It was May 28 and the temperature was already climbing, my colleague Ulrike and I hustled to catch a bus from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station to the Dead Sea. We made it with 2 minutes to spare.
Soon the bus was traveling along the western shore of the Dead Sea, with Jordan on the far side.
Our first destination: Masada, an ancient fortification on the eastern edge of the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea, and listed as a World Heritage Site of global importance. Herod the Great built castles for himself and visitors between 37 and 31 BCE. Over 900 Jewish rebels and their families committed mass suicide during the First Jewish-Roman War rather than be captured by Roman troops. Two women and five children were found alive in one of the two underground cisterns for water. Later, a Byzantine church was built on the site. (see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1040).
Along the way there we saw banana and date plantations like this one, a sign of an abundant supply of water.
After arriving at the Masada, visitors have two options for reaching the top. For a mere 29 shekels ($8.20 Canadian) you can hike up the Snake Trail or pay the same price for a 3-minute ride up in a gondola. What to do, what to do?
With map in hand, we chose to hike the Snake Trail which is said to take 45 minutes for those in good shape. With two bottles of water in my pack, the adventure began. Here is a view from the start of the Snake Trail to the top. The next view is of Wadi Masada which separates Masada from the adjacent mountain. A wadi is a dry stream bed.
Reaching the top in 40 minutes, we were soaked to the skin with perspiration.
Looking down on the Snake Trail that we just ascended.
We toured the site in a clockwise manner, moving from the Rebel’s quarters on the eastern wall, to the eastern outlook, along the southern wall, to the northern wall where Herod’s palace and baths were built, and then finished at the guest’s quarters near the western ramp. Below we could look down to the Dead Sea, into Wadi Masada, and to the various Roman siege camps.
The eastern lookout, where you can shout into the void and have a resounding echo return.
Looking down, down, down into Wadi Masada.
Monks caves, carved into the hillside.
Rainwater cisterns, to catch and channel scarce water for domestic uses.
Byzantine church constructed in the northern part of the plateau, with mosaic floors.
And here I sit in a Jewish synagogue.
This man is faithfully copying the Torah, letter by letter, in an air conditioned, lit room beside the synagogue.
In the eastern part of the site, there was a columbarium for the departed:
And looking down to the east, there is the remains of a small Roman encampment:
And to the west, the large siege camp which was used to construct the western ramp, a large wooden siege engine and battering ram which eventually breached the fort’s western wall.
Descending from the top via a 29 shekel gondola ride, we ate lunch and then departed for Ein Gedi beach, our second destination.
The sun was high and the temperatures in the mid-40’s. The pebbles on the shore were very hot and coated in a thin layer of salt. The Dead Sea lies in the Jordan Rift Valley. It is over 400 metres below sea level, over 375 metres deep and hypersaline with a concentration of 33.7 % salt. The Jordan River is the main tributary into the lake. There are no flows out of the lake.
Trying to swim is a challenge, as the density of the water is so high that bodies float. Standing is nearly impossible, as your limbs bob above the surface. One of the attractions is coating your body in Dead Sea mud, letting it dry and then washing it off. But watch out – DO NOT PUT YOUR FACE INTO THE WATER. From personal experience, it can be painful.
This is how you might look:
On the journey home, the Dead Sea seems to stretch forever, although it is only 55 km long from Jericho in the north to Neve Zohar in the south. It is 18 km wide at its widest point.
Nearby are the Qumrun Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves.
This will be an adventure for another day.