Day 1.5 – 2.9: Past and Present

30 September 2007 – 11:35

Route for Day Three

I still hate hills. I’m getting accustomed to them, though, or they’re getting milder. Hold that thought – tomorrow is gonna suck, as I climb out of the Dead Sea valley, for a net altitude gain of roughly 750 meters.

The thing about long, slow hills is that, as you keep riding, the rise starts to look flat, and you start wondering what the heck is wrong with you, because pedaling is just brutal. Then you look behind and realize that you’re actually going uphill. Really long downhills are great, of course, but since this is the Dead Sea region, the downhills usually aren’t that long.

Oh, and I hate flies. Even more than hills. Especially when they target either me or my water bottle. It’s not like I’m the only warm, sweaty thing out here. Or maybe I am. Everybody else is in a car – an air-conditioned car. And when they honk at me, I can’t figure out whether they’re being sympathetic, or just jerks.

Okay, so I’ve got the rants out of my system. Onto what actually happened …

I got into Masada about half an hour before sunset, which was good. The dormitories were closed for Sukkot, so I got the cheapest option available, which was a single room, dinner, and breakfast. And a glorious shower. All the water I wanted, all the dinner I wanted. I swiped a roll and hummus for an early breakfast the next day. Yes, living OC has taught me a few things.

After talking to my family on the phone, I lay in bed and watched the news for the first time in several months, then tried to go to sleep. I promptly discovered that, however much I may want to go to sleep at 8:30 pm, my body has no intention of doing so.

I didn’t sleep well at all, and I don’t know why. I do remember dreaming that I missed my alarm and slept until nine. When my alarm went off at 4:15 am, I realized that it was so obnoxious that I couldn’t possibly sleep through it.

I’d heard that the climb up the tortuous Snake Path (so named for its many switchbacks) takes about forty-five minutes, but for me it was a grueling thirty-five. Along with about ten other people crazy enough to want to climb before sunrise, I hiked, climbed, and quietly cursed the mountain. I was told later that there are 970 steps, and the path distance is 2.5 kilometers.

The Snake Path before sunrise

Fortunately, there was a waning moon on the larger side of half, enough to see by. It started getting light at around five, and the sun finally peeked out from behind the clouds at 5:40 am. It was pretty sweet. I can say that “the sun was heralded by gorgeous rays of light” and be quite accurate. I spent the next two and a half hours walking around the plateau, following the written guide, seeing the old palaces, cisterns, quarters, storerooms, and walls. One of the places that I kind of wanted to see, but didn’t was the ruins of the synagogue. There were a bunch of men (you can also come up the easier way, but the Roman siege ramp) doing morning prayers in the synagogue, and they probably wouldn’t have liked it if I had gone in, because I’m Christian, a woman, and wearing a sleeveless shirt, which leaves my shoulders bare and is therefore not modest by Orthodox standards.

One of the many sunrise pictures I took

Some of the ruins of the Northern Palace

The Roman baths – hot air would run between these pillars, under the floor, and heat the caulderium

Ruins of the adminstrative complex

I did see the Byzantine church, though, where hermit monks used to worship. They’d live in caves and old buildings, coming out to worship together.

Really cool mosaic floor in the church

Different kind of mosaics on the walls

The story behind Masada is both dramatic and tragic. (And yes, there has been at least one movie or TV series done about it.) Herod developed the plateau by the Dead Sea as both his summer palace (don’t ask me why – it’s really warm, Jerusalem would be a better place to spend the summer) and a bolt-hole. He had really complex methods of getting water up to the cisterns, and preserved the best soil on the plateau for farming. The only ways up were the water path and the Snake Path, both of which could be held by very few against many.

However, a group of Zealots did manage to take it during the Revolt, and it was the last hold-out when the Romans clamped down. The Romans tried sieging it for a few months, then realized that the thousand-strong group (actually 960) could hold it indefinitely. So, in a manner typical of Roman engineers, they said, “Forget this, let’s build a ramp.” Some versions I’ve heard say that they used Hebrew slaves, because the Zealots wouldn’t fire on their own people. Regardless of how they did it, it was built, and the Romans marched up it and assaulted the gate on the west. The Zealots, knowing that the wall was going to be breached, decided to apply the “Live Free or Die” principle – but Judaism doesn’t endorse suicide.

