The Golan Heights has always acted as a bridge between Mesopotamia and Egypt or the Mediterranean, and later between the two great capitals of the Arab world: Damascus and Cairo. It is also traditionally a place of refuge: in the tenth century the mountains of central Lebanon and of the Syrian Hauran constituted a favourable place for the development of the Druze Muslim sect which settled there.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of the Golan took an active part in Arab struggles for independence. While the Arab national movement called for establishing one united and independent Pan-Arab state, or at least the re-establishment of Greater Syria (the entire historical region), the European colonial powers divided the area into several separate mandates. The Golan was placed under French mandate, despite British and Zionist pressure to include it in British Mandatory Palestine.
When Syrian independence was gained on April 17, 1946, the Golan, whose first foothills are only some thirty kilometres from Damascus, remained a Syrian province. In 1948, the Syrian army impeded the Zionist conquest of several Palestinian villages, which were placed in a “demilitarised zone” or “DMZ” under Syrian authority. Some 9,000 Palestinian refugees from the Galilee settled in the Golan. From 1949 to 1967, the State of Israel continuously claimed the DMZ under the pretext that these territories were inside the borders of Mandatory Palestine and that the partition plan had allocated these territories to the Jewish state! Israel adopted an offensive policy towards the DMZ, increasing its provocations and aggressions. In violation of the 1949 Armistice Treaty, the State of Israel began a programme of draining Lake Hula (DMZ). This programme had three objectives: to impose Israeli sovereignty over the DMZ, to add 100 million cubic metres of water to its water resources, and to deport the Palestinian population which was present in this zone (a decision made in a secret memorandum, issued at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet on April 5, 1951).
On April 7, 1967, an Israeli armoured tractor took up position on the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias (DMZ). The regular Syrian army shot at the tractor with light weaponry. That same day, Israeli forces bombarded both Syrian military positions and villages and flew over Damascus. Then, following Israel’s lightning victory over Egypt and Jordan, the assault turned on the Syrian Golan, which on June 9 received a rain of bombs and napalm. On June 10, the Golan was under Israeli control. A cease-fire agreement was signed, only to be broken two days later by the Israelis, who also conquered Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon).
During the war of 1973, the Syrian army temporarily liberated the Golan Heights, but a unilateral accord between the State of Israel and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, under the auspices of American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, allowed Israel to mobilise its full military force to re-conquer the Golan. Under an agreement signed on May 31, 1974, Israel returned 8% of the Golan occupied in 1967, in exchange for a cease-fire.
Things to see
The Golan Plateau (Heights)
Extending over a basalt plateau, at an average altitude of 1,000 metres, the Golan region covers an area of 1,750 square kilometres. To the north, Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) rises to an altitude of 2,814 metres. It has a geo-strategic position dominating the south of Lebanon and Syria, the Golan Heights and the Hula Valley. In June 1967, the State of Israel conquered 1,250 square kilometres that comprised 80% of this Syrian territory. In 1974, around 100 square kilometres were returned to Syria.
Demolished Syrian Villages (Over the entire plateau)
Until 1967, a population of diverse religious followings including Sunni Muslim or Druze, Circassian, Christian Greek Orthodox (whether Syriac or Armenian) peopled the Golan, an excellent, fertile territory thanks to ancient volcanic activity, cultivated by peasants on their small-holdings. Today, piles of stones and dilapidated huts dot the countryside. These ruins are unique testimony to the tragic expulsion of the population by Israeli military forces. In all, 133 villages, encampments or hamlets were partially or completely demolished. At the end of Road 98 are the ruins of the demolished village of Qushniyeh. It is easy to identify, for it was not completely destroyed, but converted for some time into an Israeli military training centre. The mosque and some buildings, riddled with bullet-holes, remain standing. Before its destruction, Qushniyeh had nearly 3,000 inhabitants, a majority of whom were Circassian. The villagers were generally farmers, craftsmen or office workers.
Pre-1967, the city, with a population of 30,000, was the regional capital of the Golan. Occupied in 1967, it was returned to Syria after an agreement was concluded and signed on May 31, 1974 under American auspices. Before withdrawing the Israeli army destroyed most of the buildings, cisterns and lines of communication, a deliberate destruction condemned at the time by the UN. A sad souvenir from this time may be seen at a distance, from the vicinity of the Jewish settlement Mitzpe Quneitra (Road 98): “If you want to have Quneitra, you can have it – in ruins,” left behind in the shape of an Israeli soldier’s graffiti writing dating from 1974.
Situated at the foot of Jabal al-Sheikh, Majdal Shams (“Tower of the Rising Sun”) is a village on an escarpment rising 1,100 to 1,300 metres; with a population of over 8,000 souls, it is the most important Arab village in the Golan. In the village, two monumental bronze statues vigorously express the people’s deep attachment to their Arab Syrian identity and their determination to free themselves from the Israeli Occupation. These statues are the work of Hassan Khater, a native artist of the Golan, who studied sculpture at the University of Fine Arts in Damascus. They are a barely concealed message to the Israeli occupier. The statue situated at the entrance of the village is dedicated to As’ad Kanj Abu Saleh and to the freedom fighters who fought French colonialism during the Great Revolt of 1925. The people of the Golan played a major role in the insurrection, and when the French army re-occupied the region, Majdal Shams was completely devastated. The second statue, erected in the centre of the village in 1987, is called “al-Massira” which means in Arabic “a march” or “an action which continues.” Sultan al-Atrash, a national leader of the revolution of Greater Syria in 1925, is represented brandishing his sword. The work reaffirms the message of civil disobedience, in the words of the Tunisian bard of the anti-colonial struggle, Abu al-Qassem al Shabi: “If the people one day demand life, Surely destiny will respond, The night will disappear, And the Chains will break asunder.”
Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon)
Rising to an altitude of 2,814 metres, Jabal al-Sheikh is the highest mountain in the Near East. Its Arabic name probably refers to a local sheikh, Rashid ed-Din es-Sinan, leader of a sect (the Assassins); he was also called the “Sheikh of the Mountain” or “Old Man of the Mountain.” Founded in 1090 AD by the Persian, Hassan Sabbah, the Assassins (assas means “the watcher”) professed a secret doctrine, firmly hostile to the reigning power. Their fedayin (“those who sacrifice themselves for the cause”) killed even high-ranking Moslem and Frankish dignitaries. The Franks kept a bitter souvenir from that period: a new word in their vocabulary.
The mountain summit has not been accessible since it was returned to Syria in 1974. The slopes of Jabal al-Sheikh (open end-December to mid-April) are regularly snow-covered in the winter months; a small ski resort has been established here by Jewish settlers as part of the Jewish settlement, Neve Ativ. Located between Majdal Shams and Nimrod Castle, the settlement has the attraction of a prefabricated alpine village. It was built on the ruins of the village Jubatha ez-Zeit, demolished in 1967.
Nimrod Castle (Qala’at es-Subeibeh)
Legend has it that this was the site of the palace of Nimrod, a grandson of Ham (son of Noah), known as “a mighty one in the earth” (Genesis 10:8). In the Muslim tradition, Nimrod is regarded as the prototype of a proud tyrant who revolted against God, and who was the persecutor of the Prophet Abraham. Perched on a crag 3 kilometres north-east of Banias, Nimrod Castle is one of the best-preserved mediaeval fortifications in the region. An ancient fortress, it was built by the Assassins in the eleventh century: they hoped that the castle would ensure their independence from the central Sunni Abbassid rulers. In fact, the fortress was captured by the Crusaders, in 1129 AD. It then fell successively into the hands of the Emir of Damascus (1132), the Seljuks (1137), the Hospitallers, and finally into the hands of Nur ed-Din (Saladin’s uncle) in 1164. Each time, the castle was restored and enlarged. The Ayyubids and Mamelukes gave it its definitive architecture. The excellent state of conservation of the castle and its rich architecture make it a major historical site of the Golan.
Banias (Nahal Hermon Nature Reserve)
Since ancient times, Banias has been a sacred site where one cult succeeded another. In fact, its name is the Arabic version of a Greek divinity “Paneas,” or the place of Pan (the god of nature, shepherds and herds). Niches carved in the rocky walls next to the cave contained statues of him as well as the nymph Echo and the god of music. Philip, Herod’s son, built a town here called Caesarea Philippi, in the first century BC.
Christian tradition maintains that Jesus handed over the keys of the Church to Saint Peter (Simon Peter, the son of Yona) in Banias. “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:13-18). The Roman and mediaeval ruins of the town are still visible to the southwest of the Pan Grotto; so are other ruins of a Syrian village demolished in 1967. On the hill stands a small Muslim shrine to Weli al-Khader, which succeeded, in the Middle Ages, a chapel dedicated to Saint George.
Al-Khader - St. George
Witness to cultural and cult continuity, the names of al-Khader, St. George and the Prophet Elijah usually signify a single and unique personality, whose origin came out of Babylonian mythology. It is the symbolic representation of eternal youth and of the invisible world, appearing at will in his human form to rescue virtuous people. A central figure for Christian Palestinians, he is equally venerated by Muslims; there is a shrine consecrated to him in Jerusalem (al-Quds), in the northwest corner of the Haram al-Sharif (outside the Dome of the Rock, or Mosque of Omar). In the village of al-Khader, an annual celebration has always reunited Muslims and Christians for a joint ceremony; in the current “situation” of closures, such traditions are seriously threatened.
Excursions and the Banias Waterfall
From Banias all the way to the cascades (the paths are signposted), there are some beautiful hikes to be made. On the way, you will come upon the only flourmill in Palestine; it is 700 years old and used to run on water-power. According to legend, King Nimrod, as tall as the mountain, only had to stretch out his arm to take a little water from the river. Swimming is possible here, but the water is cold. For hikers, the climb up to Nimrod Castle (an hour long) is highly recommended.
Tel al-Qadi (Tel Dan)
This Canaanite city was mentioned by the name of Laish in ancient Egyptian historical texts of the nineteenth century BC. It appeared again, mid-fifteenth century BC, on the list of cities of Canaan conquered by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and in many other documents discovered in Mari (Syria). In the ninth century BC it was one of the fortified cities of the Kingdom of Israel or the Kingdom of Samaria, before it was destroyed in the Assyrian conquest of 732 BC.
There are several gates and sections of successive ramparts from the Bronze Age and Iron Age here, discovered by archaeologists. Note in particular the gate of sun-dried brick (one of the rare specimens preserved in the Near East), dating from the ninth century BC, as well as a quadrangular platform of the ninth century BC, built for religious rituals.
People to meet
The Golan for Development is a community association. It is involved in many areas, from improvement of social and medical services for the Arab Syrian community, to denouncing Israeli occupation and all the measures accompanying it: land confiscation, restrictions on housing and obstacles to economic development, and the denial of basic human rights, etc. For all these reasons, the association is a centre of information and indisputable documentation.
Where to eat
Ein al-Tineh café-restaurant, located at the end of the village, above the “Valley of Cries.” This valley owes its name to the system invented by Syrian families separated since 1967, who communicate from each side of the border with megaphones: an irregular contact sometimes prohibited by the Israeli authorities.
Where to sleep
Contact the Golan for Development for accommodation.