Heat was going to be our big challenge: temperatures in the area were climbing into the mid-90’s by late morning, and that was more than Zevin could tolerate, even had he not been recuperating from being sick.
Fortunately, we were still jetlagged enough that we woke to a just lightening sky. We had our breakfast before dawn and readied for the day. Zevin still wasn’t feeling up to a lot of activity, so Michelle and I left him to read and play in the Airbnb and went about 10 minutes up the road to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, a spring-fed oasis running down a canyon from the red hills above.
On Eli’s advice, we got there just when it opened, at 8 am, and shared the morning with just a few other visitors, a few dozen ibex and some scampering hyrax.
The hyrax, we learned, is a native critter of the area, unusual in being a cold-blooded mammal (which required it to sun itself on the rocks in the morning before getting moving) that came from the same clade as the elephant. Several families of them scampered down the rocks and wobbled across our path.
The canyon was peppered with small pools, good for bathing, and you could gulp the mineral water directly from the waterfalls (which I did, in abundance.)
When we got back to flat and showed the photos to Zevin, he rallied with excitement at the idea of standing under a waterfall, so, after getting some lunch and packing up, we returned to the nature reserve.
What a difference a few hours made. Where earlier in the day, we shared our pools only with dragonflies and hyrax, by midday, busloads of tourists and Israel schoolchildren and disgorged into the pools, and there was screaming and splashing and mayhem, lines of people waiting to cycle through. Still, we found ourselves a pool off the main path to ourselves and spent an hour or two enjoying a respite from the murderous heat.
Our next stop was Masada.
In 73 CE, the Romans were crushing Hebrew resistance to imperial rule. They destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem (the same one where Jesus had famously disrupted the Pharisees and money changers just a few dozen years prior) and were systematically wiping out whole communities.
In desperation, survivors fled to the mountaintop palace King Herod had built on Masada, at the south end of the Dead Sea. A steep, cliff-faced mesa, it was a virtually impregnable fortress, and Herod had outfitted it not only with food stores and even arable land, but most importantly huge water cisterns that could keep its inhabitants alive for years.
The Roman 10th Legion followed them there and laid seige. Despite the fact that a sandstorm blew through only two weeks in, burying their water source, over a period of two years, they built a ramp up the side so they could roll their battering rams and seige machines to the gate. On the evening before the Romans finally broke through, the doomed Jews chose to end their lives rather then face the torture and slavery that the Romans would bring. They cut the throats of their families, and then their own, letting the dead fall into the cisterns so that the thirsty Romans would not even have the satisfaction of a drink of precious water.
Rediscovered and excavated in the 20th century, the site has become a symbol of Jewish resistance to oppression. Israeli commandos run up the snake path and are sworn in at the top, declaring “Masada will never fall again.”
Unfortunately, it is both a symbol of resistance to oppression, but also the site of terribly oppressive heat. Even hotter than Ein Gedi, it was more than Zevin could bear. We took a cable car to the top, but Zevin barely made it past the welcome shop, so, again, Michelle and I did some quick touring while Zevin hung back in the shade.
On the bright side, he took advantage of the fact that his resting spot was also where the tour groups would begin, and when we came back about half an hour later, he was excited to tell us all the history he had overheard.
Our last stop was Ein Bokkek, a resort on the shores of the Dead Sea.
I had been to the Dead Sea once before, in my early twenties, but I don’t remember it being so striking how buoyant it makes you. The salt content is so high, you really can’t sink. Normally, if I am standing upright in the water with my legs down, I sink to my neck. In the Dead Sea, it was like I was wearing a floatie, and I bobbed about with the water below my chest. If I floated on my stomach, it was a struggle to right myself, because my body resisted submerging. Zevin, Michelle and I giggled in the wonder of it.
Also remarkable were the salt crystals everywhere. A railing that led into the water was coated with a thick layer of salt, as if were ice, and golf ball-sized crystals were scattered everywhere.
The water by the shore was anything but refreshing, though: it was as hot as a hot tub. We had our fun, rinsed off and then started the long, four hour drive to Tzfat, in the north.