Field trip day! Today’s field trip took up the entire day and it was an awesome day! We loaded up our bus and headed to the Dead Sea area today. We passed through Jerusalem on our way and I saw the temple mount for the first time. We’ll be there next month and it will be awesome. Our first stop was at Qumran. You may recognize this name if you are familiar with the famous Dead Sea Scrolls that were found here in the late 1950’s. A shepherd boy was walking along and threw a rock into a cave in the side of a cliff. He was surprised to hear something break inside. Upon accessing the cave, large earthen vessels were found containing ancient scrolls. These turned out to be texts of the Bible from the time shortly after Jesus. The most famous scroll found was a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. The importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for biblical scholarship is very important and I’ll let you research that on your own if you’re interested. At Qumran we were able to see the famous cave #4 where most of the scrolls were found. We also toured the ruins of the community of Jews who live here and wrote the scrolls. We believe that this was a community of Essenes who came out to the middle of nowhere by the Dead Sea to live sort of a monastic life. There is speculation that perhaps John the Baptist and even Jesus could have had connections with the Essenes. I’ll let you learn more on your own if you’re interested, but again I found myself walking around inside ruins that were 2000 years old and was amazed. If something in America is over 100 years old we put it under glass in a museum surrounded by some special gas or something. Here, I can walk right up to something 2000 years old, pick it up, play with it, and then throw it back on the ground to get rained on. It’s an old world over here, and there are plenty of ruins to go around.
Qumran with Famous Cave #4
From Qumran we went next to En Gedi. This place was made famous as the hideout of David when he was fleeing from Saul as told in 1 Samuel 24. David hid in a cave here and could have killed Saul when he entered the cave, but decided to spare his life. It was really neat to be in this area and see the great high cliffs and picture Saul in pursuit of David. It’s really kind of interesting to see the landscape in which all this played out. En Gedi remains an oasis to this day in the middle of a barren and rugged country. We hiked along a river to a spring and our guide pointed out some of the animals that the Bible mentions as being in this area, including the Ibex (wild goat) and Hyrax (translated gopher in our Bibles) which I thought were kind of cute (see all the pictures for examples). I really enjoy the meditation method on Sacred Scripture taught by St. Ignatius where you try to visualize the biblical story as vividly as possible. Now that I’ve been to this place, my image has changed a bit. Every time I would come to a cave, I would wonder if maybe that was the cave that David hid in. Who knows? It has to be here somewhere. It’s neat to envision the story taking place before your eyes. The climate is so dry here that not much has really changed over the years. It looks much the same as it did in the time of David. Check out the pictures and see if it matches how you envisioned this passage.
The Oasis of En Gedi
On day 11 we visited the Herodian, the ruins of a palace of Herod the Great on top of a mountain near Bethlehem. It turns out that Herod had many palaces scattered about to serve as hiding places in times of trouble. Our next stop today was another one of these palaces. Whereas the Herodian is on top of what would be considered a big volcano-like hill, nothing could prepare me for what we found at this next palace. We had been skirting the lowlands in the valley all day with these huge cliffs to the west. As we approached our destination our guide pointed out what I would consider a mountain with a plateau on top. Herod’s palace, and indeed an entire village, was located on top. The place is called Masada. I’ve never seen anything like this. Here is this huge steep mountain with a flat top on which people actually built a small little city. It reminded me of something the Mayans would have done in Peru, except in a desert. We had to take a cable car to get to the top. The place was chosen for its strategic location. It was very difficult to get to the top and there was no way an army could mount an attack (or so it would seem…) (note the foreshadowing). It turns out that Herod was probably never even here to use his palace. He is actually buried at the Herodian where we were the other day and died before he ever had need of his palace here at Masada.
Mountain of Masada, There’s a City on Top
View of Dead Sea from top of Masada
The real claim to fame of Masada comes from the 2nd century, about 136 AD, when the last of the Zealots (remember Simon the Zealot, the Apostle) sought refuge from the Romans on top of Masada. Because of the symbolic nature of this group as the last stronghold of the Jews, the Romans were going to spare no expense to put an end to them. They estimate that there were probably about 900 people living on top including women and children. In order to capture the fort, the Romans employed the standard technique of a siege. Believe it or not, they actually built a siege wall around the mountain. You can still see the wall and the various forts where the Romans camped. The siege lasted over two and a half years. I said before that you would think that no army could mount an attack on the top because of the steep sides, but the Romans had another idea. As unbelievable as building a wall around a mountain is, they actually decided to build a ramp from the valley floor to the top of the mountain. You have to see this to believe it, but that is what they did for two and a half years. Using wood and stone they built a ramp that rises almost a thousand feet at a nice gradual incline. You can still see the ruins of the ramp today and it is impressive. The Romans rolled a battering ram up the ramp and knocked down the wall. However there is huge twist in the story. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that when the Romans finally breeched the wall they encountered not a battle but only a couple women and children and 900 corpses from everyone else who had committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner. Each husband killed his wife and children and then ten men were chosen by lot to kill all the other men. Finally, one man was chosen to kill the other 9 and then himself. Some of the historical details are now questioned, but it is an amazing story. I had never heard of this story or of Masada before today, but there was apparently a famous movie made about it. I will have to look it up when I get home.
Ruins of Roman Ramp to Top of Masada
Our final stop was one of no religious significance at all, but was a lot of fun. We finished up the day by going swimming in the Dead Sea. I say swimming, but I use the term loosely. Floating is probably better. As you may be aware, the mineral content of the Dead Sea is so high (26% I think) that you cannot sink. It is the strangest thing. You walk out a little way and then just sit down and you float. I could stand straight up without touching the bottom and you just float there. It actually makes it kind of hard to really swim because you can’t keep enough of your body in the water. You keep popping out. It’s much warmer at the Dead Sea and we had close to 80 degrees all day. The water however was kind of cold, but it was worth it. It’s an experience you can only get in the Dead Sea. The reason for the high mineral content is that all of the water in the region, including the Jordan River, runs into the Dead Sea, but there is no outlet. It is the lowest point on earth. So, the water is constantly evaporating, but none of the salt ever leaves. As you walk out into the water, the bottom is actually covered with large salt crystals. Don’t get any of the water in your eye though because it burns really bad. As an added bonus today, we also got to watch Israeli fighter jets buzzing by us every so often. They were coming really low over the Dead Sea while we were swimming and made a lot of noise. It was like an air show. We floated for about an hour and then headed for home. These field trip days are just wonderful, but you sure do feel like you’ve had a full day when it’s over. I need some rest now.
Me “Swimming” in the Dead Sea