Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.
Very few places in the Holy Land still look original.
historic sites in Israel have a church, a mosque, a settlement, or
thirty feet of civilization piled on top of them. The places pilgrims
come to see today show centuries of scars from the ruins and
reconstructions of many faiths and peoples.
But in the Judean
Wilderness, one can see what the ancients saw. Deep ravines. Rocky
terrain. Barren grades with scant vegetation. Horizontal lines cut in
the hills betray generations of flocks that have worn trails like
terraces in the stony slopes. Miles and miles of desolate land,
interrupted only by an occasional camel, a shepherd with his flock, or a
group of Bedouin tents with satellite dishes.
Bleak, inhospitable, stark, and harsh—the Judean Wilderness has sat virtually unchanged for thousands of years. A dry and weary land
the wilderness wanderings under Moses, the Hebrews learned to trust God
for water, because the places of their journey offered very, very
little of it. Those four decades of thirsty travel provided the training
ground for living in the Promised Land—a land that also had no abundant
sources of natural water—“a land of hills and valleys [that] drinks
water from the rain of heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:11).
in Israel—both in antiquity, as well as today—falls mostly west of the
hill country’s watershed. The further north and west one goes in the
land, the more precipitation occurs. The Judean Wilderness misses on
both counts, lying south in the country and east of the watershed. A
rain shadow dominates the chalky wasteland of the wilderness. This is
the “dry and weary land,” as David scribbled three thousand years ago,
“where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
David knew this
wilderness well, especially in the years before he became king. Just as
the wilderness wanderings of his ancestors prepared them for the land,
so the Judean Wilderness served as David’s preparation for his kingdom.
In such a barren context, lying “down in green pastures” would be a rare
blessing (Psalm 23:2-3). In later years when David fled from King Saul,
the future king of Israel would hide in the wastelands of Ziph, Maon,
and En Gedi—all portions of the Judean Wilderness. A place of escape and seclusion
the Wilderness of Judea remained so arid and uninviting, most people
only passed through it on their way to somewhere else. Because nobody
wanted to go there, often only the “nobodies” of society did. The
wilderness attracted those on the fringes—outcasts,shepherds, fugitives,
hermits, and even fearful rulers.
The paranoid Herod the Great
built fortifications in this general area at Cypros, Dok, Herodium,
Hyrcania, Masada, and Macherus. Jesus of Nazareth retreated to this
wilderness to fast and face temptation for more than forty days (Matthew
4:1). After the death of their brother Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan and
Simon centered their insurgency near Tekoa in the Judean Wilderness (1
Undoubtedly the most unique inhabitants of this
land were the thousands of Christian monks who flooded the area and
formed monasteries. In the Byzantine period between the sixth- and
fifth-centuries, the Judean Wilderness hosted more than sixty-five
monasteries all connected by a network of trails.
visitors to the wilderness can travel to see Mar Saba east of
Bethlehem, the only monastery that boasts a continual occupation since
its origin. The easiest monastery to see is Saint George’s. Its blue
domes and white arches dot the colorless canvas of the wilderness and
cling like a barnacle to the northern face of the Wadi Kelt’s cliffs.
Housing one of the oldest monastic communities in Israel, the monastery
has been inhabited since the fifth century and gives a vivid
illustration of monastic life. A glimpse of the past and the future
of the best places to stand and observe the Judean Wilderness is near
Saint George’s Monastery. At the top of a nearby overlook, a covered
observation point allows visitors a long view across the vast, unspoiled
wilderness. Here, it isn’t hard to go back in time.
few places in the Holy Land can one travel and still see the terrain as
it appeared for thousands of years—and likely, how it will stay for
many more. Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.