Friday, 16 June 2017

Day 5 - heading south

We had a long drive south today, to Masada, Qumran and the Dead sea.

Due to the ever lower water levels in the dead sea the ground around that area has begun suffering sink holes. This required that a new road, higher up, was created – the benefit was that the drive was straighter and faster, taking less time to get there.

We arrived at Masada before the day was really hot, although by the time we’d been through the visitor centre and reached the top in the hill that the old fortress was built on, the sun was becoming fierce.

There is a cable car to take visitors up, and we used that because our party were mostly older than us and didn’t want to waste the approx 2 hours it takes to walk.  At the top are the inevitable ruins: storage areas, cisterns including a rainwater collection system, parts of the former palace including a roman-style baths with hypocaust and a ruined Byzantine church, that was forgotten about in the 14 centuries between last use and rediscovery. Views are good, but the day is a little misty, reducing the impact.

On the opposite side of the hill from the dead sea is the remains of the Roman ramp used to gain access to the stronghold, the height advantage being only around 250 feet instead of the 900+ feet on the other side.  The slope of the ramp is very steep, and it seems amazing that they could get siege towers and war engines up there to batter the walls. Viewing around the area, several Roman camps have been marked out by the archaeologists using piles of stones to indicate where walls once lay. The entire hill was surrounded by a wall more than 2M tall to keep the besieged rebels trapped and unable to escape.

What’s the big deal with Masada? It was the last point of resistance against Rome when Judah rebelled in AD 66-70, but was long forgotten. If you asked a Jew what was the significance of Masada in their faith then they would likely answer “none at all”. It has however been used as a rallying point and symbol for resistance against oppressors in modern Israel. The last rebels of the resistance all committed suicide the night before their stronghold was entered by the Romans, only leaving 2 women and some children alive to tell what happened. Josephus helpfully records those events for us, possibly from interviewing the survivors, however the bodies of the rebels were never found, and no-one knows what happened to them.

Off for lunch at the Qumran café. IIRC it was expensive and only OK.

Qumran was the place of the finding of the dead sea scrolls, in caves above the plateau left by the dead sea. This is now mid-afternoon and the sun is fierce enough to make us perspire when stood in the shade. A note about that – Israel is not the hot, dry place we’d been led to believe, but instead was quite humid, making heat loss difficult to manage and frequently resulting in everyone being soaked in sweat by the end of the day.

We look at distant hillsides with small dark openings. Apparently after the first find, every cave in the area was visited by Bedouin in the hope of finding treasure they could spend, as witnessed by the cigarette butts left behind. Another cave can be seen, a little closer, that apparently contained some key fragments and scrolls, and that does at least seem a little more tangible.

The area around Qumran looked fascinating: wadis carved by seasonal flash floods, wind and water sculpted rocks, strange and wonderful formations. We only see these from the coach while driving through: I can’t help but feel that in the quest for trying to satisfy the religious, we missed much of the beauty and wonder in the country, and the decrepit Palestinian areas seemed generally far more interesting that the smarter, cleaner but dull Israeli areas, despite being filled with filth and rubbish.

And then to our Dead Sea ‘floating’ experience at Kali beach.

I’d like to say it was amazing, to be buoyant like that, and it did feel a little curious, but not tremendously different to floating in fresh water – to me at least – other than finding it much harder to hold ones head up because of the angle the floater’s body was forced into. Apparently the high Magnesium chloride content  is what makes the water feel greasy on the skin, and the high level of salt causes the lips to become quickly coated with a burning bitterness. Curiously, some fresh grazes and cuts from my fall the day before at Herodium did not sting as expected, and only began to smart a little after 10-15min. I also found some large crystals of salt in the waters there, and brought them back with me to the shore.

People who had been to the dead sea 30 years earlier commented that there was no Kali beach resort with rip-off prices then, and you could just turn up and swim where you liked. Also that the water was relatively clean & clear and the shoreline edged with white crystals such as I had found. I guess it’s unreasonable to expect people to turn down a strong business opportunity.

This day did have a highlight - we were able to walk down from the hotel into Jerusalem for the shabat/Sabbath gathering at the western wall on Friday night. This turned out to be a mad headlong dash through crowded streets, passing between busy shoppers buying presents and foodstuffs for Ramadan. Everywhere there were interesting sights and smells, deals being done, people meeting and greeting, traders plying their wares from small rooms that looked almost like caves set into the buildings behind. I managed to get some photos during the scramble through, selecting a wide aperture where there was enough light for conventional photography, selecting a small one where there was not for intentional camera movement pictures.

When we arrived at the western wall there was quite a lot of similar activity to what we’d seen before, and the prayer areas were more crowded. Chris went to pray, and again I stayed in the outer courtyard - God knew where I was if he wanted me to talk to Him.

After about 10min by the wall we regroup & head back, going a different way. One of the party is not well, and starts getting left behind uphill, causing consternation for our party leaders. After a quick ‘help’ prayer a minibus taxi ‘magically’ appears (Israeli taxis don’t normally work on the Sabbath) and for 140 shekels takes us all back to the hotel.

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