Jerusalem Hills: A Walk along the Martyrs’ Trail

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.

The Martyrs’ Trail

The Martyrs’ Trail is a short route that makes its way through a woodland that combines planted forest with local native trees. It begins at the Scroll of Fire Memorial and ends in the gully of the Kisalon Stream, at the B'nai B'rith Cave parking lot.

The Forest of the Martyrs enrobes the steep slopes of the Nahal Kisalon (“Kisalon Stream”) gully, which crosses the Jerusalem Hills. KKL-JNF began work on the forest in 1951 with the help of the B'nai B'rith organization, which raised funds to plant the trees. Scattered throughout the forest, which was planted after the State of Israel was founded to serve as the principal memorial site to Jewish communities that perished in the Holocaust, are monuments to the memory of European Jewish communities that were obliterated. In the 1950s this was KKL-JNF’s flagship project, but eventually the Forest of the Martyrs was replaced by Yad VaShem as the State of Israel’s main site for the commemoration of Holocaust and heroism.

The beauty of the area of the forest that we are about to walk through lies in its combination of cultivated trees and natural Mediterranean woodland, and in the remains of an ancient site along the way. In winter and spring a whole host of wildflowers bloom here and paint the forest with an endless variety of color. Especially prominent are the large white flowers of the sage-leaved rockrose (Cistus salviifolius) and the delicate pink blooms of Greek sage (Salvia fruticosa Mill). In wintertime these are joined by crowds of anemones and cyclamen.

Our route begins at the Scroll of Fire Memorial and descends towards the Yemenite Jewry Forest’s recreation area. The difference in altitude between the memorial site and the parking lot beside the B'nai B'rith Cave is around 300 meters.

The stretch of the route from the Scroll of Fire Memorial to the Nahal Kisalon Scenic Lookout is suitable for experienced walkers. The remaining stretch, from the scenic lookout to the B'nai B'rith Cave, is classified as “extreme.”

Please note:
The direct access route to the Scroll of Fire Memorial is currently closed. However, the site can be reached from inside Moshav Kisalon (though the route is not signposted). If the back gate to the moshav is closed, you can park beside it and walk the 200 meters to the memorial site.

The Scroll of Fire Memorial

We park our car close to the Scroll of Fire sculpture, which is one of most moving monuments in Israel. Constructed in the form of two scrolls, it is situated in the heart of the Forest of Martyrs, where KKL-JNF has planted six million trees in memory of those who died in the Holocaust.

Nathan Rapoport, who created the sculpture, spent over three years working on it in Italy. The result is an affecting work of art sculpted in bronze, about eight meters in height and weighing over twelve tons. Its surface is covered in so many scenes that every visit to the site seems to reveal new depictions.

The sculpture’s twin scrolls recount the history of the Jewish People. One portrays the disasters that have befallen the nation, from the destruction of the Temple to the Holocaust. Where this scroll of destruction meets the second scroll, which symbolizes rebirth, a female figure can be seen rising above a wire fence, while another figure is shown kneeling and attempting to draw breath. People are depicted sailing towards the coast of Israel and bringing both the country and themselves back to life.

To the ancient site

From the small parking lot adjacent to the Scroll of Fire Memorial we continue for about 150 meters along the paved road that encircles the memorial, until we reach the point where a green-marked dirt track branches off to the left (westwards). A KKL-JNF sign informs us that this is the Martyrs’ Trail.

The trail descends through an area of planted forest for about 300 meters before becoming a footpath that turns to the right and leads us into a clearing in the forest. Here we can see the remains of ancient utensils and cisterns hewn into the rock. We do not know the name of these ruins, nor do we know the name of the ancient settlement that once occupied this site. The eye is especially drawn to two square stone columns about the height of a human being, which have a deep groove and a hole at one end. These columns once formed part of an ancient olive press, and they were used to anchor the beam that pressed the olives after they had been crushed to release their oil. This type of olive press was common in the Judean Hills in Mishnaic and Talmudic times.

In the center of the forest clearing is a rectangular hole that contains water. We suspect that it was used to collect the water that flowed from the small cave nearby, but there is no proof of this. In any case, in November 2013 and May 2015 the hole contained a good deal of water. All around are terraces and caves that were used as pens for flocks.

