Valley of the Shadow of Death
Hiking in Wadi Qelt
Wadi Qelt, located between Jerusalem and Jericho, is widely identified as the place called the Valley of the Shadow of Death in the Bible. Sound sinister? All the more reason for editor-in-chief Marco Barneveld to take a walk there.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death. As a little boy, my imagination took me to a dark place, where flames shot out of the ground and oppression fell clammily over you like a blanket smelling of sulfur—the original nightmare.
I was unaware that the location of this Biblical nightmare had an actual location.
“Though I pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
But it involves a real valley, between Jerusalem and Jericho, in the middle of the Jerusalem Desert, also called the Desert of Judea: Wadi Qelt, as the valley is called in Arabic.
We start the trail early in the morning with our guide, Malak Hassan, at Ein Qelt, the spring at the base of Wadi Qelt. The sun peeks over the ochre-colored hills but immediately makes the lazy sweat bubble up. Looking closely, you can see fragments of an aqueduct against the hills. “A Roman relic,” Malak knows.
“In 1919, the British commissioned a group of three Armenians to renovate all the decorative tiles of the Dome of the Rock”
When we have descended a few hundred meters, we pass an old building and whimsical bunkers. “That building is an old British police station from when Palestine was under British rule. The bunkers were either built by the British or the Jordanians to guard the water source of Ein Qelt and the police station,” Malak explains. “They were built to look like the jagged limestone rock formations from the air.”
With temperatures often well above 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months, without an actual visit, it is easy to understand that the valley’s name could come from its extreme climate. But is this true?
We walk a little further down. The air fills with the scent of water. It ripples slowly and thinly, but it ripples. Date palms and jojoba bushes rustle gently in the light desert breeze. Parakeets sing their twittering songs—a veritable green oasis. Two young Bedouin children play in the water. Their elder brother sits on a donkey on the bank’s slope, father quietly watching. His name is Maher Njoom. He asks where we are from. “From Holland? What are you doing here?” he asks in despair. With Malak’s help, I explain that the grass is always greener on the other side and what that expression means.
Wadi Qelt is a long narrow gorge-like valley full of caves where it is easy to get lost
Through the trees, we see a large mansion. “It is the Husseini family’s house, but we are looking after it,” Maher explains. “The house has been in their possession since the days when the Ottoman Empire ruled here.”
We walk on and come to a green gate, a roundabout of the old Roman viaduct. The upper stones are ancient, while concrete pillars covered with plants and moss provide strength. Jets of water trickle along the greenery, forming mini-waterfalls. I dive under for a moment. It almost seems like the entrance to a magical realm.
Despite the valley’s terrifying Biblical name, this place is also one of the most beautiful locations in the Judean desert. The jagged cliffs, carved by millennia of water streams, offer a deafening silence. “In winter and spring, when it rains, the place floods with water,” Malak says. “During this special period, wildflowers bloom, water flows through the valley, and birdsong echoes along the path. Everything is green, then. At the end of summer, everything is dry again except along the spots where the little water still flows. Like this aqueduct.”
It all feels lovelier than the name Valley of the Shadow of Death suggests. The term seems to come from the valley’s reputation as a dangerous place for travelers who wanted to take a shortcut on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Wadi Qelt is a long narrow gorge-like valley full of caves where it is easy to get lost. Floods from the highlands of Jerusalem carved the wadi through the desert. The gorge was mostly a dry riverbed, and although walking in it was much easier than climbing over the rocky hills, it was still a treacherous ravine. Streams of water, descending from Jerusalem to the depths of the Dead Sea some 1,000 meters, could overtake travelers in an instant if it rained in Jerusalem. Moreover, bandits and wild animals hid in the caves and gorges of the wadi.
If trails could talk, the Wadi Qelt path would tell enchanting stories. Every major figure in Biblical history walked along this rocky path. David ran from Jerusalem through the Wadi Qelt after his son Absalom declared himself king (2 Samuel 15:23 – 16:14). King Zedekiah, fleeing Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, flew through the Wadi in the dead of night (2 Kings 25:1-6). We know that Jesus walked across it during his lifetime and that the 10th Roman legion marched across it on their way to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The New Testament brings another Biblical character to the Wadi Qelt, the Good Samaritan. The fact that Jesus used this rough, dangerous road to set his parable about an injured, ambushed traveler makes perfect sense.
Treacherous or not, people regularly traveled on this road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The latter was a bustling economic center and thriving desert oasis, while Jerusalem was already a religious center.
If trails could talk, the Wadi Qelt path would tell enchanting stories. Every major figure in Biblical history walked along this rocky path
Then suddenly, we see a cross standing out against the blue sky. A sign for pilgrims that they are on the right path to the monastery of St George. Standing by the cross, we see similar crosses in all directions. In the green gorge below, we can already see the old buildings of St George’s monastery, built against steep stone walls.
We descend the path via steps carved into the rock. We see windows and doors that give access to caves in the rock face above and around the monastery. “These rooms house monks who live in seclusion and go to their brothers in the monastery only on Sundays,” Malak explains.
It was in such a small cave that the monastery’s history began, dating back to the Byzantine era in the 4th century. “This monastery was built around the cave which, according to the Old Testament (Kings 1), was the cave of the prophet Elijah when he lived in exile and was fed by ravens. Around 480, a monk named John of Thebes created a monastery for the monks in these caves,” says Malak. “At the end of the 6th century, George of Choziba joined the monks. All the monks were killed during the Persian conquest of the Holy Land. Except for George, the monastery was subsequently named after him.”
After being allowed to fill our water bottles at the monastery, we started climbing the slope on the other side of the ravine where Wadi Qelt ends.
Wadi Qelt is a paradox, as so much is a contradiction in this land called Holy. The Valley of the Shadow of Death? Exciting stories. That’s all.
Palestinian Heritage Trail is a long-distance cultural hiking route in Palestine. The trail is about 500 km long and extends from the village of Rummana northwest of Jenin to Beit Mirsim southwest of Hebron back to Artas in Bethlehem, in addition to the newly developed Jerusalem segment that starts in Eizariya through the Old City of Jerusalem towards the villages in the Northwest (Beit Suriq to Beit Duqqo) (See map). The trail passes through more than 60 Palestinian cities, villages and local communities where travelers can experience and enjoy the authentic Palestinian Hospitality.