Sites and Insights: Wandering the wilderness

Discover the beauty of the Judean Desert, one of the few places that humanity hasn't changed in millennia.

Judean wilderness and Dead Sea (photo credit:
Judean wilderness and Dead Sea
(photo credit:
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
Very few places in the Holy Land still look original.
Most historic sites in Israel have a church, a mosque, a settlement, or thirty feet of civilization piled on top of them. The places pilgrims come to see today show centuries of scars from the ruins and reconstructions of many faiths and peoples.
But in the Judean Wilderness, one can see what the ancients saw. Deep ravines. Rocky terrain. Barren grades with scant vegetation. Horizontal lines cut in the hills betray generations of flocks that have worn trails like terraces in the stony slopes. Miles and miles of desolate land, interrupted only by an occasional camel, a shepherd with his flock, or a group of Bedouin tents with satellite dishes.
Judean Wilderness (
Judean Wilderness (
Bleak, inhospitable, stark, and harsh—the Judean Wilderness has sat virtually unchanged for thousands of years.
A dry and weary land
In the wilderness wanderings under Moses, the Hebrews learned to trust God for water, because the places of their journey offered very, very little of it. Those four decades of thirsty travel provided the training ground for living in the Promised Land—a land that also had no abundant sources of natural water—“a land of hills and valleys [that] drinks water from the rain of heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:11).
The rainfall in Israel—both in antiquity, as well as today—falls mostly west of the hill country’s watershed. The further north and west one goes in the land, the more precipitation occurs. The Judean Wilderness misses on both counts, lying south in the country and east of the watershed. A rain shadow dominates the chalky wasteland of the wilderness. This is the “dry and weary land,” as David scribbled three thousand years ago, “where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
David knew this wilderness well, especially in the years before he became king. Just as the wilderness wanderings of his ancestors prepared them for the land, so the Judean Wilderness served as David’s preparation for his kingdom. In such a barren context, lying “down in green pastures” would be a rare blessing (Psalm 23:2-3). In later years when David fled from King Saul, the future king of Israel would hide in the wastelands of Ziph, Maon, and En Gedi—all portions of the Judean Wilderness. 
A place of escape and seclusion
Because the Wilderness of Judea remained so arid and uninviting, most people only passed through it on their way to somewhere else. Because nobody wanted to go there, often only the “nobodies” of society did. The wilderness attracted those on the fringes—outcasts,shepherds, fugitives, hermits, and even fearful rulers.
The paranoid Herod the Great built fortifications in this general area at Cypros, Dok, Herodium, Hyrcania, Masada, and Macherus. Jesus of Nazareth retreated to this wilderness to fast and face temptation for more than forty days (Matthew 4:1). After the death of their brother Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan and Simon centered their insurgency near Tekoa in the Judean Wilderness (1 Maccabees 9:33).
Undoubtedly the most unique inhabitants of this land were the thousands of Christian monks who flooded the area and formed monasteries. In the Byzantine period between the sixth- and fifth-centuries, the Judean Wilderness hosted more than sixty-five monasteries all connected by a network of trails.
Mar Saba Monastery (
Mar Saba Monastery (
Today, visitors to the wilderness can travel to see Mar Saba east of Bethlehem, the only monastery that boasts a continual occupation since its origin. The easiest monastery to see is Saint George’s. Its blue domes and white arches dot the colorless canvas of the wilderness and cling like a barnacle to the northern face of the Wadi Kelt’s cliffs. Housing one of the oldest monastic communities in Israel, the monastery has been inhabited since the fifth century and gives a vivid illustration of monastic life.
A glimpse of the past and the future
One of the best places to stand and observe the Judean Wilderness is near Saint George’s Monastery. At the top of a nearby overlook, a covered observation point allows visitors a long view across the vast, unspoiled wilderness. Here, it isn’t hard to go back in time.
Wadi Kelt St. George's Monastery (
Wadi Kelt St. George's Monastery (
Very few places in the Holy Land can one travel and still see the terrain as it appeared for thousands of years—and likely, how it will stay for many more.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at