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The Abu Gosh winter concert series begins this Saturday night with a special concert program celebrating the music of Bob Seeger and Joan Baez. Periodically over the next few months, special Saturday night concerts will be performed at the Church of the Ark of the Covanent.
Abu Gosh is an Arab village situated in a beautiful natural setting near Jerusalem; ten minutes away from the city, near the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv highway. It has a number of attractive features that turn it into a very special visit. The village has a fascinating history going back over 500 years, whose remains are still visible around the village. It was built over the ruins of the biblical town of Kiryat Ye'arim, which is believed to be one of the stops for the Ark of the Covenant when it was moved from Beit Shemesh to its resting place in Jerusalem. The Romans built a large fort here, above the spring, and later on the Crusaders established a monastery on the same site, which served both as a church and as a military headquarters for many years. Festival concerts are held in this church, in the middle of the village, and in the Church of the Ark of the Covenant further up the hill.
Another fascinating feature of Abu Gosh is the unique convergence of the three monotheistic faiths. The churches and monasteries stand near the mosque and in the midst of the local Muslim residents, creating a special atmosphere for the wide variety of visitors who stroll through the village during the Festival - Muslims, Jews and Christians. During the 1948 war, the city stayed out of the fighting and many believe that because of this, the village remained within the green line border that was put in place after the 1948 hour. The current population of 7,000 consists mostly of Palestinian Arabs. Its location in the beautiful Judean Hills, combined with its reputation as a peaceful and open village has drawn approximately 40 Jewish families to live there as well.
Since 1992, Abu Gosh Festival has been home to Israel's most celebrated festival of vocal music. The 3-5 day festival is held twice a year- in October, during the holiday of Sukkot, and in May, during the holiday of Shavuot.
Twice each year, the village of Abu Gosh turns into a paradise for lovers of vocal music. Abu Gosh offers a unique combination of a beautiful village in a wonderful setting, lovely churches with the best acoustics in Israel, rich and varied musical programs, and a special type of audience, which comes both to listen and to sing.
Today the Abu Gosh Festival is the most important and prominent vocal music festival in Israel. Festival concerts are held in churches - the 12th Century Crusader Church with its noted for its amazing Byzantine frescos and its crypt, and the Church of the Ark of the Covenant. Both venues have excellent acoustics, remarkable beauty, and a very special atmosphere. Concerts are also held outside in the lovely courtyard of the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, simultaneously at five locations. The vocal music concerts are of the highest quality, with a predominantly liturgical repertoire, and are performed by top-notch soloists choirs, and orchestras from Israel and abroad, including rare pieces which receive their première in Israel at Abu Gosh.
Most of the programs played during the Festival are from the Baroque and Renaissance periods, and are performed by top level ensembles. The Festival also serves as a highly respected and attractive venue for many artists and choirs from all over the world. Every year a large audience attends the events, comprised of music lovers of all ages; their presence turns the musical events in and around the churches, as well as the entire area, into colourful and lively spectacle. Many festival goers attend the concerts in the churches, and enjoy the wide range of musical events in the groves and gardens of the monastery, in a pleasant atmosphere.
The tradition of communal singing by audience and choirs at Abu Gosh has become very popular. The Festival administration encourages and nurtures this tradition. Sitting in the shade of tall pine trees, the audiences joins in singing chorales and madrigals, and even arranged folk-songs, under the baton of well known conductors.
If it weren't for his white robe, you might not believe that Brother Olivier is a monk. He is charming, outgoing, charismatic, and extremely knowledgeable about history as well as life outside the walled community. Speaking gaily to Travelujah , the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land, about his daily monastic life for the last 27 years within the confines of the Benedictine Monastery in Abu Ghosh, Israel, Brother Olivier says, "We are devoted to prayer and work." He pauses a moment for effect. "Torah and Avodah just like a kibbutz," he continues. "We must be self-sufficient."
