Masada and The Dead Sea
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Text and Photos by Matt Churchill
The Great Syrian-African Rift runs like a deep scar through the holy land, cutting its way from southeast Turkey all the way down to east Africa. Formed by the tectonic movement of shifting continental plates, the Jordan river descends into the valley from 9,000 feet elevation and makes a path to the lowest place on the planet, -1,414 feet below sea level. Welcome to the Dead Sea region.
The Dead Sea is 42 miles long and 11 miles wide, and is walled in by the Jordanian plateau to the east and the Judean wilderness to the west. The Dead Sea Rift was once connected to the Mediterranean Sea via the Jezreel Valley in the north. Over time it became more isolated and its only intake became the Jordan river, brackish springs and flash floods. Today over 90 percent of the Jordan river water that used to flow into the Dead Sea is utilized for drinking and agriculture, so that it is shrinking at a rate of one meter per year. Israel and Jordan have plans to build a pipeline from the Red Sea in order to keep the tourism and cosmetic industries afloat.
Little rain and intensive evaporation produce a concentration of therapeutic minerals that are good for the skin like magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium. A veritable spa industry has developed around hotels and beaches along the Salt Sea. Tourists flock to the resorts for mud treatments, sulphur pools and an opportunity to float in a body of water that averages 35 percent salinity. The surrounding views belong to that of another world.
The minerals, bitumen and asphalt produced by the Salt Sea were known to the ancients and trade routes linked to the region from all directions. Several oases along the shores became famous for farming perfumes, spices and date palm. Ein Gedi was one such oasis as The Song of Solomon attests, "My love is like a cluster of henna blossoms among the vines of Ein Gedi." When Herod the Great controlled the region during the First Century BCE, he had fortresses guarding his plantations of aromatic and medicinal herbs. One kibbutz today is trying to rediscover the lost balsam plant whose perfume was famous throughout the ancient world.
The minerals, bitumen and asphalt produced by the Salt Sea were known to the ancients and trade routes linked to the region from all directions.
Greek geologists and Roman historians came to the Dead Sea to observe this wonder. It was Pliny the Elder who noticed an ascetic group of Jews living above the northwest shore. This is the site known as Qumran, where one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time was made. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd found ancient leather scrolls in a cave near Wadi Qumran. These turned out to be some of the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible we have in our possession! Almost every book of the Hebrew scriptures was copied and stored for safekeeping from the invading Romans who destroyed the settlement of Qumran in 68 CE during The Great Revolt. There were also community writings, apocalyptic texts and commentaries found together with the biblical scrolls among eleven caves in the area. A whole library of scholarship has developed around the discoveries and it sheds enormous light on Jewish groups of the Second Temple Period and the context of the New Testament.
You can reach Qumran in about 45 minutes driving from Jerusalem on the road to Jericho to walk around the excavations and see the caves. Continue driving south in order to reach Ein Gedi, where you can hike up to beautiful pools and waterfalls that spring from layers of limestone in the walls of the Rift Valley. This natural oasis attracts birds and plants species from three continents, making their annual migrations through the holy land. It also happens to be the location for an event in the Bible where David spares the life of the jealous King Saul in 1 Samuel 24.
If all this wasn't enough, the ultimate hightlight is a UNESCO world heritage site a little more to the south on the western shore of Dead Sea, called Masada. A geological table-top surrounded by steep ravines, Herod the Great chose this natural fortress to build his winter palace. Whether you climb 1,200 feet up the snake path or take the cable car, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views from the top. Look south to see the salt pans of Sodom, east are the mountains of Moab, west is the Nabatean route to Arad, and if you look north you can make out the green orchards around Ein Gedi six miles away.
Herod's pleasure gardens are on display on the isolated block, including giant cisterns, a bathhouse and two impressive palaces. But the climax of the story takes place 70 years after Herod, when the Jews revolted against the Romans between 66 - 73 CE. The rebels used the rooms between the walls to launch stones down at the Roman army who were building a base camp down below. It's the most fully preserved Roman siege camp in the world with the circumvolution wall surrounding Masada clearly visible, along with the siege ramp and breaching point itself. Although the war ended with the tragic loss of the Temple being destroyed, Israeli culture has adopted Masada as a symbol of Jewish heroism. Indeed, ever since Masada, Jews never stopped praying towards Jerusalem and yearning to be a free people in the land of Israel.
Matt Churchill lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children and can be reached at his website churchillisraeltours.com
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