Our trip through the holy land continued with a ride through the Negev (desert) on our way to the area of the Dead Sea. Our guide started off the day telling us we couldn’t go to Masada due to the heat (it would eventually make it up to 44 degrees Celsius, or 111 Fahrenheit, but it was not there yet and I’ve been through worse in D.C.). After being a little miffed at her for what I considered to be unprofessional behavior for a tour guide, we politely insisted on going, seeing how the trip was expensive and we wouldn’t likely be getting to Israel again and Masada is one of those sites we definitely wanted to see.
I had known the tale of Masada from one of my small group studies. We watched a video by teacher and historian, Ray Vander Laan, whose ministry is focused on understanding the Bible in light of the historical and cultural context in which God placed it. I highly recommend these video lessons. In addition, before I arrived in Israel I had just finished reading an excellent book titled The Dovekeepers, an historical fiction based on several women who were at Masada at the time of the massacre.
What is Masada?
Masada was a fortress palace built by the crazy and paranoid King Herod. It’s in the middle of nowhere overlooking the Dead Sea. In ancient times, the only way to get to the compound was via the snake path, a narrow, windy path that snaked up the mountainside. Anyone climbing the mountainside could be viewed for many miles by the guards (and killed if you were an invader). An extensive and brilliant water system allowed anyone living in the compound to have access to plenty of water to survive for a long time. Huge cisterns and long storage buildings provided enough food and water to sustain the inhabitants through many months of siege.
And that is precisely what happened around the year 74 AD. A group of Jewish zealots who wanted to live a life away from the big cities and out of the control of Rome established a compound at the vacated mountain top of Masada. The Romans could not abide anyone rebelling against them, even a small group of unimportant people in the middle of nowhere. They camped out along the dessert at the base of the mountain and laid siege. Waiting the Jews out was not enough, so the Romans got their slaves to start building a ramp. Many lives were lost, but finally the ramp was wide and high enough for the Roman soldiers to break through the walls and invade. While they were planning the final invasion, the Jews decided they would rather die than be enslaved, so 10 men were appointed to make their way through the compound killing their friends, families and neighbors. All but a handful of the Jews were dead when the Romans came through the walls.
In the near 100 degree heat, we hopped on a gondola and zipped up to the top in no time. We stopped in shade to hear lessons from our guide and saw the palace baths, store houses, guard posts, dovecot (where they kept the doves who helped fertilize the orchards and were used for sacrifices), cisterns, mikvehs (cleansing baths), and the ramp the Romans built. It was totally worth the trip, the heat wasn’t that bad, and the views of the Dead Sea and down the mountainside were beautiful.
After an easy ride down the mountain, we enjoyed some more Shawarma in the cafeteria before heading out to visit Ein Gedi, a lovely park where we walked along a path lined with Christ’s Thorn Jujube (the crown of thorns was made from branches of this tree) to a waterfall. It was so hot, we took off our shoes to wade in a bit before walking back and viewing all the caves—one of which may have been where David cut King Saul’s robe.
The Dead Sea Float
Our final stop of the day was a beach along the shores of the Dead Sea. The Sea has been evaporating a lot over the years, as was evident in the large distances from the current shore line to where it used to be. This body of water is famous for a number of reasons, mostly due to its chemical makeup and the fact it’s the lowest place on earth. It was formed by tectonic shifts near Haifa that created springs. These springs overflowed into the Jezreel valley and throughout the lands. All the minerals from the land were mixed into the water. The salt concentration is so thick that we had to be very careful not to touch our eyes. That old saying, don’t throw salt into the wound was never so relevant as I could feel the sting in every tiny cut in my fingers and toes. Mom and I lathered on some of the mud on the shore and floated for a few minutes. Our skin felt great but there was no swimming (just careful floating because of the buoyancy of the water) and it was so hot that we didn’t spend too much time in the water. It’s a nice experience to have and now I can say I did it. But it’s not the kind of thing you relish doing again. Upon existing the water, we delighted in the cold showers located on the beach.
It was interesting to look across at this large Sea all day and not see any boats or people or activity. In addition to the salt destroying boats that would try to sail, it is also the border between Israel and Jordan. So not so good to be risking a crossing like that.
That night we stayed at a Kibbutz, a type of farming commune that was popular in Israel for a time. Many still exist in various types of forms. I was not impressed by this one—the Kalia Hotel. The pool closed early so we didn’t have time to enjoy that on this very hot day (kind of weird considering guests are usually touring during the day). There was a mix up about dinner (they didn’t serve it other than on Fridays and holidays) so we missed that and were treated rudely by the diva at the registration counter. So two thumbs down on that place.
Dead Sea Scrolls
In the morning, we visited Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Many years ago, a young Shepard boy was trying to get his goat to come out of a small cave when he discovered the jars left behind by members of the commune that lived there thousands of years ago. He told his father who told the local Sheik who sold them for a pretty penny. The area is very barren and is about a four day walk from Jerusalem. We learned more about how these desert dwellers survived using large water cisterns and planting date trees that sustained them in many ways. They prayed and wrote down spiritual stories in their scrolls, which they stored in air tight jars in caves to keep them safe.
All in all, the heat and desolation of this dessert area made me very grateful for our modern comforts—praise God for air conditioning and cars!
Next stop—our drive through the West Bank to the beauty of the Sea of Galilee.
View this clip from Ray Vander Lann’s series about the Dead Sea scrolls at http://www.rvl-on.com/clips/the-dead-sea-scrolls/.
“They did not thirst when He led them through the deserts. He made the water flow out of the rock for them; He split the rock and the water gushed forth.”