The Real Israel
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.
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