Jerusalem’s newest hiking trail visits a site from the Gospels and more
In this BHD post, Henri Gourinard, master tour guide and lecturer at the Polis Institute in Jerusalem, describes the competing views on the location of Emmaus, where the resurrected Jesus broke bread with Cleopas, and a new hiking trail that guides visitors to perhaps the best candidate, Emmaus Nicopolis.
Although the village of Emmaus plays an important role in the resurrection story, its exact whereabouts remain somewhat of a mystery.1 In the Gospel of Luke (24:13–35) we learn about a disciple of Jesus named Cleopas and his travel companion who were journeying from Jerusalem to Emmaus when they met up with an unassuming stranger. The men had been lamenting the crucifixion of Jesus, which had taken place just three days prior. The stranger approached and inquired about their grief. Cleopas explained that with the crucifixion the hope for redemption had been dashed, and further, that morning the tomb of Jesus had been discovered empty. The stranger reassured them that all these events had been foretold and that they were indeed signs that the Messiah had arrived.
The men were comforted, and upon reaching Emmaus, invited the stranger to join them for a meal. It was then, when they sat together and broke bread with the stranger, that they realized he was actually the resurrected Christ. At that very instant, the stranger vanished. Cleopas and his friend immediately set off back to Jerusalem to share the good news of what they had witnessed.From this account, Christian commentators concluded that Emmaus could not be far from Jerusalem. Indeed, two of the earliest manuscripts containing Luke 24:13 reference Emmaus being relatively close to Jerusalem—one manuscript claims the distance was 60 stadia (7 miles), while another claims 160 stadia (19 miles). Since the two men would have set out late in the day and arrived in Jerusalem before dusk, the closer claim of 7 miles was traditionally favored. Thus, two villages, each located about 7 miles from Jerusalem, have traditionally been identified as the Emmaus of the Gospel: Abu Ghosh and el-Qubeibeh.
However, a third site, located 19 miles west of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills, may be the real Emmaus for a number of compelling reasons. Early Christian writers living in the Holy Land were of the unanimous opinion that Emmaus was located at a major Roman crossroad in the lowlands area near the towns of Modi‘in, Gezer, and Lydda. This opinion is also supported by the Jerusalem Talmud (Sheviit 9:2). Formely, the Arab village of Imwas (reminiscent of the name Emmaus) stood at the site. And finally, pilgrims who chronicled their visits to the house of Cleopas, which had since been transformed into the Church of the Breaking of the Bread, describe a major city of the Byzantine period known as Emmaus Nicopolis, located here.
Tourists and pilgrims alike can now embark on a newly inaugurated 20 km (12.5 mile) walking trail and discover for themselves the trail to Emmaus. The Emmaus Trail, as it is known, is part of a network of trails maintained by the Jewish National Fund. It begins at the Saxum Visitor Center in Abu Ghosh (the site that the Crusaders identified with Emmaus) and terminates at Emmaus Nicopolis. Hikers can now walk in the footsteps of Jesus or simply discover the beauty of the Judean Hills and all the archaeological sites along the way.
The trail roughly follows the ancient Roman road that used to connect Jerusalem to Jaffa, passing through Emmaus Nicopolis. Around kilometer eight, the route passes the ruins of an ancient watchtower, identified on early maps as Khirbet el-Kusr. Its modern Hebrew name, Horvat Matzad, is a translation of the Arabic. The watchtower lies in the middle of a large road station complex that includes storage rooms and a cistern. First built in the Hasmonean period (late second century B.C.E.), it was still in use in the Umayyad period (before 750 C.E.). It testifies to the existence of a road network to Jerusalem that predates the Roman roads built by Vespasian during the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.). The watchtower offers a panoramic view of the area and it’s even possible to see Tel Aviv and the coast on a clear day.
As the trail continues its descent to the Judean Hills, it passes by the Ilan Stream, which meanders between small round hills until it broadens onto the plains of the lowlands at Sha‘ar ha-Gay (Gate of the Valley, in Hebrew) or Bab el-Wad in Arabic. Soon afterwards, at around kilometer ten, hikers arrive to a cluster of Roman milestones, which were unearthed in the area by archaeologists over the years and placed on the side of the road. One of them, dating back to the time of Emperor Maximian Thrax (235–238 C.E.), has its Latin inscription translated on a nearby plaque.
The trail continues through the chalky hills of the lowlands. At kilometer 12, it passes near two Arab villages, Deir Ayouband Yalu. In the latter are the remains of a well-preserved Roman water mill, and the ruins of a crusader castle. The ridge offers a splendid view of the Valley of Ayalon (Joshua 10:12) and the modern city of Modi‘in. Around kilometer 16, the trail then passes Khirbet el-Aqed, a fortress located on an otherwise barren hill. This is the likely site of the Emmaus that, according to Josephus (Antiquities 13.15), the Seleucid general Bacchides fortified in order to keep Jewish rebels at bay during the Maccabean Revolt (161 B.C.E.). One can see traces of the Jewish rebels as well as a Hellenistic two-chambered gate.
Descending from the fortress, the trail continues between two hills until it passes a water channel, a large stepped pool, and several tombs, indicating the outskirts of the Roman-Byzantine city of Emmaus. Hikers will soon arrive at a well-preserved Roman bathhouse, where the Muslim general Abu Ubeidah, who conquered Byzantine Palestine, is rumored to be buried. A few feet beyond are the walls of the monastery of Emmaus Nicopolis, maintained by the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes. Past the monastery gates, hikers will finally arrive at the Church of the Breaking of the Bread, which concludes the Emmaus Trail.
Things to Know Before Hiking the Trail
The Emmaus Trail starts at the Saxum Visitor Center of Abu Ghosh and ends at the monastery of Emmaus Nicopolis. The one-way trail is 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) long from start to finish, so hikers should arrange their travel accordingly. Fortunately, both Abu Ghosh and Emmaus are close to major highway interchanges, providing easy access to both ends of the trail. You can catch a public bus at the Hativa Sheva junction (a 10-minute walk from the church of Emmaus Nicopolis). For a stop at Abu Ghosh, the bus will drop you at the Hemed junction, otherwise it will end at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. If driving, another option is to come with two (or more) cars and leave one at the end of the trail, in the parking lot of Canada-Ayalon Park.
Although the trail can be hiked in all seasons, the natural landscape is most beautiful from February to May. In summer, hikers should start the walk at dawn in order not to suffer from the afternoon heat. In any season, refrain from walking the trail when the khamsin wind is blowing from the desert. The Emmaus Trail is not equipped with water fountains so hikers should pack at least three liters of water if they intend to walk the entire trail.
Henri Gourinard is a licensed tour guide in Israel and also a lecturer in historical geography and ancient Near Eastern history at the Polis Institute in Jerusalem, where he is launching the new Jerusalem Studies Program this fall. Henri is also an author and is currently completing a guidebook for the Emmaus Trail.
 See Hershel Shanks, “Emmaus: Where Christ Appeared,” BAR, March/April 2008.
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