Monday, December 12, 2016

Mount of Olives and Around the Dead Sea: Qumran and Masada

Nov 26, Sat:
Mount of Olives-Qumran-Masada-Dead Sea.

View from the Mount of Olives:     

What was to be the official last day of our tour saw us rise and have a buffet breakfast in Hotel Arthur. As a result of the Sabbath, everything was very quiet. Moti ushered us into our van and led us to the Mount of Olives for a really close look at the vast amount of Jewish graves from a high vantage point. This site also offered magnificent views over Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock, of course, dominating the landscape. We could also see the great towering walls of the city and the courtyard in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the courtyard in front of the Western Wall. We took a number of group, couple and individual pictures here in this very busy location which was made worse by the traffic jam of tourist buses that were plying the area and the presence of camels on which tourists were getting rides. Chaos reigned supreme, but somehow we managed to make our way out of there.

Drive to the Dead Sea:

            Since we were off to the Dead Sea, I had asked Moti if he could possibly take us to the spot where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls had been found. I had read about this discovery as being one of the most historically important in the area and I was keen to see the place. Moti wished to oblige, but he did tell me that all we’d be able to do was get off the van and see the spot from a distance. He said that had I told him that I was keen to go there, he would have suggested that we leave the hotel half an hour earlier. Had we done so, we could have gone to the actual spot where a platform has been erected and where visitors can watch a movie on the creation and discovery of the scrolls.

Visiting Qumran—Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls:     

The drive to the Dead Sea was long but we did stop at Qumran which is the site where the scrolls were found. It looks no better than rocky mountainous wilderness in which caves are naturally created by wind erosion—we could see several such caves high on the mountain during our drive there. The Dead Sea Scrolls (so-called because they are in the vicinity of the Dead Sea) are a collection of 981 scrolls that were found between 1946 and 1956 in eleven caves in the Qumran area. Current scholarly consensus is that the scrolls date from the last three centuries BC. They include the third oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon. Most of the texts are written in Hebrew with some in Aramaic (in different regional dialects, including Nabataean), and a few in Greek. If discoveries from the Judean desert are included, Latin (from Masada) and Arabic (from Khirbet al-Mird) can be added. Most texts are written on parchment, some on papyrus and one on copper. The scrolls have traditionally been identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, although some recent interpretations have challenged this association and argue that the scrolls were penned by priests in Jerusalem, Zadokites, or other unknown Jewish groups.

Owing to the poor condition of some of the scrolls, not all of them have been identified. Those that have been identified can be divided into three general groups: some 40% of them are copies of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures; approximately another 30% of them are texts from the Second Temple Period which ultimately were not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, and the remaining roughly 30% of them are sectarian manuscripts of previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of a particular group (sect) or groups within greater Judaism, like the Community Rule, the War Scroll, the Pesher on Habakkuk and The Rule of the Blessing. In Biblical terms, the scrolls are invaluable to both Jews and Christians as they contain every book of the Old Testament except for the Book of Esther—which is probably still concealed somewhere. The scrolls were found in pottery jars and are in such a fine state of preservation because the desert air is so dry. Originally found by a Bedouin shepherd who wished to use the parchment to make a pair of shoes, they eventually passed on to an archeologist who engaged a team of scholars to work on them. When their antiquity was established, they were found to be the most valuable body of items unearthed in recent times in Israel. Arrangements were made to house them in what is now the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem where a special wing was constructed to exhibit them.

Our group took pictures at the Qumran site and then proceeded towards the next item on our agenda: A Visit to Masada.

Visiting Masada:

Masada lies in the midst of the desert—literally in the middle of nowhere—and I was amazed after we arrived at the spot (at the entrance to Masada National Park) how many busloads of tourists had arrived to scour the area. It is amazing that the place is called Masada because it is exactly that: a mesa or flat-topped mountain which is a fortification in the middle of the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built palaces on the mountain fortress between 37 and 31 BC—a palace built in tiers on a promontory that overlooks the desert.

But the spot has really leapt in significance because of the deeply moving story associated with the Siege of Masada that involved the Roman legions and the Sicari people who took refuge there. These Sicari had fled from the Roman garrisons and climbed the mountain to set up camp here. When the Roman followed them and began to plot their destruction, they began their campaign by constructing a ramp (using captured Jewish slaves) on one side of the mountain. The Sicari kept killing these workers to prevent the completion of the ramp—but they soon took the decision to stop killing their own people (although it meant that the Romans would complete the ramp and reach them).

