June 25, 2008

Dead Sea / Masada, Israel

With the time constraints of a plane ticket I decided to head out of Tel Aviv in a rented car so I could make the most of my time exploring the country. Longing for the opportunity to get back into desert landscape I decided to make my way through the coast of the Dead Sea to the ruins of Masada, the architecturally elaborate city built by King Herod on the top of a high mountain. Born without a functioning internal GPS, my latitudes and longitudes sometimes dissect each other brilliantly or terribly. I almost had both on the winding road down to the sea when I noticed a mosque sitting like a mirage among nothing but desert hills; the sight was so interesting I pulled off the highway and headed into this beautiful and barren landscape to see what I could discover. The mosque, which I later found out was the old stop off for people making their pilgrimage to Mecca, was broadcasting a late afternoon call to prayer and the sight and sound put me in a kind of post 4 pm melodic trance and I sat on the sandy hills listening to the Arabic words swirl through the cloudless sky. Wanting more I started driving further on this road and came to the tomb of a Muslim leader and stopped to take pictures. It was just me, the hills and the tomb until I heard and saw a military jeep come out of nowhere and approach my car as if it were about to blow. I came running down the hill and was thrust into another impromptu interrogation whereby the soldiers looked at me with a startled look when I said I was there alone. They informed me that this arid land was used as target practice for the military and I better turn my cute, white Volkswagon rental around and get back on the main road. I obliged, not quite in the mood to get whacked by a stray bullet.
Descending to the lowest point on earth blaring Arabic music with the windows rolled down reminded me of my earlier visit to the Dead Sea from the Jordan side. I had made that visit in the high heat of the afternoon two months ago when the haze from the salt diffuses the sight of the mountain range on the other side of the water, but on this day I was approaching the Ein Gedi Quibbutz, where I would spend the night, in the early evening when the setting sun was highlighting the atmosphere in soft shades of pink and blue. I parked the car on the side of the road and started walking on the dead earth toward the sea line, hearing dirt, sticks and salt crunch under my sandals, excited for a solitary sunset float in the buoyant water; the colors, the coolness and the calm of the moment made me feel like a little plastic figurine in one of those souvenir water globes you shake and watch as the pieces inside fall gently into place.
My Dead Sea Sunset Moment put me to sleep soundly and I awoke feeling ready to channel a dusty, old Roman and make the climb on foot, in the heat, up the big mountain to the ruins of Masada. The architecturally savvy Jewish King, Herod, under Roman rule, had built himself a hedonistic little fortress city in the middle of the desert complete with store houses for imported Italian wine, cheese and delicacies such as fish (you ain’t finding any of those in the Dead Sea), a sophisticated aqueduct system able to supply water for survival and steam baths in the Hammam, and palaces nestled into the shady side of the mountain. It certainly had me in awe of a man after my own heart, one who put importance to the pleasures in life no matter how inhospitable the landscape.

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