Travelers whizzing along the Jerusalem–Jericho road on their way to the Dead Sea or Masada could easily miss a gem hidden from view: St. George’s Monastery, carved into the rock face of a deep ravine.
Forbidding hills, sere and bare, surround the isolated monastery, 12.5 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Caves pock these limestone hills, and a tradition related to the prophet Elijah attached itself to a cave in the ravine, known as Wadi Kelt. Here Elijah is said to have hidden after prophesying a life-threatening drought that would last as long as King Ahab continued to allow the worship of Baal that his queen, Jezebel, had introduced (I Kings 17:1–7).
So, in the 4th century CE, when hermits in search of the desert experience of the biblical prophet started populating the Judean Desert, it’s not surprising that a handful of them clustered around Elijah’s cave.
Another reason for them to congregate there was a tradition associated with Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary. The couple had despaired of ever having a child when, in this place, which was on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho, an angel revealed to Joachim that Anne was with child.
The modern approach to the Greek Orthodox monastery is via the Mitzpe Yericho turnoff to the left; a smaller sign points to Wadi Kelt, St. George, and Mitzpe Yericho. Those with keen eyesight may spot ibex on the hills.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry recently spent nearly $500,000 to repair the narrow, twisting road, which was damaged three years ago by an earthquake and flash floods and had become impassable to buses and large vehicles. At the opening ceremony this week attended by dignitaries of the Greek Orthodox Church, Rafi Ben-Hur, deputy director-general of the ministry, declared the repair “a bridge to peace,” and the monastery’s bells rang incessantly to mark the event. The Greek Orthodox Church has some 100,000 Palestinian-Arab believers in Israel and the West Bank.
The road ends at a parking lot graced by a free-standing triple arch. The monastery is not visible from there, but a path to the left leads to an observation point where the blue-domed roofs suddenly come into view. The surprising greenery below the monastery is watered by a nearby spring, Ein Kelt.
To see the interior of the monastery, visitors must traverse another footpath, roughly paved with concrete, that begins at the triple arch. The path is steep in parts and crosses the ravine on a bridge. But the hike is well worth it.
From the blinding heat and light one steps into the cool serenity of the entrance hall and from there into an ornate chapel. On the second floor, a cave said to be where Elijah hid has been turned into a tiny chapel. A fresco of Elijah is on the rear wall of the cave. Just outside is a platform made of wooden planks with a basket dangling from a rope, to serve monks in search of even greater isolation.
The monastery was first built by John of Thebes, who came from Egypt in 480 CE, but is named for the most famous of the monks who lived there, George (Gorgias) of Khoziba, who enlarged it in the 6th century.
In 614, when the Persians swept through Palestine, they destroyed the monastery and massacred the monks. It was not until 1878 that a Greek monk, Kalinikos, settled in Wadi Kelt and restored the monastery, completing the work in 1901.
Today it is maintained by a handful of monks and is one of six functioning monasteries in the Judean Desert. It is not in Israel, but rather in a part of the Palestinian Authority designated by the Oslo Accords as Area C, where Israel has full control.
Perhaps this political situation has led to a curious modern commentary on the biblical passage relating to Elijah in the cave (I Kings 17:6). It is usually translated, “And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.”
But the original biblical text has no vocalizations and, commentators point out, the same consonants making up the Hebrew word for “ravens” can also be read as “Arabs.” Perhaps, indeed, Arabs brought Elijah bread and flesh, an act of peace that has now been repaid by the repair of the road.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.