Last time, I wrote about Mar Saba Monastery, located a short distance to the east of Bethlehem, and its great importance to the Christian heritage of the Holy Land. I’d like to continue our journey through the Judean Desert Wilderness, and towards Jericho via an ancient and important path known as Wadi Qelt, better known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Valley of the Shadow of Death
It can be easily understood if most Christians believe “the valley of the shadow of death” is an expression without an actual location, as found in Psalm 23:4 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” And while the verse can certainly be used to describe any sense of trouble or difficulty, Holy Land tradition holds that there is an actual valley, located parallel to the Jordan River to the south of Jericho in the Judean Hills, in an area that is more commonly referred to as the Judean desert, or wilderness.
With temperatures often reaching well above 40 C/104 F during the long summer months in the valley, it is easy to see the name of the valley could have originated from its extreme climate, but it appears the term may have actually come from its reputation for being a place of danger for travelers seeking to make a shortcut on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Indeed, one theory behind the parable of the Good Samaritan as told in Chapter 10 in the Gospel of Luke is that the place of the assault on the traveler may have well occurred in this valley – indeed, a monastery dedicated to the parable located a short distance west the valley on the ancient Jerusalem-Jericho road existed during the Byzantine era and its ruins can be visited today.
Despite the fearsome Biblical name of the valley, best known today by its Arabic name Wadi Qelt, this place is also one of the most beautiful locations to be found in the Judean Desert. The jagged rock cliffs carved out of millennia of watercourses offers a stillness increasingly hard to find in the Holy Land, and a short-lived beauty each later winter and spring following the rainy season. During this special period, wildflowers blossom, a trickle of water may run through the base of the valley, and birdsong can echo along the path. Those that journey on the path may be fortunate to see the regional variety of wild deer as well as the hyrax, the noted “rock rabbit” as mentioned in Psalm 104:18 “The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.”
The journey from one end of the valley to the next usually lasts between an hour and a half to two hours and includes the possibility to view another great monastic treasure, the Monastery of Saint George Khoseva, (also spelled as Chozeba and Khozeba), located at the southern end of the entrance of the valley. This monastery is built around the cave held to be that of the Prophet Elijah when in exile and fed by ravens as told in the Old Testament (Kings 1) and is overseen by Greek Orthodox monks who gladly welcome visitors during specific hours. While the journey down to the base of the valley is steep, and the terrain through the valley is rocky, it can be accomplished with a modest amount of effort throughout most of the year with a guide, with the option to continue towards Jericho if proper arrangements are made.
While not for every pilgrim, walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience that brings a completely new understanding of the connection between the Bible and the living Holy Land.