Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Sometimes it is the small, strange twists of fate that determine how history is written and let me tell you, my friends, this Land of Israel has to be the queen of where quirky events that changed history happened…
Take for example, the road to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for over 3000 years, and a holy pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims for countless generations, is completely surrounded by mountains. Trekking up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain has always been somewhat of a challenge.
There were several ancient roads to the city traveled by Cannanites, Israelites, and Greeks. However, when the Romans, history’s champion road builders, conquered the land, they paved a main road from the city of Lydda (Lod) to Jerusalem. This Roman road was built along a mountain ridge line, thus maintaining a relatively stable grade up to the city.
Today’s Highway 443 follows this ancient Roman road, a comfortable, divided four-lane highway up the Beit Horon grade, past the city of Modi’in and into Jerusalem. Nice and easy. “What’s the problem?”, you ask.
Well, the problem is that even though Hwy 443 is easier, shorter and a more comfortable climb to the holy city, it is not the main thoroughfare, not the main entrance to Jerusalem. Huh? I know, I know. Strange twists in history.
There was another ancient path on the southern border of the Ayalon Valley, through the narrow Bab al Wad mountain pass, up a mountain, down a valley, twisting and turning in gullies on its route from the coastal plain through the hills, up and down a few more times and into Jerusalem. It is a longer road, a very strenuous ride for donkeys, camels and the travelers who rode on them.
However, this longer, more challenging and perilous path was the road chosen by history to be THE one and probably not by coincidence is called Highway 1 even today. (Click here to see Hwy 443 and Hwy 1)
And here is why.
It all has to do with a small, controversial detail in an important story from the Gospel of Luke, 24:13-35. It tells of two men and their meeting with Jesus, exactly two days after his resurrection.
“That day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about a hundred and sixty stadia from Jerusalem…”.
After his resurrection, Jesus joins these two men on their walk but does not reveal his identity, accompanies them to Emmaus, where they eat and break bread together, chat and then go their separate ways. It is only after Jesus’ departure that the two men realize the true identity of the stranger who ate with them. They then go tell the Disciples that they had seen Jesus in the flesh. The Disciples realize that rumors of Jesus’ resurrection had been confirmed and he had risen. Very important story.
However, where is Emmaus? Well, that’s complicated.
Some earlier versions of Luke say “160 stadia”, (a Roman stadium being about 600 ft), and therefore 160×600 ft is about 7.5 miles, putting the event right next to Bab el Wad, the aforementioned narrow passageway on the longer, more challenging route to Jerusalem. Great! This site was chosen as the Emmaus of Luke.
As the Christian Byzantine Empire took control of the Holy Land (4th century CE), so began the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to Jesus’ homeland and the sites made holy by his actions and sermons.
Let me paint the scene for you:
Christian Pilgrim: Hello my friend, I’ve just arrived by boat from Anatolia. I need a donkey to get me to Jerusalem.
Donkey rental attendant: Sure, no problem. This fine donkey will do, he’s made the trip several times and knows it by heart.
Christian Pilgrim: Great! Will he take me by Emmaus, where my Lord Jesus appeared after his Resurrection?
Donkey rental attendant: Well, actually no, this donkey much prefers the easier route, less time, less hills, less problems.
Christian Pilgrim: What!? Are you kidding me? I have not come all this way to make it easy on myself or the donkey. How can I show my face back in the village if I don’t visit Emmaus? I’ll be taking the long and winding road, thank you very much!
Donkey rental attendant: (sigh) Suit yourself.
There you go folks, that did it. The main thoroughfare to Jerusalem was therefore switched and Christian pilgrims made their way past the village of Emmaus (Hammat in Hebrew, becoming Emmaus in Greek, Neopolis in Latin and eventually Imhaus in Arabic). But wait, there is more…
In later versions of Luke 24:13, the distance from Jerusalem was changed to ’60 stadia’ (scholars don’t know why, misprint?) and later pilgrims placed the event at a different location altogether. Just to be sure and to cover all bases, the Crusaders built several citadels on this road to Jerusalem, at Latrun (from the French Le toron des Chevaliers), at Abu Gosh, and at Aquabella (Ein Hemed).
Through the ages, Christian pilgrims also declared and visited the villages of Motza and Kubebah as the “Emmaus” of the New Testament, all on this same road to Jerusalem.
So which is the real Emmaus? It’s all a matter of faith, ladies and gentlemen.
First the Christian Byzantine pilgrims, then Arab Caliphates, Ottomans, British and even present-day Israelis still use this road as the main drag into town.
Today, the government of Israel tries to dissuade commuters from taking Hwy 1, it is often congested, more dangerous and causes great traffic jams at the entrance to the city. Trucks are not allowed on it in the mornings anymore, big signs recommend switching to Hwy 443 or other newer roads, but many of us still prefer this winding road into the city.
p.s. There is, of course, more to this story, having to do with the Green Line, the Ottomans, the Palestinians, the paving of 1869, today’s political climate, etc. Great conversation over a cup of coffee.