Each morning we were up bright and early for a 30 minute prayer meeting before breakfast of pita bread, sliced meats, salad vegetables, coffee and fruit.  Not exactly a Western breakfast but very tasty none-the-less and gave us more energy than had we eaten a plate of cornflakes.  

Jewish roads out in the country are very good

What are these sheep and goats eating?

We were all pleased to hear that we were to board our air-conditioned bus today, none of the walking around hot Jerusalem.  Shadi, our bus driver, is always employed by Oak Hall as he has proven to be such a kind, gentle and considerate person.  He drives expertly as well.   He is an Arab living in Nazareth and if at day’s end we are close enough he goes home to his family but if not then he stays at the hotel with the group.  The roads out in the countryside are of an excellent standard, the Jewish Military are keen to get to any trouble spots quickly so have built roads to suit this requirement.   In an emergency they can close some of these highways and use them as a runway for their fighter jets!   We were driven to a desolate looking spot in the wilderness between Jerusalem at the top of the mountain and Jericho at the bottom.  Jesus and His disciples would have walked up and down this valley, along the wadi in the valley.  Maybe it was here that the parable of the Good Samaritan was told.  It certainly is a hostile environment.  There was a shaded seating area where we could sit and listen to the Bible story again as well as readings from Job 38 &39 concerning God as the Creator,  a few Psalms and Isaiah 35 about the joy of the redeemed in a transformed desert.   It is also the likely site of where Jesus was tempted by the Devil.  While the Bible was being read a Bedouin man and a young boy were quietly waiting for us to finish and then buy some of their necklaces and bangles.  They kept laying out the necklaces in rows along the stone wall, tempting the ladies, then gathering them up and carefully displaying them along one arm, then a repeat performance of laying them out again,etc.   By the time the readings were complete they had succeeded in annoying a fair proportion of our group while the others were keen to take a closer look.  There was method to their waiting time.  These Bedouin people actually lived in the hills here, underground where it was cool, and as soon as a tour bus arrived out they came, arms full of wares.  They were selling their own creations of brass and lapis lazuli, often mentioned in Scripture.  Dennis offered to buy their vehicle, it was a 25-year-old beat up Mercedes limousine with three bench seats.  He had a haggle with the chap and said he wanted to drive it back to NZ, to great hilarity all round.

The Bedouin’s home

Jericho is at the bottom of this mountain range. That’s the wadi, where it’s green

Jerusalem is just out of sight at the top of the ridge

The Merc that Dennis was so intrigued with

Back into  the bus and off down the motorway-like road travelling towards the Jordan Valley.  It wasn’t long and we saw the sign saying we were now below sea level.  At the river’s edge it is nearly 1300 feet below sea level!   With the aid of irrigation the people here have turned the desert into a place of great agricultural growth.  Predominately they grew date palms.   It must have been very close to picking time as the large bunches of dates were individually wrapped in a cloth bag, presumably to prevent them being stolen by birds and damaged by the wind.  Huge shade houses dotted the landscape as well, but as you couldn’t see inside them, I didn’t know what they might be growing in there. The next stop was a little place called Qumran.

Just a house I really liked in the country

Date palms

Large shade houses in the desert

All ready to plant out. Under each row of plastic is 4 thin irrigation pipes.

Qumran is famous for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.  A couple of Bedouin shepherds searching for a missing goat threw a stone down what they thought was a well and was surprised to hear the stone hit a pottery vessel.  Erosion had disclosed a cave entrance holding numerous big pottery jugs, some of which contained Bible Scrolls as well as various other religious writings.   A sect of Judaism called the Essenes had lived in this region for hundred’s of years and devoted themselves to a monastic life of communal living,  gardening, mediation, pious worship and to copying Scrolls from the Old Testament 24/7.  They completely rejected the prevailing powers -that-be at that time (Scribes and Pharisees) who were running Judaism and their corrupted Temple Worship.  This area was sacked by the Romans a few years after the final destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  There were 11 caves discovered over nine years and 1000’s of fragments of scripture, pretty much the entire Old Testament.  Most importantly for Biblical scholarship, these scrolls prove how accurately copies of the Bible had been preserved for 1000’s of years of Jewish history.  The Essenes were very fussy when copying as in counting each word that comprised a book and marking the middle word etc, much like the Catholic monks did a thousand years later.  In addition, a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah (66 chapters on a scroll over 7m long) was found which is now mounted at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.  Isaiah 53 contains a very specific prophecy regarding Jesus, His coming to this earth, His virgin birth, His life and work here and the reason for Him doing so.   We believe that the long-awaited Messiah has returned!  For modern-day Christians Qumran has re-validated the canon of Scripture.

