The Judean Desert, or the Judean Wilderness as it is has been known throughout history, is one of the world’s smallest, yet most unique desert regions. Passed through by most people as they descend from Jerusalem at around 800 meters above sea level, the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 400 meters below sea level, it is a fascinating region to stop and explore, full of fun outdoor activities, as well as a rich history and fascinating geography and geology. The Judean Desert is a rock desert characterized by a large number of wadis cutting through the rock.
The cliffs of the Judean Desert opening out onto the Dead Sea
History of the Judean Desert
Throughout history, the Judean Desert has been an important, and much documented place. It was the main entry route to the Holy City of Jerusalem from the east, and Moses famously looked out across it, and the Holy Land into which he never entered, from the Moab Mountains of Jordan which lie across the Dead Sea from Israel. The desert has also provided quiet and tranquility contrasting to the ever-political and tense situations which have existed in Jerusalem throughout the ages. Monks have formed some of the world’s most spectacular monasteries in the cliff-faces of the desert, such as the beautiful Monastery of St George, and the Mar Saba which remain active to this day, whilst the wealthiest and most notable members of society often sought out sanctuary in the desert, or at the Dead Sea.
Leaving Jerusalem, the stark change in scenery as you enter the Judean Desert is impressive, changing from a green, mountainous, urban landscape to a yellow, rocky, desert scene almost instantly. The Judean Desert is home to a small but visible nomadic Bedouin population who can be seen grazing animals on the hilltops, as well as a number of small towns and villages. It is still largely unpopulated, however, meaning that it offers a wealth of outdoor and leisure pursuits, including off-road driving, biking, and hiking.
Visiting the Judean Desert
Mar Saba Monastery. Courtesy of Zachi Evenor
The Judean Desert is riddled with impressive historic sites, including:
- The ancient fortress of Masada beside the Dead Sea, which is traditionally climbed at sunrise although can now be ascended via cable car. The best way to visit is with an organized Masada tour.
- The site at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most important archaeological finds in history, were discovered less than 100 years ago.
- Herodium, the impressive tomb built for King Herod, whose influence can be seen across Israel
- The monasteries of Mar Saba and St George
Judean Desert – Nature Reserves and Natural Wonders
The region is also home to a great number of nature reserves and sites of natural wonder.
Ideas for exploring and experiencing the Judean Desert