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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 theDead Sea. This region lies in the rain-shadow of the central highlands, classified as a hot area that receives a very low annual rainfall, varied between 400 mm to 150 mm from west to east respectively. Given that 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 theWestern 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. Archaeological investigations have shown continuous occupation in different parts of it, extending from theLower Palaeolithicperiod 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 inPalestine.
During the early Roman era, the Herodion fortress 5 km south-east ofBethlehemcity was built by Herod the Great between 24 and 15 BC as a castle/palace complex. It dominates the landscape of el-Bariyah as well as overlooks the Wadi Khareitoun immediately to the south. The complex was built on a conical hill shaped and secured by the erection of massive retaining walls. This artificial mound was equipped with a sophisticated fortification system, including an elaborate water supply. Subsequently, Byzantine monks turned the fortress into a monastery in the 6-7th centuries AD, and built churches around its base.
Throughout the history of the Holy Land, whenever people fled civilization, el-Bariyah was the ideal place to take refuge – or, as Jesus himself experienced during his ‘40 days and 40 nights’, simply to meditate. After the growth of Christianity, hermits began to inhabit the caves of el-Bariyah and built a series of monasteries which subsequently formed a monastic centre. These monasteries are outstanding features of a prosperous monastic life, some of them associated with events related to Jesus or to monks who played crucial roles in the development of the monastic movement. Such were Saint Chariton andSaba. By the time of Saba (439-532), founder of the great monastery of Mar Saba, 73 monastic settlements lay in the desert east ofJerusalem. Some were later rebuilt, including Saint George Monastery, Deir Mar Saba and Deir Theodosios. During the Islamic period, a series of shrines, maqams, were established in el-Bariyah, such as Khan el-Ahmar and Maqam an-Nabi Musa. These sites are important places on the Muslim pilgrimage route toMecca(see numbers 9 and 18 below).
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.
The exceptional significance of el-Bariyah in cultural terms stems from diverse facts, themselves reflecting massive changes in natural conditions. Long before it became a desert, El-Bariyah witnessed domestic fire in use in one of its prehistoric caves, the earliest such use so far attested in Palestine; long-term, extensive grazing both exploited the flora and helped create today’s seemingly bare, stony surface on which Bedouin still feed their flocks in a notable example of continuity demonstrating cause and effect; Herod built his remarkable site Herodion to dominate it strategically; its attractions as a hostile, lonely desert brought first Jesus then, growing out of an eremitic tradition, a remarkable concentration of early Christian/Byzantine monasteries. Later, continuing its religious associations, it was crossed by Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca.
criterion (i) Several factors in el-Bariyah justify the use of this criterion: the domestication of fire in the prehistoriccaveofUmm Qatafa, the building-up of a large scale artificial fortification mound at Herodion, and the inhabited landscape of desert monasteries. These three features represent human creative genius, showing how people adjusted the natural components to serve their own needs while at the same time adapting to a difficult and hostile environment.
criterion (ii) During the Byzantine period, el-Bariyah became one of the most important monastic centres in the world. The monasteries proved an attraction for men of an ascetic disposition from a wide area; they temporarily or permanently stayed to devote their lives to religious practice within the communal life of a monastery. In their building, their teaching and their missionaries, the monasteries developed as centres for the interchange of various human values on developments in architecture, technology, culture, science and education. ‘The desert monks [of el-Bariyah] were intensely involved in all the major politico-religious movements of their time. From among them came poets, historians, and great theologians whose writings had incalculable influence’.
criterion (iii) Deir Mar Saba, built 439-53 AD and still a living monastery in 2005, provides an exceptional testimony to a 1500 year-old cultural tradition developed by and within the particular environment of el-Bariyah, the Judean Desert. It is one of the most architecturally significant monasteries of el-Bariyah, one which has been repeatedly adjusted structurally yet remains beautiful and spectacular as it clings to the cliffs of the Kidron valley.
Some archaeological sites of el-Bariyah, such as Herodion and prehistoric caves of Wadi Khareitoun, were excavated last century. These sites, so far, have maintained their authenticity of materials, design and workmanship to a great extent The majority of worship and other sacred places in el-Bariyah are owned by the Christian Churches and by the Islamic Waqf (foundation), and therefore their protection was entrusted to these institutions. The spontaneous restorations carried out in these sites, while, performed in good faith, but lacks the technical supervision.
Basically, the intention is that, in future, the authenticity and integrity of the cultural and natural heritage of el-Bariyah will be assured by the National authorities using the tools provided by Palestinian law and management; and by related institutions, as well as the religious foundations.
The heritage of el-Bariyah is in a general sense sui generis in that its location to a large extent makes it unique because of its proximity to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Rift Valley and the Dead Sea. Such location makes it different from any similar area in the World, in particular because that proximity has strongly influenced its associative value, not least with Jesus. Of course, however, there are not dissimilar deserts and monasteries elsewhere in the world. In the case of the latter, for example, similar monasteries exist in theSinaiDesert, such as Saint Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai (founded by Emperor Justinian the Great in 560) and the Monastery of Studion in Constantinople (founded in 463).