In the interests of self-preservation in the face of youthful children, I have (and I hang my head in shame) neglected to complete the last few entries of my blog. The intensity of the last few days of my journey in Israel left me with little time to spare and I was the proverbial chicken with its head lopped off. Then my sudden return to Aotearoa coincided with an overabundance of man flu which saw what little time I had devoted to not looking useless in front of my students.
Now, with some time to spare, I will attempt to reconstruct the last few days of the trip and provide some more insight into the incredible land of Israel.
The final Saturday of our time in Jerusalem was welcomed by a flurry of ice, snow and the usual crazy driving of the local populace. In New Zealand, cold and wet roads generally send cyclists and scooters/motorbikes into their garages for warmth and safety. Yet in Jerusalem, it seemed to provide added impetus to the road craft of two wheeled vehicles as they fought frenetically for street position amongst the steel cages dotted along the roads. It still amazes me that in our time in Israel, we only saw two significant accidents, though many cars did bear the scars of the fight for transit primacy.
We started off the day with a wish and a prayer, our tour guide – the remarkably knowledgeable Amir – informed us that the highway south to Masada was awash with flash flooding and closed. For some of us on the trip, this was akin to a punch in the guts. Masada is something that occupies any history of the Jewish struggle and as a qualified history nerd, to miss out on the physical experience of the place was distressing to say the least. Yet, not to be outdone, Amir improvised and instead of taking us to the controversial site of Jewish resistance, he directed the tour to a stop at sea level where we were accosted by a local lad charging 20 shekels for a brief camel ride.
Now a camel is a most peculiar animal, something of a cross between a cat’s disdain for humanity and a teenager’s ability to speedily follow instructions. Somewhere within all that mirth and animosity resides an animal that moves only slightly less haphazardly than the sinking Titanic. Being ushered by a young man to mount the beast, I quickly found that fitted jeans are not made with the intention of ever having to ‘throw a leg over’ what is essentially a 500kg lump of dumb. Thus, much to my handler’s delight, I quickly proved that the camel was actually more intelligent than myself as I hammered my shin into the thick wooden edge of the saddle. Ten seconds later – after an extended use of sentence enhancers – I was perched precariously upon the great ship of the desert. Hanging on for dear life, my hands clawed for purchase as the camel slowly, and awkwardly, unfolded itself (in every sense of the word) into a standing position and proceeded to walk me in a two metre circle. Following the circle and a moment of ‘full control,’ the camel’s owner hastened the camel back into a sitting position – by hissing at it like a snake and looking at the camel like he just might punch it – and the incredible unfolding process repeated itself in reverse.
Once free of the dromedarian curiosity, the group boarded a tour bus where we began our descent from sea level to the Dead Sea. Once we had arrived at the literal bottom of terra firma (some 400 metres below sea level), we turned north and headed towards some rather unexceptional military zones and a large tourist building.
Here we discovered ourselves at the fabled site of the prophet Elijah’s ascension into heaven, the crossing point of the Israelite migration into Judea, and also the traditional site of John’s baptism of Jesus. The place, Qasr el Yahud or Al-Maghtas – depending on whether you are Jewish or Arab – sits right on the border between Israel and Jordan and until recently, has been completely inaccessible because historically, both Israel and Jordan played a huge game of tiddly-winks with landmines around the region. Now opened to the public, this historic place reveals a shallow and tremendously boring little creek that had been stained brown by the overnight rains. Needless to say, despite the historical contexts, the Jordan River is easily one of the least impressive things visible in Israel. However, I did make good use of my time at the river by dipping some Christian bling into the murky waters for my daughters, and I also got a cheeky photograph with two IDF soldiers who were happy to mug for pics.
After some quick pics down at the water, with some of the more adventurous members of the group getting their feet wet, we drove out of the militarised zone, back towards a largely stark looking set of cliffs and a large tourist hot spot. Here we found ourselves at Qumran, the now famous discovery site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were discovered amidst the chasms and crags of the Judaean Desert in 1948 by a couple of Bedouin herders who, having lost an animal, began to throw rocks into caves in the hope of scaring the lost animal out. One of the caves they threw rocks into startled the herders who expected to either hear the echoes of stone bouncing off stone or, at the very least, the cries of a stone struck goat who had deserted its flock. Instead they heard the distinctive sound of pottery breaking. Overcoming their fear of the dark and jinns (potentially evil spirits thought to dwell in caves), the herders discovered a bunch of ancient canisters containing rolled parchment with inscriptions.
To cut a long historical story short, the discovery of the parchment led to the exploration and discovery of eleven caves that divulged over 800 scrolls of varying importance and significance. Within the scrolls are fragments of all the Old Testament books except Esther, and the oldest surviving text of the book of Isaiah. Surprisingly, there is also a copper scroll reputed to reveal 64 locations where treasure from the Jewish temple were spirited away for safe keeping. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time, nor enough knowledge of ancient Hebrew to successfully undertake a treasure hunt, and as such, I will not be retiring or purchasing a Harley Davidson anytime soon.
Putting aside thoughts of buried treasure, Qumran exposes tourists to the monastic style of life that the community – called the Essenes – must have lived by. Isolated from civilisation, the community would have spent the majority of its days engaged in the religious and communal life designed to prepare the Sons of Light, as the Essenes called themselves (who doesn’t like a superhero name?), for the final battle against the Sons of Darkness (obviously the Sith). However, sheltered and isolated as they were, the Sons of Light could not withstand the might of the Roman Legions and the site was abandoned sometime around 68CE. It is thought that the Essenes hid their writings in the caves above their community buildings rather than let them fall into the hands of the dastardly Romans.
After a good deal of time spent getting trigger happy with our cameras at Qumran, it was time to make some choices. Amir sternly informed us that the road south to Masada was still closed, so we planned to visit the Dead Sea slightly earlier than expected and see if the road opened up later in the afternoon. So, with the dust of one of the earliest Judeo Monastic cultures on our feet, we headed east towards the liquid salt-fest where we were assured of a fantastic time.