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Friday, May 20, 2011


Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth.  It’s roughly 1,300 feet below sea level, and it’s about 1,400 feet deep. It’s an amazing place, unlike any place I’ve been on this planet.  It is fed by the Jordan River, and because of its tremendously high evaporation rate, it produces large amounts of raw chemicals used throughout the world in agriculture, medicine, and manufacturing. 

You can’t sink in the Dead Sea because of the high concentration of salt, and the minerals in the water, the highest concentration in the world.  While no fish can live in this environment toxic to them, the waters and minerals are used to relieve sufferers of psoriasis or arthritis.  Visitors use the mud or relax in the Sea for its therapeutic value.  The desert area has many spas and resorts catering to those seeking relief.
Historically, the area housed fugitives like David and Jesus, and nearby were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Aristotle, King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and Cleopatra were all familiar with this place, so coming here and going in this water really is a trip and a half.
walking to the Dead Sea
We were warned not to go in the Sea if we had cuts because of the high salt content, and it was suggested that people not shave nor do anything to scrape or irritate their skins.  I did not go in because I had recent surgery, but I really enjoyed the visit.  We walked along the beach, dipping our toes. The water had an almost oily feel. The report from our friends on our Margaret Morse tour was that no one felt any stinging from the water.
Dead Sea's mineralsWe were also warned about not putting our heads in the water.  The warning was accompanied by a story about Sylvester Stallone who was filming a movie in the area.  Despite the same warning, Stallone decided to do the macho bit.  He went running into the sea as many do at the ocean, dove headfirst into the water and swallowed some of this saline, mineral-filled water.  He ended up in a hospital for quite some time.  Maybe Rocky got hit in the head one too many times.

riding to the Dead SeaVisitors travel the considerable distance from the main building to the waterfront via a road or on a tram.  There’s no animal life around; it’s far too toxic.  We pass a salt water pool, mud baths, showers, and other relaxing spots before reaching the sea where there are chairs at water’s edge and shelters in which to find some shade.  The Dead Sea is shrinking, and there are signs marking the water lines that were there once.  There are shaded places in the water with hammocks—not that you need hammocks. You can’t sink. You need to wear water shoes because you are walking not on sand but on mineral deposits, and some are quite large and crystalline and beautiful.
Salt at the Dead Sea
This is beautiful, but imagine walking on these without water shoes.
Doesn’t sound delightful?  Well, it’s certainly not the seaside most of us envision.  Still, it works on so many levels it remains a thrill.
Bathing at the Dead Sea

I left the Dead Sea with the same feeling of awe I’d experienced so many times since alighting in Tel Aviv.  We continued through the Judean Desert toward Eliat to our next stop, Masada! 

Bedouin campOn the way to Masada we passed a few Bedouin camps.  Israel would like the Bedouins to move into cities where they will be eligible for the beneficent social programs the government offers.  The Bedouin animals, specifically the sheep, eat the grass down the roots making it impossible for the land to prosper.  The Bedouins set up their temporary camps, but as one can see, they live in squalor.  More and more are turning to the cities where there are educational and medical facilities to accommodate their needs.

Can you imagine ancient man building a fortress atop this mountain?
Masada is one more point where history takes over in its most dramatic way, and the sense of Jewish history becomes palpable and excruciating.  Masada is more than a place; it is a state of mind.  This fortress was built by Herod high above the desert.  As we approach, I am amazed at the size and height of the mountain.  It was something for which my imagination did not prepare me.

From Masada, ancient Jews held off the Roman army in a seige lasting three years.  In 70 CE after Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple, remaining Zealots escaped to Masada.  They entered their siege and taunted the Romans even as the Romans constructed the battering rams and catapults that would eventually allow them to enter the compound only to find that the 960 Jews had committed suicide rather than face defeat and the executions, rapes, and slavery defeat entailed.

The Talmud does not deal with the story of Masada, so our knowledge comes from Flavius Josephus, a man hated by the Jews because of his Roman ties but who turned out to be a marvelous historian (see my article on the Jerusalem model Josephus gained his information from two surviving women.

snake trail Masada
See the Snake Path in the shadow of our cablecar?
Before our trip, Rob and I watched the movie starring Peter O’Toole.  We had an inkling of the history, but when we arrived and looked up at this gigantic stronghold, our jaws dropped.  The “Snake Path” traveled blithely by both camps in the movies is actually a steep, narrow, twisting open rope of a road that leaves a traveler open to detection from either side.  We’re spared the climb though we saw hearty hikers on the Path. Visitors take a cable car from the base of the mountain to the top.  There we walk around following the guide and examine the excavations.
Indeed, it was not until the early 1960s that excavation began, and within five years just about everything needed to be known about Masada was unearthed.  Over the course of time, earthquakes destroyed the area, but today one can see a line stretching across the stones.  Below the line is the original building; above the line is restored.
All the stones were local.  When Herod built this incredible fortress with palaces and luxuries between 37 and 31 BCE, the stones were plastered over and polished to look like marble.  We have seen that earlier in the trip, but here we see what happens when the plaster is removed.

This must have been magnficent.  Below the blue line all is original.
   One can only imagine the cost in human life and toil to complete this place.

MasadaThe fortress was built for a siege.  Each food storage room would have a different kind of food except for one room which had a mixture.  That room was the “tithing” room. There were huge water cisterns that kept the Jews able to farm up there while the Romans down below parched in the desert heat.

Roman encampment MasadaAs we look down from the top, we see one of the squares where the Roman legions were stationed.  Josephus tells us that 9,000 Roman soldiers and slaves were here during the siege.

Masada is the second most frequented spot for tourists in Israel.  It certainly hits one intellectually, historically, and emotionally. 

kibbutzWhen we left to continue through the Judean Desert, we stopped at a kibbutz-run dairy and date (the kind you eat—haha) cafĂ© where we had a chance to rest, think, and drink pints of the delicious chocolate milk Margaret Morse provided for us.  This tour company certainly knows how to meet its clients’ needs!
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