Israel (Day 1): Ashdod to Jerusalem
On April 9 we arrived in our second country noted for political violence, Israel. Not surprisingly, Israeli security is particularly tight. Every passenger (even those not going ashore) was required to appear personally before an Israeli security person. There was no interrogation, however, and we were issued stamped landing permits fairly quickly (once things got going . . . they were late). Unlike other countries, Israel stamps a visa on a separate landing pass rather than your passport, apparently because having an Israeli stamp in your passport can make it difficult to enter other countries in the Middle East.
I’m not going to give any background on Israel because everyone is already pretty familiar with it, both the drama of biblical times and the strife that has characterized the modern state. Ashdod, the port closest to Jerusalem, is actually an ancient city & we are told that it has recently been renovated into a nice city to visit. But we were not here to see that. Instead we signed on for an overnight bus tour that would take us to Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem & Bethlehem. It was long & exhausting (especially coming on the heels of two long and exhausting tours in Egypt and another time change in which we lost an hour), but very rewarding. So, leaving Ashdod we travelled past villages (you can tell the Muslim villages by the minarets), camels & sheep & goat herds, and into the Judean desert near the Dead Sea.
We drove north along the Dead Sea to Masada, a mountaintop stronghold built by Herod the Great that has an absolutely stunning view & a controversial history. The conventional story goes that after the Romans sacked Jerusalem & destroyed the second Temple in 70 AD in response to a Judean uprising, a remnant of the Zealot fighters took refuge with their families in this impregnable mountaintop fortress and continued to resist Roman rule. The Romans, however, built a huge ramp up the side of the mountain (using Judean slaves so that the defenders would not prevent the work by shooting down at the workers) & rolled a large siege tower with a battering ram up the ramp so that they could breach the walls and climb into the fortress. But the night before the onslaught the Judeans decided that they preferred death to slavery & all committed suicide. When the Romans entered the fortress the next day they were appalled, finding nothing but dead bodies.
Masada was the subject of a large archeological project in the 1960’s (I don’t know if any of you knew him but Chuck Colbert, one of my father’s close friends, participated in that dig). Masada was promoted as an inspiring moment of heroism by Jewish fighters & the Israeli army conducted its final inductions of soldiers at that site. That is no longer done & some modern scholars have questioned some of the facts of the traditional story, the integrity of the archeological interpretations (some of which seem to be of the “finding exactly what you were hoping for” approach), & even the character of the martyrs. First, you might wonder how we know what went on there if everyone in Masada killed themselves. In fact, the sole source for this story is a brief recounting by the Judean/Roman historian Josephus Flavius (who had initially been a Judean general in the uprising but after being captured was adopted into a Roman general’s family). He tells us that a couple of women & five children survived to tell the tale by hiding in the cistern, but it is doubtful that he ever talked to them, so his second hand (at least) story is less than fully reliable as history. The standards of ancient history writing were far from today’s, of course. For example, Josephus purports to quote a lengthy speech by the leader, Eleazer Ben-Yair, which he could not possibly have heard. Second, some scholars say that the people who holed up at Masada were not Zealots but Sicarii, named after the curved daggers they carried & used for assassinations. They were a violent fringe group who apparently killed many Jews in raids on neighboring towns. They apparently did not participate in the defense of Jerusalem since they had occupied Masada before Jerusalem fell. Only one of the deaths at Masada was actually a suicide, the rest were murders, even in Josephus’s telling. All the men first killed their wives and children, then they drew lots to decide who would kill each other, leaving only the last to commit suicide (small pieces of potter with names written on them, including Ben-Yair’s, have been found at Masada, which would seem to corroborate this part of the story). As our Israeli guide pointed out, this was a gross violation of God’s law (thou shalt not kill) which many modern Jews find less than admirable and which is not likely to have been done by Jews who were very religious. I am no expert in these things, but it seems apparent that the heroism of those who died here is more ambiguous today than it seemed a few decades ago.
In any event, this is a fascinating & beautiful place. You can easily see why King Herod (who was, whatever else you might think of him, a prolific & innovative builder) would choose to build his winter palace here, not just for its security (he was not from a Judean family & was not popular among the Jews) but for its beauty. Our pictures do not begin to capture the stunning views from this mountaintop in every direction.
In the old days the only way to get to the top was by the Snake Path, for reasons obvious in the picture below, a long & arduous climb. But today there is a cable car (thank goodness).
One thing at Masada we found refreshing was their practice of painting a bold black line between the original structures they uncovered and the restorations they did to rebuild the walls. At many archeological sites (most notably Knossos) it is difficult to tell what is original and what has been added, but here they made it clear. There are a number of small black birds that live here (I have forgotten the name); they appear very comfortable with human visitors. There are also Ibex that live here, and rarely they are spotted at the archeological site. We didn’t see one (sigh), but one of our fellow passengers was lucky enough to get a beautiful picture of one standing on a wall with the mountains behind.