Qumran looked like an oasis in the desert

Some of the actual clay jars

The Isaiah scroll is in such good condition, it’s amazing.  It was written in 100BC.

You can see several of the caves entrances but the lower one on the left hand side is where the pottery jars were found

About 50 kms south from Qumran is Masada, a massive rock plateau, towering more than 400 m above the Dead Sea.  It is surrounded on two sides by rocky mountains and has sheer cliff faces down to the desert floor.  King Herod the Great, that’s the one who had the male babies murdered when he heard from the Wise Men that Jesus had been born, decided that Masada would be a great location for the ultimate in an impenetrable fortress, if and when he faced a credible threat to his rule.   He had his engineers, stone cutters and carpenters build him a very fancy Palace as well as housing for his troops, bath houses, administration buildings, storerooms, etc.  The whole thing was protected by a thick stone wall  and lookout towers all perched atop this huge rock.  They were clever people designing huge water cisterns for storage, swimming pools as well as the Roman baths that were so popular at that time.  In 66AD many years after Herod’s particularly hideous death, Masada was captured and used as a base by a radical group of Jewish rebels known as Zealots.  They fled here to try to escape from Roman rule but after Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Romans slowly made their way through the rest of Israel conquering  the country as they went.  In the winter of 73AD, 10,000 Romans surrounded Masada and set up a siege.  They achieved their aim by building a massive  dirt ramp up to the main gates for their battering ram.  They eventually used fire to try to burn through the front gate giving entry to Masada, however initially the wind caused the fire to blow back against the Romans in the siege tower.  Things were looking up for the Zealots until another wind change and the gate itself caught fire allowing Roman entry.  The Romans then retired for the night realising the job was all but done.  The Jews had previously decided that they were not going to surrender to the Romans at all and thought it was better to join themselves together in a suicide pact.  Each family man agreed to kill his wife and children at an appointed time.  Ten volunteers had the job of killing the heads of families.  From these ten, a lot was drawn to establish who was responsible for killing the remaining nine. The leader of the revolt was a man named Yair and all the tokens relating to this lottery have been found, including his.  Under Jewish tradition suicide precluded the possibility of going to heaven.  960 men, women and children died that day rather than live lives of slavery under the Romans.  When the Romans came back the following day all the buildings other than the store houses were aflame and almost all of the people dead.    A woman and two children hid and did not take part in the pact and were the only survivors.  This act of defiance at Masada in some ways defines Israel today and their Nation’s resolve to never surrender to any other nation, their right to remain in the ‘Promised Land’.  

The rock plateau that’s Masada

and a closer look at the rock of Masada

The gondola was spectacular

The model of how the various buildings up on top of Masada looked like was helpful. Herod’s Palace is the lower one

The 10 named tokens

Very little shade up here

Great views from the top. This is looking out at the Dead Sea

You can make out the ruins of the Roman campsite

Still fragments of painted walls left in some of the buildings

I’m always fascinated how clever the Romans were. In the bath house the underfloor heating was dispersed through the raised floors and hollow tiles behind the plastered walls

