The Judean Desert. A series of undulating hills that starts just next to Jerusalem. Beautifully tranquil, it contains some of my favourite parts of Israel. Avid followers of this blog will no doubt recall that our first field trip on my tour guide course was to the Northern Judean desert. A couple of years on, it was time to return, partly to refresh my memory on some of the sites that I had not seen for a while and partly to discover some new ones. Accompanied by my friend and fellow tour guide Ori, it was time for another adventure.
We began our day at the site that marks the believed location of the story of the Good Samaritan. In addition to enjoying the mosaics and Byzantine ruins that we had seen on our last visit, we enjoyed the recently produced film that you can now watch while sitting in a cave that was a home to Jews in the Second Temple Period. The film was rather kitch, but still helps explain the story of the Good Samaritan fable.
While wondering around the site, we noticed some old ruins the other side of the road. The staff told us that it was ruins of a former Herodian palace. We decided to head over and take a closer look. After some rather tricky off-roading (Ori’s little Suzuki was not really built for this but it coped admirably) we passed the remains of a Crusader fortress which protected this ancient road. We then climbed a little further on foot to explore the Herodian ruins.
The site seemed to be in the midst of excavations, although it was unclear by whom, and when the last time was that they had been there. Still, we were able to make out pieces of 2000 year old mosaics, and part of the hypocaust that made up the hot room in the bath house. It was rather remarkable that this site was just there, almost ignored among the other archaeological treasures in the area.
We continued south, arriving at Qumran. After a spot of lunch we explored the ruins, and also saw the film (which is quite good) – we had unfortunately not been able to watch it during the course due to time pressures. The ruins at Qumran are a little underwhelming, given the sites importance, but the story of the Dead Sea scrolls discovered nearby is remarkable, and it is fun to see how to match what we understand about this ascetic community with the archaeological remains at the site.
We returned north, and after a brief stop at Kalia beach, to see the facilities (it is a popular stop for Dead Sea bathers), we returned north. Our destination was the well hidden monastery of St George, built into the cliff face along Wadi Kelt and dating to the 5th century. This was certainly the highlight of the day, as we made our way along a deserted road we eventually found the cross that marked the first view of the monastery. It is a very special sight; you are in the middle of the desert but there is a burst of greenery in the wadi thanks to the year-round stream that comes from the nearby spring. And there, almost hidden in the cliff face, is the monastery. This is certainly a place that you would come for solitude.
Eventually we arrived at the monastery gate, but from there we faced a steep descent and then an even steeper climb to arrive at the actual structure. Along the way we noted the remains of a Hasmonean aqueduct that used to transport water from the spring to various cities in the area, and many beautiful, ancient trees. The monastery itself was closed (they only accept visitors in the morning) but it was enough for us to see it from the outside and marvel at its beauty. Truly one of my favourite places in Israel.
We returned to our car and made a final stop in the nearby Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Here is something called the Dead Sea Balcony, a viewpoint which offers a stunning vista over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the northern part of the Dead Sea. It was a nice way to finish off the day, before returning back north.
The first time I went to Ein Gedi, the oasis of the Judean Desert on the shores of the Dead Sea, I was 16 years old, a participant in a month long group trip with my peers. It was August, boiling hot, we were in the middle of the desert, and we were going to do a hike. Things could have looked better. Little did we know that as we walked up the David stream we would soon come upon plunge pools where we would be able to have a much needed cool-off. It is the starkness of its surroundings that makes Ein Gedi so remarkable. A veritable oasis it was, and I will forever associate it with these fond memories.
We began our day at the Ein Gedi Field School, where we saw some ancient artefacts unearthed during excavations in the area. From a viewpoint over the nature reserve we learned about the different inhabitants of the area, dating back to the Chalcolithic period (that’s 5000-6000 years ago), moving through the period of the Israelite kings to the Byzantine era, when the area was famous for its production of the legendary afarsimon oil. This scented oil was so precious in the ancient world that both the Roman historians Pliny and Josephus make reference to how important it was for the Roman rulers to ensure they protected its production during the Jewish revolts. The knowledge of how to make this perfume was lost, but experts believe they have finally identified the plant from which it was sourced. Hopefully we would get to see it later.
