Day 3: Masada, En Gedi, Qumran, Dead Sea

Fri, 05/07/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

This blog post is part of a series jotting through my trip to Israel in June 2019. For contents page for the posts see the Introductory Post. If I've reported something incorrectly, please let me know via post comments (below) or my contact page. All photographs are Copyright © James Oakley, June 2019, unless indicated otherwise.

Day 3 was a trip down into the Negev, the northern-most section of the Great Rift Valley. We drove down through the Judean wilderness to roughly the northern most tip of the Dead Sea, before following desert road south to about half way down the Dead Sea. Our ports of call for the day then worked their way back in a northerly direction.


First port of call was Masada, a natural rock outcrop fortified by Herod the Great to protect him from those who wished to kill him. In practice, he left his wife and children here with ample stores of food, and didn't spend much time here himself.

Surviving fresco work on the plastered walls gives a taste of the luxury that Herod enjoyed here.

There were huge grain stores, and rooms for relaxing and entertaining with a fine view over the valley below.

For some reason, he even built a sauna. Just in case the weather was not hot enough.

After Herod's death, the Romans kept a garrison here, until a group of Jewish revolutionaries (the Sicarii) managed to capture the fort by trickery. That was about the year 66 AD. The Romans conquered Jerusalem in the year 70 AD and then began systematically rooting out any further trouble. In about the year 73 AD, the Romans successfully beseiged the city. They built a couple of camps outside to the east (where the height above the surrounding countryside is slightly less), and then built seige walls around the city. The remains of those Roman camps can still be seen.

They then built a huge seige ramp up to the fortress, again this is still visible.

The Jews knew they were beaten. Josephus records how the community drew lots to identify 10 who would kill the rest. Those 10 would then kill each other, with only the last man committing suicide. They burnt everything behind them, leaving only their food supply, so that the Romans would know they had chosen to die rather than being starved out.

En Gedi

Back down the cable car, the next stop was En Gedi, a natural oasis in the desert. This is the area where David hid in caves from the ever jealous King Saul, and there are plenty of natural caves to be seen here in the limestone.

Compared to the dry desert dust, this is a lush place, with running rivers, greenery, and waterfalls.


From En Gedi we headed to Qumran, where the Essenes lived. Central to their communcal life was daily ritual washing, and lots of ritual baths have been uncovered.

Qumran is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a series of caves from 1946. They are still being explored today, although no new scrolls have been found for some time.

Some have argued that the scrolls had no connection to the Qumran community. However cave 4Q was discovered so close to the remains at Qumran that this is hardly believable:

The Dead Sea

From Qumran we went to the shores of the Dead Sea, to swim in (or, rather, on) the salty water. It's a strange experience. The waters are so full of dissolved minerals that they have a gloopy texture; swimming has to be done with great care to avoid splashing. You want to stay on your back to avoid getting the water in your eyes or swallowing. The cafe had a digital thermometer showing the air temperature - a barmy 40.2 C!

Sorry - I didn't take any photos. I didn't take a camera to the lake shore because the water's so salty. But a friend did. Here you go - the obligatory Dead Sea photo:

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