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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Forsaken Desert

Mount of Temptation (Mons Excelsus/Mons Quarantania) Uppsala Map of Jerusalem. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I was sixteen when my family arrived in Arad, a small town south-east of Beer Sheva in the mountains above the Dead Sea. It was starkly different from any place I had known or lived in previously, and so it was an appropriate introduction to the completely new direction my life had taken. In my spare time between Ulpan classes, I occasionally walked out into the desert. I dared not go too far as it was so frighteningly empty. In a way it reminded me of hiking on a track along the edge of a rainforest: the same fear to go too deeply into the wild, accompanied by a desire to do so and to lose oneself in its embrace. A short walk and the town was behind me and I was on a descent of the mountain overlooking the vast wilderness of barren hills rolling down to the distant miragelike shimmer of the salt lake. It does not take much in a setting such as this to see visions, and it is easy to understand how miracles might take place, how one might find oneself hearing voices when in the utter silence and heat a faint breeze rattles dry thornbushes or upturned flint stones tumble down the hillside. Once I encountered a snake that sent a shiver through my soul, once a pair of fighter jets came swooping low over the hills, filling my ears with their thundering roar that had me cowering in terror, then racing back to the safety of civilisation, my heart pounding in my chest.

Overlooking Jericho at the top of Mount Quarantania (Arabic, Jabal al-Quruntul or Jabal al-Arba'ein جبل الأربعين‎, Duk or Dyuk) was the Hashmonaean fortress of Dok (Docus). It was here that Simon, the last of the Maccabean brothers, and his sons Mattathias and Judah were slain at a banquet by Simon's son-in-law Ptolemy in 135 BC (Maccabees 16.15). Josephus Flavius referred to the fortress as Dagon (Antiquities of the Jews 13:8), but perhaps the mountain is best known, at least since the fourth century AD, as the Mount of Temptation where, according to Matthew 4:8, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13, Jesus was tempted by the devil, and its name in the various languages signifies the forty days of the temptation. Medieval pilgrims made their way here and the mountain with its three chapels was on one of the principal pilgrimage routes of the Holy Land, the route that led from the Gate of Jehoshaphat in Jerusalem's eastern wall to the Tomb of the Virgin, Gethsemane, Bethpage, Bethany, the Inn of the Good Samaritan and the Place of Baptism on the River Jordan. This stark rock was for Western visitors an awe-inspiring place. This is how the German pilgrim Theoderich, who visited Mons Quarantania in c.1169, described it:

At the end of this wilderness is a terrible mountain, very lofty, and so precipitous as to be almost inaccessible, which, while it rears its huge peak above, yawns with a deep and gloomy valley below. This place the laity call Quarantana, and we may call Quadragena, because it was here that our Lord sat fasting for forty days and forty nights.*

Today, halfway up the mountain is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation, initially a Byzantine laura (cluster of cells, chapel, and refectory of hermits) established by Saint Chariton in c. 340 AD. The laura of Douka was probably abandoned at the time of the Persian invasion of 614, but by the Crusader period the caves were once again occupied, this time by a small community of Latin hermits who in 1134 came under the custody of the canons of the Holy Sepulchre. A new church was built, and Theoderich records various altars, a small chapel and the tomb of a saint whose relic he gruesomely describes: "a certain saint by the name of Piligrinus, whose hand, still covered with flesh, is shown here."**

Other than a handful of Latin monks in similar isolated hermitages, the Franks avoided the desert. It was regarded as a place to pass through and guard over, not to live in. There were the desert fortresses of OutreJourdan: Kerak, Montreal, Li Vaux Moise, and some settlements in their vicinity, but these seem to have been more of a necessity than a desire. East of the southern Mediterranean coast and south of the Hebron Hills, the land was entirely empty of a Frankish presence. For Europeans it was a harsh and frightening place and only sanctity drew to it those more resolute pilgrims.

* Theoderich, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, pp. 46-7

** Ibid., p. 47. For a detailed description of the site and sources relating to it see Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, vol. I, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 252-58.

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