"We Are Going Up to Jerusalem"
The spectacular 17-mile-long route to Jerusalem by way of the Wadi Qelt heads west from Tulul Abu al-Alayiq, the site of New Testament Jericho (also called Herodian Jericho). "Wadi" is Arabic for a creek bed or ravine, dry throughout the year except in the rainy season.
The Judean desert between Jericho and Jerusalem is not a monotonous, sandy wasteland, like the Sahara desert in Africa6, for example, but a constantly renewing landscape of hills and valleys. Even today, despite the encroachment of Jewish settlements on the edges of Jerusalem, it is an awesomely beautiful place, like the newly emerged dry land at the dawn of creation, awaiting only the word of God to bring forth life. I especially recall my second time traveling through this area, in November 1999, when my tour group followed the old narrow twisting (but paved) Roman road along the southern edge of the canyon. It was late in the day and the low sun painted the barren, rolling hills in shades of mauve, tan and gold. All I could say was, "This is a real treat." Not exactly a profound statement, but the spectacular scene moving slowly past us as our driver, Moses (honestly!), nimbly steered the tight turns took away more descriptive phrases.
In the footsteps of Jesus...
Wadi Qelt: "Going up to Jerusalem"
Wadi Qelt is a natural rift in the Judean hills with high, sheer rock walls between Jericho and Jerusalem. The narrow and difficult road lining the wadi was once the main route to the Holy City. It is now used only by tourists, having been superseded by a modern paved highway, Route 1. It follows the line of a Herodian aqueduct (actually a channel through which the water flowed) built on the north side of the valley to carry water to the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces at Jericho from the Ein Farah spring. Along the way, desert animals can be seen between the rocks and cliffs, and trees, bamboo and bushes are permanently green despite the harsh environment. Many natural caves and shelters spread along the valley and are exploited by Bedouins and their livestock. The route saw frequent use right up to the end of the Ottoman period in 1917. Some of the biblical events which likely occurred on this route include David’s flight from Absalom (2 Samuel 15-16), Zedekiah’s flight from the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:4) and the fictional parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
Heading westward from Tulul Abu al-Alayiq, the narrow road climbs swiftly (below left) into an unrelenting landscape of barren, brightly colored hills and valleys that see very little water. In the summer the temperatures here can be in excess of 100º F. Less than a mile west of Herod the Great's palace complex is the site of Cypros (Arabic Tell al-Aqaba) (below right), a strategic peak that once guarded the old road as it left the plains around Jericho. Often described as a "mini-Masada," most of its buildings (including two bath houses) are attributed to Herod the Great. Named for Herod's mother, it was the nearest fortress where the paranoid king could retreat in the event of a revolt.
(Below left) Remains of an aqueduct; (below right) walking along the dirt road through Wadi Qelt.
(Above left) Shallow ridges worn in the steep hillsides by sheep and goats incessantly searching for food; (above right) piers of an aqueduct.
The silence is broken only by the wind, the rattle of pebbles tumbling down the slopes of the hills, and the scuffing of sandals. As Jesus and his disciples walked here, perhaps they joined with other Passover-bound pilgrims in a traditional "song of ascents" to relieve the monotony. Have you ever noticed the phrase "a song of ascents" prefacing Psalms 120-134 in your Bible? These were songs sung by pilgrims traveling this road to Jerusalem, as in this excerpt from Psalm 122:
"I rejoiced with those who said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord.' Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to praise the name of the Lord...Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May those who love you be secure.'"
As Jesus trod the dusty path heading up to Jerusalem for the last time he likely remembered the 40 days he spent alone in this area following his baptism at the Jordan by John the Baptist. The temptations of Satan then proved difficult, and even now he may have had second thoughts about making this journey. In places like this Satan worked diligently to tear apart God's plans; perhaps this was where he began working in earnest on Judas Iscariot.
Less than a mile from Cypros is a viewpoint where from where you can look down on the Monastery of St. George (below left), built right in the face of the vertical cliffs. Sea level indicator in English and Hebrew (below left) in the Wadi Kelt (Jericho is about 850' below sea level; Jerusalem is about 2,500' above sea level).
Monastery of St. George of Koziba
The Monastery of St. George clings to the canyon walls like a fairy-tale castle (two views below). Of all the monasteries founded in this spectacularly austere area between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, it is the only survivor. The first monks to settle as hermits in the caves in this part of the wadi were named Prono, Elias, Gannaios, Ainan and Zenon (about 420 AD). The monastery itself, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was founded by St. John of Thebes (about 480 AD) as a spiritual center for the hermits of the region. Supposedly it was built over a cave where Joachin took refuge to lament the infertility of his wife, Anna. An angel told him to return to Anna, who afterward gave birth to the Virgin Mary. In the 6th century AD the monastery became known as St. George under the leadership of George of Koziba.
