Hiking in Wadi Al Qelt:

A place that never disappoints

It started like this. I saw a large black cross, peaked in-between the deserted hills. It looked both ominous and surprisingly thrilling. And then, more metal crosses started to appear in the distance. They were in perfect contrast with the solid blue sky and the yellow hills of Wadi Al Qelt. I knew I had arrived.

Intro

The first time I visited Wadi Al Qelt, I was completely stunned by its beauty. But what surprised me most was seeing these large black crosses peaking in-between the hills. When I asked, I was told that these crosses signaled the presence of an important religious site at the end of the trail. It was the start of a never-ending love story between me and Wadi Al Qelt. So I visit it again and again. Like today.

As I drive to the starting point of my hike, I realize I love Wadi Al Qelt because it never disappoints. Whether you take a vigorous hike or just a short one, the valley will show you something new every time. There are the ancient man-made water canals running through the hills, in winter time carrying crystal clear water down to the city of Jericho. With a bit of luck, you will spot the rock hyrax, also known as the rock rabbit, peaking from one of the many holes in the walls of the valley and enjoy the wildlife. And there are beautiful natural springs that invite a swim.

About the author

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Photo by Frits Meyst / WideOyster.com
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St. George Monastery

My absolute favorite among all this, however, is the St. George Monastery. It is one of five monasteries that still stand and function in the Jerusalem wilderness. The remains of over 60 religious structures were found in the area, which is proof of the strong monastic movement that flourished in the valley during the Byzantine period due to the availability of fresh water. Many of the caves along the trail were densely populated by monks. For me there is something hypnotizing about the drive down to the monastery, one of my favorite points for a hike in the valley. All you can see is endless hills fading into the horizon, merging effortlessly with the sky creating a sense of infinity. The more I drive down the hills, the further I get away from any sign of civilization, creating a sense of both humility and awe. Some minutes ago, I lost my internet connection, which brought my music to a halt. No problem: I listen to the song of the wind rushing through my window.

“For me there is something hypnotizing about the drive down to the monastery”
Photo by null
Tranquil isolation

Then I see a parked car, an umbrella and a young boy laying on his back in a most relaxed way. It looks like he knows the desert by heart, maybe thinks of it as home. I am tempted to stop, but then I decide not to disturb his tranquil isolation. A few minutes later, I reach an arched gate with sellers standing on both sides, setting up their tables with hats, scarfs and food and drinks. I park my car and get out to be greeted by a Palestinian Bedouin who is selling colorful scarfs and hats for tourists visiting the site. I buy a red scarf and wrap it around my head to shield myself from the scorching heat of the desert. Then I grab my camera and hiking bag and start my hike. A donkey is nonchalantly grazing on some hay, a man sitting next to it. ‘Assalamualaikum’, I say. ‘Assalamualaikum lady, do you want take a ride on my donkey, down the hill to the monastery?’ ‘You are very kind, but no thanks’, I say politely. ‘What is your name?’ ‘I am called Ragheb and I have been working in this place for 20 years now.’ ‘Then I am sure you can tell me where I can get a good view of the monastery.’ ‘I am the right person to ask’, he laughs and points towards a small unpaved uphill trail. ‘Take this route and you will reach a viewing point to see the Monastery in all its glory.’

“It looks like he knows the desert by heart, maybe thinks of it as home”
Carved out of stone

After some time, the St. George Monastery slowly starts to reveal itself. It feels it is almost intentionally creating suspense and surprise. The monastery looks as if it was carved out of stone and is part of the cliff it hangs on. All I can think of is: ‘How?’ It takes me a minute to appreciate the brilliance of this structure, its intricate simplicity and deafening peacefulness. I gently place my bag on the stone steps and sit down to drink in the view. I see a tiny black figure walking gracefully out of the monastery down to the main gate. It looks as though he is one of the monks living there. Four to be exact, as I find out later from the locals working in the area. He opens the small gate and returns to the monastery.

