Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Day 6: Dead Sea, Masada, Qumran, Jericho

It's early on Thursday morning here in Jerusalem.  We're getting up plenty early so we can leave and be one of the first buses in line at the Jordanian border when it opens later this morning.  It's kind of sad to be leaving Jerusalem and Israel behind, but I'm of course excited to start the trip home to see my family.  Hopefully I can get this post finished before I have to go get some breakfast.

Day 6 of our touring was when we visited the Dead Sea area to the east of Jerusalem.  The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, over 1400 feet below sea level.  As we made our way down along the highway from Jerusalem, the countryside changed from hills with small trees on them to a more arid looking place.  We also saw more Bedouin camps along the way, such as this one:

Here is another Bedouin shepherd with his flock of sheep and goats:

It was a lengthy and steep descent from Jerusalem, and when we got toward the bottom everything opened up into a fairly wide valley.  Looking to the north, we could see the city of Jericho:

Here is a sign we passed showing we were now 300 meters below sea level (984 feet)

One of the most exciting things that happened all day was, after turning south onto the highway that runs along the western shore of the Sea, we encountered this large herd of domesticated camels.  It was a good opportunity to be reminded that they are technically dromedaries because they have only one hump.  Later, our guide would tell us that Muslim legend says that there are 99 attributes to Allah, and only the camel knows the 100th, so that's why they're smiling.  Anyway, here's the herd of dromedaries and you can see one of the herdsman in the background and behind him one of the date palm plantations that's also in the valley:

Amazingly, as we sat there and watched them, the herdsmen brought them across the highway right in front of our bus:

More camels crossing the highway and stopping traffic:

After waiting for all 90 some camels to cross, we continued north, getting a good look at the cliffs and hills along the west side of the Dead Sea valley:

Looking north along the Dead Sea at one point where the highway climbs up a bit.  You can see how the sea level has receded dramatically in recent years, mostly because of local use of the water.  Sink holes are even starting to open up in some places along these now exposed mud flats.  

Our first destination for the morning was the fortress of Masada.  Built during the time of Herod the Great, it's most well known as the place where hundreds of Jewish people fled during the first Jewish-Roman war that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans.  According to the story of the event told by the ancient historian Josephus, over 900 people were in the fortress when the Romans laid siege to it.  Eventually, the Romans built a ramp up to the fortress from the west side and threatened to overthrow it.  After the wall had been breached, the night before the Romans were going to enter and most likely take the people off into slavery, the leader of the Jewish rebels convinced the men to prefer death over slavery and they committed suicide after killing their wives and children and burning most of the buildings.  When the Romans entered the fortress the next morning, they found only two women and five children still alive.  Here is a model of Masada in the welcome center before you either take the Snake Path (a narrow winding path and staircase) or the cable car to the top, over 900 feet up:

We, of course, took the cable car:

Looking south from the top, you can see the Dead Sea in the distance:

A view of some of our group gathered on the platform at the top of the cable car line:

Another view looking east toward the Dead Sea from inside the fortress:

Looking to the west, there are more hills.  In the foreground are the storerooms that would have held provisions for Herod and later for the Jewish rebels.  There were also large cisterns to collect rainwater that ran off of the hills.  Part of why they think the Romans built the ramp and attacked is because they knew their best chance was to overthrow the fortress in the summer before the rains came again and replenished the rebels' supply of water.  

Another view to the south, this time from near the top of the fortress.  You can see the cable car and visitors center down below and the Dead Sea in the distance:

Looking over the fortress, there are more storerooms in the center.  Several have been intentionally left the way they found them when they excavated the site.  The others have been rebuilt using the stones they found.  After the Romans, some Byzantine monks lived here, and then the site was vacant and an earthquake eventually knocked most of it down.  They know this because all of the stones they found were lying on the east side (the left in the picture) of the walls all around the site.