When eventually the ramp was ready, the Romans created a battering ram in order to burst through the structures that made up the settlement. However, the Sicari took the joint decision to kill every single member of their community rather than have women raped and their sons taken as slaves. Hence, they appointed nine men to kill every member of the community and when the nine were the only ones left, they drew lots to decide who would kill the remaining eight and then eventually kill himself. This is referred to as the “Terrible Resolve”. When the Romans arrived at the site, they discovered 960 bodies  strewn all over the settlement.  The horror of the story has given rise to a motion picture called Masada.

Today, thanks to the romance associated with this tale, Masada has become the second most visited Jewish site in Israel (after the Western Wall). In order to scale it, visitors can take one of two well-defined trails and climb all the way up. However, the easier and more popular method is the cable car which transports people up and down in a matter of minutes. Once up, there are a vast number of structures to be seen in varied stages of ruin—some are mere piles of rubble, others are re-constructed rooms with the original fresco decoration still in place. From the heights, one can look out over the stone foundations of the bases occupied by the Roman legions (there are three of these) as well as obtain stirring views of the wilderness and the Dead Sea. There is a museum at the base that explains the siege and its outcome in more detail, but most of the pottery, jewelry, etc. that was archeologically excavated from the site can be found at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.

We spent a lot of time at the site. The cable car ride was enjoyable if very short and the views as we went higher were wonderful. Moti provided a great deal of detailed information as we moved from one site to the next. There is a very nice Visitor Center at the base which provides more information.

Lunch and Stop at Ahava Factory Outlet:

            We had lunch in the café at Masada before we set off in the van again towards the Dead Sea. As we began speaking of the cosmetic value of the salts and mud, Moti offered to stop our van at the Ahava Factory Outlet. This cosmetics company which was founded about 20 years ago has cornered the market in this product (although there are a lot of other lesser-known companies that make similar products). Inside, we watched a movie that talked about the benefits of the Dead Sea salts and we found a number of cosmetics for skin and hair and a few members of our group did end up buying some products. We did not spend long there as we headed on to the Dead Sea.

Floating on the Dead Sea:

            The Dead Sea is so-called because it is so high in salinity that no creature is able to survive in it. It is renowned for the fact that its specific gravity is so low that nothing can sink into the sea. Fed by the River Jordan, the Sea is land-locked and since it has no outlet and the temperature in the desert is so hot, evaporation takes place at such a high rate that he water dries up leaving heavy salt content behind. The mud at the bottom of the sea is, therefore, super-saturated with mineral salts that are supposedly very good for the skin and are said to have healing properties.

Llew and I had been in the Dead Sea before—on the Jordanian side when we had toured Jordan, a few years ago. However, we looked forward to donning our swim suits and getting a dunk in with our friends. I was also keen to actually feel the sensation of floating as I had not attempted to float the last time. Again, busloads of people kept pouring into the area and the changing rooms (that Moti pointed out to us) were packed. There were bathrooms, toilets and changing cubicles but these were mobbed. Somehow, we managed to change, after leaving our bags and valuables with Gemma who sportingly sat guard as she was unable to climb up and down the long flights of stairs that led to the water’s edge.

We had the time of our lives in the Dead Sea. Fleurette provided a great deal of entertainment with her terrified squealing as she made her way in. The majority of us dunked ourselves with help from each other as we negotiated our way in as the base was not just rocky and uncomfortable on the soles of our feet but terribly slippery. Once we were in, however, there was no stopping us. We also helped each other turn over on our backs and start to float. The sensation was indescribably amazing and we enjoyed every second of it. We also smeared the mud from the base over our bodies and were astonished by the softness of our skin as we washed the salts off. Truly it was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience. Moti took many pictures of our group as we sat in the water with so many people floating around us.

Just a little while later, we showered at the water’s edge (where a queue had formed to use the shower), and shivered all the way up to the changing rooms. A good hot coffee was very much in order at that point and thanks to Glen who treated us, I felt much less shivery. We then piled back into our van and made our way to the Hotel.

Dinner at Shanty Restaurant:

This was truly our last dinner as we would be airborne the following morning. We called a place called Shanty which was really difficult to find, but once we did settle down, we found the atmosphere and the room lovely. We ordered Pad Thai and Shrimp with Lemon-Pepper Sauce as well as cocktails. It was a rather poignant end to our wonderful adventures.

Some of our members were leaving at dawn, others right after breakfast. Since Llew and I would be boarding our flight only at 1. 40 pm, I figured that we did not need to leave as early as the others. Instead, having become fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, I managed to talk Llew into accompanying me to the Israeli Museum and we made arrangements with the Hotel Reception to hire a cab for us that would take us to the museum, wait for us while we were inside and then take us to the airport. And on that happy note, we spent our last night in Israel.

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