Masada, Arad and Swimming in the Dead Sea

Since we are staying at the En Gedi Hotel, we are not far from the entrance to Masada. In fact, we were one of the first groups to go up on the cable car. I have done 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.

Masada

Masada was king Herod’s monumental fortress 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 Eliazer. Several students walked down the 180 steps to the rooms on the front of the mountain. I did not hike down the stairs this year, so a few of us got to listen to a younger Israeli guide give her talk on Masada. She was very kid to allow us to listen, although she warned us she was a “Masada Mythbuster.”  Tobe honest, she did not say anything than what I (and our Israeli guide) said to our group.

After walking down the back of Masada and meeting our bus, 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 back to the Dead Sea for the traditional swim in the salt water. We went to a public area in Ein Bokek this time, which was not at all crowded  The swimming was good and the beach is well maintained.

Dead Sea

Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran, likely a stop at Jesus’s baptism site near the Dead Sea, then a final few hours in Jaffa.

Swimming in the Red Sea

Every tour has a necessary travel day, in this case we left Petra about 7:50 and drove to the Arava Border crossing to return to Israel. The drive was uneventful, except for a short bathroom and snack break.

The passage through the Jordanian was quick and easy (you pay the money they let you through), but the Israeli side involved a lengthy bag inspection, about 75% of our group had to open their bags and the search was quick thorough. Since I tend to buy books as souvenirs I always get tagged for inspections (the xray machines cannot see through two or three thick books). It might be frustrating but I appreciate the extreme care for safety and security, as well as the generally friendly people digging through our filthy clothes to check out water bottles filled with Sea of Galilee water. This time I needed to open my laptop, took thirty seconds once they got to me.

The only event on the agenda was a swim in the Red Sea at Coral Beach. This is on the national parks pass so entrance was paid for, but snorkeling gear cost about $10 to rent. Some of the group snorkeled, the rest waded into the water in the one or two open swim areas. Several sat in the shade and read a book (my favors option at the beach). It was a very cool day compared to previous years and there was a pleasant steady breeze.

After a stop at the shop at Yotatava (the one with the cows), we drove straight to En Gedi, but there was a major traffic accident on route 90 (three evac helicopters), closing the road, We had to turn back and take a long detour, delaying our arrival at the hotel by at least two hours. The En Gedi hotel is a beautiful kibbutz turned hotel, The location is right next to the En Gedi Nature Park and the grounds of the hotel are a wild garden of plants and trees. Dinner was exceptional (finally, stuffed grape leaves!)

Tomorrow we will will visit several desert sites, including at Masada and Arad, along with the traditional swim in the Dead Sea

Visiting the Nabatean City of Petra 

Today was the walk through Petra, for many of our students this is a major highlight on the trip. I have been coming to Petra since 2005 and during this time the park has undergone a number of significant changes as tourism has continued to increase. The visitors center now has a large plaza with the number of shops and a small museum. Jeff’s Books and the Indiana Jones store is still there, but the whole entrance is cleaner and well organized. I highly recommend you visit the museum just outside the entrance, a thorough visit might take an hour. (I bought two museum publications in the bookstore, they have a nice selection of serious books among all the usual tourist stuff). There are several short films on aspects of Nabatean Petra as well a a good mix of artifacts from each period of the site. I would have a room dedicated to the Bedouin who lived in the caves until only a few decades ago, but other than that it is a well-designed museum.

Our guide Osama led us down the long walk to the Treasury, stopping from time to time to explain various features of the tombs or the water system in the Siq (the famous gorge through which one enters Petra). This was one of the coolest day I have ever had for a May visit to Petra, barely 80 degrees Fahrenheit most of the day (the morning was even chilly in the Siq).

Petra Group 2022

 

The area in front of the Treasury was extremely crowded when we arrived, which means tourism in Jordan is doing better after COVID. Unfortunately, the sellers were everywhere and there were far more camels that I ever remember.  I did see a familiar Bedouin selling obviously fake coins and “silver” bracelets. If you visit Petra, you must remember there are no real coins for sale there.

