Israel: Off-Roading in the Judean Desert And Mar Saba Monastery

This past weekend, we went on an off roading trip to see the incredible Mar Saba Monastery in the middle of the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. We started at 8am and headed into the Desert in an area the IDF uses to practice military tactics. I had never gone on an off-roading trip before I met Ofir, but now I’ve grown to like them, even though I feel a bit like a scrambled egg by the end.

Our breakfast stop offered a great view of the Dead Sea and the company of some Bedouin boys on their donkeys, probably shepherding family flocks. As we headed out from breakfast, we ran into a herd of camels chilling on the mountainside. They let us come right up to them, even the two babies who were hanging out.

I’ve learned that some of the best off-roading spots in the desert are dry river beds of rivers that only run when the rains come. Drivers run a risk in these areas though, since storms can blow in with little warning and, because of how dry the ground is, the river beds go from empty to raging river in literally minutes, sometimes catching jeeps in the current. Luckily our day was dry and sunny and no storms caught us unaware.

One strange thing we noticed any time we got out of the jeep was how many white snails were EVERYWHERE all over the ground. At first we thought that they were dead, empty shells, but then we realized (unfortunately by crushing one ugh) that they’re actually alive, just hidden in their shells. With the help of my good friend Wikipedia, I learned that these snails are super well adapted to living in the desert. Their shells are white to reflect the sun and keep their temperature as low as possible. During dry times, they “aestivate” or build a barrier to the entrance of their shell to keep water from escaping and lay dormant, sometimes for years. When rains come, they break through the barrier and go about their little lives before going back to dormancy. Apparently a lot of people take the shells home thinking they’re empty and get a serious surprise if they’re exposed to water.

After we stopped for lunch we had a short delay due to some camels blocking our way through a canyon, since apparently that’s a thing that happens. We made it through, though, and entered the last leg of our journey to the monastery, arriving just before sunset.

The monastery lies across the canyon from Israeli land, in the Palestinian territory. It’s been there for more than a thousand years though, and the land belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, not Israel or the PA. While there used to be hundreds of monks living in the monastery, now there’s about 12. There is no electricity or heat there, though they do have running water. They also eat very little, and no meat or eggs.


As you can see from the pictures, stairs are built around the monastery into the cliff, and these stairs provide access to numerous caves. Some caves are used for storage, others are used by the monks to seclude themselves for a full year, during which they have no human contact and spend their days praying and reaching a higher level of spirituality.

The wall around the monastery was built around 600AD to protect from invading Arabs. Apparently it worked, because the monastery remains in amazing condition. Seeing it across the canyon I honestly felt like I had walked into an episode of Game of Thrones. I unfortunately haven’t been able to make it to Petra yet for obvious reasons, but this was a great stand in for now.

We finished our trip just after sunset and drove back to Tel Aviv. One thing that makes Israel so incredible is how different the regions are despite being such a small country. From the desert in the south to the beach metropolis of Tel Aviv to the green mountains of the north, you can experience every kind of landscape and climate in one day here. In the next couple months there will probably be snow in the north while it will still be hot only a few hours away in the south. If you’re in Israel and interested in taking an off-roading trip, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with our awesome guide Noam.

Yesterday I cooked Thanksgiving dinner, which is extra hard in Israel because you have to find all the ingredients. But, thankfully (lol) it turned out great! I plan to do a post on how to celebrate your homeland’s holidays in your new country, so keep an eye out! Happy belated Turkey day everybody!


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