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Adventure in Wadi Khreitoun

Contributed by Paltour news on 20.10.2006:

by Leyla Zuaiter

At 8 am on a June morning, the couple dozen students participating in the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS) Summer Camp are already on the bus. With them are Emad Atrash, Executive Director, in his Palestine Wildlife Society T-shirt and matching cap and Ibrahim Odeh, Educational Awareness Officer.

We take the YMCA Road out of Beit Sahour. In a matter of minutes we have passed the last house, and the landscape is already segueing into desert, setting the atmosphere for the adventure to come. For Emad has wasted no time introducing the campers to the accompanying adults and has launched into outlining the program for the day. We will walk 3 kilometers to get to the Hanging Cave of Chariton, stopping en route to sketch in nature. Although Emad and Ibrahim have explored up to 350 meters of the cave, 150 is enough for us. Metric measurements—if truth be told any measurements–do not compute with me, so I have no idea how much this is—which is perhaps just as well. At points we will have to crawl on our bellies. My imagination has been recently fired up by various readings about the cave and I am already wondering how I will get out of doing this part. My desire to see Wadi Khreitoun has caused the field-trip to be changed from a less demanding spot closer by, and postponed a day because of a heat wave. Surely I will have to pay the piper!

Emad now gives us some safety precautions. “At 6:30 this morning a snake was killed in my street,” he begins conversationally, “Of the 37 species of snake in Palestine, 9 are poisonous. In the Wadi Khreiton area, three are poisonous and two are fatal.” I must ask about the distinction between poisonous and fatal, I tell myself, but Emad isn’t through. “If we all stay together, there is nothing to fear,” he explained. “Snakes are afraid of noise. It’s only stragglers that need to worry.” Although I definitely fall into the straggler category, not having had any up close and personal experiences with snakes, I am not particularly afraid of them.

Before we know it, Herodium, the flat-topped mountain in which are found the remains of Herod’s Palace, appears on the left. Better known to Palestinians as Jebel Ferdous “Paradise Mountain” or Jebel Al Afrank, “The Mountain of the Franks,” for its association with the Crusaders, it is set off by hilly scrubland, some sparsely planted olive groves and clumps of houses. This is Zaatara. Emad points out the rows of broken columns which once formed part of a Roman Forum. It doesn’t occur to me at the time to wonder what a Roman Forum would be doing out here in the desert, but I will leave that mystery for another day. But on the other hand, if there is a palace in a desert mountain, why not a forum in the plain?

On the right, we see the town of Bethlehem from afar cradled between the valleys. I try to imagine how this sight appeared over the centuries to the Ta’amre Bedouin from the area. They and the Ibn Ubeid, near Ebediyeh, built their first stone buildings in 1950, but are mostly settled now.

Emad points out that we are now driving on a new by-pass road for three Israeli settlements in the area. Just in front of us is the turn off for the settlement of Tekoa. Amos is also close by. The Palestinian village of Tekoa, which has Roman and Byzantium ruins, and from which Bethlehemites from the Qawawseh Quarter hail, is further up the Road. The bus stops here in front of a forested area. It belongs to Daoud el Zeir, a former member of the legislative council. It is one of the forests planted by the British, one bright spot in an otherwise painful legacy.

Something told me that my normal flimsy walking shoes would not be enough today and that it was time to ferret out my red suede training shoes from the recesses of my closet and Something was right. For we immediately begin walking in the wadi, parallel to the forest: my feet have remembered what my mind hasn’t: a wadi is a dry river bed, full of stones of all shapes and sizes and sturdy shoes are essential to enjoy it properly. To our right, the forest is proud and majestic above the craggy rock faces, and on our left, Ta’amre youth from Za’atareh are perched high above us on perilous precipices, watching our progress. Emad stops and sets up his tripod with the banana-shaped telescope: he has spotted a Little Owl, but someone carts off the telescope to get a closer look before I have a chance to see.

Emad picks a branch of a low mound of small purple flowers. This plant, known locally as zuheif, belonging to the Mediterranean Ecosystem, is rare in that it flowers in summer. It belongs to the same family as za’ater, variously called Hyssop or Oregano, which forms part of the fragrant spice mixture present at every Palestinian breakfast. Bees like it, so we might see some hives, he tells us.

Though we hear the droning of other insects, we don’t see any hives, but there are tiny blue butterflies flitting about, as if the zuheif flowers have taken wing. The purple zuheif adds a subtle tang to the taste of tan landscapes all along the way, and releases a heady scent when stepped on.

As for wildlife, aside from snakes, we might see wolves, hyena, deer or a red fox. I wonder how the students will react if we do, so excited are they at the moment by the sight of a black and white cat disappearing behind a crack in the craggy rock face.