After our lunch of sandwiches (falafel for me, with pomegranate juice), we split up into several groups. One brave group went up to the Monastery. This is another tomb like the Treasury, but it is quite far from the main site at Petra at the top of about 850 uneven steps. If you can make this hike, you ought to do it, but maybe leave that one to the young. Another group went with me to the temple of Zeus a Byzantine church (called the Petra Church) and then to the Royal Tombs. This is a fairly easy walk up a series of steps, and provides an excellent view of the entire valley. I had not visited the church before, there are some unusual mosaics in the church (I would like to find documentation to identify a few of these). There was a cache of papyri found in this church as well.

Great Tempe of Zeus

By the time we reached the Urn Tomb there were fewer tourists and we were able to spend some time in the cool of the cave looking at the patterns on the walls. I have an excellent singer in the group, and she led us in How Great Thou Art. The music echoed beautifully, very inspiring. We walked back to the Treasury for final pictures and more water before the long uphill walk back up the Siq to the visitor center.

We met at 7 o’clock for dinner most of the students told me they were absolutely exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I did more that 22,000 steps today, which google tells me is over ten miles.

Tomorrow we crossed back into Israel at the Rabin / Arava crossing near the Red Sea. We should have sometime to swim and snorkel in the Red Sea, but we have to do another COVID test to re-enter Israel so that may take us some extra time. FYI, Israel announced they are discontinuing the test requirement on May 20, three days after we reenter! The theme of this tour seems to be “bad timing.”

Jerash and on to Petra

This morning we left Galilee early in order to cross the border to Jordan. Today was a classic example of best laid plans…we left on time (rare on this trip!) and got to the border crossing all in good time. But someone decided that today everyone must use the shuttle bus. After an hour of arguing (our guide and driver making calls), we had to wait behind three other tours caught in the same bureaucratic nonsense (“formal stupidity” was the phrase I heard). The upshot of all of this is that we were three hours late meeting our guide Osama in Jordan. That really upset our plans for the day, which were already difficult since we intended to visit Jerash, Mount Nebo and then drive to Petra.

The drive from the border crossing to Jerash is a winding road through the hills. For most of our students, this was their first experience in an Arab country and I have already had several conversations about the differences in the various cultures we have seen on this trip. Our driver took a few “short cuts” which brought us to the back side of the archaeological park to get an overview of a few things we cannot see on such a short visit.

Jerash is a large Roman city with several structures which illustrate what a huge imperial city looked like in the late first century and early second. First is the Hadrian Gate on the south side of the city. When Hadrian went on a grand tour of the Empire, many cities honored him with a new Gate or arch. Jerash built this new gate well south of the city, but it does not appear the city ever expanded south as planned. If you are wondering what the flags in the gate are, the site was filming one of those Amazing Race shows and that was one of the checkpoints.

Jerash Hadrian Gate

Second, just inside the gate is a large hippodrome. Only one section has been restored but the ends of the structure are clear. The guides will usually walk a group through the hippodrome; if you have been to virtually any other hippodrome (such as Caesarea) you can skip this.

Third, after passing through the actual south gate of the city there is a spectacular Oval Plaza leading to the Cardo (the central street in a Roman city). From the Oval Plaza you can see the Roman Temple of Zeus, which is built on top of the Hellenistic Temple. There is a small museum below this temple but I have only been able to enter it once; as usual it was closed on this visit.

Forth, a short walk up the hill from the Plaza is a very nicely restored Roman theater. All the acoustics are restored so people can speak from the central part of the stage and be heard throughout the theater. I enjoy watching the students speak a few words, the step on to the central stone and hear their voice projected all around them. Virtually every time I have visited this theater a Jordanian bagpipe player and drummer are there to show off the acoustics.

Jeresh

The Cardo

Fifth, we walked across the hill to the Temple of Artemis. This is an incomplete temple, like Sardis in Asia Minor. I have read speculation that the eastern Empire became increasingly Christian so work was stopped, but it is just as likely they ran out of money, perhaps because Rome withdrew from the region. Usually guides like to demonstrate how the pillars flex just a bit by putting a spoon in the lower crack and pushing the pillar (our guide did not even walk us up to the temple platform; I insisted on taking the students up myself). It really is impressive, but I wonder why it is always the same pillar: do the others not sway?

Jeresh temple of artemis

From the temple of Artemis we walked down the sacred ascent to the Cardo (the easiest route even though it would be more authentic to walk up the stairs to the Temple). I noticed a Latin inscription with the name Diana and a Greek inscription opposite it about three-quarters up the steps. They were unidentified and I am not at sure where they were originally located.

