Jerusalem in Snow

Snow in Jerusalem

Jerusalem Forest
Fallen tree in the forest

I know, smug people in northern Europe and north America are looking at this title and thinking how childish we are here in Israel. What a big fuss over a few days of snow, do I really need a webpage to show people what snow looks like? Well, no, plenty of people have seen snow, but tell me honestly, how many snow pictures have you seen from the Middle East? How many of you who have visited Israel have seen the noble pine forests and stone buildings of Jerusalem covered in a layer of white? That's what I thought. That cliched postcard of the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall covered in snow doesn't count.

Mt Hermon
Mt Hermon and the ski resort village of Neve Ativ

The only place in Israel which gets snow pretty much every year is Mt Hermon, Israel's highest peak and only ski site. Every few years other mountain regions of Israel, including Jerusalem, get a 'real' snowstorm. I say real to distinguish from the occasional light dusting these areas might get for an hour or so on a cold night in an average winter. I'm talking about the sort of snow storm that would do Washington, D.C. or Manchester proud, several inches of snow, roads blocked to traffic and all the fun of kids missing school. You get the idea.

Jerusalem street
Snowman in Jerusalem

The storm that hit Israel over the last weekend in January 2000 really surpassed itself. Not only did it dump between 30-50cm of snow around the Jerusalem area and other regions above 600m, but in lowly Modi'in, under 300m above sea level, we had a light dusting and snow even fell briefly, though without settling, in mild coastal areas such as Herzyliya. Be'er Sheva, the main city of the southern Negev desert region also received several centimetres of snow, and don't ask how much fell on and around Mt Hermon. It was the biggest and most comprehensive snowstorm to hit Israel in 50 years.

The snow started on Thursday afternoon, and at first it didn't seem to be anything unusual, it snowed a bit in the northern mountains and around Jerusalem, the usual snow in places above 600m. The surprise was that when we woke up early on Friday morning Jason looked out the window and announced that it was snowing in Modi'in. I thought that he was kidding, but no, here in Modi'in, only about 200-300m above sea level, we had snow. Very unusual for this part of the country.

Jerusalem Forest
Jerusalem Forest after the snowstorm

It's a long story, but we ended up stuck in Jerusalem over the weekend of the big snow. We had seen some pictures on the news, but we weren't quite prepared for the extent of the snow in Jerusalem. As soon as we reached the part of the highway which starts to climb into the Jerusalem foot hills everything was white, and in the distance we could see the Judean mountains and forests covered in snow. Weird to see such familiar landscape looking so unfamiliar. I must have taken this road hundreds of times and yet in the snow and mist it took me a while to get my bearings.

The snow was much heavier than we expected, I think that it was the heaviest snowfall in Jerusalem in about 8 years. There was very little traffic on the roads, but many people, children and adults, were out making snowmen and having snowball fights in the streets.The city itself was shrouded in thick fog, visibility was minimal and we realised that we wouldn't be getting back to Modi'in that day.

We ended up staying with friends who live near the Jerusalem forest, in a suburb called Har Nof (literally ‘Mountain View') close
Bet Zayit Valley
Fog lifting over the Bet Zayit valley
to the main entrance to the city. Once the fog began to clear the views from their apartment and balcony were quite something, photos don't quite capture how special it was. Their apartment looks out onto forested mountainsides and a valley, and in the distance you can see more mountains, and the nearby towns of Motza, Mevaseret Tzion and Jerusalem suburbs such as Ein Karem. Nestling in the valley are the houses and fields of the village of Bet Zayit.In any kind of weather this view is one of my favourites, I have seen it in all weathers, in all conditions, shrouded by fog and rain, dramatically lit by lightening, scorched by a midday summer sun, touched with gold at sunset. Transformed by half a metre of snow it was still beautiful, and yet surreal, as though I was looking at a completely new and different place.

In the last few hours of daylight before the Sabbath started we took a short walk in the patch of the forest nearest to the apartment. The fresh snowfalls in the forest came well over our knees. Sadly we saw many trees which had collapsed under the weight of the snow and the high winds of the night before. Fallen tall majestic pines lay scattered throughout the forest, snapped like matchsticks or pulled up from the roots.. The sturdy little olive, carob and almond trees however were unaffected by the heavy snow.

Jerusalem Valley
The valley on Sunday once the water had refrozen

By the next morning the snow had begun to melt a little, at least on the roads and pavements, though it was still piled high in the forest and on the roofs of the houses. The mountainsides, and parts of the valley floor were still covered in snow, but it was starting to melt and streams of water were cascading down the cliff side and down the verges on either side of the road and collecting in torrents and waterfalls over the rocks in the valley. Jerusalem is very dry most of the year, and this valley is usually parched, even in the wet seasons when it's green and beautiful there are no visible streams. To see it flowing with fast rushing streams and waterfalls was an awesome sight, a sign that all our fervent prayers for rain after two years of severe drought had been answered. Many people had walked over from nearby neighbourhoods and like us just stood on the flooded valley road taking in the sight of the snow covered forest and the meltwater streams. I don't think that words can convey the magic and beauty of the scene, we felt like children in fairyland.

Almond Trees
Almond Trees in blossom

On the one hand it was a shame that the most wonderous, most unusual and beautiful part of the snowstorm occurred over the Sabbath, when I could not capture it on film. On the other hand perhaps that was the wonder of the event, that it took place on the one day a week when everyone had the time to walk out and just marvel at the sight and when there was a minimum of traffic anyway. It certainly added to the beauty of Shabbat that week, and neither the heavy blanket of snow on Friday nor the frozen ice of the next day compared to the marvel of the valley on the Sabbath.

Although Sunday is normally a workday here we decided to take the day off so that we could enjoy the beauty and take some photos (photography is forbidden on the Sabbath). Saturday night it got colder again and by Sunday morning all the water had re-frozen into ice. We braved the treacherous ice and hiked down into the valley and through the forest. All the meltwater streams from the day before were frozen solid, glittering in the sun.

Gazelle in the snow
Gazelle in the Jerusalem forest

Save for the road, everything was still covered in deep snow and we could make out gazelle tracks in the snow. We knew that there were gazelle in the forest, but I've only caught sight of one once, and that was from a great distance as it ran away. Perhaps because of the snow the gazelle seemed more adventurous that Sunday. I suppose that it was harder for them to find food, and we were lucky enough to see one foraging amongst the trees and another one walking along the valley, quite close to us, It didn't see us for a long time and we were able to just stand behind a rock and watch it daintily picking it's way through the snow.

Later we took a bus across town to Mount Scopus on the eastern edge of the city, near the Judean Desert. From the campus of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus we had stunning views of the city. In one direction we could see the snow covered city and the ramparts, domes and towers of the Old City laid out in front of us, and to the east we had a view of the outskirts of the city and the desert covered in snow, right next to areas of the desert where the snow had already melted. It was weird to have a view of the snow and the desert side by side, but very beautiful. Ah, Jerusalem in snow, certainly something to savour through the long, dry, hot summer.

Snow on the desert's edge Mt Scopus Sculpture
View from Mt Scopus - snow on the edge of the desert Hebrew University Campus, Mt Scopus, view towards the desert and the Dead Sea

Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum. Text on this page by Leiah Elbaum. Photographs on this page by Leiah and Jason Elbaum. Last updated 12 July 2000.

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