Exploring the Dead Sea Area

Thursday December 22, 201

We've spent the last few days exploring all the amazing things that Jerusalem has to offer. We still have one more night at the King David, but the rest of the trip will be spent in other areas. So today it was off to the south to drive by the Dead Sea and two great sights: Masada and Ein Gedi.

The rain has finally stopped and the day started out fairly sunny. Our drive takes us downhill to the Dead Sea -- the lowest point on Earth. The surface of the sea is 1,300 feet below sea level. So the air got thicker and the temperature rose several degrees the lower we got.
There are a lot of date palm groves along the shore,
and that is Jordan on the other side of the water.

Since a) it is December (pretty chilly), b) Wendy has already done the float-and-mud-bath business, and c) Wayne is not a fan of being in the water, we contented ourselves with just enjoying views of the sea from afar.

So our first actual stop was Masada National Park. To set the scene: we are in the middle of the Judean Desert. But this is a desert in the dictionary meaning: a place that gets very little precipitation. This is not the endless miles of sand dunes kind of desert (like we experienced in Morocco). This desert consists of a long range of mountains and lots of scrub land. The reason that "Masada" plays a part in history is that there is a gap in the mountains, and on this gap sits the stand-alone mesa of Masada. It was here in 30 BC that King Herod (yes...that guy again) built his greatest palace.
(No...we did not take the helicopter tour; this pic is from the interweb)

But there is little evidence that he actually used it. He primarily had it built as a "safe house" in case of an attack from an enemy force, but he died before it ever became necessary to use it thus. So it was pretty much abandoned around 4 BC.

Jump ahead to 70 CE, and the Romans have just destroyed the 2nd Temple in response to a Jewish revolt.  But there were zealot revolutionaries who had escaped--900, in fact--(including family members).  These individuals fled to Masada and took up residence there (and actually added or changed very little to the existing structure and layout). You know the rest: Romans laid siege to the fortress, eventually breached the wall, and prepared to capture the rebels. But...rather than be captured, killed, or forced into slavery, the Jews committed suicide (or so, the story goes). We absolutely know there was a siege there; we know there were suicides; we know there were acts of heroics; to what degree we are unsure (read the great Jewish historian's Josephus Flavius work for all the details).

Then the site was abandoned again, and, other than the erection of a small Byzantine Church in the 5th century, no one has lived there since. Again, since this is a desert, much has been incredibly preserved over the last 2,000 years. There were major archaeological digs in the 1960s and 70s, which yielded many, many pieces of pottery, coins, weapons, etc. Now people are allowed to walk around the encampment and experience all the history it has to offer.

There are 3 ways to get to the top, which is 1,300 feet up from the road (so, it is essentially, back at sea level!):
1. The snake Path: as the name implies, a very windy switchback stair-climb. It takes about 45 minutes to go from bottom to top, and is a pretty strenuous climb.
2. The Roman Path: this uses part of the ramp that the Romans built during their siege (Yes!  It is still there). This is on the other side of the mesa from the main entrance, so it actually takes anther hour's drive to get there.
3. The cable car: a beautiful, gentle 2 minute ride to the top.

One  of us chose Option 1; the other Option 3. You guess who took what!

A few words from the climber:  The Snake Path is described as quite difficult (reminded me of the negative hype surrounding one of the Machu Picchu climbs).  However, while there was plenty of elevation, it was basically a series of many many staircases (often with railings).  Yuval and I got a good workout and I was so glad I did it--but it wasn't treacherous by any means. Next time at sunrise.

Here are views of some of what we saw going up, and at the top (we could fill an entire album with all the fabulous pix we got); you really have to be up there to appreciate the size of it:
The view of Masada from the Snake Path 

One of the buildings at the top

View from the top. The square area just right of center past the trail
is the remains of a Roman military camp set up during the siege.

People climbing up the Snake Path (they look like ants!)

Ta-Da!  Made it!!!!! 

 A view looking down at the desert's desolation,
with Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea in the background.

These photos really do not portray the beauty and vastness of the site. Much better to be there and experience it in person.

