Traveling In Israel - The Beauty of the South, Dead Sea and Beyond

Israel - Masada

From the north, we made the long journey down Route 90 – often called Gandhi’s road – which divides the edge of the country.  Along the highway, peering through the fences, you can see Jordan toward the Dead Sea area and the Judean desert

Because we are traveling through the West Bank, we had to go through several check points.  Only certain areas of the West Bank are permitted for tourists.  If you are interested in seeing the cities there, a special guide can be arranged.

Israel - The Dead Sea Separations

 

Succulent dates export from here all over as does sulfur and other minerals. 

It’s a totally different terrain here than up north.  While scattered farms and kibbutzim are seen, the arid area stretches for miles around.  The vastness of the landscape is reminiscent of the wilderness journey of the Hebrews after they exited Egypt and wandered for 40 years. 

(For those unfamiliar with the term, the kibbutz and moshavs are communal settlements, many originally  started when the Jews began returning to the country in the 1800’s , to help restore the land to the fertile ground that it is now.  These farm areas are seen all over the country and can be a true experience to visit.  As a student, I spent a summer at Kfar Blum – a northern kibbutz – which shows you a whole new way of living. It’s possible to stay inexpensively on one of these settlements and even take a tour specializing in them.)

A holy place for all three religions, it was where John, the Baptist went into the waters and where pilgrims often still renew their vows.

 

Israel - Jordan River Baptismal Place - Israel Ministry Tourism

Many of you have heard about the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran.  (When you’re in Jerusalem, you’ll find it interesting to see remnants of the parchments at the Israel Museum.)  Found by a young shepherd as he searched for one of his lost lambs, the boy discovered pottery filled with historical scrolls filled with, in some cases, unseen Biblical material.  Many of the scrolls, which were preserved due to the extreme dryness in the area, were sold illegally on the antique market at a time when these items were not regulated.  Stop by the site and examine the landscape for yourself.

Along the road we stopped for coffees and many of us communed with the camel by the roadside.  It’s possible, for a small fee, to take a camel ride, if you want.

 

Israel - Weaving Tzitis - the Traditional Prayer Shawl - Israel Tourism Photo

It's possible while in the Judean desert to wander David’s trail and even repel from the cliffs. 

Take a stop at Ein Gedi – a both a well-known kibbutz and a fabulous resort.  In the nearby gardens- one of the best botanical areas In Israel -  you’ll find the cave of David as well as Wadi David - where the future king hid from King Saul -  and Wadi Arugot.  The main river is an underground  stream and you’ll find several fresh water areas popping up in isolated desert areas.

The Stream of David is an exciting place to hike. The guided tour here can take at least two hours.  Be sure to stop by the old synagogue and view the wonderful mosaics.  The cost is 28 NS to enter the synagogue and stream area. 

 

Israel - Druze Woman making Pita - Israel Tourism Photo

A Druze family wandered the road as we edged forward in traffic.  A small sect in Israel, they have a unique heritage, having parted from Islam in the 11th century.  Blue, a color of good luck, decorates many of their homes. 

And the intense blue is the first vision of these once magnificent waters.

Nearby you will find information about the legendary Sodom and Gomorrah - the cities that G-d destroyed for their unholy ways - and maybe get a glimpse of the stone pillar said to be Lot's wife as she disobeyed instructions and turned to see the city burn in the firestorms.

 

Israel - Enjoying Dead Sea Mud

The healing properties of the Dead Sea and the nearby mineral springs have been written about since ancient times. Allergies disappear in the pollen free atmosphere and sunburn, because of being below sea level are not as much a problem here as in other areas, but it is still a factor to consider and sun screen is needed. It's the magnesium, potassium and sodium in the waters that is attributed the well being of many.  Numerous skin aliments as eczema and psoriasis are reportedly eased here and it is said that perhaps a cure for skin cancer might be discovered as a result of the research here. 

The black mud, which can be purchased at some of the stands for as low as 10 NS a package, is said to purify and refresh the body. 

Ease in carefully to the waters as the slickness of the salty water surrounds you.  Be careful you don’t have cuts or bruises, however, as it will burn. Also do not get it near your eyes or mouth.  It will be like pepper spray.

Because of the salty pain, early Christian pilgrims called the Dead Sea - a gateway to hell.

 

Israel - The Dead Sea Separations

The lowest place on the earth, 428 meters below sea level, it served as refuges for fugitives like King David and the prophet Elijah. The saltiest place on earth, the sea is 33.4% salt and, right now, the eroding waters have exposed more and more of the barren land causing an ecological disaster.   Reportedly the water level is dropping 3 feet  (1.1 meters) each year!  Water drawn from both countries - not to mention the farmers that require it - have lessened the level drastically from what it was ten years ago.

Because of the shifting lands and unsteadiness of the sands, sink holes appear frequently and often without warning.  At one count there were over 2,000 holes.   So drivers need to negotiate carefully.  

