You don’t have to drive too far out of Jerusalem to get a completely different view of Israel. Many Israelis view Jerusalem as a separate entity from the rest of the country, so it’s worth descending from the hilltop city to get a different perspective.
One of the most dramatic directions to drive from Jerusalem is to head east out of the city, and then north, up the Jordan Valley. Take the road marked to the Dead Sea, paying attention to the markers along the road that tell you how far below sea level you’re traveling, and within about twenty minutes you’ll see Jericho off to your left.
If you’re driving a rental car from an Israeli company your rental contract prohibits entry into Jericho, which is under Palestine Authority control, but there’s plenty of dramatic scenery to be enjoyed if you continue on to Route 90 and make a left onto the Jordan Valley road.
Look out for wild camels, who can come loping rapidly across the flat sandy expanses and onto the highway. It’s rarely the car that wins this collision!
Look for the brown signs to Qasr al Yehud, about 10 minutes up the highway. This is the newly renovated site where Christians believe John the Baptist earned his name by baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River, and Jews revere the place as the possible crossing site of Joshua when he led the Israelites into the land after their 40-year wandering through the desert after the exodus from Egypt.
Be sure to gaze across the narrow (10-yard-wide) river, over the rushes, where it’s easy to spot the Jordanian troops on the other side.
Back on the highway, take a right and continue north through the stark but beautiful Judean desert landscape. To your right is the Jordanian border and the hills of Moab. In the valley between the road and the border, the narrow Jordan River flows along its winding path.
Historic sites and hiking trails all along the valley are marked with brown signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic. If it’s not too hot, take a hike through one of the wadis, or climb up to Sartaba mountain, one of the hills where bonfires were lit to announce the arrival of the New Moon back in Temple times.
Along the way, you’ll pass many small Jewish and Arab farming communities on both sides of the road, using the latest agricultural techniques to grow an astonishing array of vegetables in the sandy soil.
About 90 minutes out of Jerusalem up the Jordan valley road, you’ll reach Beit Shean, an Israeli development town of around 20,o00 residents. What makes Beit Shean a worthy destination are the reconstructed remains of the fabulous ancient city, with its Roman amphitheater and Byzantine-era bathhouse. There’s a spectacular colonnaded street that will make you feel as if you’re back in ancient times.
Stick around for the after-dark Shean Nights sound and light presentation before making your way on to nearby Tiberias for the night.