November 20, 2018

The beautiful Banias

The first thing you need to know about the Hermon-Banias Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights is that you will have to fight the temptation to dive into the crystal rushing springs or to stick your feet in the cool waters.

Access to the Hermon Stream has been strictly forbidden there since the early 1990s in order to preserve the delicate ecology. Still, you will want to go back more than once, even if you can’t dip your toe in the stream. Banias (also spelled “Banyas”) is one of the most beautiful — and, therefore, one of the most-visited — of Israel’s 14 nature reserves.

The Banias Spring comes out of the foot of Mount Hermon and flows through a canyon leading to the 30-foot Banias Waterfall (“Mapal” in Hebrew), the longest such cascade in Israel. The Hermon Stream meets the Dan River farther along, and together they feed the Jordan River.

In ancient times, the spring gushed from a cave in the limestone bedrock down into the valley and into the Hula marshes. You can still see the cave, though the water now seeps from the bedrock below it.

The site was originally named Panias after the Greek god Pan. There are remains of a temple, some courtyards, a grotto and niches for rituals dedicated to the worship of Pan, dating to the beginning of the Common Era. Because there is no “p” sound in Arabic and the region was long under Syrian rule, the village that grew up around the spring came to be called Banias.

“There are multiple trails through the entire park, and the shortest takes 10 or 15 minutes in each direction, leading to the impressive waterfall,” said licensed tour guide Josh Even-Chen. 

A few years ago, the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority built a suspended circular walkway across the gorge.

“You’re walking on the vertical cliff halfway from the top of the cliff and riverbed, and it’s really cool,” Even-Chen said. The walkway takes just over an hour to complete. 

“I highly recommend it for families, but you can’t take a stroller, so put your toddler in a back carrier,” he recommended.

Another trail runs along the riverbed from one side of the park to the other. You’ll need two cars to finish this hike unless you want to walk two hours back to the parking lot where you started.

Interested in the religious and historic side of Banias? Travel one-third of a mile down the road to the opposite side of the highway to the Springs entrance. The Springs side has ruins from the Roman period, when the village was called Caesarea Philippi after King Herod’s son Philip, who inherited the area and made it his capital. The palace of Agrippa II, grandson of Herod, is among the relics.

According to the Gospels, it was in the Banias that the disciple Simon informed Jesus that people believed Jesus to be the Messiah. In response, Jesus renamed Simon “Peter,” which means “rock” in Greek — the rock upon which his church would be founded.

“For Christians, especially Catholics, Peter was the first pope, so, for pilgrims, the site helps them understand the environment in which this pivotal scene takes place,” Even-Chen said. “Caesarea Philippi remained important during the Christian Byzantine period. It was later conquered by the Muslims and then the Crusaders, then went back under Islamic rule and fell from its heyday.”

From April to September, the Banias is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday to Thursday, till 4 p.m. Fridays and holiday evenings. From October to March, it’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (till 3 p.m. Fridays and holidays). Visitors may enter up to an hour before closing time.