During the Second World War when he was serving in the Western Desert my late father bathed in the Dead Sea. Today, some 70 years later, I shall have the chance to replicate that and see for myself what he described. But first we have two exciting sites to visit – Qumran and Masada.
Qumran is just over 40 kilometres from Jerusalem,and we drive through the Judean wilderness down the Jordan Valley. It was in caves near this settlement that the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946-56. There has been much controversy about both the Scrolls and the settlement at Qumran as the archaological finds there have suggested that the site has been used at some time as a Roman garrison, a Hasmodean fortress, the home of a Jewish sect a Roman villa or a pottery factory. The modern Visitors Centre there prefers the theory of a refuge for a Jewish Sect, most often identified as the Essenes, and the site is interpreted to support that theory. Modern scholarship, however, is less didactic.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of some 972 texts, are important because they
include the earliest known manuscripts of books later included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, as well as some important extra-biblical material and documents detailing the rules of various religious communities. Sadly – but perhaps understandably – none of this material has been retained at the site, and a lot of imagination is needed to relate the remains there with a living community. Nevertheless I was very glad to visit there and to contemplate what it must have been like to have lived there. Coins discovered at the site range in date from about 130 BCE to about 68 CE, and at one time it must have been quite an important settlement.
The fortress of Masada is about 97 kilometres further on, and by the time we got there it was hot! We were advised to ensure that we carried water particularly for this part of the trip which was very good advice. The approaches to the hill top at Masada pose quite a difficult climb, but fortunately a cable car system was built in 1998. This makes the journey in 3 minutes and takes us from -273 metres below sea level to 33 metres above in that time.
Masada is again one of those places with much “tradition”, some of which has been
confirmed by archaeology and some debunked. The place was first fortified by Herod the Great between 37-31 BCE as a place of refuge in case of a revolt against him in Jerusalem. He later built two palaces there. In 66 CE a Roman garrison was stationed there which was overcome by a group of Jewish rebels who then installed themselves in the place under the command of a man named Eleazar ben Ya’ir.
When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE a number of Jewish refugees joined the community there which eventually comprised some 960 men, women and children. In 73 CE the Roman governor of Judaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, led the Roman Tenth Legion, augmented by auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war in a siege of Masada, during which they constructed a huge ramp up the the fortified wall. Even today the sites of eleven Roman camps can be seen from the top of the mountain. The Romans dragged a huge battering ram up the ramp and, despite the defenders reinforcing the walls, the Roman army eventually broke through.
What they found was “a citadel of death”. The story goes that each man killed his wife and children, and then drew lots for ten men to kill the rest. These ten again drew lots and one man was deputed to kill the rest and then commit suicide. However, the only account of Masada comes from a man called Flavius Josephus, a Jew born in Jerusalem, captured as a slave by the Romans, subsequently freed who became a historian of the Roman campaign – and he was not present at Masada! Traditionally he was told the story by two women who, with five children, had hidden in a cistern and heard what was going on. They related verbatim the speech that Eleazar ben Ya’ir made the night before the Roman’s final assault to convince the rebels that mass suicide was the only answer. He said that they would destroy all their stores so that the Romans could not benefit, except for the food to show that they had not been starved out but had killed themselves voluntarily. It was a very moving speech, and I had the privilege of reading it at the site of the synagogue there.
From Masada we went to a hotel at a place called Ein Bokek where we had lunch and afterwards the opportunity to float in the Dead Sea. And yes, it is impossible to sink; the water is incredibly warm, but it is wise not to stay in too long because of the strong chemical content of the water and the strength of the sun. (This is, after all, the traditional area where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt!). A good shower afterwards is essential, and following that I had a swim in the hotel pool before it was time to dry off and start the homeward journey.
On the way back we had an orientation tour of Jericho and a short stop at another souvenir shop. On the way out we stopped by a tree which could have been the one Zacchaeus climbed in order to see Jesus ( Luke 19 1-11) if only it had been older than the probable 800 years that it was!
Leaving Jericho after a short while we turned off the main road – a modern bypass – onto the old road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was on this road that Jesus placed the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10 29-37), but nowadays it has a tarmac covering. We stopped at a place called Wadi Qelt, which has a synagogue reputed to be the oldest in the world. There is also a unique variety of flora and fauna, which is why parts of it have now been designated as a nature reserve. There are traces of settlements throughout the valley, and there is an active Greek Orthodox monastery, the Monastery of St George of Kobiza, which was founded in the sixth century by monks who believed that it was the place where Elijah was fed by ravens (I KIngs 17 5-6). Many also believe that it is the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ referred to in Psalm 23, not only because it is dark along its length but because through the ages it has been a place for robbers.
After this short detour it was back in time for dinner.