Mount Montar and Mar Saba – in the Footsteps of Seir L’azazel

Get there with Google MapsGet there with WazeGet there with Moovit
Trail MapHike it with Google EarthTerrain View
Distance: 16.5kmTime: 5-7 hoursDifficulty: Strenuous
Ascent: 558m

Click here to go straight to hike notes.

One of the nicest things about living in Israel is the Jewish holiday season.

In many other countries, the biggest holiday celebrations occur around Christian holidays.  So as a Jew living in Israel, it’s quite special to experience the chagim (Jewish Holidays) as a national celebration.  During the high holidays in Israel, we see sales on honey and apples instead of on Halloween costumes and candy.  The atmosphere is one of shared introspection, atonement, and then celebration.

But that’s not the only nice thing about Jewish holidays in the Holy Land.  Here in Israel, one can actually visit the places where ceremonial events took place on the high holidays long ago.  There’s the Kotel (Western Wall), of course, the last remnant of the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  But there are other spots connected to religious ceremonies that can be found off the beaten track.

This past Friday, we decided to take a hike to one of those locations: Montar Mountain, a peak in the Judean desert which is believed to be the place where an important part of the Yom Kippur service took place.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
Sunrise over Mount Montar, where a goat was sent to “Azazel” on Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen or High Priest used to perform a lottery on two almost identical goats.  One goat would be designated as a sacrificial offering to God.  The second goat, known as Seir L’Azazel was taken about 14 kilometers from the Temple into the desert, where it would be thrown from a rocky cliff, metaphorically carrying with it the nation’s sins.

The Hike

Although the weather last week was just about as bad as it gets for a desert excursion, we decided that now would be the ideal time to try this Yom Kippur related hike.  To make it a workable and fun adventure, we left the house at 5:00 AM in order to arrive at Mount Montar in time for sunrise.  We also planned to continue hiking on the the trail for another 5 kilometers to reach Mar Saba, an old Greek Orthodox monastery in the middle of the desert. 

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
Sending love from Mar Saba.

Although it was way too hot, the hike was well worth any hardship.  It was incredible to see the location of Seir L’Azazel right before Yom Kippur.  And there was something special about walking the terrain in the heat of late September, as it would have been traversed on the Day of Atonement long ago.

Here’s how we took this 16 kilometer hike in the desert, to Mount Montar and the Mar Saba Monastery.

Strange Beginning

The hike was supposed to begin in Kedar, a small Yishuv past Ma’ale Adumim.  But when planning out the day, we noticed that there was a farm near Kedar that was significantly closer to the trail.  So, we asked the owners if we could park there.  And they generously agreed.

As we pulled into the lot at 5:45 AM, we were struck by the number of cars parked in the darkness.  When we got out of the car, we understood why.  We had stumbled upon an all-night party, complete with blasting music, empty beer bottles, and early morning revelers.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
Happy to escape from the commotion.

We strapped on our packs and made our way across the dance floor, towards the dusty path which would take us to the marked trail.

Race Against Sunrise

And then there we were, hiking at a fast pace through the semi darkness.  The trail led us up and down on an easy-to-walk path.  As sunrise approached, a beautiful golden glow shone upon the desert hills that surrounded us.  It was hard not to stop for pictures.  But our goal lay up ahead – we wanted to reach the cliff of Azazel at sunrise.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
At the edge of the cliff – sunrise at Mount Montar.

And we made it!  Just as the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, we completed the first three kilometers of our journey and ascended to the top of the mountain.  It came as no surprise that it was stunningly beautiful.  From our vantage point, we could see Jerusalem in the distance, along with rolling Judean desert hills.  We even saw flat topped Herodion mountain (where King Herod was buried) from the top of Mount Montar.

Why Here?

Of course, when you’re talking about ancient history and archeology, there’s always a debate about the actual location of any ancient place.  So how was it decided that Mount Montar was the place where the Seir L’Azazel ceremony was performed?

According to tradition, the walk from the Temple to the cliff in question was about 14 kilometers, which is the approximate location of Mount Montar.  Not only that, but it is the highest mountain in the area with the steepest drop – perfect for the ceremony which involved throwing a goat off a cliff.  Additionally, an ancient road connected Jerusalem with this exact location, lending credence to the idea that this is the exact path that would have been taken out to the desert in ancient times.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
The craggy cliff of Mount Montar from below.

Before continuing on our journey, we tried to imagine what this annual journey into the desert to this spot, in the heat of midday, would have been like.

And On to the Next

It was barely 6:30 AM and we were already off on another mission: to hike 5 more kilometers to Mar Saba, an incredibly cool monastery hidden in the desert.  We weren’t going to take this part of the hike slowly either.  We wanted to reach the monastery before it got too late, so we could photograph it in the gentle morning light.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
On a journey through the desert.

