Aglow just now with various fiery red blossoms, blushing pink Mediterranean rosebud and bi-colored wild camomile, the Hinnom Valley wasn’t always this delightful. In fact, at one time it was believed that it was the entrance to Hell – and for good reason: during the Biblical era both pagans and Israelites appeased the monstrous god Moloch by sacrificing their children to fires that blazed in the Hinnom Valley.
If you live in Israel, or are planning a trip here within the next month, you will find that spring is the perfect time to follow a short, circular portion of the 42-kilometer-long Jerusalem Trail. An easy path (but with some steps), this trail goes through and above the once notorious wadi, and combines the glories of nature with an abundance of ancient and modern history.
A great place to start is at the Peace Statue, located on the bridge over Hebron Road above the Cinematheque.
Created by Israeli artist Yigal Tomarkin, and inscribed with the well-known biblical verse about turning swords into plowshares, the statue was erected some time before the Six Day War when this was the Israeli border with Jordan.
From the statue and while walking across the bridge there is a fabulous view of the Old City walls and Mount Zion in all its glory. The impressive Catholic complex with an unusual clock is Dormition Abbey, while the stately building below is the Greek Orthodox Seminary.
From 1948 and until the reunification of the Jerusalem in 1967, part of the Israeli-Jordanian border ran right between the Seminary and Dormition Abbey – located on Israeli-held Mount Zion – and the Old City wall to its right (your left). On the corner of the ramparts, just across from the Seminary, the Jordanians manned an outpost.
At the bottom of the steps, a sign featuring a lion with a walking stick marks the Jerusalem Trail that stretches to the right. A side path leads to a lovely overlook for a view of the beautiful building that sits all by its lonesome in the middle of the valley to the left.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 25 Jewish families established a community here called Sha’arei Zion (Gates of Zion – since it was right below the mountain) and also known as Sham’a. The houses were abandoned several decades later, following repeated Arab riots and massacres. Arabs moved into the deserted houses.
After the War of Independence in 1948, destitute new immigrants were housed in Sham’a. Located along the border, right next to No-Man’s Land, the neighborhood soon became a horrible slum occasionally targeted by Jordanian snipers. After the Six Day War everyone was evacuated and almost all of the houses were torn down. In 1979, the Jerusalem Foundation renovated and opened the one remaining structure as the Alpert Music Center for Jewish and Arab children.
When the trail splits into parallel paths, hikers can pick whichever one they want. Inside the mighty cliffs above and to the right of the top path are burial caves, part of a ring of cemeteries surrounding Jerusalem over two thousand years ago.
The Jerusalem Trail continues on the other side of a narrow road (leading up to the Abu Tor neighborhood). But adventurous hikers can hug this side of the road and ascend to ancient steps. From here, besides a look inside one of the burial caves, there is a gorgeous view of Mount Zion and the village of Silwan (Shiloah, in Hebrew).
Back on the Jerusalem Trail, some kind of animal will probably come into view: on different occasions we have passed horses, and donkeys. Sometimes sheep and goats graze next to the trail – possibly because there are such large patches of wildflowers.
The lower trail leads to steps dating back to the Byzantine period and ending in an area known as Potter’s Field, where wealthy Jews entombed their dead during the late Second Temple period. Among finds discovered here were two rare, hinged doors, and ossuaries (decorated containers for bones) whose Hebrew inscriptions relate to people mentioned in Jewish works of the Byzantine period.
According to the New Testament, when Judas began to feel guilty about betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, he gave his money to the priests (kohanim). The priests then purchased Potter’s Field, turning it into a cemetery for strangers and poor pilgrims, and it later became known as hakeldama – Aramaic for “field of blood”.
The trail, which continues on the sidewalk to the right, reaches a wall-enclosed Greek Orthodox monastery. It is named for St. Onoufrios – a 4th-century Egyptian hermit who lived in the desert far from other humans for 70 years. Unusually spiritual even for a hermit, Onoufrios renounced all earthly things. It is believed that, after his lower garment fell to pieces, he wore nothing but a long white beard. Traditionally, Onoufrios spent a short time in a cave in Potter’s Field, and visited the holy Christian sites, before beginning his life in the desert.
Over the past decade, the monastery has functioned as a convent and is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-12 and 16-19.
You will be permitted to view the tiny cave where Onoufrios lived, but following desecration by Israeli tourists, you can no longer wander through an immense complex of burial caves complete with skeletons and bones. They are believed to belong to monks massacred by Persian conquerors of the Holy Land in the 7th century, and the Crusaders (who were Christian, but not Orthodox) in the 12th.
There are at least two possible ways to return. Our favorites: through the lush green Hinnom Valley, the perfect place for a post-hike snooze. Or by ascending the road leading to Abu Tor, where, at the end of the wall above the burial cave, there is an excellent path.
From the path, and not far from the bridge over the valley, a cable stretches from one side to the other. In 1987, an unconventional French high wire artist named Philippe Petit walked a parallel cable between New Jerusalem and the Old City as a gesture of peace. As was his custom, he walked the wire with nothing underneath to catch him should he fall.
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.