Ever since I saw the TV miniseries staring Peter O’Toole I have been interested in the ancient fortress of Masada. This is the location where Jewish freedom fighters fought bravely though unsuccessfully to reestablish an independent state of Israel.
Their attempt for renewed statehood, well documented by the historian Josephus, was always going to be a Quixotic quest – after all they were going up against a Roman Empire at the peak of its power. The dreams of the Jewish people were of course eventually realised only when another empire, that of the British, finally withdrew from the region.
It was therefore to Masada that my eyes turned when given the opportunity to travel round this ancient and fascinating country during my trip to Jerusalem in December 2008. When the question arose as to where to visit first the answer was clear – Masada. I opted for a trip that took in Masada while also allowing a dip in the Dead Sea.
The Judaean Desert
It was to the harsh crucible of the Judaean wilderness that Christ turned as his destination for meditation and contemplation before he embarked on the final and most critical mission of his life. It was here where he successfully resisted the temptations of the Devil!
This environment was not hostile to me, but it was hauntingly beautiful. After all, I was travelling through this challenging environment in the luxury of an air conditioned coach. If having a great time was to be tempted then I failed the Biblical test! My wanderings in this wilderness were a comfortable and highly enjoyable experience.
You can actually see the unique topography of the Judaean desert from Jerusalem itself as shown at the upper left in the photo below.
Our journey took us across the Kidron Valley, out of Jerusalem and into the Judaean Hills. From here you began your descent below sea level to the lowest land point on earth – the Dead Sea Plain. As you watch the landscape go by your mind takes you back to Biblical times.
Before dropping to the lowest level our journey stopped for a comfort break at a factory shop for Dead Sea products. Christmas was a couple of weeks later so it was an opportunity to get some Christmas presents.
Our route, parallel to the Dead Sea, took us past the Oasis of Ein Gedi. It would have been great to have stopped there to explore but it was not on the itinerary. I would have preferred to have missed the factory shop and used the time at Ein Gedi but it was not to be.
The cliffs above Ein Gedi were where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the
Qumran Caves. These gave us new insights into Jewish history in the Israel of Biblical times.
Masada – Redoubt of The Ancient Jewish State
This was where Roman General Lucius Flavius Silva faced off against Elazar Ben-Yair who was leading a Jewish war of independence against the Roman occupation. As the bus turned left to approach Masada you can imagine what was going through the general’s mind in AD 73 as he contemplated what was, to all intents and purposes, an impossible task.
To get to the top you either walk or you take the cable car – we took the cable car! When you reach the flat summit you turn right from the cable car to enter the remains of the fortified royal palace built between 37-31 BC by the great builder King Herod the Great. It had all the mod cons of the age as the remains of the hypocaust attests.
The views out across the Dead Sea are spectacular. You can also see the square outlines of the Roman forts that were used to enforce their siege.
The impressive ramp created by the Romans to bring up their siege engines and troops is also still visible. You have to take your hat off to the genius of the Roman engineers. It was this ramp that made the impossible possible and finally brought the stand off to a victorious conclusion for Rome.
Above: A Documentary About Masada
The Dead Sea – Rest and Recuperation (and wallowing in a mud pit!)
On our return back up the coastal road we made a right turn into a resort on the Dead Sea. Here everyone had the opportunity to do the floating trick and soak up the health enhancing properties of the water. There was also the attraction of the Dead Sea mud.
I don’t usually go for the new man and moisturiser approach to life. However, wallowing in a pit of runny mud looked like it had to makings of a good laugh.
I got really absorbed in the activity, to such an extent that other tourists were taking pictures of me as if I was an employee of the Israel Tourist Board there for their entertainment. It was great fun! After enjoying a second childhood playing in the mud it was time to wash it off by going for a swim and a float. All this amazingly left my skin soft and smooth for weeks.
As the sun began to go down, earlier than usual due to the shade from the cliffs of this rift valley, we began our journey across the desert back to Jerusalem.