Beit Ussishkin and Finger of the Galilee

One of Israel’s most spectacular natural areas is called Etzba Hagalil, or «finger of the Galilee.» What sets this region apart from other locations in the country is its unusual concentration of water. Shaped like a panhandle, this northernmost portion of the Holy Land includes the snows of Mount Hermon and the streams and springs which are the sources of the River Jordan. Until a few dozen years ago there was also a large lake in the area, the Hula, but that was drained during the 1950s (see my book – Israel’s Northern Landscapes – for more information on the Hula Valley). .

So special is this region that it has its own natural history museum – Beit Ussishkin. Named for Menahem Ussishkin, a leading Zionist who headed the Jewish National Fund for 20 years, the museum offers a fascinating overview of the region’s natural phenomena. Besides demonstrating what we can find in the area today, the exhibits at Beit Ussishkin also help visitors of all ages understand, and remember, what lived here in the past.

Designed to blend in with its environment, the museum boasts sloping roofs meant to resemble the slope of Mount Hermon, and you can see the snows of the Hermon through the big arch in the museum’s center. A chiseled stone facade adds to its beauty.

Among the mounted animals in the largest of the exhibits visitors will find the darter, or snake bird, which has effectively disappeared from the area. Also on display is the pygmy cormorant, which hunts fish by diving deep into the water.

Like some of the birds, a few of the amphibians that used to live here have also stopped migrating to our shores. However, hundreds of bird and fish species still reside in the area, and most of them are displayed in the museum.

On a lower floor, a Hermon-Golan exhibit depicts plants and animals in the northernmost parts of Israel. One is the Hermon viper: 1.4 meters in length and hitherto unknown except in Turkey. He was found on the road leading to Mount Hermon some years ago.

At Beit Ussishkin visitors learn about life in high altitudes and the difficulties plants undergo in the mountains (low temperatures, rocky and unstable terrain all make it nearly impossible to survive). One showcase area has illustrations of volcanic activity in the Golan, and includes lava rocks. On display is a huge volcanic rock formed as lava cooled rapidly. Because it was exposed to the air while it was still elastic, it acquired some unusual shapes.

Thirty-eight species of butterfly live, in Israel, only on the Hermon. A magnifying glass on top of one butterfly makes it easy to examine. One unusual showcase features a three-dimensional wadi as seen from inside the entrance of a cave. Another illustrates how plants disperse their seeds on land and in water.

One entire hall contains finds from the excavations at nearby Tel Dan. Indeed, Beit Ussishkin is the only place in the world where the whole development of the biblical city of Dan is on display. Here you can find artifacts from four biblical eras: the time of Abraham, the period of the Judges, the Israelite Conquest and the divided Kingdom.

Tel Dan is one of those very special sites in which archeology confirms the Bible. During excavations, an Aramean victory stele (inscribed standing stone) from the 9th century B.C.E. was unearthed at Tel Dan. It refers to Joram King of Israel and Ahaziah King of the House of David.

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