Built before 31BC, the Masada, built by Herod the Great, was home to Israelites who lived there until the invasion by Roman troops in 74 CE at the end of the First Jewish Roman War. The archaeological evidence contradicts some claims that during a siege by the Romans, 960 Jewish rebellion occupants were locked in the palace fortification on the top of an isolated rock and when their capture was imminent, they committed suicide. Regardless of that part of the history, the fortification is remarkable in the relics left behind of the way the occupants lived. Roman baths, a hot room, storerooms for food and munitions all sit atop a massive hill with cavernous craters reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The vistas in all directions are shocking in their stark relief and though we had an overcast day, we had the distinct sense of being on another planet. In one direction lies the Dead Sea but in all other directions, stark rock formations in muted brown and sand rise in canyons and jagged cliffs. Jack took advantage of the stark surroundings and filmed his mini-figs.
I would have typically preferred to hike to the top but since we were on a tight schedule, we had to take the cable car where we were whisked above those hiking laboriously. We spent about an hour meandering the site, then ran to catch our bus to the Dead Sea.
Public transportation is efficient and an economical way to travel in Israel but 2 caveats to keep in mind… They often come early – So make sure you are 15 minutes or more early to your bus our you may miss it. And getting signed up is not simple so better to buy a card at the airport station that you can then add money to as needed. One card is sufficient for multiple riders on the bus, the train, and the rail.
We made it to the Dead Sea stop and though it was chilly and overcast, nothing was going to keep us from the dead sea soak…
The lowest point on the planet Earth, The Dead Sea is 431 meters or 1,414 feet BELOW SEA LEVEL. As we traveled from Jerusalem, we could see markings on the sides of the hill indicating our travel below sea level and feel the accompanying ear pops.
Arriving at the entry point to the Dead Sea, we learned that at more than 34% salinity it is one of the saltiest bodies of water. This density made it possible to nearly sit straight up and float above the water. While it left our skin feeling smooth and silky (surprising), plants and animals cannot live there. Sadly, the Sea is receding quickly, and multiple efforts are underway to mitigate its recession. We all giggled like children as we enjoyed the hyper buoyancy and salt filled mud. Alec and I were freezing though and didn’t wait too long before heading to the showers and getting dressed again.
We ran the 4 km back to the bus stop in the middle of nowhere hopeful to not miss it – and we made it! Enjoying the relaxing 45-minute drive back to Jerusalem we all sat back to enjoy the ride.
The next day – we took a tour on Abraham Tours to Jordan. While there is certainly enough to see in Israel to more than fill a week, I have had Petra on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I could not be this close and not see it. So, we booked the Abraham Tour for 2 days to Petra. They did a fantastic job or organizing a very full 2 days with an early morning departure from their own hostel in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and transporting us to the border with Jordan. Once we cleared ourselves and belongings across the border, there was a Jordanian representative and tour guide who drove us the rest of the way.
We stopped at Mt. Nebo which is where Moses led the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land, and from this site, on a clear day, one can see nearly the entire Holy Land. It was not a clear day for us, but we were able to see in the distance, Amman.
Mt Nebo, which is managed by the Franciscan Order, has a basilica with some of the most impressive mosaics we have ever seen. Also, there is a monument to Moses.
Continuing our bus trip, we managed to make it to our Bedouin Campsite just before dinner and with barely enough time to eat, check in and off we went to see Petra at night.
We had on our bus, tourists from the USA, France, Germany, Columbia, England, and others. We all laughed and enjoyed each other’s company, and I was so impressed at how we all communicated (thank God most people speak English) and got along. We looked after each other and everyone engaged with Jack and Travis as though they were their own. I’m not sure who on our bus asked the guide if he could arrange to take us to Petra at night, but only once or twice a week this is available. Someone who did more research than I had discovered that on this day we could make it. If you are planning a trip to Petra, I can’t urge you enough to make sure you visit, if possible, on the day when you can see Petra by Night. It was a surprise and unplanned but having seen it at night, we enjoyed seeing it during the day even more. And the experience of exploring and seeing the rocks bathed in candlelight under a moonlit and star filled sky, then arriving at the treasury to beautiful flute music and more candles was a chilling and inspired experience that we will never forget. We began our day at 600 in the morning and ended falling into bed at the campsite at 12 but it was truly an unforgettable day and worth every moment.
