The regimented, white tower blocks stood to attention on their green carpets as we passed by Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beer Sheba, which are all referred to in the Bible. Bedouin shepherds still roam the desert planes as Abraham and Lot did, so it was great to see them and their tents after a night in Tel Aviv. As we looked across the arid planes, it was easy to imagine the angels visiting Abraham and Sarah to prophesy about the birth of Isaac. Colourful oasis greeted us on route.
The MacDonalds chain gets everywhere and as we stopped for a break there was one on site. It looked strange seeing the well known, giant, red logo underwritten in Hebrew. I checked it out and couldn’t resist buying a coffee. I was greeted by a charming young man who served me.
I’d never heard of Masada before going on this tour and it was easy to understand why it is seen as a symbol of freedom and independence by the Jewish nation. Herod the Great was an insecure ruler and built this elaborate fortification on the top of a mountain overlooking the azures of the Dead Sea. Our guide told us that rulers liked to build on high places to have the best vantage point, but failed to mention the spiritual leverage it also gave. As we went up to the peak in the cable car, squeezed like cattle in a truck, the view was breathtaking.
We had to hold onto the caps we had been given to show we were part of a tour as we got out of the cable car; as a gust of wind licked our hot shoulders. A narrow path snaked up to the terracotta ruins in various stages of disarray. The bath house, with it’s splendid mosaics and tiles, had been rebuilt and a thick black line differentiated between the new and the old. The heat quickly drained us and we soon understood why Herod had built his own quarters on a rocky outcrop which caught the breeze.
We sought refuge from the heat in a shady rest area and were chilled to the bone as we heard about the rebel zealot Jews. They had lived there after Herod and had made a pact to commit suicide, all 955 of them, to avoid being captured by the Roman Army, who would have made them all slaves. Only two women and three children survived to tell the tale, which was recorded in the annals of Roman slave historian Josephus. The same air of human tragedy that haunts Auchwitz and Chichen Itza was a spectre here. The blazing heat, as we made a final tour of the site, lifted our spirits, but we could not forget their terrible dilemma which went against their own beliefs.
From the dead to the Dead Sea we travelled. A dip in its murky waters seemed a welcome reprieve. The heat was at its highest as we walked down the sludgy banks and I almost fell as my foot slipped into a hole where someone had scooped out a lump of mud to smere over their skin. Some people had been transformed into muddy zombies in an attempt to capture the Dead Seas healing and cleansing qualities, but not I. We had felt how smooth the mud can make your skin feel at the expensive gift shop next to the restaurant where we had lunched. Apparently, the Dead Sea is quickly disappearing because both Israel and the Jordan farm the mineral resources of their natural beauty so it is no wonder the cures are costly, not only to the pocket, but also to the environment.
As I lay back floating without effort, the cool water glazed me like a thick lotion and the gritty mud left my skin feeling smooth and silky, but no one had warned me about the stingy sensations which bit into sensitive areas. This pain outweighed the benefits for me and I made a sharp exit. Some people felt that pain in their eyes when they accidentally splashed their faces. The only cure was to wash themselves in the showers on the shore.
We had met a charming couple on the bus from South Africa who shared the photographic shooting duties with me. As I watch the party play, my friend Philippa knelt and smothered the woman’s legs with mud. She later told me that the woman had a deep seated fear of water, so she had prayed for her an the woman received more than one cure that day.
Back on the coach we slowly climbed up past new towns and Bedouin villages. We were told that the young Bedouins are now conscripted into the army like other Israelies. My heart beat fasted as we caught the first glimpses of the towns surrounding Jerusalem. The city itself is skirted by a high wall which separates it from the West Back. Our guide told us about the political history that led to this dramatic separation, but the villages in the West Bank looked the same as the villages in Israel and we later found the people to be just as friendly and just as passionate. Let’s pray that one day they can all live in peace and harmony together.
We went through a long road tunnel and suddenly there it was, Jerusalem, the Holy City for the Christians, Muslims and Jews. The golden dome of the mosque sited on the Holy ground of Temple Mount captured the rays as the sun bowed behind the populated hills. As we were driven to The Jerusalem Gate Hotel, I tried to see the old town again but it bobbed behind the building avoiding me.
Jerusalem is a busy city like any other with masses of people focussed on getting somewhere. The noisy traffic echoing the hustle and bustle. Orthodox Jews pepper the pavement everywhere in their black attire, which we were told originates from 16th Century Eastern Europe. The people I had seen for the first time on the aeroplane fascinated me again. Even the young married men sport beards, making their age indistinguishable from the the older men. Rabbis wear long chin manes drawing respect from the women and children, who look like they have just stepped out of an old black and white movie. Every wife had her head covered or wore a wig and was skirted by a clutch of pretty dark-haired boys and girls. Some of the little boys have long tresses framing their faces, a forerunner of their fathers’ coiffure.
The mystery and the taste for the exotic drew me, and as we arrived at our destination, I couldn’t wait to wake up and explore.