Horseback Riding and Camping in the Judaean Desert

One weekend, Khadija and I met my friend Mohammed in Bethlehem and drove out to the Judean desert. Near the Mar Saba monastery, we met Abu and two other friendly Bedouin men, Feris and Mohammed (not to be confused with my friend Mohammed). We mounted our horses and rode out into the Judaean wilderness. Yalla!

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My trusty steed, Hassan

Confusingly, one of the horses, a mare, was also named Feris. I rode Hassan, a beautiful brown Arabian horse. We rode through the rocky hills until we could see Bethlehem behind us. A little further and we began to see Jerusalem in the distance.

As we pressed on, we began to see the Dead Sea and Jordan across the water. The swirling sunset made everything look pink. After two hours of riding, we arrived at our campsite, a flat-topped hill, from where we could see the lights of Amman and the city of Salt.

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Misty sunset over the Dead Sea

As night fell, Abu began to make a fire and cut up vegetables. He cooked for an hour while we set up ‘camp’–  a simple tarp and a few blankets. He prepared a few vegan dishes for us that we ate with fire-grilled pita and sugary sage tea. The temperature dropped quickly, but the spicy vegetables melted in my mouth and kept me warm.

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Abu making dinner on the fire

Mohammed and the Bedouin sang some Arabic songs around our campfire while we drank tea. Once the wind picked up and we’d finished the tea, we put the fire out and huddled all together until we fell asleep. It was only about 10pm, but felt like at least 1am — we were all exhausted and my legs were still a little shaky from riding.

In the middle of the night, Abu screamed something, and I woke up confused, Mohammed grabbed Khadija and I and we ran from our tarp. Hassan had gotten loose and was running across camp towards Feris, the mare, and we were in his way. Barefoot, Abu was trying to hold Hassan back, but Hassan was fully erect and rearing, up on his hind legs, advancing towards Feris, who was cornered and hissing. Backing up, we nearly tripped over the edge of the hill!

Feris was bucking and kicking at Hassan, but somehow Abu managed to tie him up and calm them both down,

Since we were awake, we took our flashlights and wandered around the hill. It was probably 3 or 4 in the morning, chilly but the wind had strangely stopped. It was completely silent other than the sound of our horses gently breathing.

The hillside was steep, but we, carefully, holding hands, descended. We found a cave — and that’s when things got really strange.

The entrance was a small hole, we crawled into a room with a low-ceiling, which had another hole for a door, deeper into the hillside. We crawled on our bellies through the hole, which opened up to a larger room, with a ceiling high enough that we could stand. The room was strangely hot.. and then we realized it full of bones!

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Super creepy!

There has been human civilization in the Judaean desert for thousands of years, who knows how old these bones were. They certainly weren’t fresh! There were at least 30 skeletons in the cave, but there were no skulls, only bottom jaws. Abu told us that this desert was part of King Herod’s empire, and when we got back to our campsite, he showed us some mosaic tiles he’d found.

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Perhaps a tibia?

We climbed back up to our site, and talked for a while under the stars, which shined brightly above us. The lights of Amman had mostly turned off, and we drifted back to sleep under the swirling Andromeda galaxy.

In the morning, only a few hours later, we woke up to the blazing sunrise. Some of our blankets had blown away in the night, but we didn’t need them anymore!

Abu whipped up some potatoes and grilled pita that we ate with mangos and a strange white melon, which was drippingly ripe. We sat on the edge of the hill, just taking in the view. It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.

We packed up, and rode about 2 hours back to the Mar Saba monastery, along the canyon walls. From the trail, we could hear the river bubbling below, and birds calling as they flew in formation up around the canyon. In the canyon walls were caves, clearly carved out by humans– ancient Nabatean homes.

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The Kidron Valley. Notice the Nabatean cave-homes on the left face.

I’m not afraid of heights, but it was definitely a little dangerous, the horses seemed to like to walk close to the edge for some reason. I looked out into the distance where the hills of the Kidron Valley continued into the horizon.

We finally arrived back at the Mar Saba monastery, our journey was over. This Greek Orthodox Monastery is one of the longest consistently-functioning Monasteries in the world– why they chose to build it in the middle of NOWHERE in the desert, I can’t tell you. But it’s gorgeous (no pun intended).

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View over Mar Saba Monastery and the surrounding trails

Unfortunately for my friend Khadija, the monastery is men-only, but luckily, they let us both use the toilet before we headed back to Jerusalem. Toilets are something I realized I take for granted. In the desert, there’s no privacy!

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Instagram @tristans_expeditions for more photos.

 

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