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A road trip from Bethlehem to Jericho

Visiting the Good Samaritan Inn and Maqam Nabi Musa

This podcast episode is a reflection of the tour we made with tour guide Kamal Mukarker. We are the students of the tour guide program at the Bethlehem Bible College. The program of our studies is two years and includes several excursions. This podcast episode covers the road between Bethlehem and Jericho and includes a visit to the Good Samaritan Inn and Maqam Nabi Musa.

We left Bethlehem at 8 in the morning on Sunday morning and we drove through the city, first up towards the Nativity church, the location where according to tradition Jesus was born. The city was quiet. A good amount of the population of Bethlehem is Christian Palestinian. Sunday is a day off for many. 

Beit Sahour and the Shepherd’s fields

The road goes down towards Beit Sahour that is known for the story of the shepherds. As they were watching their flock in the fields by night, the angel Gabriel came to announce the birth of Jesus to them. There are actually three locations indicated as the exact spot where this story was remembered and caves were venerated. One is for the Greek Orthodox Church in the middle of town and one for the Catholic Church. On the edge of the town there is another one, on the YMCA premises for the Lutherans.

The name Beit Sahour means the house of vigilance and refers to the shepherds who were staying up late at night to watch over their flock. It is a town with a majority of Christians although there are two Muslim tribes that originally lived here. In 1948 Muslim refugees moved in after they were made refugees during the establishment of the State of Israel.

The desert and the valley of fire

We continued to the east and the landscape quickly changed into the desert landscape. Especially now after a long hot summer the desert is dry and the yellowish.

We pass by the Saint Theodosius Monastery and we see the famous spot from where Palestinians can actually see the golden dome of the rock in Jerusalem. But they can not enter the city of Jerusalem without a permit. And it is very difficult to obtain one. They have to apply at the Civil Administration of the Israeli army.

The road starts winding down steep into the valley of fire, Wadi Nar. This valley used to be the place where the trash from Jerusalem was burnt and that’s why it is called valley of fire. It is also the continuation of the Hinnom valley and the Kidron valley in Jerusalem. These valleys are indicated by all three monotheistic religions as the location where the final judgment will take place. It is for sure a scary road and I remember that twelve years ago when I first drove here, it was even more scary. The road has since been renovated an better paved with help of US AID. But it remains a tricky road that winds down with sharp turns into a deep valley.

Wadi Nar is the continuation of Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem

The smell of sewage

Down in the valley it smells bad. This is the sewage water that comes from parts of East Jerusalem where they are not connected to the sewage system. The Palestinians received promise from Germany for financial support to build a sewage water treatment plant. However, this area of the Westbank is under full Israeli control. The Israeli authorities only wanted to give the permission if the Palestinians would also treat the sewage coming out from the nearby illegal settlements. And that’s something the Palestinians could not commit to.

The road winds up and we leave the bad smell behind. This is the ONLY road that connects the north and the south of the Westbank. It’s hard to imagine but this is the reality. There are no other north south connections. You have to understand the landscape here. It is all desert and it is all hills. Not very easy to create roads.

And it is also good to realize that traditionally and naturally the road from Bethlehem to Jericho is not through Wadi Nar. The well paved main road is through Jerusalem. From Bethlehem to Jerusalem center is around 15 minutes and to continue to Ramallah straight would be another 15 minutes. Through Jerusalem to Jericho that lies east of Jersualem, would take about 40 minutes maximum. But as Palestinians are not allowed into Jerusalem they have to take this back road and it can be more than double the time to arrive.

The container checkpoint

We cross the checkpoint that the Israeli military placed on this one road that Palestinians can use. This checkpoint is not located on any boarder with Israel It is on the main road connecting north and south. The Palestinians call it the container checkpoint. A tradition that came into being when in the past some people set up a container from where they would sell drinks and snacks to the people waiting in line. If this checkpoint is closed, it cuts off the north from the south.

Luckily we are not stopped, there is no traffic and we continue.

Ma’ale Adumim settlement

Ahead of us we see the big Ma’ale Adumim settlement. It looks like a big oasis in the middle of the desert. It is a Jewish only Israeli settlement to the east of Jerusalem. Illegal under international law as it is built on the lands of Palestinian land owners whose lands have been confiscated without them receiving any compensation. The fourth Geneva convention stipulates that an occupying power shall not move its population into the area it occupies.

