Thursday, May 27, 2010

Masada and the Dead Sea

Today wins the prize for an endurance test. We left at 7:00 to drive to Masada, in the southern part of the Judean desert, near the Dead Sea. There we visited the ruins of the fortress built by Herod the Great. It’s an incredible city on a desert mountain the ruins of which were excavated in the 1950s and 1960s. This is where the Jews fought to their death in the Great Revolt that began in 66 CE and ended with the siege of the fortress by the Romans in 73 or 74 CE. The site is now on the World Heritage sites list of UNESCO and it is something to behold. The plateau on which Herod built his fortress is 450 meters above sea level, rising up as a massive mountain out of the Judean desert. Visitors can go up to tour the ruins via cable car or by hiking up what is called the snake pit trail. Our leader advised us against trying to walk up since we arrived by about 8:30 and he felt it was too hot. Some of us were skeptical about his concerns until we decided to walk down it rather than take the cable car. After touring the ruins for about an hour in the blazing sun, 7 of us decided we’d walk down rather than ride. It took us 45 minutes walking carefully down the side of the mountain, which is rocky, dusty and HOT!!! I drank 1.5 liters of water just on the sightseeing above and the descent on foot, the last slugs of my water bottle feeling like I was drinking from the hot water tap. There are stairs cut into the mountain for much of the descent and the rest is a dusty footpath. We were all drenched in sweat by the time we got to the bottom, and we learned that the temperature was 110 degrees! I think I’m glad I didn’t know that as I was walking down. The views were amazing out across the desert to the Dead Sea but I am now paying with very sore muscles in my legs just above my knees and a whopping headache, probably from dehydration. I’ve been pounding down the water all day but still do not feel rehydrated. I have a new found respect for the perils of the desert!

We then went to the Dead Sea and put our feet in the water there. It was amazing to watch folks floating effortlessly on the dense and chemically rich water! It felt good to have my feet in water, even though it was particularly warm and not what one would call refreshing water either! I’ve included pictures of me on the top of Masada and one of me and Susan Nowak dunking our feet in the Dead Sea.

From there we went to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. As we were driving back to Jerusalem to head on to Bethlehem, the sky became especially hazy (it had been somewhat hazy all day, even in Masada) and began spitting rain a little. Before long the air was thick whitish brown and opaque. Apparently this is not uncommon here to have a weather system move in that traps desert dust and moisture in the atmosphere, causing a heavy pressure in the air and this thick cloud of whitish brown dust. It is rather oppressive and was sufficiently thick that when we returned to the hotel our view of the Old City was gone!

Our evening lecture was by a young Palestinian woman who is working on a PHD in conflict resolution. Her story about being a Palestinian woman seeking advanced education was very moving, as by doing so she is going against some cultural norms. She is a sign of new things happening for women in this Middle Eastern culture and it was inspiring to hear her story.
At this point, I’m completely exhausted, and still suffering from a bad headache and sore muscles. I’m hoping a good night’s sleep will revive me because at present I’m done in! I don’t think I’d make a good desert nomad!

More tomorrow.


  1. As I seem to be the only one commenting ... I didn't want you to think that I was not reading today's!

    How did the visit in Bethlehem go? The wall surrounding the city is pretty intimidating. And the encroaching 'settlements' with their private roads and access are a sight as you look across the Shepherd's Field. So many in the West just don't understand what 'settlements' mean on the ground in Palestine. They think of them as frontier settlements on the plains of Kansas or something. No, they are right in the middle of Palestinian land, using the water (often drilling wells deeper than Palestinian wells so as to make them dry up), and with a walled fortress around them.

    Stay safe. Reports on the BBC tonight were that some violence was occurring on 'settlement' access roads.

  2. Bethelem was uneventful, but mostly because we have Israeli guides and buses so we are not subject to much scrutiny even at the checkpoints. And, unfortunately our trip leaders are not making much of a point to point out the landscape so that as the bus drives along the highway, much is missed. I know about the settlements and wall around Bethlehem from my last trip but it was not highlighted to this group.