How low can you go?

Trip Start Aug 01, 2005
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Trip End Nov 22, 2005


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Friday, October 21, 2005

DAY 81. OCTOBER 21. EILAT
How low can you go?

Today we were the lowest we have ever been. Physically I mean. If all the places on Earth had a limbo competition than the Dead Sea would win hands down, as the lowest place on the planet, over 400 metres lower than sea level. (I actually don't understand how a sea could be below sea level. If it is a Sea than surely whatever level it is, must be sea level. But that's just me)

We left Jerusalem to take a tour to the Dead Sea and Masada. As we were spending the next three nights in Eilat at the very south of the country, we would leave the tour before it returned to Jerusalem and catch the public bus to Eilat. Our tour guide, Alberto, gave insightful commentary on the hour drive down to Masada. We left via East Jerusalem, a predominantly Arab town and an area, which has seen much conflict. Today it was busy as it was Friday and Ramadan so many Moslems were heading off to mosques. Heading out of East Jerusalem led us to an area that is frequently on the news- the West Bank. It looked run down and poor, but is a hotly disputed area. It felt odd driving through the West Bank, after seeing it feature so often on the news it would ordinarily not be a place I would choose to drive through.

The driver hoped that peace would come to this country, and it is closer that it has been for a long time, but is still so far away. Only two days ago a terrorist bomb killed three people just outside Jerusalem and now we were driving through the area. The highway we were on leads to Jordan and on to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. In a show or supreme optimism the Israelis were building a six lane highway in the hope that when peace came this would be a major arterial into and out of the Arab countries.

We were passing many Bedouin camps. Bedouins are nomadic Arabs and they had their tents along the dry riverbeds. They looked like ramshackle campsites and I could never imagine having their lifestyle. Their camels and stock ate any new plants and crops that grew in the inhospitable terrain. It was actually amazing how quickly the terrain changed. Just fifteen minutes out of Jerusalem and it was hot and arid. We were told that when it snowed in Jerusalem it only took a thirty minute drive south to find heat.

Just after the West Bank we reached the edge of the Dead Sea. We had descended 2500 feet (our ears had certainly noticed it) to the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea separated Jordan and Israel and as we drove along the shore we could see the Jordan Mountains. We were also passing kibbutz's whose income was derived from olive trees. Plantation after plantation of the trees. It was picking season so there were many workers climbing ladders in the heart to pick olives. Even though it was almost winter it was close to thirty degrees. It must be unbearable in summer.

After an hour we reached Masada, am important place in Jewish history. Here in the middle of the desert near the Dead Sea was an imposing mountain. Masada in Hebrew means fortress and the mountain certainly was a fortress. Although it was part of a mountain range it was set apart from the other mountains and surrounded by valleys and precipices. The top of the mountain is about the size of eight football fields and it was here that King Herod built a palace as a retreat. (He was a very unpopular king and liked to escape every now and then. He had a magnificent palace built and overcame the problem of the severe lack of water through a system of tunnels, trenches and cisterns and of course slaves. So good was his water system that he had enough not only to drink but also for steam baths and a swimming pool.

Anyway in the 66, the Jews sick of Roman rule and being enslaved decided to uprise. For five years they fought against the mighty Roman army but ended up losing resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple. Over half the population were killed. Some of them managed to flee and continue their fight. They decided that the best place strategically to fight and hide was the fortress known as Masada. So 967 made their way to Masada climbed the treacherous mountain and made it their home. Thankfully Herod's water system was still in place and they could successfully build a town with stores for food and even a synagogue.

The Romans soon heard about this village and sent 12,000 of their best troops plus slaves to Masada to put an end to these zealots. When they got there they realised it was impossible to get to the top. The zealots reinforced their city by building two walls on the top and threw large boulders at the Romans to keep them at bay. The Roman General, Flavius Silva asked for reinforcements and decided to build a ramp to get to the top of the mountain. Over a period of eleven months, slaves gathered rocks and dirt from the nearby valley and began building a big ramp. The Jews tried to keep them at bay, but when they killed slaves, reinforcements kept arriving. In fact many of the slaves were Jews as well.