The Ma'ale Adumim settlement is an illegal Israeli settlement
Ma’ale Adumim settlement in the Jerusalem desert, photo by Davidmosberg Licensed use:  | no changes made

Adumim means red in Hebrew. Ma’ale Adumim means the ‘red descent’. It refers to the reddish kind of stone in this area and the descent or slope of the hill towards the road that we are going to take. It is also said that red refers to the color of the blood. The valley was notorious for attacks on travelers by robbers.

Ancient road between Jerusalem and Jericho

This road is an ancient road. Now it is paved and asphalted, but this IS the location of an ancient road that connected Jerusalem to Jericho. Originally it was a road for traders and travelers, whose donkeys and camels would, over time, harden the road and make it into a clear track. Then when the Romans came in 60 BC they paved many roads and also made this road into a much more accessible and modern Roman road.

And it is on this road that we have our first stop and we visit the Good Samaritan inn.

The Good Samaritan inn on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho
Khan al Hatrurah or Good Samaritan inn mosaic museum (photo credit: Immanuel Giel) Licensed use:  | no changes made

The story of the Good Samaritan

When Jesus is asked by an expert in Jewish law what one must do to get eternal life? Jesus replies with a question and asks, what is written in the law? How do you read it? And the man replied: it says in the law that you have to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says, yes, you have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.

Then the man wants to know ‘who is my neighbor’? And here Jesus replies with a parable. A parable is a simple story to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. It was very common in that time for Jewish rabbis, and Jesus was Jewish and considered a rabbi, to answer with stories. That was tradition and it was also easier to remember. Especially in a time of oral stories when many people did not know how to write.

Jesus then tells the story of a man who was traveling and he was attacked and robbed and left wounded on the side of the road. First a Jewish priest passes by but when he sees the man he avoids him. Then a Levite comes by, also a Jewish man from a religious family and ignores him. Finally a Samaritan man stops and helps the injured man. He even takes him on his donkey to an inn and pays for his stay until he recovers.

Now you have to understand that in the time of Jesus the Jewish people had a very bad relationship with the Samaritans. They were considered pagans. They were different. Jews would avoid even traveling through their territory. So when Jesus used the Samaritan as an example in this story, he did that for a reason.

Who is the neighbor ?

Now Jesus asks the man, who do you think is the neighbor? And of course the conclusion is that the man who showed mercy is the neighbor.

Now there are many different ways to interpret this story and I am not a theologian so I will leave it to everyone personally to take a lesson from it.

But this story appealed to the followers of Jesus. And since the 4th century we read about this location as being associated with this story of the Good Samaritan. Now obviously this story never really happened, right, it was a parable. But the people must have thought, well, Jesus told this story and he must have had some place in mind when telling it, it could have happened in a place like this. The road is for travelers, it is a winding road in between the hills and rocks, where robbers could easily hide.

And then we even read from the hand of Saint Jerome in 385 AD that he interprets the name Adummim as being from the Semitic root for blood and the color red, referring to the blood of victims of road robbers that was shed here in this valley.

The inn or khan for pilgrims and travelers

The early Christian pilgrims who passed here on their way from Jerusalem to the baptismal site by the Jordan river, where according to tradition Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, built here an inn, a guesthouse and a church.

And this location ever since that time remained a place where people could stay the night. There was an inn during Crusader time and the Crusaders even built a watchtower on the other side of the road for protection. You can still see the ruins of that Crusader tower today.

During the following centuries the place was used in the Islamic period as a ‘khan’, a rest place for travelers. It became known by the name Khan Hatrurah.

During the Ottoman time, in the beginning of the 20th century, the khan was renovated and the building still stands.

The British used the building during the British Mandate time that was between 1917 and 1947. They used it as a police station to control the area.

Mosaics from Gaza synagogue at Samartin inn mosaics museum

Mosaics from Gaza synagogue at mosaics museum

Mosaics of a Byzantine church

During excavations they found the mosaics of the Byzantine church. And this has become part of the museum of Mosaics that was opened here in 2010. Here you can find mosaics from the Byzantine period, which is between the fourth and seventh centuries, from churches and Jewish and Samaritan synagogues, including a synagogue that was excavated in Gaza.

Actually until today there are Palestinian professionals in mosaics. It is a very specialist work. If you see how meticulous the work is to fit all the different small pieces of stone, glass, marble and mother of pearl into a design, then you must really appreciate the result.

