One day, well over 3,000 years ago, an Israelite woman working in the fields near her home in Tzora was visited by an angel. 'You are childless,' said the angel, 'but you are going to conceive and have a son... The boy is to be set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.'
And, indeed, the woman gave birth to a strapping baby boy, whom his parents named Samson.
A visit to Samson's hometown, as well as picnic sites, antiquities, Crusader ruins and observation points overlooking some of the most beautiful vistas in the country are all part of a delightful 10-kilometer day trip in the Judean hills and plains. To begin the outing, follow Route 44 between the Shimshon and Nahshon Junctions. Turn at the large brown sign leading to 'Sculpture Road' and 'Hanasi.'
You have just entered the President's Forest, dedicated to the memory of Israel's first president, Dr. Chaim Weizmann. The Jewish National Fund began planting and developing the forest half a century ago; several decades later Israeli artists were invited to line the road with statues that blended with the environment. In the 1990s, when artists from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel, a number of them used their talents to produce additional exciting creations.
Watch for the artists' handiwork as you follow Sculpture Road (derech hapesalim in Hebrew), a route that runs through the entire length of the forest. Don't forget to get out of your car and explore the sculptures. And be sure to take little jaunts deeper into the forest, where the air you breathe is filled with the sweet scent of trees and plants and the chirping of little birdies.
Most of the trees in the President's Forest are terebinth, pine or carob, planted soon after the establishment of the state in order to provide employment for new immigrants. Carob trees are evergreen and are the only trees in the region that flower in October.
The carob tree's nutritious fruit ripens in late summer. It is full of protein, contains a natural sugar, and is high in vitamins and minerals. While carob fruit is used in the production of honey and as a thickening agent for salad dressings, it is best known for the flour that is a healthful substitute for chocolate.
According to tradition, during the 12 years Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai and his son hid from the Romans early in the first millennium, they subsisted solely on carobs. If there are any of these hard, brown, sword-shaped pods left on their branches in early fall, you can pick them and immediately begin chewing. (Don't forget to spit out the seeds!)
Look for one of my favorite sculptures, 'Wandering through the Land' (mishut ba'aretz). An ingenious combination of colored mosaics and local stone, it boasts blue 'rivers' that spill onto nearby rocks. If you park across the road and descend past the picnic site you will reach a path well off the beaten track. Follow it to the right for about 15 minutes, enjoying the forest silence and the heady smell of hyssop. Eventually it returns you to the main road, where you turn right and return to your car.
Eight hundred meters into the route, you will spot 'Folds in Time' (kipulim bazman), which the artist describes as a forest expression of architectural images common to the Land of Israel. Walk up and past the statue to a lovely overlook for a good view of Tel Tzova (Second Temple period and later Crusader site). You can distinguish the tel from the natural hills on all sides because it has a relatively flat top, while a number of brown patches represent thousands of years of inorganic waste that prevent the growth of foliage. Look for Moshav Tarom, one of a number of communities established in the empty Jerusalem corridor in 1950.
Along the route, 12 menoras stud a tall creation called 'otzma' - which means 'force' or, perhaps, 'intensity.' Then, almost 2 kilometers from the route's beginning, a small black arrow points left to an overlook. Walk up the hill past a statue with no name (maybe Babar the Elephant, or a lion in profile?) for a stunning view of the Judean Hills. Straight ahead, nestled on the heights, is Moshav Kesalon; to your right stands the gaping hole that is the Shimshon (Samson) Quarry, and below you are the greenhouses of Moshav Eshtaol.
When you reach Mission Member (a statue that looks ready to visit the moon - or like it came from there!) turn left, then ascend past lush sabra cacti and, in fall, red- fruited pomegranate trees. You also pass a large aloe-vera plant, with drooping leaves and a tall central stalk. Since ancient times a magical gel obtained from the aloe vera's smooth, rubbery leaves has been used for medicinal purposes. The gel is fantastic on burns and stimulates the growth of healthy skin. It is also incredibly soothing on insect bites, no matter how much they itch.
