan – A valley at the head of which lies the town of the same name, in the northern section of the tribal territory of Menasheh (Samaria), northwest of Shechem and south of Ein Gannim (Jenin), where Joseph’s brothers sold him to Ishmaelites traveling from Gilad to Egypt. Later, the prophet Elisha was a resident of Dotan, where he was besieged by the Aramean forces that were, according to the biblical narrative, miraculously blinded and outmatched by fiery horses and chariots defending Elisha.
  7. Akhor – In this valley near Jericho, Akhan (Akhar) ben Carmi, who had absconded with forbidden spoils of war, was stoned to death. For his troubling of Israel, the valley was named Akhor (“troubler”). The prophet Hosea envisioned that Akhor would become “a gateway to hope” and the prophet Isaiah foretold that it would become an idyllic place for cattle to rest “for my people who have sought me”. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll, mentions Akhor Valley as a ruin where a silver chest with vessels was buried.
  8. Coastal Plain (Sharon) – The low-lying littoral curving along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, the Coastal Plain is the widest and one of the longest valleys in Israel, beginning at the bottom of the Ladder of Tyre and extending as a widening band from Haifa and the headland of the Carmel mountain range in the north to Gaza and beyond in the south. Beaches line the western edge of the Coastal Plain, and sand dunes are especially abundant from Jaffa to Gaza. Part of its northern section, from Taninim Stream to the Yarkon River (or from Caesarea to Jaffa), is known as the Sharon Plain and was renowned in ancient times for its red and white lilies, anemones, oak forests, pastures, and marshes. The Sharon was part of the tribal territory of Ephraim, and during the United Monarchy Shitrai the Sharonite was appointed to supervise King David’s herds that pastured in the Sharon. The female persona in the Song of Songs famously states, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys”. The area was later conquered by the Assyrians, who built the coastal town of Dor. The prophet Isaiah lamented that “Sharon is like a desert” but prophesied that “Sharon will become a pasture for flocks”. Later the Persians granted the Sharon Plain to the Sidonians (Phoenicians). In ancient times, important cities including Akhziv, Akko, Caesarea Maritima, Jaffa, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza were built along the shoreline of the Coastal Plain, and in the modern era these centers were joined by Nahariya, Hadera, Netanya, Herzliya, and Tel Aviv. Jewish settlers drained the malarial swamps of the Coastal Plain in the 1930s and developed the densely populated landscape. Citrus groves were particularly plentiful around Hadera and Jaffa. Today the coastline is a magnet for lovers of sand, sea, and surf.
  9. Ayalon – A broad valley serving as an ingress to the Judean Hills and mentioned in the El-Amarna letters. In the memorable battle against the Amorites, Joshua bade the moon to stand still over Ayalon. The city of Ayalon, from which the valley derives its name, was initially allotted to the original (southwestern) tribal territory of Dan, and soon it and its pasture lands were designated as a Levitical city; in time the Benjamites Beriah and Shema became prominent in Ayalon and drove away the Philistines of Gat. The faint and weary Israelites under King Saul and his son Jonathan slew the Philistines on the battlefield at Ayalon and beyond. King Rehoboam of Judah fortified, garrisoned, and provisioned the city of Ayalon as part of a network of fortifications to defend the tribal territories of Judah, Shimon, and Benjamin against the northern kingdom of Israel. The valley was briefly invaded both by Pharaoh Shishak of Egypt during the reign of Rehoboam, and later by the Philistines during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. The Ayalon features the ancient hot springs at Emmaus-Nicopolis, where the Hasmonean hero Judah Maccabee routed the Seleucids under Nicanor during the Maccabean Rebellion and later where the Talmudic sages Nehunya ben HaKanah and Eleazar ben Arakh lived, and which hosted Muslim Arab armies in the seventh century. In the Middle Ages, the Crusader fort of Latrun was established. Due to its geo-strategic value as an approach to Jerusalem, the valley also witnessed warfare during the British general Edmund Allenby’s military campaign against the Ottoman Turks in 1917 and during the War of Independence in 1948. The Israel Defense Forces reclaimed the region during the Six-Day War of 1967.
  10. Ben Hinnom (Hinnom) – A curving valley to the southwest and south of the Old City of Jerusalem, on the original Benjamin-Judah border, formerly infamous for its idolatrous Moloch worship. Named after a certain Hinnom’s son, Ben Hinnom Valley became a notorious site of child sacrifice where the abominable Tofet altar was erected, and for this reason the prophet Jeremiah envisioned that the area would be renamed Valley of Slaughter, where corpses would be heaped in a gruesome congeries and devoured by predatory birds and wild animals. As an open morgue and place of punishment, the valley, whose Hebrew name Gai Ben Hinnom was over time contracted to Gehinnom or Gehenna, became synonymous with perdition. In later Israelite times it became a site for burning refuse. Perhaps in the Roman era, a dam with an overlaid road were erected across the valley between (the erroneously named) Mount Zion just outside the Old City and the neighborhood opposite known today as Mishkenot Sha’ananim. In the early modern era, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent built a fountain atop the dam, the Sultan’s Pool, still extant today. Nowadays Ben Hinnom Valley is a lovely site where music concerts are held in an amphitheater setting, where random horses roam and graze, and where a youth music center for Jewish and Arab students is situated.
