Mount Gilboa is located above the Harod and Beit Shean valleys. In the spring, the area is carpeted with flowers, among them the famous Gilboa iris. The Gilboa Ridge is situated 650 meters above sea level, and, because of its proximity to the Great Rift Valley, its slopes are precipitous.
The Gilboa Ridge, which is some 18 kilometers in length and situated at a height of 650 meters above sea level, is the northernmost extension of Mount Samaria. Because of its proximity to the Great Rift Valley the slopes to the north and east, above the Harod Valley, are precipitous. This ridge is the site of Israel’s watershed: the tributaries of the Kishon River rise on the Gilboa and flow down to the Mediterranean, even though at some points they are only 13 kilometers distant from the Jordan River.
Most of the ridge is composed of hard chalk rock from the Eocene period. The steep northern slope is also hard chalk, from the earlier Cenomanian-Turonian period. Between these layers is sandwiched a narrow strip of soft chalk, from the Senonian-Pliocene era, while the edges of the Gilboa show evidence of volcanic activity. A geological fault runs along the bottom of the ridge, dividing it sharply from the Harod Valley at its foot.
This fault line is the source of a number of springs whose waters derive from the mountain aquifer. The largest and best known of the northern springs is Nahal Harod. Other springs, including Ein Harod and Ein HaShlosha, which emerge at the foot of the hill, provide water – brackish in some cases, fresh in others – for the land in the valley below through a variety of irrigation systems. The source of this water is rainfall in northern Samaria.
Flora and Fauna
The Gilboa’s abundant flora has made it a major attraction for tens of thousands of visitors. In most years, unless there is a drought, the mountain is covered in carpets of flowers in a variety of colours. Those on the north-western slopes belong to Mediterranean varieties, while those on the south-eastern slopes are characteristic of steppe regions. The first group includes plants that produce bulbs and tubers, such as members of the lily, iris and narcissus families: autumnal squill, lesser grape hyacinth, first-rain colchicum and, later, white winter crocus and bunch-flowered narcissus.
In the southern section, autumn crocuses can be found in some areas. In January these flowers are joined by cyclamen, mandrakes and anemones. The anemones of the Gilboa, like those in other parts of northern Israel, bloom in a variety of colours, especially early in the season. Later the red flowers dominate and carpet large expanses of the hillsides.
The anemones are the harbingers of the “red wave” of flowers, and are later joined by Sharon tulips – especially on Har Lapidim – Persian buttercups and Aleppo Adonis, with poppies bringing up the rear.
Purple Iris, Gilboa. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive.
The “blue wave” is represented by the Syrian cornflower thistle, the Barbary nut iris, storksbill, viper’s bugloss, spiny alkanet and anchusa. The various types of orchid and bee orchid also deserve a mention, as do Valerian and the Persian fritillary. From the end of February onwards, the mountain is covered with an abundance of additional flowers. Nor should we forget the wide variety of grasses, which provide potential grazing. The Giboa manages to strike a balance between grazing and conservation. Grazing is an economic consideration, and also prevents grasses from growing out of control and obliterating the flowering plants.
This is also where the Gilboa iris, one of the most impressive local species, can be found. Its violet flowers are very large and beautiful and appear mainly in early spring, throughout the month of March. The plant takes its name from the fact that it was first described on the Gilboa, though it is also found in smaller and less impressive concentrations in the Judean Desert and the environs of Ein Gev. Its six petals are of two kinds that occur alternately: three upright and three bent, adorned with dark patches. The seeds of this iris contain a mechanism that delays germination and extends it over a period of several years, thereby protecting the plant from the dangers posed by the frequent local droughts. For many years, this beautiful flower has tempted both visitors and plant dealers to dig up its tubers and either plant them in their gardens or sell them. As a result, the iris reached the brink of extinction, but rallied after the enactment of the wild plant protection law and the increased cooperation by visitors that followed in its wake.
The Gilboa is also famous for its carpets of anemones, tulips, Persian buttercups and Aleppo Adonis that flower in early spring.
Mammals found at the foot or on the margins of Mount Gilboa include the mountain gazelle, the rock hyrax, foxes, wildcats, rabbits, porcupines and small rodents. Various types of bat live in the caves, while swamp lynxes, badgers, mongooses and weasels can be found at the foot of the hill. Reptiles include tortoises, lizards and snakes.
Mount Gilboa in Jewish Sources
Mount Gilboa has a very long human history. It is one of the few mountains mentioned in the Bible, and was the site of one of the most tragic events in the annals of the Jewish People, when the Israelites, under King Saul, fled to the Gilboa after their defeat by the Philistines.
The Philistines caught up with Saul and killed his sons Jonathan, Avinadav and Melchishua, and the king fell on his own sword to avoid capture. The names of the Gilboa peaks and communities perpetuate the memory of Saul and his sons. “Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings…” lamented David after their deaths. And, indeed, there are no springs on the mountain itself. In some areas the bare rock is visible, and in those places there is almost no sign of vegetation.
