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Dead Sea and Masada

From Jerusalem, it is only about an hour and a half's bus ride to Ein Gedi, right on the shore of  the Dead Sea. The buses leave from the Central Bus stop in Jerusalem, just along Yafo Road, but you need to allow a little extra time: all timetables, signs are only in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian, none comprehensible to people used to a Latin alphabet.  

Jerusalem, like the rest of Israel, is hilly and rocky, and quite green. As it is a small city (area 125 square kilometres, Sydney is 100x bigger), it didn't take long for our bus to get to the outer suburbs and leave the city behind, and in the blink of the eye we found ourselves in the desert.  Not desert like our Simpson desert covered in mallee scrub and salt bush, but total utter nothingness except for sand and rocks. This sparse, hauntig landscape is the Judean desert. At the Dead Sea, the rainfall is only 100 mm/year (4 inches; similar to Sydney's monthly rainfall; Simpson desert: 150 mm).


And, as so often in Israel, we felt like we were time-travelling through the Bible, through history. We passed a sign directing us to Jericho where the walls came tumbling down, to Qumran just before the Dead Sea, where some 900 scrolls - some dating back to more than 2000 years ago - were found in a cave. The caves at the Dead Sea itself provided  shelter to King David when he hid from Saul, the first King of Israel and Judea and his father-in-law, and the renowned towns of Sodom and Gomorra destroyed even during Biblical times, were probably located on the SE shores of the Dead Sea. Lot's wife (Lot was Abraham's nephew) was turned to a pillar of salt at the Dead Sea for looking back when she shouldn't have. The caves in the limestone/dolomite mountains were used even before the Israelites ever arrived in Canaan and continued to be used afer their settlement, among others by Christian monks, who, like St George, established a monastery in the Judean desert around the 4th century.

On our way to Ein Gedi, we were descending to below sea level.  The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, at 430 m below sea level. 

With some difficulty, I booked us into the Kibbutz Hostel, I say difficulty, because all clicks on my computer led to the nearby Hotel at much higher rates. Like the websites, the bus driver too, put us down at the Hotel and we had to wait about an hour or so before we could catch the next bus back to our correct destination. But it was a lucky mistake, because we could feast our eyes on the wonderful oasis they created in front of the reception. Kati was really taken by it, I was more familiar with the plants as many similar ones grow in our gardens here in Australia.

The oasis in front of the Ein Gedi Hotel

The name Ein Gedi means the 'Fountain or Source of the Kid (goat)', possibly this originated from the time when Saul was looking for David amongst the craggy rocks, which are accessible only to wild goats. We saw plenty crossing the roads, or just wondering around. 

The Dead Sea is, of course, called that because the high concentration of  salt doesn't support any life within it. The salt in normal sea water is about 85% sea salt, sodium chloride.  The Dead Sea contains only about 30% of this substance, but has a whole collection of other salts: potassium, calcium and magnesium chlorides as well as bromides.  This is a valuable resource for the country, the major supplier of bromine, potash and caustic soda - all used in industry.  But not only that, its waters and the mud from the Sea is highly prized for its therapeutic effects and is sold world-wide.  People have been aware of this for a long time - the first known health resort was built around the shores  of the Dead Sea by King Herod the Great (73-4 BCE). Today its water is said to help with psoriasis, osteoarthritis and other health issues.  

One of the more unique features of the Sea is that it throws up small pebbles or even blocks of asphalt from its depth. This was highly prized even in ancient times, when the Egyptians skimmed the surface of the water with nets and used the bitumen for embalming.












But more than its interesting geology or its health benefits, it was its sheer beauty that left us gazing at it time and time again.  

The Dead Sea was formed by a deep fault line between the African and Arabian tectonic plates as they moved more or less in the same direction but at different speeds. The Sea itself is 300 m deep (Lake Balaton in Hungary, the second largest inland lake in Europe, is similar in size to the current Dead Sea, but is only 12 m deep). The Jordan River is the major water source flowing into the Sea together with some smaller springs. As the water from the River is used for the domestic consumption and for agriculture for the population of the surrounding countries, and much of it is diverted by dams and pipelines, there is less water flowing into the sea and its level is falling. In 1930 it had a surface area of 1050 square kilometres and was at a height of 390 m below sea level, today it is 430 m below sea level with an area of about 600 square km. Thousands of sinkholes have developed along the shores, which make the water disappear underground.

