The Dead Sea Trip
As you may have gathered, we are using the last couple of weeks of summer to convey the Boy to some of the highlights of Israel that he has not yet had the opportunity to see. Last summer was sort of a bust because Hezbollah sought a war; the rest of the year was school and ulpan; the first six weeks of summer was more ulpan. Now we have a short break.
As always, Yossi pitched in to help. It seems that somehow neither he nor his children have ever been to Masada, so this looked like the perfect opportunity for a Group Trip. Maybe its being sabras.....the tourist sites are always here, so why go?
I know I never would have seen Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay if I hadn't been taking out-of-town friends to see it.
I looked forward to the trip because while I can see Maaleh Adumim from Hadassah Hospital, I haven't yet been down Highway One in that direction. We took One down past A-Tur and Maaleh Adumim. A-Tur, a large Arab suburb of Jerusalem that flows out of the Jerusalem basin and down the eastern slope, is adjacent to Abu Dis, once touted as the future capital of the PA until Yasser Arafat changed his mind and demanded all of Jerusalem. Abu Dis is huge.
Highway One runs below A-Tur which is both behind and to the south of the road, and across the highway is another Arab settlement being flung up to ensure that Israel's connection to Maaleh Adumim is severed. This is the region that the US State Department and Condi Rice insist must not be built upon by Israel---yet Arab building is proceeding apace.
A little bit further along Highway One, Maaleh Adumim and its sister-suburbs come into view. You can tell that you're entering into Jewish-held suburbs because the streets are paved and there are trees on the hills and flowers in the gardens. Arab suburbs, on the other hand, almost always seem to think trees and gardens are unnecessary, and if Allah wanted such frivolities, He would put them there Himself.
Maalah Adumim sits on a bluff with Jerusalem to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. The drop from the town to the floor of the rift valley is reminiscent of the drop from Tahoe to Reno--ear-poppingly steep, with sheered walls rising above the valley floor. Anyone from the American West's earthquake country would recognize this geography immediately.
The suburb takes it's name from the Book of Joshua which describes a border area between Judah and Benjamin containing a route rising from the valley floor through the rocky reddish-brown cliffs to Jerusalem. It sounds better in Hebrew, but the name means "Red Ascent."
Maaleh Adumim itself is pretty green. The trees and gardens and parks make a suburban oasis in the midst of otherwise overgrazed rocky hills. Over 32,000 people live here, so its hardly a candidate for forced evacuation like Gaza. It's sister suburbs, Kfar Adumim, Mishmar Adumim, Nofei Prat and Vered Yericho, strung along Highway One's hilltops and sides like beads on a string, look equally prosperous and green from the road.
The entire region is largely deserted except for these suburbs -- the sole exception being the Bedouin encampments spotted deep in the wadis running away from the highway. The Bedouin encampments are a study in rural poverty -- shacks, corrals, tents, goats, donkeys and camels in a hodgepodge arrangement; no water or electricity; rarely a motor vehicle; obviously no sanitary facilities. These are not the elegant tents of Biblical imagination, either -- these are black tents strung up over a framework, baking in the heat, and oftentimes the encampment numbers more pathetic tin shacks than tents. Think Hoovertowns. With goats.
When the Boy asked me why they lived here, Yossi answered before I could: "They like living this way," he told the Boy. I was extremely dubious, thinking this was Israeli chauvinism. I ventured a disagreement, and Yossi was adamant. "No, you must talk to them. Wait until we come to the camel," he told me. "They think they are free, living this way, and they pity us for living in cities. Really. I know them!" he insisted.
And he does.....we stopped at the marker along Highway One showing where Sea Level is--everything after that is below sea level. Sure enough, there was a camel tethered there, saddled and available to the tourists for ten shekels per ride. Yossi knows the owner--and has known him since Yossi himself was young. The owner, fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English (and maybe other languages for all I know) was happy to give our kids rides on the camel. I found out that the owner wouldn't dream of trading this life for the 8-to-5 grind of working for some boss and being bogged down with a mortgage and taxes, and pitied us poor fools for doing so. I also found out that a camel eats about 200 shekels a day worth of hay and dried garbanzo beans, so his owner needs either a lot of riders or really good tips or both.
After the boys took turns riding the camel, we continued down the pass until we reached the floor of the rift valley. In ancient times, from Devorah to the Byzantine emperors, this was rich agricultural land. So rich, in fact, that at times the lands around Jericho were "imperial lands" reserved for the emperor who made a bundle off of the date industry and other crops grown nearly year-round in this, HaShem's hothouse. Evidence of its richness is returning in the wake of Jewish efforts to renew the date plantations and farm in remote sites like Vered Yericho, Beit Ha'Arava and Almog.
We got our first glimpse of the Dead Sea at Lido Junction: it was a beautiful shade of sky blue, flat and calm, cradled in the arms of the rift. The mountains arose on the east and west, colors changing as the light changed, from red to brown to gold. We drove along the cliffs and date plantations beside the Sea, passing Qumran (ancient) and the Ahava factory (modern) at Mitspeh Shalem.
Hint: the prices are no cheaper at the factory.
We finally saw the ship-rock figure of Masada rising out of the desert
Summer is NOT the ideal time to see Masada. The upside is that its not terribly crowded (mostly Taglit-Birthright groups and some Christian tour groups). The water in the Dead Sea was exceptionally clear; the sky was a gorgeous blue; the mountains of the rift valley stood out in bold contrast against the sky and seemingly changed colors by the hour.