And they are. The compound hosts an on-site ceramics studio where the residents design and create pottery and glaze in their own unique Benedictine motif. The beautifully designed products are sold to the public in their gift store, which is owned and managed, of course, by the monks. They also produce their own wine, called Verbena, as well as olive oil and their own brand of Limoncello.
"Can you drink it?" we asked. "We have to taste it," explained Brother Olivier, "and now we are changing the flavor so we must taste a lot." He smiles.
Nine monks reside at the Benedictine Monastery, which is one of the most beautiful Crusader buildings to have survived in Israel. It is situated within a historic compound set in the heart of Abu Ghosh, a predominantly Moslem-Arab community with a population of 7,000 people, including 45 Jewish families, located approximately 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem. The Monastery is home to Roman Catholic Monks who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which means that they have avowed themselves to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In addition to the Benedictine Monks, there is a separate clergy group of 12 women, who are part of the Sisters of St. Joseph. They live in a separate, free standing building within the Monastery, a practice not common in the old Benedictine tradition that began with St. Frances of Rome which dictates that men and women be contained in separate communities. And while they share the same Monastery and pray together together three times a day, the sisters have completely different responsibilities than the monks.
"Don't think the sisters are cooking for us," quipped Brother Olivier.
When not tending to tour groups from abroad that visit almost daily, Brother Olivier can be found tending to the expansive gardens. He explains that the Rule of St. Benedict dictates that each monk must engage in work, including cooking. "I cooked and was asked to go back to the garden," he says.
Every monk has a job. Some press grapes necessary to produce wine, one is a medic, one is the launderer, and another is the cook. All of the monks enjoy meeting the thousands of people who come to visit annually. Brother Olivier explains that hospitality is a very important aspect to life as a Benedictine monk. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, one must host as if he is hosting the Messiah. In fact, they have a small guesthouse with five rooms for individuals seeking a full retreat into silence where they are able to share prayers with the brothers and sisters.
For visitors to the Monastery, the 12th Century Crusader Church of the Resurrection with its magnificent medieval frescos and the underground crypt from which a small stream of water flows well below the basement floor of the Church are must-sees. Built by the Knights of St. John, now known as the Knights of Malta, the monks meet regularly in the crypt where they discuss and vote on important decisions. Superior acoustics are a well known feature of the Church, a fact not lost on us as we stood in rapt silence listening to the spontaneous concert performed by Brother Olivier who sang a Hebrew hymn.
Abu Ghosh is situated just outside of Jerusalem in a region known as the Yoav Yehuda area. A visit to Abu Ghosh can easily be combined with other places of interest in the area such as Kiryat Yearim , situated at the highest hilltop of Abu Ghosh, where the Notre Dame de l'Arche d'Alliance (Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant) and its small but quaint Christian guest house is located. Built in 1924, this church stands on the remains of an ancient Byzantine church and also offers perfect acoustics making it the venue for the annual Abu Ghosh vocal music festival, a renowned annual event that draws between 8,000 to 10,000 people. Kiryat Yearim is biblically significant, identified in several texts as one of the sites where the Ark of the Covenant rested for twenty years at the house of Avinadav and his son Eliezer "on the hill" at Kiryat Yearim (1 Samuel 7) until King David relocated the Ark to the Temple that he built in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).
The Monastery usually hosts special concerts in celebration for Christmas. Check back on Travelujah to find out about upcoming concerts for this holiday season.
For information on nearby places:
Abu Ghosh Monastery: Holy Land Tours - Travelujah
Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve: www.neot-kedumim.org.il
Ella Valley Winery: www.ellavalley.com
Guest House at Notre Dame de L'Arche d'Alliance - Holy Land Tours - Travelujah
Yoav Yehuda Tourism Association: http://www.touryoav.org.il/english.pdf
Saint Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, Abu Ghosh www.abbaye-abugosh.info (French only)
Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival: www.agfestival.co.il
Elisa Moed is the Founder and CEO of Travelujah, (http://www.travelujah.com), the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. Travelujah is a vibrant online community offering high quality Christian content, user and expert blogs, pilgrimages and travel tours for people interested in learning more about and connecting to the Holy Land.