Zvi let us sleep late and we did not leave our hotel in Jerusalem until 8:30 heading west and then south to the Dead sea and Masada. The views changed rather quickly from lush green Jerusalem and environs to the spectacular dry mountains of the Dead Sea area and the Judean desert. In less that one hour we descended from 750 meters(2,500 ft.) above sea level to 430 meters(1,410 ft.) below. Cool Jerusalem to hot and dry desert.
The Masada story is quite interesting, heroic and iconic. The National Parks brochure describes Masada as “the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans” and as “a Jewish cultural icon and a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom from oppression.” They also show a short movie which also reinforces the heroism of these freedom fighters. The description of events which most of us hear is of heroic Jewish freedom fighters fleeing Jerusalem to Masada, barely escaping the Romans. There is then a long Roman siege of Masada and a very heroic ending in which about 1,000 people committed suicide rather than submit to being enslaved by the Romans. Zvi spent much of our tour debunking this myth and giving us a more logical and historically acurate alternative scenario. He even had our group play act the final speech of Eleazar Ben-Yair.
The alternative story that we heard was of a group of thieves, assassins and scoundrels who preyed on other Jews and were run out of Jerusalem by the Jews themselves. They fled to Masada and continued to prey on local Jewish villages. The final siege probably only lasted a few months at most and the final mass suicide may have been more an act of cowardice than bravery.
In the interest of saving time, we took the cable car to the top of Masada.
Many of the excavated ruins have been rebuilt but they have a black line differentiating old from new. They had a very sophisticated water system, Roman baths, food storage, an armory, barracks and of course two palaces for Herod the great who built this fortress between 37 & 31 BCE.
From Masada we headed back north to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve which is located on the eastern edge of the Judean desert near the shore of the Dead Sea which at 430 meters below sea level is the lowest place on earth. One of the distinguishing features of the reserve is its sheer cliffs and four sweet water springs that flow down from the slopes of two wadis (valleys). We walked along a trail in the Wadi David by the river then stopped to cool off at the David’s waterfall.
The springs are fed by rain that falls in the Judean mountains and seeps into the underground water table welling up in the reserve. The reserve is home to hyenas, wolves, ibex, fox and leopards as well as a wide range of reptiles including two species of poisonous snakes. Fortunately we did not see any of them but did enjoy the tropical plants and dense groves of various trees that shaded us from the hot sun.
Back in the van we headed for our last adventure of the day, floating in the Dead Sea. Actually the Dead Sea is really a salt lake that borders Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. It is famous for its hyper-salinity which at 34% concentration is 10 times saltier than the ocean. Its mineral rich black mud is used for therapeutic and cosmetic treatments. The women in our group were all hesitant to go in for a number of reasons. Sandy had read that it is easy to drown as if you go in face first you can’t get your feet down. Apparently six people have drowned over the last five years. After much reassurance from Zvi everyone did go in. Getting in the water was treacherous as it was rocky and the seabed was very uneven and covered with slippery, slimy, gooey black mud. We all helped each other and waded in about waist deep before easing backward into the water. You can’t stay in the water too long and any breaks in the skin cause intense burning. After a quick float we showered and had drinks at the worlds lowest bar on the beach.
We drove back to Jerusalem, showered again to get rid of the mud and salt and went for drinks at the bar of the King David Hotel.