Pilgrim notes #7 - The Wilderness, Masada, the Dead Sea, Qumran
After he was baptized, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Luke 4:1-2
For most of us, the desert is someplace distant. But, in Jesus' Palestine, the desert is just over the hill. In fact, if you leave east Jerusalem towards the East, past the Mount of Olives, and continue in that direction, it's a short downhill trip. By bus, you are in the desert in less than 5 minutes. You can be at Jericho near the Dead Sea in less than an hour in the middle of this desert.
We were on the bus at 5:00 a.m. for sunrise Eucharist on a mountain top, then Masada, Ein Gedi kibutz on the Dead Sea, and Qumran. It was cold and windy and slightly drizzly. We stopped at 5:30 for Eucharist, having left only the drizzly stuff behind. We climbed a path to the mountain top, then after a reading of Luke 4:1-13, were left to freeze or meditate, or both till 6:00. The wind and bitter cold did not contribute to an easy talk with God or inner self. Although nothing else changed, the Eucharist was very satisfying, in spite of the conditions. After Eucharist, a cold picnic breakfast was laid out. Like some others, I filled my pockets with portable food, cherry tomatoes, cheese wrapped in foil, hard boiled eggs, put some peanut butter on a pita and wandered back down the mountain to get out of the wind. It was much better down at the bus out of the wind, even though we couldn't eat on the bus. By 7:00 a.m. we were rolling towards Masada. At the bottom of the long downhill drive, we were at the lowest spot on Earth, with Jericho on our left (North) and the Dead See in front of us and to our right (South), we took a right turn and followed the Western shore of the Dead Sea to Masada.
"My loyal followers, now that all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate, let us at once choose death with honour and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and our children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness." From Josephus, The Jewish War, VII
Most of us know about Masada. It has been the subject of several popular television specials and was very recently featured in National Geographic Magazine. It is the sort of nearly impenetrable mountain top fortress that fires the imagination, and if that's not enough, it is were, according to Josephus, 960 men, women, and children completed a suicide pact rather than fall into slavery and abuse to their Roman conquerors in 73 AD. Two women and five children who had hidden provided the eyewitness account.
From the foot of the Eastern end, Masada is nearly a sheer cliff, but can be accessed by a foot trail called Snake Path, that snakes its way up the mountain, a 3.5 mile march. I sorely wanted to ascend on foot, but we were shepherded to the cable cars for the swift ascent, all of us at once. From the top, one can see the entire Dead Sea, but more impressive are the surviving and partially restored structures. The major surviving structures were built by Herod beginning in 30 BC, who used the fortress as a personal refuge. With walls all the way around the plateau 18 feet high, and lavish palace and public buildings. Many of the original walls are still standing, some still partially covered with their original plaster, some still bearing traces of the original paint, from the first century BC. Colorful mosaics still adorn some of the floors. Some of the buildings were changed, improved, or built by Jewish zealots after they seized Masada in 66 AD. After Masada fell in 73, it was occupied by Romans till 111 AD. Masada was also the site of a 5 - 6 th century Byzantine monastery with some remarkable surviving and partially restored buildings.
All around Masada, the Roman siege camps and wall are readily discernable. The remarkable Roman siege ramp that was built up to the mountain top fortress has been eroded by weather so that it now only reaches about half way to the top.
About 12 or so of us wanted urgently to walk down the treacherous Snake Path. I'm glad I did it, but I did so carrying a jacket, two sweaters, and a bottle of water that made it harder than the average walk in the sun. Most of our walkers were women. In fact, most of the walkers we encountered who were on the way up were women, as were most of the speedier walkers who passed us who were on the way down.
Hot and tired, we departed for Ein Gedi kibutz, a traditional place to lunch and take a float on the Dead Sea. With 10 times the amount of minerals than the ocean, floating on the Dead Sea was an experience I'd been wanting to do since I was a 15 year old Summer Church Camper. That Summer at Rota Naval Station's Camp Columbus, I had a young man counselor who had been at the Dead Sea the previous Summer. The stories of his experience were never forgotten. It turns out it is very hard to get into the water without shoes. My bare feet were painfully abused by rocks in the shallow waters that were covered with sharp salt crystals. But, once over that obstacle, one just sits down in the water and floats away. It's a strange, unworldly experience. But only about 10 bold souls ventured in (including Bishop Thompson) while those on shore took a lot of pictures. If one is laying on their back (sitting in the water) and you raise your hands and feet out of the water, you don't sink in. But, if you raise your hands too high, as if to shout Hallelujah, you start to tip over because there isn't enough of your rear end under water to serve as ballast. The dressing rooms (5 Shekels) were nothing to write home about but at least the shower was warm for washing off the "salt."
A few of us refreshed, but the others hot and tired, we departed for Qumran, the Essene community Dead Sea scrolls excavations. The most remarkable thing to me about these excavations is the amount of water used by the inhabitants, the number of cisterns to hold water and the aqueduct system to transport it attesting to this, apparently much of it being used for twice daily ritual cleansing by full immersion, a possible antecedent for the rite of Christian Baptism. This site is actively undergoing additional excavation and restoration.
Journey Prayer from the Jewish Prayer Book (slightly amended)
O God, who called our father Abraham and our mother Sarah to journey into the unknown and guarded them and blessed them, protect us too and bless our journey. May your confidence support us as we set out, may your Spirit be with us on the way, and may you lead us back to our homes in peace. Those we love, we commend to your care; You are with them, we will not fear. As for ourselves, may your presence be our companion so that blessings may come to us and to everyone we meet. Blessed are you Lord, whose indwelling presence travels with your people. All this we ask in the name of Your Son, our Savior. Amen.
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