Masada and the Dead Sea


04/09/2017

One of my first stops after arriving in Israel was visiting Masada and the Dead Sea. I guess most people pop over to the Dead Sea after a visit to Jerusalem, but we devoted an entire day to this and visited Jerusalem separately. Driving south through Arad, we descended almost 800 meters before reaching the lowest land elevation on the planet. But before we took in a leisurely afternoon by the water, we visited Masada, a fortification built up by Herod the Great. And along the way to our second Dead Sea visit (more on this later), we finally found some roadside camels.

I note that we finally found some roadside camels because for the entire two-week visit, I had been seeing camel crossing signs along all major roads throughout the southern part of the country. Yet the camels remained elusive. Finding an entire herd of them shortly before leaving was a great treat indeed. After warning me to watch out for spit, the shepherd was kind enough to let me approach and pet them. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, seeing as I jumped out of the car barefoot, onto desert scrub, in order to chase after them, but my goal was accomplished nonetheless.

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Finally found some roadside camels shortly before the trip came to an end!

Separate from the camels were two major touristic sites in Israel. As I mentioned earlier, our first stop was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site Masada, which was fortified by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BCE (see below for a touristic description of the site). Masada was built on a major uprising of rock called a horst, with 400 meter drop-offs on the eastern side and almost 100 meters on the western side. It was an ideal location to retreat to in case of rebellion. After Herod the Great had two palaces built up, the site history is vague until 66 CE, the First Jewish-Roman War. Flavius Josephus was a Roman-captured, Jewish-born historian who recorded the following events from a Roman point of view.

By 66 CE the site was occupied by Romans, and Jews across the region were rebelling. One splinter group called the Sicarii were in conflict even with their fellow Jews as well as the Romans. The Sicarii split from Jerusalem and managed to recapture Masada from the Romans. Over the next several years, more and more Sicarii moved to join them. In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege on Masada, with the assistance of some Jewish prisoners of war. It took several months for the Romans to build a ramp up the sides of Masada, during which time the Sicarii survived without issue, thanks to the massive storage of food and the well-developed cisterns used to collect rainwater. When the Romans finally breached the walls, they discovered that the Sicarii had committed mass suicide (almost 1000 men, women, and children) after burning every room except for the food stores. It is thought that the food stores were left untouched to show that the mass suicide was by choice, and not due to lack of sustenance. It should also be noted that excavations have only revealed the remains of less than 30 humans, so the site is still somewhat of a mystery.

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Human interference with the archeological history of Masada has been minimal. There is a Visitors’ Center and cable car that you can take to the top, or you can also hike up one of two paths. The path from the Visitor Center is called the Snake Path, and the path from the western side of the hill is called the Roman Ramp Trail. The Roman Ramp Trail is steep, but the elevation gain is smaller than Snake Path. Since we entered from the Visitor Center, we hiked up the Snake Path, gaining about 400 meters in elevation. This is a famous hike to do at sunrise before the desert sun gets too hot; unfortunately we were there closer to noon and I was recovering from a cold. We probably took quite a bit longer than expected, but I am happy to say I made it. Upon writing this it seems that the park entrance is about $8 for an adult, or $21 for an adult entrance and a roundtrip cable car ticket.

Once we reached the top we found several tours we could have tagged along with (not sure if they technically cost money or not), but there were also plenty of explanatory signs for the general visitor. After exploring for a bit, we all took the cable car down and headed to the Dead Sea for a relaxing afternoon.

I mentioned earlier that this is the lowest land elevation on the planet. The shores of the Dead Sea are 413 meters below sea level, and the sea is evaporating quickly. In fact, Time magazine ranked the Dead Sea as one of the top ten places to visit before they vanish. During the day, the sky was very hazy and the mountains of Jordan could barely be seen across the sea. In just a few hours though, all of this changed.

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I received two warnings before entering the sea: one was that drinking a small cup of the water would be enough to kill you (I can’t find a legitimate source to back that up, but who wants to take chances), and the other warning was to wear plastic shoes so I wouldn’t cut my feet on the salt coating the bottom. The third warning I didn’t receive but saw once there was not to enter the sea at undesignated tourist points. The dried salt shores may not be stable and could collapse beneath you. You might only fall a foot or two, but the jagged edges could severely cut you on the way down.

I did wear the plastic shoes, and also tried a drop of water on my tongue. It burned! I couldn’t fathom trying to drink even a sip of it. The water was slick and oily against your skin, and once you got deeper than your knees, it was buoyant enough to practically force your feet up off the ground. Essentially, you would be floating on your back whether you liked it or not. In the shallower parts, we picked up salty sand from the bottom and exfoliated our skin with the purest of sea salt scrubs (amazing)! We were incredibly careful not to get any salt on our faces or let any water drip down to our eyes, and we took very thorough showers after exiting. Don’t leave the beach without showering the salt off first; I’m told the itching is insane!

Upon leaving the Dead Sea for the day, the sun was beginning to set. Suddenly the sky haze wasn’t as prominent, the Jordanian mountains were more contrasted, and the colors were returning. It. was. beautiful. We were exhausted, and I had avoided bringing my camera, figuring water and salt would be less than ideal conditions for operation. However, I instantly knew that I wanted to return to the Dead Sea for sunset before leaving Israel. A couple weeks later, with days left before my departure, we made it happen, and I took the photos shown above. The sunset colors were simply gorgeous, and the photos made a nice portfolio for my most recent gallery showing. Amongst all of the amazing places we visited in Israel, the Dead Sea was hands down my absolute favorite.

If you made it this far, thank you profusely for reading. This was a longer post than most I’ve published lately. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed reliving the experience through writing, because I know I will look back on this fondly one day. Stay tuned for future updates!

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