Hill 314 to Latrun Monastery – A Historical Hike

A signpost along the route. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik
A signpost along the route. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik

We set out from Eshtaol Forest and descend to the Latrun Monastery (also known as the Trappist Monastery).

  • How to get there

    to Hill 314
    Between Nahshon Junction (Tzomet Nahshon) and Latrun Junction (Tzomet Latrun) (Route no. 3), close to Kibbutz Nahshon, turn southwards towards the community of Neveh Shalom. Those approaching from the direction of Latrun will turn right for Neveh Shalom at HaMovil Interchange (Tzomet HaMovil). We drive past Neveh Shalom and continue for 2.5 kilometers until we reach the large KKL-JNF sign at the entrance to Eshtaol Forest. To the south of this sign (i.e., on the right) is the fortified military outpost on Hill 314. We recommend continuing for another 250 meters or so and parking at the edge of the recreation area dedicated to the memory of Israeli humanitarian and peace activist Abie Nathan, from where we can easily make our way back to Hill 314 on foot.

    to Latrun Monastery
    Between the Latrun Junction and 7th Brigade Junction (Tzomet Hativa Sheva), at the point where Route no. 3 meets up with Route no. 424, beside the gas station, turn southward and follow the signs to the monastery.
  • Opening hours

    Opening hours for visiting the monastery:
    Winter: 8.30-11.00 and 14.30-16.00
    Summer: 8.30-12.00 and 15.30-17.00

    Opening hours at the monastery shop:
    Winter: 8.00-17.00
    Summer: 8.30-17.30
    The monastery is closed to the public on Sundays
  • Recommanded season

    Autumn, winter, spring
  • Geographic location-

    Jerusalem - Judean highlands and surroundings,Judean Foothills
  • Area-

  • Target audience-

  • Track type-

    Walking path
  • Difficulty-

  • Season-

  • Duration-

    1-2 hours
  • Features-

    Flowers; picnic; history and art; part of the Israel National Trail
  • Interest-

    Hiking and Walking Tracks

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

Hill 314

Hill 314 is one of those elevations that are barely noticeable at first. However, as soon as we reach the top we at once realize its importance, as it commands an excellent view of the section of highway between Latrun and Nahshon Junction. During Israel’s War of Independence, this stretch of road was of great strategic importance in the battle for Jerusalem and the fighting in the Latrun area, and the hill is studded with signs that tell the story of those conflicts. To the north, above the roofs of Neveh Shalom, the hilltop on which the Latrun fortress stands can be clearly seen, with the monastery at its foot. We shall arrive there at the end of our walk.

Hill 314 played a vital role in Operation Bin Nun Alef, which took place on the night of May 24th-25th, 1948. During this operation, forces from the newly-created 7th Brigade and the 32nd Battalion attempted to break through the Latrun sector, which was under the control of Jordan’s Arab Legion at the time. The force came under heavy fire, and Ram Ron, who commanded the 1st company of the 32nd Battalion, withdrew to Hill 314 and dug in there in order to withstand the legion’s attacks and provide cover for the retreat of the battalion’s 2nd company. Over 70 fighters from the attacking force were killed in Operation Bin Nun Alef. Later on in the war, this hill played an important role once again, as it screened from Jordanian Latrun the Burma Road, which was the lifeline to beleaguered Jerusalem. After the war, Hill 314 came under the control of the State of Israel, and it served as an IDF forward post that secured the armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Today the remains of trenches and foxholes can still be seen among the mastic bushes (Pistacia lentiscus), the Mediterranean buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides) and a lone, conspicuous carob tree.

The Abie Nathan recreation Area and Eshtaol Forest

From Hill 314 we walk eastwards for about 300 meters along the dirt road indicated by black markings until we arrive at an attractive section of Eshtaol Forest that signals our arrival at the edge of the woodland. This section includes a recreation area dedicated to the memory of the famous peace activist Abie Nathan (1927-2008), who immigrated to Israel from India and served as a volunteer pilot during Israel’s War of Independence. Abie Nathan flew twice to Egypt in his private plane (on February 28th, 1966 and July 28th, 1967) to deliver a message of peace, but was promptly deported. Thereafter he delivered his peace message by means of his private radio station the Voice of Peace, which broadcast from a ship anchored off the shores of Tel Aviv.

In the recreation area, we meet up with the Israel Trail and follow it down towards Nahal Nahshon. Our path leads us along a dirt road that follows the edge of Eshtaol Forest, which sprawls over an area of some 12,000 dunams (approx. 3,000 acres) to the south of the Tel Aviv-to-Jerusalem Highway. The forest is planted on low soft-chalk hillsides that rise to a height of up to 350 meters above sea level. The highway from Shaar HaGai to Nahshon Junction (Route no. 38) borders the forest to the east.

KKL-JNF has invested a lot of work in Eshtaol Forest, providing it with marked scenic routes suitable for private cars and signposting the main sites. The routes through the forest are dotted with recreation areas suitable for picnicking.

