Off the Beaten Track: Jeep ride through the Judean Desert

A new column: Travel expert Joe Yudin introduces "the road less travelled" as well as some new discoveries at more well-known sites.

Judean desert 311 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Judean desert 311
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
As a tour guide here in Israel (or indeed I imagine anywhere) one can sometimes get a little bogged down in going to the same old touristy sites. They are obviously a must see for the first time visitor, but after 100 plus visits giving the same “shpiel” it can become a little tiresome. In this column I will try to introduce some of the more “off the beaten track” sites as well as some new discoveries and interpretations of the more well-known sites.
Recently, I grabbed a friend and we headed off into the desert in my jeep. I spotted the faint, beaten-up sign for the Monastery of Saint George lying on the side of the Jerusalem-Dead Sea road near the village of Mitzpeh Jericho. We turned off the road onto a rough dirt track around a mountain, and suddenly there was silence…the kind of silence you can only experience in the desert.
Off the road, a hill stands in front of us mounted by a small cement podium topped by a cross. I shift into high gear and up the faint dusty track we went. The monastery hangs off the cliff like a dream. Its limestone brick walls blend into the rock face, topped with blue domes, perched on the cliffs overlooking lush Wadi Qelt. Five Byzantine monks settled in the ancient caves overlooking the stream in the year 430 C.E. in 480 a monastery was built only to be destroyed by the Persian army (Iranians) in 614. During the Crusader period legends took root here, including that of Elijah the prophet finding sanctuary during his flight to the Wilderness and that St. Joachim was visited by an angel and told of his virgin niece’s impending pregnancy.
We continue down below sea level. Jericho sleeps in a cloud of dust under the Mt. of Temptation where reportedly the Devil tempted Jesus. It’s easy to picture Joshua’s soldiers marching around this ancient city causing a cloud of sand to envelope it…a good opportunity to send in your engineering corps to breach the walls. But if you can’t see how do you direct your troops? A few blasts from the ram’s horn perhaps?
To the south a picturesque 13th century mosque nestled in the soft sandy hills under the lurking mountain of Hyrcania, used by the Maccabees as a desert palace and later as one of King Herod’s renowned fortresses. According to Muslims this is the burial place of their prophet Musa, also known as Moses. The Hebrew Bible states that Moses is not buried in Israel thus this shrine isn’t venerated by Jews & Christians but it does sit across the Jordan Valley from Mt. Nebo.
Now on Route 90 the sea to our east, cliffs to our west, we passed the PEF marker of explorers who actually sailed up to where we are driving, and marked the water level of the Dead Sea on the cliff in 1915!  Millions of years ago it was a giant sea which has gone through periods of expansion and retraction. As fresh water is a precious commodity today, Israel has damned the Jordan River which expedites the shrinkage of the Dead Sea. Couple that with less rain due to global warming and active mineral mining and we have a lake that is shrinking by more than a meter each year. Various plans are being studied as to how we can save the Dead Sea including an ambitious “Red-Dead Canal”. We shall see.
I find an old jeep track just south of Wadi Salvadora. It looks menacing but we carefully maneuver the jeep between two giant boulders and down the rocky path. We get to a cliff overlooking a very muddy beach with massive salt formations.  Sulfur fills our nostrils and it looks like a scene out of Star Trek. We scamper down the cliffs to a bubbling, shallow, muddy, steaming pool, grab a couple of smooth stones and dig out the mud. The more we dig the more 110 degree mineral water fills our natural Jacuzzi. We lather up in mud, let dry, float and then sit in our personal spa for a good hour as the sun sets. It seems like heaven, but I am reminded that Sodom & Gomorrah are just down the road.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.