Israel: Day 5

September 7, 2023 • 10:30 am

Yesterday was a Road Trip: Anna, Jay, and I were driven down to Masada and the Dead Sea (two must-see destinations) by Omer, a Ph.D. student at Hebrew University and Anna’s collaborator.

To get to Masada, a famous site in ancient Hebrew/Roman history, you drive south along the long Dead Sea, which happens to be the lowest spot on Earth. First, a map. I’ve put a red star where the ruins of Masada lie atop a mesa:

A photo of the Dead Sea from Wikipedia, taken from the Israeli side. Jordan lies just across the waters. The lovely pastel colors are accurate:

Then from Wikipedia:

The Dead Sea (Arabic: اَلْبَحْرُ الْمَيْتُĀl-Baḥrū l-Maytū; Hebrew: יַם הַמֶּלַחYam hamMelaḥ), also known by other names, is a salt lake bordered by Jordan to the east and the West Bank and Israel to the west. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley, and its main tributary is the Jordan River.

As of 2019, the lake’s surface is 430.5 metres (1,412 ft) below sea level, making its shores the lowest land-based elevation on Earth. It is 304 m (997 ft) deep, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. With a salinity of 342 g/kg, or 34.2% (in 2011), it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water – 9.6 times as salty as the ocean – and has a density of 1.24 kg/litre, which makes swimming similar to floating. This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name. The Dead Sea’s main, northern basin is 50 kilometres (31 mi) long and 15 kilometres (9 mi) wide at its widest point.

There are some microorganisms and algae here, but no other plants or animals; it’s just too damn salty.

And oy, is it salty! Try swimming in it! But more later. First, on to Masada.  I learned only now that what makes the site famous—the claimed mass suicide of over 900 Jews who were besieged by Roman troops—is contested by historians, for all of that information comes from the single Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, not the most reliable of sources (see the Wikipedia article).

The story, in short, and again from Wikipedia:

Masada (Hebrew: מְצָדָה məṣādā, “fortress”)[1] is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau, akin to a mesa. It is located on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea 20 km (12 mi) east of Arad.

Herod the Great built two palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE.

According to Josephus, the siege of Masada by Roman troops from 73 to 74 CE, at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Sicarii rebels who were hiding there. However, the archaeological evidence relevant to a mass suicide event is ambiguous at best and rejected entirely by some scholars.

Now I can’t judge the historical veracity of the mass suicide, which gives the story its poignancy and historical resonance (“death rather than slavery”), but you can see two doubting references here and here, with the second a post on Bart Erman’s blog.  Here’s the story that one gets at Masada and in all the guidebooks. You almost never read about the doubts.

In 73 CE, the Roman governor of Iudaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, headed the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to Masada. Another source gives the year of the siege of Masada as 73 or 74 CE. The Roman legion surrounded Masada, building a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. According to Dan Gill, geological investigations in the early 1990s confirmed earlier observations that the 114 m (375 ft) high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock. The ramp was complete in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16. The Romans employed the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 (of whom an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 were fighting men), in crushing Jewish resistance at Masada. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. According to Josephus, when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that its defenders had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide or killed each other, 960 men, women, and children in total. Josephus wrote of two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader had made to convince his men to kill themselves.  Only two women and five children were found alive.

Josephus presumably based his narration upon the field commentaries of the Roman commanders that were accessible to him.

It’s all hearsay, and of course how did ANYBODY know of the “two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader made to his men? Were they transcribed in toto by the two surviving women and five children? (Those speeches are reproduced widely.) It doesn’t ring true.

The story often adds that lots were drawn to appoint ten Jewish soldiers to kill all the others, and then one of those ten, after killing the other nine, was to fall on his own sword.  The victims supposedly lay down with their families, offering their throats for slitting.

I had always taken this story for granted, as it’s presented as plain historical truth. Now I’m not so sure, given that it’s based on hearsay, including word-for-word transcriptions of speeches that simply couldn’t have been transcribed. Read around and judge for yourself.