Born in Cyprus about 550 AD, George lived for a time in Jordan, but later an intense longing for a more ascetic life brought him to the Wadi Kelt. During the Persian invasion of Palestine in 614 AD, the monastery was destroyed and many of its monks were killed. A Greek-Arabic inscription above the old entrance testifies to its reconstruction by Crusaders in 1179. But most of the present monastery dates back to a 1879-1901 reconstruction by the Greek Orthodox Church. The oldest part of the building is the 6th century AD mosaic floor of the neighboring Church of St. John. The skulls of the monks martyred by the Persians are kept here and a niche contains the tomb of St. George.
A little over a mile west of the Monastery of St. George a sign marked "Sea Level" (above right) indicates that we have ascended 850 feet to sea level (sounds strange!), with another 2,500 feet to go. Over on the main road to the south, there is another 'sea level' sign where an enterprising Bedouin usually stations himself with his camel to pose for tourist photos
Some two miles later, we join the modern highway, Road 1, coming from Jerusalem. Another viewpoint here provides an great view of the northern Judean Desert. Neither houses nor plowed fields interrupt the monotonous succession of hills, each as bare as the last and next. This area of semi-desert sustains no life except in the wadis (Arabic, ravines). Journeys by commercial travelers and pilgrims on this or any other road were hardly undertaken for pleasure. They were difficult, dangerous and — except for the wealthy — long, since most went on foot. Travelers had to carry provisions with them or be prepared to purchase food in villages, though it was not always available, and water was sometimes jealously guarded. Danger was an ever-present companion. Indeed this territory was sadly famous for the raids of desert bandits. The region was so desolate that in times of civil strive, rebel bands took refuge here. Even to this day guide books caution against traveling alone in this area. It is no accident that Jesus chose to set his parable of the Good Samaritan on this road:
"Jesus said: 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have'" (Luke 10:35-30).
Another couple miles ahead, on the left, is the so-called Good Samaritan Inn, a one-story building, its courtyard surrounded by a low stone wall. This area marked the halfway point on what was then a two-day journey, and most likely Jesus and his pilgrim-traveling companions stopped in this area to rest for the night.
Good Samaritan Inn
The popular name for the site commemorates Jesus' famous parable of a Samaritan man taking compassion on an injured traveler after both a priest and a Levite had passed him by. It is not certain when this spot became associated with the parable. Byzantine and Crusader pilgrims constantly sought to localize every event mentioned in the gospels. After all Jesus was probably not recounting a actual event or describing a specific inn, but rather using this setting for a parable in response to a question: "And who is my neighbor?" and thereby teaching an important lesson.
(Below left) The so-called "Good Samaritan Inn" (photo from the bibleplaces.com blog) and (below right) its courtyard. Enclosing a deep well, the building here is actually a 16th century AD Turkish khan known as al-Khan al-Ahmar ("red inn"), because of the color of the soil in the area. Here, in the days before modern transportation, travelers stopped to refresh themselves and their mounts.
No remains of a caravansary or inn dating to the time of Jesus have been found here, but other ages have left their mark. Across the road and up a dirt track to the top of the opposite hill are the remains of a Crusader fortress, Tour Rouge, built by the Knights Templars to protect pilgrims on the Jerusalem-Jericho road. It stands on the site of an earlier Byzantine fortress, built for the same purpose. In June 2009, Israel opened the Museum of the Good Samaritan here, and it features an open-air display of mosaics and archaeological finds from both Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches.
(Left) reproduction of a mosaic from the King David Synagogue, Gaza Strip; (Above) 9th century Byzantine mosaic.
Past the area of the Good Samaritan Inn the empty rolling landscape continues. On either side of the road we pass occasional Bedouin encampments, some with tents made of black or brown goat's hair, others mainly shacks of wood and corrugated iron. It's not uncommon to see cars parked alongside or satellite dishes (to watch CNN from Europe).
In ancient times this area marked the border between the tribal lands of Judah, to the south, and Benjamin, to the north. Here, too, Jeremiah wandered alone and depressed while pondering his prophecies for his people. While reading the book of Jeremiah, you don't have to look very far to find his source of inspiration! For example:
"It will be made a wasteland, parched and desolate before me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no-one who cares" (Jeremiah 12:11).
"When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions and the detestable things you did, your land became an object of cursing and a desolate waste without inhabitants, as it is today" (Jeremiah 44:22).
