The Ayalon Valley
Joshua, Judah Maccabee, the Roman Legions, Moslem conquerors, Crusaders, Allenby and ZaHaL are among the generals and armies who encamped and fought in the Ayalon Valley.
Throughout history, the Ayalon Valley has been a battle ground. The strategic importance of the Valley derives from its location. As our Sages comment: the Ayalon Valley marks the boundary between the Shefela , the lowlands leading down to the Mediterranean coast and the hills leading up to Yerushalayim. Being fairly large, the Ayalon Valley is the last place an army can organize itself before the ascent to Yerushalayim.
The most recent battle fought in the Ayalon Valley, and hopefully the last, was during the Six day War when the Harel Armored Brigade liberated the area, including the fort of Latrun. The heaviest battles fought in the Valley in recent times were during the War of Independence. The Latrun fort dominated the road to Jerusalem. Being controlled by the Jordanians, the fort prevented the flow of supplies to Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, there were at least five separate attacks by our forces on the Latrun fort. Unfortunately, each of the attacks ended in failure, leaving the fort in the hands of the Arab Legion [the army of Jordan] until 1967. Because one of the attacks on Latrun involved the first use by Israel’s army of tanks and the first fatalities suffered by the Armored Corps, Latrun has been chosen as the central memorial site for the Armored Corps.
The Latrun fort was built by the British in 1943, one of the "Tegart Forts" intended to give the British at least some semblance of control in Israel. The name Latrun is a corruption of the French "La Toron des Chevalliers" ["the Tower of the Horsemen"], the name of the Crusader fortress whose remains are on the hill southeast of the fort.
Upon entering the site, we enter an army base. Technically, the memorial site is considered an Armored Corps base. Walking up the steps, we pass a variety of tanks. We’ll return to the tanks at the end our tour. For now, suffice it to say that almost every type of tank used by ZaHaL is on display at Latrun. Before entering the fort, we will walk to the memorial wall [to the right]. On this wall are the names of every soldier of the Armored Corps who has given his/her life in active military service. The list is arranged chronologically, starting with the War of Independence on the right side. Within the War of Independence section, there is a sub-section listing those who fell in the battles of Latrun. Close to one third of ZaHaL’s fatalities are soldiers of the Armored Corps.
Having paid our respects to our fallen soldiers, we return to the entrance. Before entering, note the holes in the fort’s walls, results of tank shells fired during the Six Day War. As we enter the fort, there are flags of each of the Armored Corps units, decorated with the campaign ribbons indicating which wars each unit has fought in. Continuing to the right, we enter the memorial room.
Throughout the day, the names and photographs of the fallen soldiers of the Armored Corps are shown on the wall. NOTE: It is relatively dark in this section; walk carefully. We continue to the "Wall of Tears". The wall is actually made of tank armor. The holes in the armor were made by anti-tank weapons. The water slowly running down the wall symbolizes tears shed for those who gave their lives. The room beyond the Wall of Tears has a computer screen, on which are shown the photographs and basic information on each soldier who was killed in action on today’s date.
Exiting the memorial area, note that there is a synagogue to the right. It is worth noting that every good-sized army base has a synagogue, and the army accommodates the needs of religiously observant soldiers. [Standing orders in ZaHaL require that a soldier be given enough time to pray three times per day.]
Down the steps, there is a theater with an audio-visual presentation. Upon paying the entrance fee to the site, ask when the audio-visual program will be presented. For those who do not understand Hebrew well enough, there are headphones available to hear the English translation. WARNING: the decibel levels of the presentation are quite high!
After the audio-visual, continue to the right. Opposite the elevator, there is a room with computers. Here, one can get information on any of the fallen soldiers of the Armored Corps, as well as on any soldier who has been decorated [medals are considerably more difficult to receive in ZaHaL than in most armies], on any of the Armored Corps memorial sites and on the tanks which ZaHaL uses. When things are working properly, it is possible to print out the information.
Next, take the steps up to the main floor of the fort. At the top of the steps, on the left there are models of two ancient chariots. When you consider it, the chariot was the ancient version of the tank. For this reason, the Israeli made battle tank is called the Merkava [chariot]. The chariot on the left is a model of an Egyptian chariot. [Perhaps this is the type used by Pharaoh to chase after our ancestors at the Red Sea (Exodus 14, 6ff.)] The second model is of an Israelite chariot, from the 8th century BCE. Each of the models is based upon ancient graphic evidence. In the case of the Egyptian chariot, a drawing which decorated a pyramid. The Israelite chariot is based upon the "Lachish Reliefs", which depict the Assyrian siege and capture of Lachish by Sancheriv and which decorated his palace in Ninveh. [The remains of the palace were excavated about 1885 and the reliefs are now in the British Museum. BE"H, we will write about Lachish separately.] Notice that the wall behind the chariots was pierced by shells during the Six Day War.
We will continue up the steps to the roof of the fort. Looking to the north, we see the Ayalon Valley spread out before us. Within the Valley are Kibbutz Sha’alvim and Nof Ayalon. Sha’alvim was established in 1951 as a "NaHaL" outpost [by soldiers who were members of the Ezra youth movement] and subsequently turned into a kibbutz. The "Green Line" [pre-1967 border] ran through the Valley, and until the Six Day War, Sha’alvim was located on the armistice lines with Jordan. No doubt, life has been calmer for the kibbutzniks since 1967. Beyond Sha’alvim, it is possible to see the tall buildings of Modi’im. Turning to the south, we can see Neve Shalom, a village where Jews and Arabs attempt to demonstrate that the two groups can live peacefully side by side. During the period of the British Mandate, the fields below Neve Shalom served as the Latrun prison camp, where members of the Jewish undergrounds were imprisoned.
Below us, we can see the amphitheater which the Armored Corps uses for its swearing-in ceremonies [in years past, held on top of Massada] and memorial services. Surrounding the building, there are close to 100 tanks, as noted, including almost every type of tank ZaHaL has used, up to and including the Merkava. Generally, the tanks painted green are those used by ZaHaL, the beige tanks were used by the Arab armies and captured [and some then used] by ZaHaL. Before going down to play with the tanks, note there are a few tanks painted blue. No matter what the battleground, blue is a terrible color to paint a tank. The tanks were painted blue by the Lebanese army, based on the tradition that the color blue keeps away the evil eye. In this instance, blue invites the ayin hara!
Each of the tanks has a sign in front of it presenting basic information, including weight of the tank, armaments, number of crew members and country of manufacture. Since none of the tanks is open to climb into, don’t miss the tank which has been cut in half so we can see what it looks like inside. [It’s to the right of the steps as we go down.]
Driving Directions: 1)Travel to Shimshon intersection; turn LEFT, continue to Nachshon intersection; turn RIGHT at Nachshon intersection, continue to Latrun turn-off; turn LEFT into the site
2)Travel to Sha'ar haGuy, enter Highway 1 in the direction of Tel Aviv; exit at Latrun [the first exit]; turn LEFT, continue few hundred meters to traffic lights; turn LEFT into site.
Read more Israel Tourism articles at Arutz Sheva's Jewish Universe Travel page.