On we continued, along poorly marked trails through somewhat challenging desert terrain.  The trail wasn’t rocky or hard to navigate physically, but there were a lot of ups and downs.  We made our way past glowing sand dunes, multi-colored hills, and white rock towards Mar Saba.

And then suddenly, there we were.

Mar Saba

Okay, this place was pretty cool.  And very different than anything I had ever seen in Israel.

We walked to the edge of the cliff above a giant gorge, the (sadly, polluted) Kidron river flowing through.  Doves and swallows nested in small caves and crevices all up and down the sides of the canyon, swooping across from one side to the next.  All of this was beautiful.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
The Kidron Valley.

But the most amazing part was the intricate complex built into the side of of the cliff.  Black and golden domes were interspersed with arched doorways and stone walls.  A huge wall climbed up the side of the mountain, sectioning off the complex from the wild desert terrain just beyond it.

There were also much older structures that peppered the sides of the cliff, remnants of the monastery’s rich history as a holy site.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
Solitude in the desert.

We made our way further down to a flat piece of cliff protruding above the valley.  This, of course, was going to be our iced coffee and breakfast spot.  After saying our morning tefilot (prayers), we poured our coffee and gaped at this incredible world of beauty in the middle of the desert.

The Scenic Trail and then Back we Go

We spent a long time taking it all in, taking photos and videos of the captivating scenery, and climbing out to various vantage points.  Then, we packed up our bags and continued on the scenic trail, to get a complete perspective on Mar Saba.

Ten minutes later we were back on the main trail, heading through the desert in the heat of the day to return to the trailhead.

It was a hard walk back.  Through the heat and in the shining sun, we hightailed it back over ascents and descents, all the way back to Chavat Tzon Kedar (the farm).  By the time we got back, we were dripping in sweat, and pretty tired.  Luckily, we didn’t have to walk through any parties to return to the parking lot.

It had been an absolutely incredible morning, full of wonderful discoveries and desert beauty.  There’s simply nothing quite as meaningful as walking in the footstep of ancient Jews in our homeland, gaining a firsthand experience of what Yom Kippur was like 2000 years ago.

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
A sunrise walk to the Cliff of Azazel.

Hikers’ Notes:

Here’s what you need to know to hike this trail to Mount Montar and Mar Saba:

  • This is trail is best suited to cooler days in the fall, winter, and spring.
  • This hike is located in Judea and Samaria. Make sure to take proper safety precautions before hiking any trails in this area.
  • Suitable for dogs.
  • The trail is not well marked. For this reason, it is best to use the Google Earth file provided in the table at the top of the page. If you are familiar with the Amud Anan map app, that will also help you find your way.
  • You can hike the first piece of the trail on its own. This will shorten the hike to a total distance of about 6 kilometers.
  • This is an out and back trail. The stats up above apply to the full trail, out and back, as there is no reasonable way to hike in only one direction.
  • Wear good hiking shoes, sun protection, and bring plenty of water to hike this trail. This trail is entirely exposed to the sun.
  • The trail markers are not reliable on the trail. If you want to hike the full trail, you must use some sort of online navigation to follow the trail. In fact, some of the trail markers are even misplaced, pointing in the wrong direction. To follow the trail on a navigation app such as Amud Anan or our Google Earth file: Walk through the goat farm and down the dirt path towards the black marked trail. Turn left on the black trail and follow it to the red trail. When you reach the blue trail, follow it to the top of Mount Montar (do not continue along the blue trail after Mount Montar). Turn back the way you came and follow the steep unmarked trail to the left back down to the red trail. Follow the red trail through the desert to the blue trail. Make a left on the blue trail. Make a right on the red trail. Follow the red trail down to the edge of the cliff and along the scenic route above Mar Saba. Return the way you came (without the detour to Mount Montar).
  • If you'd like to contact the goat farm: Chavat Tzon Kedar
  • You can read about the Seir L'Azazel ceremony in Leviticus (Vayikra), Chapter 16. The yishuv of Kedar was named for the Biblical Kedar, named for one of the children of Ishmael. The area was known for its black tents as described in Song of Songs, Chapter 1 and Isaiah, Chapter 9. You can see black tents in the area of Kedar today, inhabited by local Bedouins.

Don’t forget to read my guide to the navigational features in this post before you hit the trail!

Trail map from Amud Anan.

Questions? Have you hiked this trail? Let’s hear about it in the comments!

Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
More views of Mar Saba.
Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
Seasonal squill flowers blossoming above the ancient monastery.
Mount Montar and Mar Saba hike
Up close.

Hiking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each hiker’s responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *