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Qumran, Masada, and the Dead Sea

>> Thursday, August 21, 2014

One day during our visit, my sister and brother-in-law hired a private tour guide to take us to some historic sites outside of Jerusalem.

We drove out of Jerusalem, into the Judaean Desert.  It was incredibly beautiful, and a bit frightening.  How long would I survive in those rolling sandy hills?  Not long, I'd wager.  I'm amazed that the Bedouin have been doing it for Centuries.  We did spot several Bedouin communities from the road, but they are no longer dignified encampments in goats hair tents.  Instead, they were little shanty communities, built out of corrugated metals and odds and ends.

Our first stop was Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  There had also been a Hellenistic Period community there, but that was eventually destroyed by the Romans, and only some excavated ruins remain.  Apparently there have been many theories about the people who lived in the area, and debates rage over whether they were Essenes, or a Sadducean sect, or others.

Whoever inhabited them, the caves are everywhere.  I can easily imagine the 900 some-odd rolls of parchment and papyrus remaining hidden in them for Centuries, given how remote the area is, and how many caves there are in that whole region.  I wanted, as probably every tourist does, to go in the caves, though of course that's not an option, for safety reasons and for preservation reasons.  Still, they were amazing.

From Qumran we moved on to Masada, which is an extremely popular tourist site.  If you don't know the history, I'll try to give it to you in an absurdly abbreviated summary.

Originally fortified by Alexander Jannaeus in the 1st Century BCE, it was turned into a palace by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BCE. Masada stands on the top of an isolated plateau, in the middle of nowhere. You can see the Dead Sea, the desert hills, and various wadis and ravines from atop its 300-1300 foot cliffs. Thank heavens there is now a cable car running to the top of the plateau, and we did not have to pick our way up the winding snake path to the top in 100 degree heat.  I would never have made it.

The focus on Masada now is not so much on Herod's use of the site, but rather on the story Jewish Roman historian Josephus recorded about Masada. Between 66 and 73 CE, a group of Jews call the Sicarii took control of and lived at Masada.  When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, additional Jews fled to Masada.  They survived using the many cisterns Herod had built on the plateau to collect rain water. This is a view inside one of the cisterns, hewn right out of the rock:

Masada became essentially the last Jewish holdout in Rome's conquest of the land, with Josephus recording that about 900 people were living there.  In 73 CE, led by Lucius Flavius Silva, a Roman legion surrounded Masada, built a wall surrounding it, and constructed a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. Eventually the Romans managed to break through the fortifications, but Josephus's story says they only found dead bodies.  The Jews had killed each other when they realized the Roman breach of their defenses was imminent, rather than permit themselves to be conquered, killed, or enslaved by the Romans.

Remaining bits of Herodion stones:

There is scholarly debate over whether Josephus's account is accurate, based on archaeology.  But whether it is fully truth or an embellishment of the truth, for many Jews Masada has come to be a symbol of courage and resistance in the face of enemies who seek to conquer Israel and the Jewish people.

On top of that plateau in July, it felt, quite honestly, like it was about 120 sweltering degrees.  Sadly, the wilting heat kept us from exploring the entire site, but we did see a good deal of it, and the ruins are remarkable.

Just before our trip, my sister had encouraged me to read Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, which tells the story of the siege on Masada from the perspectives of four different women.  I loved the book, though at moments I did feel its length, especially since I knew how it had to end.  It helped me see the beliefs and lifestyles of several different Jewish sects more clearly, and told the story of the Roman siege on Masada in a way that made me feel like I was there.  It also told the story from the perspective of women, which far too few historical accounts do.  I certainly recommend it, but feel it's fair to mention that my mother was far less enthusiastic about the book than my sister and I were.

Ruins of the dovecotes.  Doves were important largely for their droppings, which were used as fertilizer.

Anyway, Masada, and some of its inhabitants.

If you look at the bottom right of this photo, you can see a square where one of the Roman encampments was during the siege.

A closer view of one of the Roman encampments, to the left of this photo:

A begging grackle.  Their wings are orange when they fly - beautiful.

Our tour guide said this adorable fellow is a golden spiny mouse.

This is what remains of the siege ramp, against the western side.

I have no idea if this is ancient or a recreation, but it is lovely.

A window through the remaining wall of the dovecote.

Scraps of mosaic floor from Herod's time at Masada.

Finally, the Dead Sea.  Along with Hezekiah's Tunnel and Zedekiah's Quarries, the Dead Sea was one of the things I was most excited to experience.  It's hard to describe what it was like.  We duly slathered in Dead Sea mud, and waded in to the warm, insanely salty water.  One doesn't swim in the Dead Sea; one bobs like a cork.  It's utterly disconcerting and lovely at the same time.  My sister and niece complained that it was so salty it made various parts of them burn, and to be sure, where I got splashes on my face it left red spots. Thankfully though, I escaped without real discomfort, and thoroughly enjoyed the magical sensation of bobbing in the Dead Sea, looking at Jordan across the water.  I still can hardly believe I was there, and got to actually BE in (sort of on) the Dead Sea.

The amount of salt is discernible when one examines the rocky shore and spots all the salt deposits on and around the rocks.

This post, sadly, concludes my tale of my Middle East experiences.  For now.  Until my next trip.  There will be a next trip - I can hardly wait to go back.  If only peace could return...


Wendy C October 4, 2014 at 1:34 PM  

Hi Holly, I saw a photo you took, when I was googling The Guzzle, Thousand Island Park. I grew up on the park and long ago worked at the Guzzle. As part of a graduate class I am taking, I am creating a digital story about the park, the Guzzle and the recent fire. I wanted to ask permission to use your photo in my movie, and of course I will credit you. It is a photo taken of people waiting by the ice cream counter. You had it on your Aug 6 post. In it you can see the table covered with a green and white checked tablecloth. I don't have many pictures of the inside of the Guzzle and thought this would help give an idea of what it used to be like. Also if you have any others, I'd love to see them.I would truly appreciate it if you would allow me to use your picture.

Woodswoman Extraordinaire October 4, 2014 at 2:26 PM  

Wendy C, happy to chat about permission! E-mail me at I'll look to see if I have any other interior shots - I'm not sure if I do.

Ellen Rathbone October 11, 2014 at 4:30 PM  

Is there any aquatic life in the Dead Sea?

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