We arose this morning in our picturesque setting on the shores of the Dead Sea with the mountains of the Judean wilderness towering over us. Our visit to the Dead Sea was over much too quickly, but there was much more to see in the Judean desert before we made our way up to Jerusalem.
We pulled away from the hotel, and journeyed northward along the eastern shores of the dead sea until we reached the legendary site of Masada, an ancient fortification on top of a desert mountain plateau in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea. We know most of what we know about Masada thanks to the 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus. Herod the Great built a magnificent palace on the Western edge of Masada which had three terraces on the face of the cliff. Masada was the first place he fortified after becoming King of Judea. He built an elaborate storage system of water which diverted water from the Masada River into large cisterns on the mountain. He also built huge storage facilities for all kinds of fruits, grains, and other foodstuffs. This was a place which was virtually impregnable sitting high on the mountain cliffs. He could store enough food and water to hold out for years against any attack. Masada is most famously known as the location where the last remaining Jewish rebels held out after the war with the Romans that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. After a long siege, the Romans had built an assault ramp which finally broke through the walls. When it became apparent, that the next day the Romans would come in and take the fortress, the leader of the rebels convinced the 960 Jewish inhabitants to commit mass suicide rather than have their wives abused by the Romans and their children become slaves. When the Romans entered Masada that next day in 73 A.D., all were dead save two women and five children.
From this impressive site, we journeyed further northward to Ein Gedi, the second largest Oasis of the Judean desert (Jericho being the largest). It was here that David took refuge in a cave, hiding from King Saul who sought for him “even upon the most craggy rocks, which are accessible only to wild goats.” (1 Samuel 24:2) I can attest to the accuracy of this description. The entire group hiked up to the lowest waterfall where the water from the springs of Ein Gedi make their way through the desert mountainside to the land down below. Only the most hardy of the group made the steeper hike up to the larger waterfalls above. The scenery was majestic and will never be forgotten. We saw several of the rock hyrax, a guinea pig-like mammal which lives in the Judean desert. This place also is home to a number of the desert dwelling goat, the Nubian Ibex. I think the afternoon was too hot for these lovely creatures to be active on the slopes of the mountain.
When we had exhausted ourselves at Ein Gedi, we made the trip further northward to visit Qumran, famous for being the location of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Living in this barren desert landscape was a monastic community of Jews which some identify with the group known as the Essenes. The society members would live in caves in the sheer desert cliffs and come into the community during the day for their daily activities, which included ritual baths, eating, and writing and copying scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls, contrary to much popular thought have nothing to do with the New Testament scriptures and contain no “lost” gospels. Written mostly in Hebrew, they contained copies of the Old Testament scriptures, commentaries on these scriptures, and information on the rules, regulations, and structure of the Qumran community. They have great significance for Jews and Christians in that before their discovery the earliest copies of the Hebrew scriptures dated from the tenth century. Found in Qumran were copies of the entirety of virtually the entire Hebrew Bible (with the exception of Esther) dating from the first century. These copies confirmed that what those 10th century documents reported as scripture was indeed accurate. That the text had not been corrupted over the millennia that had passed since that time. Because of this, the Dead Sea Scrolls is truly a monumental discovery for defending the integrity of Scripture.
By the time we had finished at Qumran, many in our group were ready to leave the heat of the desert for cooler climes. Our agenda was accommodating as next on our agenda was to ascend the mountains up to Jerusalem. There was a rush of emotion when the city of Jerusalem first came into view as we climbed over the hill. We stopped on Mt. Scopus to climb out of the bus and take a look at the Holy City for the first time. We had made it to Jerusalem! After an emotional moment on Mt. Scopus, we made our way just down the road to our hotel, Dan Jerusalem, which also sits on the slopes of Mt. Scopus, providing a breathtaking view of the city and the rolling hills of Judea.