There are a lot of interesting features at the Masada site. Herod’s palace included his reception room, with the remains of two pillars, and a well preserved bathroom with mosaic floor & bathtub. We also saw ancient aqueducts, one in the palace & another on the side of the mountain. The advanced aqueduct system effectively filled the cisterns on the mountain with water, and this provided the resisters at Masada with plenty of water in this desert area even after the Romans stopped the flow of water by destroying the outside aqueducts.
We saw what was left of the synagogue (converted from Herod’s stable), one of few existing from the time of the Second Temple. Another structure was the “Columbarium,” which was a roost for pigeons (used for food as well as long distance communication).
You can stand in the breach in the wall where the Romans broke through & look down on the ramps built by the Romans & their Jewish slaves, which is still easy to see. You can also see the very clear remains of the Roman encampments far below the walls.
So we left Masada, a beautiful & historically fascinating place, & drove to a resort on the Dead Sea where we had lunch. There is a British miniseries about it, creatively entitled “Masada,” starring Peter O’Toole as the Roman general Flavius Silva, for those who are interested. Much of it is fanciful, which is inevitable given the sparse historical record, but it was filmed, at least in part, at Masada (and Peter O’Toole is very good) so it is not unworthy of viewing. A final view from the walls of remarkable Masada.
As most of you probably know already, the Dead Sea (seen from Masada above) derives its name from the fact that it is so full of salt that nothing can live in it (actually, scientists have recently found bacteria that live deep in the Dead Sea, but they do not yet know how they do it). The Dead Sea is currently receding at a high rate, and will soon consist only of the deepest part in the center. Our guide told us that she used to come here when the water extended far beyond its current boundaries.
The Dead Sea today is largely a resort area. This shores of the Dead Sea are the lowest dry land on the planet, well below sea level. Both the water & air are reputed to have restorative powers. Doctors in Europe send patients with skin problems here, and people rub themselves with mud from it (which is sold in jars). The other famous thing about it is that because of the unusually high salt content it is impossible to sink; you see people floating in the waters near the resort hotel. As you can see for yourself below, I actually went into the water & did not sink at all. I also tasted the water, & believe me it is awful.
No picture, but we did see a McDonald’s at this resort. We have seen them all over, of course, but our guide told us that until relatively recently there were none in Israel. Apparently they were inhibited by the number of people here who observe Kosher dietary laws: it is impossible to make a Kosher cheeseburger (meat and dairy products cannot be served at the same time or cooked with the same utensils). There was a fast food chain in Israel called McDavid’s. But apparently McDonalds has figured it out (they just serve hamburgers & not cheeseburgers) & has driven McDavid’s out of business. I would have thought they would be unable to offer milkshakes with a hamburger either, but at this resort we had ice cream made without dairy products & it was quite good.
We drove north along the Dead Sea toward Jerusalem. One of the interesting things about this part of the world is how small it is. Places that the Bible describes as being a substantial journey apart are really close together by American standards. Driving from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, for example, is about as far (it seemed) as driving from Arlington Virginia to Washington DC. Similarly, the Jordan River (which we are told in song is “deep and wide”) is more like a creek by US standards. Anyway, the opposite side of the Dead Sea are the mountains of Jordan, & it was close enough to photograph a Jordanian Dead Sea resort or town (not sure which) across the water.
We drove past a date palm orchard (if that’s the right word), where they are experimenting with these trees because they can live on salt water. And (passing through Palestinian territory) at Qumrum we saw the cave where the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The story is that a Palestinian shepherd boy followed a stray goat into the cave & spotted the jars there containing the scrolls. But take a look at the cave and ask yourself whether it is likely that a goat would stray into this cave. There are quite a lot of stories in this part of the world that seem pretty dubious, at least to us. Our guide thought it more likely that they were out treasure hunting (lots of caves in this area) when they discovered the scrolls. We also passed Jericho (visible but at a distance), which I understand is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, as we drove toward Jerusalem.
Driving into Jerusalem we caught our first glimpse of the Israeli “security wall” that separates the Palestinian Authority from Israel proper. It is not a happy sight; it seems unfortunate that people feel the need to separate themselves like this. Our Israeli guide felt bad about this as well, since the separation keeps her from leading tours in Palestinian areas like she used to do, but she is hopeful that this will one day become an international border as part of a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. She is more optimistic than I am.
In Jerusalem we checked into our hotel, the Crown Plaza, where we had a 16th floor room with balcony (too windy to use) that had quite a view despite the dense cloud cover as the sun set. The hotel was near the Knesset (Israeli parliament) & Supreme Court.
After dinner at the hotel, we set out on what was supposed to be a drive around the walls of the old city & a visit to the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall, a retaining wall built to support the Second Temple). But it was very cold & extremely windy & unpleasant out. We stopped on the Mount of Olives overlook to see a nighttime view of the Temple Mount (where the Temple once stood), the city walls & the Mosques that sit on the Temple Mount, but could only stay a minute or two because of the weather. There wasn’t much lighting anyway. Then we visited the outside of the Church of All Nations at Gethsemane Gardens (where Jesus prayed before his arrest). We would see all this to better effect the next day. We did drive around the walls some, but the Western Wall area was closed off, perhaps (our guide speculated) because John Kerry might have been visiting. So that was added to the itinerary for the second day, for which you will have to continue to our next installment.