The large mountain block called Masada sits at the fringe of the Judaean Desert and overlooks the Dead Sea. During his reign from 37 BC to 4 AD, Herod, king of Judea, built an extensive winter retreat on the high plateau. In 66 AD it was taken over by the last of the Jewish freedom fighters who found refuge there from the Romans. When it was clear to the rebels that the battle was lost, together they made the decision to die rather than be taken into slavery. Husbands killed their wives and children, and then themselves. Within days, the Romans breached the high walls and found the 900 Jewish rebels dead. In the Byzantine era, hermit monks occupied the mountaintop fortress for a few centuries and it has stood empty since then. When it was rediscovered in the 1800’s, the tragic events surrounding the last days of the rebels transformed Masada into both a Jewish cultural icon and a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom against oppression.
Wandering through the ruins of casement dwellings, ritual Jewish baths and synagogues, the air seemed to vibrate with echoes of the past. Sitting alone in “the library”, the pain in my ankles felt unimportant as I reflected on the communal decision to die as opposed to capture and abuse. Looking at the hidden wall niches where many artifacts were found, I could almost see husbands and wives clutching each other as they buried treasured family items and scrolled parchments before the mass suicide. Masada is the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world and stands as a powerful testament to the ideal of live free or die.
After visiting Masada, we moved on to a totally remote location and had another Dead Sea experience. Two kilometres in from an empty road, our tents were dwarfed by towering cliffs on three sides and sat on a large rocky shore facing a wide expanse of Sea. We didn’t see another person at our isolated retreat for the three days we were there. It had an abundance of the smooth black mud that people pay big bucks for in spas. But many of our mud goddess photos will never see the light of day as I had the mistaken impression that, because it felt like I was wearing a body sleeve, it would look like one too. (When I saw the pics the thought that I had somehow been transformed into the sleek Mystique of the X-men was forcefully shattered). We looked exactly like what we were – 2 fun-loving aging women au naturele covered head to toe in mud!
There was also a sulphurous hot spring right beside our tents where we soaked in exceedingly hot, salted, mineral rich water that bubbled up from some deep underground thermal activity. And again, I imagined Roman legions soaking in the same hot thermal waters. I wondered what it must have been like 2000 years ago to come upon such a phenomenon. (Ice would have been better for our ankles and knees but, alas, no ice came bubbling forth from the bowels of the earth).
It was a lovely and restful but we had had our fill. Our water and food were almost gone, our bodies abraded by salt shards, every piece of fabric we brought was salt encrusted and stiff, but the most compelling reason for us to bid farewell to our private paradise was our skin – with no “sweet” (fresh) water to wash off the salt water, our skin was lizard tight, shrivelled, pickled and pruned. So, after a nutritious breakfast of powered eggs a la grit, and liquorice wash water tea, we packed up and limped off towards Jerusalem!