Off the Beaten Track: Touring The Judean Desert

Even tour guides can always find new and interesting places to see in the Land of Israel. If a tour guide claims he knows all of the places in Israel to visit I wouldn’t hire him or her. This past weekend I went in search of the hard to reach places that I had never been to before or are a footnote somewhere deep in my distant memory. I know that I will be visiting these places again soon.

tour of judean desert

I grabbed a friend and told him that we were going to explore a little for a couple of days and off we went to the Judean Desert armed with a jeep, tent, sleeping bags, a flashlight, a pistol, a camping grill, some hamburgers & hot dogs, hiking sandals and our bathing suits. We left Jerusalem at about 1 pm on Thursday and I spotted the faint, beaten-up sign for the Monastery of Saint George lying on the side of the Jerusalem-Dead Sea road near the village of Mitzpeh Jericho.

“I haven’t been there in years.” I said to my friend and we turned off the road onto a rough dirt road. We wound around a mountain, descending slightly and suddenly there was silence…the kind of silence you can only experience in the desert.

A hill stood in front of us off the road mounted by a small cement podium topped by a cross. “The overlook is up there.” I said as I shifted into high gear and up the faint dusty track we went towards the cross.

The monastery hangs off the cliff like a dream. Its limestone brick walls blend into the cliffs, topped with blue domes, perched on the cliffs overlooking the lush nature reserve of Wadi Qelt. Five Byzantine monks settled in the ancient caves overlooking the stream in the canyon below around the year 430 C.E. (A.D.), and John of Thebes built a monastery there 50 years later. In 614 C.E the Persian Army (we call Persia, Iran today) swept through the Land of Israel destroying every church that they came upon and the Monastery of St. George was no exception. During the Crusader period many legends took root here including the story of Elijah the prophet finding sanctuary here during his flight to the Wilderness of Sinai. It is also reported in medieval literature that Mary’s uncle, St. Joachim, was visited by an angel there and told of his virgin niece’s impending pregnancy. We soak up the atmosphere before descending into the wadi for a brief swim at the waterfall (careful here it isn’t the safest neighborhood), and then back in the jeep for our next stop.

We continue back to road #1 and down below sea level. Jericho sleeps in a cloud of dust over to the north under the Mt. of Temptation where the New Testament relates that the Devil tempted Jesus. It’s easy to picture Joshua’s soldiers marching around the ancient city causing a cloud of dust to envelope it…a good opportunity to send in your engineering corp. to breach the walls. But how can Joshua signal to them that it is time to breach the walls? A few blasts from the ram’s horn perhaps?

To the south is a picturesque mosque nestled in the soft sandy hills of Judea under the lurking mountain of Hyrcania used by the Maccabean queens & kings as a desert palace and later as one of King Herod’s renowned fortresses in the desert. We arrive to the mosque known to Muslims as the burial place of their prophet Musa know to Jews and Christians as Moses. The Hebrew Bible states that Moses is punished by God for not following his orders to the letter and is not allowed into the Land of Israel thus this beautiful mosque and shrine isn’t venerated by Jews & Christians. It is beautiful nonetheless and does sit just across the Jordan Valley from Mt. Nebo, Moses final resting place according to the Hebrew Bible. This site dates back to Mamluk times (13th century C.E.) as an inn used by Jerusalem’s Muslim’s making pilgrimage to Mecca for an overnight on the first night of their journey.

We head back towards the main road and hug the shoreline of the Dead Sea about 350 meters below sea level. The sea is to our east (left) and the cliffs rare just to our west (right) as we pass the red painted marker of the explorers from the Palestine Exploration Fund who actually sailed up to where we are driving, and marked the water level of the Dead Sea on the cliff face to our right in 1915! The Dead Sea is indeed shrinking as it has always been. Millions of years ago it was a giant sea and also it has gone through periods of expansion over many eras the general trend has been of contraction. As fresh water is a precious commodity in today’s Middle East, Israel has damned the Jordan River which expedites the shrinkage of the Dead Sea. Couple that with less rain perhaps due to global warming and active mineral mining at the Dead Sea’s southern shores and we have a body of water that is shrinking by more than a meter each year. Various plans are being studied as to how we can save the Dead Sea and the plan in the forefront is an ambitious Red Sea to Dead Sea canal. We will see.

