Day 3 in the afternoon found us at Wadi Qelt, a deep, narrow gorge in the Judean Wilderness that extends 17 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho and is thought to be the location of the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23:4) During Jesus’ time, the Romans had built a road through this region, a road so well engineered that it is used by tourists today. The parable of the traveler and the Good Samaritan is thought to have occurred near here. Shepherds today still lead sheep and goats along the path to the spring fed waters of the Wilderness. It is thought that David wrote the 23rd Psalm while sitting in this area.
Today the monastery of St George, built in the late fifth century, is tucked within the walls of the gorge. It is one of the oldest monasteries of the Byzantine desert monks in the Holy Land. It was built around a cave that Greek Orthodox tradition associates with Elijah’s cave of Horeb (1 Kings 19) and the place where an angel revealed to Joachim that his wife Anne would bear the Virgin Mary. The central church of the monastery is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Next we visited Qumran National Park. In the 2nd century B.C., Qumran was settled by members of the Essene sect, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to stories from that time, a Bedouin boy searching for a lost goat threw a stone into one of the caves along the Dead Sea and heard a jar breaking in the caves. After searching the caves he found first three, and then four jars, the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Great Isaiah Scroll is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. Dating from 125 B.C., it is currently on display at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
This led to scholars scrambling to the neighboring caves where over the span of several years, scrolls were discovered in eleven caves, some in jars and some in fragments of jars. It is thought the scrolls were hidden from the Romans in jars in the caves. The scrolls are sections of some 800 books from Second Temple times. Other scrolls may have been brought by priests from Jerusalem for safekeeping when the Holy City was under attack. The scrolls comprise Old Testament biblical books, except for the book of Esther. The discovery of the scrolls led to the excavation of the area where ruins of the Essene and Qumran communities were found.
It is thought possible that John the Baptist was either part of these communities or visited here, perhaps baptizing members of the communities in the Jordan River north of here.
We finished the day at the Dead Sea where we would be staying for two nights. The Dead Sea is not a sea at all but a lake. It is 1,412 feet below sea level, making it the lowest elevation on Earth. It is 997 feet deep and 34% salt, making it the world’s saltiest body of water, 9.6 times as salty as the ocean. The salinity keeps any plants or animals from living there, hence the name. It has attracted visitors for thousands of years because of its health benefits. It was a health resort for Herod the Great and attracts tourists today from Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. Our guide, Mike, said his family loves to come here on the weekends because of the health benefits.
We had all been encouraged to float in the Dead Sea (because of the salinity you can’t swim, you float). We were also warned many times not to get the water in your eyes, mouth or nose because of the salt. In other words, keep your face out of the water. It was a pleasant but strange experience.
You walk into the water up to your knees, sit down and you immediately start to float. Getting your feet under you to get out is a bit of a struggle. Tap the picture below to see video.
The Dead Sea was a five minute walk from the hotel. On the walk back we saw a McDonald’s with a revolving sign.
Mike said the first McDonald’s came to Israel in 1997. Interestingly, we asked about Subway shops since they seem to be in every country we have visited over the years. He said there are no Subway restaurants in Israel. In fact we saw very few fast food restaurants of any kind in Israel.
Next up: Day 4, a cable car ride and the site of Jesus’ baptism