But we’ll ignore whether the suicide story is true or false; what is true is that Herod built a remarkable fortress atop the plateau with ingenious ways to store food and water, and eventually the Jews were defeated by the Romans. On to our travels:

First of all, it was bloody hot. Below was the temperature at the Dead Sea in the early afternoon, about 100.4° F.  We were guzzling water the whole way as if there was no tomorrow, as the desert sun kept us on the brink of dehydration (iPhone screen capture by Jan Tanzman):

Approaching the site. Sea level, but with 1412 more feet to go down to the water surface:

Camels for rent at sea level. You can rent them all around Jerusalem, but I had no interest: you climb on one, get your photo taken, and then the camel lies down and you get off. Meh.

Because of the excessive heat, the long and sinuous “snake path”, the ancient way to he top, was closed. Fortunately, there’s a cable car. A panoramic view view going up, with the Dead Sea in the background.

The desert and Dead Sea from the top of Masada.  The inhabitants could not of course have drunk that water, which is so salty that if you get one drop in your mouth, as I did, the taste stays with you for hours, even if you drink a lot of good water afterwards. The architects had an ingenious system for collecting rainwater and floodwater and directing it into giant cisterns

The birds were thirsty, too, poor things. I helped give them a drink. Can anybody identify these two species? The one in front looks like a grackle.

What about this one? Juvenile grackle?

Reconstrucion of the north side of Masada:

. . . and a top view:

At the site:

Throughout the site, which is a National Park as well as a World Heritage site, a blue line shows where he original construction remains (below the line), and where reconstruction took place (above the line):

Bits of color remain:

View through a hole down to the Dead Sea:


This is said to be the remains of one of the several Roman siege camps.  Now I’m not sure. . . Photo taken from the plateau.

And the 2½-minute descent by cable car:

The mud around the Dead Sea is renowned for its use as a skin improver, and many people who visit he waters roll in the mud like walruses seeking a whole-body face mask. They wind up looking very politically incorrect, and in fact I was startled by the sight of the mud-glazed tourists (sample photo below from this source):

Or, like Anna, you can buy purified mud in fancy packages and use it at home, where you need not offend anyone.

More tchotchkes from the gift shop:

When I saw this sign, I knew there were kitties around.

And here’s one of them. Poor hot moggie, resting in the shade! I would have fed him and given him a dish of cool water.

We then immediately drove to a Dead Sea resort complex with fancy hotels, parked, changed, and two of us (Anna and I) jumped in the water. This is a must-do, for the water is so saline that you cannot sink, and the famous picture is of someone on their back reading a newspaper, like these.

We had no newspapers, so Anna and I just floated on our backs and lifted our arms and legs out of the water. Unfortunately, we were far from shore when Jay took this photo, but you get the idea:

Yes, you’re buoyant as hell, but you don’t want to swim, as if you get even a drop in your eye, it stings like hell. Plus the temperaure of the water yesterday was like that of a very hot bath, so you don’t do this to cool off. After a few minutes’ immersion, we ran over fiery hot sand (I burned he soles of my feet) to the outdoor showers and drenched ourselves with cold water.  Then we dried off, changed, and drove back to Jerusalem.

Here’s Anna and Jay posing in front of the Dead Sea.  And thanks to Omer for his hospitality and for doing all the driving.

39 thoughts on “Israel: Day 5

  1. Again, breathtaking – fascinating….

    Drinktaking too, I suppose should be said… even though it’s an ugly not a word…

  2. Another great set of photos (and video) – it looks like a wonderful trip!

    contested by historians, for all of that information comes from the single Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, not the most reliable of sources
    And yet Josephus is touted by Xians as providing independent, non-biblical verification of the existence of Jesus. (Naturally, they ignore his dating of the death of Herod to 4 BC. They couldn’t be cherry picking, surely?)

        1. Do you mean Herod Antipas or Herod the Great? Four years previously to what event? Do you mean four years previously to the crucifixion? I thought Jesus was supposed to have been crucified around 30AD, during the reign of Tiberius, and when Herod Antipas was the local ruler. Herod the Great is supposed to have died around 4 BC (or 1 BC, apparently).

          I’m not trying to argue with you. I just want to know what statement, if at all, Christians believe that would conflict with the 4 BC death date of Herod the Great, if indeed that’s the Herod whose death date Josephus fixes.


