Wadi Kelt - One day in the desert

The desert (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The desert
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Every 20 minutes, like clockwork, water spurts out of the spring at Ein Fawwar 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,’ Ein Fawwar originates in rainfall on the Judean hills. Water slowly dripping through the limestone all year round fills up a karstic cave: when full, 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) and today Road No. 458.

Shortly after the Six Day War ended in 1967, Allon proposed a compromise that he hoped would provide maximum security for Israel under a peace accord with the Arabs. The Allon Plan provided for the establishment of strategic Jewish settlements in the Jordan valley and the narrow Samarian desert: it determined that the hills to the west would be out-of-bounds to Israelis.Allon’s proposal was neither accepted nor rejected as government policy, but over the next several decades a number of Jewish settlements began to appear in the hills: you will see them on an off-the-track desert outing that includes a stupendous lookout above Wadi Kelt, a jungle walk, and a visit to a factory that produces ’kosher’ fringes for prayer shawls.

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. This riverbed, Wadi Kelt, 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 and 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. When you visit Ein Fawwar, you will see part of the aqueduct which overflows to create lovely little waterfalls.Drive towards the Dead Sea (from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv), with Ma’aleh Adumim in the hills to your right. Pass Kfar Adumim and the junction with Road No. 458 and turn left when you reach Mitzpe Yeriho. Take a second, immediate left and follow the paved road to the Wadi Kelt Overlook. The sign seems to have been washed out during recent flooding, but the overlook is on your right, and there is a place to turn in and leave your car. Look for Beduin selling trinkets and offering camel rides. Then follow the path to the overlook. While visible, it was meant to be as unobtrusive as possible, so it is lined by area limestone and follows winding layers of flint on the slopes.When you reach the observation point, sit on the steps of a shaded amphitheater and enjoy the view. 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. Follow lush riverbed foliage with your eyes, moving left: here you can see Ein Fawwar, where you will be stopping later on.After drinking in the awesome desert view, return to the highway and turn right. You are about to visit P’til Tekhelet, a tiny factory for the production of ’kosher’ fringes. Pass the junction with Road No. 458 (Derech Allon), to reach Kfar Adumim. Turn in, pass the gas station, and after a few hundred meters look for a sign to the right in blue and white, P’til Tekhelet.

In Numbers 15:37-39, the Children of Israel are commanded to wear fringes on the corners of their garments — ’with a sky blue [or azure, or pale blue] thread (p’til t’chelet) on each fringe.’ At the time, both blue and purple were colors associated with and worn by royalty — their dyes derived from the hypo-brachial gland of the murex snail. The secret of t’chelet production was known to Israel’s Jews until the fifth century; following the Arab conquest in 638 it was lost. Recently it was rediscovered: P’til Tekhelet was formed by a group that buys the snails abroad (here, they are an endangered species), manufactures the biblical dye, and colors fringes made of pure merino wool.

You will enjoy your visit to the factory, where you watch — and participate — in the total process from gland to tassel. The tour takes about an hour, is available in English, and must be reserved in advance. Cost is a fixed fee of NIS 180 (for up to 10 people) — so you might want to bring friends along to share the price. Tel: 052-263-0737.Return again to the main highway and turn left. Turn left again at Road No. 458, the scenic Allon Way, and descend the winding road as it passes through unsettled, bare hills. At one time this road was a sandy path smoothed out periodically, enabling the army to spot the footprints of terrorists who crossed into Israel from Jordan. A few decades ago the road was repaired and paved.

A number of yellow signs along the road remind us that this is also known as derech eretz hamirdafim, or Pursuits Way. Following the Six Day War, Arab terrorists infiltrated into Israel from Jordan and carried out outrageous acts of violence. During that three-year period, the Israel Defense Forces relentlessly pursued the terrorists and flushed them out of their hideouts in the hills.Three kilometers past the little community of Allon, there is a very small green Nature Reserves sign on the right. Turn sharply and descend to Ein Fawwar, enclosed within a round cement pool and surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees. From the British Mandate period and until 1967 its waters 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.

Explore the spring area, a splendid jungle of reeds and other water foliage. You can take the upper path to walk above the aqueduct or, further down, cross the spring through bowers and next to sparkling pools. Look for a plant that sports clusters of purple flowers, possibly still in bloom. Although there are many possible sources for the hemp’s popular name of ’Abraham’s Bush,’ it probably has its origins in its long, five-fingered leaves: Abraham holding up his hand to welcome guests.

A plant you should avoid like the plague has very large leaves and a splendid big white flower that looks like a trumpet. Variously called jimsonweed, gypsum weed, loco weed, mad apple, devil’s seed and mad hatter, it contains a strong and deadly hallucinogen that blocks the intestines, causes respiratory arrest, seizures, hallucination, comas and death. All parts of this wonderfully attractive plant are poisonous!

Following your visit to Ein Fawwar, return to your car and continue along Allon Way.

As you reach the top of the winding road, you will see Jerusalem sprawling over the hills. Then continue on to 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). Below and to your right, weaving through the riverbeds, is the ancient road which was the borderland mentioned in Samuel.Seven hundred meters past the turnoff for Ma’aleh Michmash, an orange sign points right to Mitzpe Danny. Once only an isolated desert overlook, it is now a small settlement on a windy hill. Call the number on the gate, and someone will let you in — then drive straight ahead to the observation point. It is dedicated to Michmash settler Shalom Daniel Frei, who loved the region’s outstanding views. Terrorists murdered Frei in his home in 1995.

Located at 650 meters above sea level, the overlook offers a wonderful 360-degree view of the entire area, including Jerusalem and Ramallah spread out on the hills. Leave Mitzpe Danny, return to Road No. 458 and turn right. If you aren’t in a hurry to go back home, you can continue on this road and eventually connect with the Jordan Valley Highway, called kvish habik’a in Hebrew and Road No. 90 on your road map. Follow 458 to 505 east and south. Just before you reach 90 you will see, on a hill to your left, the tall monument called Andartat Habik’a. Over 20 meters in height, its lower portion includes an observation deck. The upper segment is composed of weapons and battle vehicles welded together to form an enormous anti-aircraft mortar.

On the left of the memorial are plaques inscribed with 189 names of fighters who fell in the area during the Six Day War and War of Attrition; 87 names were added in 1978, most of them victims of a horrific helicopter accident.

Drive or walk to the top of the monument for a breathtaking view of the Jordan Valley. From this point your view of the Jordan Valley is absolutely breathtaking. When you finally return to highway No. 90, turn left towards Tiberias (or right to head south).

If you would rather return to Jerusalem following your visit to Mitzpe Danny, turn off 458 onto Road No. 457. Follow the excellent signs which take you to Road No. 437, then through Pisgat Ze’ev and into the Holy City.