Gila explaining and much more to our group:

A view to the east from the top of the fortress.  Immediately below are what they call the badlands, the Dead Sea beyond them, and the hills of the eastern side of the valley in Jordan are barely visible:

Looking down from our vantage point, you can see two lower levels of the palaces that Herod had here.  I guess he appreciated the view as well.  It's this three stair step design that made the place recognizable to an the archaeologist credited with discovering the site:

Looking west from the top, the square in the center is one of the Roman army camps that was built during the siege:

A model of the palace showing the three level design:

There was also a bathhouse located here, much like the one we saw in Beth Shean, only smaller.  I didn't get very good pictures of the one there, so I tried to get some of this one.  You can see how it worked in this reconstruction of one corner of the room.  The pillars below supported a floor.  Heat was brought under the floor and up through the pipes you can see inside the walls to provide a nice dry sauna experience.  The openings to the left are meant to imitate the alabaster windows that were probably in place:

The next place we stopped to talk was under this nice awning, and a bird joined us, making some of the people below him kind of nervous, but at least we got to see an Israeli bird up close:

Looking to the north from near the northwest side of the fortress.  In the foreground is one of the large cisterns built to collect water.  Up above is where we were standing at the top of the palace area:

A view of where the palace was, showing the three steps and the Dead Sea beyond:

Toward the middle of the eastern wall, they've reconstructed a portion of the ramp that the Romans built to finally breach the walls.  This view is from the original gate that the ramp would have come all the way up to:

Our group gathered around some of the large rocks they found that were thrown here by the Romans using large catapults.  Many of these rocks were rolled back down the ramp by the rebels to deter the Romans as they built it:

From Masada we headed back north, passing some more wonderful scenes along the way like this.  The small tree to the left is an acacia tree:

Our next stop was the oasis of Ein Gedi, a place that David fled to when he was on the run from King Saul in 1 Samuel 24.  Here is a view up the nature path we walked, showing you some of the hills as well as a few date palms.  These palms have not had their lower leaves trimmed like many of the others we saw

This little guy scampered along the path next to us, commonly known as a coney:

The lower waterfall of the stream that comes out of the spring.  We didn't walk to the upper falls or see the spring itself, but we got a good feel for what an oasis would have been like.  David's encounter with Saul here would have been farther up in the hills:

Before boarding the bus again, another view of some of the date palms, showing you the trimmed ones in the foreground and a couple of untrimmed ones in the distance:

As we headed for Qumran, we found some ibex along the road, so we were excited to finally see some of these small deer or goat-like creatures:

At Qumran, we had lunch and did some shopping for Dead Sea products like moisturizers and bath salts.  Then we explored the monastery that was built here by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that sought refuge in the wilderness here during Jesus' time.  Less than 5 miles from here is where John the Baptist would have been doing his preaching and baptizing.  Because he was born to elderly parents, it's possible that he could have been orphaned and taken in by the Essenes here. Qumran is most notable, however, as the site of caves in the hills above the old monastery in which the Essenes hid many scrolls of sacred texts.  Their accidental discovery by Bedouins in the 1940s is without a doubt the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century, in Biblical archaeology anyway.  The scrolls predated anything else that had been discovered by over 600 years, so it really advanced scholarship on the Hebrew Bible.  Here is Gila talking to our group with some of the hills in the distance that contained the first caves where scrolls were found:

Cave number 4, a place where every book of the Hebrew Bible was found except the book of Esther:

Because we had seen the actual scroll from Qumran of Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant text, in the Shrine of the Book the previous day, I took the time to read that passage to the group and Art took this lovely picture of me:

After Qumran, we went down to the Dead Sea to a location where you can get in and float on the water.  A handful of us decided to give it a try.  The bottom was really slippery at first, so here we are gingerly making our way out to deeper water.  You have to be very careful not to get the water in your eyes or mouth because it's over 30% salt and mineral, the saltiest sea in the world.

And here we are floating.  It was really quite relaxing:

On our way down to the water, we saw a lot of younger people smearing the mud all over their bodies.  Several of us also thought this looked like fun and gave it a try.  Jim and I thought it felt great:

Our last stop for the day before heading back to Jerusalem was the city of Jericho.  We were supposed to stop here on our first day in Israel, but we ran out of time that day.  We didn't have a lot of time to spend at the ancient excavation of the city, but we did get to see a nice sunset along the way:

From the old city of Jericho, looking to the west is this hill known as the Mountain of Temptation because it's most likely in this wilderness area above Jericho that the temptation of Jesus took place:

Jericho is also, of course, where Joshua fought his famous battle and the Israelites first conquered a city of the Canaanites, although none of the walls have been found.  One thing they have found on the site is this tower dating to 8000 BC, making it the oldest tower in the world:

As we headed back to the bus, some peacocks kept by a local business owner greeted us in the parking lot:

One was even on top of the bus!  A fun way to end our day along the Dead Sea.

So that was it for day 6.  I really have to get moving so I don't hold us up as we board the bus. I hope that the hotel in Jordan will have reliable (free would be nice, too) internet access so I can post more this evening.  If not, I will post about the rest of our adventures once I'm back home.  Thanks again for following along!


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