Golan Heights

Travel Guide Middle East Golan Heights

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Introduction

Umm Qais, Golan Heights in background

Umm Qais, Golan Heights in background

© Utrecht

The Golan Heights, sometimes referred to as the Syrian Heights, form a rocky plateau with an average altitude of 1,000 metres and about 1,800 square kilometres big. It's located in the border region of Israel and Syria and is of extreme strategic importance to both countries.

Warning: In July 2018, the Syrian government regained control of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights from armed opposition groups and ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists, and UN peacekeeping troops have returned to the area. However, the situation remains fluid, and there are now exchanges of fire between Israel and allies of the Syrian government Israel considers to be its enemies, namely the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Most of the Golan is safe, but check on current conditions before you visit, exercise caution, and avoid the border area.

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History

Two-thirds of the Golan Heights has been under Israeli control since 1967, when Israel seized the area during the Six-Day War. The remainder is under Syrian control. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel returned another 5% of the land to Syria. Israel began building settlements in the area, and granted the Syrian Druze inhabitants permanent residency status. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights.

Unlike the West Bank, the part of the Golan Heights controlled by Israel is considered part of the country by most Israelis and by the Israeli government. Security is on par with Israel proper, and you won't find roadblocks.

In Israel, it is generally understood that the Golan Heights will not be returned to Syria. The Israeli viewpoint is that this would not be feasible due to economical and political reasons, and for reasons of security which they believe have only strengthened since the Syrian civil war started. There are no negotiations between Israel and Syria and this not likely to change any time soon.

The de facto Israel-Syria border runs through the Golan Heights along an area known as the Purple Line. This line was until recently patrolled by a United Nations peacekeeping force, but the peacekeepers were attacked by the Syrian opposition and all of them have been withdrawn from Syria, removing a stabilizing element from the border. No one is allowed to cross the border without special permission, and the border crossing is under the control of Israel and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

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Geography

The Golan Heights mostly consists of a flat plateau made out of volcanic basalt. Near the Israel-Syria line of control (on the Israeli side) is a chain of extinct volcanoes which protrude above the plateau. A number of streams cut through the plateau, forming deep valleys and occasional waterfalls, and eventually end up in the Jordan River or the Sea of Galilee. With the countless Eucalyptus trees growing here and due to the wide plains, it reminds one of New South Wales, Australia.

Due to the flatness of the plateau (unlike Israel's mostly hilly or coastal landscapes), the dark basalt and fertile volcanic soil, and the year-round streams, the Golan Heights looks and feels different from the rest of Israel, so it is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.

The Hermon mountain differs from the rest of the Golan, as well as from any other place in Israel. The highest point in the Israeli-controlled part of the Hermon is 2236 meters above sea level, nearly twice as high as the next-highest place in Israel (Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee). As a result, the Hermon gets far more snowfall than anywhere else in Israel, and it is the site of Israel's only ski resort (in the winter months).

The most popular season to visit the Golan is the spring. For a brief period in spring, the entire Golan landscape is covered by a bed of flowers. Also, at this time the streams and waterfalls are at their most powerful due to the winter rains. Autumn and winter are also good seasons to visit the Golan. Summer is the worst time to visit - Israel gets no rain in summer, so the mostly tree-free Golan landscape turns entirely brown, and the weather is hot and humid. Summer can be a good time for a hike that includes walking in the water (there are several popular ones), or to see historic sites. But hiking anywhere else is best left for another season.

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Cities

  • Katzrin – The largest Jewish town in the Golan (pop. 7000), known in Israel as the "capital of the Golan".
  • Majdal Shams – The largest Druze village in the Golan (pop. 10,643). Nearby is the Shouting Hill where villagers communicate with their relatives in Syria.
  • Buq'ata Buq'ata – A Druze town in the far northeastern part of the Israeli Golan Heights, with a population of around 6,300.

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Sights and Activities

The Golan Heights is the wettest area in the region. There are many waterfalls including the Gamla, Sa`ar and the Banias waterfalls. It is especially recommended to visit the Golan Heights in spring, when the ground is covered with wildflowers. The waterfalls are strongest then too.

  • Gamla Nature Reserve (Hebrew:גמלא) (turn off the Sea of Galilee Road at Gamla Junction and then take Route 869 to Daliyot Junction, turning north after about 2 km; a signposted dirt road leads to the reserve), ☏ +972 4-6822282, ✉ st.gamla@npa.org.il. winter 08:00-16:00, summer 08:00-17:00, closing one hour earlier on Fridays and eve of holidays. A picturesque nature reserve and archaeological site of a Jewish stronghold from 87 BCE. Gamla means a "camel" in Hebrew, the name of the hill top location clearly taking its name from a resemblance to a camel's hump. Gamla was the capital of the Golan Heights in the 1st century. In 66 CE, along with other Jewish cities in the region, it launched a rebellion against Roman rule. After a siege the city was conquered, and its inhabitants were either killed or threw themselves from the cliff at the edge of the city. Nowadays the city has been partly excavated, and fortifications as well as a synagogue can be seen. There are several trails at the site, some of which will be challenging for people who are out of shape or hike rarely. The Gamla waterfall trail is accessible until 14:00/15:00 (winter/summer). The Gamla ancient town trail is accessible until 13:00/14:00 (winter/summer). Also, the steep and tall cliffs at Gamla form the perfect habitat for griffin vultures. ₪28/24/14 adult/student/child.
  • Nimrod Fortress National Park (Nimrod Castle, Kalaat Namrud), ☏ +972 4-6949277. winter 08:00-16:00, summer 08:00-17:00, closing one hour earlier on Fridays and eve of holidays. An ancient fortress in the northern Golan Heights, built in the 13th century by Muslim rulers to defend against a possible Crusader attack. It is located on a steep mountain ridge, with deep forested ravines on either side, and has a stupendous view of its surroundings. A trail leads from the fortress's west edge downhill several kilometres to Banias, another important historical and nature site in the area. Hike: ~2 hr. ₪22/9 adult/child, ₪41/20 adult/child combined with Banias.

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Getting There

There is no visible border between the Galilee regions and the Golan Heights. You will not realize that you are entering the Golan Heights, except from the terrain.

It is essentially impossible to cross between the Israeli-controlled and Syrian-controlled parts of the Golan Heights, so don't bother trying.

By Car

Private transportation: from north-south route 90, there are four road "ascents" to the Golan Heights.

By Bus

There are a few daily buses from Tiberias, Hatzor and Kiryat Shmona to the Golan Heights, operated by Golanbus. Services are infrequent due to the low population. There are also a handful of direct buses to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa.

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Getting Around

This area, due to low population, has one of the worst public transport services in the entire country, with some bus stops receiving as few as two or three buses daily.

You might try hitch-hiking, which is used by Israelis of all ages and gender. You can rent a car as well, but only from a few rental services.

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This is version 2. Last edited at 12:14 on Jul 9, 19 by Utrecht. 2 articles link to this page.

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