Day 10 – Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea

31 May

Today we had a hot and hectic awakening which is typical of the mornings before a road trip. I’m sure we were all excited to go visit all the wonderful places that we had planed for the day, but our eyes were half shut and our voices were hoarse. On the bus, I lay my head on the window and let my eyes take in the panorama as my brain was still trying to wake up. There were beautiful hills of sand and stone that made my mouth and eyes feel dry. The sun dispersed throughout the sky and the haze hid its shape; the prediction of a hot and stuffy day. At one point we stopped for a few moments at a gas station where we saw two camels. As soon as everyone noticed, the phones were pressed to the windows and there was clicking and wide open mouths. As we drove we started smelling the strong odor of sulfur… unless someone had beans last night!

When we finally arrived at Masada we entered a modern building where we were to take the cable cars up to the top of the plateau. We could already see the beautiful scenery of the contrast between the blue of the Dead Sea and the shades of the desert. We started talking with Talya about the challenges that come with living in the middle of the desert.

Masada is in the Judean Desert, which has a very low latitude that causes the water to evaporate. Masada is a natural geological fortress, it has valleys on each side of it. It was first discovered by the Hasmoneans, archeologists are not really sure what establishments they had at Masada prior to the palaces of Herod the Great, however they found traces of their presence. Most importantly, Herod built himself a sanctuary for troubled times. Herod was very powerful but also very fearful. He was elected “king of the Jews” by the Roman Senate, this made him hated all around since the Jews did not agree with the Roman ideology. He came instead of the Hasmonean king, and he had to regain power over him by killing people and establishing fear which also establishes hate. They say he built the Temple Mount to regain popularity. However, his great power also made him hated by Cleopatra. He basically had his reasons to be paranoid, thus this fortress was perfect for this great leader with great fears to refuge in.

Herod is known to conquer the nature with his constructions, he was a great builder, and this was very observable to us in Masada. The plaster was colorful everywhere, everything was done to maintain a high quality of life and to radiate a sense of luxury. The jewish law forbids any depiction of faces or animals on the walls, which is typical of roman decor, thus in Masada you will find more simple patterns. I saw many triangles on the floors, which reminded me that the triangle is the strongest geometrical shape, and it made me wonder whether Herod chose triangles knowingly as a symbol of power and strength.

We visited the bath house which contained a hot room, a lukewarm room and a cold room. The hot room was composed by two floors in between which there were pillars which created a space between the two floors where hot air was being blown from an oven on the side. This made the top floor boiling hot, to the point of needing wooden clogs to be able to walk on it. Water was also being inserted into the room, and the roof was arched so that the drops of condensed water would drip sideways instead of on top of whoever was enjoying the sauna. Now these baths are the home to vicious pigeons, passing tourists and overly expressive tour guides.

There were 23 storage rooms for imported italian wine, oil, flour, fish and whatever Herod thought he needed to survive in the middle of the desert in the best way possible. But what really allowed them to survive was the incredible cistern system whose aqueducts enjoyed the natural shapes of the mountains to transport the water into the 12 cisterns around the fortress.

The reason that Masada is so visited and glorified is because it was the place of a great act of heroism by jewish rebels. In the year 66 and on, Jerusalem stops being a safe place for Jews, thus they start finding refuge else where. Many Jews went into the desert and a significant group established itself in Masada where they tried to create a community and make a living. There is evidence of this in an old animal stall which was then turned into a place of gathering for Jews or even a synagogue, pieces of original parchment of jewish scripture were found in here. In August of the year 70 the Romans started destroying many jewish sites, Masada is the last one they go to. During passover the Jewish-Roman war comes to its climax; the Romans are close to the capturing of Masada. Passover is known as the festivity of freedom, so at this time the jewish rebels’ leader gave a famous speech.

“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”

Elazar ben Yair

After this inspiring speech the rebels decided to kill each other and when only 10 men were left they wrote down each name on stones and then they drew the name of the last man who would die by his own sword. The Romans arrived the next morning finding all the dead bodies and only two women and a few children who were able to escape. The story is then told by the 1st century Jewish Roman historian Josephus who heard it from one of the women who escaped. The mass suicide is very contradictory but Masada will always be seen as a place of refuge. After the second commonwealth and the second temple are destroyed, Masada represents the last moment before jewish life in exile. Zionist mythology then makes the story of a defeat into a heroic victory and uses the story to set a goal for the Israeli people; what happened in Masada will never happen again, Jews will never be unprotected again.

After the tiring walks around Masada we returned to the modern world into a mall right below the magnificent fortress. Most of us took the cable car down, but a few brave ones decided to walk down the endless stairs under the hot burning sun of midday. We enjoyed some food in the Mall and then we left for Ein Gedi. No one could wait to enter into a magical oasis after the dry ruins of the desert. Since people walk around wanting to locate the stories of the Bible, it is thought that King David hid in the caves of Ein Gedi in the midst of the desert. We all changed in to our swimsuits and dripped in sunscreen so we could be on our way towards the magical waterfalls and pools that sprung in the middle of the desert. We enjoyed the fresh water and had fun with the strength of the waterfalls. After a while we all became anxious to go to the Dead Sea, so we packed up our things and went back on the bus.

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The Dead Sea is the lowest place in the world and its water is 34% salt, whereas normal seas have around 3%. When we arrived to the Dead Sea we went straight to the beach where we took over a few sun beds and tables to set up camp and open the pretzels and chips that Lenny and Lori kindly bought for us. We then went to play in the mud, covering our whole bodies and faces with this magical mush. So magical, in fact, that we were attacked by a group of rude Asian tourists who were frantically filling up tupperware and cans of mud which was hindering us from enjoying the experience. Frustrated by the stubbornness and lack of respect, I resolved by moving the tub away from the woman who ignored my kind requests to stop taking all of the mud. After some fun pictures of our bodies filled and dried by the mud we floated in the Dead Sea. It was an incredible sensation. It was my first time and I was absolutely euphoric to be floating so easily in the water and to be rolling around in the softness of the mud that was slowly coming off and leaving a soft and oily sensation on my skin.

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When it was time to go we all changed in to our dry clothes and went back on the bus. I tried to write some journals but I fell asleep with a pen in my hand and flies in my mouth. We were all completely out of energy; the strong of will showered and then went to bed, while others passed out in their swimsuits wherever their bodies landed as soon as we got back.

-Lucrezia Rigano

(photo credits to Maria Amasanti)

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