Wednesday, 10 December 2008

jerusalem (7) - dead sea

The Dead Sea: Lowest Point on Earth.

Tuesday 9th December. Today was about being a tourist as we journeyed to the Dead Sea. First on the agenda was a visit to Massada overlooking the sea and giving spectacular views across to the Jordanian hills once the haze had cleared.

Herod's Palace on cliff face: Massada.

Massada is a fortress built on an imposing hill and initially constructed as a palace by Herod the Great. Being somewhat paranoid, in his case people were really out to get him, Herod built the palace as an impenetrable fortress well away from potential enemies. It really is a staggering achievement, though it is sobering to remember hat the place was built and functioned on the backs of a large force of slaves. There is an ingenious system for collecting water from the surrounding area and storing this in huge cisterns hewn in the rock. The excavated rock was then used to build the settlement on top.

View from Massada: a Roman encampment outlined towards bottom of the picture.

Perhaps Massada is better known as the site of resistance against the might of the Roman Empire by a group of Jewish zealots who held back one of Rome’s greatest legions. The story concludes with the fortress finally falling in 73 A.D. only for the entering forces to discover that the inhabitants had committed suicide, save for a woman and some children. The outlines of the Roman camps and the ramp constructed to breach the hilltop are still visible. The story is recounted by Josephus and was made into a film in 1981 starring Peter O’Toole. Our trip began with a short introductory film of the history, before a cable car ride to the top. You can walk up by a couple of routes and this was the preferred method of ascent by some of the younger parties of visitors but I was happy to sit back and enjoy the views.

A few comments about Massada. It is very impressive and as I said the views are spectacular but the place also left me feeling uncomfortable. Firstly because the place was built using slaves and I could envisage the luxury of Herod’s palace with its baths and pools, house for concubines and visitors quarters being maintained by a completely oppressed workforce. Secondly, there is now some questioning of exactly what happened at Massada. Was it home to 900 zealots, heroically holding out against the might of Rome or a rather smaller group whose stand has been exaggerated because it wouldn’t have looked good for a legion to have been held back for so long and at such expense by a handful of rebels? There is also some suggestion that the zealots made their way to Massada while trashing the villages and towns on the way. I make no judgement but just observe there are different narratives for these events.

My chief concern, however, is that Massada is clearly a rallying point for Zionism in a rather disturbing manner. Here the legend of the valiant, faithful remnant holding out against the surrounding armies is given full expression; from the film at the beginning of the visit through to the realisation that until recently all Israeli soldiers came to this place to be sworn in. When we returned to the base of Massada I half expected to see a recruiting sergeant with sign up papers.

A Dead Sea float.

Having seen the Dead Sea from Massada it was good to reach it and go for a swim. Actually you go for a float rather than a swim because the mineral content of the water prevents you from sinking. The water was pleasantly warm but getting in and out was a painful experience because of the sharpness of the mineral deposits on the rocks and stones; several of our party ended up with cuts and grazes. The problem with this is that when you get out of the water any abrasions of the skin sting and I discovered cuts and bites in places I didn’t know I had on my body! A good warm shower and filling picnic were very welcome and at least I had a photo to prove to the kids that I had floated on the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. The sad news is that the sea is drastically reducing in size and areas that were covered in sea are now exposed land with sparse vegetation.

Caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947-56.

Finally, we stopped off at Qumran to visit the excavations and consider the impact of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the site of an Essene community. A dig was underway while we visited which gave the site added impact, though it is impressive enough with the view of the various caves where the scrolls were discovered and the clear layout of the community's living quarters. One of the features of this course I have really appreciated is the talks and short lectures bringing us up to date on the latest research and discoveries in the Holy Land. Today we were fortunate that one of our party had a masters degree from Oxford which focused on Jewish Piety in the Second Temple period and she gave us an impromptu talk on research on Qumran and the Essenes.

Qumran excavations.

Again we were reminded of the ambiguities that surround archaeological research. The scrolls themselves are a crucial find giving us the earliest copies of many of the Hebrew scriptures, save the book of Esther which is probably because the book doesn’t mention God. The scrolls also include the Essene’s strict rule, showing them to be a very ascetic sect, messianic, eschatological and dedicated scribes who demonstrated their faithfulness with ritual washing. The site contained several deep mikvah'ot for full body washing and a scriptorium. However, some scholars now question the conclusions made about the site. Do the scrolls found belong to the community that lived nearby? Did an Essene community live here? Why were the bodies of women and children found in the cemetery when the Essenes where a strict ascetic and supposedly celibate sect? Was John the Baptist an Essene? All these questions simply highlight the uncertainties that remain with these sites.
Desert Places

It was time to head back to Jerusalem and the college but on the way home I did switch back to pilgrim mode as Andrew Mayes, another member of the course who is soon to become course director, gave us a talk and reflection on Desert Spirituality. The surrounding environment was a great aid in appreciating the attractions and the demands for those drawn into the desert to grow in their relationship with God.


Tim Goodbody said...

Rev P. Edant here
The plural of mikvah is mikva -ot
glad to hear you kept the dead sea water out of you reyes - not that hurts!

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks Rev P Edant, the post has been amended. I think you meant 'now that hurts' not 'not that hurts', by way of returning the compliment. Yours, Doc Trinaire.