We concluded by learning about the modern era; the kibbutz that was founded here by somewhat reluctant pioneers (they arrived in the middle of the summer heat) but they stayed, as they were commanded by Ben-Gurion to do so himself (I don’t think that Israeli prime ministers carry that sort of weight any longer!). We heard about the crops, the difficult balancing act of living with nature in the desert and not using too much of the spring water, and as our guide was a member of the kibbutz he was in the perfect position to talk about some of these tensions. All fascinating background information regaled over a stunning backdrop.
We moved into the nature reserve, hiking up the David stream to the David waterfall. It is named for David as the book of Samuel refers to him hiding there. Along the way, we paused to learn about the different plants and wildlife in the reserve; their origins and their uses. Our guide taught us about the geological processes which formed the rocks that we were seeing. Sadly, there was no time for a reprise of the plunge pool adventures.
We turned back and took a steep climb out of the valley to the top of the surrounding cliff. On the way up, we passed signs of ancient civilisation; trenches that acted as an irrigation system for crops built on terraces on the cliff face cisterns and the like. And enjoyed the sweeping views over the Dead Sea valley. Positioned on the top of the cliff was an ancient Chalocolithic temple. Only the bottom stones of the wall remain but you can clearly make out several rooms within the structure. We learned about its probable uses and imagined that in this place, over 5000 years ago, man was coming to pray to his god(s).
We concluded the hike with a more gentle descent past the Ein Gedi spring and a Mamluk period flour mill, arriving at the ruins of an ancient synagogue.
The synagogue dates from the 3rd Century. The floor contains a beautiful mosaic which has several unusual features compared to similar mosaics from the same period. It also makes a cryptic reference to a curse that would befall any member of the community who reveals its ‘secret’ to an outsider. Many people have posited that this ‘secret’ was with regard the manufacture of the afarsimon perfume. However our guide had a theory that in fact this community, because of its isolation in the desert, was able to hang on to various more mystical beliefs and practices that some Jews had brought with them to Israel from the Babylonian exile, but that the Pharisees (the rabbinic Jews, who had been in a power struggle with the priestly elites) had ruled out from the mainstream. His evidence was compelling; the mosaic makes reference to the three companions of the prophet Daniel (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah). In the rabbinic literature (midrash tehillin) it says “we say that the world is based on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; others say the world is based on Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah”. Not conclusive, but interesting nonetheless.
Around the corner from the synagogue we encountered a hut made entirely of woven palm leaves, situated in the date palm groves. We paused here to learn about the ancient culture of the date palm in the Land of Israel, which was so prevalent that it was also known as the Land of the Date Palm. These trees had a huge variety of uses: food, construction materials, baskets, clothing, cleaning implements. This culture is largely lost but a member of the kibbutz had visited a village in Morocco where it is still alive to learn the techniques and had constructed the hut and its contents. Ben Gurion also saw importance in restoring the culture of the Date Palm and brought to Israel experts from Iraq and Italy to help build new plantations in the early years of the state.
From there, we headed across Route 90 to observe some of the sinkholes along the shore of the Dead Sea. It is dangerous to walk there, but as our guide was the leading expert in the country on these sinkholes, he knew how to tread. I’m pleased that I only found out later that he once fell into one and thought he was going to die (read his somewhat harrowing journal here – in Hebrew). Sadly, the Dead Sea is shrinking at a rapid pace. It used to be up to the rude and is now some distance away; the pace was that it was going down 1m a year; now it is 1.5m. This is largely caused by the use of the main tributary, the River Jordan, as a source of water for drinking and agriculture; also by the removal of water by the Dead Sea factories to manufacture minerals. The sinkholes are one of the unfortunate side effects of this; caused by a resulting loss of underground pressure. They are though quite beautiful, in a bleak sort of way. Our guide introduced us to the ‘Dead Sea Diamonds’ which are buried in the clay around the sinkholes; these beautifully formed cubes are actually made of salt. So, in this case, I imagine the diamonds (sadly) are not forever.
Our final (and brief) stop as the sun rapidly set was in the botanical gardens in the Ein Gedi kibbutz. There, among other things, they have tried to research and collate the spices mentioned in the biblical book The Song of Songs. Most exciting was the opportunity to see Gilead’s Balsam, the plant from which it is now believed the legendary afarsimon perfume was manufactured. It is still unclear how to make the perfume from the plant, but it really does have a very strong and unique fragrance. We ran our hands over its leaves and the scent accompanied us all the way home to Tel Aviv.
