My Sunday School teacher while I was growing up defined the wilderness as sand, sand and more sand. Most of the year, that’s a fitting definition. But what I experienced on the Judean Desert Tour with Abraham Tours was unlike anything I could have imagined. Of all the Jeep tours Israel has to offer, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go on this one.
The day begins at the hostel in Jerusalem, where you’ll meet your tour guide for the day and load up into 4WD vehicles. (If Liav and Denette are leading your tour, count your lucky stars! You’re in for a fun day!) Say goodbye to Jerusalem as you head south into the Judean desert.
A Judean Desert Tour: What to expect on a Jeep tour in Israel
Experience Bedouin hospitality
Once you reach the desert, you’ll see camels, sheep and donkeys, makeshift buildings, and the Bedouin people. The nomadic Bedouins are known for their custom of hospitality, and you’ll have the chance to put that to the test.
Stop off at a Bedouin camp, where you’ll wade through the scent of 4-legged nature (read: goat poop) to the hospitality tent. Those same animals making the outside air a bit stinky also make a unique yogurt drink that has a flavor similar to liquid Philadelphia cream cheese.
As you sip, your guide will regale you with stories and customs of the Bedouins. For example, if you take your shoes off at the Bedouin’s tent, it’s a sign to the host that you’d like to stay for three days. You’ll know whether your wish is granted by the way the host serves your coffee. A full cup means his heart is full, and you should drink the coffee and go. A half cup means your request has been granted. The second half cup is the host’s promise to protect you. And the third half cup is his promise to take care of you should illness befall you. On the third day, you’re required to get up and go, with the promise to pay this kindness forward.
I know that it’s biblical for a man to make the coffee. It says right in the Bible that HEBREWS. (Get it?!) Jokes aside, in the Bedouin culture, only the men make the coffee. And the coffee always has the same three characteristics: strong, black and bitter. Strong — like the man. Black — like the night. Bitter— as the life of marriage. A tour group I traveled with years ago unanimously voted to trade me to the Bedouin for a few camels. Sounds like I dodged a bullet when that deal fell through!
Enjoy the view
Remember that “sand, sand, and more sand” definition of the wilderness? That’s true… most of the time. But every once in a while, conditions line up perfectly and the desert comes alive.
Thanks to an especially rainy winter in the desert, much of the area that’s usually sand became a carpet of wildflowers. We stopped to admire the fields of lupines, camomile and anemone flowers of the Judean Desert. Tour through the native wildflowers covering the sandy desert. It’s sure to prompt squeals of excitement from the tourists and tour guides alike.
Stop for a visit to Facebook’s ancient predecessor… the cistern. Throughout history, the cistern was the place where gossip was shared and relationships are strengthened.
Test the Jeep’s limits as you climb to the highest peak in the area. Tradition says that this is the location of the scapegoat’s release into the wilderness as told in Leviticus. “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:20-22). I didn’t see any goats up on the hill, but it is a great spot for photos.
Mar Saba Monastery
The Mar Saba Monastery has roots dating back 1,500 years and is the largest monastery in the Judean Desert and one of the oldest in the world. At its peak, it housed hundreds of monks, but today there are only around 20 monks in this Greek-Orthodox monastery.
Established by Saint Sabas (Mar Saba in Arabic) in the 5th century, the monastery began with a few monks living in seclusion in caves. As time went on, the walled complex was built then subsequently destroyed and rebuilt several times. We enjoyed Turkish and Arabic coffee overlooking the beautiful monastery built into the desert. Since women aren’t allowed inside, this was a perfect way to see the monastery.
Lunch isn’t included on this tour, but you can pick up something cheap and delicious at a roadside rest stop. My pita and falafel cost ₪15. I added a ₪15 freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice for a lunch with all my favorite flavors of Israel.
Visit an aqueduct from Kind Herod
Depending on the time of year you visit, the day may include swimming. If you’re visiting in cooler months, donning a swimsuit is a no-go. Instead, you may take a mini-hike to visit a beautiful waterfall.
Along the way, check out the wildflowers and an aqueduct built during King Herod’s time.
The saying “time flies when you’re having fun” rings true here and the tour is over far too soon. Hop into the 4WD for a trip back to Jerusalem and take the less bumpy path this time. Zip up the highway, through the tunnel with the desert behind you and Jerusalem ahead.
Book your Judean Desert Tour for ₪350 today!