“I remember hot springs around here from my first trip to Israel when I was a tourist 20 years ago.” I tell my friend. Jon is also a tour guide and he doesn’t recall any hot springs from the north western shore of the Dead Sea. He pulls out the trail map and sure enough, faintly marked in red are the words “hot springs” down a small jeep trail. We look for the trail and find it just south of Wadi Salvadora. It looks menacing but we carefully maneuver our jeep between two giant boulders and down the rocky path…don’t try this at home. We get to a cliff overlooking a very, very muddy beach with massive salt formations scattered about. The smell of sulfur fills our nostrils. It looks like a scene out of Star Trek. We scamper down the cliffs and get to a bubbling, shallow, muddy pool. It’s steaming. We grab a couple of thin, smooth stones and start digging out the mud. The more we dig the more water fills our pool which is fast becoming a natural Jacuzzi filled with 110 degree Fahrenheit natural mineral water. We lather up in mud, let dry, float in the Dead Sea for a while and then sit in our personal spa for a good hour as the sun sets behind the Judean Mountains. Time to go.

We manage to get back on the main road without scratching the jeep (whew!), and begin barreling down the main road #90 passing the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, Wadi Mishmar, and as the sun completely sets behind the desert mountaintop fortress of Masada, we turn off road to the east into Wadi Tze’elim to the night camp grounds. Only a couple of other tents were there. During this night of the New Moon, I have never seen so many stars in all my life. We pitch our tents, light our BBQ, roast some dogs and then hit the sack watching the night’s sky as hundreds of shooting stars fall to earth. Tomorrow we are going to explore an oasis.

Day Two

The light entered my tent before the sun rose. Having climbed Masada at least 300 times before sunrise in my life, I knew that the view, even from here below Masada, would be spectacular. I got up and prepared coffee from my “Bunsen burner” coffee kit, sat down and sipped my Turkish coffee (spiked with cardamom and sugar and called “botz” or “mud” in Hebrew) as I watched the sun rise over the Moabite Mountains (The Kingdom of Jordan) and the Dead Sea. We then packed up and were on our way.

We had time before the nature reserves opened for the day, so we decided to eat breakfast at the Aroma Café at Ein Bokek. On the way, at about 7-7:30 am there were these two grungy looking tourists holding their thumbs out, standing by the side of the road. Obviously they had slept out at the Dead Sea. When I was backpacking through Israel after university waaaaay back when, I used to do the exact same thing. One of my closest Israeli friends to this day is a guy who gave me a ride while I was hitching (times have changed since then I do not recommend hitchhiking today). I stopped to give them a lift.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Masada…and thanks for the ride!” The tall blond one has a German accent, the short guy with the black hair, French.

“German & French?” I ask. They nod in the affirmative. “Shouldn’t you guys hate each other?”

They laugh and then state in unison with a smile “We do!”, “Where are you going?”

“The Oasis of Ein Gedi. Probably one of the most beautiful places in the world.” After describing the place they decided to join us.

As we pulled into the parking lot there weren’t many cars there, three to be exact. It pays to arrive when the park is just opening its doors. We bypass the Nahal David (David’s Stream) entrance after dropping off our hitchhikers there, and make our way all the way around to the Nahal Arugot (Garden Bed Stream) entrance. This is the least famous of all the trails at the Ein Gedi (Spring of the Goat) Nature Reserve, less famous because it is much more challenging than the other hikes, but in my opinion, much more beautiful and more tranquil due to the lack of people.

private Masada, Ein Gedi, and Dead Sea Tour

As we inch up the road a family of ibex (local species of mountain goats) are crossing the road. The Patriarch crosses last with his massive horns, which are used as “shofars” in Jewish rituals. The Christian versions of the Bible often translate these horns as “trumpets”…not quite right. Every three notches on their horns represent a year of their life. This guy is big, muscular and old. I wouldn’t mess with him. “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the rock rabbits (hyrax).” Psalm 104:18.

