A Day in the Desert: Marvels of the Judean Wilderness
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Photos and Text By MATT CHURCHILL
The perfect day trip from Jerusalem is made to the east - in the Judean wilderness heading down to the Dead Sea Rift Valley. It's called the Road to Jericho because the winding ravines have connected travellers to this city since time immemorial. Along the way you will encounter cliff-hanging Byzantine monasteries, fresh spring riverbeds, rock caves, and camels.
You begin your descent at almost 3,000 feet elevation above sea level; by the end you will be at 1,400 feet below. The drive winds its way around Mount Scopus where you catch one last glimpse of the iconic gold of the Dome of the Rock before entering a tunnel that dumps you on the eastern ridge of the Mount of Olives. Suddenly, the terrain has completely changed from the cypress and pine of the hill country to the stark barrenness of desert landscape. It's not like world's desert belt, but its own distinct geological phenomenon, called "rain-shadow desert."
Basically, the clouds come in from the Mediterranean and unleash their torrent at the watershed line, which runs at a north-south axis through the hill country of Judea and Samaria. This ridge is considered the backbone of the holy land and, because it is the route taken by Abraham, it is also called the Patriarchs Highway. But when the clouds continue east past the watershed they make a drastic descent towards the lowest habitable place on earth. During this steep decline the clouds lose their condensation and dissipate, which is why the wilderness behind the mountains of Judah receive very little rain, and it forms a desert-in-the-shadow-of-the-watershed-line.
As your ears begin to pop, you pass the remains of two New Testament era hamlets, Bethany and Bethpage, where Jesus stayed with his disciples during visits to Jerusalem and received famous hospitality from the people who lived there. One can visit a church built over the tomb of Lazarus in Bethany and another in Bethpage, where they provided Jesus with a donkey. Before you hit sea level there is the Inn of the Good Samaritan, which provides the authentic backdrop to the parable of the man taken by robbers on this very dangerous road.
The desert could also be a place of refuge in the Bible. After all, Moses leads the children of Israel 40 years in the desert, David flees from King Saul, Elijah runs away from Jezebel, and Jesus escapes temptation in the wilderness. It became a symbol of God's protection as well as his pristine oneness. The Qumran community (where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls) were living in this rugged terrain for that very reason. John the Baptist wandered here and took as his motto the verse from the prophet Isaiah, "Behold I will do a new thing; Now shall it spring forth...I will even make a way in the wilderness, And rivers in the desert."
On the final descent into the Jordan Valley, to the south of the Jerusalem/Jericho highway, the white domes and the minaret of a shrine can be detected by the trained eye.
Christian monks followed in the footsteps of these precursors and by the height of the Byzantine period (325 - 636 CE), there were over 50 monasteries in the Judean desert. One of the most famous is St George of Koziba in Wadi Qelt, which was founded in the 5th century as a cluster of hermit caves suspended over the canyon. It was reconstructed in the 19th century and is still active. In Hebrew the wadi is called Nahal Prat and it flows all the way from Jerusalem to Jericho at a distance of 30 km. This beautiful oasis has attracted hikers in all ages with its unique pools and waterfalls and vegetation.
On the final descent into the Jordan Valley, to the south of the Jerusalem/Jericho highway, the white domes and the minaret of a shrine can be detected by the trained eye. This is Nebi Musa, which Muslims came to venerate as the site where Moses was buried. From this vantage point one can clearly look east to Mount Nebo, where Christians believe the grave of Moses is located because he was unable to enter the land of milk and honey. According to Jewish tradition, the knowledge of where he came to rest has been lost or hidden. Either way, both sites stand as impressive monuments on opposite walls of the Great Syrian-African Rift Valley. The River Jordan makes its serpentine path in between and never returns upon entering the Sea of Salt down below.
5 places to visit on the Road to Jericho:
1. Ein Prat Nature Reserve: This is where you would start your hike. It is located in the transition area between the Mediterranean climate and the Judean Desert. All along the path are signs of ancient settlement and stream-based cultivation.
2. The Good Samaritan Inn: An important road station from Temple times and later used by Christians traveling to the Galilee. Today it houses one of the most impressive collections of mosaics from synagogues and churches of the Byzantine period (4th - 7th centuries) that were uncovered and restored in recent archeological excavations.
3. Khan Nebi Musa: A 13th century mosque built by the Sultan Baybars around 1269 CE, after driving out the Crusaders from the land of Israel. It was enlarged to accommodate pilgrims on their first stop after embarking on the Haj from Jerusalem to Mecca. Because it provides such a clear view of Mount Nebo on the other side of the Dead Sea Rift, it came to be considered the actual site of Moses' grave.
4. Jericho: One the most important places to visit in the Palestinian Territories. Tel es-Sultan is the most ancient part of the city going back to the Stone Age and is the subject of much archeological debate. One can also take a cable car to the Mount of Temptation for same spectacular views that Jesus had when he came to this site while fasting in the wilderness.
5. Qasar el-Yahud: Right opposite Jericho is the traditional site where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river. It stands at the exact place that Joshua would have led the children of Israel into the Promised Land. Christian pilgrims have been coming to this location for over 1,700 years and you will see many devout donning the white shrouds before immersing themselves in the holy water.
Matt Churchill is a licensed Israeli tour guide and can be reached at his website churchillisraeltours.com
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