  11. Kidron (Jehoshaphat) – A valley north and east of Jerusalem, dividing Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives, then continuing southeast toward the Dead Sea. King David crossed the valley in flight from his rebellious son Avshalom. King Solomon set the Kidron as the boundary beyond which the execrating Benjamite, Shimi ben Geira, could not venture upon penalty of forfeiting his life. King Asa of Judah later burned his grandmother Ma’akhah’s idolatrous Asherah image in the Kidron. King Josiah of Judah similarly burned in the valley the Baal and Asherah idols that had been introduced in the Temple. Jesus of Nazareth often crossed the Kidron with his disciples to linger in the Garden of Gethsemane. The central section of the Kidron between Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives is additionally known as the Valley of Jehoshaphat, which is otherwise considered an imprecise (if not metaphorical) locus. The prophet Joel foresaw that, following the Judahite return from Babylonian Captivity, God would gather the nations and “take them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will contend with them there concerning My people and My heritage, Israel, which they scattered among the nations, and My land they divided.” The Beit Zeita Valley, Tyropoeon Valley, and Ben Hinnom Valley all converge with the Kidron as it skirts east of Temple Mount and the City of David. In Jerusalem, the Gihon spring issued from the Kidron’s western flank, and rock-cut, monumental tombs (Absalom’s Tomb, the Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, Zechariah’s Tomb) were carved out of its eastern slope, forming a necropolis. Farther to the south, in the Judean Desert, the Christian monastery of Mar Saba features on the Kidron’s steep slope as do numerous hermits’ caves. The Kidron (“dark”) derives its name from its dim stream in winter, or else from its depth or cedars.
  12. Tyropoeon – A depression running from Jaffa Gate to the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam), the Tyropoeon (“Valley of the Cheesemongers”) formerly divided Jerusalem’s upper city and Temple Mount from its lower city and (the erroneously named) Mount Zion. Bridges spanned the valley during the Hasmonean era. Over the centuries the valley was filled in with aggregated detritus. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll, refers to it as the Outer Valley, and “Tyropoeon” might have been a Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “outer”.
  13. Refaim – A verdant plain between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, reaching from Ben Hinnom Valley to the Judean Desert hill now occupied by the Christian monastery Mar Elias. Refaim was a scene of battle between King David of Israel and the Philistines. The Judah-Benjamin border ran across its northern end. Today its section within Jerusalem consists of the German Colony neighborhood and its chic Emek Refaim street. Refaim (“ghosts” or “giants”) may have been named after a Transjordanian tribe or clan by this name, dating at least from Abraham’s time, that became famous for the tall stature and mighty prowess of its members, and that eventually settled in the eponymous valley.
  14. Sorek – A dry riverbed winding through the Judean Hills and skirting the original (southwestern) tribal territory of Dan as well as Philistia. Here, in one of the central ingresses to and drainage basins of Judah’s heights, the Israelite judge and strongman Samson encountered the charming Philistiness, Delilah, a resident of Sorek. The Philistine city of Ekron and the Israelite city of Beit Shemesh were established along the valley, whose name means “choicest vines” and refers as well to “red grapes”. The old Jaffa-Jerusalem railway line runs through the valley, whose river nowadays features two large seawater desalination plants.
  15. Elah – Located in the Shephelah foothills in the tribal territory of Judah, near Azekah and Sokho, the fertile valley is named after its terebinths, though it also features diverse flora and fauna. Here a young slinger, David of Bethlehem, felled the Philistine giant Goliath in their fateful duel. A seasonal brook whose streambed possesses many smooth stones courses through the valley during the winter after heavy rains.
  16. Brakhah – King Jehoshaphat of Judah assembled his men in this valley west of Tekoa after three days of despoiling the Ammonites and Moabites; here they blessed God for their good fortune, giving the valley its name (“blessing”). It runs along the main road between Hebron and Jerusalem.
  17. Eshkol – A fruitful valley in the vicinity of Hebron. Here the 12 Israelite spies severed a bough bearing a cluster (“eshkol”) of grapes requiring two men to carry it back on a pole; they also returned with samples of pomegranates and figs. These specimens attested to the rich abundance of the Promised Land. The valley might have originally been named after one of the Amorite brothers, Eshkol, who had allied themselves with the patriarch Abraham in his campaign against King Chedarlaomer of Elam.
