Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Israel: The Dead Sea & Masada

Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers, that the mind can never break off from the journey.
-Pat Conroy

The view on the road to Masada
The picturesque drive East, then South, from Haifa to Masada, Israel, shows a land of contrast, both literally and metaphorically: The contrasting landscapes of desert and fertile farmland, and of overpopulated cities and then limitless barrenness; stories borne of history and culture over thousands of years that may take that many more to be unearthed and told; and the Dead Sea which gives life and a beauty contrary to its name. 

The view from Masada

As the tour bus headed south to the fortress of Masada, a refuge build by King Herod, I was torn between the eastern view of the mesmerizing, uninhabited banks of Jordan River, and the western view of elements-sculpted hills. In those hills I occasionally spotted the Ibex nearly camouflaged by the rocky topography, but I tried to imagine how, in 1947, the Bedouin shepherd tending his flock in the hills of Qumran (just south of Jericho), in the normal course of his day, changed history by finding the caves that held the perfectly preserved Dead Sea Scrolls. These 850 scrolls include some fragment of every Old Testament book (except the book of Esther), along with insight into the culture and society into which Christianity started.

The Dead Sea as seen from King Herod's bathhouse.
Even with this stunning desert scenery, sprinkled with an occasional oasis of date palms, nothing prepared me for the jaw-dropping beauty of Masada. At the time Herod built this refuge, it must have been an unbelievable architectural feat, with its fortified walls, towers, bath houses (with heated floors) and swimming pools [remember, this was on a high mountain plateau in the desert!]. Currently you can get to the plateau via cable car, a convoluted snake path, or the siege ramp the Romans built in about AD 74 to eventually breach the shelter defended by the 960 Jewish refugees who had fled there from Jerusalem.

One interesting attraction at the site [as if its history is not enough], is a sacred room with a glass viewing window, where a scribe comes daily to write Jewish texts. You can ask him questions and he may write your name in Hebrew on a piece of paper. For me, the experience seemed simultaneously natural and surreal. (Rather than oversimplify it, here is an interesting article explaining this). 

All the Holy Land sites call to followers of different faiths, each a pilgrim with her own story, journey, and destination. At the top of Masada, with a chilly wind and overcast skies, one realizes the light becomes most evident in the darkness. King Herod first built this as his own refuge, and Masada offered the same to the refugees for nearly 3 years before they took their lives rather than succumb to the Romans. Even amidst the ruins--a monochromatic moonscape of sorts, it felt sacred and alive. I could imagine the dovecote being tended to provide both food and fertilizer for the crops; water being collected from the cisterns that had been painstakingly crafted and supplied thousands of years prior; and people living their lives against the odds. It felt sacred because of its ordinariness.

I normally write more on these travel blogs. I let the experience marinate a bit before sharing the imagery through words. This time, though, the muse will not give me words. The words make a multidimensional experience seem two-dimensional. I will let my photos express my journey, so that you can have your own experience, too.

*For a post about my visit to the River Jordan, please visit here.

The Dead Sea:

All photos by Nicole D. Mignone. 2016. All Rights Reserved. www.nicolemignone.com