Classical music in a charming village

Abu Ghosh, a unique Arab village in the outskirts of Jerusalem, is a cultural gem and has so much more to offer Israeli tourists than just its famous hummus.

OUR LADY of the Ark of the Covenant Church. (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
OUR LADY of the Ark of the Covenant Church.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Beautiful churches, good food, and fascinating stories about a village’s rich history can all be found at the upcoming 54th Abu Ghosh classical music festival that will be taking place over the Sukkot holiday. Abu Ghosh, a unique Arab village in the outskirts of Jerusalem, is a cultural gem and has so much more to offer Israeli tourists than just its famous hummus.
The music festival, which attracts music lovers from Israel and around the world, has been taking place for 30 years. Produced by Gershon Cohen, the festival has succeeded in putting the charming village, which is home to both Muslims and Christians, on the map. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that Abu Ghosh is the place that was chosen for the music festival, since residents of the village have had good relations and even a close friendship with their Jewish neighbors for more than 100 years. Abu Ghosh is a place that celebrates different cultures and welcomes pluralism. Despite the overwhelming Muslim majority, the village’s many churches have survived without disturbance and the community has simply flourished.
The music festival, which will take place this year between September 28 and October 1, always falls on the Sukkot and Shavuot holidays and is held at the Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church and the Benedictine Monastery in the village. During the festival, visitors are welcome to coe hear the instruments being played in these churches, which offer perfect acoustics, and to browse in the well-maintained gardens surrounding them. Each day of the festival, a number of concerts and musical performances by choirs and singing groups will be held, so there will something for practically everyone, even if you’re not a big fan of classical music. Concerts held inside the churches require the purchase of tickets ahead of time, but tickets for the outdoor concerts can be bought just before the concert (there will be up to five different outdoor concerts taking place at any given moment). And of course, it’s always worth coming just to catch a glimpse of the two impressive churches.
Benedictine Monastery
The Benedictine Monastery is without doubt the most important site in the village. Located in the heart of the village, the monastery is considered one of the most beautiful in all of Israel. It is surrounded by carefully manicured gardens that are cultivated by the nuns and monks who live there. The building was constructed in the 12th century, and one of its most interesting characteristics is that both men and women pray there together, which is quite an unusual phenomenon. In the church, you can see frescoes, which date back to the 12th century. The paintings were updated 10 years ago, and it now looks absolutely spectacular.
There are also two natural springs on the church grounds. One spring is located inside the church, and the second is in the courtyard. You can also view a sarcophagus with the symbol of the Roman Tenth Legion on it that is extremely well preserved. In my opinion, however, the most amazing attraction in the monastery is Brother Olivier, today the monastery’s prior, who has become a bit of a local celebrity. And if you happened to visit the monastery as part of an IDF tour in the 1990s or early 2000s, you might have had the good luck of participating in a guided tour led by Olivier. Apparently, he was such a vivacious guide that these “soldiers” still pop in to say hello and be greeted with his welcoming smile some 20 years later.
The church nearby was built in 1150 by Hospitaller knights for two reasons. The first reason is because the Crusaders identified this site as Emmaus, which is considered by Christians to be the town through which Jesus and his disciples traveled as they left Jerusalem.
The second reason why the church was built on this spot was the multitude of natural springs, which turned the spot into an important stopping point on the road up to Jerusalem. Since being built, the church has undergone many trials and tribulations, and even stood abandoned for a number of years, until the end of the 19th century when the French were given the church as a gift from the Ottoman Sultan. The building was in danger of collapse due to neglect, and so the French government granted ownership of it to the Benedictine Order so that it could be restored. Luckily, they were able to preserve the original paintings found in the church.
Like many other visitors, I was greeted by Olivier on my first visit to the church. He told me how happy he was as a Christian living in a Muslim village that was located in the Jewish state. Olivier is not at all like you would picture a monk to be. He loves Israel and had to go to great lengths to achieve Israeli citizenship. He’s loved welcoming IDF soldiers on tours over the years, and is saddened that the delicate balance between religion and state is being threatened by the increased pressure from the growing haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Nonetheless, Olivier is a natural optimist and believes that holding special events at the church – like the music festival – is a great way to stay connected with all the different communities.
It is recommended that visitors come in modest attire.
Mass is held at the church every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
Details: 02-534-2798.
Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church
To reach Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church, you have to travel in your car up a narrow, winding road up to Tel Givat Ye’arim. At the top, you’ll come upon a beautiful church and monastery which currently function as a guest house. The view from there out over the valley is gorgeous. The church is recognizable from every direction due to the large Madonna and Child statue in the courtyard.
The monastery was built in 1924 by the Order of St. Joseph’s Sisters of Revelation on the remains of a Byzantine church which was destroyed when the Persians conquered the Holy Land. From the charming gardens surrounding the church, you can see the Jerusalem Hills. There are wonderful acoustics inside the church, which makes it the perfect venue for musical concerts. Many of the festival’s concerts will be taking place in this church, and if you have time to stay overnight and hike in the surrounding hills, I recommend calling ahead and reserving a room, since they fill up quickly this time of year.
Where to eat?
Since Abu Ghosh is famous for its incredible hummus, of course there’s a large selection of hummus restaurants to choose from, including a few new options. One of the most well-known is Caravan, which has been operating since the 1950s when it was established by Haj Musa, the mukhtar (village head). Haj Musa understood the importance of cultivating positive relations with their Jewish neighbors, and in 1994, he was picked to light a torch at that year’s Independence Day ceremony in the capital.
Caravan, named thus since for years it was the only restaurant on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, used to be a favorite spot for Israeli politicians and high society individuals to meet up. Nowadays, Caravan attracts mainly Israeli and foreign tourists with its colorful salads, excellent meats, and fresh pitot.
Location: 17 Derech Hashalom, Abu Ghosh.
Mamtakei Hakfar
If you’d like to end your day with something sweet, I recommend popping into Mamtakei Hakfar, which has been making people smile for more than 30 years. It’s currently run by three brothers, including Ibrahim, who’s in charge of the knafeh (a traditional dessert), and loves to tell stories about how his mother was the best cook in the world and even published a cookbook.
Location: 67 Derech Hashalom, Abu Ghosh.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.