On the one hand it seems a bit churlish to continue with this blog with a war going on; however I very much feel that we must continue to live as normal a life as possible. Indeed, the class continues, our trips continue, so I will continue to write about our activities.
For our third trip we headed southwards again to the Dead Sea region, taking a different route (so we could learn a new route, and also be told about new things that we were passing), and heading towards Mt Sedom. The day contained fewer sites than the first two, partly because of the long journey times from Tel Aviv (around 3 hours in each direction) and partly because of two reasonably long hikes which were part of the programme.
We began the day though, at the Meitzad Zohar viewpoint. I’ve actually stopped off here before; it is a small lay-by on route 31 from Arad down to the Dead Sea, not too long before the junction with route 90. It is a lovely view (as evidenced above), but it was nice to also know a bit about what we were looking at. There was some ancient history: beneath us were ruins of what archaeologists think was a Roman customs house. Salt was a major commodity in ancient times (some Roman soldiers were paid in it; this is the origin of the word salary), and the checkpoint was located in a narrow part of the road towards Mt Sedom (a major source of salt) to stop people taking it without permission.
In more modern times, we heard about the Lot Operation; part of the War of Independence when a company of soldiers hiked down this route to win back the Dead Sea factories which had been taken by Jordanian forces. I always find it interesting when you find these connections from ancient to modern history.
For our next stop, we turned off road onto a dirt track which lead us up to the Arazim Plane, which lies just past Mt Sedom. This was probably a lake many many years ago, now the lake has evaporated and the former bed slowly eroded by various streams; this sort of landscape is referred to as ‘badlands’ of which the most famous examples are in North and South Dakota in the US. We went into one of the small ravines created by a stream called Nachal Peratzim. As we hiked down the currently dry bed of the stream, we noticed beautiful patterns along the ravine walls.
These patterns were caused by centuries of wet (winter) and dry (summer) seasons. In the winter, rain would wash lots of mud into the former lake, creating a grey/brown layer of sediment. In summer, the water would evaporate with the heat, leaving a new layer of white sediment because of the minerals the water naturally contained. These layers are pretty straight, but in various places are jumbled up, looking a bit like a marble cake. The geological theory is that these were caused by seismic activity (the Dead Sea falls in the Great Rift Valley which is a fault line). The rocks were beautiful and it was very interesting to hear the theory behind it.
We continued hiking down the stream bed until we reached the entrance to the Flour Caves. I have very fond memories of trips to the flour caves with various different groups. They are covered in a white plastery powder, reminiscent of flour, and the fun part was to throw it at each other. Then, on emerging, we would be given some watermelon, leaving us with white faces and bright red lips. Very ghoulish. As you can imagine, this sort of activity was very popular with bus drivers. Sadly, the caves are now closed; some seismic activity caused some of it to fall down a few years ago and it is deemed too much of a risk to let people in, particularly in this sad age of litigation when things don’t go wrong. Our guide pooh-poohed the risk but still wouldn’t take us in; of course there is no way we could take tourists in there, sadly.
We returned to the bus and then a short drive took us to the start of a new hike, crossing Mount Sedom. We learned about the formation of the mountain, which is largely composed of rock salt (entirely composed of rock salt at its base). Without getting too much into the geological details, rock salt, when put under pressure, becomes malleable, a bit like plasticine. The pressure on the salt in the valley by heavier minerals is pushing the rock salt out and upwards, as it is constrained in how far it can go outwards by other rocks blocking its bath. This mountain is still actually growing, at the rate of 3mm per year (that’s pretty quick in geological terms). I never took much of an interest in geology before, but the guide made it pretty compelling. I tried to feel the mountain growing but cannot say I succeeded.
The hike was lovely, with stunning views over the Dead Sea pools and Jordan across from us. Perfect time of year; it was warm, but not too hot. A very steep descent though, not so kind on the knees. Huge respect to the 75 year old man on the course who took it all (literally) in his stride.
