If you’re lucky enough to tour the deep narrow gorge of Wadi Qelt, 4 km west of Jericho, then you can see one of the most spectacular sights in Israel, Saint George’s Monastery. The location is close to the ancient road that Jesus would have walked on between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley and where He set his parable of the Good Samaritan. The Greek Orthodox monastery was built in the 4th century clinging to the steep cliffs overlooking Wadi Qelt. At the time it was common for monks to abandon worldly distractions and travel into the Judean Desert where they would live in isolation in the caves of Wadi Qelt. In fact, the word “monastery” comes from the Greek meaning, “dwell alone.” Today there is just a hand full of functioning monasteries in the Holy Land but none as breathtaking as St. George’s Monastery.
The History of St. George’s Monastery in Wadi Qelt
Saint George’s Monastery was established in the 5th century by the Egyptian monk John of Thebes (St. John of Choziba) together with five Syrian hermits that were living in caves overlooking Wadi Qelt. They chose the site because of its proximity to the cave where tradition holds that the Prophet Elijah was fed by ravens. Years after the original monks had settled in Wadi Qelt, Persian invaders rampaged through the gorge, destroying the monastery and killing the 14 monks that lived there. When the Crusaders arrived in 1179, they attempted to restore the abandoned monastery but their time in the Holy Land was over before they could complete their work. In 1878, more than a thousand years since the destruction of the monastery by the Persians, a Greek monk called Kalinikos devoted himself to restoring the monastery which was completed in 1901. Later, in the 1950s a bell tower was added.
Who Was Saint George of Koziba?
The monastery is named after its most famous monk, Saint George of Koziba (or Choziba). He was a Cypriot who left his home country as a teenager after both his parents were killed, and traveled to the Holy Land to devote himself to God. Saint George of Choziba died in c.620 and the monastery was later named after him.
The Magnificent Monastery of St. George
A dusty road leads up to the monastery and you can either walk or ride on a donkey-taxi to the monastery gate. The gateway opens on to the middle level of the structure which has been built into the rockface. The middle level is where the monastery’s main church is located, The Church of the Holy Virgin. In the church, you can see remains of a Byzantine mosaic and a 12th-century iconostasis. From the inner courtyard of the monastery, stairs lead up to Elijah’s Cave which has been turned into a place of worship. A tunnel leads from the cave to the top of the cliffs. On the lower level are storerooms, a vault, and the Church of St. John and St. George with walls covered with beautiful murals and a 6th-century mosaic floor. The church reliquary holds the remains of the 14 monks who were martyred by Persians; the 5 original monks who established the monastery and St. John the New, a Romanian monk who died here in the 1960s. This is also where the tomb of St. George and the tomb of St. John of Thebes are located. There are views of the surrounding Biblical scenery from the monastery balcony and you can see the monastery’s lush irrigated gardens.
Visiting Saint George’s Monastery in Wadi Qelt
The best way to see St. George’s Monastery is to join a guided tour, otherwise you could take a hike through Wadi Qelt or see the monastery from the lookout point on the opposite side of the gorge. It is also possible to arrange a visit to the monastery and meet the Greek Orthodox monks that live there.