24th November, 2012
Masada, Dead Sea, Jericho, Galilee
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I am beginning to write this in the few moments that I have after lunch at Qumran. I am sitting outside the restaurant overlooking the Dead Sea with the mountains of Edom on the other side, smoking my pipe. We have just come up from Masada where we spent most of the morning. At 1pm, the bus will come back to collect us and take us somewhere where we can have our “Dead Sea experience”.
We farewelled Jerusalem at 7:30am. The bus took us down to the Jordan Valley and along the road running south through the West Bank on the edge of the Dead Sea. About Masada is located towards the bottom of the Dead Sea as it is today. The terrain on the west side of the Sea is very dramatic, with high limestone cliffs crumbling down into the sea. The Sea is shrinking due to irrigation and evaporation (it has fallen 80 feet in about 25 years). The resulting mudflats are a dangerous place to explore, as sink holes are want to develop without warning.
We took the cable gondola up to the top of the Masada mountain – the alternative is to walk up the “Serpent” or “Snake Path”, which takes about 45 minutes. I would have liked to have done this, at least on the way down, as the views are quite spectacular. I think they should offer a certificate to everyone who makes it to the top along this path. The cable ride is short, but equally breathtaking. At the top, a ramp takes you to the entrance to the fortress. Please google Masada if you don’t know about it; I was introduced to the story back in first year Seminary when the great mini-series starring Peter O’Toole as Vespasian first aired on television. I was amazed by the story then – especially the Roman determination to take the Jewish rebel outpost at all costs. This is what Masada is best known for, but of course it was a fortress built by King Herod the Great before that. He didn’t come here very often – Gila proudly said that she has visited Masada more than Herod did.
The excavations are extensive, and show the evidence of not only Herod’s fortress on the northern slope, but also the 66-70AD buildings of the Zealot rebels and even a later Byzantine monastic church (actually quite well preserved). The real “problem” with Masada is what it represents for modern Israel. Partly because of this “problem”, it has no place at all in Jewish tradition. The “problem” is the way in which the rebels cause met it end: when the Romans finally breached the fort – after building a gigantic ramp up the Western side of the mountain and using fire and a battering ram to get through the walls – they discovered that all the rebels had killed their families and committed suicide. Only two women and a few children survived, and it was from these, according to Josephus, that the story was told of the last days on the mountain. The “problem” is the way the Masada rebels ended their standoff. When the Romans finally breached the walls, the men of the community determined to kill their wives and children and then one another, until there was only one left, and he fell on his own sword. They did this rather than be killed by the Romans and their wives and children taken as slaves. The way this story is taught today to Israelis is that this was a great stand for freedom, and yet as Gila pointed out, suicide and murder is as forbidden in Judaism as it is in Christianity. Masada therefore, while being a symbol of the national determination to be a free people, has a highly ambivalent place in the story of modern Israel. The next thing on our agenda today after lunch is a recreational visit to the Dead Sea…
Okay, I’ve decided that swimming in the Dead Sea definitely should go on the list of things you should do before you die. In fact, if I could, I would put it on the list of things to do every morning when I woke up. I couldn’t take my camera down to the sea, as all we could take with us was our bathers to change into (we hired towels), so I don’t have any pictures, but those of us who went in had a lot of fun. At one point, I was “standing” in the water, with my shoulders and upper torso well out of the water, and not touching the bottom. It is easy to lie back and float on the surface. Where I got in the water was quite cold, but a little distance away it was warmer and nice to sit in. Then we discovered the mud – and the more adventurous of us, reckoning that this stuff cost $40 for a small packet in the gift shop, decided to try the all over body mudpack for free. You could feel the salts in the mud getting into your skin, and rubbing it on your skin was like being steam blasted. After washing it off in the showers, it left the skin feeling very clean (and a little bit tingly). Unfortunately, we only had an hour to change, get in the water, swim around for a bit and then get out, wash and dress. I could have spent a couple of hours here but we needed to get to Jericho.