The Abraham Path. Hiking in the footsteps of the Patriarch
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The Abraham Path. Hiking in the footsteps of the Patriarch
The Abraham Path. Hiking in the footsteps of the Patriarch
Photo by null
Fed by ravens

I have read online that the monastery is open to visitors from 9am until 1pm every day, except on Sundays, so I get up again to start the hike down and explore the place from within. At that moment, I hear a chatter growing louder behind me. A group of tourists peaks from behind the rocks and their first reaction is amazement. ‘Wow! Das ist großartig!’ As I understand some German, I smile and think to myself: ‘It is amazing indeed.’ Their tour guide explains a little bit about the history of the monastery. ‘The monastery was founded around 480 AD by John of Thebes. Accompanied by few other hermits, he settled around the cave where they believed Elijah stopped on his way to Sinai and was fed by ravens. In case you are interested: the relevant Bible verse is 1 Kings 17:5-6.’

“Accompanied by few other hermits, he settled around the cave where Elijah stopped on his way to the Sinai and was fed by ravens”
Important spiritual center

He gives the group more facts. That the monastery was named after George of Koziba, who lived there in the sixth century. That during his time, the place became an important spiritual center, but the church was damaged during the Persian invasion in 614 AD. The bones and skulls of the martyred monks can still be seen today in the monastery chapel. The hike down is nothing short of gripping. At first I am greeted by a golden gate with the Tau Phi symbol of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. There is also a large cross in the distance, that can be seen from between its metal bars. As I reach a corner, parts of the monastery reveal themselves. I rejoin Ragheb, who is riding his donkey Shosho behind me, in pursuit of another group of tourists, this time from Romania. Ragheb looks at me with a conspiratorial smile. ‘They were quick to decline the ride down’, he says. ‘But on the way up, they will desperately seek me.’

The Abraham Path. Hiking in the footsteps of the Patriarch
Fully dressed in black

As I reach the main gate of the monastery, I am greeted by a monk fully dressed in black. He points at my head scarf and asks me to wrap it around my waist before I enter the small door. I enter the gate and see another monk, sitting in the stone archway. I nod with respect and he greets me back with reciprocated humility. The monastery complex encloses two churches, the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Church of St. George and St. John, both rich in paintings, icons and mosaics. The cave-church of St. Elijah can be reached by stairs from the inner court of the monastery. From this cave, a narrow tunnel provides an escape route to the top of the mountain.

“Our time on earth is fleeting. We should be grateful and live life with no regret”
Memento Mori

I walk all the way up towards the main church and sit on a bench next to a balcony looking up down the valley. Next to me there is a young man, with an interesting tattoo inked on his arm. I greet him and ask him what the tattoo symbolizes. ‘Memento Mori’, he says, ‘which means Remember Death.’ As a comical coincidence, right when he says those two words, a monk in a room next to us turns on a recording of beautiful heavenly hymns which give me goosebumps. With the hymns as a backdrop, he elaborates. ‘Our time on earth is fleeting. We should be grateful and live life with no regret.’ That touches me deeply. I contemplate how lucky any person is to have the privilege and explore life in its full sense. He looks at me again and asks: ‘What is your name?’ ‘It is Malak, which means angel in Arabic.’ He smiles and says: ‘My name is Gabriel, also an angel.’ We laugh at the coincidence and then fall quiet. Two people named after angels in a monastery in the middle of the Jerusalem wilderness, contemplating the meaning of life and death. It somehow feels appropriate. I enter the gate and see another monk, sitting in the stone archway. I nod with respect and he greets me back with reciprocated humility. The monastery complex encloses two churches, the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Church of St. George and St. John, both rich in paintings, icons and mosaics. The cave-church of St. Elijah can be reached by stairs from the inner court of the monastery. From this cave, a narrow tunnel provides an escape route to the top of the mountain.

The Abraham Path. Hiking in the footsteps of the Patriarch
The Abraham Path. Hiking in the footsteps of the Patriarch
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The complete hike, referred to in this article, is 45 kilometers long. But you can also walk smaller sections of it. The majority of tourists drive (rather than walk) to St. George Monastery, as this option gives them more time to see other beautiful sites in the area. From Ramallah, take the highway to Jericho and let the road signs direct you towards the paved road leading all the way to the entrance of the valley and the monastery.

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