Roman siege ramp

I’m not entirely clear on this point, but each man may have killed his family. The then drew lots and the ten men so chosen killed everybody else, then were executed by one man, who committed suicide. The only survivors left to greet the Romans were five women and children who hid.

Pictures of the lots that were found in the excavations

After conquest, the Romans occupied Masada for a bit, then abandoned it. there was an earthquake in the fourth century AD that shook down a lot of the buildings, then the monks found it in the sixth century. It was rediscovered in modern times in the 1800’s, and has since been excavated and partially reconstructed. There are a lot of well-preserved frescos and mosaics, and the surrounding Roman siegeworks are the most complete found to date. Masada serves as an Israeli symbol of freedom, however tragic. Apparently, there is an IDF ceremony where the soldiers swear that “never again shall Masada fall”.

Let’s see, what else? I met two electrical engineering majors from Tel Aviv University. I also took the cable car down – I figured that I had an excuse, since I was going to bike thirty miles. Grabbed a quick second breakfast and checked out of the hostel, which is really very nice.

Right now I’m in a McDonald’s in Ein Bokek, which is a pseudo-ritzy resort/spa city on the lower Dead Sea. People come here to get muddy and float. There are a lot of big name hotels, as well as plenty of shopping centers, beaches, and other places to relax after a hard day’s relaxation. I’ve been staring at this picture of a cheeseburger on the window in front of me – it is so not kosher. But then, people come here from all sorts of places. The dominant language is Hebrew, but there’s a fair smattering of English, and the family at the table next to mine was speaking Spanish.

Okay, I need to kill another half-hour and then hit the road. I’m roughing it at a moshav tonight.


That was interesting. I’m sitting here waiting for 7:30 pm and dinner, and not exactly contemplating the meaning of life. But there definitely are some great people out there.

I was doing my little cycling thing, as I seem to be doing a lot of now, and was a few kilometers past Sdom, the purported location for the Biblical city of Sodom, when I came upon a policeman unexplainably directing traffic – on a two-lane highway. Or maybe he was a checkpoint for the nearby Dead Sea Works. At any rate, he asked where I was going, and I told him Neot haKikkar. Up to this point the conversation was in Hebrew, but my accent must have been atrocious, or at least a dead giveaway, because he told me in English that it was close – maybe three or four kilometers. Which I was glad to hear, because I was tired and there were hills.

Random sign on the road just past Mount Sodom – I think referring to that separate pillar-like thing that vaguely looks like a person

And three kilometers went by. And four. And five. And this turn-off wasn’t appearing. It was finally just in sight when an SUV pulled in behind me and the woman in the passenger seat waved me over. She asked if I was okay, because I had pulled over to tighten the nut on my pedal shaft, which comes loose periodically because the shaft is worn at the corners. (I had fixed it with epoxy before the beginning of the trip but the weather was kind of brutal on it.) I said, sure, I’m fine, it’s not life-threatening, but the offered me a lift – even as far as Eilat! I said, no, really, I’m fine, but the couple was quite insistent. They assured me that they had kids in the backseat, they were safe, and that they had passed me on the road earlier and come back to check if I was okay.

Well … I couldn’t really refuse, and I was a little sore. So we roped my bike to the rack on the roof – knew that rope would come in handy – and I climbed in the backseat. It turned out that, although Israeli, they had lived in L.A. for sixteen years – she’d gone to CSUN – and had only come back to Israel recently. They were on the way to a hot-air balloon festival. The oldest child, a ten-year-old girl, wanted to be either a dancer or a singer when she finished serving in the Army. She was quite intrigued to hear that Americans have a choice whether or not to serve – a privilege I think we should appreciate more. Although, really, I think mandatory military service might improve the patriotism and discipline of our generation.

The upshot is that I was glad that they offered me a lift – it was about ten hilly kilometers from the turn-off to where I’m staying. The family was extremely gracious, and I was glad I met them.


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