It is not every day one gets to drive through the Judean Desert. Much less from the comfort of a tour bus, with four French tourists, an American businessman, and a Scottish tour guide .. in Israel. However, it is exactly what I did. Thanks to United Tours I booked a trip to Masada & the Dead Sea on the same day.
As you wind through the Judean desert there are sign posts to alert you of your progress. There are also CAMELS and Bedouins. The camels are pretty self explanatory, but the Bedouins were a surprise. This is a semi-nomadic group living in the desert (not just in Israel but many other countries as well). They raise families here, share rooms with their animals, and sleep in tents out in the wide expanse of the desert. Not my ideal situation, but they seem to like it (I was told the Israeli govt offered them homes in the cities, but the tribes chose to stay put).
In order to get to desert from my post in Tel Aviv, our bus wound up through Jerusalem (to pick up our French friends) and began a descent down to the Dead Sea. “Descent” may not be a strong enough term – the Dead Sea is in fact the lowest point on earth at 422 meters (1,385 ft) below sea level.
Of course it is most recognized for it’s incredibly salty waters at 34%. So salty that your skin gets slimy to the touch, but your fingertips don’t turn into prunes (like they do after a long bath).
Once you’re dry – you can see the salt drying on the hair of your arms, your eyebrows, your bathing suit.Our salty destination was Ein Gedi, a spa located on the Dead Sea – and a stone’s throw from Masada. The air smells of sulfur and salt – not the average beach breeze off the Mediterranean!
We spent the afternoon floating under thatched huts in the Dead Sea, looking across to the country of Jordan and behind us at the Judean desert. I did take advantage of the full benefit of being at the Dead Sea and covered myself in the mud that is supposed to be wildly beneficial to your skin – I must admit my skin felt pretty fabulous after the fact. This is how Ahava makes so much money selling their Dead Sea products!
So as I explained in an earlier post, I had no clue about Masada. After a cursory glance at a tour book or two and some online information, I gathered that it was a very old fortress, supposedly built by King Herod 2,000 years ago. While I don’t consider myself a history buff, I still get enjoyment from learning about these sorts of things. Before my departure, my dad was whipping out facts left and right about the history of Masada – the location of a mass suicide by 100s of Jews when they were under siege by the Romans. There is a great deal of intrigue to their story, and to see the fortress up close and personal was stunning.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, the fortress covers a vast amount of land at the top of a steep mountain: the cliffs are between 300 feet to 1,300 feet and the plateau itself is 1800 x 900 feet. So, it’s HUGE. It is also very HOT. There was a good breeze going once we got out of the cable car (you bet your ass I was not going to take the Snake Path) – but the sun was intense. Miraculously, we beat the crowds and were able to meander around the palace(s) without interruption.
Our guide Sylvia pointed out the black line, visible in the next photograph, which is seen throughout the fortress. This indicates a line of restoration – everything below is said to be original, and everything above is said to be restored.
It is truly incredible how much of the fortress is still intact, and let me just say that Herod was a top notch architect. It is no wonder that these 900 some Jews survived atop this barren plateau for two years, with their enemies beneath them. Herod had cisterns built to carry the water up the mountain – and they were so big that the rainwater they collected could satisfy the group for more than 7 years.
We saw everything from thermal baths to a swimming pool to soldiers quarters to the remnants of a synagogue and an old church. All this spread out before you, with the Dead Sea in the background and the sun on your face — truly incredible.