Mosaics Good Samaritan inn museum
Mosaics in the Good Samaritan Inn mosaics museum

Exploitation of the site

Obviously the site is in the Westbank, so in the area that is military occupied. And according to the Geneva Convention it is prohibited for the occupying power to exploit historical sites in the occupied area. But this site is run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Palestinians can buy an entrance ticket and get access to the sites in the Westbank. But if things were fair and equal and just, they’d be running these sites themselves.

Maqam Nabi Musa

Our next stop is only five minutes away at Nabi Musa. The place where Muslims venerate prophet Moses. Musa in Arabic. And Moshe in Hebrew. All three monotheistic religions value the prophets of old.

We take a road that leads us away from the highway into the desert and we all look in awe at the building that rises up in front of us. A building with beautiful domes, a small oasis in the desert. There is even a man with a camel.

Maqam shrine Nabi Musa on road Jericho
Maqam Nabi Musa in the desert on the way to Jericho

And it is quiet. Covid19 has really affected the people here. There are literally NO tourists. Right now the only visitors are locals and we haven’t seen anybody else but our group.

Kamal takes us into the courtyard of the building. It’s beautiful. These buildings date back to the Ottoman time, although the site has had a shrine and hospice since the Mamluk time in the 13th century.

In the courtyard of Maqam Nabi Musa shrine Moses
Inside Maqam Nabi Musa shrine for Moses

Moses and Mount Nebo

Moses was standing on Mount Nebo and gave his last speech, Deuteronomy. He could not enter the promised land. He repeated the law. Don’t make peace with the people of the land, fight until you get everything. Then Joshua entered the land with the people. So why is there a tomb here? It is a Muslim tradition. One explanation is that Moses so much wanted to be in the holy land that his body rolled under ground until it reached here.

Another explanation is that the holy land is Jerusalem. So he did make it until here but he did not reach Jerusalem.

The maqam, a Muslim shrine

In the time of Salaedin and later Mamluk leader Baybars, an effort was made to create Muslim religious sites. There were so many Jewish and Christian holy sites that they wanted to have more Muslim presence in the land. There were a few Muslim holy sites, mainly in Hebron and Jerusalem. Now they started to build shrines on locations where holy Muslim people visited, lived or died.

Tomb of Nabi Musa moses prophet
The tomb of prophet Moses or Nabi Musa

One tradition says that there was already a ‘khan’ here before they decided to build the tomb. Most probably this was from the Crusader period. And the pilgrims who visited were able to see Mount Nebo from here. They could look at the mountain where Moses had been. And over time the story changed from the location where they could see where Moses had been to the location where Moses had been and had died.

The khan, a place of rest for travelers

This building remained a ‘khan’ for the pilgrims and traders to make a stop. Every 18 kilometers they made these rest places where the camels could stay in the court yard to drink water and rest and the people would stay in one of the rooms surrounding the courtyard.

The festival of Nabi Musa

During the Ottoman time the Christians asked the Ottoman sultan for a favor. During the Easter week celebrations they wanted to have the city of Jerusalem to themselves. The Sultan thought about it and decided to organize a Muslim festival in the same week at Maqam Nabi Musa. This festival was not only to commemorate the prophet Moses but also all other prophets of Islam. They would stay for one week at this location. So the Christians got what they asked for.

The question may rise how it was possible that they had their feasts yearly at the same time, knowing that Christians follow the sun calendar while Muslims follow the lunar calendar. The answer is that the majority of Christians in the holy land are orthodox and the orthodox follow the Jewish lunar calendar for their holy feasts.

The festival was described by a visitor as being very colorful. Literally he said “It is everything BUT organized”

This festival kept being organized until the time of the British Mandate. Basically the new rulers were afraid of possible rebellion starting from here. After the prayers people who were coming from all over the country would have time to share their stories, including their griefs. All the revolutions in this land in the history started from Jerusalem and this is so close to Jerusalem. With so many people from all the different districts.

The British and Jordanian leaders were afraid that a revolution may start from here, so they prohibited the festival.

Guesthouse at Nabi Musam maqam prophet moses desert Jericho
The guesthouse of maqam Nabi Musa

Maqam Nabi Musa as a modern guesthouse

Since 1967 when Israel occupied this area, this place became a rehabilitation center for drug addicts.

Recently the buildings have been renovated and right now it is possible to stay here.

There are many Muslim graves close to the building. It is believed by Muslims that being buried close to a person who is considered to be holy will give you more blessings.

And then we got back on the bus to continue our trip to Jericho, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Qumran. But I will leave THAT for another episode!