          1. I thought Jez was referring to Herod Antipas, so that was what I was referring to. If he did mean Herod the Great, then I don’t see a conflict, either. And yes, bad math re. 4 years before crucifixion instead of 34 years before crucifixion. I should have googled when Herod Antipas died and I wouldn’t have made my mistakes. Sorry.

        2. One small correction. Herod is not said to have ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. You might be thinking of Luke’s tale about Antipater, whom Luke misidentifies as Herod. (Luke messes up historical info on a regular basis.) Herod is said to have murdered the babies of Bethlehem when Jesus was born (Matthew, not Luke, who also messes up historical info regularly).

          Two other quick comments:
          First, Greco-Roman historians (of which Josephus was one) routinely invented speeches for their characters. Researchers routinely take those speeches as fictional embellishments. But biblical theologians often do not.

          Second, the two passages in Josephus that mention Jesus Christ are Christian forgeries added centuries after Josephus had died. Some biblical theologians have tied themselves in knots trying to argue that portions of the Josephus text were added by the Christians but that a so-called “core” portion of the text derives from Josephus. Although it cannot be certain, the Christian interpolations sound like they were written by a Christian named Eusebius (fourth century), and, not coincidentally, Eusebius seems to be the first Christian who claims that Josephus discussed Jesus.

    1. Indeed. I don’t think the general public realizes how much ancient history is based on hearsay and unreliable/biased sources. Even the lives of the Roman emperors come down to us through less-than-trustworthy chroniclers who were either sensationalists or had axes to grind.

  3. Could this be where they originally heard — water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. I cannot remember how many days this summer over 100 but one is too many.

    1. In the UK, we’ve just broken the record for a heatwave in September, and it is forecast to get hotter on Saturday:

      A UK record has been broken for the number of consecutive September days reaching 30C (86F).

      A 30.2C reading in Northolt, west London, on Thursday means the mercury has reached at least 30C four days in a row.

      The previous September record was three days – in 1898, 1906, 1911 and 2016.

      The Met Office said that Thursday could also be the hottest day of the year so far, with a provisional 32.6C recording in Wisley in Surrey.

      If confirmed, it will surpass 32.2C registered on two days in June in Chertsey, Surrey, and Coningsby, Lincolnshire.

      Several other locations reported temperatures in excess of 30C on Thursday and the south-east of England could get 33C on Saturday, said BBC Weather forecaster Gareth Harvey.

      Not over 100F (37.8°C), but this is the rainy miserable UK!

      1. The other thing you are not saying but i would remind others – you have no air conditioning over there. We get hotter but we have air for most of us.

      1. Yes, we all thank Ken for the service he provides here. I might have died of thirst getting through the poem.

  4. I highly recommend this book – a novelized story of Joseph Flavius, Masada, and Judean War:
    Possible inaccuracies of Joseph Flavius and sometimes liberal interpretations by Feuchtwanger notwithstanding, this is a great piece of literature. And a thought-provoking one! I plan to reread it (in Russian translation) when I get back home.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of the Dead Sea…none that I remember anyway. I love the colors, and imagined the lake to be brown like the desert. Not so! Looks like a lot of fun, but that heat; I’m really not good in hot temperatures, so don’t know if I could enjoy it. I sure enjoyed the vicarious experience, though. Thanks.

  6. Fantastic. The reconstruction of Masada is amazing. The architecture looks like something out of Star Trek. Who knows whether the suicide story is authentic? The message that the Jews would rather die than be conquered is so useful as cultural lore that it could easily be legend fabricated after the fact. A story that good would be retold generation after generation.

  7. Thanks for sharing again. Much of the facts and archaeological interpretations are known to me, but I enjoy seeing it through your eyes as you tend to focus on some of the same interests I have; the history, but also a feel for the current lives of the locals, and even what life may have been like for people living in the area 2000 years ago.

  8. Fascinating posts, Jerry. Coincidentally, this appeared in the news yesterday:

    “Four Roman-era swords, their wooden and leather hilts and scabbards and steel blades exquisitely preserved after 1,900 years in a desert cave, surfaced in a recent excavation by Israeli archaeologists near the Dead Sea, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday.”
    (source ABC news)

  9. Thank you for another fascinating post. I learned so much. I had no idea that anything about the story of Masada was questioned. so happy to see you enjoying an adventure. This is a great one!

  10. Using the Merlin Bird ID app, I think I’ve id’ed the two birds in the first of Jerry’s bird photos. The black one appears to be a male Tristram’s Starling. Its range, according to the app, is confined to Israel and the west and south coasts of the Arabian peninsula. The lighter bird appears to be a Blackstart. It has the same range as the starling plus some parts of North Africa.

    The app suggests that the bird in the second photo might be a female Tristram’s Starling.

      1. Yes, Merlin is great, I also like the app. Seek. Merlin is better for birds, plus it can identify via sound, but Seek identifies pretty much everything else: insects, plants, mammals (don’t know about fish).

        And thanks Jay for the id’s.

  11. Very cool Jerry! Your right about the one bird.It’s a Tristram’s Grackle or also known as Tristram’s Starling.Fairly common in that area Think the other bird may be a juv Redstart(asian redstart not N.A.)
    I hiked up the snake trail in the dark back in 2019 and watched the sun come up over the mts in Jordan.Pretty moving experience

  12. First of all, it was bloody hot. Below was the temperature at the Dead Sea in the early afternoon, about 100.4° C.
    100 degrees Centigrade? Fahrenheit, surely.

  13. I dont know Eurasian birds but I thought the black bird was too big for a starling, very thick beak, and maybe was a crow or one of its relatives (chough, jackdaw, etc) and the one in the rear with very long legs looked like a lark (sort of).
    Not too many field marks visible.

  14. Just gotta say:

    Masada is one of John Zorn’s groups. They have tons of material on Zorn’s Tzadik label. One fave is Aleph (it’s actually just the letter aleph on the cover, I think).

    Sort of if Ornette Coleman’s landmark trio mutated into a four-piece Klezmer group and raided The Knitting Factory (NYC).

    How that connects to the actual Masada is up to the listener.

    1. Thanks. Last photo of you in Dead Sea points out that one cannot get feet on bottom to stand up when this salt water reaches certain depth. Interesting. I never thought of that.

  15. Greek and Roman historians, like all historians, must be read carefully in order to gain greater understanding of the times about which they wrote. One obvious thing is what Kurt mentions above: encapsulating the motivations, reasoning, and plans of a leader or of a people into a speech is a common style of conveying such things. Such a speech would not, in the writings of a Greco-Roman historian, be considered “fiction” by them, but a style of presentation, just as a modern historian would use quotation, paraphrase, and citation.

    More important is trying to find out on what evidence the historian’s interpretation is based. Is the ‘speech’ as relayed based on personal observation, interviews, documents, etc.? Ancient historians often had access to records and witnesses that we don’t. Josephus, for example, could have accessed Roman military records (now mostly lost), and interviewed both Romans and Jews. Tacitus had access to great quantities of records and earlier histories (now lost) in Rome.

    At a time when oration was highly valued, making a speech and writing it down occurred not infrequently, although such speeches have often been lost. Julius Caesar made funeral orations, but very few of his actual words have survived the ravages of time. (I pray that Obama’s funeral orations for John McCain and Clementa Pinckney survive for posterity.) Ancient historians would have had access to some of these speeches.

    We also look for corroborating detail. We may read in some source about an emperor sending a legion to some distant province, and wonder if this is just bragging. But if we find a funerary inscription in Rome reporting a legionary’s service at that place and time, we have corroboration.

    We must also consider the motivations and possible biases of the historian, as well. Josephus was a Jew who became a Roman citizen. He thus had access to and understanding of both sides. He is generally considered pretty reliable in the original text (later interpolations and additions notwithstanding).

    Josephus’s account of the speech of the rebel leaders should not be considered a literal speech, but Josephus’s assessment of the motivations and actions of the rebels, based upon his close personal knowledge of Roman military operations and politics, and of Jewish culture. He may have interviewed surviving participants, and certainly knew many contemporary Romans and Jews.


  16. The birds you ask about are Tristram’s Starlings (Onychognathus tristrami). Adult male is black, female has grayish head and some streaks. I don’t know if the second bird is a female or juvenile.

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