Ancient springs and stunning vistas: A desert day trip just outside Jerusalem
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Ancient springs and stunning vistas: A desert day trip just outside Jerusalem

Biblical history and vibrant nature abound in the Judean hills, where visitors can bathe in an ancient oasis and walk in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan

  • A visitor swims in the Ein Fawwar pool in the Judean Hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A visitor swims in the Ein Fawwar pool in the Judean Hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Hemp growing at the Judean Desert spring of Ein Fawwar. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Hemp growing at the Judean Desert spring of Ein Fawwar. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The walk through the Judean Hills leading to the Ein Fawwar spring. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The walk through the Judean Hills leading to the Ein Fawwar spring. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Foliage surrounding the Ein Fawwar desert spring. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Foliage surrounding the Ein Fawwar desert spring. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Good Samaritan overlook in the Judean Hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Good Samaritan overlook in the Judean Hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Orit overlook, next to the Alon settlement outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Orit overlook, next to the Alon settlement outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A mosaic from a 3rd century Samaritan synagogue on display at the Museum of the Good Samaritan. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A mosaic from a 3rd century Samaritan synagogue on display at the Museum of the Good Samaritan. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A waterfall at the Ein Fawwar spring in the Judean Desert. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A waterfall at the Ein Fawwar spring in the Judean Desert. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

According to local legend, two demons live below the Judean Desert spring called Ein Fawwar. The two, it is said, are engaged in a never-ending battle. When the good demon gets the upper hand, water pours out of the spring; if the bad demon takes over, the flow slows down. And that is why every 20 minutes, like clockwork, water spurts out of the spring and collects into a pool.

The scientific explanation is almost as fascinating as the legend. Ein Fawwar, whose Hebrew name is Ein Mabua (bubbling spring), originates in rainfall on the Judean hills. Water slowly dripping through the limestone all year round fills up a karstic cave: when full, the water flows into the pool for about 20 minutes and the process is periodically repeated.

Ein Fawwar/Mabua is located along the winding scenic route called Derech Alon (Alon Way), named for Israeli statesman Yigal Alon (1918-1980) and known officially as Route 458. A trip perfect for Israelis, tourists and even armchair travelers includes the spring, some stunning overlooks, a small desert community and the unique Museum of the Good Samaritan.

This jaunt begins east of Jerusalem on Highway One, past the settlement town of Ma’aleh Adumim and with a left turn onto Road 458. Adjacent to the community of Alon, along the route, the Orit Overlook (Mitzpe Orit) was established in memory of Orit Segal. She passed away in 2004, not long after moving to Alon with her husband Danny. Once covered with rocks, today the beautiful overlook is popular both with people who come for its stark serenity, and with couples posing for pre-wedding photos.

Ein Fawwar, a spring in the Judean Hills just outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

From the overlook there is a tremendous view of the surrounding wilderness, a few other desert communities and, way down below in the riverbed, Ein Fawwar. Sunset here in autumn is absolutely gorgeous. And the lookout is especially beautiful in winter, when so much of the desert turns green.

Diversity at Alon

Visitors can stop in Alon, which boasts a promenade that winds around the edge of the community and sports a lovely desert view. Founded in 1990, the small but richly diverse community maintains a more or less equal number of Orthodox and secular residents.

Alon’s heterogeneous makeup is reflected both in its cultural activities, and in public buildings like the synagogue: a glass partition between prayer hall and entrance keeps the entire community connected. And the adjacent playground makes it possible for families to be nearby without participating in worship, if they so desire.

The interior of the synagogue in the Alon settlement. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Inside, benches are set up in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic fashion, and the prayers themselves reflect a variety of worshiping styles. Women are seated on the same floor as the men, separated by a small curtain. However, special arrangements have been made for women who want an active part in synagogue worship.

Ein Mabua, one of several springs sprinkled throughout the Kelt Riverbed, is situated about 3 kilometers north of Alon. Nature lovers park at the sign, then descend by foot about 300 meters to reach a round cement pool surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees.

Nearby there is a mosaic floor dating back at least 1,500 years. Part of a Byzantine monastery, it was discovered during British construction of a pumping station in 1931. Although it was covered up at the time, it was rediscovered during development of the site by the Nature Reserves Authority, which made it accessible to visitors.

