Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dead Sea Field Trip

Today (12/4/11) was out last full-day, bus field trip of  the semester.  First we drove to Masada, the site of the Jewish zealots' (in)famous last stand.  We then went to the Dead Sea to experience floating in the saltiest body of water on the earth.  After that we hiked up the wadi at En Gedi, an oasis in the Judean Wilderness where David spared Saul's life before we went to Qumran, where there was a community of Jewish ascetics who seem to be responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls

 First, here is today's highlights video:

The name Masada comes from an Aramaic word meaning "fortress." It is a free-standing plateau near the Dead Sea whose site is nearly impregnable.  The Hasmonean Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) first fortified the plateau.  Later during the civil wars that Herod the Great fought against one of the last Hasmoneans, he left his family there while he went to Rome, seeking the Senate's support for his bid for the kingship.  Later after Herod was firmly established as the ruled of the Jews, he not only further fortified the site, he also built two luxurious palaces there.

Plan of the palaces and other buildings on top of Masada. Wikimedia Commons.
After Judea became a province after A.D. 6, a small Roman garrison held Masada.  But during the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-72, it was occupied by the most violent and extreme revolutionary party known as the Sicarii, from the Latin sicarius for "dagger man."  After the fall of Rome in A.D. 70, Masada was soon the last Jewish holdout.  The Romans besieged the site, building a massive earthen ramp on the western side to bring their siege engines up against the walls of Masada.  According to the historian Josephus, when the defenders realized that the Romans were about to break through, they made a terrible choice to commit mass suicide rather than be captured by the Romans.

Riding the gondolas up to the top of Masada

Rachel could not believe that she was there!

A little macabre: my students, who arrived at the top first, decided to reenact the story so that Steve's group, who arrived afterwards, would come through the gate to a gruesome scene.
Group picture in Herod's north palace, also known as the "Hanging Palace," since its courts and rooms cascade down a series of terraces down the north escarpment.

With Rachel in the north palace

Details of the palace's frescoes
After touring the northern palace and many of the other sites on Masada, I met with our students in the room that had been converted by the rebels into a synagogue (Herod had not bothered to build a synagogue for his own use).  There we talked about the story Josephus' related, discussing courage and freedom but also how precious life was.  It ended up to be a good discussion, and, to my surprise, a couple that had been listening as we spoke told us how much they enjoyed what they had heard.

The remains of the Roman camp below Masada

The Roman siege ramp

In the synagogue

In a Byzantine church that was later built on Masada
After Masada, we took a break to let the students swim---better, float---in the Dead Sea.  Not only is the Dead Sea the lowest spot on earth, it is the saltiest, most mineral-laden body of water on the planet.  As a result one floats unusually in the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea as seen from En Gedi

Black mineral mud in pits around the Dead Sea is often, um, smeared on

Even I got into the mud action at one point
And then I washed it off in the smelliest, slimiest water I have ever been in. Do not let the pretty green color mislead you!
En Gedi consists of two deep wadis fed by perennial springs, Nahal David and Nahal Arugot.  The David spring has over the centuries carved a deep canyon where David once confronted King Saul (see 1 Samuel 23-24).  The hike up Nahal David reveals beautiful water falls and rich vegetation, which is all the more striking because it is an oasis in the desolate, dry landscape of the Judean Wilderness.

Our final stop was Qumran, an intriguing settlement of ascetic Jews---sometimes described as "monastic"---who lived in a communal society.  Apparently they withdrew from the larger Jewish society during the Hasmonean period because they felt that the establishment and temple priesthood was corrupt.  Although much is still unknown about the details of their origins and many aspects of their community, what is known is that they left caves full of scrolls containing all manner of religious texts---early versions of the Hebrew scriptures, apocryphal literature, and sectarian documents (such as the Rule of the Community).

1 comment:

  1. Hi every body,
    Try not to shave anything for a day or so before dipping in the dead sea The water is very salty and you WILL feel the burn! The same goes for skin scrapes and cuts. While salt water can actually speed up healing, the burning sensation is not a treat.