From the lowest point on the surface of the Earth
We were all sad to leave the beautiful Galilee area and the north of Israel. We took one last look at the Sea before we dragged our eyes away and headed south down towards the Dead Sea.
We stopped to check out Beit She’an, well everyone else did but I thought if I had to walk around another ruin I might just die so I punched out to read in a shady spot.
The ancient city ruins are now protected as an Israeli national park, known as Bet She’an National Park. Beit She’an’s location has often been strategically significant, as it sits at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley, essentially controlling access from the interior to the coast, as well as from Jerusalem to the Galilee.
Tel Beit She’an was first settled way back in the Chalcolithic Period (5,000 to 6,000 years ago). The city has had many conquerors, among them the Egyptians, 3,500 years ago. A few hundred years later, the Philistines conquered it (it was they who fastened Saul’s body to the wall of Beit She’an after the famous battle on Mount Gilbo’a: 1 Samuel 31 .8 – 11). Beit She’an became part of the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and was eventually destroyed in a fire, apparently at the hands of the King of Assyria (in 732 BCE). Beit She’an was rebuilt as a Hellenistic city about 2,300 years ago, and was renamed Scythopolis (“City of the Scyths”).
In the succeeding Roman period, it spread south, reaching the peak of its greatness in the fifth century, when it had 30,000 – 40,000 inhabitants. The city extended over an area of around 370 acres, and you can still see the remains of the wall that surrounded it. In addition, several impressive buildings have been uncovered in the national park, including a theatre (still used for events and shows), a public bath-house (the largest found to date in Israel), two magnificent colonnaded streets, a Roman temple, a decorative fountain building (nymphaeum), a large basilica marking the center of the city, and the reconstructed mosaic on which you can see Tyche, the Roman Goddess of Good Fortune, holding the Horn of Plenty. Thanks google.
Somewhere Jono had been before and was really keen to take us was Mount Gilboa. A windy road took us up and up on to the Gilboa range. The views from the ridge were awesome and the road continued on until we got to a high point. We sat at the top while thunder and lightening boomed and flashed around us and what sounded like 10’s and 10’s of screaming jets soared so low overhead. We could see all the way from Beit She’an, down the Jezreel valley, Hill of Moreh, Mt Tabor to Megiddo and Nazareth.
One of Jono’s favourite bible character is Jonathan who he is named after. 1 Samuel 31 tells the story of how Jonathan and his father Saul, king of Israel, were killed by the Philistines up on the top of Mount Gilboa. It was powerful to read over the story and imagine the battle taking place there.
We spent the rest of the morning driving down through the West Bank. As we’d hired a car through a company in Israel we were only permitted to drive on highway 90 as this is an Israeli controlled or managed road. So while we didn’t get to visit any cities in the west bank it was still cool to drive down and see the amazing scenery. We passed the Jericho Plains, the mountains of Moab and along the border of Jordan. We stopped to have lunch at a dodgy looking cafe where all of us except iron guts Andrew decided to take the vegetarian option of falafel!
Seeing the dead sea appear was so cool for me, it has been one of the things I have been most looking forward to on this trip. Seeing it, swimming in it, smelling it and just being there was incredible. We wanted to go for a swim but there’s designated areas in which you can do it, the first ‘beach’ we came to was ridiculously expensive so we kept driving and ended up reaching Qumran first.
When I was in year 7 at school we had to make something for an ancient history assignment. I made a pottery jar and a scroll – the dead sea scrolls! We stopped in at Qumran on the way to Arad where we were staying the night. It was so incredibly barren there, no trees, steep cliffs and dry dry dry ground. We walked through the ruins of the Essene Settlement and watched a video about how they made the scrolls and why.
Back on the road again and we saw a group of cars down by the waters edge, so I suggested we try drive off road to get to them. The road we started on very quickly disintegrated and then disappeared down a very steep gravel cliff. Jono, who was driving, seriously wanted to try get down while we all shouted at him to stop. After a short discussion regarding the cliff edge road Andrew said, very seriously, “if you drive one second further im jumping out” haha!
We eventually made it to where we could swim. It was Sso fun! The sea was incredibly warm, thick and salty. Though no one whos been here before ever mentioned that the salt burns you all over and the water tastes so horrible!! There was heaps of signs up saying if you swallowed any to report for medical attention!
Mum and dad have been to the dead sea about 30+ years ago and their stories of how you float in it and pictures made me long to swim in it myself. Mum has a photo of dad reading a newspaper in the sea so I got one for them reading my book. Super cool.
That evening we finally made it to Arad. After grabbing some grub and checking in to a sus as looking dungeon of an Airbnb unit Sue cooked up a delicious dinner. The Airbnb lady had forgotten to mention that one of the bedrooms is actually their bomb shelter! Sue and Andrew took one for the team and slept in there, no sure I could have handled the 1 foot thick door being shut!
Another late start to recover from the epic days then off to Ein Gedi for a walk up the creek. Thankfully it was in the shade and with the water swishing around your ankles it was hard to feel the 35’C heat. King David hides in the desert of Ein Gedi (1 Samuel 24 v 1-2) and King Saul seeks him “even upon the most craggy rocks, which are accessible only to wild goats” (1 Samuel 24 v 3) Jono and Andrew went for a swim and we even saw an ibex!
We had a delicious lunch at the kibbutz, it was so lovely and cool and posh but they had an interesting way of cleaning the plates…
The stinking hot weather called for another swim in Dead Sea, the water is incredibly clear in the sunshine. Bliss! We got back grabbed a quick feed and went to watch sunset with nice bottle of Pelter wine. The best we could find was a super dodgy location which felt like the ghetto but the food, drink, company and sunset were superb. It was so good to be home and having dinner before 10pm, we had such a relaxing night.
Just as well becasue we were up at 4:30am for the Masada sunrise! We did the dangerous drive, winding down through the cliff on the edge in the pitch black, hiked and hiked up the back way to the very top and had the mad northern view spot all to ourselves! Masada is an amazing place, such an incredible location for a palace! Herod certainly sounds like a turd of a human being but he did know how to build. We sat above the upper terrace of the North Palace in the early morning quiet, with a soft breeze blowing and watched the magnificent sunrise in peace.
Andrew was still loving more ruins and Sue’s lack of interest has had little to no impact on his keenness for them! Jono and I wandered around for awhile then met up with Sue and Andrew for a walk around the southern end of the complex.
Being pretty keen for food and having felt we’d seen enough Jono and I headed back down the steps to the car and thought we’d communicated to Sue and Andrew we’d see them down there. Unfortuantely we may never have actually said this aloud and this resulted in them waiting for us at top while we waited at bottom. Doh.
Today we leave Arad and head down south to the sourthern tip of Israel to Eilat. We ummed and arred about which way to go and eventually made the excellent choice of Highway 40, through the Negev!