Fifty years ago, the “land of the monasteries” in the Jericho-area wilderness, near the baptism site of Qasr al Yahud, was declared a closed military area. Since then it has remained virtually untouched by humans.
Seven monasteries in the area remained closed and fenced, with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines added for good measure.
Up to 1967 the area was under Jordanian rule, enjoying brisk tourism and pilgrim traffic. After the Six Day War it was a focus of tension, and the area became the scene of chases after infiltrators. The head of the army’s Central Command and the commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade ordered the area mined and booby-trapped.
Now, the Mine Action Authority at the defense ministry, the Halo Foundation and 4CI are completing the removal of mines and unexploded ordinance from three of the monasteries. The intent is to clear the other four as well and return the area to the various churches, opening them up to tourists.
So far, 50 out of 250 acres have been cleaned up, and the initiative – described by Marcel Aviv, the head of the Mine Action Authority as challenging and complex – should be finished by the end of 2019.
Col. Max Nudelman from the Engineering Corps, which is also taking part in these efforts, said that so far one thousand mines have been cleared, but that twice as many still await clearance. Jordan has also lent a hand and cleared the eastern bank of the river when asked to.
The monasteries are spread out on both sides of a paved road running for about a mile. On the east, one can see the picturesque monasteries on the Jordanian side of the border, one of which has a golden dome seen from miles away. After the recent heavy rains pounding this arid area, the road was covered by a thick layer of treacherous mud, and a worker in a protective suit walked along the road with a metal detector, to ensure that no mine was swept in by the floodwaters.
The baptism site is considered the third holiest location in Christianity, after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. According to tradition, this is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on their way to Canaan, and on its eastern side John the Baptist baptized Jesus and his followers. For centuries, the site attracted pilgrims, and the morning we were there hordes of tourists arrived by bus. Some came to wade into the murky river, others just to look and take pictures.
The monasteries that were just cleaned up were built after the British arrived. On higher ground, along the road to the baptism site, there is a Greek-Orthodox church called in Arabic Qasr al-Yahud, built over a Byzantine-era church. In 1956 an earthquake struck and some of the structures are now quite flimsy.
In the 1980s, after the Patriarchy appealed to the Civil Administration, the Greek Orthodox community renewed holding ceremonies here, followed by other communities. Only in 2011 was the place opened for baptism without needing to coordinate arrival with the army. In the middle of the river is a small sign, almost completely covered in water, noting the border with Jordan.
The Franciscan monastery was built in the 1950s and abandoned in the 1970s. Moshe Hillman, who coordinates the mine-clearing on behalf of the Mine Action Authority, says that there used to be a vegetable garden at its entrance, but it withered when the monastery was abandoned. “When we opened the doors, we found an untouched world, with crosses, wheelbarrows, half-empty wine bottles.”
The tiny rooms contain bookcases, iron beds, mattresses and votive candles. The chairs that remain are covered in a thick layer of dust covered with bird tracks. The wood-framed windows, whose panes are all shattered, have remnants of curtains around them. Only bullet holes in the walls and notes stuck in the doorways testify to the mine-clearing done in each room, revealing what happened here over the last decades.
Further down the road is the Ethiopian monastery of the Trinity, which has a wide yard and many rooms that served the pilgrims who came here. The eastern gate was booby-trapped until recently. The kitchen has a big sugar lump, some oats and other testimony to past life in the monastery. A large church lies in the center, with crosses and frescos.
Four monasteries remain to be cleaned up.