Many parts of the mountain bear names of Biblical figures: the war of Gideon gave us Mount Lapidim and Mount Yitzpor, while Saul’s family provided Mount Saul, Mount Jonathan, Har Giborim (“Heroes’ Mountain”), Mount Avinadav, Mount Melchishua, Mount Ahinoam and Mount Avner.
In 1260 there was the significant battle of Ein Jalud, which was fought at the foot of Mount Gilboa in which the Muslim Mamluks, under Beybars, defeated the Mongols. This defeat put an end to the Mongols’ advance westwards; had the outcome been otherwise, the history of the European peoples would perhaps have been different.
Mount Gilboa experienced a settlement boom during the Roman era, and burial caves from the period have been found in the villages of Faqqua, Mutila and Mugheyr on the northern bank of Nahal Bezek. Remains of ancient settlement have also been found in the Arab village of Nuris, above Gidona, at Khirbet Geduda (above Kibbutz Heftziba) and other sites. These Gilboa communities lived mainly off agriculture, and the numerous wine presses in the region are evidence of the central role of vineyards in the local economy. With the Arab conquest in 636 CE, however, the Gilboa was abandoned completely, and remained deserted until a number of Arab villages were established there some 250 years ago.
In the 1920s the JNF began to acquire land in the Harod Valley at the foot of the mountain, and four communities were established there: Ein Harod, Tel Yosef, Heftziba and Beit Alfa. The occupants of the local Arab villages were displeased with this development, and for these Jewish communities, their presence in the area was fraught with danger.
In 1935, Arabs from the village of Mazar murdered Sergeant Moshe Rosenfeld, a Jew serving in the British police during the Mandate, and this was the signal for the outbreak of the Arab Revolt of 1936. Ein HaSamal (”The Sergeant’s Spring”), adjacent to the Hidden Valley, is named after Rosenfeld.
During Israel’s War of Independence, the Gilboa Arab villages became bases for the Iraqi army and the gangs that attacked the Jewish communities in the valley, and for a time only armored vehicles could be used on the road from Geva to Merhavia.
After the conquest of the village of Zir‘in in late May 1948, the other Arab communities in the Gilboa and the eastern Jezreel Valley area were abandoned. On July 10th, however, the Iraqi army took possession of the ridge all the way to the village of Mazar. Jews in the Jezreel Valley organized a general call-up, and, on the eve of the lull in the fighting that preceded the establishment of the border between Israel and Jordan, they made the exhausting climb to the top of Mount Barkan and claimed the Gilboa peak for the State of Israel. However, for a long time this peak was Israeli only in theory, as visitors feared to climb it without an accompanying security detail.
In 1958, KKL-JNF determined to improve the security situation on Mount Gilboa. It began by creating the patrol road along the Green Line, from Sandala in the south west, through Har Barkan, Faqqua and Jilabun to Mount Melchishua, and the descent to the Beit Shean Valley. A section of northern road was also created from Nurit, joining the patrol road to the west of Har Barkan. The work was extremely hazardous, and was carried out under the protection of Border Guards. Attacks by Arabs took their toll nonetheless: one of the road builders and several Border Guards were killed. The road builders referred to the junction of the two roads as “the golden gate”: the Jewish villages in the valley were visible from it, and anyone returning from the mountain considered himself safe from attack once he had reached the longed-for junction.
Tel Jezreel is opposite the main access road to the Gilboa from the west, to the north of the Taanach road (Route 675), between kilometer indicators 10 and 11. It was in Jezreel that King Ahab built his palace, and here that the Prophet Elijah asked him, “Hast thou killed and also taken possession….?”) because on the advice of his wife Jezebel, he had executed Naboth the Jezreelite, whose vineyard he coveted. The site has a lookout point and a recreational area at Ein Jezreel.
This peak is 302 meters above sea level and, as a result of a series of geological fractures, it juts out northwards from the chain of Gilboa peaks. Because of this, it provides excellent views and is easily identifiable when the Gilboa is viewed from afar. It takes its name from King Saul, who fell in battle against the Philistines (Samuel I, 31. Its Arabic name is Tel Kulila and Jewish residents of the valley referred to it as Har HaKelala (“The Mount of the Curse”), because of the similarity of sound. This, however, is a misnomer, as kulila means “perfect beauty,” and the hill featured in the songs of the local shepherds as a place to which one ascended to find peace of mind.
Archeological finds on the hill indicate the presence of human beings from the Paleolithic period, through the Early and Middle Bronze Age, the Israelite period and the Roman era right up to the Byzantine period. In the center of the square there was formerly a KKL-JNF fire-prevention lookout tower, but this was later moved. It is now located on Mount Barkan and can be seen from Mount Saul.
The cliffs on the northern face of the hill were once home to a colony of raptors (eagles and vultures), but after the mass poisonings of the 1950s and 1960s they never returned to nest at the site.
This is the Gilboa’s main recreational area and a recommended starting point for a walk northwards to Mount Saul, whose peak juts out from the main Gilboa ridge and so provides an unusually beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. Keen walkers can also use this as the starting point for a hike to Har Giborim, which offers a wonderful view all the way to Mount Hermon. On this hill the ruins of the Arab village of Mazar can be seen – the site of fierce battles during Israel’s War of Independence.