A Rare Opportunity to Visit Israel's Land of the Monasteries

Visiting the baptismal site of Qasr al-Yahud - also known as the Land of the Monasteries - in the occupied Jordan River Valley, is usually impossible for civilians. However, some have found a way in

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The Romanian Monastery in Qasr al Yahud.
The abandoned Romanian Monastery at Qasr al-Yahud.Credit: Eitan Leshem
Eitan Leshem

The Biblical Land of Israel may not be the most beautiful in the world, but it’s definitely one of the maddest and most maddening places, mainly due to its thousands of years of history that have left scars everywhere. 

In Israel there is no lack of such places – charged, complex and historic sites. Israelis start getting to know them on elementary-school field trips, ending up saturated with enough heritage and history to sustain them for life. But one location, beautiful and historic, remains far from the Israeli tourist’s eye, only now starting to host the excited heartbeats it deserves: the Land of the Monasteries.

This name is one reason the area has remained on the margins of Israelis’ itineraries. The core of the area is the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site on the Jordan River — in the occupied Area C of the West Bank — which has undergone massive renovations by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It’s currently open as a national park, with no entrance fee. 

The abandoned Romanian Monastery at the site of Qasr al-Yahud near the Jordan river in the West Bank.Credit: Eitan Leshem

According to different faiths, at this site just north of the Dead Sea, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Israel hasn’t yet embraced Christian tourism pearls, as if it were wary that any other narrative might undermine the Jewish one. Despite these fears, the area started developing slowly in the early 1980s. In the peak year of 2019, when nearly 4 million tourists came to Israel, almost 1 million visited Qasr al-Yahud. Israel has learned to respect revenues from Christian tourists, if not the Christian faith.

When you delve deeper into the history of this site, you realize why messianic nonprofit groups are casting an eye on it. Here, they believe, is where the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Israel, after the long, all-but-delusional journey from Egypt. This is also the spot where the Prophet Elijah supposedly parted from Elisha before ascending to heaven in a fiery chariot, considered by many the first trip set down on parchment. With all due respect to Judaism, crosses now adorn every dune in this area, the Land of the Monasteries.

The Jordan river estuary at the Dead Sea.Credit: Eitan Leshem

Over the years, buildings were put up where pilgrims could spend the night. Monasteries were built, creating this unique strip of land consisting of hard earth and golden domes.

During the Six-Day War of 1967 Israel occupied the Land of the Monasteries. A few years later the area became a focus of terrorist operations and Palestinians trying to return to their lands, acquiring the moniker the Land of Manhunts. Rafael Eitan, who commanded the Jordan Valley Brigade at the time, laid mines in the area to stop this foot traffic from Jordan. Thus, in part due to violence by terrorists, the last monks left the area, leaving their monasteries desolate.

More than 50 years after the last monks fled or were driven away, I found myself in the same place, just a few square miles large. It includes rundown structures topped with crosses and surrounded by wild bushes. Only as you approach can you see the mosaics, frescos and holy inscriptions that have remained intact despite their exposure to the unforgiving Judean Desert.

The desolate and dilapidated look, against the backdrop of the desert, which in this season is blooming in colors, is chilling. From every angle you can see dramatic scenery that includes desolate holy buildings telling a historic tale, not to mention a political, diplomatic and security-related one.

As usual in Israel, the Land of the Monasteries has been off-limits to civilians. This is a closed military area with the monasteries under the jurisdiction of the churches that originally built them. So in the middle of nowhere there’s an area belonging to the Romanian Orthodox Church, another to the Greek Orthodox Church and another to the Ethiopian Church. Israelis are barred from entering.

All this will change in a few years, because in addition to the renovations in the baptismal area, the army has conducted a huge mine-clearing project. This was a prologue to an even larger mine-clearing campaign that will culminate with monastery renovations and the opening of the area to large-scale tourism.

Still, this is a place hugging the border. At 4 P.M. every day, the army makes sure civilians leave the area, and the sacred gives way to the profane.

Pilgrims undergoing baptism in the Jordan River, three years ago.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

With all due respect to the future, promises to clear mines won’t fill anybody’s Instagram account, but people who are justifiably enchanted by this area now have a chance to visit it. Marches by the Dead Sea Pioneers group have been held for five years now, so with the excuse of being an avid walker, I reached this promised land. After starting as something of interest only to local people, the march has grown in popularity, becoming a rare opportunity to open the iron gates that separate the Land of Israel from the Land of the Monasteries.

Obviously, many things, including the very existence of this Land of the Monasteries, are in doubt. It’s beyond the 1967 borders but exists on every map ever drafted as part of efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a land containing the ruins of a kibbutz and a potash plant owned by Palestinians, with only one ruler – the desert.

This land too can only be entered with a passport, in this case the COVID-19 “green passport.” You enter a land without a border as a tourist, returning to a country that doesn’t yet know where its border lies.

This year, a new trail has been added to the march, also due to the coronavirus and the fragmentation it has imposed on us. This trail reaches the spot where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, where Israel and Jordan meet. The river meanders through bends it itself has created.

This location automatically stirs the emotions. If you don’t shed tears over the dwindling Dead Sea, you might do so over the slow river, so different from the one we know further north. If all this doesn’t tug at your heart, maybe the serenity of the desert will, with the clouds above creating a view that can’t leave anyone indifferent. And yes, it’s also the fact that not many people have trod this way before, at least not in the last 50 years.

The Dead Sea Pioneers march – on March weekends and on Election Day.

Where to eat?

Reut Cohen owns a restaurant in Jerusalem and lives on Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem by the Dead Sea (“It’s only 40 minutes away by motorbike,” she says). Cohen too took advantage of the pandemic. Car-nivor-eat is a picnic package similar to the meal baskets that have swept over the country. These packages are full of meat. They include a barbecued treat and pita bread, with the meat changing depending on the number of people and type of order. Prices range from 150 to 500 shekels ($152).

You can find other dishes at her place, but it’s good to have the chance to have a barbecue without worrying about anything but a garbage bag. The main thing is that she’ll wait with your order at the end of the march. Details and orders at 050-646-8210.

What can we do with children?

A little over 15 minutes by car from Qasr al-Yahud is Kalia Beach, which also has a bar for accompanying parents. At the entrance there’s Gallery Minus 430, which turned abandoned Jordanian buildings into colorful places of coexistence and sustainability.

The season’s perfect weather is also suitable for a visit to the Einot Tzukim national reserve not too far away.

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