Jordan Valley & River Park

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Jordan River. (Photo: S. Magal)
Map of the area of Jordan Valley & River Park. (© Carta, Jerusalem)

Behold, he shall come up like a lion from the swelling of Jordan… (Jer 49:19)

In sharp contrast to its legendary dimensions, the Jordan River is neither wide, nor deep, nor long, and according to the definition of many geographers it is a stream rather than a river. Nevertheless, for millions of people, it is a most important river, perhaps better known than the rivers in their own country. The Jordan and its banks are variegated, and one section is quite unlike the next. Between the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge and the Sea of Galilee, a distance of only 11 km, it becomes a gushing mountain stream, descending from an altitude of 70 m above sea level to 210 m below sea level, a major drop by any standard. This section is called the “Jordan Valley” (in the past it was referred to as the “mountainous Jordan”) and together with its slopes constitutes a nature reserve.
For many years, this section of the river was inaccessible and unknown to the public, for lack of trails. When the borders for Palestine were established by the British Mandate, all this section of the river, together with a strip of land 300 m wide to the east of it, were included in the Mandate’s jurisdiction. During Israel’s War of Independence, the Syrian armed forces succeeded in capturing the territory to the east of the Jordan River, and this prevented access to it. In effect, the Syrians maintained strategic domination over the western section of the valley, part of which had been declared a demilitarized zone. Israeli inaccessibility to this area prevented the Government from beginning the National Water Carrier Project. The Project contained plans for building a dam beside the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge in order to divert water from the river.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the entire area came under Israeli administration. For the first time, hikers discovered this wild watercourse in all its splendor: a torrential stream, especially in spring; small waterfalls skipping over black basalt rock; along its banks a thick growth of reeds, willow trees, and oleander bushes that produce abundant flowers in shocking pink. There are steep slopes on both sides of the river that yield herbs in winter, as well as the Christ’s Thorn Jujube tree (Ziziphus spinus-Christi). This gives the eastern bank landscape the appearance of a “forest.”
The bed of the river widens as it approaches the northern part of the Sea of Galilee. The lower section, closest to the lake, has been set aside as a recreation and nature area called Park Hayarden (Jordan River Park). The Jewish National Fund [JNF] has made large investments in landscaping and facilities. At the bends in the river there is rich vegetation, some of it planted, as well as designated recreation sites. Remnants of flour mills driven by the water’s current, with conduits leading to each one, have been preserved, and add to the historical ambiance of the landscape.

Jordan river park (Park Hayarden)

Sites to visit

The JNF began developing the park in 1975. Visitors enter a recreation area of 250 acres with hiking trails, bridges that span the rivulets, expansive grassy areas and picnic tables. Overnight camping is allowed with advance notice. Archaeological sites are scattered throughout the park, including remains of settlements beginning from the period of the First Temple, and flour mills.

1. Flour mills
The voluminous water current powered more than 12 flour mills, the majority of which were of the “horizontal type.” This model was used where there was a strong current; in weak-current streams, mills were constructed with flues and were known as “vertical wheel” mills. These flues concentrated the water and amplified the strength of the current. The JNF renovated several aqueducts and restored two “horizontal” water mills.

Jordan River. (Photo: S. Magal)

2. Bethsaida 
In the days of the Second Temple, there was a fishing village on this site which took its name from the Hebrew word for “fisherman” (dayag). Philip, the son of Herod the Great, was appointed tetrarch of Gaulanitis (the Bashan) and made this urban center its capital. He named it Julias after the daughter of Augustus Caesar.
The town is mentioned many times in the New Testament. According to Christian tradition, three Apostles—Peter, his brother Andrew, and Philip—were born here. Jesus visited Bethsaida when he set out to preach in the Jewish villages of Galilee, and several miracles are attributed to him at this place. Bethsaida was destroyed in the great Jewish revolt against the Romans. Excavations have exposed the Old Testament city, as well as finds from the Second Temple and Hellenistic periods.

View of the Jordan valley. (Photo: S. Magal)

3. Ein Mishpa
This spring is southwest of Bethsaida. A rivulet that reaches the Jordan River flows from the spring source forming a beautiful pool. There are picnic tables all along the rivulet.

4. Park Hiking Trail
The Jewish National Fund built a walking trail which begins at the flour mills, traverses a rivulet of the Jordan, continues north the entire length of the water’s course and returns to the water mills. There are picnic tables the length of the rivulet.

5. Abu Kayak 
Kayaking and rubber boats, suitable for the entire family, are available in the Park. This facility is located in the southern section of the Jordan River Park.

View of the Jordan valley. (Photo: S. Magal)

Outside the Park and Nature Reserve

Katzrin: Archaeological Park
The archaeological park is located southeast of the new town of Katzrin on a low rise which gradually slopes northward. An archaeological survey conducted by Shmarya Guttman in 1967 uncovered the remains of an ancient synagogue from the first centuries ce. These findings are in relatively good condition. The structure was built from locally-hewn stone. The gate of the synagogue is in place, as well as many architectural features of the building. Inscriptions were found, including a tombstone inscription in Hebrew which reads: “Rabbi Avon, may he ever be respected.” Later surveys uncovered additional items: a large doorpost upon which stood a candelabrum with five branches, and a bird that appears to be a peacock. The entire complex (synagogue, living quarters, and agricultural facilities) has been restored and renovated and is open to the public.

Jordan River. (Photo: S. Magal)

Golan Antiquities Museum
The museum, located near the central commercial area in Katzrin, exhibits artifacts from three historical periods: pre-historic, Canaanite, and First and Second Temple. A fourth exhibit displays findings from synagogues. In addition, there is a collection of items from churches, as well as sculpture and art motifs.

Golan Winery Visitors Center
A visit to the winery includes a guided tour of the production process, a video giving back-ground to wine production in the area and the establishment of this winery, and a tasting room accompanied by explanation of several varieties of wines and the art of tasting.

Jordan River. (Photo: S. Magal)

By: Azaria Alon