In the Talmudic period, Birya was a Jewish township that was home to many renowned sages. Much later it was the scene of the activities of Rabbi Joseph Caro, one of the great halachic arbiters, and it was in Birya, in 1555, that he completed his book Orah Hayim, which forms part of his great work the Shulhan Arukh. Towards the end of the 16th century, however, the Jews of Birya appear to have abandoned the township. The Arab village that sprang up later on the site preserved its ancient Hebrew name, and its inhabitants, together with those of Kfar Zeitim, supplied agricultural produce to Tzfat: the paved road we are walking along now was once used by the donkeys and mules that carried this produce to the town’s Friday market.
A bridge over Birya River. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive
Present-day Birya, which occupies what was formerly the site of the Arab village, was founded in 1949 as a foresters’ community. The Meron-Tzfat Highway (Route no. 89), which skirts the park to the north, dates back to 1915; since the construction of the new road, the importance of the old one has greatly declined.
The road is bordered by tall cypress trees that mark the site of the Muslim and Christian Arab cemetery that dates from the late Ottoman period. Ancient mastic trees grow among the graves, and in March this area teems with wild flowers such as chamomile (Anthemis), red chamomile (Adonis microcarpa), star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum), Italian orchids, fan-lipped orchids and Dinsmore’s orchids.
In April and May, the site is bright with the flowers of the Mesopotamian Iris, a species often found in Arab cemeteries. The flowering stalks of these plants can reach a height of 1.2 meters and they bear three or four large bluish-violet flowers. In the past this iris was believed to belong to a cultivated variety that had spread into the wild, but in recent years wild populations of it have been discovered in Upper Galilee and on the northern Golan Heights and Mount Hermon.
When we reach the pools (station no. 1) we can choose to end our walk at this point and return to our vehicle, in accordance with the short version of the route. Or, alternatively, we can continue slightly further and keep on walking downstream to station no. 9 before returning to our vehicle; those interested in continuing the long route until the very end will continue onwards after station no. 9 to the stations beyond. Some 200 meters further on the path is crossed by a grid beneath which flows a channel that drains a small spring. This is all that remains of Ein al-Afya, which once emerged around 100 meters uphill from this spot. This spring, whose waters were renowned in the annals of Tzfat for their curative properties, was destroyed in an excess of enthusiasm when the park was created. Although it is now covered up, its waters continue to flow underground down the slope before emerging at this point.
View to Mount Meron. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik
Beside the path, KKL-JNF has created shady sitting areas that provide a close view of the wealth of vegetation along the riverbank, which includes brambles, willows and fig trees. In summer, the banks are covered in flowering mint and willowherb. A short walk will bring us to the pergola that shades the observation platform that looks westwards towards the Ramat Yehoyariv ridge, Moshav Meron and the tall peaks of (from right to left) Mount Adir, Mount Hiram and Mount Meron.
An easy climb up a stepped path brings us to a fork adjacent to a grove of bear’s plum trees, a species found growing wild in Israel only in the heights of Upper Galilee. We take the right fork here and descend steeply (take care – it can be slippery here in winter!) to a beautiful spot where the river tumbles down a small waterfall into a pool. The edges of the pool and the waterfall wall are covered with fig trees and maidenhair ferns. The right-hand side of the path to the waterfall is damp, and drains into a channel covered by a grating. The source of this water is an inaccessible hidden spring called Ein Sis after the swifts (Sis HaHomot in Hebrew) that frequent the area. The Hebrew name of these birds retains something of the sound of the Arabic name of the spring – Ein Sayis, i.e., “Stableman’s Spring.”
Beside the pool below the waterfall, a wooden platform juts out, surrounded by a rail. The rock wall above it drips with water from another small and inaccessible spring that has no name and is not marked on the maps. Because of its awkward location on the sloping edge of the cliff, this spring may never have been used for irrigation, and so it appears to have been forgotten. It is very possible that additional springs make their appearance in this area in years when rainfall is especially abundant, only to disappear again in dryer years.
A waterfall over Birya River. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive
Here we retrace our steps slightly, and at the first fork we take the right-hand path, which leads downwards. We cross a small bridge shaded by eucalyptus and white willow trees, which affords us a view of the river vegetation, and the path leads us to pools where ducks and geese are paddling. In springtime we can sit beside the pools amid carpets of wildflowers. The hillsides around us are covered with thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum) and scattered with stalks bearing the pinkish lilac flowers of Jerusalem sage.
The end of the route
1st option: If you’ve left your car in the parking lot at the entrance to the park, we recommend finishing your walk at this point and returning to your vehicle. Fit and experienced walkers, however, are invited to continue and complete the Long Route.
2nd option: We can follow the dirt road westwards, exit the park through a gate in the fence and continue walking until we reach the pick-up point to the north of Tzfat’s old cemetery. Near the pick-up point, our route melds with a broad dirt road that descends from the village of Ein Zeitim before climbing up to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Tzfat. This ancient road was the main entrance to the town until 1915, when Route no. 89 was built, and it was the route taken by Palmach fighters in Israel’s War of Independence when they came to the aid of the beleaguered town.