Day Ten: En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud, Jaffa

The last day of the 2023 Israel tour began at En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 24). This is one of the more beautiful hikes on the trip since the Israeli Parks service has developed Wadi David as a nature preserve. The mile and a half walk is relatively easy since there are cut stairs and handrails, but there are a few steep flights and one passage through dark tunnel made of river reed. The walk also has several waterfalls and pools, the highlight being the final one at the end of the canyon. We saw a few hyrax and a few ibex on the way into of the park, and more ibex on the way out. Since we arrived at En-Gedi early (right at 8AM), we missed the huge crowds of tourists and school groups. I recommend visiting En-Gedi early!


From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The last time I was at Qumran, the new visitor’s center was under construction. It is now complete and has a very nice reception area, but the video and small museum is the same. The film was not working, which is good (in my opinion) because it is a bit strange.

The archaeology of the site is relatively simple, although the water system collects far more water that the site might need to survive. The reason for this is large number of ritual baths used by the community for purification. Almost everything at Qumran is controversial and the Dead Sea Scrolls have encouraged a wide variety of fringe ideas about the nature of both early Judaism and Christianity. The video at the beginning of the tour suggests a relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. This provided an opportunity to talk about these theories with the students. At the viewpoint overlooking Cave 4 we had a good discussion about the contents of the Scrolls and their value for biblical studies.

Qumran, Cave 4

Since it is on the way to Tel Aviv, we stopped  at Qasr al Yahud, the more likely of the traditional sites for Jesus’s baptism. This site has been open since 2011 and is now on the Israel National Parks card, so it is an easy add-on for for groups using the park pass (see this Times of Israel story on the re-opeing of the site for tourist groups).

Qasr means castle, and Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist does indeed look at bit like a castle. Unlike the site at Yardenit in Galilee, this is a far more authentic location since it is in the general area John the Baptist was active (although it is still not certain this is the place). Another clear difference is the lack of commercialism compared to Yardenit. The majority of the crowds queuing to be baptized in the muddy stream of the Jordan were Orthodox, although there appeared to be a handful of Protestants. The site on the other side of the Jordan is only a matter of feet from this location in Israel. The Jordanian site is called Al-Maghtas, “immersion” in Arabic. UNESCO listed the Jordanian side as a world heritage site, but not the western side.  They are renovating and expanding the visitor’s center (and the parking lot is in need of re-paving).

Qasr al Yahud

When we arrived at Jaffa, the traffic was even crazier than expected for a Friday afternoon. Getting in to the old city was difficult, and getting nearly impossible. Our guide walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little that is authentic. There is a traditional site for the home of Cornelius and a Franciscan church commemorating Peter’s departure from Jaffa to Rome (although that is not in the Bible, but if he left for Rome by ship Jaffa is the likely port). There are several spectacular views if the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv.

We stopped in a jewelry shop in Jaffa, Adina Plastelina. The owner gave us a nice overview of some the artifacts discovered when they renovated their apartment into a shop. They have a short video on their webpage describing their jewelry, it is a fascinating process (but I was really interested in the archaeilogy under the shop).


In Tel Aviv we stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. Most of the group plans on watching the sun set on the Mediterranean (I am faithfully finishing up the blog posts in my room). I have stayed in this nice hotel before, but it is always too short: our wake up call was for 4:30 AM to get to the airport for our 8:30AM flight back to Chicago.

Day Nine: Masada, Arad, Mamshit, and the Dead Sea

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.

Dead Sea from the Top of Masada

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).

Masada Seige Ramp

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.

Arad Temple

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.

Dead Sea Gang

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

Day Eight: The Red Sea (and the place with the cows)

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 and we did not even make a rest stop. I think everyone was looking forward to swimming in the Red Sea,

The passage through the Jordanian is quick and easy (you pay the money they let you through). But the Israeli side involved a lengthy bag inspection. Several members of our group had to open their bags and the search was thorough. 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.

Red Sea

The only event on the agenda today was a swim in the Red Sea at Coral Beach. This is on the National Park Pass so entrance was already paid. 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). Despite a steady breeze it was very hot.