The following day, we awoke before dawn and as we meandered to the breakfast room, I saw the most magnificent shooting star I have ever seen. The sky was the darkest black with more stars than I have seen in my life combined.
Hopping aboard the bus, we made a few stops to see the gorges in the daytime, then arrived just after sunrise to Petra. We only had about 6 hours before we needed to meet back to board the bus back to Jerusalem. We 6 are all fit and wanted to see as much as possible, so we broke with the group and took off first to the Monastery, then to the Royal Tombs.
A few words about this site. Petra, the Capital of the Nabatean Empire, grew rich from the spice and incense trade in the 1st Century BC. It is not known when Petra was built but it thrived even after the Romans came and annexed them to the Roman Empire. Petra continued to thrive up until an earthquake destroyed much of the city in the 4th century AD. Like so many cities in this region, Petra was abandoned. Petra was not only significant from a building and trade prospective, but the Nabateans were brilliant at controlling the water in this desert region. They found ways to store water during drought and direct water during floods. Deserted by all but a few Bedouin from the area, this was all but lost and forgotten until a Swiss explorer set out to re-discover Petra and in 1812, Petra was officially on the map. The Jordanian government promised the Bedouin occupants exclusive rights to all of the vender and tourist trade in the area if they would move out of their campsites here and allow the government to make it a tourist destination. That information made me WANT to buy something from the people selling along the footpaths. Unfortunately, most of the stuff is junk imported from China but if you look carefully, you can find incense, and handcrafted items which we did buy.
Hardly a week passes that Alec, and I don’t thank God that we are doing this now while we are still young and fit enough to appreciate it. But never more so than when visiting Petra has our fitness really paid off. From the entry gate to the treasury (the tip of the iceburg) is about 6 miles. More than 25 miles of trails which wind through the deepest caverns and climb up the mountains cover this area and we saw as much as was humanly possible. We made it to the Monastery, Treasury, the Theatre, the Royal Tombs, the Nymphaeum, the Street of Facades, and the Siq, the Church, as well as others. Jack and Travis played as only kids with limitless energy could and I was filled with Gratitude that Jack has the privilege of exploring these magnificent places as his childhood playground. This is absolutely a magnificent example of human ingenuity and as happens when I’m in a highly inspiring place, I wonder what people will discover of our accomplishments in 2000 years from now. I pray that we use our brilliant minds to solve some of the bigger issues of pollution and global warming and we can leave behind something that the occupants of our planet in 2000 years’ time can appreciate and marvel at and gain inspiration from.
Petra is not only a UNESCO world Heritage site, but it was added to the new list of the Seven Wonders of the World.
I would love to leave it there but there is 1 more highlight from our trip that I’d like to cover: First, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem includes a very impressive 500,000 artifacts dating back thousands of years. But for me the most impressive item in the collection was the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jack is at that time in young man’s life when he is questioning some of the more existential aspects of life and its meaning. He is curious about God and Jesus, and he is honestly questioning every single thing that emerges from our mouths. Most of the time we inwardly laugh, and I’m pleased that he doesn’t just take what we offer as the gospel truth. I want him to ask questions from everyone and everything he learns and reads.
I’m keenly aware that the greatest gifts in my life are gifts I can’t give to Jack, he must discover them for himself. One of those gifts is my happy marriage. And the other greatest gift, is my relationship with God. Sometimes when Jack questions his own belief in God it hurts my heart, but I’m often reminded that that IS THE VERY PATH to God. It doesn’t come from blindly walking someone else’s journey, but from asking and wrestling with your own questions and allowing God to come in. I pray daily that this wrestling will bring God into Jacks life, but The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the proofs that the words we read in our bible are the words that were written so many hundreds of years ago. Believed to have been written in 1-3 century CE, the religious manuscripts were only discovered between 1946-1956. These precious pieces of papyrus and parchment are housed in the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book are the most complete and extensive collection of the scrolls on Earth. On our last day in Israel, we wandered through this incredible collection.