The Judean Desert. A series of undulating hills that starts just next to Jerusalem. Beautifully tranquil, it contains some of my favourite parts of Israel. Avid followers of this blog will no doubt recall that our first field trip on my tour guide course was to the Northern Judean desert. A couple of years on, it was time to return, partly to refresh my memory on some of the sites that I had not seen for a while and partly to discover some new ones. Accompanied by my friend and fellow tour guide Ori, it was time for another adventure.
We began our day at the site that marks the believed location of the story of the Good Samaritan. In addition to enjoying the mosaics and Byzantine ruins that we had seen on our last visit, we enjoyed the recently produced film that you can now watch while sitting in a cave that was a home to Jews in the Second Temple Period. The film was rather kitch, but still helps explain the story of the Good Samaritan fable.
While wondering around the site, we noticed some old ruins the other side of the road. The staff told us that it was ruins of a former Herodian palace. We decided to head over and take a closer look. After some rather tricky off-roading (Ori’s little Suzuki was not really built for this but it coped admirably) we passed the remains of a Crusader fortress which protected this ancient road. We then climbed a little further on foot to explore the Herodian ruins.
The site seemed to be in the midst of excavations, although it was unclear by whom, and when the last time was that they had been there. Still, we were able to make out pieces of 2000 year old mosaics, and part of the hypocaust that made up the hot room in the bath house. It was rather remarkable that this site was just there, almost ignored among the other archaeological treasures in the area.
We continued south, arriving at Qumran. After a spot of lunch we explored the ruins, and also saw the film (which is quite good) – we had unfortunately not been able to watch it during the course due to time pressures. The ruins at Qumran are a little underwhelming, given the sites importance, but the story of the Dead Sea scrolls discovered nearby is remarkable, and it is fun to see how to match what we understand about this ascetic community with the archaeological remains at the site.
We returned north, and after a brief stop at Kalia beach, to see the facilities (it is a popular stop for Dead Sea bathers), we returned north. Our destination was the well hidden monastery of St George, built into the cliff face along Wadi Kelt and dating to the 5th century. This was certainly the highlight of the day, as we made our way along a deserted road we eventually found the cross that marked the first view of the monastery. It is a very special sight; you are in the middle of the desert but there is a burst of greenery in the wadi thanks to the year-round stream that comes from the nearby spring. And there, almost hidden in the cliff face, is the monastery. This is certainly a place that you would come for solitude.
Eventually we arrived at the monastery gate, but from there we faced a steep descent and then an even steeper climb to arrive at the actual structure. Along the way we noted the remains of a Hasmonean aqueduct that used to transport water from the spring to various cities in the area, and many beautiful, ancient trees. The monastery itself was closed (they only accept visitors in the morning) but it was enough for us to see it from the outside and marvel at its beauty. Truly one of my favourite places in Israel.
We returned to our car and made a final stop in the nearby Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Here is something called the Dead Sea Balcony, a viewpoint which offers a stunning vista over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the northern part of the Dead Sea. It was a nice way to finish off the day, before returning back north.
And so it begins. After some logistics and forms the night before, we gather as the sun rises over Tel Aviv at Arlozorov bus station, ready to set out on our first trip on the guiding course. The previous night, our rakaz (coordinator) had instilled the fear of God into everyone, promising that the bus was leaving at 6.30am and if you were not on it, then tough. And then he said it again, several times. Obviously, the last thing you want to happen having already woken up at the crack of dawn is to make it all worthless by missing the bus, so it was that when I showed up half an hour early there were already about half the course there to meet me. And yes, we did leave on time.
Our first journey took us south into the North of the Judean desert. But before we could get to our first site of the day, we had about 90 minutes of travel time. I pulled out my travel pillow, looking forward to catching up on those lost hours of sleep. This went well for about 5 minutes before our guide grabbed the microphone and started pointing things out as we travelled down the road, and of course we were writing this all down.
One of the things that I love about this country is the incredible concentration of sites of interest. I must say, however, that this can be a mixed blessing; when on the guiding course one receives far more content than one would on a normal tour, to equip us for every situation and eventuality, so significant concentration is required. “On the left, an ancient archaeological site; on the right, the site of Israel’s first soap factory; look at the rock here which is a reddish colour because of the copper, etc”. And I dutifully listened, and looked, and noted, and worked out some of the more complicated Hebrew words (limestone, flint, aqueduct, weaving ant, to name but a few of the additions to my lexicon on this trip).
We passed Jerusalem and began the descent into the Judean desert. I love the desert. Israel has two: the Judean Desert, and South of it the Negev. Both are rocky (there is a small area with some dunes). The craggy rocks, the undulating hills (Israelis call them mountains, but having spent two and half years in Switzerland, I’m not sure), the weaving valleys, I find it all so incredibly beautiful. And tranquil. An amazing tranquillity in the desert. A place to enjoy the aesthetics, to think and absorb the beauty of nature. And lots of historical, geographical and geological information too, on this occasion.
