Holy hideaway

It’s the perfect season for a trip to an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery and to the traditional baptismal site of Qasr el-Yehud.

Qasr el-Yehud 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Qasr el-Yehud 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
During the fourth and fifth centuries, many monks set out for solitary alcoves in Syria, Egypt and Israel. The Judean Desert was a favorite site for hideaways, for here, between the Jordan River and the holy city of Jerusalem, they could be entirely alone.
Especially sacred was that portion of the river called Qasr el-Yehud. For not only was it the traditional site of Jesus’s baptism by St. John (Matthew 3:13-17), it was also believed to be the passage through which the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-16).
With the Easter holiday just around the corner, this seems the perfect time for a day trip to an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery on the western bank of the river, and to the traditional baptismal site on the water.
Located in a closed military zone for decades after the IDF conquered the Jordan Valley in 1967, and directly across from the Jordanian border, both sites are now open to the public and perfectly safe. This is a great family trip, for it includes caves, desert badlands, antiquities and flowing waters.
To begin with Qasr el-Yehud, look for a large sign along Highway 90, not far from the northern corner of the Dead Sea, that indicates the turnoff for the Baptismal Site. Follow the narrow road all the way to the end. Since the gate in the middle of the road is occasionally closed, you should call first to say you are coming, and it will be open (see information at the end of this article).
Once there, you can view the river from a balcony, or walk right into the water. Only a few dozen meters away, across the narrow flow of the river, tourists just like yourselves will be taking pictures from the Jordanian side.
For an incredibly colorful experience, and if you don’t mind crowds, head for Qasr el-Yehud at 9 a.m.
on April 20. That’s when thousands of pilgrims from all over the world will throng to this very spot for an Easter ceremony led by patriarchs and bishops. Some will even jump into the water, overwhelmed by the sanctity of the moment.
After visiting Qasr el-Yehud, return to Highway 90 and follow it south, just a short distance to the sign  that reads Dir Hajla – St. Gerasimos Monastery. You can see it from the highway, topped by two different-colored domes and a tall bell tower.
Dir Hajla (Partridge Monastery) was founded by St.
Gerasimos in the fifth century as a laura – a central meeting place for hermits who spent their days in solitary little caves and got together for holidays. The monks of Dir Hajla – about 70 of them – lived life in the rough, sleeping on reed mats and eating only dates and bread.
One day, while walking near the river, St. Gerasimos heard an animal screaming in agony. After discovering that the sound came from a lion with a large splinter stuck in its paw, he gently removed the source of the pain, bound up the wound, and returned to the laura. Imagine his surprise when the lion followed him home, to become an adoring pet.
The lion was given the job of guarding Gerasimos’s donkey. When the donkey disappeared one day, a furious Gerasimos accused the lion of eating its charge. He then assigned the lion all of the donkey’s tasks. This was a wearing job, for not only did it have to lug huge jugs of water from the river to the laura, it also carried the many pilgrims who traveled between the Jordan river and Jerusalem.
When the lion died, St. Gerasimos is said to have cried like a baby. (Some tales have the lion weeping upon the death of its master.) DIR HAJLA consists of a monastery, a church and a courtyard with a well, built in about 460. The monastery was destroyed during the Persian conquest in 614, and later repaired several times. Today’s compound dates back to the 13th century, with a major restoration in 1880.
But in 1975, when the current abuna (patriarch, or church father) came here from Greece to make his home at Dir Hajla, the place was a wreck. There was no water or electricity, and since it was located in a closed military zone, no one could visit. The abuna was completely alone.
Eventually, Dir Hajla opened to tourists. Yet on my first visit there, in 1992, the abuna was still the only permanent fixture in the monastery. The castle-like guest house was virtually empty, and the grounds were nothing to brag about.
When you come today, however, you will find the guest house filled to overflowing. Construction was only recently completed on a large, shaded picnic area for groups and families, with a playground for the young ’uns. A beautiful little kiosk with soft drinks and snacks has just opened; fish jump around in a pretty pond, and a large restaurant is slated for completion within the next few months.
The early monks needed something to keep them busy when not in prayer. In some locations they wove baskets; here, at Dir Hajla, they made incense candles. Today, the six monks (and eight nuns) living at Dir Hajla not only produce candles, they also create intricate mosaics in a workshop open to visitors.
FOR PILGRIMS, of course, the real attractions are the stunning sanctuary and the ancient crypt. Here, too, much has changed in recent times.
An earthquake in 2004 did so much damage to the sanctuary that there was a danger it would have to close down permanently.
Instead, monks removed the shattered floor tiles, leaving only a strip on the left-hand side of the church and creating new mosaics that continued the identical pattern. Damaged plaster was scraped off the walls so that the original stone is now in evidence: but you can still see the havoc done to the ceiling and a large crack on the back wall.
Gerasimos loved animals, and the mosaic at the entrance depicts not only his lion and donkey, but a bird and his trusty camel as well. Further in, a double-headed eagle mosaic represents the Byzantine Empire.
Only clergy are permitted beyond the stunning iconostasis, an altar screen covered with icons and embroidered pomegranates.
(We are used to thinking of pomegranates as Jewish symbols, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church they symbolize suffering and resurrection.) Two archangels guard the entrance to the sanctuary: Michael, the soldier, and Gabriel, herald of good news.
Two thousand years ago, a cave stood here on the desert sands. According to the Gospels, when Joseph and Mary learned that King Herod would try to kill their baby son, they fled with him to Egypt. Tradition holds that on their way south, they spent at least one night in the cave that today is the church crypt; the far wall holds a very large painting of Mary nursing her baby – possibly the only one of its kind in Israel.
Locals are said to have commented at the time that if the Lord had a mother, it would be Mary – she was so very beautiful and kind.
They compared her to the partridge (hogla in Hebrew, hajla in Arabic), and that’s why the monastery is known as Dir Hajla.
Or, perhaps, the name dates back to the nearby biblical town of Beit Hogla.
We were told that some irreverent tourists are entertained by the skulls and bones located in the crypt. They shouldn’t be: The story behind them is a terrible one. During the Persian conquest of the Holy Land, tens of thousands of Christians were massacred – including the monks at St. Gerasimos. These are their remains.
If you have come with children, ask to see the animals who live here in memory of Gerasimos’s love of wildlife. Then take a hike (or drive) on a bumpy dirt road heading directly east. The landscape of badlands and swirls of lime may remind you of pictures of a Martian plain.
Stop at the first high hill, made of layers of soft lissan marl, that once stood under the Dead Sea. It is located above little man-made alcoves where monks hung out in total seclusion hundreds of years ago.
Tread carefully and watch your youngsters here, for there isn’t a ledge on the side of the steep hill. If you are sturdy on your feet, use the ribbon/rope railing and a small ladder to climb into the caves. Be careful as you explore.
Finally, climb to the top of the hill, once an observation point with a tank on top. From here, you can easily see the foliage surrounding the Jordan river, although the water is on lower ground and isn’t visible. And if you turn around, you can pretend you are one of the ancient Israelites, and see what they saw as they crossed into the Promised Land.
Qasr el-Yehud is open from Saturday to Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last entrance at 3 p.m. Phone: (02) 650-4844.