Sixth, walking down from the ascent to the Temple we joined the Cardo and worked our way back to to the Oval Plaza. This central colonnaded road is lined with shops and a few sacred spaces. I noticed there are far fewer inscriptions at Jerash than Ephesus or Perge (for example). I am not sure if there were many Greek inscriptions and they have been moved or lost, but compared to virtually every city we visited in Turkey, Jerash is inscription-less.

By now it was getting late in the day and traffic through Amman was terrible. It is always terrible. But three hours late on the border crossing meant we arrive just as the Mount Nebo site was closing, so we were only able to see the norther view of the Jordan Valley. Mount Nebo is the place where Moses died after viewing the Promised Land (Deut. 34:1-2). Several students asked about whether this is really the place, so I pointed out it is Mount Nebo and the best viewpoint to see the land in the area is there, and a pass through the mountains is at the foot of the mountain. So it is plausible this is Nebo, even if it is not at the exact place of the Church.

Mount Nebo

We did not arrive to our hotel in Wadi Musa until 10:00 PM. I am certain a few traffic laws were bent/broken on the way (it was a wild ride, especially since we were in a thirty passenger bus; we felt every bump along the way). Our driver cut at least a half hour off of our estimated time (and we kept the bathroom break to just that, no snack shopping!) We had a quick supper and tried to get a good night’s sleep to prep for a long day at Petra. We are in the Movenpick across from the Petra site, and the hotel is excellent. I cannot say enough about the service considering how late we arrive. .

Tomorrow we hike Petra, the highlight of a trip to Jordan!

Following Jesus around Galilee

Today out tour focused on sites in Galilee associated with Jesus and his ministry. We stopped at Migdal yesterday, so we began our day with a drive through Tiberius to Mount Arbel. This is not so much a biblical site, but a hike up to the top of Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee. From the top of the cliffs we can see the west and north quarters of the sea, essentially where all of the Jesus sites are located. The carob tree at the top of the hill was struck by lightning a few years ago and is recovering nicely (I have done group photos from that spot for many years).  Although the morning was warm, there was a strong breeze on top of Arbel so the walk was pleasant.

Mount Arbel

We arrived at the Mount of Beatitudes about ten AM and despite being Sunday morning, there were not many pilgrims crowding the grounds. We found a mostly shaded spot to read from Matthew 5 and talk about the Beatitudes. (See this post, What are the Beatitudes?) The group was able to visit the octagonal chapel then had a few minutes to pray and read the Bible privately.

Beatitudes

We then drove a short distance to Capernaum, which I was afraid would be closed at noon. But to my surprise, they are now allowing visitors to stay in the grounds all day. Most Chrstian sites close form  noon to two PM. For most the highlight here is Peter’s house, although it is difficult to see much of the house due to the large church built over the top. There is also a beautiful synagogue, although it dates to the fifth or six century, long after the time of Jesus. For me, the highlight of a visit to Capernaum is walking out in the beach near the Sea and reading the Bible. In this case I read Mark 2 since the healing of the paralytic takes place at Peter’s house.We took some time in the shaded area near the synagogue to read Mark 2:1-12 and talk about the authenticity of the site (is this really Peter’s house? Maybe?)The only negative thing about this visit is an enormous group of 250 people led by Mike Huckabee took over the shaded area, some even seated themselves among our group. (FYI, our tour did more for much less money…)

After lunch (Aroma Coffee, avocado sandwich and a double espresso) we headed back to Nof Ginosar to to the Yigal Allon center where the Galilee boat is on display.There is a presentation describing how the boat was discovered and preserved and the actual boat is on display in a climate controlled room. I have visited this museum a few times and I have enjoyed the presentation. The shop is quite nice and has a nice selection of Christian and Jewish oriented souvenirs (including wine and olive oil).

My students were very tired out by this time and were looking forward to swimming in the Sea of Galilee or the pool (or a a short nap). We met our guide at 5:30 for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee before dinner. I have done the boat ride a long time ago and was never really impressed. But this was a little different, we were able to talk through the two big miracles on the sea of Galilee (See Matthew 14:22-33, Why does Jesus walk on the Water? and Why Does Peter Ask to Get Out of the Boat?) Several people shared some idea about why Jesus chose to reveal himself first in Galilee and many enjoyed some praise music.

Sea of Galilee

Tomorrow we enter Jordan and visit Jerash on our way to Petra.