Hundreds of trees throughout the Jewish state illuminate fascinating aspects of Israeli history and culture. Ahead of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, here’s a small sampling of those trees and their stories.
Gethsemane Olives — Behind a high stone wall, just outside the Old City walls, stand some of the most famous trees in Jerusalem, if not the entire country. These trees, producing the olives of Gethsemane, are set in a small grove revered by Christians because of its connection to Jesus.
In 2012, the National Research Council of Italy along with researchers from several Italian universities investigated the eight trees at the site. Samples of wood were taken from several of the trees and carbon-dated to 1092, 1166 and 1198. That would make the trees at least 900 years old — ancient by any standard. But they could be even older. Olives readily sprout from the roots, so if the top growth of the trees was cut down or died at some point, then their true age may not be accurately reflected.
Hurshat Tal — Hurshat Tal is one of the northern jewels in Israel’s national park system. Expansive lawns combined with streams and pools of clear cool water make this a particularly inviting spot. The park is dotted with hundreds of huge Mt. Tabor oaks that are among the largest in the country.
According to local legend, 10 of the Prophet Mohammed’s messengers once rested in Hurshat Tal. With no trees to provide shade or hitching posts, they pounded their staffs into the ground to tie up their horses. Overnight, the staffs grew into trees, and in the morning the men awoke to find themselves in a beautiful forest.
Bahai Gardens, Haifa — One of Israel’s major tourist destinations and a World Heritage site to boot, the Bahai World Centre is an architectural and landscaping masterpiece. Haifa and its northern neighbor Akko have great significance to the 5 million adherents of this 19th-century religion.
The genesis of the gardens came in 1891, when Bahai religious leader Baha’u’llah ascended the Carmel mountain with his son. Together, they walked until they arrived at a small clump of cypress trees. At that point, Baha’u’llah indicated to his son that this would be the future center of Bahai.
Today, the small clump of cypress trees can still be found on the grounds of the garden — relatively unchanged from how it appeared more than a hundred years ago.
So, next time you visit Israel and pass by a gnarled ancient tree, take a moment to reflect on the story behind it. Perhaps it was planted by early Jewish colonists working for Turkish authorities, or perhaps it has outlived whole villages that existed there centuries ago. At one point, it may have been a landmark in an otherwise barren countryside now crowded with buildings and automobiles. Every tree has a story. You just have to ask.