Religious Studies News

16 Jun

Phase III, the final phase of our trip. Today we leave Bethsaida, and travel on to Jerusalem. Along the way, however, we will be making stops at the Dead Sea, Masada National Park, and at least in passing, the caves at Qumran.

Here you can see the lowest point on planet Earth—the Dead Sea:

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Located hundreds of meters below sea level, it’s salinity levels reach upwards of 30%, significantly more than most ocean bodies. However, it is also in danger, as modern projects like the damming of the Jordan river have drastically lowered water levels, leaving Israel and neighboring countries concerned about its future viability. Nonetheless, its striking landscape begins to paint a much different geographical image than the northern environs we’ve been exploring for the past several weeks.

Though our end goal of the day is the holy city of Jerusalem, our trek will take us through major aspects of Jewish history, culture, and religious identity. The overwhelming star attraction of this journey is the hill fortress of ancient Masada, officially named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. According to myth, legend, and historical data, Masada represents the final stand for Jewish Freedom fighters against the Romans in the 1st century CE. It’s eventual destruction puts an exclamation on the end of the Kingdom of Judea—and it has since transformed itself into a symbol of Jewish resistance and the continued human struggle for freedom from oppression. Here you can see the stark and barren beauty suited so well for a fortress, rising majestically a full 450 meters above the Dead Sea:

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Recording the events of the siege around 73-74 CE, Josephus Flavius tells a tragic story. A Roman legion of approximately 8000 troops eventually battled and battered their way to the top of the mountain against less than 1000 members of the Jewish community. Knowing that their choice was either death or slavery, Eleazer Ben Yair convinced his people that suicide was better than living in shame and humiliation. Though impossible to prove for sure, they apparently “drew lots” for the awesome responsibility of executing the families of men, women, and children. Here is an image of inscribed pottery shards (ostraca) that some scholars believe marks this momentous occasion:

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There’s so much more to Masada, including a brief 5th century occupation by Byzantine monks, but I will leave the rest to your own research, and a reminder of the iconography such events can inspire and create:

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Israel can indeed be a rough and rugged place. Upon leaving Masada, we found ourselves driving through the barren hills of the Desert Fathers. Though we did not have the time to stop at the caves of Qumran (where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found), here are a couple of snapshots that will give you a feel for this harsh and infamous environment:

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After driving for a hour or so, and with many of my travel companions nodding off for heat-induced naps, we approached the outskirts of Jerusalem for the first time. Here is a lucky shot I took upon coming out of a tunnel—an oh-so-brief and tantalizing view of a city too rich in heritage to fully encapsulate by camera—but nonetheless, there stands the glittering brilliance of the Dome of the Rock, a prescient portent to the final days to come:

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We all checked in to our final destination before coming home. It is late, and we are tired—“good tired” as my favorite folk singer Harry Chapin used to say. After dinner I sat quietly with my wife, looking out over the Jerusalem night-scape, wondering what the final couple of days might bring. I can’t share with you my thoughts, but his is what I could see from my balcony perch:

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Good night for now,
Alex Snow

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