After finishing the hike at the bottom of the mountain, we travelled a very short distance south to the entrance to the Sedom Cave. The mountain has various caves created by the rock salt being surrounded by other, harder rock, and then being dissolved/eroded by rain fall. The cave had a very nice new sign outside it saying that, like the flour caves, it was dangerous to enter. But we went in anyway (having made it clear to us that it was at our own risk). Again, not somewhere we can take tourists, at least while the sign is there, but it was quite stunning to clamber through the darkness and arrive in a cavern with an extremely high ceiling and a hole in the roof, letting in light and lending a very special ambience to the place. Hopefully it can be reopened soon.
Our final stop of the day was by the Dead Sea factories. Not the most aesthetically pleasing sight, but still interesting to learn about the history of the factories which were originally envisioned by Theodore Herzl in his novel about the Zionist utopia, Altneuland. The factories are a huge part of the economy in the Negev region (indirectly employing 4000 families) but they do exact a toll on the environment and remain a controversial subject in Israel. For now though, they continue to operate, and are apparently the largest Bromine producers in the world.
And that was that; as the sun set behind us, it was time to head home to Tel Aviv.
And so it begins. After some logistics and forms the night before, we gather as the sun rises over Tel Aviv at Arlozorov bus station, ready to set out on our first trip on the guiding course. The previous night, our rakaz (coordinator) had instilled the fear of God into everyone, promising that the bus was leaving at 6.30am and if you were not on it, then tough. And then he said it again, several times. Obviously, the last thing you want to happen having already woken up at the crack of dawn is to make it all worthless by missing the bus, so it was that when I showed up half an hour early there were already about half the course there to meet me. And yes, we did leave on time.
Our first journey took us south into the North of the Judean desert. But before we could get to our first site of the day, we had about 90 minutes of travel time. I pulled out my travel pillow, looking forward to catching up on those lost hours of sleep. This went well for about 5 minutes before our guide grabbed the microphone and started pointing things out as we travelled down the road, and of course we were writing this all down.
One of the things that I love about this country is the incredible concentration of sites of interest. I must say, however, that this can be a mixed blessing; when on the guiding course one receives far more content than one would on a normal tour, to equip us for every situation and eventuality, so significant concentration is required. “On the left, an ancient archaeological site; on the right, the site of Israel’s first soap factory; look at the rock here which is a reddish colour because of the copper, etc”. And I dutifully listened, and looked, and noted, and worked out some of the more complicated Hebrew words (limestone, flint, aqueduct, weaving ant, to name but a few of the additions to my lexicon on this trip).
We passed Jerusalem and began the descent into the Judean desert. I love the desert. Israel has two: the Judean Desert, and South of it the Negev. Both are rocky (there is a small area with some dunes). The craggy rocks, the undulating hills (Israelis call them mountains, but having spent two and half years in Switzerland, I’m not sure), the weaving valleys, I find it all so incredibly beautiful. And tranquil. An amazing tranquillity in the desert. A place to enjoy the aesthetics, to think and absorb the beauty of nature. And lots of historical, geographical and geological information too, on this occasion.
There are of course many sites of interest, and our first stop was at the Inn of the Good Samaritan. According to tradition, this is the site of the famous Good Samaritan parable told in Luke’s gospel. In the 6th century a church was built here, and you can visit the partial reconstruction. There are also a variety of artefacts and stunning mosaics (like the one above) from around the area (partly in an air-conditioned museum). The museum also contains a very interesting display on the Samaritans (the original sort, not the British charity), who still exist in Israel although latest numbers put them at under 1000. We will learn more about them as the course progresses.
Back on the bus and a short hop down route 1 to this stunning viewpoint over Wadi Kelt. The view was so breathtaking that it required a moment’s reflection before turning to the important matter at hand of identifying the sites of interest; I can now point out a variety of locations from the viewpoint; from Jerusalem to Jericho; from a palace of Herod to the birthplace of Robert Kennedy’s assassin. Just in case you were wondering, of course.
As we continued on towards the Dead Sea we had a short nature break; I was thrilled to bump into an old friend and very experienced guide who had been advising me about the career transition, Mike Hollander. It was something of a heart-warming moment and seemed to me to be a good omen.
