Day 6: Judean Wilderness and the Negev

Apologies to anyone using this blog as a reference point to reassure themselves of our survival–there was no free internet at the hotel in Bethlehem, so I had to wait until I got a voucher this evening. We’re fine! But on this note, today’s events might end up being posted tomorrow. That’s how we’re rolling.

Back to yesterday:

The wonderful privilege of our luxury hotel continued this morning with breakfast, a panoply of sweet and savory dishes.  Here, I took some pictures to make you properly envious:





After breakfast we went to another site I’ve really been looking forward to: Masada.  The drive was pretty amazing: we ran along the coast of the Dead Sea for a while, which is a really beautiful turquoise color that’s brought out by the white line of salt along the shore edge.


The Judean wilderness is also spectacular: stark and rugged.  It’s the place where Jesus wandered after his baptism and faced temptation.  You know that line from Satan about turning stones into bread?  It takes on a whole new level of power when you see that there’s nothing out there but stones and sky.

But back to Masada.  Masada is a fortress built into a mountainside facing the Dead Sea, and is a seriously tough nut to crack, in the military sense.  In the 1st century BCE, Herod the Great decided to take the site and make it into sort of a resort fortress; not where you’d take your family for their summer holiday, but a pretty nice place to hang out and wait out an inusrrection if either the Jews or the Romans got any funny ideas.


In 66 C.E., a group of Jews wrested the fortress from the Roman garrison holding it–by trickery instead of force.  This was terribly convenient timing, since the first Jewish Revolt started in this year, and culminated in 70 C.E. with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, so it was awfully handy to have an almost impregnable fortress at their disposal.


Awfully nice, that is, unless the enemy is the most advanced military force in the Western world.  It took those Romans a few years, but they eventually built a siege ramp right up to the weakest point of the wall surrounding Masada, and prepared to attack the next morning.  But when they breached the wall, there were no attackers trying to stop them.  The entire fort was eerily silent.  They entered to find as many as 960 corpses of men, women, and children. 

Josephus Flavius records secondhand an account of what happened: perceiving that there was nothing they could do to stop the Roman army, the Jewish Zealots drew lots, maybe by carving names into the potsherds which have been discovered at the site.  Every father killed his own family, and then ten men chosen by lot killed all the fathers, and then one man killed the other nine, and then committed suicide.

Masada, it might interest you to know, became a rallying cry for the modern Zionist cause, under the tagline “Masada shall never fall again.”  The slogan has lately fallen out of favor with the shift in the style of war, as it’s occurred to people that glorifying suicide is not a good idea.

Because of the lack of rainfall and correlating lack of erosion, Masada is extremely well preserved.  (The buildings were partially intact, and were restored by a rock star Israeli archaeologist.) It’s possible to see the stone walls stacked around the Roman camps in the shape of diamonds:

And we could tour everything from the Romans baths to Herod’s palace to the dovecotes and storehouses, and see (even descend on) the Roman siege ramp.  Incidentally, I chose to ascend to the site by means of the Snake Path, a footpath the goes from the level of the Dead Sea up to fifty feet above sea level, where Masada is.  This is an ascent of approximately a gazillion steps.


I played the theme from the “Rocky” movies in my head as I climbed the last few stairs, and enjoyed a terrific sense of accomplishment until dinnertime, when my legs started to tremble on the descent to the buffet.  We’ll just see how things work out tomorrow.

From Masada we went to Be’er Sheva, or Beersheba, which according to the Bible is the southern limit of the land promised to Moses (Dan to Beersheba!). Be’er Sheva means “well of seven,” and it’s called thusly because in the story, Abram trades seven very nice sheep to a local king in order to be able to claim rights to the well, which he dug.  (I don’t know how, because people, this well was DEEP.  I never did see the bottom.)  Wells were pretty hotly contested real estate at this time.  Read Genesis and you’ll see.  It’s like every five minutes, Abram is digging a new well in a new spot, and two minutes later he’s fighting with the local population for rights to it. 

Speaking of, there’s also a really impressive water system at Be’er Sheva.  And I’ve seen like, three so far on this trip, so I flatter myself that it takes a lot for a water system to impress me.  (*Puffs chest, buffs gold star.*)  For the one at Be’er Sheva, one must descend many steps to limestone caverns that seem to have been aquifers long ago.  And then ascend many steps to meet one’s bus.  Which one really notices when one starts one’s day by climbing a mountain.

But then one got to climb another tel.  (Tel means hill.  I mean, technically it means an archaeological hill, with layers representing different civilizations.  But on the ground, one doesn’t hear “tel” and think, “Oh boy, another archaeological excavation, I wonder what the water system is like!”, one thinks, “Oh boy, another hill.”  It’s just the way things are.)  Tel Arad has a rather fine example of an Israelite sanctuary, complete with standing stones and possible traces of Asherah worship–part of Israel’s dirty past of worshipping other gods.  Asherah, a fertility goddess, was worshipped with surprising pervasiveness as God’s female consort in Israel’s early days–basically up until the Babylonian exile.  Really.  She’s mentioned several times in the Bible. 

Tel Arad boasts the only ancient Israelite sanctuary found so far.  There was some restoration going on while we were there, and considering that the ruins are already pretty impressive, it should be pretty nifty when they finish and put all the signs back.


Tonight we’ve fetched up in Bethlehem, in a pretty gorgeous hotel called the Jacir Palace Intercontinental.  It’s a palace.  I confess that I was tired and distracted and not listening too well, so I don’t know why it’s a palace, but it is very pretty. 

Other highlights of the day include getting to sing with a few Mother Schmuckers for our worship service tonight (we postponed communion until today because yesterday was so jam-packed and, let’s face it, we all wanted to use the spa), and getting loved on by a cat at one of our rest stops.  She sat on my lap and tried to eat my scarf, and I tried not to wonder whether she had fleas and/or rabies and enjoy the pets.  Oh, and at Masada, which was quite hot, our tour guide borrowed my scarf to protect his pate from the fearsome sun, and it was great to see him rock out a Lawrence of Arabia look with a pink-and-turquoise striped scarf. 

Tomorrow: more of Bethlehem and the surrounding region!  Woohoo!


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