  18. Jordan Rift – The longest valley in Israel, running along the entire eastern border of the country, forms part of the Great Rift Valley/Syrian-African Rift extending from southern Turkey to Mozambique. In prehistoric times, Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Dead Sea formed a single saline lake. The Jordan (“the descender” or “descended from Dan”) comprises three terraces and incorporates the Hula Valley, Jordan River Valley, and Aravah Valley, and features the meandering Jordan River with its numerous tributaries and fords. Its valley walls, broken only sporadically by tributary gorges, are mostly steep, sheer, and bare. Under Joshua, the Israelites traversed the valley near Jericho. King Solomon established his brass-foundries in the thick clay between Sukkot and Tzartan. Lions roamed the valley in the biblical era. The Jordan Rift trough also features the Dead Sea, the lowest land point on Earth. The main city situated in the Jordan Rift is Jericho, and today the valley is home to dozens of Jewish agricultural communities as well as a number of Arab villages.
  19. Shittim – Named after its acacias, Shittim was the site of the Israelites’ dalliance with the daughters of Moab and Midian and where they were consequently afflicted by a plague as punishment. Here the future high priest Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson, slew the Shimonite prince Zimri ben Salu for fornicating with Cozbi the Moabitess. Thereafter Joshua dispatched scouts from Shittim to spy on Jericho. The prophet Joel envisioned that one day the spring flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem would water the valley.
  20. Aravah – Biblically, the Aravah (“steppe”) referred mostly to the Jordan Rift Valley between Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Dead Sea (Sea of Aravah), an area known in Arabic as el-Ghor/al-Ghur, but eventually the name Aravah referred solely to the long, deep cleft extending from the Dead Sea southward to the Gulf of Eilat. A section of the Aravah, the barren plain on the Dead Sea’s southern shore whose brown soil is flecked with salt, is additionally known as the Valley of Salt; there King David of Israel made a name for himself as a warrior-king by slaying 18,000 Arameans (or else Edomites) in battle, and there King Amaziah of Judah later slew another 10,000 Edomites, engendering his subsequent hubris that proved disastrous. Sand, gravel, and boulders litter the Aravah’s arid desert, which features white rock and desert trees such as the acacia and tamarisk. Copper mines were developed in the Aravah at Timna, and especially at Punon (Feinan in Jordan). The desert steppe was often fought over due to its copper resources and the access it afforded to the Red Sea. The prophet Isaiah envisioned a future time when the Aravah would blossom like the lily and be given the splendor of the Sharon Plain and the Carmel mountain range.
  21. Timna – A semi-circular (horseshoe-shaped) plain of sand and stone stretching from the lower Negev Desert to the Aravah Valley north of the Gulf of Eilat. A trio of seasonal streambeds—Nahal Timna, Nahal Nehushtan, and Nahal Mangan—traverse Timna Valley toward the Aravah. In the center of the valley rises Mount Timna, whose tabletop summit affords panoramic views of the surrounding plain and the Edom mountains to the east in Transjordan. The valley features natural arches formed by erosion, mushroom-shaped rock outcrops fashioned by desert wind and humidity, hieroglyphic inscriptions and drawings, mine shafts, galleries, and workshops, and the red sandstone cliff ridges known as Solomon’s Pillars. Copper mining and smelting activities took place in the western and central sections of the valley beginning in prehistoric times. Ancient Egyptian expeditions to the valley later developed the area’s metallurgic industry, in partnership with local Kenites, Midianites, and Amalekites. The Egyptians built a cultic shrine with a rock-cut niche in honor of the goddess Hathor during the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (c. 1290-1279 BCE), and a sphinx-like head is discernible on a rugged eminence to the east. Roman legionaries of the Third Cyrenaica Legion also engaged in copper mining in the second-fourth centuries CE, hauling ore southward to the sizable Be’er Orah furnace. Timna Valley also features acacias, wild ibex herds, and nocturnal wolf packs. Today the valley, a popular tourism and recreation site, includes an artificial lake, a life-size model of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), and a visitors’ center.

As would be expected given the topography of the Land of Israel, the Hebrew language contains numerous words denoting valleys, including: emek (valley, dell), gai (glen/dale/dingle), beek’ah (rift/cleavage), meeshor (plateau), aravah (plain), khikar (plain/pasture/meadow), shephelah (lowland), kenyon (canyon), arutz (gorge, ravine), agan (basin), and afeek (trough/streambed/riverbed). In addition, many valleys or dry riverbeds that feature seasonal watercourses are generally designated by the term nahal (stream/watercourse).

As loci where momentous events transpired, all of the major valleys in Israel appear (some of them scores of times) in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and/or in the post-biblical, historical books I & II Maccabees and The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities.

While the Land of Israel is primarily hill country, its valleys have always been critical lifelines, places to farm crops and locate flowing water, ingresses to and egresses from every province and district, and battleground sites. For millennia inhabitants and itinerants alike have profited from exploring, traversing, and cultivating the picturesque valleys of Israel, which continue to entice visitants.

About the Author
Brandon Marlon is a Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 275+ publications in 28 countries. His script The Bleeding Season won the 2007 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition. His poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and he is the author of two poetry volumes, Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People, and Judean Dreams. www.brandonmarlon.com
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