Neveh Shalom Cemetery

We follow the Israel Trail as it descends along a dirt road at the edge of Eshtaol Forest. After about 400 meters we come to a gate on the left-hand side of the road. This is the entrance to the cemetery that belongs to the community of Neveh Shalom. Here we can rest on one of seats overlooking the landscape or walk along the path that, 200 meters further on, brings us to a round white structure. This is the House of Silence (Beit Dumia), where we can sit on a mat, contemplate the view from the big window and absorb the peaceful atmosphere.

Neveh Shalom was founded in 1969 to promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and today Muslims, Christians and Jews live there together side by side. The establishment of Neveh Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”) was the realization of the dream of its founder, Father Bruno Hussar, a Dominican monk who was born as a Jew in Egypt. His tombstone bears both a cross and a Star of David.

Nahal Nahshon

The Israel Trail descends into the shallow gully of Nahal Nahshon (“Nahshon Stream”), whose modest winter flows are notable for the presence of the tall stalks of giant cane (Arundo donax), which also mark our crossing point. Vineyards flourish along the banks of the stream, and the entire gully is a nature reserve that supports a population of southern banded newts (Triturus vittatus), an amphibian that faces an uncertain future. Further upstream is a lone Syrian ash tree (Fraxinus syriaca), which is the only one of its kind growing wild in Israel south of the Hula Valley and the Golan Heights – if, indeed, it is actually growing wild here. Willows can be found further downstream.

Moving upstream, we come to the Hila Well (B’er Hila in Hebrew or Bir al-Hilu – “Sweet Well” – in Arabic), which serves as the principal water source for Latrun Monastery. At the end of the Roman period or in Byzantine times, this well was part of an ancient waterworks that comprised a deep shaft and a tunnel around thirty meters in length. The well house that can be seen there today blocks access to the site. In the 1930s the British Mandate maintained a tree nursery near the well, and the large, impressive eucalypts that grow at the site today are the legacy it has left behind for future generations.

Latrun Fortress

The Israel Trail now leads us down a broad dirt road that continues straight on along a slope crowned with olive groves, some of whose trees have reached an advanced age. This pastoral scene is extremely peaceful. After we pass a large jujube tree (Ziziphus spina-christi) we arrive at a crossroads. To our right looms the Latrun Fortress, which we shall not approach, as it is not equipped for visits and wandering among the ruins and the Arab Legion’s old communications trenches could be hazardous.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile pointing out here that the site includes the remains of a fortress built by the Crusaders as part of its system of defenses around Jerusalem. The first guard tower was constructed there in about 1132, and in 1141 the site passed into the hands of the Templars, who built a large fortress named Le Toron des chevaliers (“The Knights’ Tower”), which, over the years, was shortened to “Latrun.” The armies of Salah al-Din (Saladin) destroyed the fortress in 1187, but the Crusaders were not easily deterred, and they reoccupied the site in 1229. Several years later they were ejected once more, never to return.

Latrun Monastery

Instead of heading for the fortress, we turn our steps leftward down the path and follow the Israel Trail for about half a kilometer until it leads us to the entrance to Latrun Monastery, whose official name is Le Monastère de Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs (“The Monastery of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows”). The monks who live there are Trappists who belong to an offshoot of the Benedictine Order and refrain from conversation insofar as possible, and because of this Latrun is sometimes referred to as “the monastery of the silent monks.” The monastery’s lands were purchased from residents of the village of Amwas (Emmaus). In 1887, after a number of different incarnations, the site was bought by a Trappist monk named Louis Villette, who wanted to build a monastery close to Emmaus, where, according to the New Testament, Jesus revealed himself to two of his disciples after his resurrection. Later other monks joined the group and planted vineyards, olive groves and vegetable plots. During the First World War the site was overrun by the Ottoman army, but when the war ended the monks returned to the site, and in 1960 they completed the construction of the monastery that stands there today.

Today the Latrun monks still speak as little as possible and refrain from eating meat, fish or eggs. Newcomers are accepted only after a novitiate of six years. The church at the site is long, narrow and almost unadorned, as appropriate to the monks’ modest way of life. Above the door at the entrance is a portrayal of Jesus eating together with the two disciples to whom he revealed himself after his resurrection. A collection of archeological finds – ossuaries, broken pillars and an inscription from the tomb of a Roman soldier – is on display in the monastery courtyard. Beside the entrance, in the Garden of Brotherhood, is a carved wooden memorial depicting the figures of the great Biblical commentator Rashi, Bernard of Clairvaux, the spiritual leader of the Trappist Order – who supported the crusades but condemned crusaders’ attacks on Jews – and Salah al-Din, who allowed the Crusaders to leave their fortresses in peace after they had surrendered.

A tourist market is held there on Saturdays. Locally produced wine, olives and olive oil can be bought at the monastery shop.

Opening hours for visiting the monastery:
Winter: 8.30-11.00 and 14.30-16.00
Summer: 8.30-12.00 and 15.30-17.00

Opening hours at the monastery shop:
Winter: 8.00-17.00
Summer: 8.30-17.30
The monastery is closed to the public on Sundays.