Masada wow, a swim in the Dead Sea, Qumran, quick zip through Jericho, and hello Jerusalem! – 08 November

Well, another day, another pack-up-and-leave routine.  Our first stop was Masada, the mountain top fortress city.  It’s a tough sixty minute hike up a winding mountain trail to get to the top, but we took the easy way up – a nice modern cable car!  George & Donna’s daughter Laurie did the walk up in less than forty minutes, and arrived shortly after we did.  Wow she is one tough woman.

Our preferred method of transportation.

There was a movie made about Masada in 1981, but I haven’t seen it.  It sure sounds interesting, so I think I may have to track it down.  The story goes that during the Jewish revolt against the Roman empire from 66 to 73 AD, everywhere else was crushed except for the mountain top fortress at Masada.  The Roman army laid siege to the fortress, and this went on for three years.  The Jews in the fortress, well supplied with stored food and with plenty of water from many storage cisterns, were able to withstand the siege with not much trouble.  It was simply not possible for the Romans to wage a frontal assault on the fortress.  Finally, they started moving material in to make a huge “ramp” from the adjacent mountain up to the gates of the fortress, taking about six months to do so.  When they reached the gates of the fortress, they then tried to burn the wooden door but without success.  Later they combined a battering ram, a further attempt to burn the door, and some good fortune, and broke through.  Confident in their victory, they retreated to their camp until morning.  However, when they entered the fortress in the morning, they found everyone dead – men, women and children all – they had elected to kill each other instead of becoming prisoners.

Our guide however said that recent evidence unearthed may change the story somewhat:
– apparently persons inside the fortress had been granted an amnesty by the Romans; they could have walked away had they surrendered.  This raises the question as to what motivated the mass murder/suicide – radical religious zeal or similar political craziness?
– the official record of the story was made by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish revolutionary leader who defected to the Roman side when seeing how hopeless the cause was.  He recorded that 2 women and several children were found alive.  However, this is identical to his record of survivors in another siege, so much so that folks wonder if this isn’t a contrivance to make the story just a bit less tragic

So here are a few images of Masada:

One of many water cisterns in caves and carved out caverns in the mountain.

One of something like twenty storerooms for food – which were of course covered in those days.
Overhead view of remains of magnificent three tier “North Palace” built for King Herod at Masaba.
Wider angle view of the remains of the storehouses.
Dove loft for communications carrier doves – the communications centre!

Overhead view of the remains of the hastily built Roman ramp that reached the city gate.

Our next stop was purely curiosity and recreation.  We stopped at the lowest point on the planet earth – on the Dead Sea.  There is a tourist site there, with a restaurant, gift shop and changing room – so you can go down and take a splash in the dead sea.  It turns out that the Dead Sea’s level is dropping significantly due to prolonged drought, over-usage of River Jordan’s waters, and global warming – so the shoreline has receded something like 1 km in the past 20 or so years.  They have a little shuttle using a tractor, to get you to and from the new shoreline, but it’s only one tractor, and it is slow to service the customers, sigh.

Dead Sea beach

There is also a fresh water swimming pool up by the building, and some mud pools that you can use to plaster yourself with the soothing mineral mud from the Dead Sea – let it dry, then rinse it off, and it’s apparently good for your skin and your joints.  Not to mention the pictures your ‘friends’ take while you are pasted up with mud will make for good blackmail in the years to come!  No we didn’t do the mud thing, we did a few laps in the freshwater pool instead.

Mud plasters and *salt water* rinse showers – for others, not for us!

Anyway, the Dead Sea is crazy salty and has strong mineral content too.  It reminds me of the story of Devil’s Lake but much more so.  There is an inlet for the water (River Jordan and other seasonal rivers and streams) but no outlet for the water.  No fish nor other animals live in the water, and after having been in the water, I can see why – ugh!

