Banias Nature Reserve
Streams of the North
Getting there – Upper Galilee; Where Pan danced with the nymphs; The stream; Even gods need bread – the flour mill; The Suspended Trail and waterfall; The Blue Trail; Agrippa Palace; Fast forward a few centuries; The Syrian-Israeli War; The Lebanese Restaurant; The Corner Tower; Nimrod Castle;
Banias Nature Reserve - Getting There and Upper Galilee Beauty
Driving from Haifa, me and my daughter, Ela, passed by picturesque mountainous Arab villages, the type reminiscent of the geographical and cultural continuity of the Galilee with Lebanon.
Rama village and Majd al-Krum
Where Pan Danced With the Nymphs
Entering the reserve
Below is my nymph, checking out the elaborate brochure given at the entrance, with the site map and the info.
Learning the site
Me and Ela have both been to the Banias before on school or scouts trips, but none of us had seen the entire site. The only part etched in my personal memory were the niches for the god Pan, left empty due to incoming monotheistic religions opposed to images and sculptures of deities. Still, it is easy to imagine the nymphs bathing here freely, with Pan laughing in the background…
Panaeon (Paneas) – where Nature was worshipped
Prior to the Greek conquest, the Canaanite deity connected with the spirng was called Ba’al-Gad or Ba’al-Hermon. The Pan temple to the god of nature was aptly called “Panaeon”. Arabic pronunciation turned the “p” into a “b” and we ended up with “Banias”.
Even such a beautiful place was not spared its share of wars, all the way from ancient times till today. In 198 BCE, the Ptolomies fought the Seleucids in the Banias area for control of the Galilee. The Seleucid elephants won them the battle. To commemorate their victory, they built a temple dedicated to Pan, the goat-footed god of nature and wild things, credited with creating pan-ic in the enemy.
The ancient spring, being the source of the Banias (Hermon) Stream, used to emanate from this cave with a very substantial flow. Now the spring has relocated due to an earthquake, and dwindled. It used to flow into the now-drained Hula Lake, and from there to the Kinneret.
Deity niches, left empty by triumphant mothotheistic religions
Most interestingly, in the picture below, one can see small niches meant to store bones of holy goats that were sacrificed at the sanctuary for the god Pan:These holes were niches for bones of sacrificed holy goats. This place was a cardinal center for the worship of Pan, the mischevious goat god of nature, shepherds and flocks, and the god of theatrical criticism.
Herod’s northern reach
Once the Romans took the place over, their client king, Herod, gained control of the site, along with the rest of the Galilee. Josephus Flavius, the famous contemporary historian, tells us that in gratitude Herod built a temple by the springs, dedicated to his patron, Emperor Augustus.
However, scholars today opine that the real Augustus Temple was built nearby in an off-track place called Omrit. The above picture is, therefore, probably still part of the Sanctuary of Pan. I leave this debate to the scholars. Either way, the magnificent iconic Herodian-style workmanship is recognizable throughout Banias (see more pics below in the section about Agrippa Palace):
Perfection in workmanship. Herodian-style cut stones at Banias
With the death of Agrippa II around 92 CE came the end of Herodian rule, and the city was returned to the Roman province of Syria.
Banias Nature Reserve - The Stream
The catchment area of the Banias (Hermon) Stream includes parts of the northern Golan Heights and the Israeli part of Mount Hermon. At its highest, by the border of Lebanon with Syria, the Hermon reaches 2,814 m.
Due to its karstic nature, most of the water and snowmelt seep underground rather than flow on the surface. The mountian acts as a giant sponge… After flowing through the limestone, the water finally emerges as springs at the mountain foothills. These springs create the Dan, Banias (Hermon) and Snir (Hazbani) streams.
In the case of the Banias, the source of most of the water comes from springs below the Banias Cave. As mentioned above, in the past the springs bubbled out of the cave, but due to an earthquake, they now emanate from pools below it.
The beauty of the stream, in both its calm, tranquil parts and where it storms downhill, is extraordinary [See below the section about the Suspended Trail].
Even the Gods Need Bread - The Flour Mill
As we walked along the stream, we passed by a hydro-electric station which was used to supply electricity to the Syrian village that existed here prior to the 1967 war.
