Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Yesterday, the day began with our favorite Israeli breakfast -- plain omelette served on a platter with two kinds of cheese (feta and a mild yellow cheese), cottage cheese, cream cheese, a tomatoe/cucumber salad, three rolls with strawberry jam and butter, freshly squeezed orange juice, and hot (and truly delicious) coffee latte. All this for one person! We split the breakfast, and the total cost about $10. We're sitting in a busy open-air cafe. The waitress has come to know us and helps us with the all Hebrew bus map for today we are going to Masada, a bus trip of about 1 hour and 30 minutes away from the city of Jerusalem.

The bus ride south to Masada was fascinating for we rode through, for the first time, a portion of the West Bank, that hotly contested area between Israelis and Palestinians. It's not easy to see Arab settlements, for they are tucked away in crevices. We can look back and see the walled city of Jerusalem with its many apartment complexes of pink, gray, and soft yellow stone, repeated in many architectural styles, blending together like a rose-colored, white shaded city on many hills. No slums in any direction. New construction everywhere of three- and four-story modern apartments built of concrete and Jerusalem stone. As we drive out through the hills, we see many trees planted along side the four, then three, then two-lane through-way. Back well away from the road, we can see just a few settlements, shacks of corrugated iron, covered with black and white plastic, huddled close together, maybe in clusters of two or three against the hill, the worst kind of a slum, with an occasional child walking through. Later, on our return, we saw large herds of goats and sheep being brought back to these settlements. I cannot think these people have even the basics of running water, heat or electricity. The bus we are on doesn't stop in this section of the road.

As we arrived at the Dead Sea, a white mist hung over the sharp blue waters. Allen remembered swimming here, intensely salty and oily water that he had to take a shower after to feel clean. He is fastidious! I was fascinated by the high mountains on the west side. On the east side of the Dead Sea, we could clearly see Jordan. Driving down south further, I saw that water erosion had shaped these dry brown mountains, waterfalls several hundred feet high remained only in dusty, salty trails down the side of the mountains.

I saw many caves dotting the high hills, and then we came to a sign -- Qumram, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered hidden in caves. Amos Elon reports that Qumram was the only community that continued to exist (as long as it did, about 200 years) based on the disaffection of men. Not only were no women permitted, but the religious men who did live here in seclusion spent their lives copying and preserving religious texts. The community only continued to exist as new members came, disaffected by life in the city. Not much is known about these Essenes, though we were able to see some of what had been recovered, including pieces of the original Scrolls, in the Israel Museum.

We continued south to Masada, a singular mountain, separate on all sides from the others, chosen by Herod to build a palace retreat, should the revolts become too violent. Although history says he never used this place as a retreat, I believe he lived here or visited for short periods, for the palace complex was beautiful, even luxurious with its many baths, a swimming pool, deep cisterns for water, and quarters for guests, all constructed hundreds of feet high on the top of Masada. Later, I can't remember how many hundreds of years, the Zealots retreated from the Romans here, tearing down parts of Herod's palace complex to build fortifications.

We spent 5 hours hiking around the top of Masada, after a harrowing ride up in a cable car (yes, I don't like standing on chairs, let alone looking down hundreds of feet), but the scenery was majestic. At the top of Masada, we could see literally for hundreds of miles. The sun came out. The sky became an intense ultramarine blue, and I was fascinated by the remains of the Zealots' daily life (ritual baths, fortifications, the oldest synagogue yet discovered), as well as what was left of Herod's Palace at the Northern end of Masada, mosaic floors, broken columns, and extensive ruins, storehouses, baths, cisterns everywhere, even a dovecote.

The story of the Zealots' flight from Jerusalem and battle against the Romans has been told many times. I remember being shocked by the story as a child. The rebels, as the sign said at Masada, could have held out for a very long time as they had unlimited water, but the Romans, a fearsome and committed opponent, built a ramp of dirt, large enough to bring a tower close to breach the fortifications. We could still see the "bones" of the ramp as well as, I think, markings on the desert floor that revealed the original Roman encampments, geometrically tidy, each with a wall built around the military complex. You can check out the basic history and see some photos by going to this link: http://mosaic.lk.net/g-masada.html as I'm not sure when I will be able to post pictures again. (I put this link at the top of the page on the left as well.)

How did Herod come to build here at Masada, so far from Jerusalem? Why did the Romans pursue the Zealots so deeply into the desert -- and want to destroy them so much they would build that ramp, hundreds of feet high. The story goes, told by Josephus, that the Roman troops breached the wall, and ensured of success, retired for the night. The next morning, they entered Masada to find all dead. During the night, the men drew lots and 10 were chosen to kill the 960 still remaining. Only two women and several children survived by hiding. What a night of horror. It's hard not to ask how many of those 960 would have chosen death or slavery, or if they had a choice. How accurate is Josephus' story?

Today Masada is a national monument of great meaning to the Jewish state, particularly post Holocaust, because it is a compelling testament of the need to fight back, and perhaps to choose death over slavery. The sun still shines brightly over the ruins. We passed teenaged girls in the remaining Roman baths, draped in sheets, characters in a high school play, retelling the story of Herod. By the end of the day, I had photos, tired feet, and many unanswered questions.



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