Lo! Up ahead are some rectangular doorways in man-cut stone on a narrow ledge halfway up the rock face. “Are we there already?” I wonder. Little do I know that we have not even begun. We leave the wadi and scamper up in the pine forest to the right, finding places to sit on the natural rock bleachers. The doorways, which have been renovated, used to be the province of Bedouin, not monks, Ibrahim tells us, before delving further into the wadi’s past. For it was also home to Stone Age Man, and traces of the first fire were found in one of its caves. Last week a fossilized skeleton was found in one of the caves, Ya’coub Atrash, an amateur archeologist adds, but the people who found it did not know its value and broke it.

Soon we are up and walking on a narrow path parallel to canyons and caverns, at a vertiginous height above the wadi. At one time it carried water all the way to the Dead Sea. Two Eagle Owls chase each other over deep gulches before disappearing into the canyons beyond. A refreshing breeze blows unexpectedly. We come across a cave with a man-made arched doorway. The little sparrows inside turn out to be little bats. Yacoub picks up some small square stones off the ground and a piece of pottery. The small square stones are mosaics, evidence that there was a church nearby, he explains. Soon we are at the lone surviving wall of a Byzantine ruin. We have to squeeze together on the ground to all fit in its shade. After we eat our sandwiches and some crunchy fresh Faqqous—a kind of crisp cucumber for which Beit Sahour is renowned, Ibrahim passes out paper and pencils and asks everyone to sketch the wall of the ruin. But when he collects the papers not everyone has followed instructions. One girl has drawn the Dome of the Rock in an eye—that’s the closest she’ll get to seeing it because of quite a different wall. More than one has drawn caricatures of Ibrahim—with or without the wall. Soon we are on our way again. On an on we go passing more caves. A flock of rock pigeons flies suddenly out of a canyon in the distance, like a spray of confetti.

When we finally reach our destination, I am surprised that it is not one of the caves across the canyon but right here. I find a sliver of shade while I wait to go in with the second group. The real adventure starts almost immediately. Long thin white candles have been placed at strategic points in natural niches. The students in front of me are already walking bent over with their own candles. “Why candles and not flashlights?” I ask. “When the candle extinguishes it is a sign that the oxygen has run out,” they tell me. Oh. I knew that! It isn’t too long before we get to the Cathedral Chamber.The name is fitting since this cave was the home of Chariton, one of the earliest practicioners of Desert Monastacism. In the early fourth century, he established the“Souka” monastery and organized the dwellings of the monks according to the design of a market, or souk. Perhaps it was from this monastery, which continued to function up until the 13th century, that the mosaic pieces I collected were from?

Ibrahim points out the thick old ropes placed on the ground to guide people back out. There are many passageways, and it would be only too easy to take a wrong turn. I try not to straggle too much because I am not carrying a candle myself. I find the rest of the group cozily ensconced in another low passageway which gets progressively lower, awaiting their turn to slither on their bellies into another passageway. The moment of truth has arrived—but quickly passes. Relieved that no one insists that I do any slithering myself, I am content to sit on the ground with the others and share the moment. But after a while, thoughts of oxygen make me feel restless and I start to follow some students out of the cave. I try unsuccessfully to take photos of the eerie beauty of the candles in groups of twos and threes set around the cave. Suddenly I find myself completely alone in the middle of the cave. The rope turns into a snake. Unwilling to go on alone, I go back to the comforting voices of the students seated in the passage and wait for them to leave. Rope or no rope, I almost make a wrong turn.

Back in the sunshine, we retrace our steps for a bit and go down a level where a dry waterfall has left white traces on the rock face. A fig tree is growing right out of it half way up. There is a rectangular hole cut into the rock at our feet which holds water filled with tiny clover-like leaves—duck weed. We glimpse the Dead Sea through the cleft of two canyons. It is almost one o’clock. Time to head back. “Do we really have to walk all the way back?” I can’t help asking. I can walk a long way to get somewhere. It’s the thought of walking back that gets me. For I have run out of water, and it seems that everyone else has too. “Why can’t the bus meet us at that road we saw next to here?” I tell myself that the bus will meet us there and that they are only playing a trick on us by saying we have to walk back. But when they say it’s a settler road, I know I am going to have to walk all the way back. “This is a trip for Spring or Autumn—not Summer,” Abeer Abbed Rabbo, from the Ministry of Tourism opines as I huff and puff next to her. And I feel slightly guilty for having hijacked her and these youngsters to this spot—but not too guilty—because I know that like me, the youngsters will cherish the memory of the day. Abeer perks up. She has spotted a red fox! And there is a reprieve after all since we do not retrace our steps in the wadi, but go the other way among the shady, scented pine groves. The bus–and water– is waiting for us.

For photos to accompany this article, see series on under: Photography> Local >Nature. Photos begin here:

This article first appeared in Paltournews 12 June/July 2006

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