A hiding place and a stronghold
This magnificent oasis just a short distance from the Dead Sea provided interesting biblical background as well as interesting fauna and history. This is the only oasis in the area and was most assuredly the area where David hid from Saul after he killed Goliath, since it would be the only place that has sufficient water for David to survive as well as rugged terrain with many caves for him to hide. The area has many steep cliffs as well as gorges while only a 3 day mule trip east of Jerusalem. David probably wrote a number of Psalms while hiding in this area and Ps 69 is obviously written about the flash floods that come here approximately once a year. Dan explained that the desert is covered with a layer of very fine dust (glist) from Egypt and the grains absorb water and binds the grains together. So even a very light rain can cause these particles to make an impervious layer on the ground. So if a second rain comes, the water does not go down into the ground but it flows on top of this layer which, combined with very steep rocks, can turn even a small rain into a very dangerous flash flood.
The animal life is also unique. Many animals (and plants) in this oasis are from many miles away and in different directions and it is like the area around Dan where many plant and animal species come from Africa, Europe, and Asia. The Nubian Ibex, originally from Africa, is plentiful here and we enjoyed seeing them leap into a tree to eat tender leaves while ibex as young as 1 week old, frolicked around to our delight.
En Gedi is the largest oasis along the western shore of the Dead Sea. The springs here have allowed nearly continuous inhabitation of the site since the Chalcolithic period. The area was allotted to the tribe of Judah, and was famous in the time of Solomon (Josh 15:62). Today the Israeli kibbutz of En Gedi sits along the southern bank of the Nahal Arugot.
Masada is really two stories: Herod the Great’s ingenious building of the fortress and then the story of the Jewish rebels holding out for four years while the famed Roman army laid siege to the remaining remnant of Jews in AD 70-74, after they had wiped out Galilee, Golan Heights, Judea, and Jerusalem in AD 66-70.
Herod the Great was ingenious but also most likely a warped psychopath. He was raised in Rome (born from a Jewish mother) and trained in the Roman ways. When he became ruler over the Jews, he was viewed as a traitor by the Jews. Masada was built by Herod and it reflected the best of Roman architecture and ingenuity. This fortress is built high on a steep structure that provided vertical protect on all four sides, seemingly impenetrable. Inside the fortress was city that Rome would be proud to claim. The most amazing aspect was how they were able to provide sufficient water for people live for more than 4 years. They had over 20 cisterns that provided 40,000 cubic meters of water. The water was protect from contamination by a clever method of putting a very thin layer of olive oil on the surface of the water that kept bacteria from forming by keeping oxygen out of the water. The way they filled the cisterns would make even a modern physicist proud: they made pathways and pipes to divert water from the nearby mountains that were slightly higher than Masada. Thus when a flash flood occurred, the water went downhill, way below the top of Masada, but because of the pathways, if went up to Masada because of the hydraulics making the water go to into cisterns in Masada and then once the lower cisterns were filled, the water would flow up to the higher cisterns (or slaves would take it up). They also imported plaster so and used it to create impervious rooms so if something like a jar of olive oil broke in a store house, they could easily clean it and re-claim most of the olive oil. Many of the public rooms in Masada had colorful designs using Cinnabar, a red stone from Italy that was restricted to use by Caesar or his designee. Because Herod got Caesar to give him Cinnabar, it immediately conveyed to visitors that Herod was a favored magistrate of Caesar. There were public baths like in Beit She-an and the trappings of a very modern, luxurious retreat. Herod was a psychopath that killed 2 of his brothers and 2 of his sons. He loved his wife, Miriam, but he killed her after he had a dream of her leading a revolt against him. So when he died, it should be no surprise that his sons who replaced him were not nearly as effective leaders as Herod. They made a foolhardy decision to rebel against Rome and Rome replied with a vengeance, essentially wiping the Jewish nation out. They took out most of Israel from 66-70 AD, ending with the destruction of Jerusalem. But a group of Zealots escaped and fled to Masada where they thought they could live off the water and stocked storehouses of food for a long time. They lasted 4 years. The Roman army made a point of essentially wiping out the Jewish nation by laying siege to Masada in 70 AD and finally succeeding to build a siege ramp and through a battering ram, protected by catapults, breaking into the walls of the formerly thought impenetrable Masada after a four year siege. After they penetrated the walls, the Romans went back to their camp at night preparing for a final takeover of Masada. The next day when they came into Masada they were shocked to see no one alive. The Jews had systematically killed each other so that no Jew would be taken hostage into slavery. Israeli solders are sworn to never let Masada happen again but will always choose freedom over slavery. Many view this as Israel’s finest moment, albeit tragic, somewhat akin to the way Texans view the Alamo.
The summit of Masada sits 190 feet (59 m) above sea level and about 1,500 feet (470 m) above the level of the Dead Sea. The mountain itself is 1950 feet (610 m) long, 650 feet (200 m) wide, 4,250 feet (1330 m) in circumference, and encompasses 23 acres. The “Snake Path” climbs 900 feet (280 m) in elevation. From the west, the difference in height is 225 feet (70 m).
We capped off another great day by swimming/floating in the Dead Sea. Rather spontaneously, we all held hands while forming a circle while floating on our backs. Then we started moving each other in and out of the circle, giving each other “high tens” with our feet. It was quite a site and full of laughter! The pictures that you see don’t do justice to the moment.
Known in the Bible as the “Salt Sea” or the “Sea of the Arabah,” this inland body of water is appropriately named because its high mineral content allows nothing to live in its waters. Other post-biblical names for the Dead Sea include the “Sea of Sodom,” the “Sea of Lot,” the “Sea of Asphalt” and the “Stinking Sea.” In the Crusader period, it was sometimes called the “Devil’s Sea.” All of these names reflect something of the nature of this lake.