An aqueduct channeling water from the Ein Fawwar spring. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

From the British mandate period and until 1967, the spring’s waters were pumped all the way to Jerusalem together with those of the Fara Spring in the upper riverbed. Today Ein Mabua flows into a cement aqueduct based on a water carrier from the Second Temple period. While the aqueduct originally brought water to the Kypros fortress built by Hasmonean (Maccabee) kings and restored by King Herod, now it serves the Jericho valley.

A path leads through the spring area, a splendid jungle of wild reeds and other water foliage. One plant that sports clusters of purple flowers may still be in bloom. Although there are many possible sources for the hemp’s popular name of “Abraham’s Bush,” it probably has its origins in its long, five-fingered leaves: Abraham holding up his hand to welcome guests. An attractive picnic area is set up by the pool.

Site of a New Testament parable

Next, the Museum of the Good Samaritan is found almost immediately east of Route 458 on Highway One. The museum’s name comes from its proximity to the road that would have been taken by the traveler in a famous New Testament parable.

The Good Samaritan overlook. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

According to the New Testament story, a man once traveled through the Judean Desert on a byway between Jerusalem and Jericho. As he walked, he was set upon by robbers who beat him up and left him lying, half dead, in the road.

One after another, two passersby saw the injured man – but crossed to the other side in order to avoid him. A third, a Samaritan, treated his wounds, then brought him to a caravansary (roadside inn with enclosed courtyard, common in the Middle East in ancient times) and gave the owner money for his continued care.

Detail of a nursing lioness from a mosaic found in Gaza now in the Museum of the Good Samaritan. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Early Christians identified an existing way-station as the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Later Christians turned it into a monastery, and pilgrims’ hostel, which the Ottoman Turks took over for use as an inn for caravans. Later, it became a Turkish police station.

While the monastery was partially restored to create a place for worshipers of all faiths, the rest of the site was completely rebuilt at the beginning of the 21st century. The entire complex, which took eight years to complete, was opened as the Museum of the Good Samaritan by the Nature Reserves and National Parks Authority in 2010. On display are dozens of stunning mosaics, with almost the entire collection original works from nearly 2000 years ago and mainly from Judea and Samaria.

Two Jewish names – Menachem and Yeshua Ben Yishai – appear in a Greek inscription on the stunning mosaic situated just inside the entrance to the complex. The mosaic is part of an elaborate floor from a sixth century synagogue in Gaza, which at the time was host to a mixed population of Jews, Christians and pagans. Also filling the mosaic are pairs of foxes, leopards, flamingos, giraffes, a nursing lioness and a number of geometrical and floral motifs.

Samaritan worshipers gather to pray on top of Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablus as they celebrate the Shavuot festival at dawn, on June 4, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)

The museum’s six sections include all kinds of areas filled with mosaics and artifacts from ancient synagogues and churches. One whole wing is dedicated to the Samaritans, an ancient sect with beliefs and worship somewhat similar to those of the Jews. About 700 Samaritans live in Israel today and the museum’s photos of their customs are accompanied by excellent explanations.

There are only three mosaic replicas in the museum, and they are all found in the Jewish wing. In one, a lion bows down to King David, portrayed as Orpheus. Another is from a 3rd century synagogue at ancient Susiya, and depicts what may be a wedding feast.

A stone chancel from a Byzantine Church in the Hebron Hills housed in the Good Samaritan Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Inside a cave dating back to the Second Temple period (6th century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), visitors can view a film from 1920 depicting the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And outside the cave, a walkway takes you to a fantastic lookout over the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, the Mount of Olives (in Jerusalem), and Ma’aleh Adumim.

The Good Samaritan Museum is open seven days a week and is completely wheelchair accessible. Winter hours: 8:00-16:00 except Fridays, when it closes at 15:00. Price: Adult NIS 22, Child NIS 10, Senior Citizen NIS 11.

Ein Fawwar\Mabua: the observation point, path to the first waterfall, and the Visitors’ Center are wheelchair accessible but the restroom is not. You can call before you come for permission to drive down to the site (instead of walking from the parking lot) – 02 6339263. Winter hours: 8:00 – 16:00 Entrance free.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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