The next step, via Lido junction (the lowest point on land in the world), was the site of the Ashlag factories, the first factories at the Dead Sea, used to mine potassium. The story of the Russian tourist who happened upon this area, had the idea to start mining, and nagged the British authorities for nine years to let him do so, was quite remarkable. But it was also sad to realise that the Dead Sea waters used to come up to this spot, but are now several kilometres away. More on that later. This site fell into Jordanian hands in 1948, and was then taken by Israel in 1967, at which point it became an army base. An evidently very bored officer on reserve duty took a crusader map of the Jordan valley and painted it on the walls (cheekily adding in the local Lido junction). It is actually pretty impressive, an extract is pictured below.
Onwards South we went with the next stop being Einot Tzukim, the ‘lowest nature reserve in the world’. I’m not sure that is particularly anything to shout about on its own, but that should not let anything be taken away from the nature reserve. Based around 130-170 fresh water springs in the middle of the desert, King Abdullah of Jordan was so taken with the area that he designated it for his use only, when it was Jordanian territory. When it was no longer Jordan, Israel made it a nature reserve, and it was remarkable to see the freshwater springs and also to learn about the extensive wildlife, set right in the middle of such an incredibly barren and unwelcoming landscape. The reserve also encompasses an archaeological site; the theory is that it was used to make the mythical afarsimon oil, known to have been an extremely valuable commodity in ancient times. No one knows what afarsimon was for sure (the word exists in modern Hebrew and means persimmon, but it is not the same fruit) but the search continues. There is also some modern history – the day of declaring the state Ben Gurion came here with his wife for a bit of ‘me time’ before heading up to Tel Aviv to make history. No doubt he was enjoying the serenity of the desert before what he knew would be complete chaos. And so the ancient and modern worlds connect.
Slightly further South we braved the oncoming traffic to cross over route 90 (the longest road in Israel) and visit the Ruins of Mazin. This consists of the remains of what was an ancient ship yard on the Dead Sea, with evidence that it was an economic resource even in ancient times – a stash of coins nearby probably used to pay for asphalt brought up by the ships.
We then began the journey in the direction of home, slowing to take in the rather depressing Palestine Exploration Fund (P.E.F.) Rock. The P.E.F. was founded in 1865 and still exists, with the purpose of exploring, mapping and excavating the land of Israel, which was at the time under Ottoman control (they may have been gathering intelligence on the side, cheeky things). The rock marked the height of the Dead Sea at the beginning of the 20th Century. 100 years later and it’s quite sad to think that it is now some distance away from even touching the rock. It’s caused largely by a huge increase in the use of the tributary, the Jordan River, for water by all its surrounding countries. Hopefully the scientists and politicians can find a way to fix it.
Our penultimate stop was at Qumran. I remember stopping at Qumran once before; a family road trip to Eilat. Dad saw the sign and decided that he wanted to stop there; I think everyone else wanted to get home (it’s quite a long drive). I vaguely remember it being closed in any event. This time, I certainly appreciated it more. Qumran is the site around which many of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found; their discovery is quite an incredible story. Some of these scrolls date back to the 2nd Century BCE, and are the oldest copies of the books of the bible in existence. I studied them a bit at university, and this context always adds more to visiting a historical site. It is thought that here lived a group of Essenes, a sort of ascetic cult that broke away from the mainstream Judaism in the Second Temple Period. There is a good explanatory film and small museum and then you can walk around the site. I always find it amazing to wonder around these ancient places, to imagine people walking those same paths thousands of years ago. It must have been tough in Qumran, in the middle of the desert, an unforgiving place where it sometimes rained once in two years. They must have been pretty committed.
Eventually we were thrown out at closing time. There was time for just one more brief stop on the way home, Nabi Musa, the site where Muslims believe Moses is buried. Night was falling and prayers were beginning so we didn’t stay long; a quick peek at the shrine and some history outside before heading home, arriving at Arlozorov at 6.45, just over 12 hours after we had left.
Quite an intense first day! In addition to all the general information, we also received lots of useful practical tips, such as good places to stand and address a group in a particular site; good routes; ideas about how to integrate sources. One has to pay just as much attention to the way the material is delivered, as to its content. At every site I was thinking about how I would relate it when my time to guide will come; plenty of food for thought. All in all, very enjoyable, although completely exhausting. Looking forward to more to come!