We were advised to not shave this morning, and don’t go in if you have any open wounds – apparently the salt will find cuts and scrapes you didn’t even know you have!  Well that had me worried, as I have little nicks here and there (insect bites and walking in to door frames?), but I didn’t feel anything.

Of course we had to remove watches and jewelry before going in the water, but also all rings etc – because the strong salt and mineral content of the water would encourage corrosion.  Weird, first time in many, many years I have been devoid of rings…  yikes, had to really work to get them off.  Then had to store them in a safe place, would have had my *ss kicked if I had lost one. 

When in the water, you basically just sit down and lean back, and it’s the craziest thing – you float up like never before!  Very neat.  However, you have to ensure you keep the salt water out of your eyes, it would be very nasty.  I used my swimming goggles – I can’t afford to have eye trouble…  and they worked fine.

I actually got a drop of the salt water in my mouth as I floated around, and ugh, what a terrible taste!  Not only is it extremely salty, but also very very bitter, probably because of the myriad other minerals in the water.

The crazy thing about the whole experience had to be the bottom of the “beach” and even in the water – it looked vaguely like sand, but it was rock solid crystallized salt, with ripples like sand and everything!  We had been warned to wear sandals and did, but others who didn’t said that walking over that crystallized salt was excruciating, apparently it had very sharp crystals sticking up that just pierced the bottoms of your feet.

There is a fresh water shower right on the edge of the beach, so you can rinse off as soon as you emerge.  And you need to do that too, rather weird being coated in rapidly drying salt water in the fierce sun!

After leaving the Dead Sea site, we made a short visit to Qumran, an isolated Jewish settlement where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, in a cave in the mountains.

Here there was an active, thriving settlement with many different sects and subcultures.  There was a strong religious presence, as evidenced by many ritual bathing pools.  There was a water distribution system to supply the village.  There were several pottery kilns and apparently a thriving pottery making industry.

When the Jewish revolt was on, revolutionary sects took up refuge in Qumran, as they did in Masada.  When the Roman army was approaching, the religious leaders could not let the precious sacred scrolls fall into enemy hands and risk being defiled or burned, so they hid them in the mountain caves.  In time, they were forgotten.  In the early 20th century, a Bedouin found some scrolls and sold them for scrap.  A small part of the scroll got recognized by a knowledgeable individual, who made a lot of money but also helped to locate and preserve other scrolls.

Ritual bath in Qumran – always has 7 steps to represent 7 steps of purification.
Water cistern in Qumran – one of many.
Pottery Kiln – one of several.
Cave where Dead Sea Scrolls were found, looking west from Qumran.  They were undisturbed for almost 1900 years!

As we left Qumran, it was almost dark.  The group wanted to see *something* of Jericho, seeing as we’d stayed on the southern outskirts for a night, and would not be back.  So, we convinced our guide and the driver to take us to Jericho.  It’s pretty much like the other cities, but had some interesting shops and sights. 

One attraction that we did see in Jericho is the Mount of Temptation, where tradition says that Jesus was taken to do his 40 days and nights of trials and temptations right after his baptism – see Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:9-13, Luke 4:1-13.  There was a discussion of the meaning of the story, and once again, our guide Lazarus opened the scriptures to new meaning for us. 

One big thing is to consider that when, in the language and story of the culture at that time, something is done three times, it is considered not just to be done that three times, but done continuously.  For instance, Peter’s denial of Jesus during his trial.  Jesus’s questioning of Peter’s faith.

Also, if something is mentioned in a group of three, it generally means that there were many more, performed continuously.  Like the three trials of Jesus, above.

Hmm, that would explain some things that have been opaque to me until now.

So after this trip to Jericho, we went onward to Jerusalem.  Of course it’s dark, so we didn’t see much, but here we are.  We are at the Olive Tree Garden Hotel, pretty swanky but also small rooms, and built on a small lot, so not much extra facilities or room.  Overall, quite nice.  We’re here until we leave on Thursday, thankfully, so we can leave ourselves unpacked.

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