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Ancient Christian Monastery Back on Pilgrims’ Track

New road paves way for pilgrims to St. George’s Monastery in the Judean desert after original path was destroyed by earthquake and flood

One of the world’s most ancient Christian sites has now been re-linked with civilization after Israel reconstructed a road to the cliffhanging St. George Monastery in a steep Judean Desert canyon.

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony bringing Greek Orthodox clergy in flowing robes together with short-sleeved bureaucrats from the capital, a new asphalt road was dedicated that would let pilgrims return to the desert attraction.

St.-George Monastery, carved out of the cliff face by monks in the fifth century, had been a popular pilgrimage site as Christians believe it was built around a cave where the prophet Elijah sought shelter. But the visits by pilgrims and tourists came to an abrupt halt three years ago after an earthquake weakened the road and subsequent floods washed it away.

Greek Orthodox officials and priests clearly elated with the new passage, but declined to talk to the media. One pilgrim said he was on hand “to celebrate, to celebrate that once again we are free to come to this sacred place.”

The monastery is located some 20 kilometers east of Jerusalem along the Roman-era road to the biblical town of Jericho. While under Israeli legal jurisdiction, it was unusual for government ministries to undertake projects in the area, acquired by Israel in the 1967 war.

However, the Tourism Ministry said they cooperated with the Transport Ministry and Civil Administration to improve access to the site at the request of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III.

The work included laying drainage pipes to prevent future washouts and the addition of safety handrails on access steps to the monastery.

 “We all need to work together. We want Israelis, Palestinians and everyone to come. This is the Holy Land. It is for everyone. If you have tourism you have no terrorism,” Rafi Ben-Hur, the deputy director general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, told The Media Line.

“This is unprecedented, for the Ministry of Tourism to build a road but this was such an important place for tourist, Christian pilgrims and visitors that we felt we must,” Ben-Hur added.

The cliff-hanging complex lies deep in a desert canyon surrounded by a lush garden of trees fed by a hidden spring. Tourists and pilgrims made their descent along the renovated passage amid the cacophony of church bells and donkey braying echoing off the rock wall.

The blinding desert sun beating down like a stadium floodlight disappeared once visitors were able to enter the site’s thick walls. Inside the compound, the aroma of incense filled the air while the smoke wafted towards the heavens.

Ever since Moses and Elijah communed with God in the wilderness, people have sought out the purifying solitude of the desert.

That is what inspired a few monks who sought the desert experiences of the prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus, and settled in the Jordan valley east of Jerusalem. Around the cave where they believed Elijah was fed by ravens for three years (1 Kings 17:5-6) and built the monastery to honor this place in the sixth-century.

The monastery was named after St. George, a pious hermit, whose skeletal remains are on display in a glass coffin in a back corner just off the main chapel along with the skulls of monks martyred by the Persians in the seventh century.

The many pious Greek Orthodox priest seemed unfazed by the suns heat in their all black robes and head garb. Despite the arduous descent and their heavy golden medallions, the priest stood erect and proud as they directed tours through the monastery’s grounds. When the Priests tour guide duties were through they were happy to switch roles and were gladly offering rides in tractors for those guest unable or unwilling to make the steep trek back to the main road.