The Judean Desert is a wilderness landscape spanning from the Judean Hills at 1,000m above sea level to the west all the way down to the Dead Sea at 400m below sea level in the east. The Judean meets the Negev Desert in the south. The Judean Desert is marked by barren wilderness, mountains, terraces and escarpments rather than rolling sand dunes. The final escarpment drops steeply to the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley. The desert is criss-crossed by a number of valleys (wadis) and has deep ravines cutting through the rock. There are several lush oasis and streams.
Despite being such a harsh environment settlers have made the “desert bloom” creating thriving communities in Arad, Jericho and Ma’ale Adumim. And it’s not only in modern times that humans have made the desert home. Archaeological remains show that the Judean Desert was populated as early as the Chalcolithic Age (3500 BC). During the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 AD the Jews of Judea rebelled against the Romans in the Judean Desert.
The Desert Monasteries
The desert’s rugged beauty and peaceful surroundings far from civilization offered seclusion to Byzantine monks during the 5th-6th centuries. At one point there were as many as 65 monasteries in the desert and today there are several ruins of these ancient monasteries. The Mar Saba Monastery was the largest in the Judean wilderness, constructed in 483 AD. Most of the monastery was destroyed by an earthquake in 1834. The Judean Desert even served as a retreat in the Bible.
The Judean Desert in the Bible
In the Old Testament the desert’s remote and inaccessible terrain served as a refuge for David during his flight from Saul and when his son Absalom rebelled against him (Psalm 63:1). We can also read of the six Biblical cities in the Judean Desert during the Old Testament era including Ein Gedi and the “city of salt.”
In the New Testament we read of Jesus going in to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. It was here in the Judean Desert, on the Mount of Temptation that the devil tried to tempt Jesus away from God. The desert city of Jericho features several times in the Old and New Testaments.
Visiting the Judean Desert
Visitors often go to the Judean Desert for jeep excursions; to follow the many hike trails and to see the unique flora and fauna. In the spring the desert comes alive with wild grass and wild flowers. Extreme sports are also popular in the desert including climbing the steep hills. There are a few places to visit in the area but the main attraction is the stunning desert landscape.
Masada stands on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert where it blends with the Negev Desert. This high rock outcrop has a flat plateau summit where King Herod built his fortress palace in 37 BC. The remains of the fortress complex have survived and can be visited by taking a cable car to the summit. The views from this point are breathtaking overlooking the Dead Sea. Masada’s role in history did not end with Herod. About 100 years later the mount was the site of a stand-off between the Romans and Jews during the First Roman-Jewish War. A group of Jews took refuge on Masada and after a lengthy siege the Romans finally reached the summit. They found that the Jews had killed themselves rather than being captured, murdered or enslaved by the Romans.
Judean Desert Communities
Arad is a small Israeli city not far from the Dead Sea. Its main attraction for visitors is as a base for exploring the region and for its weekly market. Ma’ale Adumim is an Israeli city in the West Bank. It is a residential city not often visited by tourists.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered near Qumran, an ancient desert settlement. Visitors can see the archaeological remains of early settlements and the caves where the scrolls were found. Today the precious scrolls are kept in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
The Judean Desert goes right up to the Jordan River 10km east of Jericho where you can visit Qasr al-Yehud. The Qasr al-Yehud baptismal site is believed to have been where St. John baptized Jesus.
Jericho is an ancient city about 10km north of the Dead Sea in the Palestinian Authority area of the West Bank. The city is mentioned in the Bible and archeological findings show evidence of multiple settlements over the years dating back to 9,000 BC.
Mount of Temptation
Mt. Temptation overlooks Jericho and visitors can take a cable car to the top to see where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Today the Monastery of the Temptation built on the slope of the mountain welcomes visitors.
St George’s Monastery
St. George’s Monastery is built clinging to the side of an almost vertical cliff. The pale stone walls almost blend in with the color of the rocks and the monastery buildings are topped with bright blue domes. The monastery overlooks Wadi Qelt.
Ein Gedi, on the edge of the desert near the Dead Sea is a kibbutz and nature reserve with hike trails following desert streams and lush vegetation that you would never imagine could be found in the desert. Another Judean nature reserve is Einot Tzukim.