If you’re lucky enough to tour the deep narrow gorge of Wadi Qelt, Israel, 4 km west of Jericho, then you can see one of the most spectacular sights in the Holy Land, 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.” The monastery is one of five monasteries in the Judean Desert but none as breathtaking as the Judean Desert Monastery of St. George.
The History of St. George’s Monastery, 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.
A Biblical Location
The location has religious significance as Wadi Qelt is thought to be the Biblical Valley of the Shadow (Psalm 23) and it lies parallel to the old Roman road to Jericho where the parable of the Good Samaritan was set (Luke 10:29-37). The monastery is thought to be close to the cave where Elijah was fed by ravens (Kings I 17:5-6). St. Joachim (Mary’s father) is said to have stopped in a cave nearby to grieve over the barrenness of his wife St. Anne. An angel came to him in the cave to tell him that they would soon have a child.
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.
The Magnificent Monastery of St. George
On a trip to the monastery, you should dress modestly and act with respect as it is still a place of worship. 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 onto the middle level of the structure which has been built into the rockface.
You will see a Greek flag flying as the remaining residents are Greek Orthodox monks. The monastery is a welcoming and inviting place; like an oasis in the desert. The resident monks will make you feel at home. Unlike many monasteries, female visitors are welcome thanks to the precedent set by a Byzantine woman who arrived at the monastery wanting to be healed and claiming that the Virgin Mary had directed her there.
The monastery is built on three levels with two churches within the complex – the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Church of St. George and St. John. Both churches are rich with religious paintings, icons, and mosaics. The Church of the Holy Virgin has a magnificent Byzantine mosaic featuring a double-headed eagle in black, red, and white. There are 12th-century doors in the church’s iconostasis.
The Church of St. John and St. George has a 6th-century mosaic floor and in the reliquary, there are the bones of the monks massacred by the Persians in 614AD and the tomb of St. George. The crypt also holds the remains of the original five Syrian hermits who established the monastery with John of Thebes.
You can follow the stairs from the inner courtyard down to the Cave Church of St. Elijah. There is a basket on a rope that is used to hoist supplies up to the cave. The cave has a tunnel that acted as an escape route to the top of the mountain. There is a balcony on the inner courtyard where you can see the monastery’s lush irrigated gardens and look down on Roman aqueducts on the other side of the valley.
How to get to Saint George’s Monastery in Wadi Qelt
If you want to explore the Wadi on your visit to the monastery then follow highway #1 from Jerusalem and take left at Mitzpe Jericho then left again and left at the T-junction. Here you can stop for views of the Wadi and follow a path down to the valley bed to see the remains of the aqueduct bridge. About 450 meters further on is a wooden bridge that crosses Nahal Prat with the Ein Qelt pool on your left. From here you can hike west along the stream to a series of pools in Lower Nahal Prat or go east following the red trail for 2km until you get to the St. George Monastery.
Alternatively, the monastery is not far from the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway and from there you can reach the monastery entrance gate. From the gate, it is about a 15-minute walk to the buildings. The monastery welcomes guests from Monday to Saturday 9 am to 1 pm and is free to enter. It is safe to travel to the monastery but probably better to take a private tour, rather than traveling solo – just in case you get lost in the wilderness!