Herod’s Palace is still most impressive


After viewing a DVD about the history of the place in the well-appointed Visitor Centre Dennis and I quickly ate the lunch we had made at breakfast time.  We took a gondola ride up to the Fortress instead of walking up the 45 minute narrow winding path as some of our group did.  It was so hot I was sure that if I had walked I would be too exhausted to explore the remains of the fortress.   The views from the top were extraordinary, looking over the Dead Sea and out to the Mountains of Moab, in the country of Jordan.  The sky was quite hazy but still every scene was breathtaking.  We walked around the ruins for several hours until finally I was overcome by the heat and felt quite weak and dizzy, even though I had been drinking water the whole time.   I came right again once I had eaten more food back at the Visitor Centre and had a short rest before we were herded back on the bus to our next destination.
Driving back up the same road we had come we stopped off at the oasis of En Gedi.  This used to be a fishing village along the shores of the Dead Sea but as the inflows into the Lake have decreased and there is no natural runoff, the water has become so salty that fish cannot survive here anymore.  It’s not only evaporation but the countries of Jordan and Israel are taking too much for irrigation and that’s causing the shrinking of the Lake.  Both countries also mine the Lake for minerals and salt.  You can clearly see where the old levels used to be on the other side of the road.  We were told that if things don’t change that during the life of our grandchildren the Dead Sea will be no more!  En Gedi is often spoken about in the Bible; David hid in these parts from King Saul (1 Sam 24), David is refreshed at the springs of En Gedi (Ps 104), etc.  We braved the heat and walked up a rather long walk to find the springs that David spoke about.  When I say “we” I actually mean me as Dennis decided it was too hot and stopped at the first opportunity by the stream.   I carried on for another 20 minutes or so and finally found a tall waterfall tumbling down to create a lovely little series of pools before combining to create a beautifully clean, shallow stream.  After this excursion I was glowing and lay down on my back in one of the pools, it was bliss.  I was surprised that no one else joined me!  When I got back to where I had left Dennis I found he had done the same thing, clever Kiwis!  After a short stop at the conveniently located shop, where we indulged in an ice cream, we refilled our bottles at the chilled  water fountain and then it was back on the bus for a very short ride, basically over the road.  Here we were going to try swimming in the Dead Sea.    I wasn’t sure whether I would go but Dennis thought I was mad not to.  My worry was that if it wasn’t cool enough it would just be a pain to have to change and walk the 100 metre path, which dropped by 30 metres to the water’s edge, and it not be refreshing at all.  In the end I had to agree with him that we had come all this way, so why not?  A little man stood by the changing room door and charged us to get in, when he didn’t give us a ticket or token I asked him if he expected me to pay upon my return?  Yes, he said with a grin!   When we got to the water there was a neon thermometer declaring that it was 41 degrees C and it was 5 o’clock!  No wonder our water bottles didn’t stay full for long.  I reckon back at Masada we must have been walking around the ruins in 45 degree heat!   The swim was not so much a swim but a bob.  We had been repeatedly warned not to get the water in our eyes, with the salt concentration at around 30% it would burn them. Rock salt actually crystalized  15mm thick at the shoreline  at the boundary between the water and the land In the water you floated and strangely your body didn’t work the way it should, almost like in slow motion, and you had the feeling that you were about to tip over all the time.  The water felt oily and warm and the buoyancy it gave you was disconcerting.   Maybe the water temperature was around 35 degrees.  In the end I was glad that I had done it but wouldn’t bother repeating the performance.  I found at the bottom a free fresh water shower and revelled under it for ages!  By the time we walked back up to the bus however we were just as hot as we were beforehand!

Ibex at En Gedi

The first little pool where Dennis failed to proceed

David’s Waterfall, a true oasis in this desert land

Ibex are so nimble, he’s there if you look

It’s true it was 41 degrees!

Bob, bob, bobbing along

It’s probably chest deep here

The mountains on the other side of the Dead Sea are the Mountains of Moab, where Ruth and her mother-in-law walked back to Israel (Ruth 1).  Also, Mt Nebo is there, where Moses was taken to view the Promised Land (Deut. 34)  These names are so familiar to us from reading the Bible so it’s exciting to actually see these sights.

And back home to the Rivoli Hotel