There are of course many sites of interest, and our first stop was at the Inn of the Good Samaritan. According to tradition, this is the site of the famous Good Samaritan parable told in Luke’s gospel. In the 6th century a church was built here, and you can visit the partial reconstruction. There are also a variety of artefacts and stunning mosaics (like the one above) from around the area (partly in an air-conditioned museum). The museum also contains a very interesting display on the Samaritans (the original sort, not the British charity), who still exist in Israel although latest numbers put them at under 1000. We will learn more about them as the course progresses.
Back on the bus and a short hop down route 1 to this stunning viewpoint over Wadi Kelt. The view was so breathtaking that it required a moment’s reflection before turning to the important matter at hand of identifying the sites of interest; I can now point out a variety of locations from the viewpoint; from Jerusalem to Jericho; from a palace of Herod to the birthplace of Robert Kennedy’s assassin. Just in case you were wondering, of course.
As we continued on towards the Dead Sea we had a short nature break; I was thrilled to bump into an old friend and very experienced guide who had been advising me about the career transition, Mike Hollander. It was something of a heart-warming moment and seemed to me to be a good omen.
The next step, via Lido junction (the lowest point on land in the world), was the site of the Ashlag factories, the first factories at the Dead Sea, used to mine potassium. The story of the Russian tourist who happened upon this area, had the idea to start mining, and nagged the British authorities for nine years to let him do so, was quite remarkable. But it was also sad to realise that the Dead Sea waters used to come up to this spot, but are now several kilometres away. More on that later. This site fell into Jordanian hands in 1948, and was then taken by Israel in 1967, at which point it became an army base. An evidently very bored officer on reserve duty took a crusader map of the Jordan valley and painted it on the walls (cheekily adding in the local Lido junction). It is actually pretty impressive, an extract is pictured below.
Onwards South we went with the next stop being Einot Tzukim, the ‘lowest nature reserve in the world’. I’m not sure that is particularly anything to shout about on its own, but that should not let anything be taken away from the nature reserve. Based around 130-170 fresh water springs in the middle of the desert, King Abdullah of Jordan was so taken with the area that he designated it for his use only, when it was Jordanian territory. When it was no longer Jordan, Israel made it a nature reserve, and it was remarkable to see the freshwater springs and also to learn about the extensive wildlife, set right in the middle of such an incredibly barren and unwelcoming landscape. The reserve also encompasses an archaeological site; the theory is that it was used to make the mythical afarsimon oil, known to have been an extremely valuable commodity in ancient times. No one knows what afarsimon was for sure (the word exists in modern Hebrew and means persimmon, but it is not the same fruit) but the search continues. There is also some modern history – the day of declaring the state Ben Gurion came here with his wife for a bit of ‘me time’ before heading up to Tel Aviv to make history. No doubt he was enjoying the serenity of the desert before what he knew would be complete chaos. And so the ancient and modern worlds connect.
Slightly further South we braved the oncoming traffic to cross over route 90 (the longest road in Israel) and visit the Ruins of Mazin. This consists of the remains of what was an ancient ship yard on the Dead Sea, with evidence that it was an economic resource even in ancient times – a stash of coins nearby probably used to pay for asphalt brought up by the ships.
We then began the journey in the direction of home, slowing to take in the rather depressing Palestine Exploration Fund (P.E.F.) Rock. The P.E.F. was founded in 1865 and still exists, with the purpose of exploring, mapping and excavating the land of Israel, which was at the time under Ottoman control (they may have been gathering intelligence on the side, cheeky things). The rock marked the height of the Dead Sea at the beginning of the 20th Century. 100 years later and it’s quite sad to think that it is now some distance away from even touching the rock. It’s caused largely by a huge increase in the use of the tributary, the Jordan River, for water by all its surrounding countries. Hopefully the scientists and politicians can find a way to fix it.
Our penultimate stop was at Qumran. I remember stopping at Qumran once before; a family road trip to Eilat. Dad saw the sign and decided that he wanted to stop there; I think everyone else wanted to get home (it’s quite a long drive). I vaguely remember it being closed in any event. This time, I certainly appreciated it more. Qumran is the site around which many of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found; their discovery is quite an incredible story. Some of these scrolls date back to the 2nd Century BCE, and are the oldest copies of the books of the bible in existence. I studied them a bit at university, and this context always adds more to visiting a historical site. It is thought that here lived a group of Essenes, a sort of ascetic cult that broke away from the mainstream Judaism in the Second Temple Period. There is a good explanatory film and small museum and then you can walk around the site. I always find it amazing to wonder around these ancient places, to imagine people walking those same paths thousands of years ago. It must have been tough in Qumran, in the middle of the desert, an unforgiving place where it sometimes rained once in two years. They must have been pretty committed.
Eventually we were thrown out at closing time. There was time for just one more brief stop on the way home, Nabi Musa, the site where Muslims believe Moses is buried. Night was falling and prayers were beginning so we didn’t stay long; a quick peek at the shrine and some history outside before heading home, arriving at Arlozorov at 6.45, just over 12 hours after we had left.
Quite an intense first day! In addition to all the general information, we also received lots of useful practical tips, such as good places to stand and address a group in a particular site; good routes; ideas about how to integrate sources. One has to pay just as much attention to the way the material is delivered, as to its content. At every site I was thinking about how I would relate it when my time to guide will come; plenty of food for thought. All in all, very enjoyable, although completely exhausting. Looking forward to more to come!