This trip continues to be one of the greatest experiences of my life, and today was another amazing adventure. I woke up at 4:15 or so and could NOT go back to sleep, so I lay in bed and emailed back and forth with my wife and with a dear friend of mine from Ohio till the sun rose. Then I got dressed for the day and went up on the solarium to look at the gorgeous view of the Dead Sea and the mountains all around it. Finally, at 7:30, the breakfast buffet opened. The bread was delicious, the pastries ok, but I will never get used to having cold pickled fish served with breakfast!
At 8:15 or so we loaded up and headed to the springs of En Gedi for our first hike of the day. If you're not up on your Old Testament history, the story goes like this: after killing Goliath, David became Saul's most trusted commander, until the old king became so jealous of David's popularity that David gathered a crew of trusted men and fled to . . . The wilderness of En Gedi. In fact, the wadi we hiked up is known as the "Wadi David" to this day.
It's a steep, narrow canyon, full of rock hyraxes (think jumbo sized brown hamsters) and ibex (goats with really long horns). Two of the younger guys in the group decided to climb up the 600 foot trail to the upper falls, and, not wanting to be shown up by two twenty somethings, I joined them. 600 feet up a VERY narrow trail, in water shoes! I made it all the way up, with much puffing and blowing, and the waterfall and pool at the top was truly gorgeous. Honesty compels me to admit that I did not climb down into the cave under the falls; I was really tired by that point and also concerned about getting back to the vans by 11:30 for our run up the road to Masada.
I made it back in plenty of time, and up the road we went. Masada is a sacred place for the Israelis. It was there that 300 warriors and nearly 600 of their wives and children held out for three years against a Roman army over 20,000 strong. Unable to advance up the narrow, winding snake trail, the Romans built six fortified camps and connected them by a stone curtain wall, completely encircling the vast plateau where this magnificent palace-turned-fortress stood. Finally, when they could not starve the Jews out, the Romans built a huge ramp, over 200 feet tall, up to the citadel wall. Then they pushed a giant siege tower up the ramp and began the battery of the wall. When the Jews saw the battle was lost, they decided not to die as slaves, or expose their wives to the ravages women endured at the hands of enemy soldiers. Instead, each man quickly and humanely killed his family. When all the women and children were dead, the men drew lots to see who would kill who, and then the last man standing killed himself. When the Romans broke through the wall the next morning, they found a city full of corpses.
Seeing the massive fort, the siege camps still perfectly laid out, and the site where the wall was finally breached was deeply moving for me. The incredible courage of the doomed Zealots, and the remarkable skill and dedication of the Romans, were almost equally impressive.
My big mistake of the day, though, was deciding to descend from Masada along the steep, narrow, and VERY long "Snake Trail", when I had forgotten to change out of my thin-soled water shoes! I felt every rock all the way down! But I did reach the bottom in one piece, and our next stop was back at the Dead Sea for a nice therapeutic dip. I went out deeper this time, and discovered a cool phenomena - when you can no longer touch bottom, the water holds you upright, no more than chest deep. It's the oddest feeling - like standing on nothing at all!
After a quick shower and change, we waited at the Cafe Aroma for the rest of the group to finish swimming and shopping - and yes, I had another cafe Aroma special -the only coffee I've ever actually liked in my whole life!
Around 7 we drove over to Tel Tamar, where we will stay the next two nights. It's an amazing place, but this entry is too long already, so more on it tomorrow.