The Real Is­rael

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - TRAVEL - Text and images by Mo­han Ku­mar K

A sea that’s a lake, a fort with a tragic his­tory, and an oa­sis in the Judean desert

HALF­WAY THROUGH my jour­ney to­wards the Dead Sea, through the Judea and Sa­maria area pop­u­larly known as the West Bank, my cell phone buzzed with a mes­sage wel­com­ing me to Jor­dan. I was like, “What the…?” It turns out, with the Jor­da­nian bor­der nearby, it wasn’t un­usual to pick up their cell net­work.

Is­rael is a small coun­try. I mean, all of it can fit into one cor­ner of Ma­ha­rash­tra. So cir­cuit­ing around Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv is no big deal. But there are some sur­prises.

The first of them: The Dead Sea is not a sea but a 605 sq-km very salty lake with Is­rael and the West Bank on one side and Jor­dan on the other. It is also the low­est point on Earth, the area is more than 400 me­tres be­low sea level. With al­most one-third salt, it’s more than eight times saltier than the ocean and all that salin­ity brings a sec­ond, bouyant sur­prise. You don’t sink, but float on the turquoise blue wa­ters in which no marine life thrives. Try tast­ing a drop. It feels like you’ve put the busi­ness end of a nine-volt bat­tery on your tongue. Don’t even think of get­ting the wa­ter in your eyes.

The ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties of the wa­ter and the bro­mide-filled air at­tract hordes of tourists – not the bikini-wear­ing kind, but the fully-clothed, old-lady kind. And the sea keeps ev­ery kind of vis­i­tor afloat.

If you’re on a tight sched­ule, here are the main at­trac­tions: The Dead Sea, the Masada Fort, the

Ein Gedi nat­u­ral re­serve and the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Qum­ran.


Wait­ing for the cable car that would take me 450 me­tres above the Dead Sea to the ru­ins of King Herod’s fort, I won­dered why any­one would con­struct a fortress in this vast Judean desert. The only source of wa­ter yields an un­drink­able liq­uid. And then there’s the bak­ing heat.

And yet, the fortress has en­dured. It was the last bas­tion of the Jewish free­dom fight­ers who fought the Ro­man army that had laid siege in 73 or 74 AD and now bus­tles with Asian, Euro­pean and Rus­sian tourists.

My guide, Uri Bar-El, ex­plained the in­tri­ca­cies of run­ning the fort in its hey­day. Ro­man-style bath­houses, Byzan­tine caves, ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ings, cis­terns and sev­eral com­plexes made for a city in the mid­dle of nowhere. Some of the mo­saic and mu­rals are still in­tact and most of the struc­tures have char­coal-black lines zigzag­ging around them to mark the ex­ca­vated and re­stored sec­tions. The Ro­mans had a tough time cap­tur­ing this fort, and when they did, found 960 bod­ies, of men, women and chil­dren who took their own lives to avoid cap­ture.

Atop the fort, you can get a panoramic view of the desert and oases, with the Dead Sea sparkling at a dis­tance, and hik­ers, mostly school­child­ren, wind­ing through the trail. Early morn­ings are not too hot for a walk past the re­stored sec­tions of the north­ern palace, the Byzan­tine church and a large swim­ming pool, mi­nus the wa­ter of course. This is where Herod, who for­ti­fied the area be­tween 37 and 31 BC, hosted his guests who ei­ther went back home or ended up in the bot­tom of the pool if they dis­agreed with the king. You can even see the rem­nants of the Ro­man camps on the el­e­vated grounds around the hill.


Nes­tled be­tween Masada and Qum­ran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were dis­cov­ered, lies the Ein Gedi Na­ture Re­serve. Yes, a

na­ture re­serve, right in the mid­dle of a desert, in a land that has lit­tle by way of green­ery. Think of it as a tes­ta­ment to the in­ge­nu­ity of the peo­ple. Most of the for­est is a re­sult of a huge, sus­tained af­foresta­tion cam­paign by the Jewish Na­tional Fund.

I trekked into the straw-brown re­serve with Uri on a sunny Novem­ber morn­ing, the pos­si­bil­ity of a flood hov­er­ing over our plans. Re­mem­ber, this is the low­est point on the planet, so if there’s a de­cent amount of rain up­hill, the wa­ter comes gush­ing down to the plateau with enough rage to cut this re­gion off from the rest of the coun­try. And with the nu­mer­ous sink holes – there are warn­ing signs all over the place – it can get tricky to wade out of a wa­ter-logged part of the re­serve. The flood thank­fully did not ma­te­ri­alise, but it did bring bad news. The dusk-to-dawn mu­sic fes­ti­val, which was to be held at the sprawl­ing foothills of Masada that day, was can­celled.

The re­serve it­self has his­tor­i­cal and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal im­por­tance apart from ex­ud­ing a sort of Gar­den-of-Eden vibe. It’s home to a tem­ple from Chal­col­ithic Age and also houses the rem­nants of an an­cient syn­a­gogue. It’s said that King David took refuge here when he was hounded by King Saul in bib­li­cal times. One trail leads to a slen­der wa­ter­fall that splashes into an emer­ald green pond named af­ter David. An­other up­hill route takes you to a spring.

In sandy, arid Is­rael, the re­serve is al­most a par­al­lel world. It’s a sanc­tu­ary for many types of plants, birds and an­i­mals. From vac­uum-filled flow­er­ing plants like Sodom Ap­ples and Ju­jubes to rare an­i­mals like the Nu­bien ibex, a desert-dwelling goat species with long, curved horns, and a kind of bad­ger called the rock hyrax. Bird spot­ters usu­ally keep their eyes peeled for a sight­ing of a star­ling species called Tris­tram’s grackle. But even if you can’t iden­tify any­thing you see, you’ll come away think­ing you’ve just had a hol­i­day within a hol­i­day.

brunch­let­[email protected]­dus­tan­ Fol­low @HTBrunch on Twit­ter

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