Finally the ramp reached the top and the Romans happy that their work was nearly done went back to their camp for the night. That night the Jews made an important decision. They decided rather than surrender and become slaves themselves they would choose freedom by dying. And so every single one of them killed themselves. They set fire to the town so their possessions would not be looted but purposely left the food untouched so the Romans would know that the Jews could have survived and it was not lack of food that forced their decision. The next morning when the Romans battered down the city walls they found 967 dead Jews and were said to be impressed by the bravery and attitude of their enemy.

This incident is of much importance to Jews and shows they would rather die than be slaves. New recruits into the army march up the mountain and make their oath to the country there. It is quite a hike up, and when I was at Masada ten years ago I climbed up to watch the sunrise. Since then a cable car has been built taking lazy tourists to the top. We took the cable car but I believe it gives you a better understanding of Masada to have to hike up. Our guide told us it was freezing at Masada today compared to usual but I was still warm in t-shirt and shorts. We spend a few hours up the top looking at the ruins and learning the story before descending and heading to the Ein Gedi Spa at the Dead Sea.

As mentioned the Dead Sea is the lowest point of earth and is named the Dead Sea as nothing can live in its salty waters. There are over 120 different minerals in the water and people come here from around the world for its healing properties. The high salt level is exacerbated by the dry heat, which evaporates all the water and leaves the salt. The kibbutz was originally built on the shores of the Dead Sea just twenty years ago, but in those twenty years the lake has receded to such an extent that the shore is three kilometres away and they need shuttle buses to take their guests there.

Our time at the spa starting with a hot sulphur water bath. This too had a high salt content and my feet, which had a few cuts, and scratches on them were in pain. At least the rest of my body was enjoying it. After the sulphur bath we went outside to cover ourselves in the famous Dead Sea mud. This mud (which you can buy packets of for exorbitant prices) feels far smoother and nicer than the mud we used in Turkey. There were hundreds of people reaching into pots of mud and smearing themselves with it. Then they would lie in the hot sun and bake the mud on them. When we first got there it was like we had landed on an alien planet with all these mud people lying around. As it gets hard it cracks and it makes people look like the Thing from the Fantastic Four. We covered ourselves and cooked the mud. It gets quite tight as it dries and you can feel it pulling on your face and body like Botox. Our skin would come out looking twenty years younger.

The last step in the process was to swim in the Dead Sea. This is an odd sensation as due to the high salt levels everybody floats. As soon as you take your feet of the ground you automatically float to the top. You could even read a book if you wanted to, it is like floating on a lilo without actually having the lilo. It feels really odd. It was surreal to be floating and the scenery was nice with the Jordan Mountains just behind us. The only problem is the water tastes terrible. It warns you not to taste the water but occasionally a splash would get you and it was horrific. And of course getting it in your eyes stung. After a while we felt to salty and with our skin covered in salt making us look like Michael Jackson we got out. We retrieved our camera and sandals and they were covered in a fine layer of salt even though they hadn't even been in the water- even the air is salty. An experience that is like no other.

We now left our tour for the four and a half hour trip to the very south of the country, Eilat. The Beliks were staying here for a week of holidays and we had decided to join them. We were met at the bus station and taken to the house where the Beliks were staying. I felt like we had entered the set of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The house was enormous, so big in fact that they had two swimming pools. I guess one just wouldn't suffice. Loretta had put together yet another fabulous meal for the family. We had only been in Jerusalem for a few days but it was great to have a meal at home again. The weather was warm so we ate outside and told the family of our adventures in the holy city, and how we had survived our hostel.

This time Harvey had found us a sweet apartment near their house to stay in. The apartment had washing machine and a DVD player, two key ingredients in mine and Fee's checklist (guess who prefers what), so we were all set for a few days of fun in Eilat.
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