The Valley of Hinnom

An authentic Jordanian bunker, ancient cemeteries everywhere, a mysterious monastery, rappelling, many groves and much greenery – Welcome to the Hinnom Valley paradise on earth

A Tour in Guy Ben Hinnom is a short, beautiful location which is suitable for the young and the old where the border between Israel and Jordan used to be until 1967.

We will begin our tour in the valley beneath the Sultan’s Pool, in the area near the Cinematheque and Mount Zion Hotel, to the south-west of the Old City walls. The route, including the park on Mount Zion and the Abbey of the Dormition and its clock tower, is visible from the rooftop observatory of the Mount Zion Hotel.

We will walk the few yards from the hotel to Bethlehem Road and make our way northwards to the Sultan’s Pool where we will turn right (under the Bnei Brit bridge) near the Cinematheque to the wadi. We will then turn right and make our way southwards. Above us we will see the wheels of an authentic cable car carriage that remains from the 1948 War of Independence when the Jews defending the city commissioned an engineer to lay a cable across the Valley, connecting to the yard of the Bet Hatzvi School on Mount Zion. The cable was lowered to the ground during the day in order to keep it out of sight, and only used at night to transfer the wounded to hospital and supplies to Mount Zion.

The Karaite cemetery

We will continue southwards, and there, on the slope, amid olive and oak trees lies the Karaite cemetery. The Karaites, also known as “the sons of the Bible”, came to Jerusalem in the 10th century A.D., about 200 years after the original community was founded in Babylon. The Karaites built a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter in the 16th century which still exists there today.

Nowadays, the centre of Karaism is to be found in Ramle but the few remaining members of the community are still being buried in the Hinnom Valley cemetery which, although slightly neglected, has some poetic, sometimes very amusing, inscriptions on the tombs, such as that of a person who was “bitten by a dog or a Karaite”, killed in World War I or “rendered miserable by his wife and the rest of his household”.
The Old City of Jerusalem has been surrounded by cemeteries ever since the era of the 1st Temple. That chain of cemeteries is called the Jerusalem Necropolis - the Greek term meaning city of the dead. The Jewish faith does not allow for burial within the city walls - and all the more so in Jerusalem – and, therefore, in order to discover the world of the dead, the living must go beyond the walls of the holy city.

Rappelling and climbing in the heart of the city

We leave the Karaite cemetery and continue eastwards, passing along the bottom of the slope on which the Mount Zion Hotel sits. Looking up the hill, you can see people rappelling and rock climbing amid the cyclamen.

The path we take is one recommended by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. We walk along the wadi through the many blossoming groves, terraces and burial caves of Hinnom Valley.

Most of the caves are from the period of the 1st Temple and they mostly have an ossuary – a pit where the bones were placed – in their center.
The neighborhood on the right, to the south, above the cliff is Abu Tor through the center of which the Israeli-Jordanian border ran between 1948 and 1967. The neighborhood is named after one of Saladin’s officers who liked to ride his donkey here.

Hell must be here

Already as we left the Cinematheque, we could see Mount Zion across the wadi to the east and to the north, and the Arab village of Silwan (the City of David) and the Mount of Olives to the west. After a few more minutes of walking, we will come across a small square fortified building.

This is a Jordanian bunker from the Six Day War. If you look to your north east, you will see the El Aksa Mosque on the southern part of the Temple Mount. We could continue from here and go down the newly-repaired Byzantine steps into the wadi but we will continue to walk above it until we reach the ruins of a Crusader building below us on the left. This is what the French call a “charnier”. It was built by the Crusaders and some of it has survived, including the roof with holes in it.

This was the first Crusader cemetery in Jerusalem. It is an ossuary where, gruesome as it may sound, Christian pilgrims were buried if they happened to die here. Their bodies were simply thrown into the building underneath the holes in the roof and left there. We will go down to the building and see its great arches and then backtrack a bit to go down the marked path into the wadi that is filled with olive trees.

3000 years ago, a copper stature of Moloch apparently stood near where we are now. People in the area sacrificed their firstborn sons to him and the Bible even states that some of the Judean kings, such as Achaz, did so too. It is written in Chronicles II, Chapter 28 that Achaz displeased God and sacrificed his son to the Canaanite God. “Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem but he did not that which was right in the sight of the Lord, like David his father. For he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and made also molten images for Baalim. Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast our before the children of Israel.”

It is possible that the Hell that was here is what gave the wadi its name, Hinnom Valley, also called the Valley of the Inferno in the Bible. The Bavli Talmud also mentions three openings to Hell, one of them being Jerusalem. Could it be here? If so, the beautiful views are deceptive.

The area is also deeply connected to the story in the New Testament about Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and turned him over to the Roman soldiers. The story tells that Judas received 30 silver shekels in exchange for his deed. In one version he bought the land we are now standing on, and in another version he returned the money and committed suicide when he realized his error.

That is the reason that the area is still today called “the field of blood”: “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying “I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood”. And they said, “what is that to us? See thou to that”. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said “it is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood”. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, the field of blood, unto this day” (Matthew 27).

A monastery on a hillside

Nearby is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Onuphrius which was built in 1892 and named after a 4th century hermit in Sinai described as having a long beard. If we ring on the doorbell, the courteous English-speaking nuns will open the gate and we will be able to see the courtyard with its impressive beautifully preserved burial chambers. In the interior courtyard, inside the ancient burial caves, are the bones of the monks who once lived here. The entire area in and around the monastery is full of impressive burial caves. We end our tour in Yehoshafat valley near the City of David and the Kidron River.