Day 3 (Part 1) – Wadi Qelt and the Jordan River

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

Flopping and floating in the Dead Sea the day before rewarded most of us with a good night’s sleep, and with jet lag beginning to diminish we started the morning bright and early with bags packed and waiting to board the bus. Today was our first “transit day,” when we transferred from one area to another — in this case from Bethlehem, which is southeast of Jerusalem, to Tiberias, which is north (about 90 miles as the crow flies) on the Sea of Galilee.

Our first stop was a partially “new to us” site — the Good Samaritan Inn and Mosaic Museum. We’d been there before during our earlier trips when it was a run down and slightly tacky combination of rest stop and souvenir store. The site itself has a pretty substantial claim to be at least near the place where the “good Samaritan” story might have occurred. A way station or “kahn” was located there from as early as the Second Temple period, which was rebuilt and served as a pilgrim hostel during the later Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman periods.

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But little was done with the current facility until an Israeli concern revamped it and opened the Mosaic Museum a few years ago. The mosaics there are both originals and reconstructions from Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches, a diverse collection that is unique to Israel. The exhibits themselves were quite beautiful and the accompanying information fascinating — for example, many of the mosaics were constructed like quilts by using standard pattern books.

Our next stop was the Wadi Qelt overlook about half way down the mountain on the north side of the highway. “Wadi” is an Arabic term for valley, and it usually denotes a dry ravine or stream bed that contains water only during seasons of heavy rain. (Here’s a neat video about a flash flood in a wadi in the Dead Sea area.) Wadi Qelt is long and deep, and parallels the old Roman Road that runs from Jerusalem to Jericho — another exciting “hairpin turn” ride!

As with many sites in the Holy Land, this one is also completely “commercialized” — this time by the local Bedouin! To get to and from the overlook, you have to maneuver your way through a half-dozen or more very aggressive vendors selling men’s kafiyas, women’s fashion scarves and fake camel bone jewelry. But the view at the top is worth the climb and the hassle. Reciting the 23rd Psalm while that close to the wilderness makes it “come alive” in a new and memorable way.

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Many scholars believe that Jesus probably “hiked” this valley during his time of temptation in the wilderness. And throughout the years, hermits and monks have followed his example of spirit-led introspection by removing themselves from society to live in the caves surrounding the valley. (It was also a great place for robbers to hide out — think “Good Samaritan” story.) St. George’s Monastery is an ancient Christian center that clings to the steep cliffs along the Wadi Qelt. But that hasn’t stopped them from installing the latest solar panel technology.

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Along the banks of the Jordan River east of Jericho is Qasr el Yahud (“Castle of the Jews” in Arabic), the traditional site of John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. (It also commemorates the area where the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.) The area surrounding the site was “no man’s land” between the nations of Israel and Jordan, complete with barbed wire and land mines. When we visited five years ago, it was only open two times a day and you had to make a reservation and follow an army escort to the river. (There’s still a military presence, however, because the platform on the river is only a few yards from Jordan.) Now Qasr el Yahud is open all day with newly built facilities, including changing rooms and the ubiquitous gift shop. The Israeli concern that opened the facility has even supplied a handful of white doves to dwell there! And there was a professional photographer on site to take group photos.

Some people are disappointed when seeing the Jordan River for the first time. Shallow and muddy, it doesn’t seem to fit the image of our Bible stories and hymns. But wading in and initiating or renewing our friends’ baptismal vows is one of the most meaningful events on the pilgrimage for me.

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Click here to see additional group pictures of Day Three, Part 1.

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