We were so looking forward to having a dip in the water, more than that, to effortlessly float (the density of the Dead Sea is much higher than normal water, 1.24 vs. just over 1 kg/L, so a body floats like cork), but we couldn't get near the water because of the sinkholes – far too dangerous to walk along the beach. As we didn't have a car, we were unable to drive further along the shore, where safe access is provided.











Masada means fortress, and it has been used as such. It is a limestone/dolomite mountain which stands between the Dead Sea Rift Valley and the eastern side of the Judean Desert.  Geologically it is a horst, which is a raised block of the Earth's crust that has lifted (or has remained stationary), while the land on either side has subsided. The cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 400 m (1,300 ft) high, and on the west about 90 m (300 ft) and the terrain is very difficult to navigate. The top of Masada is flat. As one of Israel's top tourist destination, now it's easy to get to the top - just hop on the cablecar!













​Now you may be wondering why all this geology, but it is the geological formation of Masada which makes it so suitable as a fortress.

King Herod was a Roman client king of Judea (Judea is the southern part of present-day Israel; a client kingdom is a state that is economically, politically, or militarily subordinate to another more powerful state in international affairs, e.g. a satellite state). He initiated some colossal building projects, including the harbour at Caesarea (more about that in the next blog), the extension of the second Temple in Jerusalem (whose western wall is the Weeping Wall today – more about that in a later blog), and Masada. As Herod was not trusted by his subjects (his ancestors had only recently converted to Judaism), and as he committed numerous atrocities (including the killing of his wife and several of his sons), he felt fearful of an uprising. He prepared himself for this event by building a number of fortresses where he could escape and where he could still live in utter luxury with his full court if need be.





























But for a fortress to be of any long term use, it needs to have a source of water. Now the summit of Masada is mostly covered with hard dolomite which slopes downwards to a layer of another water-impervious rock. Using the slope of the mountain, the imperviousness of the rocks and the fact that there was some rainfall on the NW slopes, Harod's engineers constructed a series of water cisterns. These filled with rainwater during the winter flowing in streams from the mountain, and they stored the water until needed. So it's because of its geology that Masada became an impenetrable natural fortress.


                                                Arial view of Masada, photo taken by israeltourism


At the time of the great Jewish Revolution in 66 BC, an extremist Jewish sect, the Sicarii, fled to Masada and used it as a last stand against the Romans.  They held out there for seven years, until defeated by the Romans.  They managed to hold the fort for this long thanks to Herodes' cisterns and thus potable water, and also because of the impregnability of Masada itself.  


Finally, the Roman legion in 73 BC surrounded Masada, built a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. The 114 m (375 ft) high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock. The Romans were thus able to breach the the fortified walls with a battering ram, which could be hoisted up the ramp. The attacking army consisted of 15,000 people, the defenders were fewer than 1000 in number.  As Jewish law forbids suicide, the men drew lots to kill each other. Only 2 women and 5 children, who hid in the cistern, stayed alive. All the buildings had been set alight except for the food storage areas to show that it was not lack of food that made the defenders choose death over slavery. To this day, it is possible to walk up on the ramp to the top of Masada.  

           Masada Roman ramp

            (photo by gugganij)


This story, like so many others of those early years of the first Millenium, was recorded by Josephus, a Jewish scholar and historian born and raised in Jerusalem, then captured by the Romans. He later fully defected to the Roman side and spent his time recording events of the day.

To be continued:  From Jerusalem to Safed

From Jerusalem to Ein Gedi
From Jerusalem to Ein Gedi

The beach in front of the Ein Gedi Hostel

Dead Sea

A view of the Dead Sea from the top of Masada


Herod's fortress on top of MasadaDead 

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