The Bridges of Beit Shean County

2018 ended with some pretty cold, rainy weather but 2019 got off to a good start with several sunny days in succession – at least in the east of the country, which is the focal point of the current series of Yad Ben Zvi study-tours in which I am taking part.
Two days into the New Year, we headed north-east in the direction of the Beit Shean valley, in the Lower Galilee district of northern Israel. This is the area known as the Valley of the Springs (Emeq Hama’ayanot – עמק המעיינות), lying at the foot of the Mountains of Gilboa.  It is a popular region for hiking, because of the many streams and springs which are found there.

Our first stop was at the Al-Kantara Bridge, which we reached by travelling along the ancient Nachal Amal  (the Amal Stream).  The bridge, which was built in the Mamluk period (1260 – 1517), carried an aqueduct which brought water from Nachal Amal to the agricultural areas north of Nachal Harod (the Harod Stream), which it crossed.



In this close-up picture, you may be able to see more clearly the travertine wall which the calcium carbonate-rich waters of the stream have created below the bridge.



The bridge originally had three arches. One of them collapsed and was repaired by the British Mandate authorities – efficiently, no doubt, but with little regard for authenticity, as you can see, for they used concrete rather than stone or bricks.

I mentioned earlier that we were blessed with bright, sunny weather, although it was far from being a hot day. The Beit Shean Valley can be unbearably hot and humid in summer, but on January 2nd, it was hovering around a comfortable 20 degrees C and I felt no need or desire to discard either of the two light sweaters I was wearing. However, the heavy rain of the previous days had had two effects. One, the ground was still exceedingly muddy and, in many places, one had to take great care not to slip. The other – more pleasant – was that everywhere around us was green and bursting with life, although the carpets of wildflowers which mark the beginning of spring were not yet visible. However, there are some growing things that follow the rain, as surely as night follows day:



The next place on our itinerary was the Twin Flour Mills, also known as the Bridge Mill, one (or perhaps I should say two?) of the approximately 30 flour mills located along the course of the Harod Stream and powered by its rushing waters.











Known as “the Twin Mills” because of the two identical water funnels situated between them, they were powered by water flowing along the river from the bottom of a 7-metre high cascade into a central aqueduct dating from the Byzantine era and thence, into a secondary aqueduct built some time in the pre-Arab era.


As I said, the mill is also known as the Bridge Mill, because it is situated beside a bridge originally built by the Romans, but later renovated by the Ottoman Turks.

Speaking of bridges – we were now on what is known as “the Bridges Trail” – for obvious reasons, as you will see from the pictures below. As we wandered along the Harod Stream, everywhere we looked was green and growing.






















Eventually, we reached the so-called “Truncated Bridge”.



Built on mighty arches towering 14 metres above the Harod Stream, the remains of this enormous bridge testify to the power and importance of Beit Shean (Scythopolis) in Roman times.  But the bridge collapsed in the earthquake which destroyed the city in 749 CE. There is, however, a local Arab legend which tells a different story of how the bridge came to be broken. According to this legend, the Crusader king, Godfrey of Bouillon, was a mighty warrior, who wrought havoc upon the Muslims, by virtue of a magical crown which had the power of rendering him invisible. He was thus able to break through the Muslim lines and cut down his enemies at will.
In despair, the Muslims called upon their greatest hero, Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed, for assistance. (Ali actually lived and died some 440 – 450 years before Godfrey, but facts are facts and legends are legends.)
Ali sallied forth at the head of his army, and actually succeeded in besting the Crusaders – until Godfrey donned his magic crown, at which point, the tide of battle turned and Godfrey managed to wound the Muslim warrior in his arm, forcing him to retreat to the as-yet-unbroken bridge. There, Ali prayed for assistance from Allah. Allah heard his prayer and sent his servant El-Khader (identified by some as Elijah the Prophet), who flew over the heads of the protagonists and snatched off Godfrey’s magic crown. Thus, the Crusader warrior became visible to his rival. Ali then raised his sword and smote Godfrey such a mighty blow as to cleave him, his horse and the bridge on which they fought, in two.
As I said, facts are facts and legends are legends. Historians relate that Godfrey actually died in Jerusalem, after a prolonged illness (attributed,  by some, to poison) some 450 years after Ali was assassinated in Kufa  (Iraq).






Continuing our walk beside the stream, we saw many fascinating sights, such as this shed snakeskin:



We were accompanied by the babbling of rushing water:






And everywhere, cranes were flying overhead:




Eventually, we reached our next port-of-call, the Nachal Tavor railway bridge:




The bridge was built by the Ottoman Turks as part of the Hejaz Railway in the first decade of the 20th century. This was a narrow-gauge railway, intended to connect Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, with Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Construction was halted by the outbreak of World War I, in which the Ottoman Empire found itself on the losing side, and thus, the line only got as far as Medina.

The Nachal Tavor Bridge was part of the branch line connecting the Port of Haifa to Dera’a in Syria, on the main Damascus-Medina line. Its last stop within Mandatory Palestine was at Al-Hamma, now known as Hammat Gader, and it was part of the legendary Jezreel Valley Railway.
Regular services on this part of the line ceased after Israel’s War of Independence (1948 – 1949), partly because of the incompatibility of its narrow gauge with the rest of the Israeli rail system, not to be renewed until 2016!

As we walked back to the bus, the sun was beginning to sink slowly in the west, its rays reflected in the many fishponds in the vicinity:




I was fascinated to see many “islands” of what looked like tiny windmills, scattered across the ponds.  I was told that, in order to ensure the quality of the water, dozens of little pumps serve to make sure the waters are well-mingled and the oxygen content evenly distributed:



Our final destination (I couldn’t resist that one, in view of the previous railway references) was the Gesher lookout point, offering a magnificent view of the Jordan Valley, all the way beyond the river  into the Hashemite Kingdom:

This was an opportunity to summarise all we had learned today, about the history of the bridges of Beit Shean County.

Our next tour is due to take place next week. Before that, however, I must just add a brief update on my previous post and tell you that last week, the terrorist Assam Barghouti, who carried out the terror attack at the Givat Assaf Junction last month, and who, together with his brother Saleh, was responsible for the murder of the baby Amiad Yisrael Ish-Ran at Hanukkah, was finally arrested last week. He was apparently planning yet another terror attack which, thankfully, was thwarted by his arrest.  As members of his victims’ families noted, his arrest brings no real comfort, other than the prevention of future attacks,  because he was taken alive and will very likely be released some time in the future, as has happened with other terrorist murderers. However, I join the Security Services in hoping that, besides preventing the attack he was planning at the time of his arrest, they will also be able to extract from him information about other terrorists who were involved in the attacks at Givat Assaf and at Ofra, and who may still be active in terror cells.

And, to be quite honest – I care very little what they have to do to extract that information from him.

About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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4 Responses to The Bridges of Beit Shean County

  1. CATachresis says:

    I remember joining an archaeological dig at Beit Shean back in 1991. I don’t remember it looking like that!! Things change!

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