After a day exploring Jerusalem ourselves by foot, we switched thing up today; Fred and Gloria drove us down to the Dead Sea, including stops at Masada (to see the ancient palace and resistance site), Ein Gedi (to float in the Dead Sea), Qumran (to see the Essene site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), and Jericho (to see some under-appreciated ancient sites). Yet another busy day.
It was a fairly long drive down to the Dead Sea to start at Masada. I remember hearing about this site from my mother’s trip that she took in 1987 and the 1980s miniseries. It was really interesting to see it myself – it’s the ruins of one of Herod’s large palaces on the top of a mesa overlooking the Dead Sea that was used as a place of last refuge by some Jewish families that resisted the Romans after the Second Temple fell. Those families survived for four years using Herod’s cisterns and food until the Romans finally reached the top of the mesa with a huge earthen ramp. At that point, the families all committed suicide rather than be taken alive. After that cataclysm, the mountaintop was abandoned and largely forgotten until it became a point of Israeli/Jewish pride in the last few decades.
We could have walked up the mountainside, but we took the easy way by riding the cable car up. At the top of the hill, there are many excavated ruins that have seen lots of money and pride in reconstruction and explanation. There’s an interesting mix between the opulence of Herod’s palace and the desperation of the Jews who survived a brutal siege for so long. It’s a good place to see the history and the views of the Dead Sea.
One thing that was very apparent from the height of Masada was how much the Dead Sea has been shrinking. The main input source, the Jordan River, is now largely diverted for irrigation, so not much is left to replenish the Dead Sea. That means the body of water has been shrinking fast, even to the point that it’s really two separate lakes.
We could also see how much the water has dropped when we went to Ein Gedi to take a swim. The changing rooms used to be near the water level, but now we had to walk for quite a while and down a bunch of steps to get to the water. That lake is disappearing fast.
Despite that, it was fun to swim in the heavy, heavy water. Jenny couldn’t get over how much her legs flew up into a comfortable seating position due to the higher relative buoyancy of our bodies.
After that, we continued with our archaeological experiences by visiting Qumran, the former home of the Essenes, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Uncle Fred used to work with some of the main archaeologists who researched the site and even had been in some of the caves. It was great having a personal tour guide with so much insight (and a few really bad jokes).
All of these sites (Masada, Ein Gedi, and Qumran) are on the tour bus route, and are places we had considered going to on a tour bus ourselves before Fred and Gloria offered to drive us. Our next stop was somewhere off the tour bus route: Jericho. Despite the Biblical connotations we all have for the city, it’s not somewhere many tourists go because it’s fully-controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The guide books hesitated in their recommendation of the city because of sporadic problems, and Fred and Gloria were getting texts about troubles in the region (Israeli Settlers had torched a mosque in a West Bank city, etc.). So, we weren’t sure it would be ok, but a few calls and the reassurance of the Palestinian Police at the checkpoint told us that everything would be fine.
And it was fine. No problem at all.
Fred and Gloria took us to a site we had never heard of, but that was very impressive: Hisham’s Palace. This is a palace built in 744 by a Syrian Caliph, and that was destroyed by a massive earthquake only five years later. From there, it faded into oblivion. But now it’s back, excavated with some USAID money that shows the palace, the baths, and the incredibly-well-preserved and beautiful Tree of Life floor mosaic.
Besides the history and the art, my big takeaway from Hisham’s Palace was the difference between the Israeli and Palestinian resources for taking care of historical sites. In Israel, Masada and Qumran have modern signs, active excavation teams, huge lines of tour buses, and active protection of the important sites. In Jericho, the Palestinian Authority simply doesn’t have anywhere near the same financial resources to explore, protect, and advertise this amazing site.
The disparity was made even more clear at two other sites in Jericho:
- Tell es-Sultan seems to be a big dirt pile but is actually the ruins of the old walled city of Jericho (as in Joshua fitin’ the battle to make the walls fall down – 10,000 years of history that are woefully under-excavated).
- Herod’s Palace has as much potential as Masada to tell the story of Herod, but it’s hidden off a dirt road next to a poor farm in the outskirts.
These are sites that should be world treasures, but they languish.
Tomorrow, we strike out on our own again – we’re going to rent a car and head up to Galilee to explore Nazareth, Golan, Galilee, and the rest of Northern Israel for a couple days.