Jericho is going through what Gila called “a building boom” at the moment and is actually quite a large city. The Centre of the modern city is closer to the ancient settlement which goes back more than 12,000 years. It claims to be the oldest city in the world, although the city has not been continuously inhabited for all that time. One of the difficulties biblical historians have is that it appears that at the time when Joshua and the people of Israel were supposed to have entered the land, Jericho was (as far as the archaeologists can tell) in a period of desertion. I asked Gila what she thought of this: do we take our cue from the archaeologists about what “really happened” or do we suppose that the scriptures are correct and we just don’t have all the information yet. She said that she is definitely of the latter opinion. We climbed up onto the mound where the ancient city of Jericho is being excavated. Here, in the trench diggings, the various layers of the city over the millennia can be clearly seen. A sizable tower has been unearthed deep in the mound which is claimed to be the oldest city building ever yet to be discovered, dating back to 10,000BC. Nearby the city mound is the spring which provides Jericho with all its water for drinking and irrigation (now under a red tiled building, but mentioned in the bible in association with Elisha – 2 Kings 2:18ff). At the entrance to the mound, there is a building with a red-tile roof which now covers the spring, but at the entrance to the mound there is a rather beautiful and touching moment to “Elisha’s spring”. Certainly the area today is very fertile – the principle crop is date palms which are everywhere, and which has long been associated with the city. It is no coincidence that at least one account in the Gospels says that as Jesus entered Jerusalem from Jericho, people welcomed him by waving palm branches.
Also in the town is a sycamore tree, which is said to be the tree that Zachaeus climbed in order to see Jesus over the crowd. Of course, not only is this tree not 2000 years old, it isn’t in the right place. During Jesus’ time, the city was actually not on this spot at all, but some distance away up the side of the mountains – you could see the spot from the mound. Further up the cliff face above Jericho is the Greek Orthodox monastery of the Temptation, reckoning (quite reasonably) that this was the area in which Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism by John nearby. There is a cable lift going from Jericho up to the mountain where the monastery is located.
On the way North to Ma’agan on the Sea of Galilee where we are staying tonight, we stopped at Beit She’an – the place of King Saul’s death in battle. The exact spot of the battle is today marked by a Kosher McDonalds (perhaps the starkest example yet of the way in which the past is covered over by the present in this land)! There are many archeological digs in the area, but we did not have time to look at them. We did stop at an ancient Roman amphitheatre very near the MacDonald’s site where Saul was killed, which was used during the 2nd to 4th Centuries AD for lion fights and gladiatorial fights (it even had a gladiator school). The lions would have been the local breed, smaller than the African lion, although there are no lions left in the region – the Crusaders killed them all. At the time when the amphitheatre was in use, Beit She’an would have been the second largest city in the area, some 20-30 thousand inhabitants.
We then got back on the bus and headed North for Galilee, arriving at the Ma’agan Eden Holiday Village after sun-down. This is a very different place to the kind of places we have stayed at so far, resembling a family holiday park. We are staying in individual bungalow style rooms not unlike cabins in a caravan park. It is very comfortable, with the two things that we most need to make this place a true “Eden”: free and fast wifi internet connection in our rooms and a place to hang up our washing outside. The place started just before the Second World War as a Kibbutz for young Zionists. It is still a Kibbutz, with a farm attached for growing food and running dairy cattle, but the Holiday village is the main source of income for the community today. The Kibbutz is on the very shores of the Southern end of the Sea of Galilee, which looked very pretty with the lights of the surrounding towns reflecting in the water.
We celebrated mass for Christ the King tonight before heading down to a very nice dinner in the dining hall (which is more like a big buffet camp refectory than a hotel dining room). The night was calm and so I sat outside under the verandah of our room, to smoke my pipe and do the nightly blogging and picture backup/upload. I skyped my family (who were just getting up and preparing to go to church), and then prepared for bed. Because our room has a separate lounge and bedroom, Fr Peter decided to move his bed into the lounge room so we effectively have a room each to ourselves for the next few nights. It is just after midnight now, and so I will upload this in the morning.