Further down the slope

Our route continues past a big carob tree and descends alongside large terraces where it narrows and becomes suitable for pedestrians only. Along the way we encounter the finest tree and bush species the Mediterranean woodland has to offer. This attractive section continues for about half a kilometer before culminating in another dirt road. Here we turn right, then immediately left, to make our way down a steep slope. The Arizona cypresses (Cupressus arizonica) planted by KKL-JNF beside the trail are worthy of note, and can easily be identified by their grayish leaves and their bark, which peels off in strips to reveal the attractively reddish brown trunk beneath.
Every now and again we pass a marble slab that commemorates a community annihilated in the Holocaust. At the point where the path turns right, close to where it meets up with a broad trail, is a ceramic plaque that bears the words “The Jewish Quarter” and a description, by Norah Menashe, of her local neighborhood, the Rhodes Juderia, whose Jewish residents were sent to the Nazi crematoria.

The Yemenite Jewry Forest Recreation Area

From here we need walk only for another 400 meters or so to reach the Yemenite Jewry Forest, which lies adjacent to Route no. 395. This name of this forest honors the memory of the Yemenite immigrants who founded a number of the moshavim in this area, including Eshtaol, Givat Yearim, Tarom, Naham and Yish‘i. Many of those early settlers were employed by KKL-JNF to help prepare land and plant forests in the Jerusalem Hills like that through which we are now walking. KKL-JNF is currently engaged in planning a memorial site here for Yemenite Jews, many of whom perished as they crossed vast distances on foot in an attempt to reach the Land of Israel.

A view of Nahal Kisalon

A short trail leads to a scenic lookout that offers a magnificent view of the Kisalon Stream (Nahal Kisalon). We carefully cross Route no. 395 and walk among newly planted saplings – mainly young Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum) – towards the veteran pine forest. Our route is still indicated by green trail markings. About 350 meters further on we come to the remains of a winepress on the right-hand side of the trail, flanked by two seats shaded by a pergola. This is the moment to sit down and take a break to enjoy a marvelous view of the Nahal Kisalon gully, which at this point takes the form of a deep ravine clad entirely in woodland. On the far side of the gully the communities of Beit Meir and Shoresh can be seen.

To the B'nai B'rith Cave

From the Nahal Kisalon Scenic Lookout our path descends very steeply into the gully. This section of the route, which is about half a kilometer in length, has a cumulative descent of about 100 meters, and slopes so steeply as to be considered “extreme.” KKL-JNF has provided wooden steps along the path, but this stretch needs to be negotiated with great caution nonetheless.

About 50 meters from the scenic lookout point we arrive at a prominent lump of rock to the left of the trail. From here the view of Nahal Kisalon is even more splendid than from the “official” vantage point where we paused earlier, and the Forest of the Martyrs can be seen here in all its glory. At the westerly entrance to the Kisalon gully we have a clear view of Moshav Eshtaol, with Eshtaol Forest behind it, and the window in the landscape created by the gully reveals the Coastal Plain all the way to Ramla and beyond.

After we pass the entrance to a cave we reach a steep section of the route, where we need to descend carefully. Just a few meters more, and we arrive at the flight of steps that goes along the cliff where the B'nai B'rith Cave is situated. The cave was designed as a site for reflection and remembrance of those who died in the Holocaust, but it is generally closed to visitors.

Close to the cave is the parking lot where your pick-up vehicle should be waiting. However, as we are here now in any case, we should take the time to visit the Anna Frank memorial, which is adjacent to the parking lot.

The Anna Frank Memorial

Along the two short paths lead from the B'nai B'rith Cave parking lot to the Anna Frank Memorial are signposted plaques that quote from her diary. One of these quotations powerfully influenced Piet Cohen, who designed the memorial: “Dear Kitty… Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered in leaves and even more beautiful than last year,” (Anna Frank, Diary of a Young Girl, May 13th, 1944).

Piet Cohen, who as a boy had also hidden from the Nazis in the southern Netherlands, sought, in this work, to convey something of the world that Anna saw from her place of concealment. Using rusted steel, he created a space designed to resemble a small room with a single seat in one corner. When sitting on the seat, one can look at an abstract depiction of a chestnut tree inside a blank wall, with small windows between its branches– a scintilla of freedom glimpsed briefly from within the oppression of imprisonment.