I usually stay with the group’s bags while they enjoy the Red Sea swim (and eat ice cream). This allowed me to have several conversations about the location of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus. The place we were at is not the Red Sea, it is the Gulf of Aqaba, which connects to the Red Sea. But the Hebrew Bible does not say Israel crossed the Red Sea, but rather then Sea of Reeds, only three days after being allowed to leave Egypt. It is not possible for the Red Sea on modern maps to be the Reed Sea from Exodus (and there are several possible locations for the Reed Sea in Egypt).

After a stop at Yotvata (the one with the cows) for lunch and a few supplies (I bought a package of dried figs), we drove straight to En Gedi. The En Gedi Kibbutz 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. Many in our group enjoyed the pool, and dinner was exceptional, and our second night they had a live jazz concert.

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

Day Seven: Petra

Today was the walk through Petra. For many 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.

Petra Group

I highly recommend you visit the museum just outside the entrance, a thorough visit might take an hour. 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 think there needs to be 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 Ash 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). The morning was quite warm, over 100 Fahrenheit by the afternoon. High heat means more flies than I have ever seen at Petra.

The area in front of the Treasury was extremely crowded when we arrived, which means tourism in Jordan is strong. The sellers were not as bad as recent years, or maybe the large crowd kept them occupied. There were far more long tables after the treasury than I recall, blocking access to some of the tombs. One of the tombs has been converted to a coffee shop…

Starbucks Petra

After our lunch of sandwiches (a kabob for me, with lemon mint juice, which was not as cold as hoped), 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. There was a cache of papyri found in this church as well.

Monastery Petra

When we met for dinner people were exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep. But they soldiered on and made good use of the dessert section of the excellent buffet at the Movenpick Nabatean Castle. 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.

Day Six: Jerash, Madaba, Mount Nebo

This morning we left Galilee early in order to cross the border to Jordan. We crossed the border to Jordan with minimal hassle, probably the fastest time ever for my groups. One advantage: our driver let us leave the large luggage on his bus and we took only backpacks. This is a little risky since we trusted out luggage to someone else for two days, but it was much faster through both border crossings (not to mention loading and unloading the bags at the hotel). [Edit: I will add that our bags were perfectly safe when we returned to Israel two days later.]

The drive from the border crossing to Jerash is a winding road through the hills. For most people on this tour, this was their first experience in an Arab country. I had several conversations about the differences in the various cultures we have seen on this trip (beyond having butter for dinner in Jordan).

When we arrived at Jerash, we were met by hundreds of school kids (all girls). I have never seen such crowds at Jerash before, and neither had our guide! The girls were fascinated with the American college students walking through the visitor’s center (especially one of our girls with long blond hair; I am sure she is an Instagram star in Jordan now).

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.


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.

Jerash Oval Plaza

Forth, unlike other visits to Jerash, we walked down the Cardo to the steps leading up to the Temple of Artemis. If you visit Jerash, you can walk up to the south theater then across the ridge to the Temple (passing the Byzantine church mosaics on the way). The temple is incomplete, 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. It really is impressive, but I wonder why it is always the same pillar: do the others not sway?

Last, from the Temple of Artemis we walked down to the north theater. This theater is smaller and the acoustics are not as clear as the larger southern theater. It has the advantage of smaller crowds and more importantly, no bagpipers! The south temple always has a pair of bagpipers that break out into Yankee Doodle Dandy when the see Americans. And there is no such thing as a subtle, quiet bagpipe. So if you visit Jerash, consider walking down to the smaller, north theater.

Jerash North Theater

After Jerash, we drove through Amman to the town of Madaba and visited the St. George Church. The highlight is the Madaba Map, a large mosaic floor inside the church which is a fifth-sixth century pilgrim map. If you have visited the Cardo in Jerusalem, there is a replica of the section of the map for Jerusalem, but the whole thing is worth seeing,

From St. George it is a fifteen minute drive to Mount Nebo. This is the location 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.

The last part of this very long day is a four hour drive to Wadi Musa, the location of Petra. The hotel kindly kept dinner open for us (since we did not arrive until after 9 PM). Tomorrow we are up early for a spectacular hike through Petra.