Yuval led us around and explained both the history and what many of the buildings were used for. One of these was a building that was taken over by the rebels to use as a synagogue. Amazingly, there is a scribe who comes here almost every day (not on Shabbat of course), and in a specially built (and modernly equipped) room, he is writing a Torah! (Not sure where it will go when he finishes.)

Yuval engaged him in conversation in Hebrew, though it turns out he speaks English. We mentioned that today is our 42nd anniversary and he told us he would write a special note for us.  He asked us our Hebrew names -- Ze'ev for Wayne and Simcha for Wendy -- and then wrote (using the same Torah quill!) and gave us this beautiful keepsake:
Our names are at the top. The bottom is a short-hand blessing meaning "May you live to be 120 ". Though it is only the size of a business card, it is one of the sweetest and most incredible gifts we've ever received.

We all took the cable car down. Of course the exit leads you through the gift shop (where we got a few things) and then into the museum-quality cafeteria. One shawarma and one falafel later we were back on the road.

We drove a few miles to the Ein Gedi kibbutz. If you remember from a previous post, "Ein" (or sometimes "En") means "spring", as in a source of water. This place was literally an oasis in the desert (the spring still flows to this day), eventually became a town, but was ransacked by the zealots and destroyed by those Romans on their way to Masada. In the late 50s it became a kibbutz. It is one of the more successful ones, and they eventually opened a hotel on the property. Though the buildings are the same unadorned, utilitarian design we saw at the other kibbutz, they have turned the grounds into a botanic garden. Add to that the incredible views of the mountains rising up nearby and the place had a true Edenic feel.

Our last stop of the day was again quite close by: The En Gedi Nature Reserve. This is a beautiful set of hiking trails that goes up into the mountains and runs along the spring, including a number of beautiful waterfalls.

At points, it looks a lot like trails in Arizona......

....except for the Hebrew on the sign.

There is supposedly a lot of wildlife in the park, including bats, wolves, and ibexes, but all we saw were more cute hyraxes

Awwwww......can we take him home (says the rodent-lover among us)?

Here are some of the memorable sights:

Back in the car for the 90 minute ride back to J-town.

Our anniversary dinner was at the American Colony Hotel, ostensibly the 2nd nicest hotel in Jerusalem; it is located in East Jerusalem, so the staff was all Palestinian. This is a beautiful property, completely decked out for Christmas, including the songs--it was certainly a change of pace.  The food was outstanding--a combination of classics, regional, and sea food. Wendy started with eggplant carpaccio roll ups (resplendent with crab and ricotta).  OMG, who knew! Wayne chose a potato soup flavored with garlic and mint. 

For our mains, Wayne chose chicken breasts flavored with arak (like a Mideast ouzo) and clementines and perched atop barley risotto.  Wendy chose spicy shrimp curry adorned with pineapple and cashews and served with fried rice.  It was extraordinary and between the two of us, we savored every bite (and here we were in clean plate club).

For desserts, Wendy chose a caramel almond nut tart with pistachio ice cream (seemed Mideastern) and Wayne chose sorbet.  We didn't particularly like the tart but it is beautiful to look at, so we included here.  Also, please note the mint tea in the background.  The service of such tea is not the same (as in the highly choreographed techniques) as in Morocco; but the taste is identical.

Another outstanding day!

One last word about Jerusalem as we prepare to say goodbye Friday morning.
It truly is a divided city. It is officially divided (many would refuse to say "legally" divided), though not physically divided (there is no actual painted "green line"), so the separation is not as blatant as the barbed-wire fortified wall that separated East and West Berlin. In fact, there used to be an 18 foot fence here when the city was partly in Israel and partly in Jordan. The city is also ethnically divided, much as many American cities (including Chicago) are.  People from one area may live there many years and consciously never travel to another nearby area in the same city. Finally, within the Jewish communities, it is religiously divided. There is a wide spectrum of Judaism and it is clearly evident here, to the point where some groups blindly even deny the existence (and certainly the legitimacy) of others. Is there a pathway out of this labyrinth of our own creation?

Love, w&w.............

ps: As always, if you notice any factual errors in any of our posts, please notify us and we will correct them. Thanks!

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