Less than a mile west of the Good Samaritan Inn is the junction with Road 458 leading back to the central section of the Wadi Qelt. Some 3 miles after the inn Route 1 passes the industrial suburb of Mishor Adummim; another mile or so farther is the Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Adummim.
Established in 1978, Ma'ale Adummim is the largest of the Jewish settlements in the Jerusalem area, with a population of approximately 25,000, with plans for more in the future. Its name is derived from the steep pass (below left) along the Jerusalem-Jericho road known as Ma'ale Adummim (NIV "Pass of Adummim;" see Joshua 15:7 and Joshua 18:17), meaning "red ascent," from the exposed patches of red limestone, tinted by iron oxide in the area. Burchard of Mount Zion, a medieval writer, stated that the Red Ascent (called the "Blood Ascent" by Arabs) got its name "from the frequent blood shed there. Of a truth it is horrible to behold and exceedingly dangerous".
The settlement of Ma'ale Adummim (above right) is the centerpiece of a campaign by Israel's right-wing Likud party to build suburban communities in commuting distance of Jerusalem, providing cheap, government subsidized housing in the "West Bank." Its white buildings are in sharp (though not necessarily attractive) contrast with its reddish desert surroundings. It is this and the other Jewish settlements ringing Jerusalem that so often make the news reports.
Originally founded by a tiny group of settlers in 1976, it did not begin to expand significantly until 1982 when the Israeli government declared the area "state land," despite the legal ownership of the Palestinian residents of nearby Abu Dis. From 1982 onwards, as the colony expanded, the Jahalin Bedouin who had been living there were physically transferred to another site. They had been living on the site of Ma'ale Adummim since the early 1950s after their forced transfer from the Arad area in the Negev and had a mixed relationship with the Israeli settlement. When construction began in earnest in 1982, some Bedouin (who have traditionally been non-political) supplemented their income by working on the new building sites. However, the expansion of the settlement has gradually ensured the displacement of nearly all the Jahalin; and those of the tribe still remaining in their original homes protested fervently against Israel's threatened confiscation.
Ma'ale Adummim, which includes the colonies of Kfar Adummim, Allon, and Mishor Adummim, has been promoted as the new eastern limit of Jerusalem and it is also slated to be the limit of a "Greater Jerusalem" which is an Israeli plan to annex an enormous area of the West Bank. Ma'ale Adummim and other Jewish settlements in the area obtain their water by digging very deep wells that unfortunately affect the natural water flow down to Jericho. Israel's barely-disguised plan is to surround the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem (numbering around 170,000 people; designated as the future capital of the Palestinian state) with Jewish settlements, thus legitimizing Jewish sovereignty over the entire Jerusalem area. In turn, the natural expansion of Palestinian areas was curtailed by the confiscation of Palestinian land and the arrival of still more Jewish settlement. This plan enjoys the support not only of the Likud government but also of the Labor party. A speech by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the Knesset, delivered less than a month before his death, made clear both the commitment of the Israeli government to Ma'ale Adummim and its place in a wider scheme for Jewish settlement which would effectively divide the West Bank into two. According to the Jerusalem Post, "By building this project, Israel will not only be creating a territorial link between the capital (Jerusalem) and the largest settlement in the territories (Ma'ale Adummim), but will, perhaps even more importantly, prevent a territorial link between Bethlehem and Ramallah — necessary for the establishment of a Palestinian state."
It is statements like this that keep unfortunate nicknames like "blood ascent" from disappearing into the past where they belong.
Near Ma'ale Adummim we turn off Route 1 and follow Route 417 past the town of Abu-Dis, separated from the Arab village of al-Azariyeh (Bethany) by a deep ravine. The small village of Bethany, in turn, was situated on the very edge of the Judean desert on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.
Jesus had several reasons for staying in Bethany instead of Jerusalem itself. For one thing, finding accommodations in the Holy City at Passover was next to impossible. Jerusalem's normal population of some 50,000 at least tripled with the vast influx of pilgrims, and every available space in the valleys and hills outside the city was filled with tents. Then, too, because of Jesus' great popularity with the crowds, it was necessary that he have a place of retreat. If those Temple officials who sought his arrest had been able to find him alone inside the city, he would surely have been captured sooner than he was. Additionally, he had close friends in Bethany, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead some weeks earlier. They provided hospitality to him and his disciples on previous occasions.
(Below) overall view of al-Azariyeh/Bethany, located 2.5 miles east of Jerusalem. Left to right: Franciscan Church of Lazarus, minaret of the al-Ozir Mosque and Greek Orthodox Church.
Jesus' Life Home n Preparation for Passover in Bethany