Monday, June 25, 2012

Traveling in Israel: Masada and the Dead Sea

Looking up at Masada
Madasa is alive with memories and, like the Dead Sea below, with tourists. Masada - Hebrew for fortress - is of symbolic importance to contemporary Jews and for all of humankind as a vivid reminder of man's struggle for freedom.

It's also one heckuva big rock.

Visitor Center and model
Tip: You can climb up - and there are those who do - but save yourself for the top and take the cable car. There's a model in the Visitor Center of what it once looked like and where guides will orient you but it won't mean much until you actually get on top.You'll spend an hour or two there so use the bathroom facilities here first.

Model of King Herod's palace complex atop Masada.

The complex atop what we would call a mesa were originally built by King Herod the Great as both a summer palace and a refuge in case the Jews got out of hand or Cleopatra actively pursued her desire to add Judea to the Egyptian empire. His palace literally "hung" off the northern side in three stepped tiers.

Part of the administrative complex
 There was a large reception hall in the middle of the mesa plus baths, an administrative complex, garrisons and elaborate storage for food and water.
You can tell a King Herod era building by its unique "framed" blocks.

The ramp for the battering ram.
After Herod's death, a group of zealots during the Jewish uprising surprised the small number of troops remaining and took over Masada.

With travel pal Carol Timblin in the synagogue. Anything below the dark line is original, above it reconstruction.
With the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, many more joined them until the population numbered some 1,000 men, women and children. When Judea fell under direct Roman rule it was decided to get rid of these resisters. Roman legions with thousands of prisoners of war, circled the fortress with walls and built a massive ramp on the western side via which a battering ram was moved up to end the siege.
You can still see the squares of Roman encampments that surrounded Masada during the siege.

Masada's finale
According to legend, knowing their days were numbered, the 960 remaining Jews voted to take their own lives rather than submit to their fate under the Romans, death or slavery for all. This they did May 2, 73. Ten were selected by lot to be the last who would kill one another, torch the city and finally, commit suicide. They purposely left food and water stocks untouched to prove their actions were not the result of hunger or thirst.

One-tenth of the cistern complex.
The only written account of all this is suspect as its author, Flavius Josephus, a first century CE historian. He grew up as the son of the high priest and leader of the Jewish rebellion, but conveniently dropped his Jewish heritage, changed his name and became a Roman. He claimed the story was told by two females and a child who escaped rather than die.

Forty years later, Masada was abandoned and forgotten until rediscovered in the 1960s when excavations began.

Walking along the top of Masada.
Tip: You'll encounter 24 steps with a landing in between to reach the top but once there walking across the site is fairly easy with paths and 15 steps to Herod's palace.
Even off path it's not bad.

The Dead Sea from Masada.
 The views are spectacular.

The Dead Sea closer up.
Dead Sea - the Stats
Western border Israel, Eastern border Jordan
1,200 feet below sea level
Mountains surrounding it are 2,400 feet above sea level
65 feet wide at its widest point
20-minute drive from Jerusalem
Saltier in the north - 34 percent - than in the south - 12 percent.
 Although said to be good for you - stretches and tones skin and heals cuts - DO NOT
• try to swim in it
• wear anything metallic; the water will eat it up
• get its water in your eyes
• drink it - tastes bitter and its high magnesium content will kill you!

After hearing all of those warnings and feeling the cold air of January it took a lot of curiosity to make the plunge. However, it's one of those once in a lifetime things and you shouldn't miss it.

Bathhouse on left, path to the sea on the right.
Tip: You'll have a bit of a hike from bathhouse to sea. Watch out for the rocks of salt deposits - they're cuttingly sharp. The feeling is eerie as you are lifted by the water. Naturally, you lean back to float and that's where the trouble begins. The water is so buoyant, you can't get your torso up and feet down to stand! I'll add "Don't go in alone" to the warnings.

There will be opportunities for the traditional Dead Sea mud bath but I passed on that, preferring to buy mine from a tube. I do like the Dead Sea skin products, though.


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