My journey today took me back to the Jordan Valley, this time to the far south of the Dead Sea and the ancient Winter Palace of King Herod at Masada.
King Herod’s main palace was in the heart of Jerusalem, however the winters were bitterly cold and so he and his massive entourage would travel the 100 kilometres SSE to the warmer climate of Masada. Perched high above the Dead Sea – but in actual fact only 60 metres above sea level – and with the only means of entrance via a long, winding trail up one side of the mesa, it was naturally a secure stronghold. Today you can choose to walk the same track – called the Snake Path – or cheat and take a cable car. The stone for the defence walls (just in case) and buildings were quarried from the top of the mesa. The palace was located on 3 levels – the main building with stairs down to a massive pool complex and then further stairs down to a recreation area. All were placed to face the sun for warmth.
Masada has a bloody history as it was the last stronghold of about 1000 Zealots around 70 AD who had fled Jerusalem after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. In 72 AD, the Romans descended upon the area below Masada and with amazing ingenuity, built a very long stone and sand ramp up the shortest side of the mesa and hauled a battering ram up its length to breach the walls. Today you can still see the remains of the eight different camp sites of the 10th Legion surrounding the mesa. The Zealots only had 2 choices: become slaves of the Romans or take their own lives. They chose the latter. A senior member was responsible for killing his family members, then the last surviving Zealots drew a ballot to see who killed whom until all but one was dead by the hands of others. The last person committed suicide. When the Romans finally breached the stronghold they found everything in flames and all Zealots dead.
To the north, just 35 kilometres from Jerusalem along the Jordan Valley, we visited Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. This was the site of a small Essene settlement from around the time of Jesus. Cleverly constructed aquaducts ensured ample water for bathing twice daily before prayers as well as drinking and watering crops. The Essene were responsible for copying most of the books of the Hebrew Bible onto over 950 scrolls. Written on papyrus paper they were stored in caves high up on the mountain side. The caves look like a million others dotted along the escarpment and their extraordinary contents would have remained unknown if not for a shepherd boy looking for a lost goat in 1947.
And to round off the day, we stopped at a beach on the Dead Sea. I will say quite frankly that whilst the facilities onshore were excellent the actual area of swimming was a total disaster. The beach for want of a better word was just mud dotted with a few plastic chairs and umbrellas. The cordoned off “swimming” area was very shallow and had a muddy base, making the colour of the water a dark green and not at all inviting. People were scooping mud to put on their skin from where they were standing in the Sea leaving massive, and dangerous, holes for people to fall into. I would not recommend visiting the Dead Sea unless you are in Jordan where many top rating hotels have their own private beaches. Whilst the seabed is covered in smooth rounded stones, they have brought in tonnes of sand to form inviting beaches. The Sea is not cordoned off and therefore people can spread out and actually enjoy the experience of floating. Along the foreshore can be found large jars of the famous black mud for coating your skin.
Remember, the water is 7 times saltier than regular sea water – not nice if you have a cut on your skin or took time shaving that morning!!!! If you let your hair dry without washing out the salt, it will become brittle and break off. Beach-side showers as well as indoor ones give you the opportunity to wash out all the salt before continuing your journey.
For us, the day of exploration was over and we headed back to Jerusalem for the night.