Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Wadi Qelt II

In Israel, Judea on February 12, 2018 at 8:26 AM

Continuing with our two-day hiking trip in the Wadi Qelt area with students and staff of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, we awoke before dawn to begin another day. It was cold and dark but eventually we all stirred into action and were ready to embark on adventure. With our gear loaded we set out into the darkness. We followed a dirt road winding its way to the streambed far away as the sun slowly began to light up the sky.

The morning’s first stop

It was nearly sunrise when we reached our first stop, passing the most fascinating broken aqueduct bridge spanning two slopes. It was a series of stone structures built in the Ottoman period, surrounded by trees and noisy birds, now housing Bedouin families. We veered off to the side as not to disturb, and had a break to pray and eat a hearty breakfast (brought to us by Yehuda, the department’s patron).

Broken aqueduct bridge

When our souls were lifted, and our stomachs filled, we returned to the hike for it was Friday and we had a good twelve or so kilometres to go in order to reach our final destination. We paused beside the fascinating aqueduct bridge, with its tunnels drilled into the rocky slopes, and learned that it was built in several stages: The concrete base built by the Romans and the upper stone section constructed in later years.

Ein Qelt

Reluctantly leaving the grandeur of the bridge, we started along the wadi path heading towards Ein Qelt, the spring which feeds Nachal Prat. We passed curious bunkers that were built by either the British or Jordanians to guard over the water source, as we made our way alongside the sluggish waters. Before long, we reached Ein Qelt and spread out to explore. One interesting feature was this painted Arabic dedication which supposedly has to do with the Ottoman period buildings we had seen earlier.

Reading the dedication

Enjoying the smooth rocks and the shallow waters, we stayed for a short lecture and then headed back out the way we came, this time walking along the northern banks of the stream. We found the trail to be following a curious yet simple floor-level aqueduct made of concrete, channeling the water eastward. This waterworks was built by the Jordanians to supply water to Jericho, and as we walked, the extensive work that was put into the installation became apparent.

Following the aqueduct

We passed the buildings from earlier, the aqueduct continuing along peacefully as we walked and walked. Caves on the opposing mountainsides seized our attention but we remained faithful to the aqueduct, following its every whim as it dipped and turned here and there. We noticed as we walked how small bridges kept the aqueduct’s levels proper with the decline needed to transport the water. We continued on.

Following faithfully

Then we saw the first of many cross towers that dot the ridge of the wadi around the monastery, markers to pilgrims that they are on the right path. Suddenly, our aqueduct made a hard right turn and the slowly flowing water plunged down the mountainside to a bridge that was mostly broken, this more modern chute of water attached to the bulky ancient frame where an older aqueduct once stood. Continuing along on the other side of the wadi, at a much lower elevation, our faithful aqueduct brought us to the lookout over the monastery, marked by another of the aforementioned cross towers.

Wadi Qelt

Below us was the iconic Monastery of St George, an old building complex built onto the cliffside. We sat down and listened to Dr Kobi Cohen-Hattab explain about the use of this wadi by terrorists in the 1960s. Sayeret Haruv (“Carob”), a dismantled special forces unit, suffered a single casualty, its commander, Lt Col Tzvika Ofer, in a battle with terrorists in the area below us.

Our first glimpse of the Monastery of St George

We descended the trail via rock steps which flattened out alongside the wadi, approaching the monastery which now loomed before us. At the foot of the monastery, a small stone bridge spans the rocky gap of the streambed, providing easy access to the southern slope. We crossed this bridge and began the ascent up the slope on the winding road. Local Bedouins riding donkeys passed us every so often, asking if we’d like to pay for a donkey ride.

Monastery of St George

At last we reached the top and passed through the site’s three-arched gate, adorned by a large cross and a dedication in Greek. Continuing along a trail, we reached the lookout over the monastery, seeing the structure at its most flattering angle. From this vantage point we were able to make out small windows and doors in the cliff wall above and around the monastery structure. These rooms house monks who live in isolation, going their brethren at the monastery only on Sundays.

View from the other side

It was in a small cave like this that the monastery’s story began, harkening back to the Byzantine era in the 4th century when several monks created homes for themselves in small caves. Around the year 480 CE, a monk by the name of John of Thebes created a monastery for the monks in these caves to be a part of. It wasn’t until the end of the 6th century that George of Choziba came to join the ranks of monks at the monastery. However, the Persian conquest of the Holy Land brought about death and destruction to the monks and the monastery, and only George was left alive, the monastery subsequently being called in his name. In the Crusader era the monastery was rebuilt, by the Byzantines no less, but was destroyed once again by the Muslims. It wasn’t until 1901 that new life breathed into the monastery, having been restored by a Greek monk for the Greek Orthodox Church.

Mountain fortress of Kypros

When we had seen enough of the monastery it was time to hike to the final destination of this two-day trip: the mountain fortress of Kypros. Built on a distinct peak overlooking Jericho, we were literally ending our trip on a high.

Exploring Kypros

We made this final push for the mountain; our legs weary of hiking for two days straight. At last we reached the lower plateau of Kypros and the city of Jericho laid spread before us. Dr Dvir Raviv, the man leading our excursion, gave us a geographic overview and we were able to pinpoint sites of interest in the hazy city below us. Relatively close by, at the outskirts of Jericho, are the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces which have been excavated over the years. We had hopes to visit them but hadn’t received permission from the military, which left us with seeing them from afar.

Hazy Jericho

These palaces were largely built by the Hasmoneans, who had liberated the Holy Land from the Greeks. Constructed in the arid desert regions, these winter palaces were far more comfortable to live in during the cold winter months than the main palaces in cold, and sometimes snowy, Jerusalem. Herod used this same concept, and incorporated these palaces into his estate as well as building new ones. Unfortunately they were all razed during the Roman period, and due to the current political situation, the ruins are hard to access.

Piece of stucco plaster found on-site

Returning to Kypros, this mountain fortress was built by the Hasmoneans and then refortified by Herod several hundred years later to control the Jericho region. Being rather short-lived, the fortress was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt and hasn’t been rebuilt since. We climbed up to the highest part of the mountain and examined the excavated ruins of the fortress whilst enjoying the view. It was a grand feeling to finally be done with these two exciting days of exploration, especially because I had never been to any of these sites before. To end off the trip, we heard from Prof Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, our new department head, who is initiating all sorts of exciting new plans for the department.

Atop the world at Kypros

Hiking back down the mountain, we found our tour bus waiting for us at the arched gate of the monastery and began the drive back to Bar Ilan University. Ready to get back, have Shabbat and sleep, we couldn’t agree more that there needs to be more trips of this nature in our department. Blending academia with the great outdoors in a most excellent way of living life to its fullest, and we sure like to live.

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