Next was the so-called Matroof flour mill. Matroof means it was also used to grind olives. The picture at the bottom is a not very successful attempt to photograph the olive press in its darkened location.
A mill is mentioned in the writings of a famed Arab geographer and traveler, Ibn Jubayr. He wrote that Banias was small, but had a castle, under the walls of which flowed a stream which was used to turn a mill.
I assume this mill and other mills on the grounds were built over even more ancient predecessors, extrapolating from similar devices around the country. I would love to hear from readers who are in the know regarding this.
Banias Nature Reserve - The Suspended Trail and the Waterfall
The total length of the Banias (Hermon) Stream in an aerial straight line is 9 km from the spring to its merge with the Dan . It descends 310 meters and flows downhill at an average 5.4% gradient, providing enough energy to cut a fairly deep canyon and create some beautiful cascades and waterfalls.
The 100-meters Suspended Trail is the highlight of the visit to the Banias Nature Reserve. The trail hangs against the basalt cliff of a narrow canyon, where the Hermon (Banias) stream gushes in full vigor.
The Banias gushing under the suspended trail
The Banias waterfall itself is also magnificent. It is also accessible from the “whaterfall parking lot”, and some people come just to see it.
Banias Nature Reserve - The Blue Trail
Most of our visit was spent on a walk back and forth on the Blue Trail. The trail starts at the main parking lot, and follows the stream until a certain point where it climbs uphill. From this elevation you get to see views of the Banias Canyon and the hills beyond. The Blue Trail eventually leads to the Red Trail, which includes the Suspended Trail and the Banias Waterfall. From there, it proceeds to the waterfall parking lot. We, instead, walked back all the way until we met the Purple Trail, which took us to the Palace of Agrippa.
The lower trail
In this section of the Blue Trail we walked along the stream, which often, thanks to the thick vegetation, disappeared only to reapper, as shown in the video below.
All that vegetation
Vegetation in the Banias Nature Reserve is especially rich and varied.
One of the seven blessed species of the Land of Israel:
The Seven Species may no longer dominate the diet of modern Israelis – but the biblical seven species still characterize the local landscape. They were the staple foods consumed by the Jewish people in the Land of Israel during biblical times. In modern Israel – with dozens of species in a diverse diet – only wheat remains a staple. However, the seven species dominate large areas of the countryside, accentuating a sense of continuity between the biblical Land of Israel and the modern state.
Oleander (Harduf) and sugar (or Spanish) canes
Oleander grows wildly here and in the Snir Stream Reserve and reaches grand dimensions. It is also a very common cultural plant growing all around the country in gardens and along roads.
As to the canes, unfortunately, I could not determine their identity with certainty. Most probably they are the so-called Giant, or Spanish cane.
Sugar cane was also grown fairly extensively in these areas. It was brought in by the Umayyads in the 7th century, and then got a new lease on life during the Crusade period, who even exported it to Europe.
Oriental Plane tree (Dolev)
The upper trail
When the trail climbs up into the open, new vistas of the canyon emerge, and the vegetation changes into that of grasses, prickles and other seasonal plants. In the spring, it is a bonanza of flowers, but we came in mid-summer, which has its own type of beauty.
Grasses and trees
Dry summer vegetation
Views of the Banias Canyon from the Blue Trail
Palace of Agrippa II and Panias City
When the kingdom was divided between Herod’s sons, Philip got the northern part. In the year 2 BCE, he made Paneas into his capital. He named it Caesarea Philipi, but the name Paneas persisted.
Agrippa the II built a magnificent palace for himself there by the second half of the first century CE. Paneas town kept developing side by side with the palace.
With the advent of Christianity and the Byzantian era, the Pan worship and rituals came to a halt, but the city continued to prosper. The palace was reassigned as a bathhouse.
According to Matthew 16:13-20, Caesarea Philippi was the place where Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, so this was a very important place in the history of Christianity as well:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Perfect arching arcade at the Agrippa Palace, another demonstration of the Herodian architectural prowess.
Various niches, corners and views of Panias City and the Agrippa Palace (Caesarea Philippi). Note the niche created to stabilise the wall that is now inhabited by a caper plant (or perhaps it was created to preserve the plant?)
Fast Forward a Few Centuries and Several Conquests...
