Day 5: Central Highlands, Qumran and the Dead Sea

Friends, today has been such a good day.  I’m going to try and keep this brief, so I can go off and enjoy the last few moments of it.  So here goes:

We left our hotel on the Sea of Galilee for good, and began travelling south to our destination on the Dead Sea.  Our route took us through the central highlands of Israel, where sites that come up all the time in Genesis and the New Testament are to be found: Dothan, where Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers; Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom before the Assyrian invasion; Shechem, where Abraham settled briefly with his family.  Perhaps even more importantly, visiting these sites took us into the West Bank, and for the first time we saw firsthand the stark difference between Israel and Palestine.

We crossed a checkpoint in order to get into the West Bank, which was uneventful, but did give a sense of the extent of the barrier that almost entirely surrounds the West Bank.  The West Bank is supposed to be a Palestinian area culturally, politically, and economically, but it’s under Israeli military jurisdiction and depends on Israel for economic survival.  Driving through the West Bank was the first time I actually felt like I was seeing that stereotypical idea of what the Middle East looks like.  The buildings were run-down.  There were litter and graffiti everywhere.  Every town seemed to be a place where cars went to die, and auto parts were lying around like bones in an elephant graveyard.  In Israel, people seemed to pretty much ignore our tour bus.  In Palestine, people looked and pointed and sometimes waved.  I got the impression that they don’t see many tourists.

Our first stop was ancient Samaria, later renamed Sebastiya by the Romans.  Samaria was founded by Omri, one of the most famous kings of the northern kingdom.  (There are extrabiblical references to the Omride dynasty, because for years after this guy reigned, that’s how the rulers of other countries identified his family.)  Samaria looks pretty much like other ruins, but because John the Baptist is said to be buried there, there’s also the ruins of a Byzantine church called St. John.  It’s maintained by the single Christian family that lives in the town.

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There was also a camel.

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Camels are just the best.  Have you ever seen anything look so awkward and graceful at the same time?

After Samaria, we went to Nablus, which is the Arabic rendering of Neopolis, which is how the Romans renamed the Israelite city of Shechem, which is where Abraham settled with his family, and a place where (I think) both Isaac and Jacob settled for a time.  It’s also the place where God told Moses to stage a covenant renewal ceremony.  And then Moses told Joshua.  And then Joshua actually did it, reading the blessings from Mount Gerazim and the curses from Mount Elan to the people in the valley between–where the city is.

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(That’s Mt. Gerazim in the background.  You can see the outer wall of the city of Shechem in the foreground, and the modern city of Nablus behind it.)

Mt Gerazim was and is considered a sacred site by the Samaritans–a sect still (barely) surviving, btw–less than 800 now live in an insular community near Shechem and near Tel Aviv, and you all know about that because of John 4–the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well.  We got to see that very well today–it’s a fair bet that it’s the right one, because there aren’t a lot of wells in an area with so many springs–and an absolutely gorgeous Greek Orthodox church (the Church of Jacob’s Well) is built on the site.  The well is right in the back, and you can still draw water from it.  Seriously cool.

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From Nablus/Shechem, we went south.  I fell asleep at this point, and by the time I woke up, like 20 minutes later, we’d gone from nice, fertile highlands to the edge of the Judean wilderness.  And we went to one of the sites I’ve most been looking forward to: QUMRAN.  (Cue the dramatic DUN DUN DUUUUUN!!!)  We like Qumran because in 1947 some Bedouins stumbled across some caves that contained the oldest extant texts from the Bible, period.  The youngest one dates to the 2nd century C.E..   That’s almost 1000 years older than the oldest Biblical manuscript we had before this find. 

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(We give this find a Bible student thumbs-up!)

The ruins of the Essene community that lived by the Dead Sea and copied down all those manuscripts are still visible, and you can see the some of the 11 caves where the scrolls were found from there. 

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The sun was going down fast at this point, so we flew in and out of Jericho, which might just be the oldest civilization we’ve found yet.  (OK.  Rick E., who studied this for class, assures me that it IS, and moreover, is the oldest continuously occupied town in the world.  This is the awesomeness of doing a study tour with lots of people who have done the research.  On this note, Matthew H. has totally been helping me remember what the heck happened today, because a failure of communications between my tablet and camera card means that I can’t use my photos to jog my memory like usual.  Thanks, friends!)

After being faithfully studious and for once obeying time restraints and everything, our good behavior was rewarded when we got to our hotel.  Which it turns out it really more like a resort.  I am struggling to think of how to convey to you, dear reader, how precious a thing a nice hotel is.  I mean, it’s not like we’ve been sleeping in refrigerator boxes in the streets and fighting to claim dustbin territories from alley cats.  Our last hotel was perfectly sufficient.  But this one is awesome.

Let me count the ways: we arrived after the in-house spa (!) had closed, but they agreed to unlock it for us for a couple of hours.  So:

1) Free spa. 

Because we arrived after dark, we couldn’t get to the beach, so this is as close as I’ve been so far to experiencing the Dead Sea–because some of the treatment pools were filled with Dead Sea water.  IT WAS SO MUCH FUN.  The water is ten times saltier than sea water, and the resulting buoyancy makes it rather difficult to control one’s posing, though I deliberately overcame this in order to do the Superman pose without water-up-the-nose issues.  It was a joyous occasion.

2)  Amazing food.

Like I said, the food at the Tiberius hotel was…y’know. Fine. Like, I didn’t have to cook it.  Or fight feral dogs for it.  So, fine.  But dinner tonight was SO GOOD.  There was so much variety, and it was all just so dang tasty.  For an appetizer, I had a shredded carrot and beef salad.  The chicken dish seemed to be somehow barbecued and saffron-seasoned at the same time.  There was a beef tortellini that put all previous beef tortellini I’ve ever had before in my life to shame.  And they had an ice cream bar for dessert.  And…

3) Open bar.

With beer and wine on tap.  ‘Nuff said.

4)  Dance party.

OK.  Technically, it was some kind of renunion for Tunisians now living abroad.  But the manager of the hotel invited us to check it out, so we did.  They had live music and friendly people who were somewhat confused about what the three Americans were doing in their dance space, but were totally cool about it.  And man, those ex-pat Tunisians can dance.  Seriously.  They were so much fun.

All right, we broke away from the party to partake of the free wifi in the hotel lobby, but now it’s time to shut down the computer and see what happens next.  I hope it’s more dancing.  🙂

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2 thoughts on “Day 5: Central Highlands, Qumran and the Dead Sea

  1. Qumran was one of my favorite places, definitely. And Jericho was by far our fanciest digs, too! I wonder if it is the only reputable hotel up to American standards in the city.

    We didn’t go to the other places, though. I would have loved to see Shechem!

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