Uncovering Israel’s archeological treasures
Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in a series of installments from photographer Dennis Jones, who is traveling in the eastern Mediterranean.
No trip to Jerusalem could be complete without exploring the extensive collections of the Israel Museum. The finest, archeological treasures of ancient Israel have found a home in this architectural masterpiece.
The night we arrived, a new and controversial exhibit debuted: the tomb of Herod the Great. After a 40-year search, archaeologist Ehud Netzer discovered the king’s tomb at Herodium in the Palestinian territory east of Bethlehem.
Herod was a manic builder. His civic and monumental architectural achievements, including Masada, are works of majesty. Sadly, the day Netzer, along with museum staff, went to Herodium to mark the stones and columns for this exhibit, Netzer fell and tragically died. This first-ever exhibit, dedicated to Herod, is a natural place to begin our tour.
Next, the archeology section offers a truly awesome series of exhibit halls with high quality pieces documenting the extensive history and peoples of the region from pre-history and into Roman times. Later, we opt for a 3 p.m. tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in a unique gallery designed like the jars in which the scrolls were found.
An infamous wall
The next day, we rent a car and drive to Masada and the Dead Sea. Finding our way south out of Jerusalem proves a challenge. Signs are scarce until I finally reach the major road on the southern outskirts of the city.
The landscape is so different from Galilee. Dry, stony hills predominate. Rock walls zig-zag and terrace the hills – a centuries-long effort to create productive land from the rocky landscape.
Approaching Bethlehem, we begin seeing the infamous “Wall,” that separates the Palestinian West Bank from Israel. The ominous Wall boxes us in until a tunnel allows escape, bypassing Bethlehem altogether.
I take a secondary road to shorten the trip and suddenly find two, huge red signs warning Israelis not to stray from the road. “Dangerous to your lives!” the sign reads. Scary stuff!
We pass old men shepherding their flocks, a scene straight from the Bible; a lone camel grazes on an emerald hillside and boys drive sheep below an ancient, hilltop town.
Having passed through Palestinian territory, we must pass through an Israeli checkpoint. They take our passports, make us remove everything from the car, open the trunk and hood and go over it and under it very thoroughly.
Allowed to continue, the land becomes drier and more desert-like as we descend to the Dead Sea. Signs along the road mark our progress to sea level and below. Great evaporation pans crisscross the southern sea, and from this viewpoint, the hills of infamous Sodom rise from the desert.
Reaching the lowest spot on land, we turn north and pass a series of resorts where you can float in the salty water. The water being cold at this time of year, we forgo the experience.
I get more excited the closer we get to Masada. This is something I’ve dreamed of since first reading the poignant story of the heroic Jews who defied the might of Rome.
The turnoff comes and, turning west, the high, shear-walled mesa of legend rises from the desert. Today, modern facilities greet the visitor. Two options enable your ascent to the mesa-top fortress: the winding Snake Path by foot, or a gondola. Time being short, we opt for the latter.
In a few minutes, we exit just below the fortress walls. Walking to the top I find a far larger expanse than anticipated.
Restored rock walls denote the Herod-built walls, alleys, buildings and granaries of 2,000 years ago. The views from this 1,300-foot mesa are spectacular. The remains of the Roman camps and the stone wall surrounding the fortress, preventing any escape by the Jewish rebels, are clearly visible below. The Roman slave-built ramp that allowed their pyrrhic victory is evident, though much eroded.
When the Jewish rebels choose death by their own hand, rather than slavery or crucifixion, is a story which still inspires the Israelis of today. To see this history so vivid in this site gives me chills. Having now seen Masada as well as the archeological treasures of the Israel Museum, I feel I can leave Israel with a more complete understanding of its head-strong people and deep, abiding history.
Dennis Jones is a local professional photographer and writer. He and Yolanda Marshall are traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. To see more photos, visit his blog at: http://www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.