We awoke this morning to the sound of fists pounding on doors and shrieks in the courtyard. Our 14-year-old hostel guests were already awake and impatient for their friends to get out of bed as well. In addition to the loud wakeup call, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise over the Dead Sea and ibex, a mountain goat native to the region, wandering about the compound. Because we had a busy day planned, we ate a quick breakfast and were off to accomplish the first task of the day: climbing Massada.
Massada is a Herodian fortress built atop a mountain just off the coast of the Dead Sea. Commissioned in the 1st century BCE by King Herod, what was initially nothing more than a place of safety for Herod, ultimately became an impenetrable oasis complete with two palaces, an extensive bathhouse, and a food store that would one day outlast a three-year siege. In the last years of Massada’s use, quite some time after the death of Herod, it was home to a community of zealous Jews attempting to escape the persecution of the Roman Empire. These Jews believed that god would lead them to a victory in any situation and under any circumstances, a belief that ultimately led to their demise. The Roman army, commanded to rid the land of those who did not assimilate into Roman culture and society, quickly realized that the possibility of attacking Massada would be impossible due to the steep cliffs and narrow “Snake Path” winding from mountain top to bottom. And so they waited, laying siege to the community. However, because of the food stores that had been kept up even after Herod’s death, the Jews were able to avoid starvation far longer than the Romans had ever anticipated. Tired of waiting, the soldiers began work on a second access point to the mountaintop. On the eve of the invasion into Massada, the men of the community met and agreed that death was better than the torture, rape, and, best case scenario, enslavement that would surely follow once the Romans entered the fortress. And so the men, following the same kosher practices used when slaughtering animals, slit the throats of their wives and children before killing one another. The Romans found nothing but bodies and a burnt village upon entering Massada at sunrise, in their bittersweet victory.
After a slightly terrifying decent from Massada (at least for those of us afraid of heights) and the memories the plateau holds, we arrived at the Dead Sea for an afternoon of floating. Because the Dead Sea’s waters are only able to evaporate and not flow into other bodies of water, it is incredible salty and mineral-rich. This has given the Sea a reputation for both its healing abilities as well as causing those who dare enter its waters (as nothing lives in the Sea itself), the ability to float on the water with no effort. Thanks to our tough, Midwestern skin, we were among the few brave enough to go for a float in the chilly, winter waters.
We finished the day with a drive along the Peace Road, a road that runs along the Israeli-Jordanian border. Unlike other borders we have seen while here (between Israel and Lebanon, Syria, and even some parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories) this border is considered to be very peaceful and has a border fence that looks more like it separates two farms than two nations. An interesting aspect to this border is that various areas of land, while part of Jordan, are allowed to remain under Israeli control (in a land swap) to continue farming efforts that already existed in the region at the time the peace treaty was signed. We had the opportunity to briefly visit one of these farmers, the owner of the only Aloe Vera plantation in the Middle East. In response to questions as to why anyone would try to farm on the Negev Desert, she gave us the response of former Israeli PM David Ben Gurion when posed with the same question: “God gave us the land so we could be part of the creation.”
Tonight we will arrive in Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, to enjoy a few days of relaxation and warm weather.