The down side is that it was HOT. Forty degrees centigrade.(That's 104 for those of you still on Fahrenheit.) Even the sabra part of the contingent was hot and expressing discomfort. We took LOTS of water. Five bottles of frozen water which stayed cold for about an hour. Even warm, it tasted delicious. We drank ALL the water while on top of Masada and then got more once we came down from the mountain.
I enjoyed it tremendously. First, this was not a long, lingering tour in this kind of heat--it's really amazing how fast you can hit all the high points when you're being beaten by the sun on an anvil of rock. The boys saw the remains of the Roman camp; the breaching point in the wall; the STUPENDOUS view from the eastern rim across the Dead Sea; the palace ruins; the columbarium; the frescoed walls....I wanted to go over to where the lots were found, but at this point the group's momentum was towards the tram and in favor of air conditioning.
To me, the highlight this time (I've been once before) was the view and the birds. There's something exciting about standing at the eastern ledge and watching the birds flying by BELOW you as you gaze across at the pale blue sea and dimly backlit Mountains of Moab.
At an excavation near the staircase of the palace, I saw birds which I'd seen nowhere else in Israel clinging to the rocks. They were a glossy black punctuated with beautiful reddish-brown patches on the wings. I checked our bird book later and found these are Tristam's Grackles, which, at least according to the book, don't roost this low. They are indigenous to Israel, Jordan and part of Arabia, according to the Israel Bird Book.
However, the Oman website differs, claiming this bird as its own native:
Size: 25cm from bill to tail, with a wingspan of 40cm.
Status: An abundant breeding resident in the southern mountains of Dhofar. Vagrant elsewhere.
Identification: A medium-sized bird belonging to the starling family. The male is glossy black and the female dark brown. Both have orange flight feathers that are very conspicuous when seen in flight.
Voice: A mixture of loud, harsh calls and whistles.
Behaviour: Seen in pairs during the breeding season and at other times in small family parties or large flocks. Frequently perched on wires and some may be seen sitting on camels where they find food for themselves and at the same time relieve the camel of parasites.
Breeding: Nest in crevices amongst rocks. In the beginning of the breeding cycle the male can be seen in courtship display feeding the female.
Where to look: Anywhere in the Dhofar mountains and in towns along the southern coast. One of the most common and conspicuous birds in the south of Oman.
Distribution: Tristram’s grackles are limited to the western and southern Arabian peninsula.
I suspect we have another case of Arab triumphalism--no self-respecting bird would nest in the Zionist Entity, would it? Grackles were all over the place, so Oman's claim to the contrary, it is a very Israeli bird.
As we rested on the shady benches above the northern palace ruins, I pattered on about Herod, his building campaign and the dislike he engendered in his people. I touched on the Idumeans, their role in trade with the Nabateans and other neighbors, their conquest and forced conversion by the Hasmoean dynasty and peoples' distrust of Herod because of that ancestry and his cozy relations with Rome.
"How do you know all this?" Yossi asked me at one point, taking a break from translating for his kids.
"I hate television," I told him, frankly. "I'd rather read a book -- so I'm a font of pretty much useless historical trivia."
We refueled the children with ice cream after getting off the tram and went in search of a beach. Lunch at En Boqeq sounded just great. I had visions of air-conditioned comfort overlooking the Dead Sea from a nice hotel restaurant.
Silly me. We stopped at one of the less glitzy restaurants and found out that they wanted 157 NIS per person....and while the Boy will eat like a normal 17-year-old, the other two kids eat like birds.
We found a great pizza spot instead, and settled down for soft drinks, beer and pizza then wandered over to the beach. The beach is shaded by wooden rafters which is where the Boy (recovering from a Very Bad Sunburn a week ago), Yossi and myself elected to sit and watch the water. The other two kids plunged into the water and splashed around for about 45 minutes. The Boy started building a sand castle, which brought his buddies out of the water, and this construction project started to get very elaborate, with tunnels and moats and so forth. The youngest boy decided that engineering was not in his future and went back to the water to hunt for rocks.
There are a LOT of rocks in the Dead Sea. This is a hot sand and rocky-bottom kind of beach. Just because I was there, I took off my shoes, streaked across the hot sand and walked ankle deep into the water. Gingerly. The water was warm and the bottom rocky. However, it relieved my sore toes, burned by the sands. Then I streaked back to the shade and stayed there.
Yossi laughed at me. "Now you are truly Israeli," he commented, having watched my token steps into the Dead Sea.
The heat is very dry. It is not debilitating but it sucks the moisture out of your skin and the energy out of your body. Even sitting in the shade, lassitude crept over us. Had I been in a chaise lounge instead of a chair, I think I would have fallen asleep. We hung out until the kids finally tired, and then headed back to Jerusalem. We stocked up on frozen water bottles (sold that way by the markets at En Boqeq)and took our time cruising back alongside the now-deep blue Sea beneath its red-gold mountain borders, listening to Mizrachi music at full volumn.
I loved every minute of it, but more importantly, so did the Boy.
Ma'aleh Adumim pictures and history courtesy of Jacob Richman, without whom the olim of Israel would be much, much poorer -- http://www.jr.co.il/