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Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Judean Desert©

By Vardah Littmann   Photos by Rimonah Traub.

Spanning about 1500 square kilometers, the Judean Desert is bordered by the Dead Sea to the east and the Judean Hills to the west. Traveling on this terrain in an open safari jeep gives you breathtaking views that are constantly changing. Panoramic mountains, cliffs, and chalk hills stand alongside plateaus, riverbeds, and deep canyons. 

Several rivers cross the width and length of this desert and have formed canyons that are up to 500 meters deep. Some of these rivers have water all year round, and create green oases such as Nachal David and Nachal Prat,  The copper colored  cliffs about 300 meters above the shore of the Dead Sea tower over  lush nature reserves such as Einot Tzukim and Ein Gedi. The canyons of the nachalei achzav (dry river beds), such as Nachal Og and Nachal Darga (which is 27 miles in length) are exciting places for hiking. During the winter months, you should always be aware that sudden flash floods can occur. The weather report must be watched closely by those wishing to jeep or hike at this time of year.

The 30 to 32 kilometer Highway One from Jerusalem, which is at 1200 meters above sea level, descends at a steep incline of 40 meters per kilometer to the Dead Sea, which at 423 meters (1,388 ft) below sea level, is the lowest place on earth.

Along Highway One is a parallel road that was built for use by a single man.  At one time, an Arab used to stand with his camel on the highway. Busloads of tourists would stop to photograph themselves with him and his camel. This proved a real danger to passing traffic, so a slip-road was built especially to accommodate this tourist attraction. Now the tour buses park on this slip-road out of the way of the traffic so their passengers can pose with this “ship of the desert” and his master.

The Judean Desert has one of the rarest climates on the globe since it is situated between two climate extremes, that of the Dead Sea and that of the Judean Hills. This and its own constantly warm and dry interacting conditions make it hard for herbs and plants to grow in the area. The constant strain on the plants that do grow there produces sergon plant hormones within the plants which regulate their growth but can also be used to treat various conditions in man.

After a good rain, the desert here blooms with carpets of flowers. Much of this flora is mentioned in the Tanach, and the plants have been used for centuries, by the local populace.  One prominent example is the hyssop, an excellent antiseptic, which is mentioned in Tehillim 51.

The Judean Desert is home to many clans of Bedouins. Seeing their way of life and the tin shanties they live in  makes one recite the morning bracha “shelo assani goy” with much greater kavanah.

In times past, the vastness of the Judean Desert with its many caves afforded rebels and zealots places to hide. This is where David HaMelech fled from Shaul.

During the Second Temple Period, members of the  Issim (Judean Desert cult ) lived here. You can visit Kumran to see their way of life. Throughout the desert are found at least 1000 wells that hermits and fugitives dug. During the time of Herod large fortresses such as Massada and Horkenya were established in the desert. The last battle of the Jewish zealots in the great rebellion against Rome was fought at Massada.
Today the Judean Desert is relatively sparsely populated with a few settlements at its perimeter.  

If you are yearning to meet the Land up close, you can hire a guided tour in an open sided jeep. The jeeps come in different sizes, depending on how many seats are needed. Since it is cold traveling with the wind whistling around you, bring warm clothing.  

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