We pass Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s date and mango fields and get out by what looks like a big circus tent which actually covers an ancient synagogue. We step out of the jeep and the fragrances from the nearby fields fill my nostrils. I am reminded of the biblical passage from the Song of Songs “My beloved is unto me as a cluster of flowers in the vineyards of En Gedi.”

The first synagogue on this spot dates back to the second century C.E. (A.D.). In nearby caves evidence has been found of a headquarters of sorts by Jewish soldiers fighting the Romans during the Bar Kochaba revolt (132 – 135 C.E.). Perhaps this is their synagogue. The mosaic, which dates to the 5th century, is breathtaking. A long Hebrew inscription attests to the date of its construction and the ancient Jewish superstition of astrology. It also depicts birds, peacocks and clusters of grapes plus several seven branched candelabras or “menorahs” which is a symbol of the various Temples that once stood in Jerusalem (there were only two Temples but they both went through several renovations). The menorahs here are depicted 400 years after the destruction of the Second Temple and clearly show that the Jewish community here in En Gedi still had a longing toward Jerusalem and the Temple Mount which was still barren during Byzantine rule in the 5th century. Notice that the menorahs depicted here do not resemble the menorah carved out of the lintel in the Arch of Titus in Rome which Titus claimed to be the famous Jewish candelabra that sat in the Temple in Jerusalem and was taken away by the Romans as booty. They do however resemble the carving of the Menorah found in the Hasmonean mansion, a first century B.C.E. (B.C.) home found in the Jewish quarter. There are various theories as to why that is and we won’t discuss them here. Perhaps another tour or a different blog post.

We leave the synagogue and head over to the entrance of the wadi. Nearby the ticket booth is a Roman cistern, a Byzantine fortress, a Canaanite flour mill, a Neolithic temple and a biblical Jewish tel (a city built on layers of civilizations) that flourished between the 7th century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. We head straight for the hike and into the wadi after applying sunscreen generously, hats, and lots of water in check. We descend into the stream and happen upon a family of Hyrax sunbathing on a boulder. They see us but pay little attention to us until one of the furry little fellows of the pack seems startled and begins his hop from rock to rock and up a tree. The water is cool and clear. Hundreds of black snails cling to the rocks in the water attesting to its cleanliness. Indeed we had passed the Ein Gedi Spring Water bottle plant at the park’s entrance. For a good hour we slosh our way through this narrow strip of greenery in a flowing stream. It feels as if we are in the jungles of southeast Asia but every time we reach a clearing the sun beats down upon us and the bare, beige, desert mountains remind us where we are. We stop at several natural pools and go for a swim. At one the stream has actually carved a natural slide by a water fall and we take the plunge into the clear, cool waters.

We leave the stream and the blue trail and head up the cliff face on the red trail. The desert scenery is stunning. The Dead Sea lies in a hazy mist behind us as the kibbutz, declared recently a botanical gardens, hovers in a multicolored mirage on the opposite mountain plateau. Between is the valley below, a large swath of greenery and running water dotted with huge boulders moved in the winter by the flash floods that come barreling through the wadi without warning. We make our way down to the Hidden Falls and relax by the pool before ascending above the falls and to the upper pools, hidden by some boulders by a small bubbling spring, the source of much of this water; truly paradise. We stop and listen to the tweeting birds, flow of the water, have a small snack and fall asleep…

For a unique and adventurous tour of the Judean Desert, join the Judean Desert Jeep Tour. The tour will take you on a majestic journey through the heart of the desert, during which you’ll discover the fascinating Bedouin culture, catch sweeping views of the Dead Sea, and visit Jabal Montar, the supposed site of the biblical scapegoat ceremony.

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