Friday, December 02, 2011

Masada and the Dead Sea (Israel Trip part 4)

By Steven Leventhal, Wednesday at 3:31 pm

Continued from part three
Over the Hills and Far Away….

The Judean hills around Jerusalem look a lot like those in Tuscany. That is no coincidence I’m told. The natural vegetation is mostly scrub, given the desert terrain. The early pilgrims and other foreign visitors planted olive and pine to resemble the topography back in Italy.

It is also quite hilly, so even though Kibbutz Tzuba is only six kilometers off Israel’s main Highway #1, it still takes twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of Jerusalem. The early Kibbutz movement in Israel started as socialist agricultural cooperatives. Those endeavors have evolved greatly since their formative years in the 1920’s. Today’s kibbutz is often a mixture of agriculture and manufacturing. Tzuba boasts a safety glass factory that makes car windshields and bulletproof glass, while the agri-business side is comprised of apple orchards and a winery.

Tourism doesn’t hurt either. The property boasts a 64-suite hotel with a large lobby, recreational facilities, and several conference rooms. Members of the kibbutz live on site as well, and there is a common dining room for them, as well as the US students attending semester long programs. That was where my daughter was studying.

Many Rivers to Cross

Once you leave the immediate area of Jerusalem the terrain rapidly changes to the arid desert typical of the Middle East. There is a lot of rock, sand, and little vegetation. Along the way to the Dead Sea, there are encampments of Bedouin, who still stake out barely arable patches of land for their goats. Many members of their clans live in the villages, and the rest look after these claims in continuance of an ages old tradition.

My ears begin to pop as well, since we are descending from well over two thousand feet above sea level to the lowest elevation on the planet, almost 1400 feet. The Dead Sea view from atop Masada

The Dead Sea is about forty miles long and is fed by the Jordan River. As you drive south along the Israeli side of the seashore, on the left is, well, not much. The shoreline has been receding at about three feet per year. The resulting coastline has developed sinkholes, and there are signs along the route, advising people not to swim in most areas. Other than a few, and I mean a few wadi, or oases, with a small area of vegetation, including palm trees, it is pretty desolate. On the right is a low plain the leads right up to rock cliffs that shoot out of the ground and rise skyward to well over a thousand feet up.

One such cliff has a fairly level plateau. Herod the Great built himself a palace in this desolate, remote area. Like Saddam Hussein and Khaddafi, it was said that Herod was a bit paranoid, and constructed a host of palaces all over ancient Israel to which he could escape any revolt. After his death, Masada was mostly abandoned until the year 66, when a group of religious zealots wrested control of the fortress from a Roman garrison, and occupied the mountaintop until the Romans forced them out six years later. Most of the information known about Masada comes from works by Josephus, a Jewish-Roman historian. His tale of the supposed mass suicide by the zealots on Masada, so as not to be captured and sold into slavery, is what gave rise to the legend of Masada. The Snake Path leading to the top

A significant number of buildings have been excavated including Herod’s Palace, cisterns, storerooms, a synagogue, barracks, and a Roman bathhouse. Apparently a sophisticated system was created to direct any available rainwater into twelve gigantic cisterns. We were told it takes in excess of five inches of rain on the Jerusalem hills to get runoff towards the Dead Sea.

The tour of the site is fascinating, considering the age of the structures. The lack of rain, among other things enabled what parts of these buildings to survive until modern archeologists found it, and preserved it. The site was discovered in the mid 1800’s, and excavated about a century later.

The Snake Trail is a steep, winding path that leads up the mountain face to the old fortress. Around back is the “Roman” trail, a more direct approach the ancient armies used to lay siege to the area. Still visible today are remnants of the Roman encampment used by the soldiers.

Masada web site

I Am The Sea

After a wonderful guided tour of Masada, our entourage proceeded to the Dead Sea hotel area at Ein Bokek. It was there that we decamped at the Meridien Hotel for another one of those all you can eat buffet lunches of voluptuous salads, tasty meat and chicken, savory soups, and luscious desert I just had to say no to. Then it was off to enjoy the spa at the resort.

In addition to a regular swimming pool, the Meridien has both an indoor and outdoor pool filled with Dead Sea water. This resort was not adjacent to the fabled sea, but was across the highway from it. That would have necessitated taking a shuttle to the seashore that ran every twenty minutes. Thus, our part of the group opted to have our Dead Sea experience in the cozy comfort of the indoor pool. It wasn’t exactly warm by that time of the late autumn afternoon, and there was a shower right next to the pool, which proved very useful when I got some water in my eye. The indoor Dead Sea water pool at the Meridien

No soap in my eyes was even close to the pain I experienced. That is because in addition to the high salt content, numerous minerals are present in Dead Sea water including calcium, magnesium, strontium, boron, and iron. On a large scale the Sea produces potash, magnesium, and salt commercially. It has also spawned a whole cottage industry of cosmetics manufacturers whose creams and lotion deliver these minerals to promote healthy (supposedly) skin care. I don’t profess to know much about that stuff, but I did notice that a lot of the women in the group paid a visit to the Ahava outlet store to stock up on the not so inexpensive moisturizers, creams, and bath salts.

I am a natural sinker. Put me in a pool and my lower body heeds the call of gravity. By contrast, when I slipped into the Dead Sea pool, I bobbed right back up anytime I even tried to push my legs downward. As you can see from one of the photos, I was floating on the surface like a hollow log. Call me a wimp, but it was easier (and I had more time to relax) than taking a shuttle bus to the shore and back, not to mention cleaning the muck and brine off.

As darkness set in, we boarded our coach bus for the trip back to Tzuba. The tall cliffs looked even more imposing in the encroaching dusk. There were very few lights on either side of the Sea, but there were some scattered lights in the Jordanian hills just east of us as we got onto the highway towards Jerusalem. The ninety-minute drive included the obligatory traffic jam as we approached the holy city.

The End

So many memories of those ten days in London and Israel will stay with me forever. We made new friends, saw incredible old ruins, and experienced the emotions of visiting some of the holiest sites in the world. What impressed me the most is the spirit of the people there. Not just the Israelis, but also the Arabs, the Americans, and other foreign nationals. Despite the political turmoil, most people have carved out a way of life they are proud of, and work hard at it.

I have traveled a lot, and seen many different countries. Hopefully, I never take for granted how lucky we are to live where we live.

Postscript - there is one more article to go, on the John the Baptist cave at Tzuba. That is an entire article unto itself, complete with interviews, that will have to wait for another day.

Filed under: Travel