How does a nation just disappear? Well, some come to an end gradually as times change. Others come to an end suddenly when conquered by an invading army. There was a time when the latter almost happened to Israel in the 6th Century B. C. when the armies of Nebuchadnezzer conquered Jerusalem and took thousands of its people into exile in Babylon. But the Israelites came back, re-established their city and rebuilt their temple. Yesterday, our tour group visited the old desert fortress called Masada—a huge chunk of rock that kept the national hope going as long as its defenders stayed alive. But when the Roman armies finished their Judean campaign Israel ceased to exist as a nation….until 1948.
Most of you are probably familiar with the story, how the Jewish nation revolted against Roman rule and suffered the consequences as Jerusalem was taken and destroyed in A. D. 70 and those still alive were taken as slaves to Rome. But a group of Zealots (an extremist group of Jews) fled Jerusalem before it was destroyed and climbed up into an old mountain fortress built by Herod the Great and held out against the Roman army for over 2 years. Over 900 men, women and children stayed alive because of their location, until the Romans starved them out and they all committed suicide rather than be taken as slaves back to Rome. And that was the end of the nation….for a very long time.
I visited this place a couple of times when I was younger and climbed the old Snake Path for a strenuous trip to the top. Today you do it by cable car and it takes about three comfortable minutes. Masada was just one of old King Herod’s fortresses. He had two more, since he was so paranoid about people wanting to take his kingdom away from him. He had unique palaces built on this flat mountain, many granaries and food storage areas (that is why the Zealots could last up there for so long), and a unique system of rock channels that carried all of the rain water into huge cisterns built for bathing and drinking. You will see some pictures of the place below.
It was very hot on the top of Masada, so we went from there up the road on the west side of the shrinking Dead Sea north to a place the Old Testament calls Ein Gedi. It is a natural spring flowing from the mountain into the Dead Sea. David brought his men here when Saul and his men were chasing him through the Wilderness of Judea. It is a resort area today, because of the presence of fresh water. Israel is a great producer of figs. They have fig farms all over the country but especially down in the Dead Sea valley. We stopped to refresh ourselves here and watched a specially made vehicle they have constructed just to tie up the figs and also to harvest them when they ripen. I have never been partial to figs, but these are special, sweet and meaty. We drove slowly through Ein Gedi hoping to see some of the wildlife, like Conies (similar to prairie dogs), Ibex, Hyenas, etc. We only got to see a few Ibex among the palm trees.
When we stopped for lunch along the road from the Jordan Valley up to Jerusalem, our guide, Ruthie, knew of a restaurant where they had a camel named Shoo Shee who could down a whole Coke from a bottle and then not-so-politely burp afterward (Hey, you’ve got to have a little fun along the way!) You’ll see a picture of her here.
Back in Jerusalem we visited the “wailing wall” as they were graduating new soldiers into the army fresh out of basic training. They used to do this on the top of Masada to remind them that “Masada will not fall again!” But they no longer do that because it is too much trouble and expense to get them and their families up to the top of that fortress. At the wailing wall they have a men’s side and a women’s side, and unfortunately Kathy’s camera battery died just before we got there so we couldn’t get any pictures for you. We are having a few problems with logistics here since the pope is visiting Israel this week and many of the sites he will visit are being shut down for security reasons. But we were able to visit King David’s tomb and the traditional Upper Room, where Jesus celebrated the Passover Feast with his disciples. More later.