Since we are staying at the En Gedi Hotel, we are not far from the entrance to Masada. I have visited Masada at the end of a day when it is very hot, but this morning it was pleasant and breezy. Masada is a highlight of any Israel tour, although I am surprised some Christian groups day-trip from Jerusalem or skip it altogether. This is unfortunate for both biblical and modern history.
Like the Herodium, Masada was Herod the Great’s monumental fortress-palace on the top of a flat mountain some 1500 feet above the Dead Sea. To get to the top we ride a cable car (which claims to hold 80 people, and they put about 120 in the car I rode up). We spent most of our time on the north end of the mountain, where we had several really good conversations about what “really happened” here and how Josephus knew (or did not know) the speech of Eliezer. Several students walked down the 180 steps to the rooms on the front of the mountain. This is something you should do when you visit Masada.
Unlike most groups, we walked down the siege ramp. This is practical, since we drove to Arad next. While we were on top of Masada, our driver drove around to the back side of the mountain to meet us. The ramp is a relatively easy walk with steps (most of the way) and a sturdy hand rail. There is water and toilets in the small parking lot, although only a small kiosk for those who need an ice cream after the long walk down the mountain (you know who you are).
After Masada, we drove to Arad. There are two parts to this hike, a lower city excavated to the Canaanite period and an Israelite upper citadel excavated and restored to the eighth or ninth century. I take my group through the Canaanite section first, but many groups skip it entirely in order to get to the “good stuff” more quickly. I want my group to see the differences and similarities between Canaanite culture and Israelite. One example is the Arad House, a reconstructed Canaanite house. At Tamar there is a partially reconstructed Israelite four-room house. The contrast between the two is one of the indicators of when Israelite culture enters The Negev.
For me, the real highlight of Arad is the Citadel. There is a large Solomonic gate and a number of smaller rooms, but the main thing to see here is a Israelite high place. It is similar to the Solomon’s temple, but much smaller. There is an altar for sacrifice, a holy place and a Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies is a Canaanite standing stone, which may indicate the site allowed for both the worship of the Lord and the local Baal. In 2 Kings 18:4 Hezekiah removed all the high places, perhaps shutting down this particular Temple. Josiah will do the same thing in 2 Kings 23.
After finishing at Arad, we drove to Dimona for lunch at a mall food court (options and choice are popular).
Not far from Dimona is Mamshit, a Nabatean trading village which was active from the first century. Aside from the excavated city, there are two churches at the top of the site. For Christian groups, these are important to visit. These early Byzantine churches have a few Greek mosaics and a most interesting baptismal in a side room. The size and shape both strike me as odd, since it seems to have been used for immersion (there are steps), it it is so small it would have to be a self-immersion at best. Mamshit also has a large Nabatean mansion with several nicely reconstructed rooms. Since we saw the Nabatean tombs at Petra, it is good to see how the wealthy lived.
Finally, we visited the Dead Sea for the traditional swim in the salt water. We went to a public area in Ein Bokek, which was not at all crowded The swimming was good and the beach is well maintained. Our guide bought two bags of Dead Sea mud so people could have the full Dead Sea experience.
Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran, a stop at Jesus’s baptism site near the Dead Sea, then a final few hours in Jaffa.