Tourist Tip #84 / The Churches of Abu Ghosh

On a day trip to Abu Ghosh, you can visit two beautiful ancient churches and find plenty of tasty Arabic restaurants.

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Centuries ago, if you were on your way to or from Jerusalem you had no choice but to stop in Abu Ghosh. Pilgrims and other travelers wrote that the stop was memorable – but not in a good way. The headman of the village, founded in the 16th century by a Muslim clan from the Caucasus, required travelers to cross his palm with a "tax."

The only palms you’ll cross these days are of the botanical variety, bearing beautiful dates in the garden of the Crusader church in the ancient heart of the village (referred to in the New Testament as Emmaus). In the basement of the cavernous house of prayer, with its vivid restored frescoes, you’ll find the spring that gave life to the first community here, established some 10,000 years ago. A stroll through the quiet shaded grounds reveals olives, grapes and flowers lovingly tended by the monks and nuns who live there.

The monks and nuns also sell charming rustic pottery and other craft items from a small shop. On a hill to the west with the best view of the village, stands the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, with a landmark statue of Mary rising from it. The church is located in the town of Kiryat Yearim, where the Ark rested after its return from Philistine captivity, according to the Bible.

Both churches are famous in Israel as venues for the Abu Ghosh vocal music festival, which takes place during Passover and Sukkot.

Next to the Crusader Church is a mosque associated with Ezra, who legend holds fell asleep here for a hundred years – a Holy Land version of the Rip Van Winkle story.

After your stroll, you’ll be ready for lunch or a coffee break. For a town of only 5,000, the selection is huge. Its renowned first restaurant, the Caravan, is now part of a row of restaurants that offer traditional Arab food and pastries and friendly service up and down the main street, Shalom Road. There’s even a 24-hour joint, Hobez (“Bread” in Arabic).

The Crusader Church is open 8:30 to 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 to 5:30 P.M., and closed Thursdays and Sundays. The Church of the Ark of the Covenant is open 9:00 to 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 to 5:00 P.M., and closed Sundays.

The Church of the Ark of the Covenant in Kiryat Yearim
Inside an Abu Ghosh church.Credit: Dan Arad