PARK NEXT to the Tzora Overlook, some 336 meters above sea level and shaped like a raft. A hostile Arab village called Tzara, on this hill, was captured by the Palmah in 1948. The action was part of Operation Danny, whose objective was to lift the siege of Jerusalem and remove a very real Arab threat to Tel Aviv. Afterwards it became the temporary headquarters for the Palmah Har-El brigade and at the end of 1948 this is where the first members of Kibbutz Tzora established a settlement (later, they moved into the Sorek Valley two kilometers further south).
You will be surprised, perhaps, to see the immensity of Beit Shemesh, located directly before you. Moshav Naham, nearby, is situated over remains of the Har Tuv moshava that was forced to evacuate during the War of Independence. On a clear day, in the distance, you will be able to see the houses of Gush Etzion.
During the Israelite period, the tribe of Dan was assigned to the fertile plains just beneath the overlook and stretching to the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately for the Israelites, there were already Philistines living there. And they were unbeatable - which left the Jews stuck in the hills.
They did, however, have fields in the lush plain, and it is probably in the fertile vineyards that would have been below you that Samson's mother was touched by an angel. According to the Book of Judges 'the spirit of the Lord began to stir him [Samson] while he was in the camp of Dan between Tzora and Eshtaol.'
It was in this area that Samson fought - alone - for the Israelites, here that he killed a lion with his bare hands, and went back to lick sweet honey from its carcass. Not far from here Samson, furious that his Philistine wife was given to another man, caught '300 foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up... the vineyards and olive groves.'
Walk back down to your car, but pass it to follow the path up Tel Tzora - the Israelite city and Samson's birthplace. At the top you will discover a plethora of water cisterns, oil presses and wine presses: wine and oil production were as crucial to the income of ancient Tzora as they are today.
Notice a bright blue tomb? According to the inscription, this is where Samson and his father Manoah are buried but, of course, you will immediately realize that the paint is barely dry! Indeed, it is only within the past few decades that someone identified this spot as Samson's burial site - and quite illogically, too, for here stood an Israelite city and Jews were buried outside the town boundary. Nevertheless, believers have set up a stand containing holy books and pilgrims pray here as they would at any other holy site.
Return to your cars and drive around the tel. An interesting sculpture, whose large blue 'eye' reflects the color of the tomb high above (and I'm guessing that the 'eye' came first) is called Seed of Hope. Turn right and soon you will pass a sculpture easily recognized as 'Window to Nature.' Turn left.
Nearly six kilometers from the beginning of the route, just past a creation called 'Colored Stripes,' a sign points to reches shvil Tzora ('Tzora Path Ridge'). This rather rocky ascent leads to ruins of a Crusader monastery dating back about 800 years. Look for remains of an oil press, and on one of the rocks you will find a Maltese (eight-pointed) Crusader cross - the symbol on which today's firemen base their emblem.
Back on Sculpture Route, past the eucalyptus grove, you reach the strange creation called 'Past and Future' at the Dani recreation area and overlook (7.1 kilometers from the route's beginning). From here you will reach two stunning viewpoints: go left through the picnic tables or right on a path along the Tzora ridge for stupendous panoramas of the same velvet green Sorek Valley.
It was here that Samson met Delilah, who would bring about his downfall by learning the secret of his great strength - his mane of hair. After his head was shaved he became a weak and pathetic creature, whose eyes were gouged out by her Philistine friends. But the hair grew back, and after praying to the Lord he was able to get revenge on them all. While they were assembled in their pagan temple he pulled down the pillars, the building collapsed - on all 3,000 of the assembled.
Below you, Nahal Sorek opens up towards the sea. If you time it right, you will be here as the sun sets - a heavenly sight indeed.
Continue on the road until you have gone nearly 10 kilometers from the beginning of Sculpture Route and turn left. Soon afterwards take a sharp right turn on an asphalt road that descends for some time and leads you out of the forest. Turn left at the bottom, and pass Kibbutz Tzora to reach Route 38.