Israel doesn’t disappoint.
Barry had wanted to visit Masada. That was Number One on his hit parade. Today was for him.
We decided to break down and actually rent a car. We got a mid-sized Kia for $70/day for two days. I got behind the wheel with a certain amount of trepidation and healthy fear and we took off.
It should have been expected in this ancient city that I would get turned around. Before we knew it, we were probably halfway to Jerusalem. The GPS was far too sensitive to touch to figure out so I opted to turn around, go back into Jerusalem and hit the highway that would take us to the Dead Sea and down to Masada.
Traffic in Jerusalem can be daunting, but once one becomes acclimated to the driving styles, it’s doable. Probably the most frustrating thing is the constant horn honking. I’ve never quite understood why grown men feel that honking their horns in a traffic jam will cause the people causing the traffic jam to suddenly see the error of their ways and move.
But I digress.
The highway east to the Dead Sea seemed to have been recently constructed. A four-lane freeway, it was smooth as silk and we sped down from Jerusalem, through the hills towards what is, the lowest place on Planet Earth. The scenery was bland. The hills were void of any vegetation. Occasionally we would see goats munching on grass which explained why the hills were barren. Goats will eat everything in their path.
As we drove deeper downward we passed shanties. These were shanties that one would expect in India or Pakistan, not a wealthy, urban, sophisticated nation like Israel. The houses defined the term “ramshackle” with barely any walls or roofs. You could see inside some of them. Low income housing in America looks like a Beverly Hills manse compared to this.
In the distance we soon saw the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is aptly named because it is void of life. Fish and any type of sea life cannot live due to its salinity. The Sea is seven times as salty as the ocean, thereby eliminating all oxygen. The Dead Sea is also known for its holistic qualities. Products ranging from bath salts to sea mud to creams are available to purchase. Spas dot the shore and offer guests therapeutic mud baths and hot springs.
The temperatures today at the Dead Sea were around 108 degrees. We had our air conditioning blasting. Since we were in the Judean desert, the sun was intense. We sped along the two lane highway that hugs the Sea. Even at 80 mph, people were tailgating and passing us. On the other side of the Sea was Jordan. The thought of driving across the border just to say we had been there crossed our mind.
I was actually stunned by the beauty of the Dead Sea. The name is misleading. One almost expects black water or something rancid, tepid or hideous. Instead, the Sea was a beautiful emerald green when we first reached the northern tip. From there its hues ebbed and flowed into brilliant blues. At some points the water was as smooth as glass.
Yet the shoreline belied its salinity. The Sea is retreating at the rate of one yard per year due to the pressures of industry, population growth and agriculture for Jordan, Syria and Israel. The Jordan River feeds the Dead Sea and the nations are using more and more water for their needs.
As we pressed onwards we found a truck stop. I pulled in and we bought snacks that we consumed at an outdoor table. Brisk winds whipped the umbrellas over our tables and provided some respite from the punishing heat. After finishing, we hopped into the car and sped on down the highway.
I was amazed at the vegetation along the Dead Sea. I wondered if it could possibly be due to a higher water table. We drove by several palm tree farms and coconut tree farms. Palmetto farms were also there. Scrub brush and trees popped out of the desert floor.
Eventually we reached Masada. Masada was built by King Herod and was used as a winter retreat. Eventually, it was abandoned, only to be taken over by a group of rebel Jews who used it as a base for their strikes against the Roman Empire.
Located at the top of a mountain butte, Masada was besieged by Roman soldiers for more than a year in an attempt to starve out the rebellious Jewish community that numbered nearly 1,000. Due to the location of a natural spring, and the sophisticated facilities that Herod had built, the Jews were able to thrive despite the siege.
Ultimately, the Romans built a ramp up the western side of the mountain, only to find that their enemies had committed mass suicide rather than suffer the humiliation and sure enslavement by the Roman kingdom. Now on the UNESCO World Heritage list of preserved sites for its cultural and historical significance, Masada is venerated as an icon of Jewish ingenuity and resilience.
Today there is a modern resort at the base of the mountain. A tram ride can be purchased for $19 to take one to and from Masada. Of course, there is the requisite gift shop and restaurant. It is also possible to take a forty-five minute hike up the side of the mountain to the top. Facing 108 degree heat, we opted for the tram.
Upon reaching the top, the views were absolutely stunning. Striations in the mountains surrounding Masada told of millenia of flooding and erosion. At the bottom of the mountain was the location of a camp used by the Roman soldiers nearly two thousand years ago.
Masada was not quite what I expected. Certainly there were ruins–baths, storehouses, massive dining areas, cisterns and whirlpools. But most of the history seemed to revolve around the Roman aspect of the site. Personally, I was more interested in the Jewish history and how a tiny band of randy Jews were able to hold at bay the mighty Roman Empire.
To be sure, there were some placards that spoke of the smarts of the Jewish sect–how they stored and preserved food, how they occasionally sneaked out and assassinated Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, how they created their own society. And, of course, there was information on their mass suicide. But, I felt it was lacking in information.
As we walked, the sun was beating down on us. Being so high up on a mountain seemed to make the rays that much hotter. I doffed my tank top, caring not a whit if an official might blow a whistle at me–the sweat was dripping off my neck.
Barry and I had wandered on our own. Ultimately, we reunited at the extreme southern end of this enormous butte where there was located one of several enormous cisterns for holding precious water–the lifeblood of the desert. We climbed down the stairs to escape the glaring sun.
Sitting on the steps, perhaps forty feet into the earth, we marveled at the huge cistern. The steps were smooth from centuries of use. The walls were smooth from the water. I leaned back and reveled in absolute silence. No horns, no music, no words. Not even a bird chirping. I hoped to catch forty winks.
Then…<sskkzzxx> Barry was out. The man can sleep anywhere and he proved it. Here we were, forty feet into the earth in the Judean desert, at a World Heritage Site, sitting on the steps of a cistern 2,000 years old, and Barry was sawing logs. I was frustrated because I need to ease into slumber and he was out the minute he parked his butt.
After an hour and a half on the butte, we had seen everything and took the tram back down the mountain. I bought some Dead Sea mud which is good for skin conditions and we returned to our car, pulled out of the parking garage and swerved back onto the highway for Jerusalem.
As we neared the sign for the King Hussein Bridge which crossed over into Jordan, we decided to take a quick detour. How cool would it be to say we drove across the border so we could add Jordan to our bucket list of nations?
Alas, It was not to be. A guard came out to greet us and told us that rental cars were not allowed into Jordan. Dejected, we turned around and returned to Jerusalem. But hey, we at least got to the border, didn’t we?
On the way back to Jerusalem, I stopped at a spa to get photos of us in front of a sign saying “Lowest Place on Earth”. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the effects of a blistering sun on a steel signpost. Leaning against it with my shoulder, I let out an expletive. Barry, caring soul that he is, made sure he got it on camera. It will remain in my archives. Instead, I a studly one of me braving the heat.
After another full day of experiences in a nation full of amazement, we returned to our hotel. Popping into the hotel-owned restaurant next door, we bought chicken and rice dinners with salad, olives and yogurt. Tomorrow, with the flexible luxury of our rental car, we plan on hitting Bethlehem, Jericho, the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth.