5 Places to Visit in Israel (When It’s Safe to Go Back): Part Two
From the heights of Masada to the depths of the Dead Sea, with a detour to southernmost resort town Eilat on the Red Sea.
November 30, 2012 - 7:00 am
In Part One, I told you a bit about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. My mini-travelogue continues with an absolute must-see on any trip to Israel:
First, some background on Masada:
Masada is a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora. The palace of Herod the Great at Masada is an outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the early Roman Empire, while the camps and other fortifications that encircle the hill constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day. (…)
With the end of the Herodian dynasty in 6 BCE Judaea came under direct Roman rule, and a small garrison was installed at Masada. At the beginning of the Jewish Revolt in 66 a group of Zealots led by Menahem, one of the Jewish leaders, surprised and slaughtered the garrison. The Zealots held Masada throughout the revolt, and many Jews settled there, particularly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70. They occupied some of the Herodian palace buildings, and added more modest structures of their own, such as a synagogue, a ritual bath, and small houses.
Two years later Flavius Silva, the Roman Governor, decided to eliminate this last remaining centre of Jewish resistance. He sent the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units there, with many prisoners of war for manual duties. The Jews, led by Eleazar Ben Yair, prepared for a long siege as the Romans and their prisoners built camps and a long siege wall (circumvallation) at the base of the hill. On a rocky site near the western approach to Masada they constructed a massive ramp of stones and rammed earth. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. It succeeded in breaching the wall of the fortress in 73, allowing the Roman soldiers to enter.
The Zealots defended stoutly, but there was no hope of resisting the Roman attack for long. Josephus reports that Ben Yair talked to the 960 men, women, and children who survived, telling them that “a glorious death is preferable to a life of infamy.” All but two took their own lives on 2 May 73.
Masada is now a potent symbol of Jewish resistance to tyranny, but that wasn’t always the case.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that a poem about the siege reintroduced the story to the world. (That poem is said to have inspired the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.)
One of our group bravely walked up the side of the mountain — in flipflops! — but most visitors elect to take the cable car to the top.
You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views and a stirring history lesson.
Bonus: the gift shop is amazing and they’ve just added a shiny new “food court.” (However, do NOT buy the AHAVA Dead Sea beauty products at Masada — there’s an AHAVA discount store in Eilat.)
Wear a hat and sunscreen, and carry lots of water. (I bought a lumbar pack with two water bottle holders for this trip.)
4. The Dead Sea
I’m not a beach person, so no one was more surprised than I was when I announced mid-way through my first visit to the Dead Sea: “I could move here.”
It sounds odd to describe the atmosphere at the literal lowest point on earth — a desert oasis most famous for a body of water so salty that nothing can live in it — as “refreshing.” Unless you’ve been there, that is.
The elements unique to the Dead Sea combine to make any visit both relaxing and invigorating.
The water in the Dead Sea is “warm, soothing, super salty – some ten times saltier than sea water, and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine and several other” minerals. (Bromine supposedly has a calming effect, and “is found in air around the Dead Sea in concentrations 20 times greater than anywhere else on earth.”)
You don’t swim in the Dead Sea, you float. Remember:
- DO NOT get any water in your mouth or eyes
- Any open cuts will sting. Ladies, don’t shave your legs the morning you visit.
- Don’t stay in the water more than 20 minutes at a time, and rinse off thoroughly after each dip
Because the area lies below sea level, the sun shines there through an extra atmospheric layer that acts as a natural “sunscreen.” This layer weakens harmful UV-B rays and lets you enjoy the sunshine longer, safely: ideal for soaking up massive doses of Vitamin D. Barometric pressure is high — meaning more oxygen in the air — and so is the average humidity.
We were in Eilat the morning the election results came in, which made this sign at each end of the boardwalk bridge even funnier.
I was grateful to be far away from my desk, and surrounded by plenty of diversions that day.
One of our group marveled that when he’d last visited forty years earlier, only two hotels operated in Eilat. Today, this southernmost resort spot on the Red Sea boasts great beaches along the warm Red Sea, a range of places to stay, a lively boardwalk, snorkeling along the 1,200 meter coral reef, swimming with dolphins, excursions to Petra in Jordan — and even world-renowned birdwatching.
Decades ago, during the “Glaznost Aliyah,” thousands of Russians escaped to Israel from the Soviet Union with the clothes on their backs — and from the looks of it, they haven’t changed them since. Eilat was full of Russian-descent tourists during our visit, and they are, alas, easy to spot, especially on the beach, where they shed their mismatched polyester casual wear and plod around in very tiny bathing suits. I was delighted to find myself the thinnest middle aged woman on the shore.
Eilat is a VAT-free (duty free) town. The good news: there are lots of fashion outlet stores. The bad news: many of the mid-market designer labels, like Golf and Fox, will be unknown to non-Israelis. (Don’t be alarmed by all the guys sporting t-shirts reading “CASTRO”; that’s just one of the country’s top casual clothing labels.)
You’ll find those outlet stores on the tonier end of the boardwalk, along with lots of beachfront restaurants. The Eilat boardwalk also features a low-end section across the bridge (but for how long?) boasting tacky casual wear, souvenirs, ice cream and juice vendors — you’ll fall in love with the fresh pomegranate juice and limonana.
This was my first visit to Eilat and I can’t wait to go back.
Kathy Shaidle’s journey continues in the third installment of her Israel travelogue: