Friday, September 5, 2008

The Dead Sea, Masada, and Qumran

Our trip to Israel included a visit to the bleak but historically significant Dead Sea area. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, situated at an elevation of 1,378 feet below sea level. It is located in the Jordan Rift Valley, in the midst of the Judean Desert, east southeast of Jerusalem. The Dead Sea is 42 miles long, 11 miles wide, and 1,083 feet deep; it is also the second saltiest body of water on the planet—indeed, it is so salty (30% salinity; 8.6 times saltier than the ocean) that a person can float on the surface without any effort at all, and the bottom of the lake is encrusted with rough, sharp, foot-cutting salt deposits. Some archaeologists believe that the story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt is a mythological attempt to explain the tall salt columns that have pushed up through the surface here and there throughout the region. Many people visit the Dead Sea and its adjacent spas, believing the water has curative powers able to treat everything from skin conditions to arthritis—and the local mud is “harvested” for use in skin-care products. The contemporary border between Israel and Jordan runs right down the middle of the lake, which is surrounded by barren, desert mountains; in my photos, you can see the mountains in Jordan across the water. In our experience, the Dead Sea is not a really “happening” place, and it was a bit difficult for some of us to understand why anybody would be fighting over possession of this land, but “swimming” there was an experience not to be missed.

Overlooking the Dead Sea, about 60 miles from Jerusalem, is the important historic site of Masada. It is a mountain plateau with extremely steep cliffs, about 450 meters above the Dead Sea, and the summit is about 650 meters (1,900 feet) long by 300 meters (950 feet) wide. Masada is the site of what is surely one of the most dramatic events to occur in the history of humankind.

Located near two ancient trading/transportation routes, the Masada plateau was nevertheless remote from any centers of population, and its natural defenses recommended it as a place that could easily be fortified and defended against invaders. Sometime around 100 B.C.E., Alexander Jannaeus constructed the first defensive position on the summit of the plateau. In 40 B.C.E. King Herod sequestered his family at Masada under the protection of a garrison of 800 soldiers while he traveled to Rome to be named King of Judea by Mark Anthony. Upon his return, Herod lived in constant fear of being deposed or overthrown, so he began to reinforce Masada as a last stronghold for himself should he ever need it. He had an 18-foot-high wall with 38 watchtowers built around the summit, and he built a series of storerooms that were filled with enormous reserves of food, wine, oil, and weapons. He also carved huge underground cisterns out of the bedrock that could store more than 1.5 million cubic feet of water, and an ingenious system of aqueducts collected and channeled every drop of water from the rare rains that fell on the mountain (annual rainfall at Masada is about 2 inches). Herod also had a private palace built, with a luxurious bath and sauna complex, and another palace for public ceremonies. In all, it was a most impressive place.

When Herod died in 4 B.C.E., the Romans took control of Masada with a small garrison of soldiers. However, in 66 C.E. Jewish Zealots captured the fortress and established a militant religious community there. The Romans suppressed the Jewish revolt and destroyed Jerusalem in 70; being thorough empire-administrators, the Romans then went about defeating all the small pockets of resistance that were left throughout the countryside, and they turned their attention to the freedom fighters at Masada in 72. Under the command of General Flavius Silva, the Tenth Legion, consisting of 8,000 soldiers, laid siege to the fortress. He built 8 camps and a siege wall of 2 miles in length around the base of the mountain. Then he began constructing a ramp against the western face of the mountain, to be used to raise a mobile siege-tower with catapults, arrow launchers, and a giant battering ram up to the level of the summit. The ramp itself was more than 200 yards long and is still visible today.

In spring 73, Silva’s siege tower finally appeared above the defensive wall, and the battering ram breached the outer wall. When the defenders retreated behind a hastily constructed inner wall, the Romans launched blazing torches into their midst. Strong winds blew the fire back against the siege tower, which began to burn, and the Zealots began to anticipate a victory; but when the wind changed direction and set fire to the city, the 960 men, women, and children defending Masada realized that they could never win. In the evening, the Zealot leader Eleazar Ben Yair delivered a moving speech, convincing them that committing suicide was more honorable than surrendering to abuse and slavery. When the Romans entered the fortress at dawn, they met no resistance but instead found the bodies of the resisters lying together in their family groups. Only two women and five children escaped death, having hidden in a cavern; Flavius Josephus recorded their account, along with the speech delivered by Eleazar Ben Yair.

The Romans occupied Masada for 40 years before abandoning it. During the 5th or 6th century, a group of Byzantine monks built a church on the summit, but it was quickly forgotten with the rise of Islam in the 7th century; the story of Masada came to be considered a fiction made up by Josephus, and the mountain itself was “lost” to posterity.
In 1838, Edward Robinson and E. Smith identified the site known as es-Sebbeh as Masada, and Wolcott and Tipping scaled the cliffs to the summit in 1842; small-scale expeditions were mounted to study the ruins, but it was not until the 1920s and 1940s that Masada became an important event in the eyes of pioneering Zionist youth groups. Shmarya Gutmann was particularly instrumental in transforming Masada into a symbol of Jewish freedom. In 1963-65 Yigael Yadin led an archaeological dig with hundreds of volunteers from 28 countries to remove the rubble and uncover the original Herodian buildings. Much was conserved, and much was also reconstructed, and Masada National Park opened to visitors in 1966. Only those able to toil up the Snake Path were able to visit the summit, however, so a cable car was constructed in 1971. Conservation and restoration activities are ongoing.

Here is a view of the cable car ascending to the summit:

This, by contrast, is the Snake Path, a toilsome way to reach the top, and one very easily defended:

The building stones:

Some of the ruins at the summit:

A view of one of the cisterns:

Here is one of the aqueducts used to collect water and channel it to the underground cisterns:

A view of the siege ramp—massive amounts of sand and rock were moved into place to build this 200-yard-long ramp:

Here is a view of one of the Roman base camps:

Some of the saunas:

The surrounding area is quite spectacular:

Herod ensured that his habitations suited his station—here are some of the wall decorations in the baths and saunas:

The synagogue built by the Zealots:

More spectacular views from the summit, including the Dead Sea to the east:

After descending from Masada, we continued north to Qumran. About 27 miles east of Jerusalem, here are located the remains of the Essene monastery, and here, in 1947, the young Bedouin Modammed Edib found 8 earthenware pots deep in a cave in the mountains. He and his family discovered that the pots contained a number of scrolls, which they sold in Bethlehem. The scrolls were divided and sold off, but by 1967 Yigael Yadin was able to find them all (over 900 pieces of manuscript) and return them to Israel. Over the succeeding years, these scrolls have become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they have been studied extensively by religion scholars, though controversy has arisen over who has and who has not been granted access to study the scrolls.
Although we were not able to visit the Qumran caves, we were lucky to see the complete scroll of the book of Isaiah (the Great Isaiah Scroll, the only book found in its entirety) on display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. This scroll is 1 foot wide and 24 feet long, and it is 1,000 years older than any other known copy of the text of Isaiah. It is truly awe-inspiring (this is the scroll that prophesies that “swords will be turned into plowshares”). Indeed, the Dead Sea Scrolls are quite the most important biblical archaeological discovery of the 20th century—perhaps of any century. (The Shrine of the Book also has a number of other ancient Jewish scrolls/books on display. See my next blog entry for more information about the Shrine of the Book and Museum.)
Photographing the original scrolls is strictly prohibited, but here are some views that I picked up from some websites:

And here are some views of the mountains around Qumran:

On our way from Qumran to Jerusalem, we passed through Bedouin country. The Bedouins still lead a nomadic life, herding sheep and goats, living in portable tents. Here are some views of their homes and livestock:

It was, indeed, a fascinating journey through the Judean Desert.