MOUNT TABOR ~ The trail climbs through a pine forest carpeted with wildflowers, the call to prayer from an Arab village below mingling with the echoes of church bells from a monastery at the summit.
To hike through the Holy Land is to wander a landscape of astonishing natural beauty, hills littered with the ruins of a rich and tragic history and transformed by the decades-old conflict between those who now covet them.
On a recent spring day a group of English-speaking Israelis, many of them new immigrants, made their way from the small Arab Israeli village of Devoriya, near Nazareth, up Mount Tabor past olive groves and into a forest alight with red poppies, white daisies, and yellow mustard.
From the 437-metre summit, the rolling green hills and farmsteads of northern Israel stretch off toward the grey mountains of Syria and Lebanon, a landscape steeped in history.
It was here that the Jewish prophetess Deborah inspired the defeat of a Canaanite army in the Book of Judges; here Jesus was said to have appeared to his disciples alongside Moses and Elijah – two Christian monasteries on the top were built to honour the event.
The hikers listen as the guide walks them through the history of the region – or Israel’s version of it – beginning with biblical grandeur and leaping ahead to a triumphant modern return to the land.
“It’s amazing to be hiking out here and someone takes out a Bible and says ‘this happened right here’,” said Warren Zauer, who moved to Israel from Australia eight years ago.
There is a tradition of hiking in Israel that stretches back to the early years of Zionist settlement, when Jews from the diaspora sought to reacquaint themselves with the land of their forebears.
“For a lot of Israelis hiking around the country is a mitzvah, it’s like an obligation,” said Jerry Unterman, an American-born Jewish Studies professor on the hike who has lived in Israel off and on since the 1960s.
“It goes all the way back to Abraham. God told Abraham: ‘Walk the land’.”
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has clearly marked thousands of miles of trails and produced accurate maps based on British surveys undertaken after World War I – but only in Hebrew, making Israel one of the trekking world’s best-kept secrets.
“It’s been kept a secret for two reasons, one of them is laziness and the other is overprotectiveness,” said Yadin Roman, author of one of Israel’s only English-language trail guides.
“We don’t want the people out there to know about our little riverlets or backyards or whatever. Who knows what they’ll do?” he said with a chuckle. “We really haven’t made it accessible to people abroad.”
Interest however has been growing since the completion in 1995 of the Israel Trail, which runs nearly the entire length of the country north to south – 580 miles, 933 kilometers – takes around six weeks to complete and draws thousands of walkers each year.
The trails traverse centuries worth of ruins, running past desert monasteries, crumbling hilltop fortresses, verdant canyons and Bedouin camps, offering a glimpse of the rich cultural and natural diversity.
Trekking may also offer a more authentic view of Israel’s famed holy sites than that given by the convoys of tour buses lined up outside them.
“When you travel in a car or a bus you cannot understand the pace of what happened 2,000 years ago, when there were no cars,” Roman said.
“You have to be able to take it at the pace it was actually done, and then you can get a feeling for the Old Testament, the New Testament, the history.”
The trails also hint at more recent events. Many of Israel’s most scenic national parks were established on the remains of some of the hundreds of Arab villages abandoned and destroyed in the 1948 war that followed Israel’s birth.
All that remains of most of the villages are stone terraces overgrown with wildflowers and unmarked ruins that could be decades or centuries old.
And occasionally one stumbles upon a vista that seems to capture the present conflict in a way that words do not.
North of Jerusalem, a trail winds through a narrow valley, past crumbling stone houses and a cold freshwater spring – all of it likely abandoned in 1948 – before climbing a hill overlooking Israel’s separation fence.
The band of high fences and closed military road, part of a massive barrier built to cordon off the West Bank, snakes down the opposite side of the valley, its winding curves crudely chiseled into the earth.
On the other side there is a West Bank village nestled in a valley beneath a hilltop Jewish settlement trailing a cape of pine trees. A few miles further lives Raja Shehadeh, a veteran Holy Land hiker.
Shehadeh began exploring the hills around his home in the West Bank town of Ramallah in the late 1970s, around the same time he and other Palestinian lawyers founded Al-Haq, an organisation devoted to defending human rights in the occupied territories.
Since then most of the land has been fenced off, with concrete settlements sprouting on the high ground and much of the surrounding wilderness transformed into closed military zones.
“I was always conscious that things were going to change because I was aware of the Israeli plans for taking over the West Bank,” the short, wiry Shehadeh said in a soft voice tinged with sadness.
“So I thought I should enjoy the hills as much as I can before they vanish.”
In his 2007 book Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, Shehadeh provides a solitary hiker’s view of Israel’s tightening grip on the West Bank and the influx of Jewish settlers, often hostile to Palestinians.
Shehadeh, who always preferred to walk alone, now only hikes with groups and tries to avoid areas where he might run into settlers, who he says in the past have harassed him and reported him to the army.
Violent incidents in the West Bank increased after the second Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 but have since declined, although both Palestinians and Israelis have been attacked and killed in sporadic incidents in recent years.
Shehadeh fears that the next Palestinian generation may grow up steeped in the conflict but ignorant of the breathtaking land at the heart of it.
“I suppose in a way the Israeli attempt at restriction has had that in mind, to reduce the connection between people and their land,” he said.
Israel has said the restrictions – everything from the wall to the closed roads to the military zones – are necessary to protect its citizens from Palestinian attacks.
Shehadeh longs for a time when he could walk away from it all, off into the hills.
“The land is beautiful and should be open to everyone, as should be the whole of Palestine-Israel,” he said.
“Ultimately I think there is going to have to be some new relationship of being in the land. It cannot be based on exclusivity.”