This region in particular, but to some degree all such desert areas, play an important part in the social and religious life of the people of the Near East. Traditionally, the desert wilderness is seen as a place of encounter with God, where the forces of evil can be confronted and, with His assistance, overcome. The prophets of old lived in and emerged from the desert, and saints of every age have often gone to spend time there. The desert is a symbol of a spiritual wilderness: there is a paradox between the profound stillness and emptiness of the desert and the sense of life and energy that it evokes. The Bible is full of imagery of waters flowing in the wilderness and the desert coming to life. It was into the desert that Jesus went to be alone with God, to reflect on his mission, to be prepared for his ministry and to be tempted by the devil.
It was going to be another very hot day in the rusty brown hills of the Bethlehem wilderness. It was already touching 30C. when we set off at 8am. The sensible option was to do the first couple of miles along a rather boring desert road in the service-taxi.
Today's Health and Safety briefing - 'make sure you have plenty of water as usual and DON'T touch any metallic objects you see by the path' - the whole area is an Israeli military training ground but this walk has been well planned, today is Shabbat* - we set off.
We gained height on a good track, behind us the Dead Sea and to the E. the abrupt cliffs of Moab. We were heading into the Qidron valley which leads to the old city of Jerusalem. The sense of desolation and solitude is profound, what brought Holy Men here must have been a morbid imagination.
We pass the ruins of Hasmonean, a 2nd century BC fortress later used by Herod as a notorious dungeon where he executed his son and heir - something he seemed to specialise in! It was renovated in the 5th century by St Saba.
The trek ends 3 miles further on at Mar Saba where the monastery clings to the cliffs of Wadi Qidron, vying with St George's as the most dramatic viewpoint in Palestine.
The cool stream in the canyon looks inviting but is full of raw sewerage from an Israeli settlement near Jerusalem. Only men (and male animals!) are permitted to enter the monastery.
Mar Saba was founded by St Saba in 482 AD, prior to which he lived in a cave in the gorge. Despite its sacking by the Persians in the 7th century, the monastery was destined to become one of the largest in the Holy Land. Its population once approached 5000. In 1834 it was severely damaged in an earthquake, but later renovated to its present splendour. Today only a few monks remain, living an ascetic life. The skulls of 120 monks martyred in the Persian massacre of 614 are kept in the cave church. The body of St Saba, stolen by Venetians but restituted by Pope Paul VI in 1965, lies behind glass at the entrance to the new church. Across the Qidron gorge numerous hermitage caves can be seen – including that used by St Saba.
|Mar Saba - interior
An enterprising young Palestinian has built a concrete gazebo 5 miles into the wilderness from Bethlehem at Tel al Qamar (Hill of the Moon) providing a 'luxury' desert camping experience! Sitting around the camp fire reminiscing about our adventures was a fitting way to spend our last evening. Tomorrow we would be in Bethlehem.
|Camping in the Bethlehem wilderness
|View from our campsite
*Shabbat - the Jewish day of rest.