Israel: The Dead Sea, the Mount of Olives, the Judean Desert, and Masada

The last day spent in Israel found me floating effortlessly in the super-salty Dead Sea. Looks relaxing, doesn’t it? So why do I have a frown on my face?

See that mud on the bottom of my foot? I had to slip and slide through a shoreline of that gooey stuff to get to the buoyant waters. Once in, though, what I had read of floating in the Dead Sea proved true. A person can lie back (if you don’t mind getting your hair wet) and relax. The salinity of the Dead Sea is so high no swimming is needed to stay on top of the water.

In fact, the Dead Sea is saltier than any other body of water on earth. With a concentration of 34% salinity, it is 9.6 times saltier than the ocean. Due to the high salt content of the water, no living organism can survive in the sea, hence the name, the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is also famous for being the Earth’s lowest place. At its deepest point, it is over 2,300 feet below sea level.

Not only is the salty water full of minerals that are supposed to be good for your body, but the mud is also considered curative. You are advised to slather yourself with that slippery stuff and let it dry. I tried, but can’t say I consider the Dead Sea the Fountain of Youth. A partial mud bath did bring a smile to my face, though.

I’ve started with the end of my last day in Israel before crossing the border to Jordan. Let me back up and start at the beginning.

A visit to the Mount of Olives, one of Jerusalem’s seven hills, was a morning highlight. Jesus often retreated here to pray. The Book of Acts describes the Mount of Olives as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven.

The Mount of Olives also provides a panoramic view. In the photo below, Old Jerusalem with the easy-to-spot Golden Dome is within the walls. Outside the walled city is also interesting. Notice the rectangular tombstones in the foreground of the picture. These mark an exclusive Jewish cemetery that’s over 3,000 years old and holds approximately 150,000 graves. It is considered the largest and holiest Jewish cemetery in the world.

From Jerusalem, we drove through the Judean Desert. Looking out the bus window at the landscape, I thought of Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness.

“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (Matthew 4:1-2)

Still Jesus denied Satan, who told him to turn the stones into bread.

After riding through the Judean Desert, our tour group arrived at Masada, a ruin of two fortified palaces that once served as a retreat for King Herod the Great. Masada is famous because of its military history. It was the site of the last stand of the Jews against the legions of Rome almost two thousand years ago at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War.

According to the first century historian Flavious Josephus, rather than surrender to the Romans, the Jews committed mass suicide. A television miniseries titled Masada, filmed in 1981 and starring Peter O’Toole, depicts this ancient story.

Today, you have to use your imagination to picture the once grand palaces and the elaborate fortifications.

Some of the original painting is still there. The colors remind me of those found in American Colonial homes. The black line is significant. What’s below it is original; what’s above it has been restored.

There were two ways to reach this mountaintop ruin: a long snaky path under the hot desert sun for walkers or a cable car ride from the visitor center that got you there in a matter of minutes. Guess which I chose?

My last day in Israel was a mixed bag of the religious experiences of the Mount of Olives and a drive through the Judean Desert, a historical tour of Masada, and the touristy adventure of floating in the Dead Sea.

The next day, I crossed the border to Jordan.

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