“El-Bariyah” The Wilderness: Palestine’s New Ancient Destination

El-Bariyah, also called the ‘Jerusalem Wilderness’ or the ‘Judean Desert’, is a semi-arid zone that extends between the central hills of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron on the west and the Dead sea on the east.

Today, El-Bariyah is one among twenty sites that are nominated to be enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is proposed as an important cultural landscape due to its strategic location – in the Holy Land and on the Rift Valley – its conditions, qualities and associations notably with Jesus and significant early Christians.

Most of the el-Bariyah area is classified as Irano-Turanian in climate, with a mountainous desert habitat. Essentially a treeless, thin-soiled, arid and dramatically eroding limestone plateau is dissected by wadi draining towards the Dead Sea. This region lies in the rain-shadow of the central highlands, from south east of Bethlehem to the regions of the south of Hebron. It can be reached either by Bethlehem district or from the south side of the Dead Sea region and go up to the high mountain and then to this wonderful area. This area is contact with Ain Gedi region from the southern eastern part region of the West Bank.

This area has a unique geological formation, bio-geographic location, and an abundance of water from flash floods and permanent springs, these factors help to create a natural diversity within the desert habitat in this region.

El-Bariyah is consequently classified by the criteria of Birdlife international as one of the most important Bird Areas in the Western Palaearctic. Birds increasingly concentrate here in considerable numbers during breeding, on passage, and in winter, especially since el-Bariyah is on one of the major migration routes for many bird species worldwide.

El-Bariyah is also rich in cultural heritage. Archeological investigations have shown continuous occupation in different parts of it, extending from the Lower Palaeolithic period to modern times. Evidence of habitation in early prehistoric times (100,000-10.000 BC) is particularly well-attested along the north side of Wadi Khareitun where three caves, “Iraq al-Ahmar, Umm Qal’a, and Umm Qatafa’, once provided homes in a wooded landscape overlooking a river. Umm Qatafa, across the wadi opposite ‘ Old Laura’ monastery, has a particular significance in providing the earliest evidence of the domestic use of fire in Palestine.

In the 1st Century BC, Herod built his remarkable site Herodion – a large scale artificial fortification mound – to dominate El-Bariyah area strategically.

During the Early Christianity/Byzantine period, El-Bariyah became one of the most important monastic centers in the world.

Monastic life

For the first monks who followed in the footsteps of Jesus, the severe climate here was a real test of their faith. Until the fourth century, Christian monastic centres existed mainly in Asia Minor and Egypt.

On a quest for perfection and renouncing material possessions, ascetic monks from all over the Christian world settled in caves suspended on the sides of the cliffs of gorges (wadis) in the desert. Choosing a life of solitude, they met only for Sunday mass and a dominical meal thereafter.

These coenobitic communities welcomed pilgrims and travellers and actually grew very prosperous. The great figures of monasticism, such as Euthymius, Sabas, and Theodosious, to mention just the well – known monks, lived in the Judaean desert and played an influential role in the development of Christian liturgy and dogma; it was due to them that western monasticism developed. On the night of the Sassanian (Persian) invasion, in 614, there were no less than 10.000 monks living in the Judaean desert. Yet only three of the first monasteries are still active nowadays – the Monastery of Saint Theodosius, Mar Saba to the west of Bethlehem, and the Monastery of Saint George in Wadi Qelt.


The Bedouin tribes are an important part of the Palestinian heritage as they have roamed Palestine for thousands of years. The Bedouin tribes are spread throughout El-Bariyah as the area is rich in natural resources, such as water and grazing land, as well as many caves which have served as Bedouin shelters for millennia. This land has also been reasonably far from human civilization. Traditionally, the Bedouin tribes have led a nomadic life, moving to the hills in early April and back down to the valleys in early September to escape the weather.

The Bedouin Encampments

Meetings and visits to Bedouin encampments are organized by the Arab al-Jahalin charity, an association in al –Azariya (Bethany) which also shows the documentary film “Jahalin”.





The animals of this area:

The most important animals of this area are: Capra ibex, Gazella, Rocky Hyrax, Fox, Hyeana.

The birds of this region:

The Large Raptors especially the Egyptian Vulture is one of the birds found in this region and stays and breads in it. There is also the Griffon Vulture that can be found around Al Fashkha on the Dead Sea.

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