The Judean Desert

Cutting across the Judean desert is a riverbed which is fed by three major springs - Ein Fawwar, Ein Fara and Ein Kelt.

Overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ancient springs, a monastery and a town named for a Biblical site, all lie within one hour's drive of Jerusalem in the Judean Wilderness. Most of the Judean Desert is a huge basin running from north to south, from the Judean hills to the cliffs above the Dead Sea. Cutting across the desert is a riverbed which is fed by three major springs - Ein Fawwar, Ein Fara and Ein Kelt - and by flash floods whose waters pour down the sides of the Judean hills. The Wadi Kelt riverbed stretches from north of Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley and drains into the Jordan River above the Dead Sea. For millions of years the river flowed wildly through the desert rocks, its current digging through rock strata and exposing prehistoric layers of chalk and limestone. Erosion created exciting canyons around the wadi, canyons which are intermittently deep and narrow, wide and shallow and which form a small but spectacular gorge between Ein Kelt and the desert monastery of St. George. Two thousand years ago King Herod decided to harness the river and built an aqueduct which carried the Kelt to his palaces and fortresses in the desert. At Ein Fawwar, part of this aqueduct is visable, and when it overflows it creates lovely little waterfalls. Water spurts out of the desert spring at Ein Fawwar every 20 minutes, like clockwork, and collects into a pool. According to local legend, two demons live below the spring and are engaged in a never-ending battle. When the good demon gets the upper hand water pours out of the spring; if the bad demon takes over, the flow miraculously slows down. The scientific explanation is almost as fascinating as the legend. Named for the Arabic word that means 'comes out of the ground', the spring of Ein Fawwar originates from rainfall on the Judean hills. Water slowly dripping through the limestone all year round fills up a karstic cave. When filled, the water flows into the pool for about 20 minutes - and the process is periodically repeated. Ein Fawwar is located along the scenic route called Derech Allon (Allon Way), named for statesman Yigal Allon (1918-1980). A beautiful observation point over Wadi kelt includes a shaded amphitheater designed with the landscape in mind. Jerusalem sits in the distance to the left, with the Jericho valley below to the right. Way below, green trees shelter ruins of a fourth-century monastery. Following the lush riverbed foliage with your eyes, you can see Ein Fawwar to the left. From the British Mandate period and until 1967 the waters of Ein Fawwar were pumped all the way to Jerusalem together with those of Ein Fara in upper Wadi Kelt. Today the spring flows into a cement aqueduct based on a water carrier from the Second Temple period. While the aqueduct originally brought water to the Kypros fortress built by Hasmonean kings and restored by King Herod, now it serves the Jericho valley. Not far away is the community of Ma'aleh Michmash, named for a site in the Bible: 'Saul and his son Jonathan and the men with them were staying in Gibeah... while the Philistines camped at Michmash. Raiding parties went out from the Philistine camp in three detachments. One turned toward Ophrah... another toward Beth Horon and the third toward the borderland overlooking the Valley of Zeboim facing the desert'(I Samuel 13:16-18). Weaving through the riverbeds, is the ancient road which was the borderland mentioned in Samuel. Nearby an overlook, at 650 meters above sea level, offers a wonderful 360-degree view of the entire area, including the Holy City of Jerusalem. Aviva Bar-Am is the author of six books about Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide and photographer. They can be reached at Israel Travels