As often happened around The Land, in the wake of the Muslim conquest, the city was rapidly depopulated and became a mere village. Only 14 of the 173 Byzantine sites in the area show signs of habitation from this period. [See also the effect of the Muslim conquest on the Nabatean cities in the Negev in my post about Mamshit].
In the tenth century, there was a short golden period where Jews, Muslims and Karaiites (a Jewish sect) brought new life to the town, that also hosted a Sunni sufi ascetic community.
During the Crusade period, Banias was contested due to its strategic location. The frontier between the Franks and the Muslims passed right there. Following a short period of Christian conquest, it was eventually returned to Muslim hands. After Saladin’s victory at Hittin in 1187, Banias kept declining. Mamluks and then Bedouins took it over for periods, but did not develop it. During the Ottoman period, it was a village with about 350 inhabitants.
Syrian-Israeli War Over the Sources of the Jordan
Syrian efforts to divert the Jordan River sources away from Israel
Following the 1948 Independence War, the Banias spring remained in Syrian territory. The Banias Stream flowed through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into Israel. In 1953, Syria tried to move the border so as to capture more of the stream, violating Israel’s water rights. Syria rejected an Israeli counter offer. In September 1953, Israel moved on with its plans for the National Water Carrier bringing water from the Kinneret and other sources to the coastal plane and the Negev.
The Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan allocated Syria 20 million cubic metres annually from the Banias, but at the 2nd Arab summit conference in Cairo of January 1964, the League decided that Syria, Lebanon and Jordan would begin a water diversion project.
In 1964, in violation of international law, Syria started constructing a canal to divert the Banias waters away from Israel to the Yarmouk River. Lebanon, on its part, was to construct a canal from the Hasbani River to the Banias. In 1965, Israel intervened militarily, first with tank fire and then with airstrikes, and destroyed the heavy equipment used to divert the water.
Banias and the Six-Day-War
These developments led eventually to the 1967 Syrian-Israeli War. On June 10, the last day of the Six Day War, the Golani Brigade occupied the village of Banias. The village was destroyed after its inhabitants fled, first to the Syrian Druze village of Majdal Shams and eventually they dispersed east into Syria.
It is always sad when simple folk pay the heavy price for the misdeeds of their unelected leaders.
Following the war, the site was declared a nature reserve, and multiple archaeological digs were launched to unearth its rich history. The Israel Parks and Nature Reserve Authority conserves and develops the ruins of Panias and the pagan sites.
The four Israelis who died in the battle of the Banias, 1967.
The Lebanese Restaurant
Hungry after a long day, we stopped by the wonderful Lebanese Restaurant right next to the Banias Nature Reserve to have a belated lunch.
The following picture is courtesy of my daughter:
The wonderful Lebanese Restaurant, just outside the Banias Nature Reserve, with a stream runing through it
The place was incredibly beautiful with a mini-stream running through it. We, of course, sat right over the water.
From Roman Times to Modern Syria - The Corner Tower
When we exited the Banias Nature Reserve, an imposing ancient structure revelead itself by the parking lot. The “Corner Tower”, as it is called, apparently served for various purposes in different periods. Its construction is almost a stratigraphic representation of the history of Banias and much of the Galilee generally: the straight-cut stones are Roman; the ones with side cuttings are Ayyubid (Kurdish dynasty ruling Israel during the 12-13th centuries); the small stones were used to build a house for the Ottoman shaykh; the addition on the top is modern Syrian.
The so-called Corner Tower, by the Banias Nature Reserve
Nimrod Castle - Defending the Road to Damascus...
Under the Crusaders, Banias was known as Belinas. On the hills above, an hour’s walk away, they built the impressive Subeiba Castle, today known as Nimrod Castle, which still dominates the pass leading up to Damascus.
When we booked the visit to the Banias Nature Reserve, I also booked a visit to the Nimrod Castle. According to the tickets, the park should have been opened until 6 pm. We arrived at the gate at 5:05 only to find out it was closed. The guard did not waste any manners in telling us to leave…
To make the best of the situation, we went to my cousin’s house in Kibbutz Yir’on on the Lebanese border, and enjoyed a heart-warming family gathering.
This is the view of Hezbollah-controlled Southern Lebanon from my cousin’s house: