Israel Sites – Rosh Hanikra
Rosh Hanikra is a chalk cliff on the beach of Upper-Galilee on the border between Israel and Lebanon, chiselled out into labyrinthine grottoes filled with seawater formed by the geological and biological processes and by waves lapping on the soft rock.
Throughout human history, Rosh Hanikra served as point of passge for trading caravans and armies between Lebanon, Syria – the northern cultures – and Israel, Egypt, Africa – the southern cultures. The Book of Joshua (Ch. 13:6) mentions “Misraphot Mayim” South of Rosh Hanikra, as the border settlement of the Israelite tribes of that period. Jewish sources referred to the cliff as “The Ladder of Tyre” and, as such, it is mentioned for the first time in the Book of Maccabees I, 11:19, Josephus in his book “De Belli Judeorum” (II: 2, 188) mentioned the high ridge “100 stadia from Acre”, known by the people the ladder of Tyre. It was also the place (“Sulma deTzor”) where Rabban Gamliel descended from his donkey (Eruvin 60, page B).
After the Arab Conquest, the site was renamed A-Nawakir (the grottoes). The present name, Rosh Hanikra, is a hebraicized version of the later Arabic variation Ras-A-Nakura. In 701 B.C.E. the army of Sennacherib passed the way between Tyre and the land of Israel. Alexander of Macedonea (323 B.C.E.) is credited for having hewed a tunnel at Rosh Hanikra to create a passageway for his army after besieging Tyre; armies of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies in their wars in the third and second century B.C.E., made use of this road, as did the Crusaders in 1099 C.E. Documents and drawings of pilgrims show stairways carved into the rock, facilitating the passage of caravans.
The first road accessible to motor vehicles was cut by the British Army during World War One. At the time of the British Mandate in Palestine, a road was laid for commercial and private use. A border post and customs office were established at the site.
During the Second World War the British dug a railway tunnel 250 meters long and built a bridge, as part of the Haifa – Beirut – Tripoli railway track. This was done to connect the local and Lebanese rail networks and to establish a continuous rail route from Egypt via Sinai, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey to Europe for troops and supplies. The project was made possible in summer 1941, after the fall of the Vichy Government in France, who also held power in the Lebanon. There is a second tunnel whose entrance can be seen on the northern side. This tunnel enters Lebanon and leads to a third tunnel, entirely in Lebanon. The bridge and tunnels were all constructed by engineering units of the British Army from South Africa and New Zealand. The building of the system took about one year and it was opened for passengers and freight rail traffic on 24.8.1942. Part of the Ha’apala (Illegal immigration) fleeing from the Nazis made use of this tunnel to find haven in The Land of Israel. In 1947, the British decided to open a civilian passenger service on this line, but this decision was never implemented. At the end of 1947, the Israeli War of Independence broke out and the Western Galilee was cut off from the rest of the country. It was feared that Arab forces would use the railway route to bring volunteers and arms from Lebanon to aid their forces in Haifa. On the night of 14.3.1948, under cover of darkness and cloudy weather, a sabotage unit of the “Carmel Division” of the “Haganah” entered the tunnel and the grotto bridge under the nose of the British Police in their station (today the Youth Hostel at Rosh Hanikra) and blew up the western end of the Bridge. After the withdraw all of the British Police force, the area came under Israeli control.
These are cavernous tunnels formed by geological and biological processes, together with sea action on the soft chalk rock. The total length is some 200 meters. They branch off in various directions with some interconnecting segments.
In the past, the only access to them was from the sea and experienced divers were the only ones fortunate enough to visit. The grottoes have a unique aspect at different times of the day. At sunset, in particular, the sea and cavern walls take on a special hue. Seasonal changes also alter the grottoes’ appearance dramatically. The polished, silvery mirror-like appearance in summer, transformed into a churning, explosive scene in winter. This rare beauty became accessible to the general public in 1968, when, a tunnel was excavated to the natural grottoes, slightly above the sea surface. It is 400 meters long and took two years to complete.
The Rosh Hanikra landscape is unique in Israel. The cliff is at the foot of a chalk mountain range which dips into the sea, creating a steep, white pillar, 70 meters high. The land escarpment and sea bed of the nearby beach front were all formed in this manner. The mountain ridge has three distinct layers from the Kenoman period, each distinguished by their particular hardness: The top layer is hard chalk rock and dolomite. The middle layer is comprised of soft chalk. The bottom layer is hard chalk and for the most part, lies beneath the sea surface, providing underwater fauna and flora in a unique milieu. Over a period of thousands of years, the wear and tear of waves against the second layer created the caves and caverns known today as the “grottoes”.
But all this was possible only because geological breaks or small caves formed by seeping rainwater absorbed by the soft rock before the cliff encountered the sea. You can see the stalactites on the tunnel cave ceilings. Other factors that intiated and contributed to the process of erosion of the soft chalk were the duckweeds and the micro-organisms covering the rock and crumbling it. This primary erosion was continued by the waves that some times lashed the rock in time of storm, with an estimated power of 250 tonnes per square meter.
The cliff and the sea-shore are a natural reserve of unique fauna and flora. On the slopes of the cliff, amongst Charob and Pistacia Elastica, blown and started by the wind into Bonsai-like shrubs, blooms the Statice, endemic to this stretch of land. The scented white sea-shore Lilies, Narcissus and Squill, bloom in autumn and wintertime. Other colorful flowers bloom in early spring. Inside the Grottoes, groups of bats spend their day resting on the ceiling while swallows and rock pigeons nest in the protective darkness of the caves. flights of seagulls wing their way to their nesting island a mile to the west. There one can observe most of the local and European sea-shore and sea birds. The sea-shore pools offer plenty of food to winter-guest birds. The rocky depths of the sea offers a friendly environment to all kinds of Mediterranean fish and other marine animals. The most attractive guest to this shore is the loggerhead turtle, a huge maritime reptile that has chosen these rocky shores as a mating area, and the rough sand shores to dig his bottle shaped pits where the females lays eggs in early summer. A few weeks later hundreds of tiny turtles dig their way out of the pits and hurry to the sea guided by the beam of the full moon. Today the nesting areas are endangered by the changing environment and by tourism.
Services at the site
To facilitate the approach to the cavern entrance, a cable cars system, was installed. The ride takes about a minute in each direction and provides a panoramic view of the cliff and sea. The cable way operates year round, with exception of two or three days when weather conditions may necessitate a shutdown. “The Peace Train” media display is also shown on site. Above a Kosher restaurant constructed in the shape of a ship overlooks the cliff and sea.
Kibbutz Kfar Rosh Hanikra
At the foot of the mountain, on the right side of the road to the cliff, lies a kibbuts. It was founded in 1949 by disarmed members of the Yiftah division of the Palmach, together with additional groups of the pioneers youth movements. Its income is based on field agriculture, a banana plantation, flower nursery, poultry , dairy farming, cotton, a Guest House, the restaurant and the cable car at the Rosh Hanikra site.
We wish to acknowledge our gratitude to the marketing division of Rosh Hanikra for the permission to use text from their folder for this “Live” site page. Additional details are based on the “Guide Israel” and “Israel – Sites and Places”.
The pictures were taken by: Pinhas Baraq