Though it hardly rains down here, the two or three times it does, flash floods are possible and can be dangerous, submerging a whole area in moments. 

 

Israel - Herod's Palace Masada

One of my favorite places in Israel are the ruined fortress/palace of Masada.  Israel’s version of the Alamo, Masada screams freedom as a symbol for Israel’s history.  Deep ravines surround the mountain top.  It’s 1300 feet down to the valley limited access.  It was a perfect hideaway.

Think of an isolated few (some say upwards of several hundred and others believe only 28) hold outs being besieged by thousands of invincible Roman soldiers, who are bent on one goal – the destruction of them, their families and their religion. (We can only hope that history does not repeat itself today.)

 

Israel - Masada

Masada at dawn is a breathtaking site to behold.  It's something you will never forget. 

While it started as a Macabee fortress, and one hundred years later became a luxury winter palace for King Herod where he entertained foreign dignitaries complete with Roman baths, cisterns of water and storehouses of food, as well as place of escape.  The water, because of the cisterns, still remained when the zealots (some say outlaws) led by Elazar Ben Yair brought his followers to escape the Roman legions. 

Surrounding the mountain, the Roman general Flavius  Silvus created a wall and 8 encampments so that none of the Jews could escape.  He had vowed the Emperor that he would eliminate the pesky Jews.  Remains of the ramp, the wall and some of the camps can still the viewed from the top.  Imagine how the people felt as they watched the Romans edge closer and closer. 

 

Israel - A Roman Camp Remains outside Masada (imagine seeing that on a daily basis)

Not until the 1960’s was the site excavation begun and they are still finding new evidence of life there during those years between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the siege. 

Some reports say that only three bodies were found at the site, others say 28 and still others are unsure.  However, Romans did cremate so it is hard to say who was there when they conquered.  The dead left the storehouses filled with food and cisterns with water to show that they did not give up from starvation but from conviction that they would not be crucified or become slaves for the Romans as many of their countrymen had become.

 

Israel - Sheraton Herod Hotel - Dead Sea

Much of what is known about Masada is based on the book, The Jewish War, by Flavius Josephus.  Once a rebel rabbi, himself - an army general of the rebel Jewish forces of the north - Galilee and Golan, he was among the first to be captured by Romans. He switched to their point of view and told his version of Jewish history. However, his stories tell a lot about Israel during the first century of Christ.  The impassioned speech that he attributed to Ben Yair, however, could not be authenticated. Josephus, as a rebel leader, himself, reportedly made a similar plea to his people and most probably used what his own words to fill in the blanks.

When I first visited as a student, we hiked the “snake trail” – about a mile and a half upward hike.  Be sure to use plenty of sun screen and a hat here and if you are doing the climb, start very early in the morning before the sun heats up the landscape. 

 

Israel - Inscription in the Negev - Israel Tourism Photo

The oldest synagogue is here. (It wasn’t until the second Temple was burned by the Romans in 66 AD, and the Jews had no place to worship that synagogues were needed for prayer gatherings.)

For those who cannot make the arduous climb, the first cable car to the almost top was built in the 1970's.  The current car, which goes a bit further, opened in 2000.  The last cable car returns at 4 pm (5 pm in the summer.)  Don’t be late.  It grows dark quickly up here.

Price for the round trip transport is 76 NIS.  You can easily spend a full day here exploring not only the remains but the museum and other activities, as well.

Recently I found out that a movie by Bible producer Mark Burnett“Dovekeepers” -will be telling the story of Masada next week on CBS channel 2 - (March 31st and April 1st.)

Israel - Sheraton Herod's Dead Sea

 

Our hotel in the Dead Sea resort area was the spacious Sheraton's Herod Hotel.    A welcoming spa, and relaxing environment was the perfect rest for us.  It would have been nice to escape longer here. I had a moment to pause at their private synagogue and was amazed at how similar the tunes were to the ones that I knew and loved in my own temple. 

Feasting at their sumptuous buffet, we dined well and long imbibing on several of Israel’s finest wines. Rates here vary with season but go from the lower $250 and up depending on your package.

Not far from the hotel is one of Israel’s diamond factories.  I was told by our guide, however, that better prices could be had in the shops of Jerusalem

 

Israel - Eilat Botanical Gardens - Israel Tourism Photo

While we did not get down there, Eilat, at the edge of the Red Sea, is another fascinating place to see especially if you are into water sports and snorkeling.  Night life is great here, too.

On the way back toward Jerusalem, we passed the place of the Good Samaritan where a traveler, attacked on the highway, was ignored by several who came his way until a good man took him to a local inn and paying the bill, helped him to get well when no one else would. 

You’ll also go near Nabi Mussa, a 12th century mosque where the Moslem’s believe Moses is buried.  More than a half million pilgrims have visited here. The excavations were stopped when the British took over.  A small hotel sits at the spot now. 

Join me now as we head to our last and, maybe most important to some, the holy city of Jerusalem.  

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